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Return to Pegasus, Part II, CH III

 <<< Back to Return to Pegasus, Part II, CH II

 

The next day found John in the control room, trying to ignore the sidelong glances from the techs on duty as he waited for Mayel Serrana to join him before the representative from the Travelers checked in. While Mayel’s objections regarding the continued development and eventual deployment of the Hoffan drug had been voiced more or less in private, the notion of anything happening in private in an alien-built city inhabited by approximately four hundred people at any given time was a pipe dream. Which was to say, of course, that everyone knew about it by now. However, whatever problems she might have with some of the decisions being made on Atlantis, as well as on Earth, John got the sense that Mayel wouldn’t let them get in the way of her work for the Coalition and the Genii.

A flash of auburn and olive green in the corner of his eye signaled Mayel’s approach, preventing John from any further thought on the matter. He noted that her face was calm, only her eyes betraying her discomfort.

“Are you all right?”

“I do not like this idea of continuing to use the Plague to draw out the Wraith. I cannot help but think that this will come to a very bad end. And yet—” She let out a breath.

John looked at her intently. “And yet?”

She sighed. “It is as you and Mister Woolsey have said. These are desperate times, and we must pursue any and all paths to achieving total victory over the Wraith. The fate of future generations depends on us and what we do here and now.” She looked over at him. “But that does not mean that I have to like it.”

He sighed. “None of us likes it.” He looked back out over the gate room. “It is what it is.”

They stood silently for a time, then Sheppard spoke again.

“I don’t blame you for being pissed off about this. If I was in your position, I think I’d be pretty pissed off, too. Heck, I am pissed off.” She arched an eyebrow at that comment, but he continued, “The Ancients left a lot of messes behind when they left Pegasus. They didn’t deal with the Wraith; they didn’t bother to make sure that they really had destroyed the Replicators... they just dropped everything and ran. They never looked back and they never came back.”

“But you did. Do you think that makes you better than the Ancestors?”

“No. We’re just trying to learn from their mistakes and our own.”

A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “That sounds reasonable.”

He smiled back. “Well, we do try to be reasonable.”

They continued to look at each other for a moment, at a curious loss for what to say, until Chuck cleared his throat behind them. “Colonel Sheppard, we’re receiving a subspace transmission. ID codes match those used by the Travelers.”

“Gee, right on time,” John muttered, as he and Mayel turned away from the view overlooking the gate room and walked up to the main monitor. “Thanks, Chuck. Open it up.” Chuck flashed a grin and tapped a couple of keys. An instant later, a rather familiar face appeared on the monitor, and John barely repressed the urge to hit his head against a wall.

Larrin smirked back at him.

“You’re looking well, Sheppard, all things considered.”

“Larrin. Always a pleasure,” he drawled.

The smirk seemed to grow. “I don’t think pleasure was the word you really wanted to use, was it?  Especially not in polite company.” She glanced at Mayel.

John could feel Mayel raise an eyebrow, though he didn’t know if it was in amusement or some other sentiment, as his own eyes were still on the screen.

“Captain Larrin, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

They’d met before? The urge to bang his head against a wall had just doubled. There was just no way that this would end well.

“Indeed. Hopefully we’ll have time to do more than just exchange pleasantries.” Her smile turned a little wicked. “Though I am curious to know how you managed to tame Sheppard so quickly.”

Mayel threw John a sidelong glance that he couldn’t interpret before turning her attention back to Larrin, her expression utterly deadpan as she replied. “Oh, I would not necessarily say that he is tamable.” Before the conversation could continue along that path any further, Mayel got down to business. “I understand that you have come as your people’s representative with the Coalition?”

“Since I’ve had the most contact with the people there in Atlantis, our Council believed I was the obvious choice.” Larrin’s face grew serious. “The first group of ships has already left for the staging area before we jump to intercept the Wraith. In addition to the ships that the Genii have outfitted with their atomic weapons, we’ll have at least a dozen more coming. We’re still waiting to hear from a few of the captains, but after the success at the Battle of Asuras, there’s greater confidence that larger fleet actions like this can work.” She glanced over at John. “So what are your people bringing to the table, Sheppard?”

“Only one of our ships can make it,” he answered. “You already know about the power requirements to make this distance, and we don’t have as much lead time on this little party as we did when we went after the Replicators.”

Larrin grimaced a little. “True. It’s a shame they’ll miss the fun, but I suppose it can’t be helped.”

“The Daedalus has had some upgrades to the weapons since you last saw it in action. Hopefully, that’ll help to make up for the lack of ships. And as before, we’re prepared to offer technical assistance to any ships that need a little boost.”

“Good, we’ve got a few ships that have signed on that could use a little work. When do you expect the Daedalus to arrive?”

“Two more days.”

“That’s cutting it close.”

“No closer than when the Wraith were laying siege to Atlantis five years ago.”

“You really ought to tell me sometime how you got yourselves out of that one.”

John smirked, relishing the chance to yank Larrin’s chain just a little. “Now’s as good a time as any, but there’s not much to tell. The Daedalus swooped in at the nick of time to pluck me out of a suicide run on one of the Hives with a Genii nuke and deliver our ZPM, and then we pulled a little Hollywood magic trick on ‘em.” Behind him, he heard Chuck stifle a snicker. Mayel, who John knew had heard a few tales of the Wraith siege from those who had been there, looked amused, though she said nothing.

“Whatever that means.” Larrin looked a little annoyed, realizing there was an inside joke hidden in there somewhere. She looked off to the side momentarily, nodded, then turned back to John and Mayel. “My ship is about to jump to the staging area. We’ll see you and the Daedalus there. Maybe this time I won’t even have to tie you up.”

“You’re assuming you’ll get the chance,” he shot back with an expression that was more bared teeth than a genuine smile.

Larrin’s smile was smug as she looked over at Mayel. “Until next time, Commander. Perhaps we can compare notes.”

Mayel nodded politely, but John could see a hint of discomfort in her stance. “Until next time, Captain.”

The screen went dark, signaling the end of the transmission.

Mayel was shaking her head as John turned to her.

“What?” he growled.

She tilted her head, regarding him thoughtfully, and he had the distinct impression that she was trying to come to some sort of decision about him. “Why do you let her treat you so? Do you not believe you deserve better than... that?”

He felt at once both bewildered and cautious. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I think you do. But I wonder if you know what it is you want.”

 

--/--

 

The Daedalus arrived at 0320 Atlantis Time on the fifth day after the city’s splashdown on M2K-701, and in spite of the very early hour, Atlantis’s Marines were already up and assisting in the offloading of the supplies the ship had brought. While the city itself had been loaded with far more supplies before it took off from Earth than the expedition had been able to carry with them through the gate to Atlantis six years earlier, there were still things that had been forgotten, or in a few cases, not anticipated to be necessary. A caffeine-wired McKay was there to personally take charge of the ZPM, which he cradled in his arms with more care than even a baby as he carried it down to the ZPM hub room so that he could plug it into the city’s power grid.

With the city’s shields and weapons now powered, everyone was able to relax, but only a little bit. For the past two days, a handful of Traveler ships had arrived in orbit around 701, seeking repairs and enhancements before going into battle against the Wraith. While McKay had continued to guide the ongoing repairs to Atlantis following the city’s latest flight, Zelenka had led the repair teams working on the Traveler ships, and he estimated that the last few, those with the most complicated repairs, would be ready to leave for the Coalition fleet’s staging point within the next couple of hours.

By 0630, Atlantis’s senior staff plus the Daedalus’s Colonel Caldwell assembled in the conference room for a briefing combined with an early breakfast. Richard Woolsey saw no reason to delay the meeting for everyone to eat or hold the meeting first and make everyone wait to eat, when the two could simply be combined. Expediency, Richard noted, had its perks. Having several Marines who also happened to be very good cooks running the dining hall kitchen didn’t hurt, either. Richard had the feeling that Stargate Command would be ruing the day that they let them go to Atlantis instead of keeping them Earth-side.

At the moment, Caldwell was filling them in on the not-so-official fallout at Homeworld Command that had come in the wake of Woolsey and Sheppard’s report to O’Neill. Saying the IOA was pissed about the setback was certainly the understatement of the year, though given the number of times that the bureaucratic agency’s meddling had harmed or at least risked harm to Atlantis, no one on Atlantis was losing any sleep over how the IOA felt about recent events. Richard, truth be told, admitted to himself that sitting in the big chair had given him a very different perspective on how the other side lived and worked. He wondered, not for the first time, if this was how Elizabeth Weir had felt when she had first entered the world of the Stargate program after being an advocate for military demobilization for so many years and what she would think about the current situation.

With that thought as a reminder, it was clearly time to stop woolgathering and re-tune both of his ears on the matters at hand. Caldwell had moved on to the preparations being made aboard the Daedalus for the impending battle with the Wraith.

“We also loaded up on extra munitions as well,” Caldwell said. “Figured a few extra bombs couldn’t hurt.”

“There’s no such thing as too many fireworks when it comes to the Wraith.” Sheppard grinned a little wolfishly, then took a bite out of his breakfast sandwich as if to emphasize the point.

“Speaking of that, I imagine Todd has been giving you the usual trouble.”

“If by ‘the usual’, you mean that he’s whining about how he could be of more help to us if we’d just cut him loose to go back to the Wraith to play spy, blah blah blah, then yeah, he’s still trouble.”

Richard rolled his eyes, but he privately admitted that Sheppard’s assessment, snarky as it was, was dead on. They were going to have to do something about Todd, probably sooner rather than later.

Caldwell grinned briefly, then shifted back to a serious subject. “Getting our weapons to the target has been trouble in the past. We’ve tried firing missiles at Wraith ships, and the darts have intercepted. We’ve tried beaming nukes on board, only for the Wraith to jam the frequencies. Frankly, I’m not sure how this weapons system that the Genii and the Travelers have cooked up is going to overcome those obstacles. The Asgard plasma beam weapons we have on the Daedalus will probably be our most effective weapon, and that’s going to be hampered by our need to power the shields.”

“I had a couple of thoughts on that,” Sheppard said. “What if we used the ZPM? Not the one from the Coria,” he added quickly before McKay could argue, “but the other one? We’ve got what, four percent power left in it? How much of a boost could that give the Daedalus?”

“Huh. That’s not a bad thought,” McKay said after a moment’s consideration. “That one won’t add a whole lot for us here in the city, but I think that’s enough power to give the Daedalus an edge.”

Caldwell nodded in appreciation. “We could certainly use it.”

“All right, Doctor McKay, see to it that the other ZPM is transferred to the Daedalus as soon as possible.” Richard turned to Sheppard. “You mentioned a couple of thoughts?”

Sheppard sat forward a little in his seat. “What if we tried beaming the Daedalus’s nukes alongside the hive ships’ outer hulls, then detonating them?”

“Like a minefield?” Caldwell asked, and Sheppard nodded.

“I thought a minefield was tried when the Wraith laid siege to Atlantis a few years ago. Why is this time different?” Richard asked.

“Well, that was just a string of ordinary mines,” Sheppard answered. “Once you put them in place, they stay there until something hits them and they blow up. The Wraith took advantage of the fact that we couldn’t move them and threw a few asteroids at the mines to clear the way. This time, we’ll be beaming the warheads right next to the Wraith ships and triggering them by remote. The hive ship won’t have time to take evasive action to avoid the warhead or for any darts to go kamikaze to protect the hive ships. And we avoid the problems with the Wraith jamming us.”

“Better and better,” Caldwell replied. “I think we can make that work. Can the Genii bombs be used that way?”

“They’re atomic bombs. I’d say that’s a yes.” McKay sounded snippier than usual, probably due to the early hour and lack of sleep.

Sheppard shot a glare at McKay, then continued, “The technical specs that the Genii sent show that they’ve been fitted with a pretty rudimentary rocket system. No guidance systems, just light ‘em off and run.”

Caldwell winced. “That could get messy.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Richard said, and he could see from Sheppard’s expression that he too remembered how Richard had repeated that same saying to Mayel Serrana a couple of days earlier.

“These people are determined to do as much damage to the Wraith as they can, however they can, and they don’t fear the consequences for themselves,” Sheppard said.

“No, they just get pissed off when we go and take action on our own,” McKay huffed. “If this goes wrong, they had better not blame us for it.”

Before the usual Sheppard versus McKay snark could ensue, Caldwell grabbed the reins of the conversation again. “How is that Genii girl we rescued from the Coria doing, by the way?”

“Commander Serrana? She’s doing quite well,” Richard answered. “She’s been a tremendous help in getting the fleet with the Travelers organized and updated intel from the Genii and other Coalition members.”

Caldwell raised an eyebrow. “Do you trust her that much? The Genii haven’t always been the best of friends. And Doctor McKay’s point about the Coalition is certainly well founded.” McKay preened at the acknowledgement.

“Well, we need someone on their end to coordinate with, and she’s been pretty eager to help,” Sheppard told him.

“Even if she was a little ticked off when she heard we were going back to work on the Hoffan retrovirus.” McKay glanced over at Sheppard, who shrugged.

“She does understand that it’s for sound tactical reasons, though,” Richard said. “And we are keeping tabs on her communications, just as we do with our own.” Caldwell nodded.

“I noticed Teyla and Ronon aren’t here. Has Teyla been able to get in touch with her people?” There were some uncertain looks around the table.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to locate the survivors of the Wraith culling on New Athos,” Richard said quietly. Seeing the disheartened look on Teyla’s face as she, Kanaan and Ronon returned from their off-world visits to Atlantis’s allies each day had been discouraging to Richard as well. Could all of that have been avoided if the IOA had let them return sooner? They would probably never know the answer to that question.

“They’re going out again today to check out the planet that Mayel said the Coalition had relocated the survivors to,” Sheppard elaborated. “It’s still the best lead there is.”

Richard sighed. “I had offered to send additional teams with them, but Teyla didn’t think that was a good idea. She was afraid that going in with a large group of searchers, even if they were obviously from Atlantis and therefore friendly, might spook anyone who’s hiding from the Wraith. I can’t fault her reasoning, but it still makes me uncomfortable, especially with the current situation.”

“Of course, she does have Kanaan and Ronon as backup,” Sheppard added. “We all know how good Ronon is, and while I haven’t seen Kanaan in action, Ronon has.”

“He’s good?” Caldwell asked.

“Ronon thinks so. That’s good enough for me.”

 

--/--

 

As it had turned out, there had been no further signs of the missing Athosians at the hunting camp sites on New Athos, and Teyla, Kanaan and Ronon had come away empty-handed. Their meetings with some of Atlantis and the Athosians’ mutual allies had also not yielded much. Most knew as much as the Genii, though a couple had reported seeing a handful of people while trading off-world who might have been Athosian, but none of them could be totally certain.

Kanaan had wryly remarked on a saying he’d heard Richard Woolsey mention once during one of the weekly group dinners with Colonel Sheppard’s team and a number of Atlantis’s senior staff, something about how there were always cakes tomorrow or the day before, but never today. It had been funny at the time, and even now, years later, the irony wasn’t lost on them, especially since the Athosians had gone missing before. Still, the lack of solid information scratched against Teyla’s nerves and led to nights where both she and Kanaan had less sleep than Torren.

Despite their disappointments in the search for the Athosians, there was better news for Ronon. Though the Satedan settlement on Manaria had fallen, the refugee groups on Belsa and Belkan remained unscathed. They were all happy to see Ronon, who had made a point to check in with all of them every once in a while between missions, and were glad to learn of Atlantis’s return. Though he was not their leader, as Teyla was leader of the Athosians, the twin facts of his survival for seven years as a Runner and his place on Atlantis gave him a certain respect among his people. Teyla found herself reminded again of Mayel’s curious remark to him earlier, and though she said nothing of it to Ronon or Kanaan, she wondered at what implications it might hold for the future.

Those visits had taken the better part of their first four days back in Pegasus. On this, the fifth day, they were finally going to look at the planet that Mayel told them the Genii had helped the Athosians resettle on, and it couldn’t have come soon enough for Teyla. As they had on the previous days, Ronon walked Amelia Banks over to the suite of quarters that Teyla and Kanaan shared to pick up Torren; she would hand him off to Jennifer Keller in the afternoon when Amelia went on her shift in the control room. Teyla and Kanaan always tried very hard not to grin at the sight of Ronon and Amelia trying not to say anything that could be interpreted as more than just friendly conversation while they were not alone; it never failed to give Teyla something amusing to distract herself from her own problems for a little while. Then it was up to the control room, where Chuck and the other techs on duty, and sometimes Richard Woolsey or Colonel Sheppard, saw them off through the Stargate.

From the moment they set foot on M7R-365—the Ancestors had not given the planet a name in their database on Atlantis, and Mayel had not mentioned if the Genii had ever had a name to call the place—there was a deep and abiding sense of expectation. Yet, as with New Athos, there seemed to be no immediate sign of any inhabitants, and Teyla tried to shrug off the thread of uncertainty that had already started to wind around her heart again. Once they had sent the MALP back through the Stargate to Atlantis, the three cautiously made their way down the faint path leading away from the gate and up toward the hills, where Mayel had told them the Athosians had located their camp.

The land near to the gate consisted of rolling fields of tall grasses, dotted here and there with small stands of stout trees where freshwater springs welled up from the ground. It was wide and open, good for hunting small game and for planting crops. Indeed, when they came to the foot of the forested hills, they found the remnants of a plot of land that had clearly been cultivated recently, though the grasses were already reclaiming it. The vast expanse spreading out before them from the vantage point just above that patch of ground was also an ideal place to keep watch on the Stargate and any who might come through it. It was little wonder why the Athosians would’ve chosen such a site.

Teyla and Kanaan might have learned the ways of walking in the natural world as a part of lifestyle and tradition on Athos, and Ronon by necessity across many worlds after being wrenched from his home on Sateda, but some things were universal. The feel of rich soil and leaves underfoot, the scent of coming rain on the wind, the way that wild animals would either quiet or grow louder in alarm at a stranger’s approach—all these were clues to be recognized and interpreted to decipher their meaning.

The signs to be interpreted as they approached the settlement site, however, seemed at once more elusive and yet more obvious than those on New Athos. There were the very clear indications of an abandoned camp: a few collapsed tents, overturned benches, discarded clothing, cooking pots, and other items of daily life. Anyone who stumbled onto the place without knowing what they were looking for would come away with the impression that the inhabitants had left in a hurry, or were taken, as before. Yet to Teyla, who had been one of the first to see the wreckage on New Athos after Michael had taken the Athosians, this ruined camp site looked a little too perfect, too carefully arranged. There wasn’t enough discarded material to account for the numbers Mayel had suggested were taken, for a start. However, to an untrained eye, someone unfamiliar with the Athosians, it probably wouldn’t raise any questions.

“I wonder...” Kanaan began, but when he did not finish the thought, both Teyla and Ronon looked over at him.

“What are you thinking?” Teyla asked.

Ronon glanced around the campsite again. “It’s a decoy.” Kanaan nodded, and Teyla felt strangely relaxed that their train of thought was the same as hers. However, that did nothing for her nerves. Ten months waiting to return to Pegasus, and four days of searching since returning, had taken their toll.

“Then where are they now? If they are still here, surely they have seen our approach and know it is safe, that they have nothing to fear from us!” She spun on her heel, taking in the sight of the camp remnants, and let her despair wash over her.

Kanaan gently took Teyla by the shoulders. “I understand how you feel. I am worried for our people, too. But they have been through much in these past few years. There is only so much pain and upset a heart can take, only so much disruption and despair that can change one’s feelings. They have reason to fear the darkness.” Teyla shook her head, blinking away tears. Kanaan gently squeezed her shoulders, bringing her attention back to his face. “You did not give up on us before. Do not give up now.”

“He’s right,” Ronon added. “It worked pretty good the last time.” He padded over to them, and awkwardly patted her shoulder. “We’ll figure this out, and go home. Same as always. You could always turn it into one of those wild bedtime stories you two tell Torren.”

Kanaan snorted and a laugh bubbled up from Teyla’s lips, though to her ears—and, she suspected, to Kanaan’s and Ronon’s as well—it sounded more strained with panic than with humor. She mentally chided herself for her outburst, then straightened her spine and took a deep, if shuddering, breath.

“All right,” she finally said. “Where do we go next?”

“Further into the hills?” Kanaan finally ventured. “The heights would give them a tactical advantage.”

“Agreed,” Ronon nodded. “There may be caves and small canyons up there that would make good defensible positions. I hate to think of them thinking they’d have to make a last stand, but...” His voice trailed off, obviously unwilling to finish the thought.

“Indeed,” Teyla replied in a quiet voice.

Kanaan looked over at Ronon. “Perhaps you should lead, Ronon. You are better than either of us at finding hidden trails.”

Ronon’s lips curved in a slight grin. “Was just gonna suggest that.” He paced around the outskirts of both the settlement and the planting site for a few minutes, stopping here and there to kneel and scrutinize the ground, or peer around a tree to look closely at its bark. The other two searched as well, but Kanaan was quite right when he said that Ronon was the best tracker of the three.

Finally, Ronon turned to them. “I think I found something.” The other two hurried over, and Ronon pointed out what appeared to be little more than a game trail paralleling the western edge of the campsite.

“I saw a trace of what might be a path leading away from the opposite corner of the site, even fainter than this,” Kanaan mused.

“We do try not to use the same trail very often when hunting, so as to not create a habit that game animals might see and learn,” Teyla added, taking another calming breath. “If they are still here, maintaining this place as a decoy to throw off searchers—”

“Then eventually, following one of these trails should lead us back to them,” Kanaan finished.

“Makes sense to me,” Ronon agreed. “Do we split up and search both, or take them one at a time?”

“As much as splitting up might make the search go faster, there are only three of us,” Kanaan cautioned, and Teyla sighed.

“I cannot fault that reasoning.” She looked up at the sky overhead, then down at her watch. “We still have another six hours until we are to check in with Atlantis. That should be sufficient time to check both trails if needed.”

Ronon nodded. “Then we should get going.” With Ronon in the lead, Teyla following and Kanaan bringing up the rear, the three headed up the trail that Ronon had found.

The sun rose higher into the sky as they hiked higher into the hills, still following the faint traces of the path. Down on the plain around the Stargate and even up around the campsite, it had been bright and warm, even a little humid. However, it was cool and dark under the conifer trees, so very similar to other trees on many other worlds throughout the Pegasus Galaxy. Teyla knew that the Lanteans had theorized that the Ancestors had made it as such when they had “seeded” life on those worlds, in the words of the hologram message that had been left when the Ancestors departed Atlantis millennia ago.

At last, the trail seemed to end at a small freshwater spring. There appeared to be no continuation of the trail on the other side, though the spring was so shallow and narrow that even a small animal would have no trouble crossing it. Teyla could just make out through the sunlight trickling down through the gaps between the trees that the sun was just a bit past noonday. It seemed as good a place to take a short rest as any, so they refilled their canteens from the spring and had pulled out their food packs when Ronon froze, then whirled hard on his heels, facing the opposite side of the spring and pulling his blaster.

Teyla’s own reflexive reach was halfway to the pistol at her side when the leaves of the bushes seemed to move. A man-shape appeared, then another, followed by a third and fourth. Except that they weren’t just shapes, they were actually human. Two men, a young woman, and a teenage boy, wearing clothing that had been modified to blend into the foliage and carrying the tools of the hunt: bows and arrows, hunting spears, throwing knives, and baskets and bags to carry their catches.

Kanaan stepped forward. “Getan?”

Teyla blinked in surprise, then gave a gasping laugh as tears sprang to her eyes. Getan and Soren, who were both a hand of years younger than Teyla, were among the Athosians’ best hunters. Onna had just come of age the last time Teyla had seen her, and Nevir was still a youth, but certainly old enough to start taking part in hunting trips with his elders. If they were here, then surely the others were close by. Finally, the threads of worry and doubt began to lift.

She had found her people at last.

 

--/--

 

Once again, Mayel sat alone in the conference room that overlooked the gate room, as the Stargate below dialed into the Genii homeworld. Just as before, a few moments passed before Ladon Radim’s face appeared on the monitor.

“Commander Serrana, it is good to see you again so soon,” he greeted her. “I assume you have a status report for me?”

“Yes, General. The Atlantis engineering teams have finished working on the last of the Traveler ships that required repairs, and those ships have gone ahead to meet up with the rest of the fleet already assembled at the staging point. Colonel Sheppard and I will be departing within the hour aboard the Earth ship Daedalus to join them. From there, we intend to jump to engage the Wraith before the day is out.”

“Excellent. The rest of the Coalition will be pleased to hear that everything is going well.”

Mayel stirred uneasily. “There is... something else that I think the Coalition needs to be made aware of.”

“Oh? What is that?”

She took a deep breath. “As you are aware, the spread of the Hoffan Plague throughout this galaxy was due in some part to research conducted by people here in Atlantis.”

“Yes, Doctor Beckett. And that—Michael—creature.” Ladon grimaced.

“General, the agency on Earth that oversees matters here in Atlantis has ordered Doctors Beckett and Keller to continue their research into the retrovirus that is the basis of Hoffan Plague, to use it as a medium to make the Wraith incapable of feeding on humans.”

The expression of surprise on Ladon’s face quickly shifted to speculation, and Mayel found herself wondering if she really wanted to know what he was thinking, but knowing that ultimately, she probably wouldn’t have a choice in the matter.

“You have reservations about this?”

“Yes, I do. While I cannot deny the benefits of the Wraith no longer being able to feed on us, the fact that the Plague has already decimated so many worlds...” She shook her head. “I still wonder if it is worth the risk to those that are left to continue such work. Have the people of this galaxy not suffered enough?”

“Taking away the Wraith’s ability to feed on humans, or at least diminishing it and the source of their strength, would give us a tremendous tactical advantage over them.”

She sighed. “Colonel Sheppard said much the same thing.”

“I imagine he would know, given how close he is to the Plague’s development.” Ladon raised an eyebrow. “So, how have you been getting along with Sheppard? I did not ask the last time we spoke.”

“He is a very capable soldier,” she said cautiously, not sure where Ladon intended to go with this line of questioning. “He is respected by his peers and those he commands.”

“You seem a bit taken with him.” By the twinkle in his eye, Mayel was certain now that Ladon was teasing her a bit.

“I am nothing of the kind,” she huffed. “Besides, his reputation clearly precedes him.” The response only seemed to amuse Ladon even more. Yet something stirred in her at his question nonetheless.

“Which reputation is that?” he chuckled. “The one where he is portrayed as a rogue and great seducer of women, or the one where he is the soul of courtesy and a gentleman to any lady?”

Curious how that statement seemed to echo what Sheppard had told on the balcony days ago, only a few steps away from where she now sat. “Does the one not follow the other?”

Ladon’s expression became thoughtful. “You might be surprised. I’ve never seen anything from him but the latter. Especially when it comes to protecting his own people.” That unknown stir in the back of her mind returned, as Ladon settled back in his seat. “In any event, when the battle is over, I would like for you to return to our homeworld to make your report in person. It seems we have some other matters to discuss.”

Other matters that Ladon didn’t want the Lanteans—who were probably listening in—made aware of, was the unspoken statement she detected underneath his words.

“I noticed you did not say ‘if’ I returned from the battle.”

He smiled magnanimously. “I hold no illusions about how the battle might go. However, I have also found that the Lanteans seem to have a knack for getting themselves out of trouble under the most impossible of circumstances. I imagine you have seen a bit of that for yourself in your time with them.”

She mulled over that thought. “I cannot help but wonder when such luck might run out.”

“Then let it not be this day.”

She looked up at him, letting her belief in him, and in her pride in their people, fill her heart. “Let it not be this day,” she replied with a confident nod.

He nodded back. “Then I wish you good luck, Commander Serrana, and good hunting.”

After the transmission ended, Mayel sat in the conference room for some time, mentally preparing herself for what she would soon face.

 

--/--

 

The two groups stared at each other across the tree-shaded stream for a long moment. It was dark-haired Onna who broke the silence.

“What are you doing here?”

“What—“ The question took Teyla aback. “What are we doing here? We have been searching for you! We have returned to this galaxy with Atlantis, to fight the Wraith—“

“The Wraith!” Nevir pushed forward, his blue eyes flashing in anger. “Where were you and the mighty Lanteans when the Wraith swept down from the sky and took our families? Safe in the City of the Ancestors while the Wraith finished what they began on Athos and destroyed what was left of our people!”

“Nevir! That is enough.” Getan kept his voice low, but it still shot out like a whipcrack. “I am certain that Teyla, as well as Kanaan and Ronon, have much to tell us. Just as we have much to tell them.” Nevir looked sullen, but he said nothing more. Teyla gazed at the four in bewilderment. Getan and Soren looked harried and regretful. Onna seemed agitated, as though she were weighing something in her mind and could not make a decision. Nevir... Nevir’s attitude screamed of outright hatred. Of Teyla.

What was happening here? In her mind, Teyla had expected resentment that she had been gone for so long. It was understandable under the circumstances, though her heart had been pained to think of it. However, what she was seeing now went far beyond mere resentment. The underlying current running between the four reminded her of the time only a short while after the Athosians had first relocated to Atlantis after the awakening of the Wraith, when the Lanteans had suspected one or more of the Athosians of colluding with the Wraith, and the Athosians had chosen to exile themselves on the Lantean mainland to prove their innocence. The Athosians’ trust in Teyla as their leader had been damaged at that time, and there had been hurt and circumspection on both sides until it healed. Struggle as she might against the thought, Teyla found herself forced to admit that this latest attack by the Wraith had ripped open wounds that hadn’t healed as completely as she had believed.

“I think we all should go to the camp now. We will show you the way,” Soren said quietly.

Nevir snorted in disgust and turned quickly away, disappearing into the brush, Soren following silently behind him. Getan and Onna exchanged a look that Teyla found herself unable to interpret, and she cursed herself once again for how long she had been away. Getan held out a hand to Teyla. Teyla looked back at Kanaan and Ronon, who nodded to her. Ronon slid his blaster back into its holster. Teyla turned back to Getan and crossed the stream to join him and Onna, with Kanaan taking his customary place at Teyla’s side and Ronon his usual guard position behind them.

Getan took the lead as he and Onna led Teyla, Kanaan and Ronon further up into the wooded hills. The shadows under the trees gradually started to lengthen as the sun began to sink toward the horizon, and the coolness of the air took on a crisp bite. Though Teyla tried to focus her attention on the path they were taking, her mind wandered in self-recriminating circles, coming back again and again to the same thought: We were gone for too long.

For a while, Kanaan tried to engage the others in what the Lanteans called ‘small talk.’ Teyla found herself too upset to speak, so she said nothing, letting the conversation wash over her. Ronon also remained silent for the most part, his eyes roving over the landscape.

“You are still living here? All of you, on this world?” Kanaan asked. “The Genii said that they found no sign of you when they had searched earlier.”

“Yes,” Onna answered. “These hills that surround the valley are full of places that offer good concealment from any who might come through the Ancestral Ring to search. A different place each time and we have never stayed in the same place twice. It is a necessary precaution.” Teyla noted that her response confirmed what she and the others had suspected.

“That’s a lot of camps,” Ronon said.

“Indeed,” Soren agreed. “And not just different places, but different kinds of places. You taught us that with your stories from the time when you were a Runner, Ronon.”

“Really?” There was more than polite interest in Ronon’s question, and Teyla found herself hanging on every word.

“There are numerous caves in these hills, but we have even climbed trees to hang our beds,” Getan told them.

“Trees?” Kanaan looked around them dubiously, but Getan flashed a brief grin, the first smile that Teyla and the others had seen on any of the four.

“The trees grow very tall and wide here.”

Their path through the trees, which grew taller and taller as they climbed, twisted and turned around rocky outcroppings and more freshwater springs. The twisting path was clearly meant to throw off searchers, and Teyla, whose patience about this whole ordeal had never been very long, had been about to ask how much further it would be when the group finally came face to face with a steep rise in the earth, a nearly vertical stone face. A tall but narrow gash, partly obscured by carefully placed shrubbery, opened into the side of the hill. As Soren went ahead, a few low voices could be heard from inside the cave.

Getan and Onna ushered Teyla, Kanaan and Ronon through the cave entrance and down a short passage that turned sharply before opening into a larger chamber. In the lantern-lit chamber stood a handful of Athosians, who had been speaking rapidly with Nevir and Soren. Their own reactions when Teyla and the others stepped into the chamber ranged from shocked surprise and even a kind of muted joy, to more of the anger and resentment that Nevir had displayed. Teyla was elated to see their faces, but before she could say anything, another voice, male, but with the higher pitch of a youth who had not yet fully matured, called her name.

Teyla turned to see Jinto emerging from one of the side passages, followed by a few of the other young hunters. He was taller than Teyla remembered from the last time she had seen him, though with none of the lankiness that some youths had. All at once, the expression on his face seemed to war between happiness, anger and grief. A silence fell in the room, and he stared at the three of them for a long, uncomfortable moment.

“So you have returned,” he finally said. “And the Lanteans?”

Teyla blinked, surprised at Jinto’s bluntness. “They have returned with us. We were able to convince their superiors on Earth to allow us to bring Atlantis back to the Pegasus Galaxy, to fight the Wraith. Even now, they are joining with the Travelers and the Coalition worlds to form a fleet of ships that will strike at the Wraith and drive them back from our skies.” Tentative murmurs greeted her announcement, but whether they were of approval, she could not tell.

“Jinto,” Teyla began, “What has happened? The Genii told us what they knew, and Getan and the others told us the same, but... why are you all in hiding now? It is not our people’s way to play tricks and cower in shadows! It is not our way to be afraid!”

“Afraid?” Jinto shot back. “Teyla, look around you! We are all that is left of our people! Would you have us remain out in the open, like common herdbeasts, to be slaughtered? We did what we had to in order to survive.” Now the murmurs from the others gathered grew louder, and they were in agreement with Jinto’s words. In fact, everyone else had pulled away from Teyla, Kanaan and Ronon, and gathered around and behind Jinto, leaving an ominously visible space between the two groups.

“So now we must decide.”

Teyla’s wariness grew. “Decide what?”

Jinto’s eyes hardened. “Whether or not we are to declare you outcast from our people.”

 

>>> To be continued in Return to Pegasus, Part II, CH IV

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