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Of Spies

Chapter Text

“The Genii have spies,” Rodney announced.

The conference room fell quiet. Another weekly meeting come and gone, they were at the final questions and comments stage before everyone could flee.

“I mean, we figured they have spies, Zelenka and I figured, anyway,” Rodney continued, explaining himself. “He has much more experience with spies from the whole Soviet thing but I figured out they were likely watching us off-world, at least someone was, feeding them information. Just because Radim hasn't tried anything doesn't mean they're not still Genii and gathering all the information they can. After all, we're an alliance of convenience while the Wraith are around and awake.”

“Rodney.” Elizabeth Weir tried to silence him with a word and a glare. “The Genii have spies?”

“Oh absolutely,” Rodney said. “There's no reason why they wouldn't, what with Wraith worshipers and everything, they probably think they can gain information on what the Wraith will do next, who they'll cull, and--”

“Rodney!” Sheppard snapped.

Rodney looked affronted at both Sheppard and Elizabeth for interrupting him.

“How do you know they have spies?” Elizabeth asked.

“You know that ball you made us go to?” Rodney asked.

Ronon grinned as he remembered. The Genii had insisted Teyla wear an elaborate dress of purple velvet and brass accents. She looked just as regal as always but once back on Atlantis the marines had felt her annoyance. They still jumped at the sound of sticks.

“Radim had someone there he called Linas Rainar of the Special Archives,” Rodney said. “Introduced him to me because apparently being a scientist means I must enjoy meeting librarians.”

Sheppard unsuccessfully tried to hide his snicker under a cough.

“He asked me about wolves,” Rodney said.

Sheppard stopped laughing.

“Wolves?” Elizabeth asked. “Are you sure?”

“Wolves,” Rodney said. “I told him because why not, it's not like this is important information.”

“What is a 'wolves'?” Teyla asked.

“A wolf is a big furry predator on Earth,” Rodney said. “They hunt in packs, used to eat people, we domesticated them into dogs.”

Ronon's jaw dropped. “Those 'puppy pictures' you showed me were once fierce predators?” he asked Elizabeth.

“You showed Ronon pictures of puppies?” Rodney asked.

“And videos,” Ronon said, grinning. "A whole pack hunted a rubber ball."

Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Back to the matter at hand,” she said. “This 'Linas Rainar' asked about wolves? Was there anything else?”

Rodney shrugged. “I had to explain dogs, though he called them 'hounds', and he wanted to know what werewolves were. What I want to know is who in this city's been discussing wolves and werewolves off-world.”

“What are 'werewolves'?” Teyla asked. “No one has mentioned such creatures around me. Ronon, did you know?”

Ronon shook his head. “Can I have a puppy? I won't let it eat anyone.”

“No one's getting a dog,” Sheppard said, glaring.

Elizabeth looked as disappointed as Ronon.

“What I'd like to know,” Rodney said loudly, trying to drag the conversation back to important topics. “Is where the Genii heard about wolves and werewolves. If we find out who's been talking about them off-world then we'll know where the Genii's spies were and when they were there. Maybe we can track if they're following us again or if this was an opportunistic collection.”

“Good idea,” Sheppard said. “You take the scientists, I'll handle the military.”

Rodney spluttered then pouted. He hadn't planned on roping himself into more work but he had to admit the wisdom. If it were one of his scientists, and that was more likely than not, then the source was more likely to talk to him than any military stooge. “Fine,” he said.

“Wolves,” Elizabeth said.

“I know,” Rodney said. “Of all the things to ask about, they went with wolves.”

“This is more than a series of questions,” Teyla said. “The Genii would never have asked such questions without an ulterior motive. They wish us to know we are being watched. They want us to question ourselves and our safety. We must act as though we are unbothered by their inquiry.”

“I agree,” Elizabeth said. “We can't let them know we're concerned. This may yet prove advantageous. If we can figure out a pattern to their spy network then we can feed them false information.”

“Or stuff we want them to know,” Rodney agreed.

“Same thing,” Sheppard said.

“It can be two things,” Rodney defended.

“Any other questions or ground-shaking statements?” Elizabeth asked. When there was no answer she shooed them all from her office to get to work finding that leak.

Chapter Text

Questions abounded.

What was a dragon? What did elves look like? What were horses? Why were filthy coal-feathered lake coots called 'sea birds' and revered as a god's favored servants? What did the light of the Two Trees look like?

These questions were difficult to answer. If the Genii asked too many questions directly then the Lanteans might grow suspicious, might suspect the Genii of stealing their holy Red Book, The Silmarillion. They were suspicious even now, reports told of how the Lanteans spoke less openly in villages, less on frivolous topics. They knew they were being watched.

But the Lanteans suspected the wrong people. They suspected adults.

The Genii used adults among their spy networks only when necessary. They preferred to use children. A specific type of child.

These strange-thinking, ever-watchful children made the best spies. They remembered almost everything, their varied and complex skills allowed them a welcome on most planets, and most importantly, the Lanteans underestimated them.

*****

“The villagers have granted us the use of their serisus steeds,” Teyla said. “We are fortunate. The terrain is rough--”

“And vertical,” Rodney said.

“And these steeds are known for their skill at climbing,” Teyla said, as though he hadn't interrupted her.

“I'm just glad we don't have to walk it,” Sheppard said. “I don't know if we can.”

“I don't see why we can't just fly there,” Rodney mused. “No Ancient is going to put an outpost on the top of a cliff like that without leaving a landing strip. How else would they expect to get there?”

“They could have used serisus,” Ronon said. “I hid in a nest of them once. They're fuzzy.”

“Go away, kid,” Rodney said.

Behind them stood a child. He watched them curiously, head cocked to one side, feet bare and dusty on the dirt path. He had one hand in his hair like it belonged there, tugging at the strands to the rhythm of a sound only he deigned to notice.

“Be nice, Rodney,” Sheppard warned.

“What? It's a kid following us,” Rodney said.

“He's not following us,” Sheppard said. “Are you, kid?”

The child pulled his own head to a steeper angle.

“Maybe he's damaged,” Rodney stage-whispered. He shrank back when Teyla glared at him. “What?”

Teyla rolled her eyes and approached the child. She knelt down in front of him. “Where are your parents, child?” she asked.

The child blinked then pointed down the path toward the serisus pens.

“Then you may come with us,” Teyla said. She stood up and offered her hand. The child sniffed it before pulling away and looking up at her strangely.

“Weird kid,” Sheppard muttered. Rodney nodded. They both pretended to have said nothing when Teyla turned her glare to the both of them.

“So who's the spy, do you think?” Sheppard asked, changing the subject.

“I do not understand why you believe one of your people is spying for the Genii,” Teyla said.

“They were asking about werewolves,” Sheppard defended. “Werewolves. Nobody talks about werewolves off of Atlantis. Either the Genii have somebody on the inside or, I don't know, one of the weird scientists is covering for some weird conversation they had offworld.”

“Hey, don't blame my people for this,” Rodney said. “You think the SGC sends us normal marines? The military is just as weird.”

“Nobody talks about cool things on Atlantis either,” Ronon said. “A man turning into a beast with all that power is cool.”

“Yeah, and then they eat their whole family and when the sun rises they find out they can't just die properly, no, there's a whole curse to deal with and the thing with the silver bullets and having no control over yourself and there's a reason these are horror stories.” Rodney paused in his ramble to take a breath.

“Still cool,” Ronon said. “I'd make sure I was somewhere where it counted before I changed. Like a hive ship. Or a worshiper planet.”

“Or a cage,” Rodney said.

Ronon growled.

“Hey, cage is traditional,” Rodney said.

“So's breaking out and killing everyone,” Sheppard said.

“Details.”

They rounded a small hill and the serisus pens came into view. Sheppard stood stock still while Rodney screamed in mortal terror and hid behind him.

“What is wrong?” Teyla asked.

A serisus padded toward them, curious as to the screaming. It wiggled its pedipalps at the newcomers, shaking its abdomen and tapping its eight legs against the ground. A multitude of black shining eyes reflected their own horrified faces back at them as Sheppard backed away, shaking uncontrollably. As Rodney's screaming went deadly quiet, terror gripping him so tightly his legs gave out and he scrambled back on all fours.

The child made a sound and pulled his oily hand out of his hair. He climbed onto the back of one of the serisus and buried both hands in its fur.

“John, Rodney, what is it?” Teyla asked, fear for her friends overtaking her calm.

Rodney finally stopped fleeing when he reached the other side of the hill, hidden from the sight of the serisus pens. He shuddered as he gasped for air. Soon Sheppard was next to him, still shaking like he needed to run or fight or something.

Footsteps came toward them. “They're just serisus,” Ronon said.

“Spiders,” Rodney whispered.

“They're giant spiders,” Sheppard said.

“They spin giant webs and wrap you up in silk like steel and it's horrible like a Wraith cocoon but that was okay, that wasn't sticky or strong or wrong like spider's web and then they bite you and suck out your innards and even when they're too small to kill you they bite and leave scars and people die and and and...” Rodney trailed off as his imagination started running off with him.

“They're serisus,” Ronon said. “They're big and fuzzy and curious and they eat trees. Not people, trees.”

“Not helping,” Rodney said.

“I'm gonna vote we scrap this mission,” Sheppard said. “I don't care what the energy signatures look like, I am not riding a giant spider. We'll find some other way up there or we won't bother.”

Ronon looked like wasn't sure if his estimation of these two should go down or not.

Teyla came towards them, a soft pad-pad-pad sound of too many footsteps behind her. She put her hand on the serisus' mouth between its pedipalps and gently pushed it and the child riding it away from the view of her friends. “If you are sure,” she said.

“Great, we're leaving,” Rodney said, getting up and running off. He stopped abruptly a few paces down the path. “Wait, there are giant spiders around here, what if I run into a web and they eat me?!”

“We're going,” Sheppard said. “We're going to thank the villagers for their offer but we have to decline. Then we are getting the hell out of here.”

Teyla felt a gentle brush over her shoulders and pushed the affectionate serisus back out of view again. The child on its back giggled, both his hands gripping the creature's fur tightly.

“You're going to have to explain to me why spiders are scary,” Ronon said.

“Will do,” Sheppard agreed. “After we get out of here. Now.”

The child watched as the Lanteans went back to the village, leaving him on the back of the serisus.

*****

Ladom Radim held the report, both the original transcript and a much shorter edited copy that removed much of the extraneous information. He didn't understand the terror displayed by the Lanteans over the appearance of the serisus mounts. Serisus were known all across the galaxy as large peaceful creatures who fed from the fluids within large woody plants. They were a crop pest before their domestication, now they acted as beasts of burden on high oxygen worlds. Young serisus were sometimes kept as pets for rural children, growing into favored mounts as the years passed. Their silk could be processed to make a soft, fine fabric in constant high demand for trade.

But this 'spider' word the Lanteans called them... That was familiar. He pulled out another report, one from the Special Archives asking about specific topics. Yes, 'what are spiders?' was listed as an unanswered question.

Ladon called over one of his guards. “Send Archivist Rainar to me,” he said. “Then leave. I have topics of import to discuss with the Archivist.”

“Yes, sir,” the guard said before he left. He passed the message off to another then maintained his post.

It wasn't long before Linas Rainar stood in the doorway, a sheaf of papers in his arms. “Chief Radim, I'm... not finished with the next translation,” he said.

Ladon motioned for his guard to leave and the door closed behind him. Once that was done he held up the spy's report. “I have an answer to a question of yours,” he said. “One of our spies on Conlii observed an incident. Apparently the Lanteans are terrified of serisus.”

“But serisus are sweet beasts,” Linas said, confused. “Affectionate, curious, stupid, obedient, how could anyone be terrified of one? They are common homestead animals. Inedible, I admit, but nothing's perfect.”

“The Lanteans called the serisus 'spiders',” Ladon said.

“Spiders...”

“You asked about spiders,” Ladon prompted.

Linas nodded. “It's from the red book,” he said. “You recall the Two Trees of Valinor, the light of the realm of the gods. That light was consumed and destroyed by the Ungoliant at Morgoth's bidding. This... Ungoliant... She was described as something called a 'spider'.”

Ladon's eyebrows rose as he looked at the original transcript. “That makes sense,” he realized. “They're terrified of the serisus because it reminds them of the demon that...”

“That ate the light of heaven, yes,” Linas said. “The fact that the serisus eats trees is unlikely to help.”

Ladon snorted a short laugh. “No it doesn't,” he said. “I'll send you a copy of the transcript. There's more on werewolves there that you might find useful.”

“Thank you, Chief Radim,” Linas said, bowing. “My compliments to your spies. This has been most helpful.”

Chapter Text

Plink. plink. PLINK. Plink plink Plink plink plininininink.

Rodney McKay gritted his teeth at the off-key, out of tune plucking of some string instrument. This planet, P3S-113, had a potentially interesting ore, heavy and dull black that the people here fashioned into intricate fishing weights. Armed with descriptions alone there was some hope among the science department that it could be naquadah. A few extra generators would come in useful in case the ZPM failed thus their mission to acquire one or three for testing.

Yet right there, in the middle of the road, sat a kid with a strange string instrument. A little girl had the instrument laid out on the ground and was plucking awkwardly at the strings, obviously trying to make some sort of sound. There was a rhythm to it, at least, but damn it was a grating sound, off key and completely out of tune.

plink. plink. plink. Plink. PlinkPlinkPlink. Plink plink plink.

The little girl wrinkled her nose at the instrument, her tiny shoulders shaking with frustration.

A man pulling a hand cart detoured around her.

Rodney rolled his eyes, sighed, and walked out into the road.

“Thank god,” Sheppard muttered, glad he wasn't expected to be the one to drag this kid out of the road. “Be nice,” he called as an afterthought.

Rodney stood over the kid, his shadow looming over her. She looked up at him, face red and eyes shining with unshed tears. She sniffed and composed herself, the visible emotion fading underneath a stern glare. “Make it sound right,” she ordered.

“Only if you stop playing it like a philistine,” Rodney said. He ignored the exasperated look from Sheppard, the hasty apologies from Teyla as she spoke to the village whoever, instead he realized the kid wasn't being annoying. She didn't ask him what that meant or complained at being insulted. Instead she looked like she was carefully considering his statement.

“Agreed,” she said. “I can't make it sound right, I don't know how. If you know how you can teach me. If you don't I'll...” She scowled.

“All right,” Rodney said and sat down in the middle of the road next to her. He sat crosslegged and laid the instrument across his lap. He'd never seen anything quite like this but there were certain similarities between all musical, especially all string, instruments. This one looked like it had elements of a harp but also of a guitar and a Vulcan lyre from Star Trek. There were 15 strings stretching from a central knob to a harp-like arch where they were tied with tuning pegs. The knob had three unmarked settings which he decided must be the treble chord, the bass chord, and an intermediate chord. The body of the instrument was solid, like it needed to be played in midair to resonate correctly, and had three lines of frets.

“This is an interesting instrument,” Rodney admitted, easily falling into a lecture when faced with a little girl who stared and listened with neither malice nor disinterest. “It's kind of deceptive.” He set the knob to the middle, the intermediate chord, and plucked each string in turn. He found middle C somewhere near the bass end and tuned the pegs to that note. “It looks like it should have a six-octave range with only two octaves worth of strings and three frets. But with the chord setting here...” He turned the knob to the end and plucked again, realizing his assumption was wrong. “Wait, no... I see...” The knob didn't decide bass or treble chord like he'd thought, instead it simply sharpened or flattened the notes. “This knob changes the key,” he realized.

Rodney looked up at the girl. She was still staring at him intently, blinking slowly with a slightly asymmetrical beat. She hadn't run off while he mused aloud and he realized he was expecting her to have done just that. Her eyes darted off to the side at something he didn't notice until the riding animal stepped over them, its rider looking curiously down at them. He gave a little shriek at the sudden presence of giant taloned feet over and around him then it was gone. He moved to get up and out of the way of any other weird feet when her hands darted out to grab his wrist and the instrument. “Stay,” she said, that weird commanding voice back. “It's all right. They're not important.”

Rodney wasn't so sure. He stood up, handing the instrument to the girl. “We should get out of the road,” he realized. Then stopped as he heard two delicate octaves played one note at a time, F3 to F5. He looked down in shock. “You said you couldn't play,” he accused then sat back down.

“I don't know how,” the girl said, the instrument across her lap. “I just used what you told me. Did it work?”

Rodney grinned.

*****

Sheppard looked like he was ready to storm out there when the weird riding bird stepped over and around Rodney and the little girl, neither of them having the sense to get out of the way. Then Rodney began a music lesson in the middle of the goddamned road!

“You have daemanatis,” Teyla said. “I have not seen one since I was a child. Do you race them as well?”

“We do,” said Rana, their local contact. “Perhaps your friend would like to see the daemanatis pens?”

“It might be a good idea,” Teyla admitted, looking over at Sheppard. Traffic on the road was light, one hand cart and a rider in fifteen minutes, but Sheppard seemed to have some ingrained issue with lingering in the middle of even the emptiest of roads.

“I'd ride one,” Ronon said. “It's fun.”

Sheppard glanced back at his two sane teammates. Or perhaps they weren't either since they were discussing that weird giant red bird-like thing that almost stepped on Rodney instead of the fact that Rodney and some kid were unfazed by the fact that they almost got stepped on by a giant bird.

“Is the girl a Wanderer?” Teyla asked.

“We believe so, yes,” Rana said. “She came through the Ring of the Ancestors three days before you did, carrying nothing but that instrument. I was unaware she could not play it.”

“Then what's her talent?” Ronon asked.

“The stars,” Rana said. “She already knows every star in our night sky. If a hive comes upon us she will see it before it descends. We will have hours to prepare before the darts come.”

Teyla nodded as she watched Rodney working with the girl. He showed her tricks to the instrument then handed it back to her to watch her mimic his fingering with an exact precision.

Soon they were not the only ones watching.

*****

“And when I looked up there was half the village watching us,” Rodney said. “Nobody told me to stop so we kept going. Meanwhile those three were led off to do other things to keep Sheppard from interfering. I'm sure there was a bar involved; Ronon smells like beer and chickens. Living chickens.”

They were back in Atlantis briefing Elizabeth on the mission. Sheppard sat pouting as he had since they got through the gate, Ronon grinned despite or perhaps because of the gigantic red feather woven into his dreadlocks, Teyla looked bemused despite the slow-building exasperation behind her eyes, and Rodney didn't have any idea what the problem was.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was beginning to see. “You taught a kid how to play the Vulcan lyre in the middle of the village's main road,” she said.

“It wasn't really a Vulcan lyre,” Rodney said. “It just sort of looked like one.”

“You nearly got stepped on by giant birds, Rodney,” Sheppard snapped.

“They were birds,” Rodney said dismissively.

“They were ten foot tall birds,” Sheppard said. “They let Ronon ride one.”

“It was fun,” Ronon said.

“They want him to come back and ride in a bird race next month,” Sheppard accused.

“And I'll win,” Ronon said. “You're just jealous because you sat wrong and it threw you off.”

“I do not ride sidesaddle,” Sheppard insisted. “Especially not on a bird.”

“The girl left through the Ring before we departed,” Teyla said, trying to bring the discussion back to the mission's success. She gestured toward the short string of large black metal beads, each intricately carved. “They do not sell their fishing weights on their world, preferring to take them to a market where prices can be agreed upon equitably. However, they do willingly give them as gifts. Dr. McKay was given this after the girl left, a token of the kindness he showed her in teaching her how to play what is apparently a rare instrument.”

“I don't think it's naquadah,” Rodney lamented, looking at the metal. “Thorium, maybe. Though if they're refining thorium they're a lot better off than giant birds would indicate.”

“Hey, they're great birds,” Ronon defended. “You're just mad because you didn't get to ride one.”

“And catch feather mites?”

“You don't even have feathers.”

Elizabeth sighed as she wondered when her life had taken this particular turn.

*****

Delicate notes drifted out through the locked doors of Ladon Radim's office. Inside he and Archivist Rainar sat watching a little girl play an instrument that no longer had a name, an artifact taken out of the Archives from before the first fall of the Genii Confederation millennia ago. Nobody made them anymore, not since the Wraith came, not since the last artisans who knew how were culled and killed. The few remaining instruments sat in museums or in the hands of wealthy collectors, played only in private showings and never like this.

This... was a novice's work, simple tunes of repeating themes.

Something like this would never be heard in public. It was too dangerous lest the Wraith hear.

The girl finished her recital. “I took the instrument out as instructed,” she said. “The Lanteans came sooner than intelligence expected. I was not prepared, I could not learn the instrument in time. That did not seem to matter. Dr. McKay approached and was convinced to teach me how to play. I told him to 'make it sound right'. He agreed.

“He derived the function and workings of the instrument through experimentation, claiming all 'string instruments' are similar in certain respects. This string here is named 'middle C' when plucked without constraints. This knob makes notes sound 'sharp' or 'flat'. These pegs are meant to 'tune' the instrument. The middle C should always sound like this.” She plucked the string, a solid middle C singing from the string.

Ladon glanced over at the Archivist, noting the man seemed disturbed or perhaps terrified. He turned back to the little girl who was about to continue on describing her music lesson. “Thank you, my dear,” he said. “Your report will be anticipated. Meanwhile you may continue learning the instrument should you wish.”

The little girl cocked her head at him. She plucked a few strings, thinking.

“What is it, Linas?” Ladon asked.

“The Red Book,” Linas admitted. “You recall the story of Beren and Luthien?”

“Some of it,” Ladon said. “The love story with werewolves in it, right? They steal a silmaril.”

“There is a battle between Felagund, a king among elves, and Sauron, lieutenant of the great evil Morgoth. It's fought with weapons we've never seen or imagined. The combatants dueled using nothing but music, weaponized music creating and destroying vistas, emotions, towers, creatures, gems, even death itself is summoned and dismissed.”

“Dr. McKay is a great scientist with a specialization in weapons,” Ladon mused. “If the Lanteans hold their beliefs so strong as to create music in public without fear then it makes sense that he would have been taught music as part of his weapons training. But how does one weaponize music?”

“I do not know.”

All the while the little girl plucked the strings of her instrument and listened.

Chapter Text

“A story,” Sheppard said.

“Yes, John, a story,” Teyla said. “An important story.”

“A story,” Sheppard repeated.

Teyla rolled her eyes. This mission briefing was stalled worse than usual. She'd hoped this one would go easier given the Scriniarii preferred to open trade negotiations with an exchange of stories. No surprises, no worries, simply prepare a story and bring someone to recite it.

“An exchange of stories,” Elizabeth mused. “This would be interesting. We should send an anthropologist along with.”

“If you wish,” Teyla said.

“How long does this story have to be?” Sheppard asked.

“A longer story does enhance the value of the partnership,” Teyla admitted. “When I traveled here with my father I believe his story lasted all night.”

“All night?!” Rodney exclaimed. He looked up from his laptop, only now deigning to add to the conversation. Exchanges of stories didn't interest him.

“I do not remember much of it,” Teyla said. “I fell asleep halfway through.”

Rodney pulled up some files on his laptop to check. “You're looking at about ten hours,” he mumbled. “Ten hours assuming normal storytelling embellishments so you're looking at something around 80 to 100 thousand words.” He looked at her, incredulity all over his face. “And you're expecting someone to memorize that?! To recite from memory? We have books so we don't have to memorize stories anymore.”

“I do not know if they would accept a reading from a book,” Teyla said. “It would have to be a sufficiently... important book.”

There was that word again. Sheppard didn't like her use of that word. Something about it unnerved him.

*****

Sheppard went down to the lab to find Rodney sitting in front of a laptop, leaning back in his chair eating a power bar. “I thought you were supposed to be figuring out our 'important story',” he said.

“Oh I am,” Rodney said, gesturing at the laptop. “I tabulated a list of books we have available to us on Atlantis. I've already removed the ones that don't fit in with our criteria, either they're too short or too long or too Earth-centric or just no. Like Lorne's copy of Midnight Passion.”

“Or Stackhouse's copy of Total Recall.” Sheppard paused for a moment. “What, Lorne's what?”

“Not relevant,” Rodney said. “Anyway, everyone has until the end of today to put their vote in for which book they would consider 'important'.” He pressed a few keys and a window opened, displaying the current rankings. One book was already far ahead of the others. “Of course it would help if your military goons would vote for once. Otherwise we're going to be stuck with this one.”

Sheppard looked at the book on the top of the list. “Do we have a sufficiently impressive-looking copy?” he asked.

“Dr... Hedgehog? Hedgerow? Zelenka's new minion has a copy his dad gave him. That'll work. Most cultures around here seem big on inheritance, goods and stories and things.”

Sheppard nodded. “Well, carry on then,” he said. “I'll tell the marines they should vote on this.”

“Do that, would you?” Rodney said. “Otherwise I just know people are gonna make me sing. I don't want to sing.”

“No one wants that,” Sheppard called as he left.

Rodney settled back into his chair, watching the votes slowly tick up. Then he realized he'd just been insulted. “Hey!” he shouted but Sheppard was long gone.

*****

The amphitheater was half-filled with a smattering of people, adults and children and a few members of the Atlantis expedition. A lone figure walked down to the stage holding an old book bound in worn lacquered cloth with faded gold accents.

The crowd saw the book and began hissing in disapproval.

Dr. Lionel Hedgewick took the stage and held out the book. “This book was given to me by my father and his father before him,” he said. “As his father read this story to him as a child, as my father read it to me, I was expected to read it to my son. Yet that may no longer come to pass, not anymore.”

The village headman stood up and glared at the assembled audience. A few people left but at least the hissing stopped.

“There are many stories important to my people,” Hedgewick continued. “And so we put it to a vote. Which one would we share with you? Which story was most important to us? As a group we chose this one both because we like it and because of how this story in particular shaped who we are today.”

He sat down on a stool provided for the storyteller. “If it's allowed, there are others of us who would be involved in this story's telling. I don't sing very well and Drs. McKay and Lindsay have both volunteered to assist me in that regard.”

“You mean we were volunteered,” Rodney muttered as he and Dr. Lindsay took the stage amidst a general disquiet in the amphitheater.

“Oh, be nice, it's fun,” Lindsay said.

“For you, maybe,” Rodney hissed.

Hedgewick opened the book then visibly waited for quiet from the assembled. Lindsay smiled while Rodney grumbled and sighed, accepting his fate. Finally Hedgewick began to speak.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Chapter Text

The tavern was bustling with activity.

The Lanteans had just finished a ten hour reading of their 'important' story. None of the Scriniarii had expected such depth, skill, length, especially importance. The Lanteans never revealed their important stories, never revealed they had important stories. The Scriniarii had expected such unimportance and announced the Lanteans would be telling some small story, likely a history of their pilgrimage to the City of the Ancestors.

The Genii were lucky they'd sent two Wanderers to listen and catalog. As soon as it became apparent what this story was a Wanderer returned to fetch an Archivist of the Confederation.

Archivist Duris Vocan sat at a corner table watching the spectacle. The Scriniarii were pleasantly surprised by the story the Lanteans offered and were still apologizing profusely for their own lackluster recital. From the chatter around the tavern the Scriniarii went first and tailored their story to the one they expected the Lanteans to provide; they'd told an accounting of their last culling.

Everyone had accounts of the last culling. It was considered an insult to offer such a story as 'important' but the Lanteans didn't seem to mind. The Dread Singer Lindsay who aided in the telling of the Lantean story was deep in conversation with the Scriniarii storyteller about the details of that culling, as though they didn't even care about the slight. As though they would treat even so common a story as a last culling as important.

That or the copious amounts of free beer being offered as apology was a much better balm than expected.

Even if the barkeep had to shout at the Dread Singer McKay to get off the table.

“They ashked me what a dragon is,” McKay shouted back. "I have to show them." He then crouched down on the table like an animal.

“A dragon's got a long neck an' long tail,” McKay explained, extending his neck as though he might somehow take the creature's form. He didn't, thankfully, but Archivist Vocan still watched with interest and apprehension.

McKay reared up on his hind legs, hands splayed and fingers curled. “A dragon's got sharp claws an' big teeth in a big snout that it uses to breathe fire.” He roared, possibly attempting to mimic the dragon's breath weapon. Then he spread his arms back, tall and wide. “An' big wings to carry it in flight. An' it eats people!”

Colonel Sheppard pushed his way through the awed and entranced crowd to stand next to McKay's table, arms crossed. “I think you've had enough,” Sheppard said.

McKay fell back to an animal's crouch and snarled in Sheppard's face, teeth bared like a dragon's. Sheppard stepped back and coughed, waving a hand in front of his face to clear the stench. “I know you've had enough,” he said.

McKay snorted and reared up, puffing out his chest as though--

“If you start singing again I'm going to hurt you.”

McKay fell back to his crouch and pouted, growling lightly.

“Earth doesn't even have dragons,” Sheppard said. The room quieted down as people looked at him strangely.

Dread Singer Lindsay looked offended and paused her conversation. “Sure it does," she called. "It's got lotsa dragons. What about the Komodo dragon?”

“Yeah but that doesn't even fly,” McKay argued.

“No, but it's bite will melt the flesh from your bones!” Lindsay crowed.

“Point,” McKay allowed.

Sheppard groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose as the noises of the tavern returned.

“Or sea monsters!” Lindsay continued.

“Those aren't dragons,” McKay insisted. “Those are monsters. The Kraken hardly even eats people anymore.”

“Get off the table!” the barkeep shouted again.

“Fine,” McKay said sullenly and climbed off the table. He was nearly as drunk as Sheppard implied given he stumbled off and half-fell on a pleasantly plump barmaid. “Hi there,” he said, trying to seem suave.

Archivist Vocan turned back to his companions, his two apprentices, two ill-disguised soldiers for protection, and a Wanderer who looked like she was fighting off a headache. “It's been said the Lanteans have trouble producing children,” he said. “I wonder if their Earth has food shortages. Look at them, they're all thin. Dismally thin. Infertally thin. Their clothing seems designed to hide it.”

“Dr. McKay looks healthy enough,” said Apprentice Aetes. “But the rest, you're right.”

“Dr. McKay is their weapons specialist and recognized as the most intelligent among them,” Vocan said. “They must give up rations for him. Poor starved things. No wonder they're always trading for food.”

“They trade away everything they have,” said Apprentice Saba. “Medicine, labor, machines, expertise. All of it for food.”

“I should speak to Chief Radim,” Vocan said. “Perhaps one of our worlds can donate a surplus for humanitarian use. Even if the Lanteans pretend not to need it, the Wraith are awake. We would do well to trade our excess food for the allegiance of those with the wisdom to flee the cull.”

His apprentices agreed and they resumed their observation of the tavern and its patrons. Someone was trying to feed a protesting Colonel Sheppard while the Dread Singer McKay was sneaking off upstairs with his curvy barmaid. The Dread Singer Lindsay was slumped over a table, a half-full mug still in one hand. The Storyteller Hedgewick was retelling a particularly harrowing scene from the story involving three trolls and their disagreement over how to cook dwarves. The Lanteans mingled freely with the Scriniarii and their guests, the beginning of a profitable trade agreement.

Profitable for the Scriniarii, at least. The Lantean leader was already discussing their need for food.

Chapter Text

“The Genii definitely have spies,” Rodney announced.

“We figured that already,” Sheppard drawled. “The whole dogs question, remember? You brought it up?”

Rodney scowled at him. The mess hall was fairly busy, the tail end of lunch when most people were either scarfing down a quick bite before heading back to work or lounging around after their leisurely meal. Or, like Ronon, Teyla, and Sheppard, they were all lounging while Rodney continued eating.

“Yes, yes,” Rodney said dismissively. “I'm not talking about that though. I'm talking about the Scriniarii.”

“The Scriniarii are known for open invitations to their storytellings,” Teyla said. “That was not unusual.”

“No but the Genii who showed up partway through were,” Rodney countered. “That's the thing about being onstage, you have a view of the whole audience. Some kid ran off about an hour in and then returned later with a pack of Genii. I watched them the whole time, they stared and took notes and didn't interact with anybody.”

“How'd you know they're Genii?” Ronon asked.

Rodney scoffed. “Please, their disguises were as good as ours were.”

“We weren't disguised,” Sheppard said.

“My point exactly. They didn't even try to hide. They were spying on us.”

Ronon sat in thought. He grabbed a french fry off of Rodney's tray, ignoring the annoyed protest. “The Genii spy on everyone,” he mused aloud. “It's what they do.”

“How do you know?” Sheppard asked.

“We found their spies on Sateda,” Ronon said. “Had to decide what to do about it. Decided not to bother. Not worth worrying over.”

“Wait wait wait,” Rodney said. “You had spies on Sateda and you didn't worry about it?”

“Of course we didn't,” Ronon said. “We weren't about to turn away Wanderers.”

Sheppard remembered that feeling of exasperation from nearly watching Rodney stepped on by a riding bird. “Those children,” he realized.

“It's a great setup,” Ronon allowed. “The Genii get their information, we get Wanderers and their talents. Everyone knows about it.”

“Everyone,” Sheppard said, eyes hardening as he looked from Ronon to Teyla and back.

“This is news to me,” Teyla admitted. “I have always known the Wanderers as talented children who see and hear all. They come and go through the Gates at will. Athos hosted several before the Wraith came. My people have lamented their lack ever since we came to this world.”

“It's like having a few extra McKays,” Ronon agreed. “Except they're children. And they're more specialized. And some don't even talk.”

“You've known the children were Genii spies all along?” Sheppard demanded.

“Can't be all of them,” Ronon said. “Besides, what would you do about it? Not go to worlds with children? Demand trading partners not take in Wanderers? Most worlds would rather worship the Wraith than give up their Wanderers.”

“There's got to be something we can do,” Sheppard insisted.

“Oh come off it,” Rodney said. “I taught one how to play the Vulcan lyre. Big whoop. Not really sensitive information.”

“Nobody watches what they say around children!” Sheppard shouted. “Who knows what we've revealed? What random bit will the Genii use against us next time?”

“We tell stories with dragons in them,” Rodney said, listing off some of the random things he'd talked about or been involved in off-world. “It's weird that this galaxy doesn't seem to believe in snow. Botany thinks sticker burrs were spread to every habitable planet in Pegasus and the Milky Way by Ancients and their obsession with long robes. Spiders are scary. Chocolate is a delicacy. We still haven't found a world out here that makes coffee. The Daedalus lands solely so they can use all our water. Batman is better than Superman. None of this is sensitive information.”

“How can you be so...” Sheppard couldn't find the words.

“I did my time in Siberia,” Rodney said. “Everyone there was a spy and we all knew it. It wasn't a big deal then, it's not a big deal now.”

“You brought it up!” Sheppard shouted.

“So we could find out who the spies are,” Rodney said. “And now we know. It's the children. That's why we shouldn't bother with M7G-677. They're all children. Maybe they're all spies. I know they're all annoying.”

Sheppard couldn't do this anymore. He stood up and left.

Rodney watched him leave, confused. “Has he never dealt with spies before?” he asked.

“Guess not,” Ronon said.

“How does one deal with spies?” Teyla asked.

“Their power is in their secrecy,” Rodney said. “That's why kids are an ingenious idea. Nobody suspects kids. But as soon as you know who's a spy and who's not you can control what they learn. I say we've been dealing with it just fine. The Genii now know all sorts of random crap about us and they have no context for any of it. There's no way for them to tell what is important and what isn't.”

“But if they had context?” Teyla asked. “An important document, for instance.”

“Then they can start building a context around that important document,” Rodney said. He grabbed a french fry and had it nearly to his mouth when he realized. “Wait, what do you mean 'important document'?”

*****

“Elizabeth, we have a problem.”

Elizabeth looked over at Rodney as he stormed in with those words. She looked back to Sheppard. “I know,” she said. “Colonel Sheppard was just telling me that we know the Genii use children as their spies.”

“Weird children,” Sheppard said. “Ronon called them 'Wanderers' and described them all as little McKays.”

“Oh they're just autistic kids,” Rodney said. “Decent spies. They see and hear everything around them, some of them even remember it all. Weirdly talented, especially with animals and machines. Disturbingly self-sufficient in the wild. That's not the problem.”

“We are being spied on by child soldiers, how is that not the problem?” Sheppard demanded.

“One, I don't think they're soldiers,” Rodney said. “Ronon said he once attended a lecture given by a six year old about the language of riding birds. The kid wouldn't shut up for three hours. There were demonstrations. Not a lot of soldiering there.”

Sheppard crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Elizabeth, trying to demand she back him up.

“Two, dealing with spies is easy,” Rodney continued. “Don't hide anything. I mean anything. The more random useless information you can flood a spy with the worse off that spy is. Especially if they're autistic since they'll have a hard time determining what part of a conversation is important. The more questions the Genii have about dogs or coffee or Batman the less they're concerned about Earth or the Daedalus or Atlantis.”

“You have experience with this,” Elizabeth realized.

“Hello? I did my time in Siberia. Everyone there was a spy. I was a spy. The people who tried to hide stuff were the easiest to read.”

“So what's the problem?” Elizabeth asked.

Rodney pulled the chair Sheppard should have been sitting in out from under him and flopped into it. He rubbed his temples to try and ward off the headache that was already blooming at the implication of Teyla's words. “Spies need context for their information to make sense,” Rodney said. “Without context we're completely safe.”

“Do they have context?” Elizabeth asked.

“What sort of context?” Sheppard asked.

“A historical-religious account of the quest for the Lonely Mountain and the Battle of Five Armies,” Rodney muttered.

“A what?” Elizabeth wasn't sure if she'd heard that right or not.

“That's what 'important story' meant,” Rodney said. “The Scriniarii were expecting us to tell them a historical-religious story about an important event in our cultural development. And that's what we gave them. We told the story of The Hobbit and now the entire Pegasus Galaxy believes Earth has orcs and dragons and dwarves and elves and and... and hobbits.”

Sheppard didn't know whether to laugh or rage or what.

“And... that's the context the Genii will use...” Elizabeth trailed off.

“That's the context the Genii will use to decipher every bit of intelligence their spies give them,” Rodney said.

Elizabeth tried to hold back a smile. It wasn't working.

“Looking back on it I don't think this is their only context,” Rodney said. “They have something else on us. They have to. I went over all the random questions they asked me last time and compared it to how they acted at the reading. They were not surprised by any of it. They were more disturbed by the singing than the dragon. Elizabeth, they knew what a dragon was!”

Her smile fell as she sat back, thinking. Rodney continued ranting his proof to the room, making connections she wouldn't have seen. Or perhaps he was making connections where there were none but was that possibility worse than the idea that the child with the Vulcan lyre was planted there as a test? Or the child riding on the back of a giant spider solely to test the depth of their fear of the things? The child in a tavern who kept stealing meat pies to give to Colonel Sheppard? What about the single kid they saw on four different worlds over eight days, always watching them?

“What do we do?” Sheppard asked, cutting Rodney off.

Rodney slumped in the chair. “I don't know if there's anything we can do,” he admitted. “Every Genii spy in Pegasus is going to be comparing all our actions from here on out to Bilbo Baggins.”

Elizabeth's amusement threatened to come back. “To be fair,” she allowed. “There are worse stories we could have told. I voted we read All Quiet on the Western Front. I'm glad I lost.”

Rodney and Sheppard both looked at her, both horrified.

“Gentlemen, I trust you'll figure something out,” she said. “In the meantime I'll suspend all unnecessary gate travel. Find a way to minimize the damage.”

Sheppard nodded and turned to leave. He paused just long enough to grab Rodney by the arm and haul him out of the chair, dragging him out and down the hall. They had work to do.