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Author's Chapter Notes: I started this chapter in 2011 and finally finished it. Crazy.


Chapter 3: Aftershock

Emily rested the side of her head against one of the cell's support columns, drawing her knees closer to her chest. She closed her eyes as the coolness of the metal alloy sank into her skin, the vibration of the active force-shield that surrounded the cell a slight buzz in the background. With one hand she clutched at the necklace she wore and tried to keep her mind carefully blank –let the sound wash over her –but she failed. The memory of what she had discovered in the past hours forced itself unbidden into her thoughts and she clenched both her fists against the sick cold feeling that came swooping with it. The image of that picture surrounded by flowers floated through her mind and would not go away.

Part of her wanted to cry some more, to lose herself in the physicality of tears, but none would come. There was only that swooping emptiness, battling with the sheer overwhelmingness of it it all – this place, these people, everything that appeared so right but felt so horribly wrong. She wanted to get out: out of this cell with its close quarters and sharp shadows, out of this nightmare where her mother was dead and no one knew who she was to comfort her.

Suddenly unable to stand it anymore, she scrambled to her feet, buzzing with restlessness, hating these cell walls that offered the appearance of easy freedom but not the reality, hating Woolsey for putting her in them. Running, running, she wanted to run – break down that door, find Connor and just keep going and going until she forgot everything that had happened in the past twenty four hours... until they were home. She started pacing back and forth, her throat sore with the screams she was suppressing, muscles aching with the need to get out of this tiny room. The bars seemed to close in on her with every second she spent inside them. Why did she have to be alone? That was only making things worse. Why hadn't they let Connor stay with her? She cried out and froze in the middle of the cell, burying her face in her hands. What kind of past was this?

The door to the hallway hissed open. Emily turned, dropping her hands. Her Aunt Teyla stepped out of the shadows and up to the bars. The Athosian woman stared a her a moment, looking shocked. Then she seemed to recover herself. "I apologize." She shaped her gaping mouth into a gentle smile, real sympathy present in her brown eyes. "Hello, Emily. My name is Teyla. I've come to see how you are feeling."

Stretched as her mind felt, Emily couldn't help but laugh a bit at that. "I know who you are," she said, voice still somewhat thick from the extreme emotions of a minute before.

Teyla nodded. "Ah, of course. For some reason the thought had not entered my mind." She paused, seeming hesitant. "May I ask how it is that you know me?"

"You mean in the future?"

Teyla nodded.

"You're our godmother, Connor's and mine." Emily's earlier visit to Dr. Keller sprang into mind. It was so surreal, having to tell Teyla something that she had known long before Emily herself.

"Indeed? Well... I am sure I felt it a great honor for Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Weir to entrust me with such a position."

Emily could tell she was trying to be comforting, but there was a hesitance in her voice that spoke of more. She caught Teyla's eye and raised an eyebrow at her.

However, instead of prompting her to explain, the gesture seemed to throw Teyla off even more. "I... I am sorry. It is just that for a moment you looked..." She shook her head. "It does not matter." She looked up and met Emily's eyes again. "Please try to understand that these... circumstances are very disconcerting for all of us."

Emily gave a humorless laugh, eyes sliding down to stare at the cell bars. "No kidding."

"I am sure what Mr. Woolsey told you came as a great shock." The kindness in her tone made Emily look up again. "You have my sympathies."

"Thank you," murmured Emily, giving a short nod. Her face must have betrayed the pain caused by the awful reality of the condolence, because Teyla stepped closer to the bars and lowered her voice.

"My own mother died when I was very young," she began. Emily stared at her; she had never heard Aunt Teyla really talk about that before. "Those were... dark days, both for me and for my people. Many days it seemed as if the entire world had been reversed and I could not tell one way from another. Yet even then, at least I knew the whole history of my mother's fate. I can only begin to imagine what this discovery must be like for the two of you."

"What, then you believe us?"

"As of yet, I have seen no evidence that you and your brother are lying."

"That doesn't mean you think we're telling the truth."

"It means that I must judge the situation based on the facts before my eyes."

"And what do they tell you?"

Teyla eyed her for a long moment. "They tell me without question that you share a strong connection with Elizabeth and Colonel Sheppard. I do not know how such a connection is possible... but it exists. And therefore I am willing to, as they say, give you the benefit of the doubt."

Emily felt a rush of gratitude towards the older woman. Aunt Teyla had always been reasonable. She gave her a small smile. "Well, it's nice that someone does."

Teyla returned a polite smile and nod and turned to leave.

"Wait!"

Teyla stopped and turned back around, a questioning look on her face.

"Please, I don't know how much pull you have around here right now, but is there any way I can see Connor? I..." She hesitated. 'Come on Emily, just admit it! This is no time to be proud!' She took a deep breath. "I don't think I can stand being in here alone for much longer."

"I will see what I can do." Teyla nodded once more and then left. The distraction being gone, Emily was left with nothing to do but sink back onto the floor and try to swat away the gnawing fingers of that inner emptiness that slowly tried to creep their way back in.


–o–


"And I have your solemn promise that you won't attempt to escape and that you will do this city no harm in any way?"

"Mr. Woolsey, this is our home," sighed Connor, sick of having to keep explaining this to people. "Until we figure out what the heck is going on here, we don't have anywhere else to go."

"Then–"

"Yes! You have my word!" Connor shut his eyes for a moment. Shouting at this guy wouldn't do him or Emily any good.

"Very well. At the recommendation of Teyla Emmagen, I am transferring your confinement to house arrest in one of the guest quarters. You and your sister will remain under guard at all times and are to stay put unless given permission to move elsewhere. And speaking of your sister... Mr. Sheppard, I would advise you to keep her in line. While there were slightly... mitigating circumstances, I don't want a repeat of what happened yesterday."

"You won't have to worry about her." Ordinarily, Connor would have considered that a bold-faced lie, but he sincerely hoped that for once, with no one else for them to rely on, she would actually listen to him.

"Good." Woolsey waved forward the guard that was standing in the doorway. "Sergeant, please escort Mr. Sheppard down to collect his sister and then take them to one of the empty living quarters."

'Finally!' thought Connor. It was just wrong, this man sitting in his mother's office, comfortable and confident, as if he owned the place... If Connor had to sit there any longer and look at him, he might just start yelling after all.

The sergeant led Connor down the now familiar path to the prison block. The occasional scientist or other military personnel that they passed gave him curious looks, clearly wondering who he was. Apparently, Mr. Woolsey had chosen not to reveal the situation to the city's population at large, although Connor doubted that it would be a mystery for long – big secrets generally stopped being secret in a matter of hours in Atlantis. He'd often heard his parents joking about the city having the most efficient rumor mill in two galaxies; a look always passed between them when they mentioned it, as if it was some private joke on their part. Still, the lack of recognition was definitely a stark change from how things usually went, where Connor knew almost everyone at least in passing and where everyone certainly knew who he was. After about the fifth inquisitive stare, he decided he might as well make the most of something so annoying. Thankfully, the next face he saw was someone he did know, and as soon as she turned an inquiring eye his way, he spoke to her.

"Hi, Dr. Kusanagi, how are you?" The look on the scientist's face was priceless. Not only was Connor a complete stranger, but also obviously a prisoner. Kusanagi had frozen in place, glancing nervously from him to the guard and back again.

"You, no talking," ordered the guard. "Move along, Doctor."

Adjusting her glasses, Miko scurried away as quickly as possible, clutching her data tablet to her chest. Connor smirked to himself as he walked in front of his hulking Marine escort, following him down two levels and into the prison complex. Maybe that was a little evil of him, but hey... there had to be some kind of perks in this situation. Another guard let them into Emily's cell and Connor's smirk faded. There certainly weren't very many.

He rushed forward, getting as close to the bars as he dared. She was sitting on the floor, her face buried in her arms, gripping her legs as if she were trying to keep herself from falling apart. Anger stirred within him. Locking up his little sister... She didn't even look up until he called her name.

A look of extreme relief crossed over her grief-stricken face and she rapidly pulled herself to her feet, stepping towards the bars.

"Stand back," ordered her guard. She obeyed and he keyed open the cell door. Connor didn't wait for it to open all the way before stepping inside, instantly reeling backwards as Emily dashed forwards and threw her arms around his neck.

"Ow! Watch it!" he protested feebly, tightening his arms around her all the same. "Brother, not punching bag."

She released him and stepped back, sniffing slightly. "There's a difference?"

"Ha ha." He placed a hand on her shoulder and started guiding her to the door. "Come on, let's get out of here."

"Wait, they're letting us go?" Emily questioned in amazement. "Have they figured out what's going on?"

Connor could hear the hope rising in her voice and cursed himself for not being more careful in his wording. "No. No they aren't and no they haven't. But Mr. Woolsey has condescended to allow us to stay in the guest quarters."

"Oh... How... how thoughtful of him."

"Isn't it just?" Connor said dryly.

"Well when–"

"No talking while we're walking." The guard went silent then chuckled, apparently amused with his own cleverness at rhyming.

Connor glanced over and saw Emily cringe, looking too exhausted to roll her eyes as she normally would have. He placed his arm around her shoulders and tried to reign in the resentment that was seething through him at their situation – at everyone and everything around them that wasn't the way it should be. If it had been Woolsey walking behind them instead of the guard, Connor doubted that he could have restrained himself from doing something he'd regret.

The small group marched through the city, taking the least used corridors to avoid as many curious eyes as possible. Finally, they arrived at a block of rooms three quarters of the way up the central tower. Aunt Teyla was waiting for them. She gave an acknowledging smile to their escort.

"Thank you, Sergeant. I will escort them from here."

The guard looked hesitant and Connor braced himself for the spiel about orders and 'But Mr Woolsey said...' but it never came. Teyla fixed the guard with a look – a look that was very familiar to Connor and every kid he'd ever known. It was a subtle yet scary 'do you really wish to question me?' look, one that had stopped many a rampaging child in his or her tracks. There were stories. Everybody knew Teyla Emmagen could back up any kind of threat she made.

"Yes, ma'am," said the unfortunate sergeant, and he took up a position at the end of the hallway.

"Follow me," Teyla said, and Connor and Emily fell in behind her. Connor suddenly felt three years old again, being passed from the guardianship of one adult to another.

Teyla didn't speak to them. Connor could hardly blame her; if their positions were reversed he'd have no idea what to say. They proceeded down the hallway in silence until Teyla stopped in front of a nondescript door. She swiped it open and stepped aside to let them enter. Emily obediently went into the room but Connor paused, giving Teyla an inquiring look.

"I thought we were being put in one of the guest quarters," he said in confusion.

"These are the guest quarters," replied Teyla, one eyebrow lifting ever so slightly.

"But..." Connor sighed and rubbed at his forehead as he followed his sister inside. "Never mind."

Emily gave a humorless laugh from the middle of the room. "We're twenty years in the past. We should really stop being surprised at this kind of thing."

"Easier said than done," muttered Connor, looking around their new abode. The apartment was smaller than the guest quarters he was used to, but other than that it was completely standard. Little had been done to alter the original Ancient decor except the addition of a potted plant on the side table. On opposite sides of the room were doors that Connor guessed led to bedrooms.

"I hope you will be more comfortable here," said Teyla. "Someone will bring you food shortly and there is fresh clothing if you wish to change." The older woman paused, looking back and forth between Connor and Emily as if she wanted to say something else, but no words came out of her open mouth. She nodded at them, eyes dark with something that might have been sympathy, and turned to go.

"Wait." Emily swept by Connor and stopped in front of Teyla, gesturing at the room behind her. "I know we're here because of you. Thank you." Emily gave Teyla a hug, clearly startling their young adoptive aunt, then quickly retreated to the window at the other end of the room.

Teyla stood there for a moment, an expression on her face that Connor couldn't quite read. She briefly met his eyes, nodded once more and left. The door closed behind her with a soft hiss and Connor and Emily were alone. His eyes roamed blankly around the room, finally fixing on his sister. Emily still stood staring out the window, her arms crossed over her chest and her back to him– a silent silhouette in stark contrast with the sparkling vivacity that usually characterized her every move. She said nothing and for once Connor didn't have any words to offer her.

Thoroughly exhausted, he took a few steps and sank onto the small sofa, suddenly painfully aware that he hadn't slept since the morning of the mission, now pushing forty-eight hours, give or take about twenty years. But as soon as he shut his eyes images he had temporarily managed to suppress rushed through his head – images of the memorial, accompanied by Woolsey's voice, giving Connor the news that his mother was dead. The stress and impossibility of the past hours ran zinging through his nerves in accompaniment – the rushes of adrenaline and fear and confusion and anger – and Connor's eyes snapped open. The air rushed against the dampness around his eyes but he ignored the feeling as he leaned back against the cushions and raked his fingers through his hair. Until absolute exhaustion forced his body to obey, he wouldn't be sleeping for a long time.


-0-


Teyla signaled to the guards that they could assume their posts outside of the teenagers' door and walked quietly down the corridors towards the control room. Mr. Woolsey had asked her to give a report on her perceptions of the mysterious young people. Increasingly, Teyla found that it was a report that she would rather not give. Such pain as she had witnessed in Connor and Emily's eyes should not be treated so lightly, to be tattled on like children at play. These feelings of sympathy went against Teyla's better judgement, the logic that told her of the threat the boy and girl could pose to Atlantis, but her heart judged the situation quite differently. She sighed. This was all so strange.

"Hey," a deep voice called out to her. Teyla looked up and found Ronon walking towards her.

"Hello," she replied, too wrapped up in her thoughts to muster a smile of her usual warmth.

Ronon fell into step beside her. "You okay?"

"Yes, I am fine," she said with a small reassuring smile, forcing herself out of the haze of sad thoughts. "I have just come from escorting our visitors to their new accommodation."

"And?"

"And... I do not know," Teyla admitted. "We have been given no reason to doubt their claims so far. Dr. Keller has given her evidence and when I look at them I see nothing more sinister than fear and confusion."

"They could be acting."

Teyla stopped walking and shook her head. "You have seen them yourself, Ronon – heard their story from their own lips. You know as well as I that there is more to this situation than that. The way they speak, their mannerisms and appearance..." Teyla trailed off. "They are connected to Elizabeth and to Colonel Sheppard, of that I have no doubt."

There was a pause in the conversation, Ronon's silence saying as much as any words.

"I admit I was skeptical myself," Teyla continued, "until I saw the girl for the first time today." She looked up and met her friend's eyes. "Ronon, when I first walked into that cell, for half a moment I believed it was Elizabeth who stood there before me." She glanced down at the floor. "It is no wonder Colonel Sheppard has seemed so agitated." She sighed and the two of them resumed walking, Teyla staring at her intertwined fingers without really seeing them. "This situation is strange enough for the rest of us – I can scarcely imagine what the three of them must be going through."

"Gotta be weird, showing up in the past where nobody knows who you are and you're not even supposed to exist."

"Finding out that you have two children with someone who has been thought dead for almost two years," finished Teyla, meeting Ronon's eyes once more.

"Like I said, its gotta be weird."

Another lull fell into the conversation, Teyla occupied with her own thoughts. If a teenaged Torren had stepped through the stargate three years ago, before she and Kanaan had even begun a relationship, what would she have done? Would they have locked him away as well? Would he have that same look of disorientation and fear? Yet Kanaan would have been alive. Torren's presence could be seen as merely a presage of the future. With Elizabeth, however...

A thought struck her, one that Teyla hardly dared to acknowledge, for fear of allowing herself to hope. It must be said, however. "Ronon," she said cautiously. "If these children are indeed from the future, could it be possible that their existence might mean that-"

"That Weir's still alive somewhere?"

Teyla tilted her head to the side in a slow nod, fixing Ronon with a slightly anxious glance. It seemed he had reached a similar theory. He returned the look with a sympathetic one of his own, gently shaking his head.

"You heard how they reacted yesterday. Weir getting captured by Replicators isn't part of the history they knew."

Teyla sighed once more and nodded. It had been a foolish hope, even though short lived.

"That is all the more reason..." she said firmly. "Mr. Woolsey should not have told them about what happened to Elizabeth. Those children are truly grieving, Ronon."

"They asked and he told them. It's not Woolsey's fault."

"It was unnecessary given the circumstances. What if the two of them are from an alternate reality, as Rodney said? The information would have no significance to them in that case and telling them will have only caused unnecessary suffering."

Ronon paused a moment and lifted his thick eyebrows at her. "Sounds like you've decided to me."

"Decided what?"

"Sounds like you believe them."

"I..." Teyla sighed and shook her head. Giving up, she glanced up at Ronon and gave him a wry smile. "Perhaps it is my maternal instinct that is guiding me."

He only smirked at her, the expression drawing a genuine smile from her lips. The two of them reached a fork in the corridor. "Where are you headed?" asked Teyla.

"Mess hall with Amelia. You wanna join us?"

It was now Teyla's turn to smirk at him and she gently shook her head. "I thank you, but no. Kanaan and Torren are waiting in our quarters. We are practicing walking again."

Ronon grinned. "Have fun."

She smiled, waving a hand at him in dismissal, and walked down the opposite corridor towards her family.


-0-


"So what's our game plan here?" asked John the next morning, eyes flicking across the desk from Woolsey to Rodney and back again. "Keller's clone tests came back negative. Teyla's given them the okay. Their stories match up and they seem..."

"Emotionally invested?" offered Rodney.

"Yeah," said John, tapping his fingers against the arm of the chair. He raised his eyebrows at Woolsey and jerked his chin forward. "I vote for the usual."

"The usual, Colonel?"

"I take a team, we scout out the planet, Rodney fixes the machine and everybody goes home happy. Emphasis here on the 'everybody goes home' part."

The kids – unnerving and surreal as they were – didn't belong here, but they did belong somewhere. John had seen and heard enough to convince him of that much at least.

Rodney frowned wistfully. "Have we ever been anywhere where it was that easy?" Neither of the other men answered; John gave him a look.

"No, I was being serious," said Rodney. "Have we?"

Another beat of silence.

"Er, right." Rodney cleared his throat. "Anyway, gross over-simplification aside, that is the logical next step, isn't it? This complex the kids described sounds well worth the trouble of checking out. You know, assuming they were telling the truth."

"Always assuming that, Doctor McKay," said Woolsey. "Frankly, I've grown rather tired of debating the question. Colonel Sheppard is right. We've sat on our hands long enough regarding this issue and there's little more we can do here. Colonel, have your team ready in two hours. I want this planet fully investigated before I let those children set foot through the stargate."


-o-


John stood around the corner for a full ten minutes, working up the courage to do what he'd come to do and feeling like an idiot that it was necessary. He'd almost sent Teyla, but figured that, as much as he'd like to avoid it, he had to face them eventually. It wasn't like he was scared of them. They were just teenagers. Strange creepily familiar teenagers that had his nose and wild hair and smile. And Elizabeth's eyes. 'Get a grip, John. Do your job.'

He took another deep breath, bounced on his heels one last time, and stepped into the hallway. The guard on duty watched him as he approached – "Sir." – and moved away at his nod.

John knocked on the door. "It's-uh... It's Colonel Sheppard. I'm coming in."

After a slow count of five, John swiped open the door and walked right into the boy's stare. Connor was perched on the edge of the couch, frozen halfway through the process of standing up. He had showered and changed clothes, his hair sweeping across his head in clean yet untidy brown waves. Only the red scratches on his arm hinted at the upheaval of the past few days.

"Da-" The word faded away into a puff of breath. "Colonel."

John stopped a few feet beyond the threshold. The kid was looking at him like he didn't know whether to be wary or hopeful.

"Connor."

The boy stood up. "Well, you remember my name." A half-hearted twitch of a smile crossed his lips. "I guess that's a start."

John gave a non-committal 'hmm' of agreement and looked away. "Is-?"

"Dad!"

Emily burst in from one of the adjoining rooms, likewise scrubbed of the accumulated grime that came with off-world missions and days in a holding cell, her dark curls a kinetic cloud around her head. John thought she was going to run towards him, but halfway there she slowed, with a visible effort, checking her momentum by gripping the back of the sofa. Her eyes didn't leave his face.

"Well?" she asked, voice quiet but eager. Undoubtedly hopeful. As if he solved all their problems by simply walking in the room.

How the heck was he supposed to respond to that? John looked at the wall art instead. Right. Doing his job. He propped his hands on his hips.

"We're about to send a team to check out the planet you guys came from..."

'Finally,' he saw the boy mouth. John eyed him. 'Shades of smart-ass. Check.' He cleared his throat and frowned, more at himself for getting distracted than at Connor.

"Can we come with you?" Emily blurted out.

"No. You guys are going to stay put until we do the final checks on your story. Before we go, I wanted to ask if there was anything else you want to tell us about what we'll find there. Any forgotten intel. Helpful hints. Nasty surprises..."

"You mean traps." The girl's voice was laced with disappointment now, and it was almost a relief. He carefully avoided looking at her face.

"There aren't," Connor said.

John risked a glance, but the boy just looked tired. No, John corrected himself: exhausted.

"At least," Connor continued, "if there are, we didn't put them there."

"You really think we'd do something like that?" Emily sounded appalled as well as hurt.

"I don't know," said John, forcing himself to meet her eyes. "Would you?"

"No!" The kids answered at the same time, Emily shouting, Connor emphatic yet calm.

"Cause you seem like nice enough kids and all, but I'm not about to risk the safety of my team on niceness."

"Wouldn't be the first time." Connor stuck his hands in his pockets. "Doesn't that come with the job? Exploring planets, meeting new people, establishing trade... Part of that has to run on some measure of trust, doesn't it? On taking people at face value? And you've got a lot more than that to go on with us. We wouldn't be sitting all comfy in this room if you didn't."

John stared at the boy for a moment, then shook his head, smirking in spite of himself. "You're good."

"I learned from the best."

The boy's face and voice didn't change, but the tightening of his throat muscles betrayed him. Right. Of course he had. Stupidly, on reflex, John glanced at Emily. The sadness in her eyes made him look away again just as quickly, his professional resolve bowing under the returning flood of awkwardness. Crap. Elizabeth's presence hovered in the space between John and the teenagers.

He should say something. Anything. From the way Connor was looking at him, they clearly expected it. Why wouldn't they? It had been idiotic to think he could get through this without her coming up.

"I, uh–" John's mouth had suddenly gone dry. He wished they'd stop looking at him like that. They reminded him of Rodney, trying to measure his reaction with furtive glances. Worse, waiting for him to offer some kind of comfort along with it. Worst of all, the way they were including him in their sorrow, eyes offering him pity he didn't need.

"I'll take that as a 'no' on the new intel?"

John mentally winced as the confusion that appeared on both of their faces turned slowly into hurt, but kept his mouth shut as they stared at him for several excruciatingly silent minutes. He refused to feel cruel.

Finally..."We've told you everything we know." Connor's expression was blank.

"Woolsey took plenty of notes when he was interrogating us," said Emily, gripping the hem of her too-big t-shirt in one fist and twisting it. "I suggest you talk to him."

The girl turned and disappeared with the squeak of insole against tile floor. John found himself tensing up, waiting for a bang that would never come to echo down the short hallway. Doors in Atlantis weren't capable of being slammed. He imagined that must have been frustrating for a teenager.

"Fine." John examined his feet, nodded and turned to go. He was almost at the door when Connor spoke up.

"We haven't given you any reason to think we mean you harm."

John stilled his steps, not quite looking over his shoulder. "So far."

The room was silent behind him as he walked out. A grimace twisted his lips. He couldn't help it; now he felt cruel.


-o-


Behind him, Connor heard the scuff of insole on tile floor that was Emily rushing out of the room. With a quiet hiss, the door closed on their father, and it seemed as if he'd taken the last of Connor's energy with him. Connor's eyes slid shut and he laced his fingers through his hair. He knew he should go after his sister, try and talk it out with her and offer what comfort he could, but his body wouldn't respond.

This was the final straw in the reality of it all. Aunt Teyla, Aunt Jennifer, Woolsey, Mom... all different, all weirdly the same, but this, their first meeting with their dad (he didn't count their arrival; nothing in those mad first hours had seemed remotely real)... it was the final confirmation that everything was different.

'Please,' he found himself praying. 'Please let them figure this out so we can go home.' If there was even still a home to go to. Thinking about it too hard made his brain hurt. But there had to be a way home. There had to be. He didn't feel seventeen anymore, independent and self-reliant; he was a child, a lost child who desperately wanted his parents

He turned and dragged his feet across the tile floor. 'It can't be for much longer,' he told himself, pausing as he entered his bedroom. Neat, sparsely furnished in cool white and warm bronze, it looked like a cross between a hospital and a hotel. Grunting, he fell onto the bed, mussing the crisp blanket, and stared at the ceiling. Child or not, his big brother duties tugged at him; he should really check on Emily, say something to dispel the chill of their father's visit that still emanated through the apartment. Colonel Sheppard's final words still twisted in Connor's gut and he was grateful that she hadn't heard them. Part of him wanted to be angry, but weariness forced fairness onto him. Really, it had all gone about as well as could reasonably be expected. Light played across the textured ceiling, lazy shadows dancing like sun through water. Connor's eyes grew heavy. 'Please,' he prayed again, just before sleep finally claimed him. 'Please let them find something.'


-o-


John flipped down his sunglasses as he drew away from the gate, darkening the aqua colored sky to teal. So far so typical. An overgrown meadow, large boulders peeking above the grass and wildflowers, stretched out four-hundred yards in every direction until it met a forest, dense and shaded. Though, John remembered, running over the details in his head, according to the kids' story, it wasn't as large as it looked. He took a deep breath of the pine-scented air, glad to be out of the city and out in the field where he belonged. Finally, he could stop sitting around being weirded out and do something, actually physically verify things for himself without relying on Keller's tests or McKay's half-baked theories. Speaking of which...

"Alright, McKay, what have you got?" said John, resting his arms on his P-90.

"Well, there's definitely a structure not far from here." Rodney tapped at his data pad, squinting in the glare. "A big structure." He pointed at the trees. "That way."

Falling in, Rodney in the lead with Ronon by his side, they set off towards the welcome shade of the woods.

"I must admit," said Teyla, looking around her. "So far this planet seems to be exactly as Connor and Emily described it."

"Yeah, as far as wild goose chases go, they picked a lovely setting for it."

Teyla didn't respond immediately and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she wasn't buying the grumpy cynicism. "There are easier ways to lure us into a trap, John," she said softly, weaving around a boulder. "We have certainly had enough experience with them to know."

John let his silence acknowledge the truth of her words and bit back a comment about complacency and underestimating people. He couldn't lecture her on trusting the kids when he almost half believed them himself. "Woolsey told me you'd given them your recommendation," he said instead.

"I did."

They entered the shadow of the trees. John removed his sunglasses and ahead of them, McKay let out an audible sigh of relief.

"You know, it's a shame my cool-guy persona prevents me from wearing hats," he commented, atrociously serious.

Ronon just looked at him. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"Oh yeah? Well I don't see anything on top of your head, big guy. What, you couldn't find a hat to fit over those dreads?"

John smirked at the banter and turned to share an amused glance with Teyla, but her expression was still serious. This didn't bode well.

"What do you think, John, truly?"

There it was. The conversation he'd successfully avoided for the past several days barreling towards him with no room to dive clear. But he tried anyway.

"I think that what I think doesn't matter. The whole reason we're here is to get proof."

"And when that proof is found?

"Then the kids will go home and this will be just one more crazy story to add to the archives."

"That is all?" The disbelief was palpable in her voice. "Just another mission report?"

He forced casualness into his tone, wishing he'd left his sunglasses on despite the poor visibility. "What else would it be?"

Mercifully, Teyla seemed to concede defeat, for the next words she spoke were about the terrain. Yet John had the dread feeling that this was only a temporary cease-fire; as sure as Rodney hated lemons, this would come up again.

John started mentally measuring their progress and, sure enough, just as the kids had said, the woods started thinning out after a quarter of a mile. Light glinted through the trees up ahead, flashing painfully bright silver in the gloom, and then, in the space of one step, they were out of the woods, standing on the narrow shore of a massive lake with water licking at their boots. Settling his glasses back over his nose, John let out a low whistle.

"Correction," said Rodney, staring over the water in awe. "Remember when I said big? I meant humungous."

Out in the center of the lake, a building rose from the waves, an enormous Ancient wedding cake of glass and dull silver, ringed by a bronze colored wall that even from this distance John could only describe as towering.

"Point three for the Sheppard kids," said Ronon.

"What did I say about calling them that?" said John in annoyance. Ronon ignored him.

"How are we to get across?" asked Teyla.

John tore his eyes away from the structure and scanned the half-a-mile stretch of lake below. 'Ah.' The report of a bridge was indeed accurate, but the description of its condition was not. The entire middle section of the causeway was gone, probably washed away in some storm. John walked down the beach, following Ronon out onto the short splinter of bridge that still remained on their side. A discouragingly large area of water flowed between them and the jagged edge of the bridge's other end, with only the barest traces of pilings rising above the waves to hint at what had formerly been.

John frowned. "I am not swimming that far. I'll have to go back to Atlantis and get a jumper. Rodney, you and Teyla stay here and try to get whatever readings you can on that place. Ronon, keep watch. I'll be back as soon as I can."


-o-


Half an hour later, John set the jumper down in the meadow and radioed the team to meet him for pick-up. As he waited, he took advantage of the ship's scanners to perform a planetary scan. The familiar knot in John's shoulders loosened slightly when he detected no signs of any Wraith, on the surface or in orbit. Other than the building in the lake, there didn't seem to be any form of habitation at all. Convenient, but the isolation didn't exactly reassure him about whatever the Ancients had hidden away inside. John pursed his lips as he pulled up a more detailed view of the site than Rodney's handheld would allow. What had looked like a single complex from shore was actually composed of two separate structures: an inner island formed by the tiered building and an independent outer ring of land that supported the wall. A causeway connected the two. Luckily, despite the damage to the bridge, the overall structure of the complex seemed sound, but John decided to reserve full judgement until he could see for himself; he didn't like the looks of that dark spot on one of the upper tiers.

A halloo echoed across the clearing and he looked up to see his team emerging from the woods. John lowered the hatch and drummed his fingers against the dashboard until they trooped inside, McKay sinking into a chair in relief.

"Long time, no see," said John. "Anything interesting happen since I went away?"

"All was pleasantly uneventful," said Teyla. "However, Rodney was able to detect energy readings from within the facility."

"Nothing too crazy as of yet," chimed in Rodney. "I won't know anything for sure until we get inside."

"Alright then. Let's get this show on the road."

John thought at the controls and within moments, the jumper was speeding over the trees and out over sparkling water. He slowed as they approached their destination and circled the building, peering out the view-screen. "Looks like something did a number on more than the bridge," he said. Close up, broken panes of glass and sheared steel beams became visible, the dark spot John had seen on the scan actually a hole in the roof. "It doesn't look like an attack," he said, peering closely at the damaged areas. No heat-twisted metal or scorched black walls were present to mark a scene of violence.

"Must have been a storm after all," said Ronon.

"Well, I'm glad I wasn't here for it," said John. The jumper banked into a slow turn as he completed a final pass. "I'm gonna try and set her down inside the wall."

The jumper settled onto the wide inner causeway with a low whine and John popped the hatch, taking point as the team trailed outside. The wall soared behind them, throwing the walkway and the water lapping below into shadow, while above them, the stacked tiers shone in the sun, the glass domes that ringed the top layer almost painfully bright. Protected by the heights of the wall, this lower area of the complex was almost pristine, except for the lights set along the walk that struggled to shine as they passed.

John eyed the pitiful flickering with a frown. "Looks like something's wrong with the power. McKay?"

"The energy readings started fluctuating as soon as we left the jumper. It's like Atlantis when we first arrived, sensing our presence and trying to wake up. I bet it's only going to get worse once we get inside and more critical systems start to activate."

"Great," said John, his eyes once again drawn upwards as they drew closer to the door, twice his height and carved in sparse geometric designs with a crystal-inlaid panel in the lower center. He placed his hand on the panel and was relieved when the upper and lower halves of the door split apart; at least there was that much power. An inner set of doors slid open at the same time, revealing a shadowed corridor within. John exchanged glances with each member of his team, exhaled and stepped inside.

A low buzz hummed through John's skin and lights, set in long panels along the walls and ceiling, flickered into life. He remembered the kids' account, how this place had responded so strongly to their entrance and he frowned as he caught himself on the verge of smiling. The lights continued to flicker and John watched them with bated breath, hand drifting towards the light on his P-90. But the glitching stabilized and the lights settled into a respectable glow. He narrowed his eyes at them in warning and turned his attention to the hallway that stretched before him. Activating lights heralded the team's progress, dispelling shadows to illuminate numerous doors and branching corridors that led deeper into the complex. Everything was neat, almost pristine; this area showed no evidence of the storm that had caused so much damage outside.

"Hey, look at that." said Rodney, walking over to one of the corridors and pointing at a small block of Ancient script on the corner. "Labels!" He grinned. "So simple, so practical, yet so under-appreciated by the Ancient community."

"I'm liking this group already," said John. "Now show me an instruction manual and I'll be really impressed."

They passed through an intersection of corridors and the lights on the ceiling flared and then died, leaving only the horizontal bands of blue and white strip lighting along the walls for illumination. "Alright, McKay, see if you can find the fuse box on this place," said John, flipping the switch on his flashlight even though there was still enough light to see by.

Rodney tapped at his data pad. "Looks like the power distribution center is this way." He led them through the complex, up several floors until the corridor they were in fed into a larger, more important looking one. With his free hand, Rodney switched on his light and pointed his P-90 at the label on the wall. "Yep. Power distribution." He jerked his head towards the right-hand hallway and they followed him into a large circular room stuffed with consoles and equipment.

The lights made a valiant attempt to achieve full brightness but failed, leaving the room's domed ceiling a bowl for shadows. In the center of the room, a stout columnar structure dominated; panels of alternating orange and blue glass ringed it, glowing and beautiful in the dimness, hinting at the power contained behind their rippled surfaces. McKay immediately set to work, settling in at the largest console with his data pad propped up against a screen. John waited until streams of Ancient data and schematics flooded the screen before asking for a diagnosis.

"I think I can fix it," replied Rodney. "The problem's coming from damaged power conduits on the upper levels; as more systems activate, the feedback grows and messes with the entire building. I can try to reroute some of the power, see if that'll even things out."

"You do that," said John. He let his eyes roam about the room, trying to put together a mental picture of what they had seen so far: the abuse of the storm, the seemingly endless warren of blue, white and dull metallic hallways, steeped in silent abandonment except for the barely perceptible rush of the air vents. He gaze fell on the door. Promises of mystery and the undiscovered seeped through from the darkened corridors beyond, promises of answers...

"I will stay and help Rodney, if you two wish to begin exploring," said Teyla. Startled, John turned and saw recognition of his impatience in her brown eyes.

He gave her a grateful look. "Fine," he said. "Check for a database while you're at it and radio if you find anything important."

She nodded in affirmation and John and Ronon exited the room, following the corridor back the way they'd come. They paused at the intersection.

"Which way should we go first?" asked Ronon.

John ran the beam of his flashlight down each option. The route they had taken to get here was identical to every other hallway they had seen in this place. The hallway in which they currently stood was wider, taller and more decorative, with translucent turquoise panels running along the walls on either side. A sensation of familiarity itched at the back of John's mind. A story of panels that glowed...

"Definitely this way."

As they passed into the new branch of corridor, John stopped and cast his light over the label. His Ancient wasn't the best, but it mentioned the sun and what was either strength, difficulty or road... he wasn't sure which. 'So much for clarity,' he thought. 'Just when I was starting to think you people were different.'

The two men strode swiftly but cautiously down the hall. John's eyes were constantly on the move, his hand hovering near his weapon; he didn't have to look at Ronon to know he was doing the same. They passed another corridor – standard in size, the ends of either branch fading into blackness – but kept going. Whatever was at the end of this hall was important, and John wasn't going to waste time meandering until he found what he was looking for.

The walls stretched on in unbroken smoothness until, finally, John and Ronon found themselves standing before a set of massive double doors that practically screamed 'important!' Intricately carved geometric designs covered their surface, framing panels of blue glass that highlighted the coppery streaks shimmering within the doors' dull silver. Here it was. John could feel it; inside this room was the way out of the surrealist painting he'd been trapped in since Connor and Emily had waltzed into the gate room, fogging his brain with their tales of an impossible future. In there, he would finally be able to figure out what the h– was going on. Nerves buzzing, John took a deep breath, exchanged nods with Ronon and opened the door. He stood there for several long seconds as he brain caught up with what he was seeing.

The room was a wreck.

Cold disappointment smothered any traces of hopeful relief as John entered. Sunlight streamed in from the gaping hole in the distant roof, the torn metal and shattered glass of what had once been a dome cutting a jagged edge around the pool of light below. Debris littered the water-stained floor: chunks of masonry from the ceiling, broken view-screens, shattered glass and lengths of metal large and small. Consoles within range of the debris had been crushed by its nearly seven-story fall.

"Crap." That was all John could say. If this room still held any answers for him, they were not going to be easy to find.

Ronon edged around the perimeter of the circular room, slowly working his way around the various consoles and wreckage to the installation at the center. "Sheppard, this is it. This is the device the kids were talking about." John hurried to his side as quickly as the mess would allow, studying the structure with renewed interest. "Glass cylinder, panels on the floor..." Ronon pointed, following the line of inlaid panels that stretched from the base of the device, partially obscured by debris.

"You're right," John said, biting back the urge to swear violently. He glared at the hole in the roof; the memory of the scan he'd done seemed to taunt him. "Of course it had to be this room."

"This thing is right underneath." Ronon glanced upwards, then reached out and knocked on the cylinder. "It's not glass," he said. "That's why it's not broken."

"Good," said John, frustration sharpening his tone. "One less thing we'll have to fix." He grabbed at his radio. "McKay! Whatever you're doing, forget it and get in here. We've got a lot of work to do."


-o-


Emily looked up at the rap on her door. "Come in," she said, sitting up on the bed and wrapping her arms around her knees. Connor entered, lingering by the door.

"Hey."

"Hey." One corner of her mouth twitched into a smile. "You look like you finally got some sleep." His hair was ruffled more than usual and, though he still looked tense, the weight of exhaustion had lifted from his eyes.

"I did," he said. "What about you?"

She nodded. "A little." She looked away and started examining the weave of the blanket draped over her knees. The room was silent for an awkwardly long minute. Emily picked at the cotton strands. The mattress dipped under Connor's weight as he sat down on the edge of her bed. She glanced up. He was watching her, brows angled and jaw set in a mirror of their mother's 'concerned' face. A hank of wavy brown hair drooped down the middle of his forehead; Emily gave a little smile as she flicked it away.

"Come your hair, Hedgehog."

He smirked slightly and answered with the traditional response. "Do the same, Bird's Nest."

"Thanks for not yanking on my hair this time," said Emily teasingly.

Connor shook his head. "Five year old me is going to be paying for that for the rest of my life, aren't I?"

"Well, you did do it a lot, so..."

They both laughed softly and a comfortable silence fell. Soon, though, Emily sensed Connor working himself up to speak and the sense of ease evaporated.

"Look, about how Colonel Sheppard acted..." he began.

"Don't worry about it," she said quickly, shaking her head. She had heard the reluctance in his voice and echoed the sentiment. "It doesn't matter."

"Em..."

"We're not going to be here much longer anyway, right?" She met his eyes and forced optimism into her tone. "What difference does it make?"

He studied her for the space of several heartbeats. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"Have you heard anything about the away team yet?"

Another shake of his head. "No, but I think–" A faint knock on the outer door cut him off. "Speak of the devil," he muttered. Connor bolted for the other room. Emily threw off her blanket, kicked it out of the way and hurried after him.

Connor opened the main door. "News from the away team?" he asked before Mr. Woolsey was even fully past the threshold.

"Yes," said the older man, folding his arms behind his back. "Colonel Sheppard just radioed in with a report."

"Good news?" asked Emily, throat aching with restrained hope.

"Yes and no, I'm afraid," said Woolsey, sighing. Behind his glasses, his eyes darted between them. "The good news is that they found the complex and the laboratory, just as you described. The bad news–"

'Bad news?' thought Emily, grinning with relief. How could there be bad news? They'd found it! They'd believe them now! They could go home!

"The bad news is that things were not exactly as you had described."

"What? How so?" demanded Connor. Emily's grin froze in confusion.

"The facility has suffered damage as the result of a storm, likely some time ago. The laboratory housing the device you spoke of has come out much the worse for wear. Significantly worse."

Her smile shattered, the pieces of her hope vanishing into the blackness that seemed to swallow the floor around her. "And that means?" she forced out.

"It means–"

"Don't tell us," said Connor, holding up a hand. His shoulders slumped and Emily watched as her brother seemed to age before her eyes, becoming bone weary and decades older than his seventeen years. He glanced over and met Emily's eyes.

His gaze reflected her own horror and her voice shook with it as she spoke. "We're stuck here."


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