Email me?

Feedback?







Stargate: Atlantis is the property of MGM. All characters and images remain the property of the original copyright holder. No infringement is intended. No revenue is being obtained from copyright material.


Act 2

Had any inhabitants of the planet remained nearby to witness their descent through the atmosphere to the designated coordinates of the gathering, the sight of five Elder Hives landing in a carefully choreographed dance would have been enough to frighten most simple humans to death. They whistled in their descent through the air, burning clouds and cloudless sky and overshadowed everything in their path, heedless of tree or mountaintop that dared to hinder their passage.

Such were the thoughts with which Malcolm filled his mind in order to banish the concern he otherwise felt at the precipitous and perhaps imprudently called Convocation of Elders.

Trusting no other to take his place at the controls during such a delicate operation, the almost-emotions of the Hive tingled through his fingers and nibbled, like fish, at the edges of his mental awareness. It didn't help with his feelings of discomfort. Neither did the sight on the view screen of the two flanking Hives, which held with him in strict formation at the landing site.

Finding space to land a single Hive was demanding enough, but five, splayed out in a star-like pattern, bows to centre, was a feat he did not care to over-think. Nor was the tense orbital standoff of ten supporting cruisers, all – if the other commanders had given similar orders to those he had given his own support ships – with their weapons carefully targeted on one Hive or another in a position that would cause the most damage.

The Consort-Commanders of an Elder Hive were nothing if not cautious.

=suspicious?=

Quickly and efficiently, he secured the Hive in landed mode, and then stepped down from the central control dais. He turned to sweep into a low, respectful bow to the Elder Queen and remained, eyes downcast, body inclined toward her, as she stalked onto the bridge.

{always, my Queen, where your sisters are concerned}

She chuckled softly and reached out her curled, but still razor-tipped fingers to encourage him to rise. He fell into step at her right shoulder as she walked toward the view screen.

"Everything is in order?" she asked aloud for the benefit of her human servants, Jethera included, Malcolm noted.

"Everything, my Queen," he answered. "The four lesser commanders and their phalanxes that will transfer to your sisters' Hives are prepared and waiting, and tribute has been gathered according to custom."

=you will watch the Red Queen. She has a tendency to breed a line of Queen-killers, and it is rumoured that her eldest son attends her now – in place of her consort-commander=

{he will be guarded against, as will your sister}

"Excellent," the Queen said. "Then I see no need for further delay."

{the Raven Queen has sent a coded message requesting a private audience, my Queen}

=denied. Whatever my dear sister has to say to me can be said in open Conclave=

"I will inform the others to meet us at the airlock," he said.

=the others? What of the Blood Queen and the Shadow Queen?=

{we have heard nothing. They have not made their position clear}

"We shall see what we shall see," the Queen said, holding out her hand. He knew she was waiting for him to offer his arm in courtly fashion, and for the first time turned his attention fully her way.

She had certainly arranged herself to appear the Queen of power that had summoned the others to conclave. The drapes of soft leather and lace with which she had draped her body flowed like water down her tall, lithe frame, to pool around her ankles like liquid ice. When she moved her head, her braided, beaded hair rattled with the sound of some great predator, giving warning to an unsuspecting lesser creature that had strayed too close, and the dark-light that illuminated the operative bridge glinted off the blades, carried both openly and concealed about her person. If he did not know her better, she would have been an intimidating sight. Instead he inwardly nodded – almost approving.

The lingering traces of her Zenith had finally faded. Perhaps it had not been so ill-timed a summons after all. It would certainly suit his purpose to have her proclaimed as Primary among the Elder Queens.

**

He should have been cold. The wind that whistled crosswise over the south pier, blowing from the north-east, carried with it the promise of New Lantea's winter and slipped insistent fingers around the folds of Carson's unfastened jacket. He barely felt it.

After the ambient, carefully controlled temperature of Michael's laboratory followed by the almost overwhelming heat in the isolation wing of Atlantis' infirmary, the variation of it was a welcome relief; a welcome relief, also against the emotions hissing inside of him like boiling acid, a match to the wind driven waves that broke against the side of the pier.

He didn't realise quite how rapid his steps were until the sound of Ayatesha's hurried footfalls reached him through the wind. It sounded as though she was almost running to keep up and even as he tried to slow down, she hooked her fingers around his elbow.

"Carson, wait," she said, "Stop. This does no good."

The realisation hit and halted him far more effectively than Ayatesha's tenuous hold on his arm. He was trying to run: from the horror they now faced in Jennifer's pregnancy; from the deal he'd had no choice but to make with Michael and from the responsibility he carried in what he had done in bringing them all this far in the first place… and Ayatesha… his sweet Y'tesha. Here she was at his side once again reaching for him; once again with him to save him from himself.

He stopped so suddenly that when he turned to face her she almost collided with him, slipping to a halt with her hand pressed against his chest. The touch was like a key; like a chisel breaking open the cage of seething confusion that was scattering him to the six piers. She grounded him and suddenly one thought, one feeling alone, filled him.

"Carson, this—"

He reached for her, cupped his still warm hands around the softness of her cheeks and brought their lips together, silencing her half formed protest in a kiss born of everything she meant to him.

The warm velvet touch of her lips pressed to his, and parted in a sweet rush of shared breath. She yielded to the caress of his tongue against hers and her trust soothed him, her acceptance gave him place and bolstered his purpose. She gave him the precious gift of a moment's peace.

Breathless as the kiss ended, he leaned his head against hers, their noses almost crushed together; her head still cradled in his hands.

"This is not your fault," she whispered against his cheek. The words were almost desperate in their softness. "This is not your fault."

"Y'tesha." He sighed her name, the prayer-like devotion in the tone he used the first step in a separation toward rationality. He wanted nothing more than to sweep her into his arms and surrender to a moment of needing her as badly as he ever had, but they had promised never to cheapen what they shared with such thoughtless abandon. He wouldn't betray that now. He couldn't.

She must have sensed the change in him, because her hands, which had knotted in his shirt, relaxed and the touch against his chest became almost a caress. He swallowed, and pulling back a little gave her a wan smile. She shook her head and reached up to caress the side of his cheek.

"How can you be so… so steady, so—"

"I am as I need to be to help Jennifer," she answered. "Carson, inside I am as frightened as you, but—"

She broke off then, shaking her head and he saw her eyes become veiled, as though shutting off some part of herself.

"What's wrong?" he asked, frowning.

She shook her head again, and turning from him started to walk again. Still frowning, he turned to follow, but stopped as the shadow of a movement in the lea of the pier's central strut caught his eye. Anyone else might have missed the motion, or dismissed it as the play of cloud and fading day, but Carson had spent too long around Michael for such things to go unnoticed.

"Ayatesha?"

He quickly fell into step with her, reaching to take her hand in his securely, and subtly guiding her steps away from the pier's centre that would provide cover for their unwelcome tail.

"Being frightened isn't going to help; not Jennifer, not anyone. We—"

"No, I mean what's going on?" he interrupted. "Has someone been bothering you?"

Even as he asked the question, he had a suspect firmly visualised. It didn't take a genius to work it out, after all.

"It is nothing," she said, and though she had clearly tried to sound dismissive, he knew her too well for her to hide the fearful undertones her voice carried.

"Then why are we being followed," he drew her closer as she started to turn her head, "No. Don't… don't turn around."

"Honestly, Carson," She pressed closer still, her fingers tightening around his, "I do not know. Professor Varnerin and I do not see eye to eye, and have had cross words on several occasions but—"

"Oh, that's enough, believe me, love," Carson said with a humourless laugh, but something – some unwelcome touch of prescience – fluttered along his spine. That's not the whole of it. He stopped walking and turned her to face him. "Y'tesha, this is me. If this is something to do with what happened on Earth; what's in that file they're holding over your head—"

Her trembling fingers pressed against his lips.

"Please, Carson," she said, "do not ask me to tell you about that."

"Why not?" he leaned toward her as if to be closer would allow him to catch the quietest of whispers. "Whatever it is it can't be so bad that I wouldn't understand."

"Because I love you," she answered, "do you understand that? Inti ya hayati, and I will not do this to you."

"Do what, Ayatesha?"

"I cannot," she stumbled over the word and pulled away from him, her eyes filling with unshed tears. "Please just accept that."

"Wait," he tried to catch her as she ducked past him, but she was too fast, and he was left standing alone, and calling out helplessly after her. "What are you afraid of?"

**

The Hives' landing left the ground underfoot scorched and desolate. The barren valley, artificially formed in the centre of the mountainous ring of ships surrounding the meeting place was still being sculpted as the delegations made their way toward the central space. Teams of subordinate Wraith and drones alike scurried to erect the five, huge daises – organic Wraith compounds oozed across the space and began building the stage on which the future of Pegasus would be shaped – at least in part.

Jethera shivered, supremely uneasy as she hurried along behind the Elder Queen and her Consort-Commander, the former Hive Second, now promoted by the death of the previous commander, and by his claiming of the Hive's zenith-driven Queen. Handmaiden to any one of these queens was not the safest position to occupy.

{hold your ground}

At her commander's orders, Jethera and the delegation behind her halted as one, and the Queen and Commander went on alone toward the others. It was ritualistic; posturing between queens, between their commanders – lip-service to a past as forgotten in time as was the genesis of the Wraith. Jethera let out her breath slowly, banishing her thoughts and the fear that was growing inside of her. It was as dangerous for her to have such things in her mind, where they might be overheard, as it was for her to remain in the service of the Elder Queen.

It was time to find another way, another place to be… another place to hide… another queen.

She lifted her head to look on the circle of the five Wraith queens before her. Their age, and the deadly nature of their existence was not easily missed. Of the five of them that Jethera could see, besides her own Elder Queen, one other had hair as white as sun-bleached bone, though this one did not braid her hair but left it long about her shoulders, accenting, rather than masking the blood red tattoos that graced her flesh. She wore a red-tanned leather dress that accented her form, and carried herself with the arrogance of her age. This Red Queen's commander stood stiffly at her shoulder, the only one among them, Jethera knew, from what she had overheard aboard her own Hive, who was not consort to his queen. He was one of her progeny – a son.

Another of the queens had tightly braided her blue-black hair and sculpted it atop her head to sit like some ancient crown almost in the shape of a great winged bird. The same dark indigo lines of her clan tattoos descended the side of her neck, and over her naked shoulders; pale green flesh almost luminous against the contrasting darkness. What little she wore was made of pliant, overlapping tongues of leather and soft metal, like some great perversion of scale-mail, or the skin of an unfortunate black dragon out of legend. The Raven Queen's Consort-Commander stood at her side, one hand raised to support the claw-tipped fingers that perched over his, as if he would present her in courtly fashion to the assembly; the other rested easily against the hilt of the blade he carried sheathed at his waist.

A third queen stood across from the others. Soft pale folds of linen draped the curves of her darker, grey-green skin. Her dark red hair, partly braided, and in greater part left free trailed like rivulets of blood over her attire, and between the dark of her skin, the light of her clothes and the sanguine fall of her hair, peaked the silver-blue lines of her clan-marks, shining slightly in the low light. The Blood Queen's Consort-Commander oozed contempt for his fellow males. His expression, a languid sneer, spoke of his certainty of their unworthiness to be in his presence… or more correctly, in the presence of his queen, though more than once, as she observed him, Jethera noticed that his eyes flicked toward the last remaining member of the conclave.

The Shadow Queen stood a full head shorter than the others, almost entirely shrouded by the fall of grey from the hooded robe she wore. The hood was raised, leaving little visible within its dark depth, save the piercing flash of her peacock eyes, as often luminous green as they were burning amber. Her Consort-Commander stood protectively, possessively close, almost touching, and the dull-silver mail he wore over the leather of his jerkin added to the visible sense of menace he conveyed. Approach my Queen, and die. His queen raised her clawed, almost dark, scaled hand and pointed at the Elder Queen.

"You have called this Conclave, this… convocation," she hissed. "Let you among us be first to offer tribute."

**

She didn't stop running until she reached her quarters, then closed and locked the door – wrenching open the panel at its side to pull out the crystals… fearing that if Carson followed he would simply think open the barrier she'd put between them… the flimsy lies the Ancients had wrought in the design of their city were little protection from the truth that hung over both of them, a sword waiting to fall.

Seeding life… altering evolution… arrogance – all lies – as arrogant as the actions of her own kind.

She leaned against the closed door, pulling at the confinement of her clothing; at the hijab that covered her head – stifled by it all, and slid down to lean, gasping with the sobs that wracked her body, against the solid surface at her back.

She took a step back, only to collide with the soldier that had been summoned behind her. "I already told you that I cannot do what even God cannot."

The soldier took her arms – held her fast.

"I told you," she cried as the team leader stepped toward her, a small cylinder in his hand. "I TOLD YOU!"

The sting of the needle was nothing against the fire it spread through her body, and even after the practise against the two years of torture, both mental and physical, this time she could not contain her scream… half of pain and half in the terror of realising what they had administered to her.

"Clean up this shit hole – give her space to work… and make sure there's someone on hand at least once every 24 hours to give her the clean retrovirus." She barely heard the team leader's words through the pounding of her too-fast heartbeat. "Does us no fucking good if she goes rogue and tries to kill us all."

"What have you done?" she panted, leaning on her trembling legs as the soldier behind her let go. "What have you—?"

The team leader grabbed her hair and pulled her head back just as the strength in her limbs failed and she toppled to her knees.

"Yung managed to piece together enough of your rambling objections over the last few months to be able to adapt Beckett's retrovirus. He built a serum that would administer a fractional segment of the Wraith genetic code into the subject and—"

"My God," she gasped. "How many?"

"That doesn't matter," he anticipated her question. "What matters is—"

"How many died?" she screamed, her vocal cords constricting around the words.

"Seems you were right. Seems like the resulting DNA is too unstable. Some of them went into shock; some of them almost literally dissolved from the inside out; some of the others went mad with the pain of it and the more successful of the subject – well, their new Wraith cells literally fed on the human ones that were left. Yung was the last," he said, and the calm in his voice chilled her to the last dregs of her soul. He lowered himself to his haunches at her side, never once letting go, dragging her terrified eyes around to meet the cold fanaticism in his. "How many died? All of them."

"All of them," she whispered, twisting the hijab in her hands. "And I did nothing… nothing to spare them." …except from this…

Her conscience warred with itself… she had done as she had had to do, there was no other choice, and only a cruel, coincidental twist of circumstances had prevented her from finishing what she had started.

**

Michael remained in the doorway… immobile, even when he felt the Hive drop into normal space, and the sub-light engines engaged. He knew he could trust his hybrids to manoeuvre the ship through the system and into orbit around the planet that was their destination. He did not once take his eyes off the figure sleeping, somewhat restlessly, in the quarters' large bed.

"Leave us," he ordered, keeping his voice quiet as he did not wish to wake Teyla. The figure sitting in the chair beside the bed rose to her feet at once, and started toward him – toward the door.

"I have tried to soothe her rest," Midani told him, "but nothing brings her comfort."

"No matter," he answered, shaking his head slightly. He knew it was not the woman's fault that she could not reach Teyla. Her body was driven by other stresses; he swallowed hard, other strains. "Go to your own rest. Perhaps Teyla will wish to accompany you when you visit with your family."

She lowered her head in respectful acknowledgement, and slipped past him. He closed the door behind her and quietly padded across the room, slipping off his heavy outerwear and making himself more comfortable as he lowered himself into the chair that Midani had just vacated. Almost as if she knew he was there, Teyla turned toward him in her sleep, and seemed to settle – if only a little.

He let out a long, slow breath and moved his gaze over Teyla's sleeping form. He did not miss the slight tremor in her body, even at rest, nor the tiny beads of perspiration that had gathered on her brow. His soft sigh became a voiced, protective rumble in the back of his throat and moving carefully he slipped from the chair to kneel at the side of the bed and reached out toward her.

His fingers almost brushed against the damp hair at her forehead, until he caught sight of his own smooth palm. He snatched his hand away, and curled his fingers against the sight. He had done what he had to do in order to ensure survival, evolution, but now the very changes he had fought so hard to make prevented him from providing the woman before him with something she so sorely needed. He let out a faint sound, a huff against the bitter irony of it all, and reaching out carefully once more, brushed the fine strands of hair away from Teyla's face.

Prevented was not… entirely true. There was another way, but… it was unsettling to him, such contact – at such a time – he baulked at it only in concern for her.

Another, more extreme, option remained, hovering like a spectre of his past. The very real possibility that he may have no choice but to take it mocked him, but he feared it – so terribly – the lack of surety that she would not suffer The Passing holding him away from taking such a step. It was a last resort, only to be considered if the field test of the serum failed to give the desired results.

"Michael…" Teyla's drowsy whisper to him momentarily startled him, but his hand slipped behind her, supporting her carefully as she leaned up toward him. They moved as one, and she leaned against him, resting her head against his shoulder. "I was dreaming."

He nodded wordlessly, and tipped his head in concern as she looked up at him.

"I can hear—"

"I know," he interrupted softly. "But you need to rest."

…I need you…

-yes-

He rose from his knees beside her and gathered her closer against him as he moved to join her. He felt her trembling subside as she fit herself against him; within the protective shelter and warmth of his arms.

"We've left hyperspace," she murmured against his neck.

"Yes."

"Where are we going?"

He hissed softly as her fingers slipped beneath his shirt to rest against his chest. Her hands were cold. She was cold. He tried not to become distracted by the worry inherent in that realisation.

"A planet under my protection," he told her softly. "It is where many of my followers remain. I thought perhaps you might like to visit with Midani's family once we arrive."

"And you?" she asked.

He turned them both until he was looking down at her; gently but firmly tilted her gaze up until their eyes met, before he answered.

"There is work I must attend to, Teyla," he said with such seriousness and gravity that he saw and felt her almost shy away from him.

-trust me-

…yes…

He smiled then, softly… slowly, and almost absently caressing her cheek with the pad of his thumb, he lowered his lips to meet hers as he moved to cover her.

**

"Doctor Beckett," Varnerin greeted Carson as he stormed through the barely opened door to the man's office. "Decided to complete a debrief after al—"

"I don't know what you think you're playing at," he said, and leaned down to spin the man away from his desk and pin him in place, one hand on each of the arms of the chair in which Varnerin sat. "But I'm warning you… leave. Ayatesha. Alone!"

"Perhaps it's time you—"

"No," Carson refused to relent. "I told you before: I won't have members of my medical team harassed. You're having her followed for God's sake!"

"And have you stopped to ask yourself why?" Varnerin asked overly calm, "or have you simply stormed in here, assuming that I'm the villain; the guilty party. Did you ever read the file that Dick Woolsey gave to you the day Doctor Haddad arrived in Atlantis? No? Well I did."

Carson growled and pushed himself away from Varnerin, stalking half way across the room before he turned back and pointed an accusing finger the other man's way.

"I didn't come here to listen to your lies and insinuations," he spat. "Y'did enough damage on that front wi' Teyla and the things you said about her."

"She stole your research." Varnerin got to his feet, and extracting a file from the stack on his desk, pushed it over toward him. "And by 'stole' I mean she completely eradicated all trace of its existence from the SGC mainframe, and then she ran; disappeared for a little over two years, before she was picked up, badly injured, in the ruins of a covert military installation somewhere in the heart of the Middle East."

"What?" Incredulity ran through Carson, like a drone exploding, and demonstrative of his absolute contempt for the story he was hearing, he lashed out at the file, sending it flying from the desk, scattering the pages like windblown leaves. "You are talking absolute—"

"Nonsense?" Varnerin came around the desk, his eyes scanning the tumble of papers on the floor of the office. "I'm sorry, Carson, but much as you might think you know the woman… it's all here."

He reached down and picked up a small sheaf of papers, clipped together in the corner with a staple. Carson could already see that much of the information on the copy had been blacked out, and a red, 'eyes only' stamp fit diagonally into the spaces. He eyed the papers as though they carried some incurable disease that would be transmitted at the slightest touch of the papers.

"Take it," Varnerin said quietly, "if you don't believe me."

"Covert military installation? Ayatesha?" Carson made no attempt to take the papers, even when Varnerin offered them a second time, more forcefully. "This is utterly ridiculous."

"There was absolutely no record of what she was doing there," Varnerin continued even as Carson denied him, seemingly relentless in his attempt to make him listen. "And no data was recovered from the wreckage of the computer system they found, but acting on a snippet of intelligence intercepted during the attempted invasion of Earth by the Wraith via the Midway station, SG-1 tracked a covert paramilitary group to the secret installation in the Middle East. However, by the time they got there, the installation and its personnel had been destroyed, and Doctor Haddad was discovered amid the wreckage."

"No," Carson poked past the papers, his finger digging into Varnerin's chest, "I can see where you're going with this, and I won't have you falling into the assumption that simply because she was born an Egyptian Muslim, she has to be some kind of terrorist."

"You can't refute the facts, Doctor!"

"And you have no idea what she went through—"

"Warrants were issued for her arrest."

"—in her past that completely turned her off—"

"Her assets were seized."

"—radicalisation in any way, shape or form—"

"She was completely missing for two whole years, while—"

"—and this kind of baseless accusation is just the kind of—"

"GENTLEMEN!"

Woolsey's voice cut them both to silence with the efficiency of a scythe at an Athosian harvest, a silence that was broken only by the rustle of the paper that Varnerin still held until Woolsey spoke again.

"Take it, Carson," he said, "please."

Hesitantly, Carson closed his fingers around the edges of the report, barely feeling the smoothness of the paper, as Woolsey came to stand beside him. Nor did he truly register the words that Woolsey spoke to him, not at first, as he glanced at the report and seven words stood out starkly against the boxed in, blacked out text of the classified information around them… category 4 – very seriously ill or injured.

"As you can see, much of the information is classified, even from those of us with the highest security clearance. It's need to know and apparently, we don't… and while I don't necessarily agree with Professor Varnerin's interpretation of some of the facts that we do know, for the sake of base security, I've asked him to keep an eye on her… for the time being." Woolsey said softly.

"Category four…" Carson breathed, looking up from the paper and for the first time meeting Woolsey's eyes.

"With the Odyssey unable to assist at the time, she was flown directly to a military hospital in Iraq and treated under the supervision of Doctor Lamb. According to Carolyn's report, Doctor Haddad was exposed to some kind of biological contaminant and as a result developed an extremely virulent form of cancer. She was transferred back to a location in the United States under strict quarantine, and after several months of extensive treatment, and coinciding with the conclusion of the investigation into her alleged involvement in activities prohibited by the Geneva Convention pursuant to—"

"Did they find a cure?" Carson interrupted.

"I would have thought the appropriate question at this point would be concerning her acquittal of such—"

"Please, Reuben," Woolsey glanced at the other man and frowned. "Isn't it obvious that they did? Otherwise she wouldn't have been transferred to Atlantis to—"

"Actually, Richard, it's not obvious at all, and this is what I keep trying to tell you," Varnerin interrupted. "Following her release from quarantine at the SGC laboratory facility, she was due to have been sent into exile in Eg—"

"Voluntary exile, yes," Woolsey said and Carson couldn't help the shiver that passed down his spine as he recalled the moment Ayatesha stepped from the event horizon… and the security officers that had followed her. The moment of doubt was only brief, but it squeezed a fist around his heart. "And to answer your question, Carson, Ayatesha's cancer appears to be fully in remission."

The breath that rushed from him was exhausting, and it was all that Carson could do to keep his suddenly blurred vision from giving away the tears that had gathered in his eyes. Alongside the relief, however, a heavy, sinking sense of loss and betrayal sat like a stone in his gut. Why hadn't she told him any of this? To keep such a thing as her illness from him after everything else they had shared; the promise of all they could have shared…

He swallowed hard. He had to talk to her – and to Carolyn. He had to find out the pathology of this thing, the details, the… treatment… and suddenly his mind spiralled off along cold dark alley ways of fear and imagined horrors of recurrence.

"You'll excuse me, Richard," he said, keeping his voice tightly controlled, and handing the stapled report back to the base commander. "There are… there are things I must attend to."

Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heels and hurried along the corridor from Varnerin's office, past the Conference Room and into the Control Room.

"Amelia, I need to speak to Doctor Lamb at Stargate Command as soon as possible. It's urgent," he said. "You can patch it through to me as soon as you have her."

"Of course, Doctor," She said, and then added quickly, "Actually, Doctor Beckett, while you were with the professor and Mr Woolsey, the infirmary got in touch trying to get hold of you. You were off comm. and I didn't want to bust into the middle of—"

She shrugged apologetically, and Carson gave her a smile and dropped a sympathetic hand onto her shoulder.

"What was it?" he asked.

"It's Doctor Keller," Amelia said quietly, as though she didn't want to be overheard. "She's awake."

**

The flight from the 'Gate had taken a little under an hour, and already dusk was falling on the small copse beyond which the cloaked Jumper lay hidden. Sheppard held the P90 slung across his body, belying the nervousness with which he gripped the weapon, and turned full circle once more, checking the location of each member of the small team he'd brought with him… and Ronon; Ronon had insisted on coming.

Sheppard stood for a moment, watching his friend; watching the tension in Ronon's body, trying to imagine what was going through the Satedan's mind. There was so much that Ronon didn't know; that Sheppard hadn't had the time – or more to the point the privacy to tell him. He didn't know that Teyla was still alive; about Keller's collapse, and now to add to the anger all of that was sure to kindle in him, there was a little girl lying in the infirmary, barely hanging onto life, who was obviously important to Ronon. It all added up to one thing in Sheppard's book: trouble. He could only pray that Ronon would keep a lid on his anger, and try not to take it all out on Todd. As much as he hated to think it, Ronon could prove to be a liability on this ride.

Ronon looked skyward, first one way and then the other as if searching the clouds. It wasn't hard to guess what he was watching and waiting for.

"He's already here, Ronon," he said, trying to pitch his tone to the cocky bravado that he usually displayed.

"How do you know?" Ronon growled.

"This is Todd," he answered with a shrug. "When have you ever known Todd get to a meeting after us. He thinks it gives him an advantage to get here first… scout the grounds… take us by surprise."

"And you believe otherwise?"

Sheppard groaned inwardly as the rattle of four P90's and the high pitched ring of Ronon's blaster charging came as a retort against the irritatingly smooth tones of the Wraith's voice. Todd dropped – literally – into their midst, to land in a crouch from among the high branches of the trees.

Todd spread his hands to his sides as he straightened up, cocking an eyeridge in an almost amused fashion at Sheppard.

"Come now, Colonel Sheppard, do you really expect me to have left myself so vulnerable as to drop into your little… soiree… unprotected?" As he spoke, from other trees around them, and from concealed pits at the edges of the copse, several Wraith drones with staff weapons revealed themselves. "Might I suggest we all… stand down? After all, you wanted information – and that I cannot give you if you shoot me, now can I?"

Sheppard opened his mouth to order his team to stand down, but Ronon pushed away from the tree against which he was leaning and stormed toward Todd, batting aside the drone that moved into his path and closing in on the Wraith commander until he could press the muzzle of his weapon against Todd's head.

"I'll take my chances," he spat. "Where is she?"

"Ronon!" Sheppard warned, at the same time waving his hands in a downward motion at the other Atlantis personnel. Ronon took no notice. "Ronon, stand down!"

Todd didn't even flinch.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he purred mildly, though Sheppard somehow doubted that. It didn't take a genius to work out that Ronon was angry because someone he cared about was missing and that usually, when someone went missing, it was the Wraith that were to blame. Couple that with the message he had sent when contacting Todd, it should have been pretty easy to put the pieces together – and while he wouldn't admit to calling the Wraith a genius, he was certainly prepared to admit that he was anything other than stupid.

"Ronon," Sheppard tried again, "put the gun down."

"Not until he tells me what I need to know!" Ronon sounded as though he was snatching the words out of the jaws of his fury and frustration.

"When I agreed to come here, Sheppard," Todd growled softly, clearly bored and becoming irritated by his treatment at Ronon's hands, "it was not to find myself accused, groundlessly, of the abduction of some random—"

"She's not… random…" Ronon snarled, shifting his grip against the weapon's hilt.

Sheppard swallowed hard. He knew Ronon; knew the signs. Ronon was close to losing control, and if he did and fired the first shot, Sheppard had no doubt that the massacre that would occur in the moments afterward would make the old legend of the Battle of Camlan look like a teddy bear's picnic.

"All right, Ronon," he said in the most soothing tone he could muster and stepped toward where Todd and the Satedan stood in the tense stand-off. "Let him go. We can talk about thi—"

"Laquoia," Ronon spat. "The culling—"

"I know nothing about a culling on the Laquoian homeworld," Todd's rumbling voice held more irritation with every answer that he gave. Sheppard tried to fix an apologetic expression on his face, hoping that Todd would understand that Ronon's actions were not undertaken with his blessing. Todd ignored him and continued, "And even if I did, Laquoia does not fall within my territory. My Hive is not responsible, nor do I know by which Queen Laquoia is ruled."

Ronon growled; clear frustration creased his brows as the volume of his wordless protest increased. Sheppard realised he was out of time, and much as he hated to appear to side with Todd against his friend, he planted a hand firmly in the middle of Ronon's chest and pushed hard.

"Ronon, stand down, damn it!" he turned his back on Todd, putting himself between the Satedan and the Wraith. "He doesn't know anything."

Relief flooded through Sheppard, but mixed with an almost painful twisting in his gut when Ronon put up his weapon, and still growling, paced away.

"What's going on, Todd?" Sheppard asked without turning around, still keeping his eyes fixed on Ronon, fearful that the Satedan might have a sudden change of heart. "What do you know?"

The hairs on the back of Sheppard's neck rose at Todd's low, slowly spoken answer.

"You presume too much upon our… friendship… John Sheppard," he rumbled.

Sheppard turned slowly, managing to hold his ground as Todd reached for him with his feeding hand, letting out a breath only when the clawed hand threaded through the fastenings of his TAC vest and then it was only a small huff of relief, curtailed as the Wraith pulled him closer and leaned down to snarl into his face.

"The affairs of Wraith do not concern you, human," Todd almost whispered the words. The three interlinked tones in his voice weaving a miasma of fearful confusion around Sheppard's senses. "Take my advice. Stay well away from where you do not belong."

He felt a familiar and yet unpleasant push against his mind; found himself momentarily unable to draw breath, and struggled to close his fingers around Todd's grasp, trying to pry the Wraith's hand away from his vest.

"You don't understand," he gasped, still pulling ineffectually against the hold Todd had on him. "Those people… those worlds…"

"If there are people on any world specifically threatened by Wraith at this time—"

"You know there are, Todd. Don't play games."

"I play at nothing!" Todd raised his voice and suddenly released Sheppard. Unbalanced he stumbled back, his arms flailing. His P90 slapped painfully against his already straining chest. The impact winded him. Anger flared in the Wraith's eyes and, voice still raised, Todd continued. "I came here in good faith, John Sheppard, and have received nothing but abuse and accusation. Our debts were paid long ago – Lantean – I. Owe. You. Nothing."

Sheppard took a breath, meaning to protest, to find the words to try and soothe the Wraith's frayed temper, but Todd moved fasted. First flicking his wrists, the Wraith raised both his hands, bringing them together more quickly even than Ronon could raise his already charged weapon.

There was a sound like lightning splitting the air around him and a sudden flash of light, then all Sheppard knew was darkness.

**

"Alarmist rumours spread by frightened prey!"

Malcolm stiffened even though he tried not to react to the naïveté of the Blood Queen's dismissive statement – naïve or desperate he thought wryly and subtly shifted his weight to his other foot, bringing him imperceptibly closer to his own queen's shoulder.

"He remains alive," the Elder Queen insisted softly.

The Raven Queen shook her head, refusing to hear the Elder Queen's words, and Malcolm sighed.

"They believe the shadow of Atlantis no longer threatens us and so they conjure this new spectre from fragments of our concerns and try to use it to keep us away." The Raven Queen flicked a hand toward the Elder's throne, and announced to the others, "The Abomination is dead; killed in the explosion that destroyed her Hive."

Malcolm couldn't help but feel there was an air of proclamation in her words, and he bristled. The Hive had been destroyed through the stupidity of his predecessor, but its loss still stung hard. He took a deep breath, ready to speak in defence of his queen and her Hive, but she raised her hand and he could feel her clear anticipation of his purpose in the touch of her mind against his. He fell silent, but moved with her as she rose to her feet, and descended the few steps of her dais to the speaking ground below.

As she moved, the Shadow Queen's sibilant husk of a voice whispered like fog around the assembly.

"I have… doubts of his demise," she said. "Rumour is a… dangerous bedfellow. Tell us, Sister, what happened. How did he… escape… your Hive?"

"My explanation will show you," the Elder Queen began, "the folly of your belief in both the diminution of the threat from the new inhabitants of Atlantis, and the supposition of the death of The Abomination. He lives, and for whatever reason they have…"

The Queen's words faded from his attention as a chill crept over Malcolm. It was almost a physical sensation, but for the recognition of the touch of a queen within his mind, drawing him inwards. By mutual decree, such contact was forbidden during the convocation, and he knew he should have spoken out, however, curiosity and a deeper purpose cautioned silence, and – carefully – he allowed the contact, transferring his consciousness to the inner chambers of his mind.

{you risk much, Old One}

He knew, by the sensation of the mind-touch which queen it was that sought audience with him – and yes, he considered it to be in that manner and not the other way around.

{if the others knew of your actions…}

'they are oblivious, First Consort, in many. More. Ways than just the knowledge of my actions, my purpose. Speak quickly now: this clever sophistry she weaves about the others. How much is true? Did the Lanteans come to free him? Did they succeed? What of this other; this… human queen?'

{you are remarkably well informed for one that can only possibly have heard what came to pass through rumour}

The Shadow Queen appeared beside him, smoke and mirrors, he understood, but still, the chill in his entire being increased as she reached out a clawed supernumerary hand his way.

'let us dispense with the formalities of such sparing' Her mental presence snapped at him. 'you have not the time and neither have I the inclination. Speak quickly, answer my questions'

{first answer mine: what difference does the past make to you, who must live in its future? How can knowledge of what cannot be changed benefit your assay for Primary?}

'foolish male!'

In spite of the automatic sting, inherent in the words, Malcolm sensed a certain… almost warmth in the reprimand.

'I have little care to be Primary over this gaggle of self-serving sluts!'

{then what is your care, Old One?}

'for our people, First Consort… the survival of Wraith'

A warning pricked through the chilled awareness of his surroundings barely a second before the inner world dissolved and reality reasserted itself. Acting on instinct, Malcolm stepped forward to put himself between his queen and the approaching threat of the Red Queen and her son.

"You knew of the existence of such a weapon and you kept your silence?" the Red Queen snarled, all but flying down the steps of her own dais.

"Come no further!" Malcolm ordered, lowering his hand to the hilt of his blade.

"But the weapon—"

"…is no more threat than any other, if certain protocols are followed!"

The Red Queen's son slipped around his matron, halting her forward motion with his trailing shoulder as he too fingered his blade, squared off against Malcolm. He had to admire the younger Wraith's devotion.

"Do not allow yourselves to be side-tracked by the notion of this weapon," Malcolm raised his voice, though he pitched it in respectful cadence to address the assembled queens. "Yes, it exists, and is formidable – deadly even – against a shielded Hive, for it turns the Hive's own power against itself, but it is easily disempowered by the lowering of shields."

"Lower our shields in battle?" The Red Queen's son's voice held no respect, only contempt.

"Wraith fought without shields for many millennia, youngling." A new, harsher voice cut across the challenge, and Malcolm tilted his head to watch as the Shadow Queen's commander stepped to the edge of his queen's dais, but came no further.

"Indeed," the Raven Queen's commander stepped into the arena, like to the Shadow Queen's commander he only came as far as the end of the dais. "It is only another concession to human weakness that made us capture and incorporate their technology into our already superior Hives."

"At the insistence of The Abomination," the Elder Queen spoke once more, seizing command of the discussion away from the posturing males. Malcolm stepped aside to give her full sight of the assembly. "Do not allow yourself to become side-tracked by the existence of this weapon, when he is the real danger here."

"If he is such a real danger," the Red Queen waved her son aside, and more casually approached the Elder Queen, "how is it that we have heard nothing of him since the… unpleasantness which befell your Hive?"

"It is possible we have," the Elder Queen said, her tone almost accusing as she addressed the Red Queen and her commander. "Were you not engaged in battle in the Ataxis system?"

The Red Queen glanced at her commander, then before he could speak – as matters of conflict fell to the commanders to discuss – said, "We were, but we cannot be sure that it was not simply those of The Abomination's followers that outlived their master. They were… easy to deal with after all – scattered like some… Queenless drones."

"Indeed, when you barely escaped with your life," the Blood Queen spoke up, not to be out-voiced by her fellow queens, turning attention back to the Elder Queen. Malcolm could feel her frustration from where he stood. "I find it difficult to believe that – injured and weakened as you have claimed – he could have found his way off your Hive."

"Without assistance," the Shadow Queen hissed, throwing the chaos of silence over the whole of the conclave.

The silence persisted for a long time, uncomfortable in its weight and implication, at least to Malcolm. He knew the others, beside his own queen, would have missed the full implication of the Shadow Queen's words; would focus only on the involvement of the Lanteans in the former Wraith Scientist's escape. Even now, surrounded by others who thought of him in such a way, Malcolm could not think of him as an abomination, let alone The Abomination. He was not certain in which way he did see his former Hive brother, however… he only knew that they were enemies now.

'she is his queen, is she not – the one that assisted his escape?'

Malcolm turned his eyes toward the Shadow Queen, as her voice echoed through his mind. He wanted to deny the words, but found himself unable to do so.

"Enough!" The Elder Queen snapped suddenly, and Malcolm feared that she had heard the private exchange, until she spoke again. "This continued digression does us no good."

"Agreed," the Raven Queen spoke again. "If The Abomination still lives, where is he? Why have we not heard more from one who is such a threat to Wraith?"

Her sarcastic tone was unmistakable, and she would have continued her tirade, Malcolm was certain of it, if the Shadow Queen had not derailed them all once more.

"The more pertinent question," she breathed, her voice a chill across the circle of thrones, "is to ask: what is his purpose."

'why do you serve…?'

**

Teyla tensed in anticipation of the expected jolt; the transport ship landed as softly as down alighting on a gilded cushion and Michael turned his head her way, eyebrow cocked in amused query. She shook her head.

He stepped down from the control station, and turning to her, offered his hand in invitation to join him as he made his way toward the ship's exit. Others fell into step behind them as she rested her hand over his; walked at his side.

By the time they had reached the airlock chamber, Teyla could no longer feel the background hum of the ship. He does not anticipate any trouble.

"I believe you will find it most agreeable here," Michael said as though eavesdropping on her thoughts, "peaceful."

She smiled at him and nodded. "I look forward to taking in the air," she said.

He glanced at her and for a moment looked as though he would object, before he smiled tightly. He worries.

"Of course," he said in place of the objection. It was meaningless, almost courtly banter, but underneath, Teyla felt their connection winding more securely around her. He worried for her, but felt a necessity for her to be away from the Hive – understood her need for natural, untreated air.

"The market place here is quite diverse in its wares," Midani offered from behind them. Michael glanced her way and then nodded as the thin sliver of sky became visible between the lowering hatch and the top of the ship's doorway.

"If there is anything you need…" he said, leaving the suggestion hanging.

"Michael…." Teyla couldn't help but smile in fondness at his answer to Midani's casual observation. She wanted to assure him of his more than adequate provision for her and said, "I want for nothing. We…" she corrected herself as she turned and took Nethaiye from Midani's arms, "want for nothing."

As he settled in her arms, Nethaiye reached for Michael. Michael gave the boy an awkward smile, and carefully brushed his fingers over the top of Nethaiye's head, smoothing down the fine shock of hair. Teyla felt a flush of contentment burst upon her awareness and then her son laid his head against her shoulder.

"Never-the-less," Michael said, suddenly turning his gaze away from them both. "If you should see anything you would like…"

Teyla laid a hand onto his arm, understanding and reassurance conveyed in the touch. It certainly would do no harm to visit the market place and see what might be there that she had not thought she might need: something for Nethaiye, perhaps.

"I will be at the laboratory if you should need me," he told her as the doorway came to rest on the ground, making a ramp down which Michael began to lead them. "Otherwise, I will find you – when it is time to leave."

Teyla looked out at the scene that had been unveiled by the opening of the transport ship's hatch. A small number of small dwellings stood on the outskirts of a larger settlement that stretched away ahead of them. Far from being cowed by their arrival, many of the people of the village continued about their daily routine, while others gathered in small groups, as though waiting.

It was to these groups that some from among the hybrids and freemen in Michael's contingent hurried. Smiles and greetings of happy relief began to bubble excitement into the air, and Teyla found she could not stop a widening smile from appearing on her face. A kind of relief of her own wrapped itself around her heart, for what she saw confirmed many of the things that Midani had told her.

Slowly, she made her way down the ramp toward the village. She felt Michael settle at her shoulder as she moved, ever present, ever protective, but she knew without a doubt – even as the first of the villagers reached for her – that it was unnecessary. None here would harm her.

"…It is you…"

"…She is here…"

"…I knew she would come…"

Astonished murmurs, filled with the hope reached her ears, as hesitant hands brushed against her arms, and shoulders. Hands reached for hers as though she were some kind of yogi to be venerated… and just as she began to feel uncomfortable, yet more drew her into their midst in welcome, like a long lost family member. She turned as she became surrounded, found Michael's eyes, and frowned, confused, perhaps a little more afraid.

-they have been waiting to welcome you for a long time-

Though he said nothing, the touching stopped, and space opened around her. Recovering herself, recalling other times and other places she had received such welcomes – as a trader for the Athosians; as a representative of Atlantis – she took a breath and turned back the small gathering of people.

…I am just an ordinary woman, Michael, nothing more…

"Thank you," she said aloud, raising her voice to include all of them as she spoke. "Truly, I am blessed to be among you."

-they have been waiting-

"I look forward to visiting with you… visiting your town and your market place. I am certain we will find much in common as we get to know one another."

"Come," Midani's gentle touch against her elbow startled her slightly. "Let me show you around. My people will not trouble you, and there are many things to see here."

"I would like that," Teyla said genuinely. "Thank you."

She turned to let Michael know that she would be fine in Midani's company, but as she looked for him, she could not see him. It was as though he had disappeared without a trace – or perhaps had never been there.

**

The door hissed open, and Michael's rapid steps carried him into the heart of the laboratory complex even before the light had fully flickered into life, illuminating the stark metallic contrast to the natural green that shielded the facility from sight from the outside.

"Time is short," he snapped to the few hybrids that had accompanied him, and to those minders that dwelled within the facility itself. "Let's get started."

"Subject 457 has begun exhibiting difficulties," one of the minders reported, "of the usual kind: cellular degradation, anaemia…"

Michael snatched the tablet from the man's hand and called up the report on her condition, scanning the text quickly. The information he sought was not contained within the file, and he snapped, "The foetuses?"

"Viable, according to the latest scans – except for one – sadly all life function in that one ceased several days ago."

Michael growled sub-vocally, running his eyes over the data again, looking for the key – looking for the one variance that could have caused the failure, the one difference. Nothing immediately presented itself. There would be nothing he could do.

"Shut down the subject," he ordered, "and transfer the viable young to generative pods. We'll see what we can salvage from this."

"At once," a hybrid scientist took back the tablet and moved away to perform his duties.

"The others?" Michael turned on the second scientist; the hybrid took a step back.

"All is proceeding well with the others," he answered, "They are producing genetic material for manipulation and transplant at the accelerated rate, just as you anticipated. Stasis does not appear to affect viability as it has in the past."

Michael nodded, "Good, see to it that they are exposed only to the enzyme of the Wraith donor with whom they were matched, and prepare the genetic material for transfer to the cloning facility. We must push forward with our plans."

"Very well," the scientist turned, prepared to go and do as he was ordered, but Michael stopped him with a thought.

"Subject 592 – bring her to me," he ordered, and then moved toward the genetic workstation, preparing to receive the subject into his care.

He watched her approach in the mirrored surface of the computer screen. She was as defiant as always, struggling against the restraints that they had forced upon her, and against the hybrid guards that accompanied her.

Turning, he saw her long dark hair was tangled, her rounded cheeks and angular jaw showed faded bruises and her sharp brown eyes were slightly unfocussed, showing lingering traces of the use of sedatives… all signs of mishandling, and he shot the hybrid scientist a disapproving look.

"She was… difficult," he said apologetically.

Michael turned the same, intense gaze on the woman. "You have been warned against your defiance. You only remain of use to me if you cooperate."

She spat at him, though missing by a significant distance, then pulling against the hybrids that held her tried to get closer to him.

"If that's supposed to frighten me, Genius, you're gonna have to try a lot harder than tha—" She broke off, the whole of her body twisting in reaction to the crushing mental presence Michael pressed against her.

Only when she was on her knees in the dust of the laboratory floor did Michael move closer to crouch before her and take a handful of her hair into his fist to pull back her head.

"Would you like me to try harder…" he snarled softly, "…Captain?"

**

Keller felt at least a hundred percent better than she had in a long time. That, and the way the few medical staff that attended her seemed to avoid eye contact scared her. She reached out and caught Marie's sleeve as she started to move away after checking the monitors.

"Marie, please," she said softly, "what aren't you telling me?"

"Doctor Beckett will be here soon," Marie answered. "Honestly, we should wait for him."

"Is it so bad?" Keller frowned, and tried to sit up, to reach for her notes that should have been at the bottom of her bed. The holder was empty. "Marie?"

"It's all right, Marie," Carson ducked around the curtained screen and put a hand onto Marie's shoulder, then released her to take Keller's hand between the warmth of his palms. "I'll take it from here."

"Anything you'll need, Doctor?" Marie asked as she nodded, and the nervousness twisted more tightly in Keller's belly.

"I don't think so," Carson answered, and he turned a serious expression of concern Keller's way. "Just a little privacy, please."

Marie nodded, and offered an almost sympathetic smile Keller's way. Keller couldn't help but think it was the kind of smile you gave to someone when you told them there was nothing you could do. She felt sick.

"Carson, please, just tell me," she said, swallowing down the feeling. "I know there's something going on. I can tell. I work with these people."

Carson took a deep breath, not denying her words as he pulled up his characteristic rolling stool. As he sat down she noticed he carried a tablet computer with him.

"How are you feeling, Jennifer?" he asked, glancing at the tablet as she eyed it. "Let's start there, shall we?"

Keller swallowed. "Better," she said. "Better than I have in a very long time."

Carson nodded. "That'll be because we finally found a way to stabilise the cellular degradation that was happening as a result of the underlying pathology."

"How?" she asked. "What was it; how did you—?"

"How isn't important right now," Carson interrupted, and Keller thought she detected a flash of fearful pain in his expression. It made her feel guilty, without knowing why. What price had he paid? "The point is that it worked. Your system has stabilised – even if your sats have stabilised low, and we have no explanation for that. As of right now, given that you've made such a remarkable improvement, we're not overly concerned about that."

He looked down and took another breath. She didn't miss it.

"Then," she asked slowly, "what are you concerned about? What's wrong with me, Carson?"

Carson sighed.

"Jennifer," he started softly, "you're pregnant."

"What? No," she laughed, certain she'd heard him incorrectly. "You're wrong, I can't be. You didn't just say—"

"I'm sorry, love. There's no mistake." He frowned softly, and activated the tablet, pulling up a file, which he turned her way. "We checked the blood-work three times, and three separate qualified medical practitioners all reached the same diagnosis."

"Carson…" her laughter faded to a chuckle as her throat constricted; a hot buzzing crept up the sides of her neck. The chuckles became a string of painful ragged sobbing breaths. "Please, God, no!"

He set the tablet down and took her hand again. He felt warm against her suddenly freezing fingers and she gripped him as hard as she could. If she let go, the vacuum forming in the room around them would sweep her away. She snatched a breath, then another and another…

"All right, Jennifer," his voice – the soft, warm tones she knew so well – wrapped around her, "just breathe… slow breaths now… that's it…"

"I don't…" she gasped, and suddenly his concern, his caring tones – conflicting with the news he had just given – threatening to suffocate her; threatening to end everything that she knew, pushed her beyond all but a single thought. "I don't… want it. I don't— get it… get it out of me, I don't want it – Get it OUT!"

"Jennifer," he stood up and moved closer, and she shrank away.

"No," she cried. "Get it out. OUT!"

"Jennifer, I need you to calm down," his concerned tones became firmer. "I need you to calm down and listen to me."

"No!"

"Please, you need to—" She lashed out, and struck hard against his face, her hand balled not open. "Marie – a little help in here!" He caught her wrists, held her tightly, though he was still gentle. The rational part that lurked behind the terror occupying the rest of her mind didn't think for a moment that he could ever be anything less. "Listen to me, Jennifer."

Marie came to the other side of her bed, caught her other hand, careful of the IV, and held her gently.

"I'm sorry, Jennifer," she said softly. "Please try to relax."

"I will sedate you, if I have to," Carson said apologetically. "I don't wan—"

"WHY won't you listen to me?" she screamed at him. "I don't. Want. This!"

Suddenly exhausted, she fell back against the pillows and covered her face with her hands, repeating the words over and over as if they could keep it all away from her, until the whispered words disintegrated into sobbing against the palms of her hands, and her whole body shook as if terribly cold.

Awareness dissolved in the wake of a sorrowing, terrible lethargy. She felt as if she were a stranger in her own body – drifting aimlessly and unable to escape a terrible nightmare… and for a moment – a single blessed moment… nothing.

When she opened her eyes from what seemed to her nothing more than a long blink, the nightmare had not faded. Carson sat once more on the stool beside her bed, carefully watching the monitors; the same serious expression of concern fixed on his face.

"Carson," she found she could manage little more than a whisper, no matter how much she cleared her throat. She blamed the terrible fizzing heat that still climbed either side of her neck; the terrible trembling fear that gripped her. He helped her to sip at a small cup of water, settled her again afterwards, into another long, slow blink.

"Why not admit it?" he asked, his lips brushing against her neck as he spoke, "You are at least… curious…"

"But I… you…" She moaned, and could not help but shift against him as his other hand, his feeding hand left the surface of the bench to wrap around her, to come to rest, not against her chest, but low on her belly, over the fluttering she felt there, and skimmed lower still.

She fell against the bench and lay, panting… breathless as Todd shrugged off the heavy leather coat and rose over her like some great dark sun.

"You fucking bastard!"

The fall of leather onto the floor sounded like the slap she wanted, so badly, to land on his smug green face. Instead she reached for him again, pulled him closer, her hands like ice while the rest of her burned with fever.

Gasping, drowning, she reached out, arms flailing; caught in the warmth of human hands… a soothing female voice murmured platitudes – softly… accented.

"All right, Jennifer… gently now. Take a breath."

"Carson…?" Keller opened her eyes into the concerned face of Doctor Haddad.

"He was called away," Haddad said quietly, "It is all right. One of us has been with you all the time."

"Can I sit up?" Keller wiped her face, wiping away the tears that wet her cheeks. "I'd like to sit up."

Haddad gave her a smile. "I see no reason why not," she said. "Marie…"

Keller reached out and took hold of the other woman, levered herself up while Marie came to adjust the pillows. The doctor held her gently, as she knew Carson would have had she but reached out to him, but something – some deeply buried kindred – made her shift her hold on Doctor Haddad's arms, press her head against the other woman's shoulder.

"I'm scared, Ayatesha," her voice cracked, and the words tumbled out of her as if they were some terrible admission and not the expression of an emotion that was more than natural… expected.

"I know you are, Jennifer," Ayatesha closed her own arms more gently around Keller's back, and smoothed her fingers over her mussed-up hair. "I know… but I promise we will help you through this. You are not alone."

"But… I don't understand," Keller could not stop the tears from falling, as much as she wanted to, as rational as she wanted to be. "Why won't you just do as I ask? I want a termination, Ayatesha. I don't want to have this… this—"

Ayatesha pulled away just enough to cup her tear-streaked face between her hands, smoothing away her hair, and wiping away the tears with a tenderness that was almost painful as she interrupted her.

"Jennifer, it is not that we will not," she said, sadly, "it is that we cannot."

"What?" Keller hiccupped in confusion, "I don— why?"

"I will explain," Haddad answered, "I will show you, if you promise to be calm."

Keller nodded, feeling lost and broken – there was no more fight left inside her, even if she wanted to. She lay back against the pillows as Ayatesha turned to pick up the tablet that Carson had left at the bedside and activated it – opened a file and handed the computer to her.

"This is a scan we took just a few hours ago, to confirm our initial diagnosis," she said, and pointed to the screen. "You can see what we see, yes? Why we cannot do as you have asked?"

Jennifer looked, her stomach knotting in rising nausea, her hands trembling as she ran her fingers over the screen. In any other nightmare but the Pegasus Galaxy, it would have been impossible, she would never have seen what she was seeing – engorged veins, spreading, invading tissues reaching way beyond the uterine wall.

"Oh God!" She dropped the tablet into her lap, covered her face with her hands and whined into the shaking cavern of darkness she created over her eyes. "Ayatesha…"

"I am sorry, Jennifer, truly," Haddad said softly, "In a best case scenario, to do as you ask we would have to perform a complete hysterectomy and BSO, which in itself is radical enough, but with the severity and level of the invading tissue, both Carson and I doubt we could perform the necessary surgery without…"

Keller reached for the tablet again, everything around her fading to a ghost of awareness as she stared at the image of the scan… her awareness pulled to focus on the tiny blurred foetus nestled at the centre of the sinewy web inside of her as she pressed her hand to her belly.

**

Sheppard descended the stairs from the Jumper Bay with a spring in his step that he truly didn't feel, ignoring the clamour of Ronon's heavy footfalls behind him.

"Well?"

Woolsey met them at the foot of the stairway, steering them both toward the bustle of activity in the Control Room – toward the main screen, which now showed the knot of Wraith Hives more clearly as the technicians continued to map the decrypted telemetry, and fit it with the incoming Intel from the relay stations in nearby systems.

"What did he say?"

"Nothing," Sheppard spat, "absolutely nothing."

"But you said—" Woolsey's voice rose in alarm and that, more than anything, made Sheppard look around at the screen again.

"Well maybe," he snapped, throwing a less than charitable look in Ronon's direction, "if Chewie here hadn't gone all… caveman on his ass he might have been a little more forthcoming."

"What do you mean?" McKay looked up from his workstation as he asked the question.

"The only thing that he did say was that we had no business interfering with the affairs of the Wraith." Sheppard sighed. "Which makes it pretty much a given that there's something going on."

"Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey said, leaning toward him and speaking urgently. "Are you telling me that in spite of your assurances to the contrary when you were trying to get me to authorise your speaking with him in the first place, Todd was unforthcoming with any useful information?"

"I'm telling you that something's got him worked up," he pointed at Ronon, "and it wasn't just the fact that Ronon has his blaster shoved half way down his throat. Whatever this is…" he nodded toward the ever thickening swarm of dots on the screen, "… it has him practically running scared and if it bothers Todd, we need. To know."

"Then what would you propose, Colonel?" Woolsey asked. "It seems to me that you've already exhausted your one avenue of investigation and—"

"I'll take a Jumper," Sheppard pushed past Woolsey to stand beside the screen, "there's a 'Gate here: M3F-325. It's partially shielded by this nebula, and I doubt they'll be looking that way in any case. From there, using the cloak, I can—"

"No," Woolsey interrupted, "absolutely not. Doubts… suppositions; it's far too dangerous. I can't risk—"

"You're not," Sheppard said, shaking his head. "It'll be my ass out there, Woolsey, because we have to find out. We can't afford to hide behind any excuse this time. So, I'm sorry, but I'm taking a Jumper and I'm going to gather some hard Intel. so that we can make a considered decision about what we need to do and if that means that I have to land in the middle of some Wraith tea party and hide underneath the tablecloth, then that's exactly what I'll do."

"Are you done?" Woolsey asked, folding his arms, but looking pointedly displeased in Sheppard's direction, "because what you're proposing is not just stupid, it's—"

"Necessary," Sheppard said.

"Sheppard," McKay put in, stepping away from his computers, "I understand what you're saying, and I agree with you: we need the Intel, but don't you think you should give us a little more time to decode these files, I mean… what if they have something to do with what's going on here. What if they're some… big fat sign saying, 'Danger, Will Robinson…' What if—"

"That's why you should keep working on 'em while I head out there to investigate, McKay," Sheppard answered, clasping him on the upper arms, at the same time appreciative and dismissive of his concerns. "You know it makes sense. We're running out of time."

"I'm coming with you," Ronon said as he stepped up to Sheppard.

"Oh, 'cause that worked real well last time," Sheppard snapped as he stepped away from McKay.

"Listen," Ronon growled, "You're right, I may have lost it back there with Todd, but if you're going out there, you're gonna need backup."

"No," Sheppard said, refusing categorically. He wasn't going to allow anyone to go into danger with him. "I'm going alone."

"On the contrary, Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey cut in, "If you're going at all, you're going to take Ronon and a small team with you. If you get into difficulties, I want you to at least have a chance of getting out."

Sheppard grinned, and masking his frustration with teasing said, "Aw, Richard… I didn't know you cared." Then more seriously added, "Are you saying I have a go?"

Woolsey took a breath, and said, "So help me, Sheppard, if this goes south I'll—"

"It won't," Sheppard clapped him on the arm, blatantly ignoring McKay's expression of disapproval.

"Then yes, under the proviso that you take Ronon and the team – you have a go."

**

"Its purpose?"

Malcolm cringed as he – as he was sure the other Wraith had – detected the slight screech in the Elder Queen's incredulous question. It was a sign of weakness; of implied deception and it did not bode well for the continuance of the convocation. It did not bode well for her dominance of the conclave.

He glanced around to try and gauge the reactions of the others. The Red Queen would attack – this was the sign she was waiting for… and she possessed knowledge; had been informed of some of what had transpired aboard the Elder Queen's Hive while the former scientist had been their captive. The Raven Queen too… what thread of alliance binds them?

He felt himself drawn to the younger Wraith, the Red Queen's son, to find the other Wraith staring back at him. There was open hostility in the other Wraith's eyes, and curious, he pushed against the immature mental defences…

"Very well," she chuckled again, with the same shrivelling menace behind her mirth, and with the side of her supernumerary hand, she pushed the dagger from between them, and paced away. In spite of himself, he followed.

"Why do you serve?"

Malcolm drew in a sharp breath, pulled quickly away, and hastily schooled his expression. That one had encountered the Ancient Ones… they had spoken with him – against all protocols – against the words of the Revered Matron.

(+…numbered… be assured of that+)

The words insinuated themselves in his withdrawing contact. Malcolm growled softly, and stiffened… hardening the expression in his eyes.

{seek not to try me… young one}

"Its purpose is as it always was," the Elder Queen's voice pierced his consciousness, drawing his attention, in part, back to the proceedings, but he would watch that one. He must. "He means to build an army for his own protection, and for our destruction."

"And yet," the Raven Queen interrupted, "you had him within your grasp and you failed to destroy him."

"So the question becomes," the Red Queen had an unmistakable look of triumph on her face as she spoke, and Malcolm's attention snapped back to the young Wraith that stood behind his queen's shoulder. "What is your purpose in this?"

{what is it that you think you know? Be very careful of your path, Commander}

(+your warnings do not concern me… your treachery, Traitor, does+)

"I had no purpose other than to extract, from him, all the information he possessed," The Elder Queen snapped; her anger made the lie convincing at least. "His facilities, his strongholds – I mean to tear down his pathetic rebellion once and for all!"

"I repeat," the Red Queen said, her tone calmly patronising and Malcolm shivered as the fingers of warning passed along his spine, "he was in your power for weeks, perhaps months of time and yet you. Did. Nothing."

"And now you would have us believe that he survives?" the Raven Queen mocked. "What do you hide from us, Sister?"

"I hide no—"

"This debate and accusation serves us ill," the Shadow Queen interrupted, her voice a hissing rasp that stilled them all. With a relieved breath, Malcolm turned his attention to the eldest of the sisters. "It is digression – pointless… what we need is proof… or otherwise… of that one's survival – and to decide what we will do."

**

Jethera felt smothered; suffocated as the other Wraith queen's suspicions closed in around the Elder Queen. It was time – past time – for her to make her move, but she knew that her withdrawal would be noticed. She would be missed.

"You wish for proof?" the Elder Queen snarled at her sisters, stepping forward and gesturing impatiently toward the pathway leading to her Hive. "Here is proof… Sisters!"

The sounds of a scuffle, a struggle grew closer, and Jethera held her breath. It seemed inconceivable to her that in the one moment she needed it most, the Queen herself had provided her with the distraction she needed to be able to leave.

"What is the meaning of this!" the Blood Queen demanded angrily as the two Wraith drones entered the sacred space of the conclave. They dragged between them the struggling figure of the hybrid from the former Wraith's scientist's army.

"You demanded proof," the Elder Queen came to the prisoner, and grasped the back of his head, by the hair, in her hand… it was the last Jethera saw of her queen, as she slipped behind the attendant drone guards, to hurry into the shadows between the landed Hive ships.

**

Sheppard inched forward, holding his breath as if he feared the Wraith would hear if he sighed too hard. He pressed his back against the solid surface of what he thought was a thrust port on one of the massive Hives. It was a risk to have tried to get so close, but he needed to know – needed to hear – what was going on.

He ducked back, pressing into the darkest shadow he could find as he spotted a small group of guards, moving toward the far end of the Hive, and signalled to the others to do the same… not daring to speak.

He might have a reputation for suicidal actions, but at that time, suicide by Wraith was not on his list of things to do.

Finally unable to hold his breath any more, he leaned his forehead against the cooling Hive and blew it out, then realising the futility of trying to sneak past the many guards that stood between him and the area he knew he needed to reach, hissed quietly, "All right, guys, back it up… we're gonna have to do this a different way."

Instead, Ronon came closer and pressed to his side as he tried to see past him.

"What's going on?" Ronon asked.

"I said back it up," he said between clenched teeth, "before those guards swing around again."

"But we should—"

"Ronon, we're not getting any closer this way," he pushed against the Satedan. "There are too many—"

Struggles came closer; Wraith drones uncomfortably close, and Sheppard's only saving grace was that they were too busy struggling with a captive they held between them, a strong captive, to notice him and Ronon in the lea of the ship.

As they passed by though, the captive raised his head and looked almost right at them. Sheppard shivered, and pressed back hard against his big friend, pushing the both of them right into the belly of the Hive.

"That's one of Michael's hybrids," Ronon hissed.

"No shit, Sherlock," Sheppard answered.

"We gotta find out what's going on," Ronon insisted.

"Not this way." Sheppard had to listen to his gut, which at that moment was turning like a dervish, and making him feel more than a little sick with apprehension. "This way, we're just gonna end up as dead as that hybrid."

He tugged on Ronon's shirt until the big guy capitulated, and followed him through the shadows, back to the scorched remnants of the ruined woodland surrounding the bizarre, star shaped landing of Wraith Hives.

"Damn it!" Sheppard spat as they reached the relative safety of the blackened vegetation and he began pacing back and forth. "I told you… I told you there was something going on."

"We gotta get in there, Sheppard," Ronon paced after him, "since when is it like you to back away from something like this?"

"Run away?" He rounded on Ronon. "Is that what you think I'm doing? You may not have noticed, Rambo, but there are half a dozed Hives back there. We can't just—"

"All the more reason to get in there," Ronon insisted. "They won't be expecting it. No one is crazy enough to walk into the middle of six or so Hives."

"Exactly, no one; me inclu—"

The whistle of Ronon's blaster charging cut off Sheppard's argument, barely a second before the slight body ploughed into him. Acting on automatic, he wrapped his arms around the figure, bearing them both to the ground, and then rolling to put himself on top, just as the retort of Ronon's weapon split the air twice in quick succession – dropping the pursuing Wraith into the ashes at the base of a nearby tree.

The woman, for a woman it was, struggled and began to cry out, but Sheppard quickly pressed his hand over her mouth.

"Easy… easy," he said quietly but with an urgency that reflected his tension. "I'm not gonna hurt you… take it easy."

The woman under him went limp, and nodded. He removed his hand, and eased away from her, only to have her scramble backwards until she hit one of the broken stumps.

"Please…" she craved, holding out a hand between them.

"No one here is going to hurt you," Sheppard said with quiet patience, and reached out to press his hand against the top of Ronon's blaster, which the Satedan had pointed in the woman's direction as soon as the Wraith were gone, shifting his aim away. "You were running from the Wraith; why?"

Sheppard reached down a hand to the woman, and hesitantly, almost like a frightened deer, she slipped her fingers into his. He watched her carefully as she rose to her feet, noting she was taller than he'd thought she was, and carried herself with a straight, almost courtly bearing. He admitted to himself, however, that his impression may have been guided by the high necked, split sleeved dress she wore, long and in a style reminiscent of something from an Errol Flynn movie. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders, and her eyes were a smothered blue-grey, that for now were still wide with startled fear.

"You're a worshipper," he said. It was a statement of fact, not an accusation, as it could well have been. To remind him of that, Ronon growled.

"I had no other choice," she said. Her tone was bitter, and as if to cover the pain of it, she leaned down to brush the dirt from her skirts.

"Why were you running?" Sheppard asked.

She straightened up to look him in the eye, as she repeated, "I had no other choice."

Her answer made him uncomfortable; as if she was deliberately being uncooperative, but not through any loyalty to her Wraith masters, simply because it was what she wanted to do. He had no idea why he should have such an impression. She was otherwise innocuous and convincing as a frightened young woman running from the Wraith, but there was something… some small measure of an impulse he couldn't explain that led him to doubt what he saw.

"What's going on here?" Ronon's question rumbled across his reverie, and he blinked; focussed his attention on the woman in front of him. She shook her head.

"It's all right," Sheppard reached out toward her, but she backed away out of reach, twisting her shoulder away from his touch. He stepped forward, refusing to give up. If nothing else she was their one lead; their one chance of information. "Why don't you start by telling us your name?"

"Jet—" she gasped, still breathless and her voice cracked as she spoke. "Jethera."

"All right, Jet," he said, "I'm John, this is Ronon, and these are two of my men." He nodded to the men now standing on either side of her. "I'll make a deal with you. I'll get you out of here – get you some place safe, if you tell me what you know about what's going on back there."

She shook her head again.

"I don't need your help," she said. "And you should leave. You don't belong and you're making a mistake in being here."

"Can't do that," Sheppard said, and stopped when Ronon took a hold of his shoulder, and leaned down to him.

"We're wasting our time here, Sheppard. She's a worshipper. She's not going to tell us anything," Ronon said.

"That's as may be, but she's a lead – the only lead we have and she must know something," he said.

"She's… a worshipper," Ronon repeated.

"There are five Hives here," Jethera called out to him. "Do you think the four of you can stand against five queens?"

"There, you see," Sheppard said, and slapped Ronon on the chest with the back of his hand, "Already she's telling us things we need to know."

He turned back to Jethera, still flanked by the two airmen and making no attempt to escape from them.

"All right, five Hives, five queens," he said, "Why?"

She shook her head. "It doesn't matter why. What matters is that if you stay here, you will be killed. That doesn't need to happen. You can walk away."

"As I've already said: no can do," Sheppard answered, "but I'll tell you what: as a sign of my good faith, and for the information you've just given to me, I'll honour my side of the deal. My men will take you back to Atlantis and—"

The change that came over her was startling. She tried to dart away, and fought the airman that caught hold of her and restrained her. The tension in her entire being was clearly visible, and in her voice, as audible as a thunder clap.

"I didn't make a deal with you," she said. Her words were shrill and harsh. "Let me go. I don't need your help! I won't go with you!"

"Take her back, boys." Sheppard's determination to learn what she knew was only doubled by her efforts to refuse. "Ronon, go with them. Make sure they get to the Jumper and then meet me on that rise of rocks over there," he pointed to the western horizon, where low, craggy cliffs were visible against the darkening sky.

"Please," Jethera's voice had turned from bitterness to desperation. "I can't go with you. I can't."

"No one is going to hurt you," he tried to reason with her, to soothe her obvious fears, even as his own spiked fiercely in an already churning gut. "You'll be safe."

"No," she told him.

Ronon's blaster trilled again, as the impatient Satedan raised his weapon and pointed it at the woman's chest. Even so, it was Ronon's words that chilled Sheppard, more than the obvious, physical threat.

"You have no other choice," he said.

**

McKay shovelled another fork full of mashed potato into his mouth, the rest of his face frowning even as his taste buds experienced another burst of near-nirvana. It wasn't quite blue jello, but it was close. Mashed potato and blue jello – he could live on them indefinitely.

His frown deepened as he peered at the screen of the laptop that was perched on the other side of the table from his bulging tray. He may not have indefinitely if he didn't get the message hidden in the subspace carrier wave decoded before they all got themselves into yet another spot of deep trouble… and as usual Sheppard was off ahead, carrying their banner.

He quickly keyed the only remaining algorithm his tired and still hungry brain could come up with – at least until he'd eaten the rest of the meal in front of him – into the computer. The hard disk whirred quietly for a moment or two, and McKay sighed in anticipation of another failure.

The whir turned to a double bleep from the laptop, and the random Wraith characters began to realign themselves into a more recognisable frame of reference. He laughed triumphantly.

"I did it!" he announced, drawing sceptical expressions from passers by that spoke of their doubt of his sanity. He didn't care and repeated more loudly, "I did it!"

Then his elation froze, and the celebratory fork full of mashed potato he lifted into his mouth began to taste like sand – bitter and gritty.

"Oh no," he breathed. "Oh no, no, no, no, no! Please tell me Sheppard hasn't gotten there yet… for the love of—" he cut himself off, keying his headset. "This is Doctor McKay to the Control Room. I need to speak to Colonel Sheppard, priority one!"

**

Straining with the effort, Sheppard closed his aching hand over the lip of the rocky climb and hauled himself up to the top of the cliff, rolling as he did to lie breathless, eyes closed, trusting in the lip of rock he had just breeched to shield him from any prying eyes that might have spotted his ascent.

His chest heaved, and his arms burned with fire that left them trembling. It had been a harder climb than he'd expected and he lay there for several long moments, winded and sweating with receding effort.

Something made him still his laboured breath; a slight scuff against the dry dirt on which he lay, of the sweep of something soft against the hardness of the ground. The sweat on his body cooled in an instant, and prickled like the warning quills of some giant porcupine.

"Ah crap," he whispered on the outgoing breath as he opened his eyes, to see the too familiar figure, backlit by the slow-descending sun, but familiar all the same, looking down on him in serious countenance.

"John Sheppard," Todd said, his voice stroking against Sheppard's too taut nerves as he drew out the sounds of his name. Sheppard's hand twitched toward his thigh holster. "Oh come now, don't disappoint me by doing anything so foolish as to reach for your weapon."

"Todd," Sheppard spat.

In amused but warning tones, the Wraith answered, "I have been waiting for you."











This website is owned and operated by Eirian Phillips and all original works herein are © Eirian Phillips 2011. Stargate: Atlantis is the property of MGM. All characters and images remain the property of the original copyright holder.  No infringement is intended.  This website is for entertainment purposes only and no revenue is being obtained from copyright material.  Everything here reflects a sincere love and respect for the material included and a desire to bring such quality storytelling to the attention of readers.  Disclaimer ends.