Whales can't see colors, not in the human-visible spectrum.
Rodney learned this long ago, as a child, the first time he pointed out a sunrise to his pod and was met with polite blankness. He knew, and he understood -- understood all the better, really, after eight long years at university, spending hour after hour in the library with books on Earth whales open in his lap and memory-retention amulets at his wrists and throat, trying to understand in the language of science and math what he'd already come to know in those endless summers, swimming at first with Jeannie at his side, and later, when their parents sent her away ... swimming alone, with an emptiness where she had been, an empty Jeannie-shaped spot that was slowly walled away. And then his parents retired to their original homeworld, Earth, leaving him entirely without the company of his own kind.
But not alone. Never alone.
And now, years later, he watched the rising Lantean sun skip off the waves while the rest of the pod watched it with him, a slow curious circle, wanting to know and understand what their smallest child saw in the incomprehensible sky, the sky that did not echo. And he tried to open his mind to them, to let them see what he saw.
Rodney didn't bother treading water. The runes that Teyla had inked on his sun-bronzed skin would keep him afloat, at least until they wore off -- and she'd just refreshed them on the Athosians' last trading trip, a few days ago. Instead, he spread his arms and sank deep in the waves, gazing across the ruffled surface of the ocean towards a sunrise painting the sky in shades of gold and crimson.
The whales circled him, jostling anxiously, prodding at his mind with their deep, ancient curiosity, a thrumming murmur at the back of his mind.
He wanted to make them understand, to show them a sky that dazzled him in yellow, red and salmon.
Polite bemusement greeted his efforts, and a kind of warm tolerance. He should have resented it, would have resented it bitterly if they'd been human. But there was no malice behind it. They couldn't see his sunrise and his stars any more than he could feel their world of pressure and and touch and deep silences.
Only at the surface could the two worlds intersect, a Venn diagram of water and sky. He'd learned astrophysics to show them the stars, learned fluid dynamics so they could show him the depths of their ocean, but he was continually frustrated by his inability to understand their math. They claimed it would drive him insane if they gave it to him all at once, so bit by tedious bit they spoon-fed it to him.
He thought he could happily spend the rest of his life here, adrift on the waves, learning what he was increasingly sure was an alien Grand Unified Theory of Everything.
But not today. A disturbance shivered through the pod, and Rodney kicked himself upright in the water. Sharks? Storm?
The portal in the City has been opened, the fluid dynamics whale told him.
"What?" Rodney snapped aloud, blinking water droplets off his eyelashes. The only people who ever used the portal were the Athosians, and they weren't due back for weeks.
For some reason, he had a brief, crazy thought that it might be Jeannie.
He caught hold of the nearest mathematician's dorsal fin and allowed himself to be towed at whalespeed, back towards the glittering spires shining on the horizon. As the City's towers drew nearer, he demanded information of the whales: Who was in the City? When? How?
It couldn't be Wraith. It couldn't be.
Humans, the differential-calculus whale told him. Lots of humans.
The whales didn't think so. They could always recognize Teyla, even from a distance, and she wasn't there. Rodney tried not to ask the next question that popped into his mind, but it was in his mind, at the very forefront of it, and the whales caught it effortlessly: no, it wasn't Jeannie -- they remembered her very well, and as much as they wished the little blond child would come back and play with them again, she was not with the strange humans.
The whales hadn't understood why Rodney's parents had sent Jeannie away; they'd kept asking him when she was coming back, for a long time, until finally they understood that he didn't want to talk about it anymore.
Rodney let them drop him off at the base of the South Pier; it was the nearest one to a transporter. He staggered momentarily, disconcerted as always to feel the weight of his body again on dry land.
Perhaps these new humans would be playmates for him in the dry, like Jeannie used to be, the whales suggested. Maybe they would like to swim, too.
Rodney didn't bother dignifying that with a response, beyond mentally giving them the finger as he jogged for the transporter. The whales worried about him, all alone in the City. For them, losing one's entire pod was the worst thing they could contemplate. Rodney had explained, repeatedly, that he liked being alone. He'd even spent two weeks writing up a mathematical proof of it on the East Pier. The whales still hadn't given up on the hopes of finding a human pod for him, though, despite Rodney's insistence that he was better off without one.
He tapped the portal chamber on the transporter map, as the doors slid shut behind him. Perhaps the Athosians had come through without Teyla. Had something happened to her, or to Ronon? Rodney felt his heart twist at the thought, in a way he couldn't quite explain. Teyla was ... well, useful, yes; no one else could paint runes quite like she could. Her magic was strong; she was tough, and brave. And Ronon -- no one could touch Ronon, between his natural strength and his magic gun.
They were both fine, he told himself as the transporter doors slid open --
-- onto chaos.
Early morning sunshine streamed through the stained glass windows of the portal chamber onto a crowd of strangers. Rodney involuntarily took a step backwards. He hadn't seen this many people here, ever. Even the Athosians, who liked traveling in groups, never came in these kind of numbers.
And they weren't just strangers. They were Earth strangers -- Earthers milling around in his portal chamber, wrestling bales of unfamiliar equipment around, talking in loud voices, touching things.
"Who the hell are you people?" Rodney demanded loudly.
The babble of conversation hushed, and everyone swung around to stare at him. Rodney was suddenly, acutely aware that he hadn't bothered to stop and put on pants -- he wore nothing but his swim trunks, and was leaving a trail of water on the floor. The idea of getting dressed hadn't even occurred to him. The Athosians didn't have nudity taboos, and living in the City alone, he'd gotten out of the habit. He wasn't even sure if he still owned shoes.
Well, no help for it. He crossed his arms and tilted his chin up, trying not to pay attention to the weapons bristling at the sides of many of the Earthers. "Well?"
The crowd shuffled aside to clear the way for a nervous-looking, apparently unarmed man in a black Magic Division uniform, with red command stripes. He was balding, bespectacled; everything about him screamed bureaucrat. He cleared his throat several times, fretfully, before speaking. "Are you Meredith McKay?"
Rodney's scowl darkened a few notches. "Meredith Rodney McKay. Doctor McKay to you. Who are you and what are you doing --" in my City, he almost said, but managed to switch verbal gears at the last minute. "... here," he finished, somewhat lamely.
"I'm Richard Woolsey, Mage First Class." Woolsey swept a hand around him to indicate the portal chamber, the crowd, the piles of crates and equipment everywhere ... the soldiers. "We appreciate the service you and your fellow waystation keepers have done for the Earth, keeping the city in good repair over the years, but I'm here to tell you that it won't be needed anymore." He cleared his throat again. "We've come to open the Atlantis waystation for business again, and reestablish trade between our galaxies, as it was before the War."
Rodney stared at them, and felt the bottom drop out of his world.
It had taken an entire circle of mages to open the portal to the Pegasus Galaxy. Even from the back of the crowd, John could feel the prickle of magic on his skin, raking an icy fingernail down nerves already flayed raw by the presence of so much cold iron around him.
He wondered how O'Neill could stand it without going crazy, if the rumors about O'Neill's Ancestral blood were true.
The portal chamber under Cheyenne Mountain was huge, a vast echoing empty space with the biggest pentagram that John had ever seen etched permanently into its concrete floor. Invisible to non-mages, but of course amply evident through his magesight, lines of force ran through the mountain itself, a silver web filling the air. John had realized quickly enough, the first time he'd come here, that the complex of passageways forming the Magic Division headquarters were, in fact, a giant three-dimensional matrix. It was built to focus and amplified stray, ambient magic to create a thrumming net of energy, with the portal chamber at its heart and the offices of the Directors at its apex.
It was a living fortress, a barrier between this world and whatever might come through the portal.
The chanting changed pitch and the silver filaments of magic shivered like a spiderweb in a morning breeze. John, rather pointedly, had not been asked to join the circle. He was probably as strong in raw talent as anyone up there, but they were all high-ranked mages -- Archmage Weir, O'Neill, Woolsey. All full-blooded humans, unless the rumors about O'Neill were true. If so, he didn't have any outward tells of his mixed heritage, unlike John.
Politicians, these days, said it didn't matter. Said it wasn't the Dark Ages any more; pointed to the centaur Senator from Nebraska, the allegedly part-fae governor of Massachusetts. Said it was a world of equal opportunity, where humanity no longer ruled and subjugated other species as they once had.
John had lived with his obvious fae heritage all his life. He knew better. Ironic that it had actually gotten him tapped for this mission, when it had held him back all his life. In the Pegasus Galaxy, so they said, Ancestral blood was a blessing rather than a curse.
He'd believe it when he saw it.
His palms were damp; John shoved them deep into the pockets of his Magic Division uniform -- plain black, befitting his status as a Third Class mage. The magic quivered in the air around him, and he tried to concentrate on the growing power and the flickering, many-colored auras of the people around him, rather than the bone-deep ache of metal weapons, metal machines, the metal bones of the Cheyenne Mountain infrastructure.
The modern world wasn't a good place for those of Ancestral descent. He knew some part-fae who got through it with painkillers, either finding sympathetic healers who would prescribe the heavy-duty stuff, or self-medicating with over-the-counter amulets or alcohol. John figured that he'd retreat to a desert island with no iron or steel anywhere near it before he'd choose to live his life in a medicated fog. He had simply learned to deal with it, same as you'd deal with an old war wound. Life hurt. He dealt.
By habit, John had tried to situate himself at the very back of the crowd, but he wasn't exactly alone, and as the chanting went on, the man in healers' yellow standing next to him leaned close to murmur, "If I'd known this would go on like a bloody Highland wedding, I'd have visited the loo first."
John turned to flash him a quick grin. The healer flinched back involuntarily, and John felt the grin drop off his face as he cursed inwardly. He'd taken off his sunglasses inside the Mountain, but when the chanting started he'd switched to magesight automatically, without putting them back on.
The pointed ears were enough of a giveaway of his fae heritage, but the green cats' eyes were worse.
He let his eyes revert to normal, expecting the damage to be done, but instead the healer just gave him a brief smile, and held out a hand. "Carson."
John stared at it briefly, then took it. "Sheppard."
"Oh, quit giving me that lost-puppy look," the healer murmured with an infectious smile. "Look around you." He nodded past John to a short man with glasses and flyaway hair, ears pointing forward as he strained to see over the crowd. A lot of hair. "You aren't the only person here who had an ancestor or two on the wrong side of the bedroom. Radek's a werewolf; I have two dryads in my division, and there are quite a few fae around here, too, including yours truly."
"You're fae?" John said, surprised.
"Not much," Carson admitted, "but enough to show up on the screening."
John frowned, looking around the room with renewed attention. Far from feeling more comfortable, as Carson had probably intended, his well-honed paranoia reared up. Fae, dryads, non-humans of all stripes as well as full-blooded humans in the room. Expendable, a small voice in his head whispered. We're not the best and brightest; we're the ones who they don't mind not coming back.
And more than anyone else here, he had an idea why that might be.
Even without his magesight, he caught a peripheral flash and felt an electric snap in the air as the portal took hold. Within its circle, it shimmered blue and silver, casting a wash of watery light over the assembled crowd.
As they'd practiced, team by team, they began to move through the portal. John braced himself and caught the handle of the nearest crate. The handle was coated in a veneer of plastic, but he could feel the steel underneath. Too long, and his skin would blister, but he could deal with it for a few minutes.
Goodbye, Earth, he thought without much regret, and then cold blue light swept him away.
He emerged into a wonderland of glass, and for a moment all he could do was stare up at the ceiling soaring high above him, the soft blue and amber striping the walls through stained glass windows. He'd seen pictures of Atlantis, but flat photographs hardly did justice to the real place. Then the burning of his palm drew him back to reality; he barely managed to put down his end of the crate without dropping it, and he pressed his throbbing hand against his thigh, while moving out of the way and continuing to look around. Behind him, the portal snapped out of existence with a pop he could feel in his chest. Without that cool glow, the light in the room was even warmer and softer -- a cathedral of copper and soft pastels.
And there was something else.
John staggered, pressing a hand to his head. The ache of metal here was less, much less than anything he was used to in cities on Earth, even with all the weapons and crates of equipment around him. But the icepick-like bolt of pain boring into his skull was new. As long as iron didn't touch him, it hurt in a dull, rotten-tooth kind of way, like the ache of cold in your bones. This was different, sharp, cutting, like a migraine. And under it, he thought he heard -- whispering, a maddening susurration of voices at the edge of hearing.
Without thinking, he switched to magesight, and gasped at what he saw -- every window, every line of the architecture limned with a faint amber glow, almost indistinguishable from the backlight of the sun. It was like no kind of magic he'd ever seen before.
As soon as he opened his magesight, the headache vanished as if it had never been. The faint whisper of voices remained, but maybe it was only echoes -- all the voices of the people around him, caught and thrown back by the towering empty space above him.
He snapped back to regular vision before anyone noticed his eyes. Maybe Carson was right, maybe people here wouldn't judge him by his fae blood, but a lifetime's bad experiences had taught him to avoid notice, to blend in. Even in the cases when they didn't draw hatred, his eyes and ears drew attention, and he loathed it.
"Who the hell are you people?" The voice rang out through the portal chamber.
John looked up, startled. There was a stranger at the top of the stairs leading down to the portal -- a deeply tanned stranger with broad shoulders, a swimmer's lean physique and long sun-bleached hair, wearing nothing but a pair of swim trunks. Deep red and purple markings, tattoos or body paint, circled his wrists and followed the lines of his veins up his arms to his throat. John knew they were magic without even invoking his magesight -- the stranger positively hummed with it, the same alien magic that filled the city and brushed its feather-light fingers against his mind.
Seeing everyone staring at him, the stranger blushed and quailed for just a moment, looking suddenly young and scared. Rallying, he folded his arms, his face settling into an angry mask. "Well?"
A long, ranting argument with Woolsey followed -- well, most of the ranting was taking place on the stranger's end. John picked up the gist of it quickly, though. This was the waystation keeper, McKay, and he wasn't expecting visitors, didn't want visitors and demanded that they all go back to Earth immediately.
McKay wasn't what John had expected, at all. He'd been envisioning someone like Woolsey, a Magic Division bureaucrat, or maybe a wild-eyed old prospector type, bearded and gruff in a yellow rain slicker.
McKay was wild-eyed, at least; John had gotten that part right. And he ranted so loud you could hear him all over the portal chamber. Finally Woolsey and Sumner took him aside; John caught a glimpse of fear on his sunburned face, quickly masked, as they herded him into a corner, and he felt a surge of sympathy for the guy. After all, McKay had probably been living here alone for years, when suddenly a horde of unexpected and well-armed guests had descended on him. No wonder he was having trouble coping.
"Sheppard?" a familiar brogue said, and he turned to find Carson at his elbow. "Give us a hand with this box, there's a good lad."
And John went, while the whispering settled into his bones and his blood, and wove itself through him until he could no longer hear it unless he stopped and concentrated.
He meant to ask McKay about it, if he could get him alone, if McKay would even speak to him given the burning anger in the man's blue eyes. But in the flurry of activity as they began to settle into the city, McKay was always busy with something, and so was John. It was easy enough to forget.
Rodney's home had been invaded by idiots. He had no idea how to cope with it.
Prior to attending university on Earth, his life had been bounded by the sea, his social interaction limited primarily to his parents, Jeannie and the whales. Every once in a while his parents had tried to arrange a playdate with the Athosian children, or taken the family back to Earth to associate with the odd second cousin or two. Even as a child, Rodney had deeply resented the implication that his life was somehow lacking because he didn't have what other Earth children had: school, playmates, television.
Children on Atlantis weren't common, the whales told him, and they had long memories -- they had watched the City change from a thriving center of commerce to a lonely outpost with a sole waystation keeper to maintain it. Most of the past keepers had been single people without ties on Earth, recruited by the Magic Division to while away their lives until they quit or died or married a Pegasus native and moved away. The McKays were unusual -- a couple who brought a young child to the outpost, and had a second one while on Atlantis. Rodney never knew the whole story behind their acceptance of the post, but from the many fights he'd overheard, he knew that both of them loathed the Pegasus Galaxy in different ways, and both of them blamed the other for their isolation at the edge of civilization.
He'd been on Earth, on the verge of getting his second degree in mathematics to go with his astrophysics degree, when he got the letter: Mom had left already, and Dad was retiring. Three days later, he was back at Cheyenne Mountain, demanding the post. He thought briefly about contacting Jeannie, seeing if she wanted to go back with him. But she hadn't made any effort to get in touch with him. Since his parents sent her away to live with relatives back on Earth, their adolescent attempts to stay in touch had been fraught with anger, bitterness and jealousy, until he figured it was up to her to come back if she ever wanted to. She was an adult and so was he.
Rodney had assumed he'd live out his life on Atlantis, as waystation keepers before him had, developing whale mathematics as his life's work and sending occasional reports to Earth, but otherwise untouched by its wars and bureaucracy and massive, massive stupidity.
Then the stupidity followed him, and suddenly the City was inundated by nearly two hundred people who couldn't do a single thing for themselves.
All day long, it was "Dr. McKay, what's that?" and "Dr. McKay, we can't find the bathrooms" and "Dr. McKay, Kavanagh and Kusanagi are trapped in the garbage compactor again." These people were capable of doing nothing for themselves. He'd chafed and railed at the idiocy of the people around him on Earth, but after ten years with no one to talk to except whales and the odd Athosian, he'd managed to forget how dense most people were. Every once in a while he'd catch a glimpse of an actual functioning brain cell -- the head of the Atlantis scientists in particular, a little fuzzy guy, was capable of holding an intelligent conversation for at least a short period of time. But in general, all he wanted to do was flee back to the whales, except he couldn't because the morons kept falling down garbage chutes and accidentally activating lethal machinery and turning themselves into hamsters and other common, easily avoided mishaps. Rodney had learned not to push strange buttons in Atlantis when he was a toddler.
The final straw was when he went out onto the South Pier after two days of Earther-induced hell, planning to watch a quiet movie with the whales, and discovered a spiky-haired guy in a Magic Division uniform throwing bread crumbs to his whales.
For a moment or two, all Rodney could do was squeak in apoplectic rage, until Spiky Head turned around and noticed him.
"Oh, hey," the Earther said cheerfully. "You know, these whales are really frien--"
Rodney pushed him off the edge of the pier.
It didn't produce the satisfying tumble and splash that he'd expected. Instead, the Earther arrested his tumble just above the waves, head down, with his shoulder-length tangle of dark hair hanging towards the tops of the whitecaps breaking against the pier. He righted himself with no particular speed and levitated back up to the pier.
The whales were very amused. Rodney, not so much.
The Earther wasn't wearing any jewelry, amulets, medicine bags or anything else Rodney could see, aside from an earring in his left ear that consisted of a single bright green stone. To the extent that Rodney understood Milky Way magic, this left just one possibility. "You're a mage," Rodney spat at him.
The mage raised his eyebrows, and pointed silently to the Magic Division uniform.
"Oh, shut up." Stupid Earthers and their stupid, labyrinthine magical regulations. During the years he'd spent on Earth, he'd had enough trouble trying to remember half the things that other people took for granted, like not sticking metal objects in the food-charmer while it was running (ow) or not combining different brands of headache amulets (double ow). The last thing he wanted to do was clutter his brain with that kind of nonsense, especially when he had no intention of going back to that cluttered, noisy, polluted, bureaucrat-infested world. Even the whales on Earth were idiots.
"I'm Sheppard," the mage said, sticking his hands in his pockets, his hair even wilder and stranger-looking than it had been before. "Since you asked."
"I didn't ask. Get off my pier." He knew he was being sulky and childish, but he didn't really care.
Sheppard studied him with a peculiar flat look. "Guess the more things change, the more they stay the same," he said, and strolled back towards the towers of the City, the wind whipping his long hair.
Rodney stared after him. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?" he demanded of Sheppard's back. There was no answer.
It beat the hell out of the whales, too, but then a lot of things about humans did.
Rodney decided to forget about mages and Earthers for a while, and marched down to the end of the pier where, years ago, he'd rigged up a DVD player and projector, along with a watertight bin of DVDs -- the one good thing that he'd brought back from Earth, aside from his astrophysics degree.
"Want to watch Star Trek IV again?"
If it made him happy, it made the whales happy, even if they couldn't really figure out what he saw in it.