michelel72: (SGA-Rodney-StayInBed)
michelel72 ([personal profile] michelel72) wrote2011-12-13 05:41 pm
Entry tags:

SGA Fic: Darkness Is the Only Sound

Title: Darkness Is the Only Sound
Author: [livejournal.com profile] michelel72
Genre/Rating: Gen; FRT for themes
Wordcount: 27,000
Timeline/Spoilers: Follows canon through 3x14 "Tao of Rodney" but turns decidedly AU before 3x17 "Sunday". Tiny character-background spoilers from 4x15 "Outcast".
Warnings: References to genocide; brief descriptions of OC tortures and deaths (including children); body horror; captivity and minor torture; ableist language and slurs in POV; mental programming without permission
Disclaimer/Policies: This is a work of fanfiction inspired by the television series "Stargate: Atlantis" and "Stargate: SG-1". All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
Crossposting: Chaptered at AO3; Index-and-comments page at Livejournal
Notes/Credits: Title from "Gypsy" by the Moody Blues. [livejournal.com profile] valleya provided very helpful early-version feedback; no formal beta for the final version.

Summary: The expedition finds surprising signs of a long-missing race, but a greater surprise lies in store.


Part 1: Division
Before

The stasis field deactivated. Merah blinked sluggishly for several moments before remembering.

The urgency of fear sent it scrambling to check the readouts. A few systems were inoperable, but the rest suggested that the pod had made landfall on a habitable mass, so Merah sang the release.

The air set Merah to coughing. There was smoke near the pod, though, so Merah moved a few paces away and gradually managed to breathe more clearly. The air still held an unpleasant flavor. The land around Merah was dark with night, though there was enough scattered light to make the stars dim, suggesting some form of people did inhabit the world.

The radio spectrum was noisy, but the area was otherwise quiet. Merah had to extend its senses for a troublingly long time before detecting another pod. It hurried over and found that no one had yet emerged, so it sang the release for that pod as well. That triggered the tardy stasis to deactivate, revealing one of the smallkind.

Merah helped it free of the pod and to clearer air. "I am Merah. Which are you?"

"I am Eeen," it replied, singing a greeting. They pressed together for the comfort of companionship, but Merah sang only the abbreviated response, looking and listening intently across the field.

The night gradually resumed its own song around them, alien creatures trilling into the dark.

"Where are the others?" Eeen asked finally.

"I don't know," Merah admitted, fear growing within. The pod cluster should have held together on detection of a potentially habitable mass. What if the others had been captured? What if the Discord was closing in on the two of them?

Run. Hide. The haunting notes echoed in Merah's memory.

Eeen keened softly as they made their way back to Merah's pod. Merah dug down to the readouts and checked back through the logs.

The answer was devastating. The logs showed no sign of pursuit, but they had recorded a brush with a gravity well.

The pods had very little propulsion. The joinforce would have held the cluster together under most conditions, but it would have released the outer sections if the nearer pods could not escape a dangerous condition, rather than dragging the entire cluster down.

And only these two pods had held together for entry to a habitable world.

A mourning spilled from Merah's throat, raw with grief. First their home gone with all the tallkind, and now all the small- and midkind from their cluster. So many. So many.

Eeen huddled miserably against Merah, singing an unsteady harmony that trailed off into unformed sobs. "Alone. We're alone."

Merah held back from observing that at least they were two. If only one pod had broken free ….

"There were other clusters," Merah said instead. "We are not the last." The tallkind had sent clusters of the young in all directions, in the desperate hope that at least some would escape.

Run. Hide.

They were not yet safe. The Discord would not rest until the People had been destroyed.

So they must become another people.

Merah gathered their supplies from the two pods, making sure everything they would need was accounted for, and then set the pods to burn. Their entry would almost certainly have been noticed, and until they knew enough about the locals to alter and blend, they could be in a different kind of danger. Not all inhabited planets knew of the People.

"Come along," Merah said. "We must learn our new home."

For several paces, Merah walked alone, but then Eeen raced to catch up, taking Merah's hand. Merah squeezed back, relieved at the contact, and led them off into the dark.

{}
Now

"I've seen this style of writing before," Rodney muttered. He started typing away at his laptop.

John squinted up at the image on the projection screen. "Looks kind of like … wingdings for Arabic."

"Yes, I'm sure there are droves of Arabs in Pegasus using idiotic font conventions," Rodney snarked.

"I said looks like, McKay. Not probably is." John knew it wasn't the most accurate comparison anyway, but it didn't really deserve that much scorn, either.

"I can see what you mean, though," Elizabeth said. "It obviously isn't Arabic, but it doesn't resemble any script I've seen here in Pegasus."

Rodney kept typing. "Yes, well, since we're the only Earth personnel in this galaxy …." He paused and then started typing even more rapidly. "Assumptions. Of course." With a swift keystroke combination he split the display in two. The left half showed the clearest one of the pictures Lorne's team had taken, while the right showed a rapid scroll of other pictures of strange writing.

Rodney finally paused the scroll and considered that image. "It can't be," he said finally, dubiously.

Elizabeth frowned. "That would certainly be surprising," she agreed.

John opened his mouth to tell them to stop being obscure, but Rodney tapped his radio and spoke first. "Corrigan. Get to the conference room now. Did I ask? Yes, we have a runic emergency, so get up here."

John raised an eyebrow. "A runic emergency?"

"If it turns out the Furlings passed through Pegasus, yes, I would say so," Rodney said, as if his own use of the phrase hadn't been dripping with sarcasm.

Lorne straightened, and Elizabeth said, "Yes, that would be a significant finding."

Everyone else just looked confused, so at least John wasn't alone. "I have not heard of these … Furlings," Teyla said.

"They were one of the four Great Races," Elizabeth said, "allied with the Ancients, the Nox, and the Asgard. We've found a few traces of them in the Milky Way, but no one seems to know what happened to them, or when."

"Alliance?" Ronon prompted. "Against what, the Goa'uld?"

"Perhaps, after a fashion. The Nox eventually chose to withdraw from other societies rather than fight the Goa'uld, though, and there are suggestions the Furlings may also have been pacifistic. They — or at least a subset of their society — created a Utopian world that they shared with any humans who cared to join them, for example."

"Which was then destroyed by a Goa'uld, so obviously that was an effective strategy," Rodney said.

"Regardless," Elizabeth said, "they were apparently a successful enough society for long enough to affiliate with three of the most powerful races we've known, so anything we could add to the very little we know about them would be remarkably valuable."

"If they toddled off to Pegasus, that could explain why we've found so little in the Milky Way," Rodney agreed. He frowned. "Though it seems odd they would happen to have moved to the one other galaxy we've explored to any degree."

Dr. Corrigan entered the conference room at that point and gave the display a confused look. "Furling script samples are a runic emergency?"

Rodney snapped his laptop shut, the grin of academic zeal replacing his thoughtful frown. "Looks like we're exploring this site further. Jackson will be so jealous."

{}
Before

Merah managed to find both a dwelling and a stand of plants to hide within near it before dawn broke. They ate from their small supply of food, and Eeen soon drifted into a doze, but as the taller, Merah did not have that luxury. Merah instead pulled out the recorder and waited for one of the locals to emerge.

One eventually did, and Merah noted with relief that its shape was not too alien. From a distance, one might even mistake it for one of the People. Closer to, though, it was clearly different, though the garments it wore hid most of the differences. The little it left uncovered was strangely smooth, with tendrils apparently only at the top of its head — and, bizarrely, under the nostrils. Its fingers were short and blunted, and it had extras, as if to make up for their shape. The eyes were narrow and rounded, the neck strangely delicate. The ears were tiny.

A second figure emerged, and Merah saw with relief that its top tendrils were longer, falling over the ears to hide those almost entirely, while its face had none. Merah and Eeen might be able to pass as locals for a short while, if they were very careful.

They would eventually have to alter their shapes, but the modifier only had so much power, and they could likely use it only once. They would need all the information they could gather first. Besides, Merah preferred to retain its own shape as long as possible. Bad enough to be trapped on an alien world without having to be trapped in an alien body. Yet.

Merah opened its mind carefully. The locals were similar enough that Merah was able to gather impressions from their minds, so it switched on the recorder and collected impressions until both locals had climbed into some form of motorized object and rolled away.

The concepts Merah gathered for the recorder were bewildering, but that did not yet matter. No other locals were in the dwelling, and the two who had left expected to be away for most of the area's daylight, so Merah woke Eeen and they crept within. Eeen promptly curled up on the floor of the dwelling and went back to sleep, and Merah huffed with exasperation. Smallkind.

Merah was tired as well, but other matters were more urgent. It carefully explored the dwelling, finding various caches of garments throughout. The garments were too large for Merah, and they were far too large for Eeen, but they would serve as better camouflage than their own garments. They had a perception filter, but they would have to save that for emergencies, since it too had a limited charge.

Merah found hand coverings as well, and those fit only because they were too large, the greater size making up for the stubby fingers. The empty extra finger-sleeve on each hand was unnerving. The foot coverings, strangely, had no individual sleeves, instead simply encasing the entire foot in a stiff, nearly rigid form.

Merah arranged the smallest garments on Eeen, who slept through the process. With garments and hand-coverings, and with tendrils drawn down over ears, Eeen could be mistaken for a local. At least from a distance. By someone not really paying attention. Merah sighed and went back to exploring.

One room in the dwelling seemed to be for food storage. At least Merah hoped they were foodstuffs. Merah ignored the containers with no evident openings and avoided anything with strong odors, but there were still dozens of different substances within various containers. Some were on closed shelves, some in sliding drawers, and yet more in a sort of chillbox that had two compartments of its own. Merah broke bits off of each substance and used the scanner to analyze them.

Some were profoundly toxic, and Merah put them back hastily. The rest were apparently innocuous. Merah sighed again, resenting being the taller. It tasted tiny bits until it found one that wasn't too disgusting, and it then ate a few bites of that substance.

While waiting to see if its body could handle the supposed food, Merah switched the recorder on and lay down next to Eeen. This dwelling was at the edge of a grouping of several others, and Merah opened its mind as widely as it could, trying to collect other impressions to guide their integration.

{}
Now

The installation with the possibly-Furling script was far from the gate, and they had two extra people to transport, so they took a jumper. John arced high to get an idea of the regional terrain before settling into the planned path. "So these mysterious Furlings liked the whole Pacific Northwest climate too, huh?"

"If they were here, there's a reasonable likelihood the planet had already been adapted by the Ancients," Rodney countered.

"I'm starting to think the Ancients got all their terraforming kits from some kind of Ancient IKEA," John said, grinning when that set Rodney off. Teyla shot John a long-suffering look from the other forward seat.

"I do not see a path," she observed once Rodney wound down.

"Hard to tell through the trees," John said. She had more experience with settlement patterns around gates, but he had more experience with aerial reconnaissance, and a footpath could be damn near invisible through a forest.

"It is," Teyla allowed, "but I did not see an obvious path near the Ring, either, nor any features within walking distance to draw traders."

That had come up at the briefing, too. This planet had made their investigation list based on marketplace rumors. The vendor had apparently cleaned out the small collection of mysterious artifacts near the gate, so he hadn't minded selling the address of an empty world. Lorne and his team had found the installation in their initial survey of the general region. Atlantis could always use alpha sites.

But Teyla, like other Pegasus natives, was wary of uninhabited worlds.

"Maybe whoever built this place had their own transports," John suggested. "Or it's just been long enough that their paths have grown over."

It probably had to be one or the other, because it took them a solid ten minutes at a good clip to get from the gate to the site. John started the descent, but Rodney suddenly told him to wait. "Go back up a few hundred feet."

John did, and they all studied the installation for a while, Corrigan and Stackhouse lurking at the back of the cockpit while Rodney stood almost on top of the dialing console. The installation looked like a jumble of gray stone blocks, but John didn't see anything remarkable.

"Looking for something particular, McKay?" John drawled finally.

Rodney turned back to his console and sent a dizzying array of graphs to the HUD. "Something's not right about this," he said.

"And is that a particular something, or just your usual gloom and doom?"

Rodney scowled. "Just land, funny man."

{}
Before

Merah spent several days gathering information. The garments did a passable job of disguising the two of them, but they still kept to hiding places as much as they could.

Some of the information was comprehensible, at least to a degree. They were closer to the northern pole of the planet than they were to the equator, and the local region was passing into summer. None of the locals wore the hand coverings, but they all wore the foot coverings. Most wore abbreviated versions of the garments, and the few head coverings Merah saw were lightweight, doing nothing to disguise their meager ears. Since the garments Merah and Eeen had covered themselves in were sweltering, that all fit.

The locals retreated into dwellings at nightfall for the most part, though some used artificial light sources to remain outdoors well into the night, and the denser groupings of dwellings kept artificial lights operating outside all night long. Merah had found a few foodstuffs that didn't cause illness, giving both of them enough to live on, though they had to take the food without notice or permission. A few times they'd had to run from shouting locals, the voices cruel and entirely without music. Twice they had to resort to using the perception filter to escape.

Unlike the general environment, the local society persisted in making little sense. Part of that was likely inexperience; Merah had not been tall enough to travel even among the known worlds before … before. Even so, Merah could not imagine a framework in which this society would make sense. They had smallkind through tallkind, at least, but Merah could not interpret their daily tasks. They traveled on a variety of devices, some of which sprayed toxic chemicals into the air without restraint. Merah saw hints of familiar, if foreign, technology, but only in crude forms. The people never sang, and the translator function of the recorder accumulated a staggering variety of plain words but few inflections.

And they had a division, beyond tallness, that Merah could not begin to understand. They seemed to have two distinct body types, and their society divided any number of concepts between the two by no discernible pattern.

Run. Hide.

They couldn't wait much longer without the risk of discovery growing too high. This wasn't one of the known worlds; these people didn't even seem to know there were worlds. That made retaining their own shapes far too dangerous.

Merah finally selected a dwelling with two smallkind, one of each body type. While the dwelling was empty, Merah crept inside and inspected the sleeping pallets of each. The tendrils of these people seemed to detach easily, and as Merah had hoped, a few tendrils lay abandoned on each of the pallets. Merah collected one of each with distaste.

Since there were two of them and two body types, they would each take one. That should allow them access to both sides of any societal division.

Eeen was strangely quiet as Merah programmed the modifier with the alien tendrils and the recorder. Once the modifier was ready, they stood before it.

Eeen took Merah's hand, trilling a shaky but true-noted assent, and Merah activated the modifier.

{}
Now

Thanks to a steep decline leading down to the site and rugged hills behind it, they couldn't park the jumper right next to it. As they left the jumper, and for the fifteen minutes it took them to cross the cluttered downslope from the landing site to the jumbled blocks, Rodney was preoccupied but Corrigan was grinning with excitement.

Once they reached the structure, Teyla and Stackhouse shadowed the two of them while John and Ronon secured the perimeter. They found nothing particularly exciting about the surprisingly intact structure, except that there weren't any other entrances to be found. The room the two scientists had started exploring had only the one entrance, and that room wasn't nearly large enough to account for the entire structure.

By the time they returned, Rodney was frowning and Corrigan looked worried.

After another hour, a deflated Corrigan approached a positively scowling Rodney. "Dr. McKay —"

"It's fake, isn't it." Rodney jabbed spitefully at his tablet.

"I don't think it's fake, exactly, but … staged, maybe?"

Rodney nodded, resigned. "Show me."

Everyone trailed after Corrigan as he led them on a tour of various writing samples. "See this cluster here, and this one here? You have cluster A repeated intact here and here, and cluster B repeated intact here, here, and here. Cluster C —"

"Which means what, exactly?" John prompted.

Corrigan turned to him. "Languages don't tend to be this … static. Obviously there will be set phrases, but —"

"But unless they like to put caution, shock hazard on pretty much any surface — but at different points in the signs," Rodney amended when Corrigan opened his mouth, "it's more likely that someone found a few pieces of script, didn't know what they meant, and just built fake signs out of them. Like those t-shirts Miko wears to middle-of-the-night emergencies, the ones with random English phrases."

"Okay, but if you don't actually know the language yourselves —"

"And there's no dust," Rodney added. "The Furlings have been missing for thousands of years, so where is the dust? Why do the materials of this structure seem to have been exposed to this planet for no more than a few months, if that? Where's the coherence? Nothing here actually fits with anything else."

John wasn't sure what about an old stone ruin with random inactive consoles was supposed to be out of place, but Rodney was theoretically the expert. "So it's a bust?"

"Oh, no, I wouldn't say that," Rodney said, brightening. "The bits that are here are quite possibly authentic."

"There are a few phrases we don't already have," Corrigan agreed. "They might be fake filler, but they might also be from other sources we don't have yet, which would definitely give us plenty to study."

"And the technology — there's not much, and I can't make much of that work, but there are pieces of some kind of harmonic locking system. Now we can't actually hear most of the frequencies it uses, but —" he waved his tablet "— our technology can, so with a few hours I should be able to open it and see what's inside."

"You sure this isn't going to be some kind of Al Capone's Vault thing?" Because John actually did have better things to do.

"No idea," Rodney said cheerfully. "But who cares? Maybe we find a map to the real Furling hideaway, or a ZPM, or — yes — maybe just a few empty bottles. But to be able to crack even one piece of Furling technology? Besides, it's literally a musical key — how can we resist?"

That apparently wasn't a pun in Athosian, but it was in Satedan if Ronon's expression was any guide.

But Rodney just looked so damn hopeful. He'd been beating his head against his own new math for weeks, with no success. If he could crack something different, something no one else had before ….

"Fine," John decided. "You get two hours."

{}
Before

They had expected discomfort. Changing form was drastic; it would have to hurt. Their outer forms would shift first, the changes slowly working inward through their internal organs and then down to their very genetics over time, and the gross morphological adaptation would cause the greatest pain.

They expected the pain in their hands and feet, at the skin as their tendrils blended in, at the shape of their ears and eyes. But they hadn't expected the agony low in their torsos that made them double over and curl in on themselves. They hadn't expected the tearing misery that ripped through their heads and necks.

The process finally, finally finished, and Merah lay gasping on the ground, a strange quietness pressing down.

Behind Merah, Eeen made a strange croaking sound. Merah rolled over with difficulty to see Eeen batting and rubbing at nubby ears with stubby hands. Eeen croaked again and then started making a shrill thin noise.

Merah tried to quiet Eeen but was able to produce only a similar creaking. With growing horror, Merah felt its own throat as it tried to make any real sound, with no success.

This was why the locals didn't sing. They couldn't. Their throats could generate only a tiny range of ugly noises. Their ears couldn't process even a fraction of the sound around them.

They had no music.

Merah pulled Eeen close, realizing that the awful noise Eeen was making was the closest it could come to screaming. The noise was knife-sharp and leaf-thin and entirely inadequate to express their loss.

Better to be captured than this. Better to be destroyed.

But they were trapped. They wouldn't have been able to try the modifier until the current changes completed, which would take many days. They couldn't risk resuming their own forms anyway, even if they could persuade the locals to help them charge the modifier enough to revert even one of them.

They were muted and deafened, and they were stuck that way. Forever.

By the time the local tallkind came to investigate, Merah was screaming as well.

{}
Now

Six hours later, John resolved to grow a backbone that could stand up to Rodney's pleading.

Corrigan had run out of ways to occupy himself with the few, apparently repetitive, script plaques and had retreated to the jumper to use its processors for analysis. Stackhouse had gone with him, for security, but John had kept the rest of his team behind. This whole setup was making him increasingly uneasy.

Why the staging? Why the use of some other civilization's script and technology?

It might be as innocent as the expedition using Ancient scanners and jumpers. And it might not.

Teyla was helping Rodney, having shown a surprising interest in manipulating sounds neither of them could hear. Ronon had decided John was wound up enough for all of them and was, to all appearances, taking a nap. John paced.

During a brief food-and-water break, Rodney had accused him of being annoyed that this wasn't something he could manipulate with his "magic gene", but it wasn't that. John was sure it wasn't that. This whole thing just seemed … fishy.

Rodney had lost his caution in the thrill of the puzzle, though. It figured. Then again, if they both managed to be suspicious at the same time … that never worked out well. So it was probably for the best.

"Ha! That's it!" Rodney exclaimed.

John was more than ready for something to happen, and he headed right over. Ronon somehow managed to roll to his feet and get there first.

"This is it," Rodney said. "You ready?"

"Should we get Corrigan first?" Ronon asked.

"We can show him later. If we don't start this final sequence within … two minutes, it'll reset, and we'll have to start over again."

"This sequence took over half an hour," Teyla said tightly. "I would not care to start over."

And it would take Stackhouse and Corrigan fifteen minutes to get there if they left that second. "All right, give me a minute." He called Stackhouse to let him know they were going to open the lock and to keep his ears open. "Go for it."

Rodney nodded to Teyla, and they started an odd sort of duet on the keys of the console and Rodney's tablet. Only about one key in ten generated a sound that John could hear, so it all made for a rather pathetic little tune, remarkably similar to the ones John and Dave had strung together with a touch-tone phone when they were kids.

A few of the keys caused other sensations, though. The faint hint of a forgotten taste, the memory of an unnamed scent, a vibration under the skin, a presence just outside perception. The overall experience was decidedly unnerving.

Teyla finally drew back, flexing her hands. Rodney raised his tablet and pressed one last key.

No audible tone sounded, but a panel in the wall slid away. John raised his P90 just in case, but the panel was only about three by three, and it revealed only a mosaic on the wall behind it. The mosaic was eerily fascinating — John couldn't say what it was, exactly, but it made him think of snakes and it almost seemed to writhe.

Something clattered noisily to the floor. John glanced over, just to see who was about to get reamed out by Rodney for mistreating equipment … except it was Rodney who had dropped his tablet. He stared at the mosaic, eyes wide with horror as all color drained from his face.

"McKay?" John prompted warily. He heard the whine of Ronon's blaster charging behind him.

Rodney staggered backwards, his mouth working soundlessly for several seconds before he managed to produce any sound. "R-run," he choked. "Hide."

John whirled, trying to spot the threat, but then everything went black.

{}
Before

Merah was silent.

They had done something to make both Merah and Eeen sleep, to stop their screaming. Since waking, Merah had kept its poor excuse for a mouth shut. It refused to make those ugly, inadequate sounds.

No, that was wrong. His mouth. He refused. The body shape division drove even their language, and using the perfectly natural it for people was considered rude. Disordered. Merah knew because they kept correcting Eeen. Their minds pulsed with worry.

And even their minds were deaf and useless. Merah could feel its — his — sensitivity fading. Every day it was harder to pick up impressions from the locals, and eventually Merah would be as numb and insensible as they were, as the transformation completed.

The locals meant well, in their limited way. They did worry.

They worried about Merah, who would not speak. They worried about Eeen, who screamed any time they tried to separate the two of them and screamed on waking several times through the night. Shock, their minds whispered. Trauma. And orphans, which came with a truth and a pity that nearly choked Merah with the mourning it couldn't — he couldn't sing.

Eeen cooperated with them, as long as it — as she could cling to Merah. The locals asked questions, and Eeen answered in a dull monotone. Not that the voices they had left could be anything but dull.

Eeen gave their names, as if that mattered. What was left of their names from these mouths and through these ears was colorless and insipid, and the locals — with their impaired hearing — misheard even that. They decided Eeen was saying Jean, and then they promptly instead said Jeannie. They decided Eeen was calling Merah an infant's form of Meredith, and they laughed inside their heads, considering the name they decided to hear either archaic or "girly", by which they meant something that belonged on Eeen's side of the physical divide.

They heard an infant's form in part because, for their shape, Eeen's size belonged to a smallkind barely more than an infant. By their scales, they estimated "Jean" was between three and four of their years in age. And each day, with a brain adapting to that level of development, Eeen slipped further away, further back towards that infantile level.

In the time before, the modifiers had been used by more mature students nearing the transition to tallkind. Now, too late, they knew at least one reason why.

Merah was luckier on that score, tall enough to be judged perhaps twelve of their years. That was apparently developed enough to keep what little was left through the rest of the transformation.

They had their equipment, at least. Someone had brought it along after making them sleep, and by the time anyone decided to look more seriously at the specific objects rather than merely seeking what they considered identification, the two were both awake. Merah grabbed for the equipment silently, and Eeen grabbed for it noisily, and Merah managed in the confusion to get a hand on the perception filter. Toys, Merah pushed, and their minds slowly adjusted, picturing insipid little light games.

The modifier was little more than that, in truth, lacking the power for anything more than lighting the controls. The scanner was functional but equally useless, being song-activated. But the recorder and perception filter were vital.

The locals decided on their own that the perception filter itself was something they called a worry stone, and they supposed Merah needed the reassurance of keeping it. That was fortunate, since it meant they then expected to see Merah holding it.

Which Merah did, almost constantly, pushing we belong together and we belong in this society. Because the locals were suspicious at not knowing them and doubtful they would be able to keep them together, for some reason.

They already didn't like that Eeen and Merah insisted on sleeping together, needing the paltry comfort of contact as even their mental connection weakened. The locals thought it wrong that a "boy" and a "girl" would share a sleeping pallet, even though Merah knew for a fact that their tallkind slept together in such pairs all the time. Most of the dwellings they had collected from had such pairs.

But the locals disapproved and tried to separate them. That made Eeen scream, and it made Merah curl up and block its — his — blunted ears with deformed hands, and the locals eventually gave up each time and left them alone. That would have been acceptable, but their minds whispered for now and gloomily predicted that the two would somehow, for unexplained reasons, be sent to different tallkind for longer-term care.

They had to fit in, and they had to stay together, no matter how much of the perception filter that cost them. Merah had little time to convince them anyway; their minds weren't very receptive, and Merah's mind was steadily losing range and sensitivity.

We belong in this society. We belong together. Merah clung to the perception filter and concentrated fiercely on those two messages.

{}
Now

John's head pounded.

Or wait, maybe that wasn't his head. He forced his eyes open with an effort.

He was lying on the ground, a strangely temperature-neutral but rough stone under his cheek. His mouth was paper-dry. There was certainly plenty of light, making him squint.

A shadow rushing past made him flinch, and another dull thump soon shook the room.

"Get up, Sheppard," Ronon snapped. He backed up and then threw himself forward again.

John carefully rolled over and sat up. He blinked firmly a few times to clear his head and then started assessing the situation.

They were in a small space, only a few paces to each side. The wall to John's left and the ceiling about ten feet overhead were more of the strange sand-yellow stone, but the other walls looked like glass. Didn't sound like glass when Ronon hit one, though. His weapons and gear were missing. Teyla lay sprawled on the floor to John's right near what was probably the front wall, the direction all the light was coming from, and Rodney … wasn't there.

John pushed himself to his feet and looked around hastily. He relaxed for a moment when he spotted Rodney, but then he tensed again. McKay was on the ground in the adjoining glass-walled cell, alone.

Their captors had isolated the one non-fighter in the group. John didn't like that at all.

Ronon obviously didn't either; the wall he was trying to knock down was the one separating them from Rodney. John quickly checked on Teyla, who stirred groggily at his touch, and then decided what the hell. On Ronon's next pass, John joined him, figuring the extra weight couldn't hurt.

He did that all of once, because the wall might look like glass, but it felt like stone. "Not coming down, buddy," he groaned. Then he felt the wall more carefully. Exactly like stone, yet transparent as glass.

Ronon tried one more time, probably from spite, before switching to shouting. "McKay! Get up!"

"Ronon, please," Teyla said faintly, holding her head. John had to agree. Ronon's voice didn't echo as much as he expected in the small space, but that didn't mean it wasn't still painfully loud.

"McKay!" Ronon bellowed again. "Get up!"

Rodney shifted slightly and groaned. "Stop … yelling," he rasped, making no move to sit up yet. His voice was muffled only slightly by the strange wall between them.

"Oh, yes," a new voice crooned, drawing out the sibilant lovingly. "Yes, time to wake, my little bird."

John looked around, trying to spot the speaker. There seemed to be more of the clear-walled cells in either direction, but he could see only a few feet of floor in front of the cells. The lights were angled in a way that left anything beyond that point shrouded in darkness.

Rodney slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position. "What's with the cartoon villain?" he groused. "And who took my shoes?" Unlike the rest of them, he was missing his boots and socks.

"Such bravado!" the voice mocked. "Stepping so willingly into my pretty trap. The others showed at least a little caution. Has it been so long that your fear has dimmed? Or is it the hunger to rejoin your own kind that made you so … very … foolish?"

McKay had a point about the cartoon villain thing. The guy had the kind of voice John wanted to punch in the face, just on principle. "Big words for someone scared to show himself," John said. They needed to know who or what they were up against.

The voice chuckled obscenely. "Such a clever monkey! No, little monkey, I do not fear showing myself." Something shifted in the dark. "I am simply savoring this moment. It has been oh so long, and I will have my full pleasure."

The figure stepped into the light then, a shape detaching from the uniform dark beyond, and everyone drew back a step involuntarily. Everyone except Rodney, still sitting on the floor, who scrambled backwards until he hit the wall.

The figure was a walking, three-dimensional version of the mosaic, a writhing darkness in a vaguely humanoid shape. The way it moved shot straight past training and logic to the instinctive level that reacted to spiders and snakes.

"Hiding among the Alterans' pets," the voice marveled. "So pathetic, so desperate, but effective. For a time. They have spread, haven't they? Oh, but consorting with warriors? That hardly befits one of the proud People." He spat the last word with contempt. "You've always thought yourselves and your pretty songs above such crudeness."

John glanced over at Teyla, who was the only one of them he would call any kind of singer. She first regarded the figure with confusion but then, surprised, looked over to … Rodney?

"Why are you looking at me?" Rodney demanded shakily, but he wasn't talking to Teyla. And if John looked closely, he could somehow tell that even though the dark figure didn't really have a face or an expression, his attention was on McKay. "I'm a scientist, not some pop idol."

That image would have made John laugh if Rodney wasn't so plainly terrified. John might find the dark figure unnerving, but Rodney looked as if he'd rather face a Wraith armed with lemons. Yet he was standing up to the guy — metaphorically, at least — despite his fear, and John was strangely proud of him for that.

"Don't bother to deny yourself, singer," the figure said. "Who else would be drawn to these trinkets, hoping to find its own? Who else could work the key made of your own voices?" The voice dropped chillingly. "Who else knows to run and hide from me?"

Which was a good question, really.

"Beats looking at you," Ronon said. Rodney glanced over, giving Ronon a flicker of a grateful smile for that.

The figure's attention shifted over briefly as well. "I have no quarrel with your kind, nor you with mine. You —"

"Touch McKay and that changes," Ronon snarled.

The guy barely paused. "You have not known the millennia of hate, the visceral revulsion. But —"

"It's called technology," Rodney blurted. He flinched as the figure's attention returned to him but defiantly continued, "It just means I can read a graph and manipulate a frequency emitter. That doesn't make me … whatever you think I am."

"Oh, and you've never known the Music," the figure said sarcastically, the capital letter somehow clear. His voice took on a cruel edge. "You don't feel the absence of the Song with every. Single. Heartbeat."

Rodney blinked for a moment, startled. He clenched and flexed his hands absently. "Wait, is this because I used to play piano? That was years ago. But I —" He swallowed but then firmed his mouth stubbornly. "I wasn't artistic enough to play professionally, so I moved on to more productive endeavors. Not to mention more lucrative ones."

That was news to John, and Teyla looked slightly surprised as well, though he couldn't tell if Ronon was. Rodney seemed not to have heard the trace of bitterness in his own voice.

The figure cocked what passed for his head and was silent for nearly a full minute, which frankly was kind of a relief.

Then he giggled.

"Oh," he breathed. "Oh. You don't know. Oh, this is delicious. You've hidden even from yourself!" He laughed with delight. "You ran so far and so long and now you don't even know. You forgot you were hiding. You forgot your fear and walked right back to me." The figure swayed side-to-side. "You cut away your own voice and your own ears and you don't even know." The voice dissolved into helpless, maniacal laughter as the writhing shape churned.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Worse than a Goa'uld," he muttered, just loudly enough for the team to hear.

John smirked, because he wasn't wrong. Teyla crossed her arms, unimpressed by their captor, and Ronon yawned loudly.

The figure gradually laughed himself out. He quieted again and regarded Rodney for several long, uncomfortable moments. "Did you truly think we had no stasis, no ships?" he asked, oozing menace now. "No machines? Did you think we could not be patient? Did you think we would rest knowing even one of you remained?"

"I know my brilliance and dashing good looks are compelling, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't work out between us," Rodney said with an admirable stab at nonchalance. "It's not me, it's you."

The guy sighed, almost fondly. "Oh, this has been far more entertaining than I had dared hope, but I find myself eager for the moment you realize just how badly you've failed. Allow me to lift the scales from your eyes."

The dark figure melted back into the greater darkness behind it. A few seconds later, a bar of even brighter light swept across the row of cells, front to back. John barely had time to raise his hands before the light was past them, and he braced himself, but nothing happened.

For several long seconds, nothing happened.

Then Rodney cried out in pain and toppled over.

"Mmm, yes, I did think so," the voice mused, pleased, barely audible under Ronon's enraged roar and charge at the front wall. "Pity you've come alone, but … that has its pleasures, too."

"Leave him alone!" Ronon demanded over Rodney's gasping cries.

The dark shape detached itself again, approaching their cell. All three braced themselves, but he simply shoved one of their canteens along the floor and … through? … the front wall at them. "Refresh yourselves," he said conversationally. "You may yet be of use." He withdrew again, disappearing into the black.

Teyla swiftly knelt and explored the space the canteen had passed through. It was hard to see in the bright light and against the clear wall, but her hands traced a gap. It was a few inches high and about a foot wide — enough to fit an arm through, but no more. It was in the center of the front wall, so even if Rodney's cell had a similar gap, it was too far away for them to pass materials from one to the other.

John hadn't missed the fact that Rodney hadn't been given anything.

Rodney was still obviously in pain. His eyes were wide and sightless, his mouth gaping open. He seemed to be trying to curl into a ball and squirm simultaneously. John pressed against the wall between them, as close as he could get. "Rodney? Rodney. Talk to me, McKay. What's going on?"

For a moment Rodney managed to focus on John, his eyes bewildered and pleading. Then another spasm hit, wrenching a groan from his throat, and though John kept encouraging him to hold on, he was pretty sure Rodney wasn't hearing him.

Watching someone else tortured and being unable to intervene was a special kind of hell. John would have traded places in a heartbeat, but all he could do was sit there helplessly and offer his voice as something for Rodney to focus on once the pain eased. He and Teyla did that for several interminable minutes as Ronon vented his frustration on the front wall, but John stammered and fell quiet as Rodney's hands blurred and started to shift.

That caught even Rodney's dazed attention, and he stared at his limp hands with growing fear and disgust as his fingers thinned and stretched, the smallest finger melding into its neighbor to disappear completely. That wasn't the only part of him changing — his bare feet were narrowing and elongating similarly, his eyes were stretching wider, his neck looked thicker, and his ears were growing and folding into a complex shape — but it was his hands that held his horrified attention.

"What — what are you turning me into?" he demanded hoarsely. "What did you do to me?"

{}
Before

The locals were starting to think of Eeen as damaged and of Merah as retarded. The latter judgment had something to do with the simple fact that Merah didn't know their script yet — when even the tallkind of the People considered script only an amusing and obscure diversion — and still elected not to speak. Eeen felt the losses of regression and was turning ever more erratic and distraught.

The locals gave them both colored wax and paper as some obscure version of therapy. The goal was unclear, but so long as they made marks on the paper, the locals let them be for long periods. Merah eventually grew bored with making random designs with still-clumsy hands and decided to try to calculate which direction home lay in. A true calculation was impossible, because most of the necessary variables simply weren't defined, but … it was a distraction.

One of the locals took particular notice of Merah's calculation marks, though, and suddenly paid very close attention. Merah couldn't interpret the first marks that tallkind made, but the tallkind was patient for the moment and carefully demonstrated meaning of the marks.

The locals worked in base ten — so they can use their pathetic fingers to count, Merah thought viciously, curling the horrid hands small and tucking them out of sight — and used ten characters in a significant-position system. It was ultimately simple, and once Merah knew the rules and character set, switching into their system was easy enough.

The tallkind set a few practice exercises, but Merah soon grew bored and went back to the original calculations, using the new system for no better reason than that it required slightly more attention and therefore was a better distraction. The stars here were dim and distant, but Merah remembered a few measurements from the pod's report and could try to extrapolate others from those.

That endeavor somehow changed their label for Merah to "idiot savant", which didn't seem to be much better. Merah started working harder on understanding their script. It bore little relation to the insufferably minute distinctions of their spoken language, which were a million shades of muddy grey, but it at least showed some signs of conceptual consistency.

The locals meanwhile kept moving them from one building to another, each different from the last. The first had been some form of medical facility, but the ones since had wildly different populations and arrangements even though the locals used some version of the term home for each one.

That unpredictability, combined with Eeen's continuing degradation and their staggering losses, left Eeen trembling and fragile, frequently in tears. Merah wished fruitlessly that they had waited for Eeen to grow taller, despite the risk, though that would clearly have been impossible.

At the end of one dreadful day in which Merah sincerely feared Eeen's mind would shatter under the stress, Merah waited for Eeen to fall asleep and only then took up the perception filter. This would cost them badly, but Eeen was suffering, and Merah could at least do something to improve that.

Merah placed the filter on Eeen's forehead and covered it with one malformed hand. You are human. You belong with these people. Your name is Jean, or Jeannie. You are a girl. You are of this world. What else? You are my sister, the locals had said that. You are happy. You are loved.

Merah concentrated carefully, rebuilding Eeen's reality. In the time before, such a thing would have been unthinkable; now it was a mercy. Merah drew back only when fighting down fury at the Discord for making this a necessity became impossible.

Merah woke the next morning alone in the sleeping pallet and sat up sharply, worried. At first it seemed Eeen was sitting on the floor, drawing with the colored wax, but it was Jeannie who looked up from her drawing. It was Jeannie who smiled and said, "Hi, Mer!"

Jeannie was happy little girl and Eeen was gone.

And Merah was now truly alone.

{}
Now

Rodney didn't say anything else. His body gradually stopped shifting, settling into an odd but apparently stable shape, but Rodney remained atypically, worryingly silent.

"McKay?" John prompted finally. "You —?"

But Rodney flinched at the words and clapped his hands over his ears. Or rather the oddly long hands over the larger, more complex ears. He flinched again at the contact, pulling the hands away again to look at them.

He shuddered and looked away. Then, carefully using neither hands nor feet, he dragged himself up onto his knees and elbows and retreated to the far corner, his back to the team.

"Come on, McKay, it's not that bad," John called.

Rodney tried to block his ears again by tucking his head between his knees, but he hadn't exactly been that flexible before, and the transformation hadn't changed that.

"Not so loudly," Teyla murmured. Barely raising her voice, she urged, "Rodney, please, come back. We are concerned for you. A few small changes are no matter."

"Seen you before coffee," Ronon muttered. "Can't be worse than that."

Rodney shuddered again and remained in the corner. John would mock him, but he knew how Rodney felt.

Pretty much exactly.

He sighed. "You've seen me turn into a bug, McKay. Now come on."

Rodney heaved a vast, defeated sigh of his own and gradually turned back. He scooted a little closer but stopped beyond what would be arm's length from them if an impenetrable wall wasn't already in the way. He sat cross-legged, trying to hide his feet from at least his own sight, and he wouldn't meet their eyes.

John and Teyla hadn't yet stood, so Ronon sat down to join them, which was more than a little crowded. They took a good look.

Rodney really wasn't all that different, all things considered. He didn't have newly colorful skin, for example, or at least not yet. John had already registered most of the changes. Rodney's hands were probably the most noticeable, the thumb and three fingers slender and almost twice as long as they had been. His feet looked almost like another set of hands rather than human feet, the toes taking up over half their length, though they did seem to be shaped to accommodate standing.

He'd gotten more hair out of the deal. The individual strands were thicker and longer than they had been, but they were still hair-like rather than looking like some kind of tentacles. More peeked out around the edges of Rodney's uniform, suggesting they covered a lot more of his body now, though John suspected his own body hair looked more impressive.

Rodney's neck was definitely thicker. His eyes were nearly the same, with just more of an almond shape to them, and his cheekbones were sharper. His nose was completely unchanged. His ears were larger and significantly more complicated-looking; after the hands and feet, they were probably the most obvious change.

If there were any other changes, they were hidden by Rodney's uniform and he wasn't mentioning them. John didn't see any disturbing bulges, at least.

But really, that was all pretty minor. Rodney hadn't ended up with tentacles or eyestalks or even weird skin changes. Not that John was bitter or anything.

"It's not actually that bad," John said. He wasn't trying to be snide, but he didn't try to sound particularly comforting either since they didn't really do that, and Rodney seemed to take his words as an insult. The death glare was worth it, though, because that meant their Rodney really was still in there.

"Are you still in pain?" Teyla asked softly.

Rodney started to give his automatic of course, but he stopped himself before speaking. He made a few faces, as if he was trying to figure out how to answer, but in the end he settled for shaking his head.

Teyla frowned. "Are you able to speak?"

Rodney answered that with a hesitant nod. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but in the end, all he said was, "Hard." The sound was strange — Rodney's voice was a part of it, but there was something else there too, something John couldn't really name.

"Hard how?" John asked. "Painful? Something in the way?"

But Rodney was already shaking his head. He started to make the universal symbol for I caught a fish THIS BIG, but that brought his hands back to his attention and he dropped them hastily. "Nuke … flyswatter," he said instead, speaking very carefully.

John needed a second to recognize the metaphor for overkill. "Like trying to thread a needle with a drone, you mean? Or trying to move a chopper exactly 1.5 inches to the left. Or —"

"John." Teyla was glaring at him.

But Rodney was, too, and that was actually a good thing, under the circumstances. "Okay, so you having a big voice — how's that different from normal?"

Rodney looking like he was contemplating murder was pretty normal, too.

"So what are you?" Ronon asked.

"How would I know?" Rodney snapped. And yeah, his voice was all over the place, as if he somehow was speaking in multiple voices at once. He winced at his own volume and continued more carefully, "I'm human, but I have no idea what this is meant to be."

"You sure about that?" John asked. "That you're human, I mean."

"Yes, I'm sure, and thank you for that vote of confidence. I've worked for your government for about a decade, Sheppard. You've met my sister, who has known me only her entire life. I was one of Carson's test subjects — not just for the gene therapy, but for the research before that, too. I may not have a very high opinion of medicine as a science, but I somehow doubt Carson could have tested me for the gene twice — and then again after the therapy for the comparison sample — but somehow failed to notice he was working with alien cells."

"Okay, fine," John said. "I just meant, that guy seemed pretty sure you were something else and didn't even know yourself, and you definitely seem to know him."

"What? I do not." Rodney was just as easy to read in his present shape as he ever had been, and John would stake money he wasn't bluffing.

That didn't mean his objection made sense on its own, though. "So why did you tell us to run the second you saw that mosaic? Why are you more scared of him than the rest of us put together?"

"Oh, I don’t know, maybe because it's nightmare-inducing! Were you looking?"

"Yeah," Ronon said. "Kinda gross, but a Wraith's worse."

John wasn't sure he'd go that far, even if Teyla was nodding. "Looks a little like something that crawled out of a Hellraiser movie, maybe, but it's mostly just a dark shape. And the whole 'gloating bad guy' thing kind of weakens the scare factor, really." He almost hoped the guy was lurking just beyond the lights, to overhear that, though it was impossible to tell.

Rodney scowled and crossed his arms. "Fine. Mock my perfectly healthy self-protective instincts. You think I don't already know you all think I'm a coward?" He winced at noticing his hands again and tucked them both up under his arms, out of sight.

"We do not think you a coward, Rodney McKay," Teyla said, sounding almost angry. She frowned sternly at Rodney, who was glaring his disbelief right back at her.

It was probably good they were too busy with each other to look at John, who actually did think Rodney was a coward. He didn't even think that in the it's probably a good thing sense, either. That didn't mean he didn't like the guy, and Rodney did have a weird courage at odd times. And John could also recognize that he, Teyla, and Ronon all had their reckless moments, so to the extent Rodney's occasional cowardice provided a little balance, it was probably useful.

"You do okay," Ronon told Rodney. "So that guy — he one of those Furlings you were looking for?"

That at least distracted Rodney. "What? Of course not, are you insane?"

Ronon frowned. "Thought you didn't know what the Furlings looked like. So how do you know for sure?"

For just a moment Rodney looked completely lost. "I … I just … seriously, just think about it for two seconds. The Ancients could be mercenary and unethical bastards at times —" Teyla's mouth thinned with disapproval "— but you think the Asgard and the Nox would ally with that?"

Ronon shrugged. "Don't know them."

"You've met Hermiod, haven't you? Rude, supercilious, but not homicidal. And the Nox are total hippie-dippy types, to hear SG-1 tell it. No, considering all that talk of traps, I suspect that thing is what happened to the Furlings." He frowned and muttered Furlings to himself again.

"Could that be what you have been turned into?" Teyla asked.

"Hm? Oh. I suppose it's possible. Furlings — why does that sound strange?"

"Because it's kind of a dumb name?" John suggested, but Rodney wasn't really paying attention to him.

Teyla had another question for Rodney. "Why are you the only one of us to change?"

That got his attention. "Obviously correlation doesn't equal causation, but that beam of light that hit me is probably relevant," he said, his tone caustic.

John raised an eyebrow and matched the tone. "You mean that light that hit all of us?"

That made Rodney pause. "It did?"

"Wasn't just you," Ronon said.

"Huh. No telling, then. The artificial gene? An intelligence threshold?"

"Do you still pretend?" the creepy guy asked, fortunately heading Rodney off before he could come up with even more insulting suggestions. Rodney flailed at the voice and pressed himself against the back wall. The figure oozed forward, regarding Rodney closely. "This grows tedious."

"Why did you change just me?" Rodney demanded — or tried to. He was trembling so hard the words were barely comprehensible.

The figure chuckled. "I did no such thing." His voice dropped into loathing. "What possible reason would I have to create more of your kind? I seek only to scour every trace of you from existence, no matter how disguised. No, I changed you into nothing. You were simply the only one in a position to change back."

"Maybe you should explain that to us," John said, trying to draw attention away from Rodney.

"I had hoped to see this one try to explain itself to you, but your suggestion has merit. That is a tale that deserves telling."

Oh, joy.

The figure swelled slightly and resettled itself. "Our victory, it was glorious. But over time, as we reveled, we came to realize that none could claim destruction of the children. Oh, one or two had that honor, a stray here and there, but we simply could not account for the numbers we knew must have existed.

"We searched, of course," he assured Rodney. "We couldn't imagine how so many could be hidden from us, but we searched through every last scrap of the wreckage of that festering pit that spawned your kind and found no sign. But then, then, quite by chance, one of our ships crossed paths with what we might have mistaken for nothing more than the shattered remains of a comet … if that seeming collection of rocks had not changed course slightly to evade collision. And once we broke them open, we found such treats inside, perfectly preserved. The stasis kept even their terror fresh, and their betrayal when they realized they had not escaped after all …." The voice trailed off in a satisfied hiss.

Rodney made a revolted sound, as if he was about to throw up.

"Even that gave us only a few, though, and with this proof of attempted escape, we needed to know where the rest were. The smallest were ignorant and useless, and we were flush and sated, so they served only as playthings until we had recovered our appetite. Prolonged terror proved to season their flesh quite nicely."

Ronon growled, low and furious, and was ignored.

"The older ones knew more, but no matter how we tormented them, no matter how long or how desperately we made them call for the others, we learned only that clusters of escape pods had been dispatched in all directions, tainting our victory and leaving us eons of searching. Though several among us did relish the hunt.

"It was then, however, that a mistake was made. We discarded the pods and their remaining contents, seeing no use for them. The toys and trinkets of immature singers — what use were they? So, yes, a mistake. Some slept and some searched, but always we sought the enemy we already knew.

"It was centuries before we recognized our oversight."

{}
Before

Never before had Merah been completely alone. Never.

The People were social by nature. Small touches were common, and closer contact soothed. Wordless companionship could be had simply by opening one's mind. Another member of the Great Song could always be sensed nearby.

Merah hadn't considered how much difference Eeen's presence made, because the difference was literally unthinkable. Two minds were an inadequate fragment of the Song, but with only one mind in isolation, there was only silence. The Song didn't exist.

And Merah was fraying.

Now Merah was the one screaming awake at night, the one clinging to whoever responded — though Merah might as well be clutching wood, or metal, for all the good that contact did. Merah was the one left trembling and fragile by each progressively worse day. Not from degradation; that might have been a relief. Merah was instead all too aware of the crushing, smothering weight of silence and isolation.

Jeannie was alternately drawn to and frightened by Merah, some ghostly echo of their former bond driving her back after each scare. She tried to comfort him, in her childish way.

At least she was well. She was also popular. Several local tallkind were fond of her and even considered assuming responsibility for her care, but Merah had been an obstacle. These backwards people welcomed the staggering amount of care a smallkind of Jeannie's size required but hesitated to accept even nominal responsibility for a far more self-sufficient midkind. Merah clutched the perception filter and focused on together, keep us together with a single-mindedness honed by desperation.

The locals actually seemed to think Merah was improving, though it took several days for Merah to follow their flawed logic. If both children were traumatized, and if — from their perspective — Jeannie passed through screaming nightmares to peace, then Merah's progression probably appeared a slower imitation. They smiled and celebrated as Merah drew ever closer to shattering.

Yet their assumptions somehow led to a pair of tallkind agreeing to take them both. Jeannie was happy with them. Merah struggled to respond politely, the former vow of silence now pointless. Even screaming pressed that horrible muffling emptiness back only a fraction, only a moment.

In the sleepless dark between nightmares, Merah pressed against the window of the new dwelling, trying to see the stars, trying to see the way home. They had to escape, somehow. They had to get away from this planet and find others of their own kind.

But these people could barely visit their own pale moon, so Merah had to find some way to escape this crushing, deadening world. With no resources. Alone.

It was impossible. And every single day was worse than the one before.

At last, at long last, Merah gave up. This existence was literally intolerable, and Merah knew with cold certainty that its mind could not endure the stress any longer.

The only plan Merah had was risky and flawed. The midkind had been trained on the basic functionality of their equipment, but a deeper understanding of the mechanisms would not have been taught for years yet. The perception filter was almost certainly not designed to be used in this manner, and only desperation made Merah even try. Because it might work, and no other options remained.

Merah lay on the sleeping pallet, the recorder in one human-form hand and the perception filter in the other. Pressing the filter to its own forehead, Merah opened as best it could to the recorder and concentrated.

You are — I am human. I belong here. I am a boy. I am of this world. These concepts are mine. I am human. I belong with these people ….

{}
Now

As the quiet stretched, John allowed himself to hope that the creepy guy had finished talking, but no. He was just enjoying a dramatic pause. He swelled again and resumed his tale, his attention lavished on Rodney.

"One of ours finally encountered another cluster of these escape pods, crashed on an airless moon. Some of the pods were still intact, others breached. That one was thorough, or perhaps simply weary — who can say at this remove? Regardless, that one lingered on the moon, scavenging from each pod in turn. While savoring the marrow of one of yours, that one then grew curious about the gadgets stored so carefully within the stasis. Imagine our surprise when numerous painstaking experiments revealed that these devices could disguise your kind as acceptable beings!

"We realized then our omission, but even then, we did not have enough information. So we experimented, of course, using those few wretched brats yet left to us. We learned such fascinating things — that the process of change itself became a torment after only a few transformations, for example. Or that that not all species were compatible, creating hideous mutated things that often expired in prolonged, agonized misery."

The guy interrupted himself then, thoughtfully. "Oh, but I should have loved to try these Wraith creatures as templates. I suspect the compatibility would be quite low. I could have put you through such delicious agony."

Teyla snarled, quietly but furiously.

The guy made that wavering movement again, dismissing either Teyla's reaction or his own thought. "A pity to miss such an opportunity, but irrelevant. We also learned that these devices worked only on your kind. We tested numerous other species — including these monkey pets — but they were keyed to affect only your tainted genetics. These devices could hide you among better species, and they could reveal you; those were their only functions. We therefore equipped our ships with the deactivation components, allowing us to winnow you out wherever you might try to hide.

"So do not pretend you can hide from me, singer, or think that you can confuse me. This close, I sensed you even in your borrowed skin, but now your true form is revealed. I name you, singer."

"I'm … I'm not …." Rodney protested weakly, but he was starting to look like he doubted even himself. "I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. I'm human. I have a sister. I'm Canadian. I'm human. I'm not this, this Furling thing or whatever it is you —" But then he stopped cold.

John knew that look coming over Rodney's face. He had last seen it on Doranda, when Rodney finally admitted he couldn't make the project work.

When he finally stopped lying to himself.

Rodney made a choked sort of noise, a humorless laugh. "It's not Furling."

The creepy guy was writhing away in anticipation. John tried to ignore him. "What is it, then?"

"It's …." Rodney closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment, and then spoke a sound.

Gate translation was usually a binary thing — either John heard English or he didn't. The Ancients must have known whoever these people were and coded their language differently, though, because John heard two levels in this.

He heard the actual sounds, a combination that had no kind of English equivalent. There was a sort of trill in there, followed by a ringing, and that could have been interpreted as "Furling", though that was an even more inaccurate approximation than "Peking" and "Bombay" had once been. But he also heard the meaning those sounds conveyed, and in that level, Rodney was saying The People of the Great Song.

"Not Furling," Rodney finished bitterly. He shuddered and dropped his head down to his folded arms. "Oh god."

The dark figure started to laugh.


Part 2: Integration
The creepy guy laughed for a long, long time. And that entire time, Rodney just sat there, arms folded across knees and head buried in arms, silent. Which wasn't like him at all.

Or it wasn't like the man they all thought they'd known, anyway. Maybe it was perfectly in keeping for whoever he had really been.

The guy eventually got tired of laughing with no reaction and promised Rodney a lot more fun to come. He pushed one of their energy bars into the team's cell and wandered off.

Teyla immediately started checking each wall, especially the one separating the two cells.

Ronon started some kind of experiment that involved sliding the canteen across the floor, and it took John a minute to realize that Ronon was trying to find a way to get water over to McKay. The stone-like flooring was too rough for the canteen to slide well, though.

Ronon didn't give up immediately. The canteen still had its strap, so he stretched his arm out the gap and tried a slingshot maneuver, but the dividing wall apparently extended partway out into the hall. Ronon could do no better than getting the canteen to hook around the tip of that wall, still well out of Rodney's potential reach.

John, meanwhile, occupied himself trying to get Rodney to talk. Granted, "What the hell, McKay?" might not have been the most sensitive topic, but … seriously, what the hell?

After a few rounds of that, John gave up and took inventory. That didn't take long, since they had been stripped of just about anything more complex than a pencil, though he was pretty sure Ronon still had at least one knife somewhere, and the pack of chewing gum Teyla turned out to have promised hours of entertainment.

None of them still had a watch, though, so judging the passage of time was difficult. John had no idea how long they had been unconscious, and the bright unchanging light did nothing to help.

John eventually couldn't hold back any longer. "Where the hell is Stackhouse?"

"Perception filter." The words were quiet and dull. Rodney had tipped his head back against the wall, his eyes open but unseeing.

"Okay," John said slowly. "And that means what?"

"It means even if we're still on the same planet, they can't find us. Think of a cloak, but one that works directly on the brain rather than by altering visible light. With enough power — which this place probably has — they could walk right past us, LSDs and jumper sensors lighting up like a pachinko parlor, and they wouldn't notice a thing." The technical lecture fit the Rodney they had known, but the complete lack of energy didn't.

"Right. So how come we've never heard of that kind of cloak before?"

Rodney lifted one shoulder in a faint shrug, still not bothering to look at John. "Not much of a defensive tactic. It's not going to reach near orbit, so all the Wraith would have to do is target from there and then fly blind. Their culling beams wouldn't be affected, and given the speed of the darts, the filter wouldn't have time to convince them to alter course. As for Atlantis, they might figure it out by reviewing the logs when they get back to the city, but they can't do anything about it without beaming technology, even if they do realize the effect is limited."

"And since the Daedalus is at least a week away …."

"Right." Rodney closed his eyes.

"Okay," John allowed. "I get why we haven't seen this tech before, but you obviously already knew about it. So why didn't you warn us? Why weren't you watching for it?"

Rodney's mouth tightened for a second. "That would have required me to remember it existed, which I didn't."

"Just like you forgot to tell us you weren't actually human?"

"Yes," Rodney said tensely. "Exactly like that."

"Funny, that doesn't work for me." Rodney's scramble to move away from the creepy guy had put him in the corner nearest the team's cell, closer than he had been willing to approach before that, whether accidentally or from some unconscious desire to retreat to the team for safety. The wall made him as impossible to reach as before, but John braced his hands against the wall, looming over Rodney. "Why the hell didn't you tell us?"

"Because I didn't know!" Rodney shouted, losing the strict control he'd kept over his voice. He glared up at John, tightening his strange hands into fists. "I honestly thought I was human, because I made myself forget. Because — you have no idea how suffocating it was, being isolated like that. Mute and deaf and deformed and alone. I couldn't —" He drew a shuddering breath. "I couldn't. So I made myself forget. I used a perception filter on myself and spent the next twenty-five years thinking I was a perfectly normal human."

"'Normal'?" Ronon muttered, amused.

This was not the time. "And you just happened to remember now that it matters."

"No, I was made to remember by the deactivation. It doesn't just reverse form modification; it's effectively a control-zed for all of the biological technology. It started unraveling every change I'd made, including to my memory. Before that, I honestly didn't know, I swear."

John eyed him narrowly. "What would you even swear by?"

"On — seriously? On, on zero point energy. On the Nobel Prize in Physics. It doesn't matter. You know me, Sheppard. You know I would have told you if I knew. I'm not saying I would have told the entire universe, but …." He dropped his gaze to study the fabric of his pants, where it stretched across his left knee. "The three of you, I would have told you," he said softly. "I would."

And John believed him. He believed him in part because Rodney had started doing that sort of thing over the past few weeks, ever since his near ascension. The experience hadn't seemed to change him massively, but he dropped randomly into awkward earnestness every now and then, expressing sentiments he'd always left unsaid before.

Wait a second.

"Wait a second. You almost ascended. How did you not remember then?"

"Actually, I did ascend, for about a microsecond. Or at least I stood at the threshold. And right then, I did remember. I don't remember everything about that now, but it's clearer than it was, and the blurriness before makes sense now. But the entire point was to survive, and that meant not just turning back. It also meant going back to forgetting. I wasn't joking when I said I couldn't survive if I knew."

"What about the entire process before that point?" Teyla asked. "You spent much of that time meditating and learning yourself, did you not?"

Rodney huffed. "You might have noticed I never did particularly well at that. That process was meant for Ancients and the occasional human anyway, and that device was flawed at best. I also had a hell of a lot on my mind. If the process had been slower, maybe the filter would have broken down, or maybe I would have slowed down enough to look inward, but it obviously wasn't. There wasn't even time —" He cut himself off with sudden alarm.

John knew how that ended. There wasn't even time to tell Jeannie. The timeframe had been so short that trying to tell Jeannie just seemed cruel, when she couldn't possibly get there before the situation resolved one way or the other, even if the SGC had agreed to send her.

"Weren't you telling us how Jeannie has known you all her life, and how that proved you were human?" he asked.

"Yes, well, she was only about three years old when I showed up, so obviously she wouldn't know the difference."

Oh, yes, this was the Rodney John knew. Because John knew without a question that Rodney was lying now. Rodney had always been a terrible liar, and that fit. It really didn't make sense that Rodney would have known he was an alien and been able to lie perfectly about that one thing. Unless all the obviously bad attempts at lying were cover, but John didn't buy that McKay could ever have been that successfully manipulative.

He almost pushed. It was possible a kid that age could notice and remember suddenly getting a brother, and if anyone could it would be Jeannie. But Rodney was looking at him now, silently pleading, and John hesitated.

It was weird that Jeannie wouldn't know. Maybe she didn't, maybe she did — hell, maybe she was an alien too — but the creepy guy had said he wanted to find others. There was no telling if they were still being monitored, but it was safer to assume they were and stick to topics they had good reason to think weren't news to him. John really didn't like the possibility of him going after Jeannie. And she had a little girl, so … just no.

"That's pretty cold, McKay," he said instead. "Horning in on a kid's family like that."

"Desperate times," Rodney said dismissively, but he looked so damn grateful, John couldn't regret going along.

"You should've said you were looking for the Greatsingers," Ronon said, assisting the diversion by changing the subject completely. Apparently conversational segues were for the weak.

Rodney squinted at Ronon dubiously. "You're saying you've heard of … well, of this?" he asked, gesturing down at himself. When Ronon nodded, he added sourly, "'And you couldn't say something?"

Ronon rolled his eyes. "It's not like the art from that period was representational. And you kept using that dumb other name."

"… Art," John repeated.

"Yeah, Haktori, Mellin, that group. Didn't see it before, but I get it now."

"Wait," Rodney said. "Wait. There's art of — of the People? Here? In Pegasus?" His expression was a mixture of hope and fear.

"Sure. 'Cause they're in Gifts of the Dreaming. Figure that must be them, anyway."

"I am … unfamiliar with this work," Teyla said slowly.

Ronon made a long-suffering face. "One of the fifth-year required texts. 'In the time of Creation / in the dreaming before / the First Ones, the Designers / sought perfection in their work. / They sought to inspire / they sought to sustain / they called far and wide / to provide for their children / their children to be.' There's a bunch of stuff about color and dance and then, 'They wished for songs / to lift the spirit / to balm the soul / to partner the dance / so called they then to the Greatsingers. / And the Singers rejoiced / to serve such a cause / and lifted their voices, their voices majestic. / And to their songs the halls rang / and sang, and rang / and carried forth the Music / for the people to come.'" He narrowed his eyes at John. "What?"

"Nothing," John said. "Absolutely nothing." He wasn't sure he'd heard Ronon say that many words at once in an entire month before, and now he was reciting — "Does that rhyme in Satedan?"

"Septisyllabic weave, yeah. Why?"

Poetry. Ronon and poetry. John's brain considered breaking.

"That doesn't scan for crap in English," Rodney informed Ronon. Because he was such a poetry buff. What the hell had just happened to John's team? "But … I hear the Satedan, too — just sound, not meaning — and the flow is … really interesting."

"That work is primarily about the Ancestors?" Teyla asked Ronon. She and Rodney were quite possibly saving John from the imminent prospect of broken bones, because he couldn't stop staring at Ronon.

"Yeah. It's probably about a state dinner before Atlantis left Earth or something like that, though." He looked over at Rodney and added, "Sorry."

"That's for the best," Rodney said with a glance at the darkness beyond the lights, but he was obviously disappointed.

"So what's the real story with that guy?" John asked him.

"You think there's a good explanation for genocidal maniacs?" Rodney asked in return, irritable. "If there is, I don't have it. They're called — well, they probably have some grandiose name for themselves, but we knew them as the Discord. And I never did know what their problem was. All the tallkind — hm, adults — ever told us was to stay the hell away from them. The same way Madison's supposed to run away if a skeevy guy in a van offers her candy."

"How old were you?" Teyla asked gently.

"That's … unclear," Rodney said. "When I first changed into human form —" his expression twisted at that, as if the memory wasn't a good one — "I ended up about twelve, in Earth years, but that was based on size. Before that … specific number of years didn't really matter the same way, but I think I was probably about seventeen of those years. The conversion, though …." He shrugged.

"What, you can't work it out?" John asked.

"Based on what, exactly?"

"Oh, I don't know. Days? Hours?"

"An hour is specifically relative to an Earth day, if you hadn't noticed. The local year was 402.3 local days. Does that tell you anything?"

"Depends. How long was a day?"

Rodney gave him a disgusted look. "Sixteen tkka. You're not getting it. I never had a way to compare them. Minutes are based on hours, and seconds are based on minutes. There's no conversion formula, no table in the Pocket Ref. Earth days seemed interminable at first, but I have no idea if they really were longer."

"Seconds aren't based on Earth days anymore, though, are they? Isn't there a more scientific definition now?"

Rodney glared. "Yes. Yes, there is, because eventually people noticed that planetary days aren't a particularly precise measurement system. Forgive me for never bothering to measure just how many hundreds of trillions of vibrations of a cesium atom fit within one day on —" His voice broke there, and he finished in a mumble, "on my home planet."

Great, now Teyla looked like she wanted to kill John. Maybe, if he was really lucky for a change, she and Ronon would fight over who got to kill him first and take each other out. "Okay, okay. Never mind. You're getting better with your voice." Rodney sounded almost entirely like himself now. And when had John's life started needing sentences like that?

Rodney nodded. "I'm getting used to it again, the control. The practice helps. Except I really need some water."

John winced. "Yeah, sorry about that, buddy."

"What — what is your world called?" Teyla asked.

Rodney was quiet for a second and then made a soft sound, mostly a hum. It came across as simply meaning home, but John would have gotten that just from the way the sound itself made him feel. It was like getting back to the house with time for hot chocolate after a long ride with his mother, or — huh — like getting back to Atlantis after a lengthy mission.

"I'm not even going to try to come up with a human term for that," Rodney added.

"Home," Ronon rumbled, looking a little misty. Teyla just nodded agreement, her small smile warm but watery. So at least John wasn't the only one affected.

"I'm sure no one could ever mistake that for any other planet," Rodney started, the attempt at sarcasm transparent, but a rattling hiss wrenched his alarmed attention over towards the darkness. With a lightning-brief glance at the team, he swallowed heavily and then reluctantly pushed himself up to stand, his back never losing contact with the wall.

"No need to dither between is and was," the voice purred as the creepy guy oozed into view. "I can assure you that wretched planet is long dead."

Rodney's face had always been expressive, and that was no different now. He was terrified, and he was wearing his traditional laughably bad attempt at a brave face, and even so his raw hurt at the words showed clearly through all the other elements.

"Why don't you go to hell?" John snapped at the creepy guy.

He honestly didn't expect to get attention where neither Ronon nor Teyla had been able to, but the complete lack of reaction still burned. The guy just studied Rodney for a few seconds and then made an odd shimmying move.

And Rodney went strangely still. He was still trembling, still blinking his fear-widened eyes, still breathing so rapidly he was probably halfway to hyperventilation, but he didn't move anything else as the guy suddenly pulled the middle section of the front wall open and entered his cell.

Ronon slapped a hand against the dividing wall. "You stay away from him."

The guy advanced on Rodney, though it was hard to see exactly how he moved. His lower portion sort of undulated, but the dark and writhing … skin? … made it nearly impossible to make out details. The guy oozed forward, in no particular hurry.

Rodney's eyes tracked him, but he didn't move away, though he looked as though he desperately wanted to.

"Finding your filthy voice at last? Time for the next step, then." The figure reached out a — well, John was just going to think of it as an arm — and lifted Rodney's chin slightly, not even twitching when Ronon slammed both hands against the wall. Rodney flinched slightly at the contact but didn't pull away, even though he looked ready to throw up.

Getting this close a look at the writhing, churning skin wasn't doing John's stomach any greater favors.

The other call-it-an-arm reached over and fastened some sort of collar around Rodney's neck. Rodney's breathing changed right away, turning strained and half-choked. "There. Now, see if you can get that off."

The figure turned slightly away from Rodney, and Rodney immediately reached up — only to snatch his strange hand away even faster, shaking it as if he'd just gotten shocked. He froze again as the dark figure turned back to him.

"No," the guy said, grabbing Rodney's hand. "I said try to get it off." He pressed Rodney's hand firmly against the collar, and Rodney began choking in earnest.

John and Ronon did their damndest to break them up, whether by voice or by knocking the wall down. Teyla left them briefly to test the front wall of their cell but quickly rejoined them. The complete pointlessness of their efforts just pissed John off more. And all the while Rodney's face grew steadily more red and then purple as he gagged — but though he kept clenching his left hand, he never once raised that hand, even to try to push the guy away.

It wasn't until Rodney's eyes started to roll up that the guy let Rodney's hand drop. Rodney coughed and gasped, glaring death , but other than that, he still didn't try to move.

"That's more like it," the guy cooed. "Do you feel it? Do you feel your songs catching, building up, choking you? I'm told one of yours died just that way, all those songs of grief and loss and desperation just building up and building up to strangle and suffocate. So poetic, don't you think? Perhaps this is how I will kill you at last. But then, that has been done, and I do hate to waste this opportunity I've awaited so very long in imitation. We shall see.

"But first, I want to hear how pathetic your cries for the rest of your kind will be."

Something like determination entered Rodney's expression.

That just made the guy chuckle. "You think you won't? Some do think that. But you will. You won't be able to stop yourself. It's written on your bones. And if you cry prettily enough, I may even allow you a drink of water, so be sure to keep that in mind." He chuckled more as he backed his way out of the cell, closed the open section of wall, and moved back out of sight.

The moment he blended into the darkness beyond the lights, Rodney slumped back down to the floor, cradling his right hand in his left and coughing wretchedly.

"Dammit, McKay!" Ronon exploded.

Rodney squinted up at him with a now what? expression.

"You run," Ronon told him, frustration making him sound angry. "The door was open. Why didn't you run?"

But Rodney was already shaking his head. "Couldn't," he rasped. After a few more shallow coughs, he forced out, "When it … looks at me … can't move." He glared at Ronon and added, "Tried." His voice was thin and reedy, barely more than a whisper.

"You okay?" John asked, fighting not to sound pissed off himself. It wasn't Rodney's fault they were all useless. "Relatively speaking," he amended quickly.

"Cutting off most … of my voice," Rodney managed, gesturing briefly at the collar with his left hand, though he carefully stopped well short of touching it. He summoned a sour smile as he went back to massaging his right hand gingerly. "Don't have to … worry about … too big now." The smile fell apart and he ducked his head to avoid their eyes.

{}
On the upside, the creepy guy left them all alone for a long time after that.

On the downside, there was absolutely nothing for any of them to do but stare at each other, listen to Rodney's constant shallow coughing, and contemplate their complete lack of options.

After a long while, Rodney carefully stood again and made his slow, unsteady way over to the front wall, keeping one hand on the side wall for balance. The front wall didn't budge, and after a few halfhearted pushes, Rodney made his halting way back, sparing Ronon a spiteful glance.

"What's wrong?" John asked. When Rodney answered with a glare, he expanded, "I mean, why are you walking funny?"

"Haven't walked … these feet … hips … mass distri … bution … decades," he said as he clumsily lowered himself back down in the corner. Even half-choked by his own words, McKay was long-winded.

"And you're shaking."

"Just starving … to death."

"It hasn't been that long," John said, trying to ignore his own growing hunger.

"For you. My body … just changed … still changing. Takes energy. And different … metabolism." He closed his eyes wearily, but his sporadic coughs made it clear he wasn't actually sleeping.

John had no idea how much of that was accurate and how much was Rodney's usual complaints of hypoglycemia, but he couldn't do anything about it either way, and he obviously wasn't much good at cheering the guy up at the moment. He went back to evening out his bootlaces.

They spent what felt like the next couple of hours taking turns pacing and brooding, but then they gave in and split the energy bar. John carefully broke it into quarters, on the theory that they would find a way to get a piece to McKay somehow, eventually. They each took a mouthful of water as well. They didn't want to waste their sparse supplies, especially in full view of a guy who didn't even have that much, but they did need to keep their strength up just in case they got any kind of chance.

John had hoped that McKay was at least dozing, but just as he was swallowing his meager portion, he glanced over to see Rodney watching them. He looked so pathetically desperate that John didn't know if he should explain the situation or just go easy and apologize, but Rodney simply nodded slightly and closed his eyes again.

{}
Ronon decided to nap after that, which at least killed some time for him. John half-listened to a long-winded story about some Athosian festival or another, partly for something to do and partly because Teyla's voice drowned out Rodney's coughing a little. In the near-absence of any other stimulation, that sporadic but frequent sound was turning into a morbid version of the more classic dripping-water torment.

Paying at least partial attention to Teyla helped John keep his mouth shut. No matter how annoying the sound was, it wasn't like he could exactly say, "Hey, McKay, I know you're slowly strangling over there, but keep it down, would you?"

The temptation was awfully strong anyway, though. John would feel even worse, but Teyla was starting to twitch slightly at each cough, too. Which was probably why she was going on and on about what sounded like the most boring festival ever. And John had been to more than one Pegasus harvest festival.

She sighed as she finally finished her story. "John, let me see your wrist."

John only realized then that he was scratching his wrist and that it still itched annoyingly despite the thorough scratching. He held it out. A reddish splotch wrapped around the wrist and angled across the back of that hand, though John wasn't sure how much of that was just irritation from the scratching itself.

"Do you know how long it's been bothering you?" Teyla asked, looking closely but not touching.

"Not really."

"I've only noticed you scratching it since we've been in here," Teyla noted. She checked his other wrist, which wasn't nearly as bad, just a little pinkness around the edges of his wristband. "Perhaps it is a contact rash from the dark man's touch, when he brought us here."

John could sort of see that. If he had been grabbed by the arms and dragged, the crawling skin could easily have been against his own. Which wasn't really a pleasant thought. "What about you?"

"I am unaffected. Perhaps you are simply more sensitive."

John glared at her for that. He wasn't the team member who constantly bitched about allergies. Not that this was the right time to give Rodney a hard time over that sort of thing, even second-hand.

And he didn't see any rashes on what he could see of Ronon's arms, so it probably was a more individual reaction. Wonderful. And now that he knew his wrists itched, he couldn't stop noticing. He started examining every inch of the walls again, just for something to do.

After what felt like several hours but probably couldn't have been more than one or two, Ronon got up again. He walked around the cramped cell a couple of times to stretch his muscles out and then bumped John's shoulder. "Take a nap."

"Excuse me?"

"Take a nap. We'll get a chance. Need to be ready when it comes. We should take turns."

"So Teyla can go next. I'm not sleepy."

"I can meditate," Teyla countered. "You … would get less benefit from trying."

John felt a childish desire to protest further, but they were right. Teyla could get some amount of relaxation while remaining relatively alert, and while he wasn't sleepy, he had learned the benefits of sleeping when he could over the course of his career.

Besides, it couldn't be all that much more boring.

He stretched out along the back wall, one arm over his eyes to block some of the ever-present light. After a while, he did manage to drop off.

The negotiations were ultimately pointless. Teyla did nap next, and Ronon, and John again. The guy came back once to push a couple more energy bars into their cell, taunting Rodney as a matter of course, but they were otherwise left alone for long enough that John ended up napping another three times.

{}
John woke to Ronon kicking his foot some immeasurable time later. "He's coming back."

John got up, slightly muzzy with poor sleep but edgy with anticipation. He wanted something to happen, but he didn't want something to happen to Rodney while they all stood helplessly by.

Rodney looked like hell. John wanted to believe the grayish pallor was just a matter of a slowly developing species coloration, but he was pretty sure it wasn't that easy. Rodney was still sitting in the near corner, sprawled now without the energy to sit upright or huddle himself small. Rodney's eyes were open but dull, watching the darkness beyond the lights fixedly but almost lifelessly.

John couldn't tell whether Rodney or Ronon had first detected the creepy guy approaching, but they weren't wrong. He slipped into view, his attention once more intently on Rodney. "Oh, yes, very nice," he purred. His voice climbed in pitch, mockingly shrill. "'Help me, help me, I'm lost and hurt and all alone, won't someone please help me?' Yes, that works very nicely."

John didn't care if he needed calamine-lotion gloves for a week. The second he got a chance, he was slugging the guy.

That was for later, though. Right now, the guy made that little shimmying motion again and then opened the front wall. He moved right towards Rodney, who watched his approach with clear dread but again didn't try to move away. He had something long and pale and slightly shiny in what served as his hand, but John couldn't make out exactly what it was.

"I might even be moved to prolong your wretched life briefly, if you beg. Are you thirsty, filthy singer?"

"Please," Rodney whispered hoarsely. "Please."

"I could end your life this moment. I could toy with you for years. The choice is entirely mine. Whatever amuses me, you will do because I tell you to. Because your only goal is to please me enough that I choose to keep you alive. Your life, your death, mine."

"Yes. Please." John had never imagined Rodney could ever sound that defeated.

The guy stood silently over Rodney. "That will do," he decided finally. "For now." He was holding the pale object by the bottom end, and he bent forward to rest the top end against Rodney's mouth before upending it. Rodney gulped desperately at the object, which was apparently a tube of water.

No. Not a tube. A bone.

A bone, probably arm or leg to guess from the size and shape, hollowed and polished and possibly coated to make it water-tight. A bone, John was willing to bet, from a long-dead Furling.

Rodney kept gulping and sucking long after any water had to have been used up.

"So pathetic," the guy murmured fondly as he pulled the bone away and straightened. "And that will be the last you taste for a long while. You'd better hope one of your miserable kind responds to your calls." He retreated from the cell then, once more closing the front wall and moving out of sight.

John wanted to think he had misunderstood something here, but he was pretty sure he hadn't. "You're helping him?" he demanded, disbelieving. "You're trying to call others here?"

Rodney just turned his head away slightly and closed his eyes.

{}
Anger didn't get through to Rodney. Neither did a request for any kind of explanation, and neither did reassurance that they would escape so there was no need for drastic measures.

John stalled, trying to figure another tactic, but Teyla spoke his name very firmly.

She had decided this was the perfect time to meditate, and she had chosen to sit as close to Rodney as possible while doing so, facing him through the clear wall. She turned her head to glare at John. "You are not helping. Be elsewhere."

There wasn't exactly an elsewhere to be, but John backed off, moving to the other side of the cell. He spent a few minutes not scratching his wrists. Then Ronon bullied him into demonstrating the running stretches he usually mocked every single morning.

It had probably been twenty or thirty minutes when Teyla spoke again, her eyes still closed. "Rodney. You must not call."

Rodney roused enough to glare at her, but after a few seconds he relaxed, realizing there was only sympathy in her tone. "It's not … a choice," he said, alarmingly weak. "Automatic. Distress signal. Attempt to … connect. We're not … wired to be … alone."

Teyla opened her eyes then. "You are not alone."

Rodney just shook his head slightly. "Not the same." His hand twitched with what would probably have been an expansive gesture under other circumstances. "Mentally … alone."

"You are calling to others in a manner that we cannot hear but that the dark man can," Teyla said. "You can make sounds we cannot hear, but you have done so with your mouth, and you have not been using your mouth for this calling that I could see. I, meanwhile, can touch the minds of Wraith across larger distances than I can speak without machines. You have observed that you do not have a scientific model to explain this type of communication, and you have indicated that this lack of explanation is unusual. Can your method of farspeaking be so very different? Do we now have two incompatible and unexplained forms of silent communication?"

Oh, she was good. Rodney obviously wanted to tell her she was wrong, and he opened his mouth to do just that, but he hesitated. He might be annoyed at or critical of her reasoning, but he hated setting himself up to be proven wrong, and she knew just which buttons to press.

"Didn't say … incompatible," he muttered finally. "I could … pick up … impressions. Concepts. But that's not … connection."

"Have you actually tried to connect with — with a human?" Teyla pressed. "Did you explain so that he or she could try as well?" As uncertainty flickered across his face, Teyla continued, "Please, just try to hear me. Or try to send something for me to hear."

Rodney gave in and they both closed their eyes.

For a few long minutes they both just sat there. Then Rodney inhaled sharply, fighting not to cough, and Teyla's expression crumpled for just a moment before she made it carefully neutral again.

"Not enough," Rodney whispered, looking near tears.

"I know," Teyla murmured. "But focus on what there is. Perhaps practice will help."

They both fell silent again. After another minute or two, Rodney pressed a hand against the wall, as if he was trying to reach Teyla through it. John wasn't sure whether the gesture was a conscious one.

Ronon shrugged and started yet another round of what he called "ring primacy" and John called "Satedan rock-paper-scissors". It was tricky, and John had a tendency to screw up the constellation symbol finger-shapes, but it passed the time and could be played silently.

{}
Teyla and Rodney had been silently communing for about another half hour, as far as John could figure, when the creepy guy came back. Rodney flinched badly and just watched the guy hopelessly, but he kept his hand pressed to the wall.

"No stamina at all," the guy said, apparently disgusted. He did the little shimmy motion once more and entered Rodney's cell. "No matter. Your cries carried poorly anyway. We will try something new. I will wire you into the communications array and we will move into orbit. Then you can call across this entire quadrant of this galaxy." He reached down and hauled Rodney to his feet easily, even though he wasn't that much taller or bulkier than Rodney.

Ronon started threatening the guy again as Rodney, once more, didn't resist. His legs did eventually take his own weight, apparently automatically, but John didn't like how unsteady Rodney obviously was.

John expected the guy to haul Rodney off with no further ado, but the guy paused briefly, turning Rodney to face the rest of the team. Rodney kept his gaze lowered, not meeting their eyes. "If you are very, very good and bring me another of your kind, I will even let you sing. Perhaps a forgetting, so we can release these monkeys you're so fond of. Or perhaps I will simply have you sing a death for the noisy one, hmm? But first things first." He kept one sort-of-hand wrapped firmly around Rodney's arm and dragged him away.

Ronon slammed his hands against the wall one more time and turned back. "Hey." He crossed the cell swiftly and knelt beside Teyla. "You okay?"

She had her face in her hands and took several long, unsteady breaths before speaking. "Yes. I am … I am fine."

Ronon just reached over and pulled her into a hug. John shuffled his feet, wishing he had thought to go to Teyla and glad Ronon had gotten there first.

Teyla hid her face against Ronon's shoulder for a minute before drawing back. "I am fine," she said again, but this time it sounded more likely. "It was just very … intense."

"So you were able to talk to him?" John asked. "You know, telepathically or whatever?"

"Not exactly, but I was able to sense him faintly, and he me. I was able to sense some of his stronger emotions. That was …." She took another long breath. "He has much to adjust to. And he is quite sure he is to die."

And while John was determined not to let that happen, they weren't exactly in a position to do anything about it. "And then, what, that guy heard you?"

"No," she said slowly. "No, I do not believe so. I think I was able to distract Rodney from calling so strongly, and the dark man noticed that change but did not realize my involvement." She looked out into the darkness. "I did not mean —"

"Not your fault," John said firmly.

Ronon rubbed Teyla's back a few times but then looked up sharply, rising to his feet as he studied the darkness. John started to ask what was up, but Ronon cut him off with a swift gesture before he could even get a word out.

Then John heard it too, a soft repeated sound that seemed to be drawing closer quickly.

It wasn't until Rodney fell against the front wall of their cell that he realized what it was. "Hurry," Rodney rasped as he pulled at an all-but-invisible handle on the outside of their wall, opening the panel. "Hurry. Hurry."

John was out first only by virtue of being closest to the front, Ronon and Teyla hard on his heels. John blinked as he finally stepped past the damned lights and into a more evenly lighted space facing the cells. The opposite wall was made of the same gray stone as the installation they'd first examined, rather than the sand-yellow stone of the cells, and it had row upon row of mysterious controls, some with blinking lights.

Their gear sat in a heap against that wall.

Ronon snatched up his blaster with one hand and kept an eye off to the left as he took up one of the canteens. He went over to Rodney, who had staggered back to the control-panel wall and had just started sliding down it. He held the canteen out to Rodney and let him get a few mouthfuls but then pulled it away, easily breaking Rodney's hold. "Keep that down first," he instructed gruffly, still watching down the hallway.

Teyla had her P-90 and was watching the other direction as she carefully collected her gear with her free hand. John geared up as fast as he could so he could relieve one of them. "Grab your stuff, McKay."

"Need food," Rodney gasped, still looking fearfully in the same direction Ronon was guarding.

John dug out one of the quarter-bars they'd saved and passed it over. Rodney broke his vigil just long enough to give him a disgusted look, so John said, "Like Ronon said. Keep that down first." Rodney rolled his eyes but ate the fragment quickly.

John finished gathering his gear and swapped places with Teyla, but she went to Rodney first. She reached to his neck, but he jerked away.

"It did not hurt you when he touched it," Teyla told him, "only when he made you do so. That may have closed a circuit. I will try not to hurt you."

After a second Rodney nodded and let her touch the collar carefully. When that didn't start choking him, she tried to find how to unhook it.

"Here ." Ronon stepped in, still aiming his blaster down the corridor, and with his other hand slipped a single-bladed knife up under the collar at the back of Rodney's neck. He twisted sharply and the collar fell away.

Rodney coughed deeply for a few seconds. "Are you insane?" he demanded. "You could have —"

"Didn't hurt you. It's off. Now gear up."

Rodney scowled down at the collar, but before he could kick at it, Teyla snatched it up and shoved it in a pocket. "If we have it, he does not," she said shortly, gathering the last of her equipment. But rather than swapping with Ronon, she first helped Rodney with his stuff.

He didn't take up his sidearm or P-90, though. "One of you guys should take mine," he said as Teyla finally swapped with Ronon. "I can't fire with these hands. Not unless you want me to keep my finger on the trigger."

"Yeah, no," John said. "But carry them yourself. If one of us runs out of ammo or loses ours, we'll take yours then."

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but then he closed it again, taking up the two weapons with an indecipherable look on his face.

"How'd you get out?" Ronon asked as he grabbed the last of his equipment.

"I waited for it to turn away," Rodney said. "Then I hit it with a chair."

Ronon clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. "What, he didn't think you'd fight back?"

"No, actually. Our brains don't … work that way."

"But yours did?" John asked, because that was a pretty big limitation they needed to know about.

"I've been human," Rodney said tersely, rather than proclaiming his natural brilliance as John had half-expected. "I still am, a little. That … changes things."

"You can explain that more later," John said. For now, he would just count Rodney out when it came to any fighting. "Let's get out of here. You leaving your boots?"

"They won't fit now," Rodney said, irritated. "It just figures. Do you have any idea how long it took me to break these in?"

Rodney had been bitching about his boots not one day ago, but John was pretty sure that wasn't what he really wanted to complain about now.

"You want mine?" Ronon asked. "I can go barefoot. Might help you walk better."

Rodney made a face. "I don't think they're long enough. And I'd probably just trip over them. It's hard enough walking like this as it is."

John's training left him reluctant to abandon useful equipment when traveling light wasn't a necessity, and Rodney would want the boots back when he found a way to change back to human. John went over and used the bootlaces to tie Rodney's boots through the bottom of one of the straps. "There. Now you can kick yourself in the ass while we're too busy to take care of it. Come on."

Poking Rodney was always entertaining, and this time it had the bonus advantage of diverting him from brooding. "What? What the hell did I do?" Rodney demanded, moving unsteadily with Teyla's assistance as they headed away from the direction Ronon had guarded. A door at the end swung open with John's cautious push to reveal hallways in three directions.

"We'll think of something," John said. "Which way?"

"How would I know?" Rodney demanded. "Just not —"

John glanced back to see why Rodney had stopped speaking and saw he was almost frozen, looking back along the cell-block corridor. Teyla was pulling at his arm, to no effect.

"Move, McKay!" Ronon demanded, firing his blaster back along that corridor. When that got no reaction, he body-checked Rodney through the doorway.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, Rodney was moving again, stumbling as he tried to keep his balance. Teyla just managed to keep him on his feet as Ronon crowded through behind them. "Move. He's coming." As John randomly led them into the corridor straight ahead, he heard Ronon saying sharply, "You can't freeze up like that."

"It's not just me being a coward," Rodney snapped. "I couldn't move. It's physiological, not psychological."

John took the next turn, a right, just to get them out of line of sight before the guy got to the doorway. "Look, if you've got any suggestions at all for a direction, now's the time."

"No idea," Rodney said. "I think this is a ship, and I think we're still on the ground near the installation. That's all I have."

There was a door on the left, so John waved the others to wait and quickly checked it out. A small room stood on the other side. The far wall was lined with drawers, and about twenty feet further on, a second door led back to the hallway. Not great, but out of the way and defensible while they took a few minutes to get their bearings, so John waved the others in.

Rodney had taken advantage of the slight delay to dig a chocolate bar out of his tac vest and was wolfing it down. "Dammit, McKay," John said, "we don't have time for you to throw that back up."

"Right now, I'd be more worried about me passing out from low blood sugar," Rodney said around a mouthful.

He looked a little too serious about that for John to feel quite right teasing him about fainting from manly hunger. "If anyone has suggestions for finding a way out of here, speak up," he said instead.

"Keep turning one way," Ronon suggested.

"Common maze algorithm," Rodney agreed. "Or …." He crossed to the halfway point of the hall-side wall, where another mysterious panel was set into the wall. "Maybe …." He studied the panel for several seconds and then started poking at it experimentally.

One of the pokes made it start hissing and squealing like an old-school modem. Rodney hastily poked a few more times until the noise dropped sharply, though it kept burbling away.

John glanced at Ronon and Teyla to make sure they had the doors covered and went up to Rodney. "Do you really want to bring that guy running, McKay? We don't have time for you to play around anyway."

"I think you'll find we do have time for a map," Rodney said, the sharpness of his tone muted by distraction.

"What map? Where?"

Rodney waved at him. "Quiet. It's been decades since I've used this system." He was frowning in concentration, his eyes half-closed as he listened to the soft cacophony from the panel.

John would have asked what that meant, but Rodney was clearly trying to process other information and either wouldn't hear him or, more likely, would just ignore him. He had to wait impatiently until Rodney reached over to press at one of five outlined squares on the wall. "What system? What is that?"

Rodney stopped short of pressing the square. "It's a console. I know you've seen a computer before."

"You mean the things with keyboards, or keypads? And displays?"

"That's your method, yes. You happen to use light patterns to convey information. This is a different implementation, using sound, but the same basic concept."

"So we just happened to find technology of your people on their enemy's ship?"

"What? No. This isn't — this is a bastardized version. Our computers were more — they were better than this. But I can make this work. Now be quiet for a minute." He turned back to the panel, pressed the square, and made similar machine noises at the panel for several seconds before releasing the square.

The panel blatted, a couple of the lights flicking an amber dismissal.

Rodney glanced over at John, cleared his throat, and tried again. It took him another two tries before he managed to get the panel to respond in a more useful fashion.

He sighed deeply after listening closely to the output. "Well. The good news is, we are on the ground and there are two doors to get out of this ship. The bad news is, one of those doors is a cargo door, locked, with the lock controlled from the, well, control room. The other door is an airlock, and guess where that is."

John made a face. "The control room."

"Exactly. Which explains why that —" the noise Rodney made sounded like a cross between a belch and an unfortunate intestinal event and just had to be an expletive "— hasn't followed us here. It can just wait us out."

"Remind me to start packing C4 on these innocent scientific missions. Okay. I'm happy to take the battle to him, but we've got a couple of problems. The first is how he got the drop on us in the first place. What do we do about that?"

"Too quick to be a gas," Ronon said. "Some kind of stunner?"

"Maybe," John said. "It took us all out at the same time, right? Was anyone else up long enough to see others go down?" At the chorus of head-shakes, he continued, "So was it something built into that room, or is it something we have to worry about running into again?"

"Probably both," Rodney muttered sourly.

"But at least it doesn't seem to be something he can use on us here," John pointed out. "We'll still have to find a way to deal with it, though. And the other problem is you, McKay."

"Excuse me?"

"He can make you freeze up. That's a problem."

"I told you, that's —"

"Physiological, yeah, you said. It's not just any time he looks at you, though. It's only when he does that shimmying thing and faces you, right?" Rodney looked surprised at that news, which didn't bode well, but John pressed on anyway. "You know what the mechanism is for that? Some sort of psychic —"

A sudden cacophony cut him off, the air filling with a riot of noises that somehow held threads of melody. Suddenly John was in Afghanistan, Holland dead at his side. And Mitch and Dex. And Sumner and Ford and his mom.

"This is how they died," the sinister voice purred through the chaos.

It wasn't just people. It was his career between Afghanistan and O'Neill. It was everything that vanished when Nancy's I'm late became I guess I was just a few days late this month. It was the day the divorce became final. It was his last chance for his father's respect. It was Atlantis as Helia ushered the expedition through the gate back to Earth.

"The death of a planet," the voice continued from hidden speakers, only barely louder than the dissonant chorus of laments. John shook himself, fighting back tears. The overwhelming feeling — loss, grief, devastation — didn't diminish, but he could see the room again — Ronon braced against the wall, head down; Rodney crumpled to the floor, sobbing; Teyla standing with arms wrapped tightly around herself as tears fell. "All that begging and pleading and grief. Isn't it beautiful?"

Ronon straightened suddenly and marched over to Rodney, dropping down to kneel in front of the stricken man. "McKay." He took Rodney by the shoulders and shook him sharply. "McKay. Fight now. Mourn later."

Rodney finally managed to raise his head. Ronon nodded once to him, encouragingly, heedless of the tears on his own face. Rodney drew a shaking breath and nodded back, his mouth firming in determination.

Ronon helped him stand. Leaning against the wall for support, Rodney glanced around the room for a few seconds and then spoke, raising his still-hitching voice over the din. "Cover your ears. I mean completely." Once they had done so, he covered his own ears and opened his mouth. His face contorted oddly for a few seconds, and John felt an strange vibration that rattled his bones and made his eardrums ache despite the protection of his hands.

The chaotic noise abruptly seemed to cease, but John waited for Rodney to drop his hands before dropping his own. "What was that?" he asked, clearing his throat softly to try to clear some of the roughness.

"Burst the speaker," Rodney said, summoning a small smirk. "Kid's trick, really," he added with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. He still looked pretty brittle, but he swiped a sleeve across his face and squared his shoulders, ready for action.

"Handy," John noted. Even if he suspected kid's trick meant something closer to screw-up I got in trouble for. It was good to know they had other weapons. "Anyway, you were going to tell me how that freezing-you-up trick works."

Rodney's smirk fell away. "I don't know. Not exactly. It's just — when I see that …." He trailed off and then made a strange motion with his hand, but it wasn't until he gave his hand a disgusted look that John realized Rodney had meant to snap his fingers but hadn't accounted for their changed shape. Rodney shook his head and looked back up at John. "Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal."

John needed a second to place the reference. "What, seriously?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Not literally, of course, but Ronon has offered persuasive evidence that line-of-sight is relevant. And I think you're right, I have to see whatever that motion is for the process to work. It can't hurt. Come on, a towel, a necktie, something."

"Sorry, left all my neckties in my other galaxy," John said as he dug out a bandage roll from his first aid supplies. Rodney put his hand out to take it, but John ignored that and dug into his pack again for a spare sock. Quick work with his knife cut away the closed end, and John threaded the gauze through the sock before moving around behind Rodney. "Just hold still."

He placed the sock across Rodney's eyes and then looped the gauze around Rodney's head a few times, carefully not flinching at contact with the altered ears or hair. He made sure the makeshift blindfold was tight enough to stay in place but loose enough to be adjusted as needed.

The moment he finished, Rodney pushed the sock up so he could see again. "Ingenious," he said drily. "Where did you get this, 101 Ways to Avoid Doing Laundry? Oh, don't worry, I'll put it back when we head out."

"Kind of defeat the point if you don't," John said, putting his knife away. "You sure about this, though? If you can't even see where you're going —"

"I'd rather be temporarily blind than involuntarily helpless," Rodney said firmly. "Besides … I think I'm starting to remember how to navigate at least partly by sound anyway."

"Speaking of sound," Teyla said slowly, "the dark man said you could sing a … a forgetting?"

Rodney looked uneasy. "Well. Yes. There are … sonic manipulations that can … interfere with biological processes. Short-term memory would be one of those. Long-term … possibly."

"And he said you could sing death?" Teyla continued, very carefully.

Okay, that would definitely be an asset — but Rodney just made a face. "Probably not. Look, that's not the sort of thing anyone would teach children!" he added defensively when he saw both John's and Ronon's reactions.

"So you can't fight, can't bring any new kind of weapon to the table, can't shoot, and can't even watch where you're going," John said.

Rodney scowled. "If I had been forced, could I have sung four pat'ta and caused one of you to close your eyes and never wake up? No. But if I had been made to try, I might have wound up causing an slow aneurism. Or a perpetual nerve misfire. Or leukemia. I was years from being taught how to cause major biological effects properly, but I know just enough to know it's really dangerous to experiment. That said, if it's absolutely necessary, of course I'll try, but news flash — I'm not supposed to be the fighter here. I'm supposed to handle the tech, remember? Like, say, getting you a map." He snatched John's canteen, clumsily worked off the cap, and drank deeply.

"Yeah, you are," John said. "And usually you can at least try to defend yourself in a pinch. If you can't, we need to know that so we can adjust and make sure you're covered."

Rodney wiped his mouth and thrust the canteen back at John. "Fine. Now you know."

"And about that map — apparently we need the control room. Did you get where that actually is?"

"Oh. Not — not specifically, but I know how to get there. I'm pretty sure that's where it took me before."

John dug out his mapping book and pen and handed them over. Rodney, usually so sure-fingered, fumbled them, but he twisted away when John reached to take them back.

"I can do it," he muttered. His first lines were shaky as a child's, but they did get a little steadier as he filled out the map. "Wrote like this for twelve Earth years, I can figure it out again." He sounded more annoyed at himself than anyone else.

While Rodney was doing that, John checked the life-signs detector, but it only showed the four of them. Of course it couldn't be that easy.

The map Rodney produced was basic, with no real surprises. They didn't have to go back to the room with the cells, unless they felt like going out of their way; if they made a right leaving the room they were in and just headed straight, they would be following the central corridor straight into what Rodney thought was the control room.

"Anyone have any better plans?" When no one spoke up, John continued, "What about ideas for making sure we don't get knocked out again?"

After a few seconds, Rodney spoke up. "Little as I like the idea of splitting up —"

"No," John said immediately. "At least, not really. But we'll send two into the control room and keep two just outside the door. That'll give at least half the team some protection." He knew that was the general concept Rodney meant anyway.

"I'll go in," Ronon said immediately, to no one's surprise.

"Fine," John said. "McKay, you stay back." That would've been standard anyway, but it was mandatory given Rodney's current limitations. The problem was whether he or Teyla would stay back with McKay. He looked over at Teyla, but she just raised an eyebrow back.

Being in charge sucked sometimes. "You want to go in?" he suggested to Teyla. Minding McKay might require hauling him around, and John was both taller and heavier than Teyla, which would give him the advantage in that task.

"I would be happy to," Teyla said, sounding a little more surprised than John thought was really fair. He wasn't that greedy with the more interesting assignments.

They headed out, Ronon and Teyla leading and John taking the six. The corridor ended at a door about a hundred feet ahead, while another door about twenty feet behind them led to what had to be the cargo hold. They crossed the corridor they'd taken from the cell room, checking both ways carefully before proceeding as John made sure no one tried to sneak up on them from behind.

After that corridor, double doors led to rooms on either side. Teyla quickly checked the one on the right, and then Ronon checked the one on the left. He edged one of the doors open very slightly, just as Teyla had done, but he paused with a puzzled frown and then jerked his head for everyone to follow him in.

Rodney sucked in a sharp breath as he entered the room. John followed and found the room looked a little like one of the duller labs in Atlantis, with a hunk of rock about as tall as Teyla taking up the middle of the floor.

"Escape pod," Rodney said softly, reaching out to skim the surface with just the tips of his fingers. John took a closer look, but the thing still looked like a big rock. Then Rodney crooned a soft sequence at it, and a section suddenly loosened jerkily. "Half-broken," Rodney muttered, pulling the section until it swiveled to the side and out of the way.

A few lights and buttons lined the interior, but the thing basically amounted to a hollowed-out rock. Any of them probably could have fit inside if they curled up, but the thickness of the shell would have made it a tight and uncomfortable fit.

"You were in one of these?" John asked. When Rodney nodded, he added, "For how long?" John was proud of his ability to fly just about anything, but he wasn't sure this counted.

"Several thousand years, apparently," Rodney said.

"When we found the first Elizabeth —" Teyla started, but Rodney waved her off.

"Better stasis," he said. "We didn't have city-sized spaceships, but we had better stasis technology. Most of the interior is a stasis chamber, actually."

"And next to no propulsion?" John guessed.

"Correct. They're only meant to be lifeboats, really. Not space-yachts." He looked around at the few scattered objects littering the room. His voice turned hollow. "And this is what's left."

"You can check it out later," John said hastily, to ward off any sort of maudlin contemplation. There would be plenty of time for them all to freak the fuck out later. "We need to keep moving." He nodded significantly to Ronon, who caught on and checked briefly out the door before leading them back into the corridor.

They cautiously crossed another intersecting corridor and passed another pair of rooms. Teyla made a disturbed face at whatever was in the room on her side, but she just waved them on. The room on Ronon's side was apparently boring.

After that was a T-junction, with one last crossing corridor and a door straight ahead.

Ronon took the hinge side and Teyla the other while Rodney pressed against the wall on Teyla's side and John on Ronon's. Ronon inched the door very slightly open — and eventually, between getting out of this and freaking out, John was going to ask Rodney whose idea swinging doors on a spaceship was — and tensed, nodding to Teyla.

Rodney paled, sliding the makeshift blindfold down over his eyes without prompting.

Teyla provided a silent countdown, and at her mark Ronon charged through, leveling his weapon as Teyla covered him. "Don't move."

"Must we do this?" The guy sounded bored. "I have told you, I have no quarrel with your kind."

"McKay's our kind now," Ronon growled.

"Oh, really?" The voice dropped chillingly. "So be it."

John didn't hear anything else right away, but Rodney frowned in concentration for a second before alarm animated his expression. "Close your eyes!" he exclaimed.

Rodney might predict doom practically as a hobby, but when he hit that particular note of urgency, John had long since learned to obey immediately and ask questions later. He slammed his eyes closed just before a blindingly bright flash through the propped-open door turned the blackness behind his eyelids pink. A wave of dizziness left him shaking his head sharply.

He heard Ronon's weapon discharge. He heard Teyla moving from her cover into the room. He heard an odd shrill sound from Rodney's direction, ending when a sharp pop came from the control room.

He heard nothing for several seconds.

"Sh-Sheppard?" Rodney whispered. "Are … are you —"

"I'm fine," John said, shaking his head once more and opening his eyes. He saw bright spots everywhere, but that would fade. He hoped. He edged the door open slightly. "Teyla? Ronon?"

"We are fine," Teyla said, her voice sharp. "You both may enter."

John grabbed Rodney's arm and tugged, leading him stumbling into the control room. The creepy guy was sprawled on the floor, twitching, a metallic box the size of a pack of cigarettes in one … well, limb. Ronon had his stunner firmly aimed at the guy, even though he was still trying to shake the spots from his own vision. Teyla had her P-90 trained on the guy as well.

"What was the flash?" John asked.

"A medical device," Rodney said, indignant. "Like … a vision-triggered anesthesia. But I turned it off. I think."

John eyed the smoke wisping up from the metallic box. "Yeah, I'd say it's off."

The box suddenly moved as the guy shifted. Ronon firmed his grip and started to pull the trigger.

"Ronon, don't!" Rodney said urgently.

Ronon hesitated. "He's a monster," he told Rodney. "You heard what he said."

"I know," Rodney said, his mouth twisting with revulsion. "But … I can't. Please."

The guy started to sit up. "Um, Ronon —" John started.

"Just the stunner, please," Rodney said. Which meant, what, he could hear the different settings now?

Ronon sighed with irritation but switched his weapon over and fired. The guy fell back, limp this time.

"You really want this guy out there?" Ronon asked Rodney, skeptical. "You want to have to keep watching your back?"

"N-no, obviously not. But, it's just … I mean, even as a human, I'm Canadian, we don't …."

"We can always kill him later," Teyla said firmly. "But if we kill him now, we cannot undo that if we find we need him alive."

"Yes, that," Rodney said, far too relieved for John's liking.

The Furlings — or whatever their real name was — had started up some pacifistic Utopia. Rodney hadn't wanted to pick up his sidearm or P-90. He had said their brains didn't "work that way" about even fighting back. "Is this going to be a problem?" John asked. "You going to start hesitating when we're up against the Wraith?"

"What? No," Rodney said automatically. "Well. I don't — I don't think so. Most of my work is defensive anyway. Or — or remote. Abstract. I'll — we'll work something out. I just can't — not like this."

"Fine," John said, tabling the discussion. Rodney had always been crap at close combat, and they had a hell of a lot of other matters to settle. It could all wait.

"We can put it back in stasis," Rodney offered. "They stole our technology, built bastardized versions. It even said it had stasis. And we can add locks to make sure it can't break out." He fingered his blindfold. "So … can I take this off now?"

{}
With the threat neutralized, standing amidst mysterious technology, Rodney flipped from serious liability to major asset. In five seconds, he identified a stasis chamber in a back corner of the control room, and within a minute he had mastered the controls.

Ronon was still blinking the spots from his vision, but even so, he was the best choice to cover, so Teyla and John grabbed the Discord guy to stuff him into the chamber. The crawling sensation against his palms made John have to fight down nausea, but he remembered far too late that he was apparently allergic as well. Once they had the door closed, Teyla took John back to the corridor to rinse his hands with water from her canteen as Ronon worked on a way to block the chamber closed.

The water didn't really help all that much, and John had to keep reminding himself not to rub his hands against his pants to scratch them. Looking around to distract himself, he noticed a station with numerous trailing wires in the other back corner, along with a strangely comfortable-looking toppled chair that seemed to be missing a leg. Several of the wires ended in what looked like needles. John wondered suddenly just how literal the guy had been when he talked about wiring Rodney into the communications array, and he decided he really didn't want to know right now.

The missing chair leg had been appropriated by Ronon, who was using it and a length of climbing line from Rodney's pack to make sure the stasis chamber wasn't going to be opened from the inside.

"What's with the loose chairs?" John asked idly, trying not to scratch. "And the swinging doors?"

"Artificial gravity," Rodney said absently, his attention on the stasis controls. "And electromagnets in the doorframes and door edges during flight, and the feet of the chairs as backup — keeps them in place mostly, doesn't require much effort to move, though disastrous for data storage systems vulnerable to magnetism. You didn't notice?"

John almost had to remind himself that Rodney was alien. It was surprisingly easy to forget when not looking directly at him — and even sometimes despite a clear view. He ignored the question. "You going to be able to get us out of here?"

"In a minute, in a minute. I can only do so many things at once. This is … there, done. I still need to disable the perception filter, and I've got my tablet synching with the computer system."

"I can help," Teyla suggested.

"Actually, you can't. I mean, normally you could, but this is almost completely sound-based. It would take weeks for you to learn the system." He ducked his head, embarrassed, when Teyla frowned, and offered a rare, "Sorry," as well.

"You can't get us out of here first?" John asked.

"Not unless you want to walk back to the gate. We need to be able to radio out and have someone in a jumper find us, remember?"

"Fine," John sighed. He was perfectly happy to walk clear of the field, but it would help to be able to find the site later. "Get on with it."

Rodney started to object but then, oddly, ducked his head again and started working without another word.

He worked quickly, at least. "The filter's disabled," he reported within a couple of minutes. "And … we have radio back."

John tested, but he didn't raise anyone over the radio. "So no one's around right now." They had protocols for sudden disappearances, but he didn't know what timeframe they were operating on. "How long have we been missing, anyway?"

Rodney checked his tablet. "About … seventy hours since we left Atlantis."

John ran the numbers in his head. "So since they don't have anyone on site right now, we should catch a check-in within three or four hours." Rodney didn't respond, still staring down at his tablet, so after a few more seconds John prompted, "McKay?"

"It's my fault," Rodney mumbled.

"What is?"

Rodney took a deep breath. "I wanted to know what brought it here. I noticed a graph — basically, a detector for my —" he waved a hand near his head "— communication. Activity since we've been here, but flat earlier. And when I search back, adjusting for our time scale …." He swallowed and handed the tablet over.

The display had a line graph with a sharp, solitary peak. Below that was a timeline. John squinted down at the date. "That's when you almost ascended."

"Did ascend," Rodney corrected, but his voice was hollow. "I bet it'll be exact down to the second if I calibrate it. And somehow I managed to send out a call so strong, this system picked it up. I led it here. At least this arm of this galaxy. And … and it set a trap, probably planted those artifacts, and it waited —"

"Better here than Earth," John pointed out.

Rodney jerked. "Oh, god. Jeannie. What do I tell her? Do I tell her? She wouldn't believe me, not at first, but — if the filter doesn't hold up, it'll kill her when she realizes what form she's trapped in. Or maybe I could change her back, too — but no, she has a kid, a family. She wouldn't —"

"One thing at a time," John said, raising his voice to override Rodney's panic. "How about you get us out of here first?"

Rodney closed his mouth, glancing away. He studied his hands for several seconds.

"I'll get you out," he said, strangely serious. "But then can you give me a head start?"

"For … what?"

"Before you tell anyone what I — about me. Look, this is just a cargo ship. No weapons. No kind of tactical threat. And no loss to you, since you wouldn't be able to work out how to operate it. But if you can give me even a few hours —"

Ronon scowled. "Like hell, McKay."

John put up his hands — which, crap, reminded him that they itched. "Hang on a second here. Somebody skipped a step. What the hell do you need a head start for?"

"I'm not going to be somebody's guinea pig," Rodney said, his tone a mixture of defiance over what sounded like genuine fear. "The only known example of my kind — I know what that means."

John needed a second to find his voice. "That's not going to happen."

Rodney crossed his arms. "You think I haven't worked for the SGC? Haven't seen what goes on there? A word in the right ear, and I'll just be an experiment tucked away in some cell in Area 51, or chained up in some secret Trust facility —"

"No," John growled, "you won't. You think Elizabeth would ever let that happen? Or Beckett? Or us?"

"You are always welcome to seek asylum among the Athosians, Dr. McKay," Teyla said. "We are not a major presence ourselves, but we would protect you, or hide you with trusted allies if necessary. And we are the linchpin of most of Atlantis's alliances — they would not risk that relationship. Nor, by extension, would Earth."

"Have to get past us anyway," Ronon agreed. "Not happening."

Rodney gave them all a sour smile. "Charming, I'm sure, but do you really think any of you have a chance if Earth decides it really wants something? And you," he added, narrowing his eyes at John, "wouldn't even have a choice."

"Just because I'm military doesn't mean I'm going to blindly obey a stupid order," John snapped. "Especially one that means hurting someone on my team!" He thought pretty much everyone in two galaxies knew that by now.

Rodney still looked unconvinced, and he opened his mouth to continue arguing, but he stuttered to a stop when Teyla put her hand on his arm. "We will keep you safe," she promised.

Rodney took a shaky breath and nodded. He fiddled with his tablet for a few seconds, and a door at the side of the control room hissed open.

They all made sure they had all their gear and then headed out. Rodney hesitated just before the door, but he did step into the airlock with them. Once the inner door was closed, a simple manual control released the outer door, and they emerged into the same room in the "ruins" that had started the whole thing.

Except more than half the room was missing. The panel with the mosaic — still creepy and disturbing — was there, and the console, and several columns with plaques of mysterious text, but the walls and ceiling connecting everything just weren't there. The mosaic had been affixed near the nose of what looked plainly like a spacecraft, though the surface was still that dark stone-like material they had always been able to see. If John squinted, he could almost see what changes the perception filter had made to disguise the ship.

John eyed the sky. "We've got, what, maybe another hour of daylight, looks like. We'll give Atlantis until morning to contact us."

"And then what, walk?" Rodney interrupted, irritation muffled as he used one of the columns to ease his way down to sit on the ground. He'd had a rough couple of days, and without the urgency of escape propelling him, he looked like he was fading fast.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," John said, digging an energy bar out of his vest and tossing it over. He remembered just how far and how fast they'd flown, and no, he didn't want to walk that whole way back either.

Rodney had to fight the wrapper. Once he finally had the bar open, he paused, studying his hands again.

"I hated human hands so much at first," he said. "They were just so wrong. And now — do you have any idea how annoying Atlantis is going to be? Everything's designed for ten short fingers — Ancient and Earth equipment. And typing — I'll have to completely relearn how to type."

John assigned first watch to Teyla with a glance and picked his own patch of floor to sit on. "You'll figure it out." This stone was cool to the touch, and that felt great against his palms for about ten seconds. Then he caught himself starting to use the rough surface to scratch his hands against. He might have to sit on them at this rate.

"So what do the signs say?" Ronon asked.

"Beats me," Rodney mumbled around a mouthful.

"If you still don't trust us —" John started.

"No, seriously, I have no idea. It's … nobody really uses script." Teyla raised her eyebrows at the tense but made no comment. Rodney continued, oblivious, "It's like — how many people speak Klingon? In real life, I mean. Or Esperanto. It's a novelty. A few people are experts at it, but most people wouldn't know where to start."

John suddenly had an image of some unknown race, thousands or millions of years in the future, trying to reconstruct human society from some geeky college kid's scribblings in a made-up language. No wonder no one had been able to figure out much of anything about these Furlings.

Rodney finished his energy bar in — comparative — silence, but John needed something to distract himself from the itching. "So is Jeannie actually like you?"

After a wary glance over at the airlock door, Rodney said, "Yes."

"So how does she have a kid?"

Rodney shrugged. "She's human. Completely, I mean. So was I. The modifier encodes the reversion data in some otherwise useless structure — probably a stretch of redundant genetic code, for human cells — but the change is otherwise complete, down to the genetic level. Or equivalent."

"Was she your sister before?" Teyla asked.

"No. Not the way you're thinking, I mean. The genetics don't work the same way. We just happened to be near the same stash of escape pods when the evacuation call went out." Rodney looked like he was going to fall into a thoughtful silence, but then he huffed with amusement. "Our human forms actually are siblings, though. Or were. I used samples from a brother-sister pair, and the modifier extrapolated that relationship for us."

"You gonna turn back?" Ronon asked.

"No," Rodney said immediately.

"Why not?" John asked. He had assumed Rodney would want to, and if the guy was so worried about being experimented on ….

Rodney shuddered. "I don't even know if I could. And get the same form, I mean. It's possible. There might be enough parts for a working modifier in there —" he gestured at the ship "— and if I used one of Beckett's samples, the way we did with the ascension machine, it might work. But …."

He closed his eyes, his expression revolted as he searched for words, and then looked directly at John.

"Imagine you suddenly had wings or — I don't know, legs that could run a hundred miles an hour or something. Only they weren't tacked on, they were yours, and you'd lost them for years, and you finally had them back. Would you cut them off just to go back to being crippled and — and deformed?"

John opened his mouth but then closed it again. He had nothing.

Rodney closed his eyes again and curled his hands into fists. "I was deaf. I was almost completely deaf and almost completely mute and I hated it. And my hands and feet were wrong and I had bizarre new appendages and no one had any idea anything was wrong and I —" he drew a shaky breath "— I hated it so much. I had to wipe Jeannie's memory to keep her from disintegrating and I had to take the chance I could wipe my own memory, which shouldn't even have been possible, just to keep from clawing my ears and throat out with alien hands and —"

Rodney clamped his mouth shut and drew a long, careful breath. He opened his hands, slowly and deliberately, and opened his eyes again, though this time he didn't look at John. "We had to hide, but we didn't know what it would mean, and it nearly killed both of us. I can't do that again. It's bad enough that I'm alone — we haven't developed to be alone, biologically, but at least I'm not — not mutated anymore." With a short, humorless laugh, he added, "I'm not saying my body feels right, exactly. It feels very, very strange and still kind of alien. But I'll be able to adjust to this a hell of a lot better than I was ever able to cope with being forced into a human body."

That was pretty much a conversation-killer.

{}
After a short while, Rodney curled up on his side, that one deliberate action the only thing separating his immediate falling asleep from straight-up passing out from exhaustion. Ronon stretched out too, while Teyla started going through all the packs. She turned up a tube of antihistamine cream, which felt wonderful on John's hands and wrists. It was going to get on everything, and he didn't care.

He dozed for a couple of hours, a strange jumble of mealworms and cheetahs filling his dreams, and then took second watch. Whatever moon or moons this planet had were out of sight behind the steep slope and forest, and the makeshift campsite was very dark.

John didn't really want to think about Rodney's question too hard. Wings or super-fast legs were more than a little ridiculous, but John knew for a fact that he would have real trouble adjusting if this was all the vision he had, ever. It was hard enough convincing himself not to turn on a light, just as proof he didn't actually need that his normal vision was still his.

He was all too happy to be startled by the check-in from Atlantis halfway through his shift. "Sheppard here," he answered. "Any chance we could get a lift? Our ride ditched us."

After only a brief pause, Elizabeth spoke. "Colonel. It's good to hear your voice. What happened out there?"

"We got trapped inside a cloaked field," John said. The details could wait. "Took a while to disable it and break out. We just need a ride back. And have Beckett on standby — there was a … minor incident involving an alien device."

"Is anyone hurt?" Elizabeth asked, worry clear.

"Nothing major. If you can meet us in the jumper bay or the infirmary, I'll fill you in then." He really didn't want to get into the details over the radio, and she would need to know the truth about McKay before the rumor mill really got going.

"Will do," Elizabeth said after just enough of a pause to convey she knew something was up. "We'll have a jumper out to the original site in … twenty minutes."

John thanked her and signed off. Then he turned on a flashlight, not minding the excuse at all, and woke everyone up. Ronon woke quickly, but Teyla was a little short-tempered after sleeping for only a couple of hours, and Rodney was his usual grumpy-bear self.

Rodney soon fell quiet, though, looking hollow and fragile, his head cocked slightly as if he was trying to hear something that just wasn't there. John steered him into muttering about the lack of coffee, because a cranky McKay was a hell of a lot easier to deal with than one dealing with some kind of existential crisis.

"So why change?" Ronon asked as they collected what little gear they'd scattered.

Once Rodney realized Ronon was randomly continuing their earlier conversation, he said, "We had to hide. And we wound up on Earth, which wasn't exactly one of the known worlds. We couldn't rely on heavy clothes and a rapidly depleting perception filter forever. We probably would have been shot if anyone had really gotten a good look at the two of us in, what, about 1980. Even today, people would …." He went still, regarding his hands again for several seconds. "I can't go back. I can't ever go back."

"Sure you can," John said. "We'll get you a Spock headband. Or a Jayne hat." John would actually pay good money to see that. Or maybe even sell tickets himself.

"That would hardly make my hands less problematic, Sheppard."

"No, guess not. But we could, well, say they're prosthetics, maybe. Experimental."

Rodney started to say something scornful but then closed his mouth again.

"Maybe paint them with some of that metallic paint," John added. "Make them look more fake. It could work."

"Maybe," Rodney said quietly.

"That wasn't what I meant, though," Ronon said. "Why have a machine that changes you, if it's that bad?"

Rodney made a soft sound that might have been amusement. "Social sciences. Anthropology, or — or xenosociology or something. Studying other cultures from the inside. But that would be professionals, or students who were much taller than me, let alone Jeannie. And besides, they would have been using it for a short period, and they would have known they could change back. They weren't trapped."

"Why would height matter?" Teyla asked.

"Oh, that — it has to do with maturity. The same way we — humans, I mean — use age. Not that that's a particularly consistent measurement of maturity." He made a face. "Ugh, trying to fit two profoundly different worldviews in my head at once is giving me a headache."

"So you were too short?" John asked, feigning more confusion than he really felt. Because messing with McKay was, strangely enough, still just as much fun as it always had been.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "In your terms, I was an early adolescent. Jeannie was probably at about grade three or four. She had it even worse than I did — the modifier turned out not to be very good at translating our maturity levels to the human system, and she was the size of a preschooler, so she wound up with a preschooler's body — including the brain. It couldn't support her actual level of development. At least I was able to keep my mind. And they still thought —" He scowled briefly. "Never mind. The experience was damaging and traumatic because we were far too 'young' and we had to modify ourselves permanently. When used as intended, I'm sure the modifier was much less damaging."

John thought it actually sounded like a hell of an espionage tool. The genocidal nutjob had said the thing didn't work on humans, but John wondered if there was any way to change that. McKay was scarily good at adapting technology.

Then again, the prospect of being turned into, say, a Wraith wasn't really all that appealing. Even temporarily.

"Huh," Rodney said. "I did learn things, in a way. Like human music — you only have a tiny little band of sound you work in, but the variety — I never would have heard that, like this. I never would have known just how much you can do with so little. Or wordplay — we don't have puns, for example. Well, a couple, actually, but in general, if you can just assign a new sound combination for any concept you can come up with, you don't really get the conditions that allow most puns to develop."

"Wait a second," John said. "You're admitting the value of a social science? What have you done with the real Rodney McKay?"

"Very funny," Rodney sniffed. "I never said the entire field was completely worthless."

That was a lie, of course. John smirked at him.

Rodney fingered the straps of his pack nervously. "We have to climb back up that slope, don't we? In the pitch-dark, no less. And, in my case, barefoot."

"Nope," John said, heading off at least that rant. "I have an idea." He declined to share, which at least changed the subject of Rodney's complaints.

"Here," Ronon said suddenly, holding his coat out to Rodney.

"Why?" Rodney responded, suspicious. He made no move to take the coat.

"So people don't stare," Ronon said.

John grinned. "Your turn to play Sith Lord."

"Oh." Rodney stared a few seconds longer, clearly surprised, before taking the coat. "Well. Thank you." He then grumbled about the combination of coat and field pack, but John left them to sort that out because the jumper was finally approaching. Its spotlights wandered briefly before picking out the columns of the fake installation.

John directed Miller to override the inertial dampeners and bring the jumper right down to the base of the slope. With most of the exterior walls missing, there was actually just barely room to set the jumper down right at the bottom of the slope. The jumper only fit sideways, at about a thirty degree angle, with one upper corner just inches from a stone column. Loose as the surface of the slope looked, it held for the time being. John wouldn't have parked a jumper this way for any length of time at all, but for the couple of minutes it would take them to board, it would be fine.

Once Miller had the jumper in position, he lowered the back hatch. The team carefully climbed aboard, John and Ronon both giving Rodney a hand.

Miller closed up the jumper again, got them into the air, and slowly rolled the jumper back to zero bank before restoring the inertial dampeners. He kept them hovering there as Sgt. Katombe came back to check on them. "Everything all right, sir?" He frowned at Rodney, who was huddled deep in Ronon's coat and had his head down. He added slowly, "I heard there might be pie in the mess today."

John bit back a sigh. The man was only doing his job. "Maybe they'll have peach this time," he replied, confirming that they weren't smuggling some impostor into Atlantis under duress.

Rodney snorted. "When was the last time you saw an actual peach in this galaxy?"

Katombe shook his head, amused, and returned to his seat. They were soon moving.

"Zelenka will be insufferable," Rodney muttered. "But at least I can make him do all my paperwork while I'm relearning how to type."

"Dare to dream," John said drily. "But look — that guy said something about you missing the Music or the Song. We've got to have about ten thousand songs — Earth songs, I mean — on the server. Can you just rig up an iPod or something?"

Rodney snorted bitterly. "Not even close. It would be like trying to recreate a symphony by tapping a pencil on the table."

"What about playing an instrument, then? I've got a guitar, and if you used to play piano, I'm sure someone's got a keyboard somewhere. Or we could have one shipped in."

"I —" Rodney looked startled and then bewildered. "Huh. I don't think I ever actually did play piano. I just … I knew I didn't have music anymore, and I knew my hands were wrong, and I knew those things were related. And thanks to the influence of the perception filter, my brain must just have filled in an explanation that fit." He considered that for a short while longer and then shook himself. "It doesn't matter. The sort of music you're thinking of really isn't relevant."

Teyla nodded slightly to John and then addressed Rodney. "Since you have said your kind did not develop to be alone, we want to be sure that you are not. So you and I will practice connecting to determine if we can provide a similar type of communication."

"Oh, joy, more meditation," Rodney muttered, his obvious gratitude making the sarcasm less than effective.

"And then, if we are successful, John and Ronon can try as well," Teyla added, because she was evil. She and Rodney both smirked at John's and Ronon's groans.

Then they were passing through the gate, trading the dark of midnight for the golden glow of a late Atlantis afternoon.

For a few seconds, John was profoundly relieved to be home, but as the rear hatch opened and he spotted both Elizabeth and Carson, he realized that they still had hours of explanations and discussion ahead of them. He stifled a sigh.

John signaled Miller and Katombe to exit first. They obeyed, lingering just outside the jumper as guards, as Elizabeth paused at the foot of the jumper's ramp and Carson bustled aboard.

His eyes went to Rodney immediately. "Why am I not surprised it's you? What have you gotten yourself into now, lad?"

"It's not my fault," Rodney said automatically. He was watching Carson nervously, but even though the doctor looked exasperated and maybe a little worried, he showed no signs of disgust or alarm.

"For certain values of fault," John said, just to make Rodney roll his eyes. "He probably just needs a couple of meals and a good night's sleep, Doc, but we need you to make sure that's all. We have to get back once McKay's clear and after we've debriefed — we've got some salvage to take care of." Including a spaceship — just a cargo ship, and probably Rodney's by right, but still. A spaceship. How cool was that?

And it would be good for the team to work together without the pressure of someone trying to kill them. McKay was going to have to figure out how to manage Atlantis in his new form, but the team was going to need a little work, too. McKay had long since earned his place, but if he planned to keep this new body, they all needed an adjustment period.

Rodney suddenly sat up straight. "Is … is that …?"

John glanced at the others, but they looked equally confused. "Is what?"

Rodney waved him quiet with a short gesture, closing his eyes. "Listen." But not even five seconds later, he continued, "Ronon, that thing you were saying, the Greatsingers and the halls —"

"Yeah?"

"It's just — it's there." He was starting to smile, the weight he'd carried ever since he woke up — hell, ever since he'd realized what he really was — falling away. "It's not the Song, but it's … singing."

John had always felt a little different when he was in Atlantis, as if there was something extra just beyond the limits of his perception. Almost a humming. Was that what Rodney was hearing? Was it more than that?

And if Teyla could connect with Rodney, if Ronon and John could learn how … would they hear it, too?

Rodney's smile grew, his entire face brightening with joy and utter relief. "She sings. Atlantis sings."

{END}
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