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The Stars My Destination

Chapter Text

By Tuesday morning, their doom was upon them: the letter appeared on Jonn's padd, in bone-dry legalese, commanding him to appear before a disciplinary board on charges of destruction of property, recklessness and disregard for protocol. He wasn't sure what the last part meant, exactly, but there was a date and a time and a warning that failure to appear would have Serious Consequences.

He wanted to show it to Rodney, to laugh it off or compare with whatever he'd gotten, except Rodney seemed to avoiding him lately; for some reason that was worse than another confrontation, because at least if they started yelling again they might resolve something. But Jonn was also still too irritated to actually seek him out, and since neither of them were sleeping particularly well, their room was hardly a reliable place to wait. He thought about seeking out Mitchell or one of the other cadets from Red Zero Seven, but the gossip mill was bad enough as it was without giving them any more ammunition. Hell, even the professors seemed to giving him second looks...unless he was just being paranoid again.

Of course, given that he seemed to have shot to the top of Admiral Nixon's hit list all of a sudden, maybe that wasn't so paranoid after all.

Rodney was so committed to avoiding Jonn that he actually dared to skip Problems in Intercultural Communication—not that he needed much of an excuse, but when they were already on probation it seemed a little like flirting with disaster. Like something Jonn would do, actually. But the only thing that was attracting more attention than his impending doom were the bruises on his face and knuckles, and as much as he'd like to lay low until the day of the hearing, he was positive he'd never get away with it, even if Rodney could.

So he slouched into class on Tuesday afternoon, taking up a strategic position near the back, and made a game of trying to make eye contact with anybody he caught staring. He awarded himself bonus points if they blushed or dropped or anything. Go on, look all you want. I've got nothing to hide from you people.

"Good afternoon, cadets," Commander Yaxley trilled from the center of the lecture hall. She waited for the last murmurs and rustles to quiet down before continuing, "We'll be departing slightly from the syllabus today, as we welcome a very special guest lecturer. Dr. Daniel Jackson is a civilian consultant for Starfleet and an expert on ancient Earth civilizations." She gestured to the human man behind her, who wore a painfully ugly suit and glasses; he was typing away on a padd and didn't seem fully aware that Yaxley was talking. "He's here today to present to us on his research regarding—certain parallel developments in the histories of some Federation worlds. Dr. Jackson?"

Jonn didn't miss the little pause in her introduction, and just what the hell did parallel developments mean? He tilted his padd up to hide the screen, and did a quick, general search on the name plus ancient civilizations. A couple of journal articles, all five to ten years old with abstruse, wordy titles; some conference proceedings, almost as old...and an obituary, dated 2253, with a redaction issued for a year later. Colorful guy.

"...remarkably close parallels in unconnected cultures," Jackson was saying up at the front; he had some pictures of Egyptian pyramids on the screen, and he clicked up a picture of a Mayan step pyramid for comparison. "Keep in mind, these come from an era when human technology was barely adequate to get across the Mediterranean in one piece. Egypt and Mexico might as well have been on different planets. So why should they share the concept of the pyramid?"

Someone down in front—one of the people who actually wanted to be in this class, probably in communications or social sciences—shot up her hand. "With respect, sir," she said, "it's a geometric primitive. Thousands of planets have used pyramids in their architecture. It's used because it's efficient."

Jackson stabbed a finger at her. "Or do we assume it's efficient because it's commonly used?" When she didn't seem to follow, he prompted, "Look, the floor plan of a house—of any building—of this building—it's a rectangle, a quadrilateral. Or a series of them. But all the way back to yurts and igloos, circular floor plans have existed alongside the rectangles. For enclosing the maximum area within the smallest perimeter, the circle is the most efficient geometric primitive—but how often do you see it employed?"

Another cadet, hesitantly: "Isn't that a limitation of building materials?"

"Then triangles would be popular, if that was the key constraint," Jackson said dismissively. "Or octagons. The square building is a cultural concept, just like the pyramid. And you have a very good point," he added to the original cadet, who still seemed lost. "Thousands of planets, all modeling their monumental architecture on the same geometric primitive—but a cube is a primitive, too, and so is a cylinder. Why a pyramid? And why on such a vast scale? These things took decades to build, vast amounts of manual labor and natural resources—the forests of Egypt have never recovered. You can see the same thing on...lemme find it...on Bolarus—" and here he brought up another picture, of another pyramid made of vaguely greenish stone— "on Hanka, on Calder Prime, Indri VIII, Abydos, Velona—"

Picture after picture of pyramids, or crumbling stone structures that might've once been pyramids, filled the screen. Eventually, somebody piped up with what Jonn was thinking. "With respect sir—isn't a cone the natural endpoint of any big pile of rocks?"

"A cone is not a pyramid," Jackson said, with an edge in his voice that hadn't been there before. "These are engineered structures that required tremendous sophistication to build. All these structures are beyond monumental in scale for the time they were constructed, and they were all constructed within a few centuries of each other, on a dozen different planets, all using at best Iron Age technology. I realize this may not be quantum physics, Cadet, but even in the humanities we recognize the difference between a coincidence and a pattern."

The cadet who'd spoken up scowled, and slumped in his seat a little. But one of his friends jumped in to rescue him. "So are you proposing some kind of interplanetary travel pre-first-contact for all these races? Because, with respect, sir, that's harder to buy than a trans-Atlantic canoe trip."

"You're halfway there," Jackson said, erasing the pyramid pictures. "The key to understanding the pyramids—not to mention other advanced ancient technologies, which, well, I can come back to that diagram—the key here is to look at the mythology of the worlds in question."

He said this with decisive confidence, and Jonn glanced around the lecture hall to make sure he wasn't the only one who had no goddamn idea what that meant. He wasn't.

"Right," Jackson said, after a slightly-too-long pause, and started bringing up some more graphics—murals, paintings, a couple rotating holograms of statues. "Let me back this up. So we don't have actual historical records for most of these civilizations going back to the pyramid-building era; writing seems to have developed later, or been repressed until later, but oral traditions preserved valuable information—in the form of warnings, of cosmology, of cultural traditions that could only be adaptive in a particular climate, such as the D'raan practice of facial scarification—yes?"

He called on a cadet who had shot a hand in the air. "With respect, sir," she said (Jonn noted that phrase was getting more and more strained with every question), "did you say writing was repressed? By who?"

"Whom," Jackson said. "'Writing was repressed by whom.' And I'm getting to that part." He started pointing at the graphics as if they bolstered his argument, though from the back Jonn couldn't even quite see the captions. "See, mythology is how people make sense of the world around them—even in the modern day, urban legends and folklore are still perpetuated on subjects where scientific consensus is limited or absent. So for low-technology cultures, cultures where there isn't a concept of empiricism, where knowledge of the natural world is based on non-systematic experiential knowledge, mythology serves as a unifying means of explaining why rain falls, where animals came from, why grass is, uh, whatever color it is. This isn't just storytelling, it's ethnoscience, it's cosmology, it's Weltanschauung. And everything that these people encounter gets incorporated into that cosmology, on the best terms they can understand, and if something is so far beyond anything they have any other experience of, they'll call it magic, or God. That's where we find the pyramid-builders, or I guess the pyramid-inventors, really—why else would a gigantic pile of rocks be used as a tribute to the gods?"

Somebody, very quietly, giggled. Jonn noted that Commander Yaxley was staring at a fixed point in space across the room, biting her lower lip, as if she really, really wanted to interrupt with her own comments. The cadet with bad grammar had her hand up again. "Sir," she said, not even bothering with with respect this time, "it sounds like you're implying that gods exist."

"Is that so hard to credit?" someone interrupted, before Jackson could get a word in; Jonn craned his neck and noticed Teyla Emmagen sitting in the middle of the auditorium. He'd never noticed her in this class before, but then again, it was a big lecture. Her question sounded dead serious, and a bit more awkward snickering broke out in response.

"Exactly," Jackson said. "Ancient people weren't stupid, and they didn't make up ideas out of thin air. What we once called gods had to come from somewhere—from real beings, or from stories told about those beings."

"So you're saying—with respect—that religion is right," someone blurted, disbelieving, down in front.

"What I'm trying to demonstrate is that the gods of multiple Federation cultures are actually ancient representations of an advanced alien civilization that spread a number of common cultural developments across the worlds they once exploited," Jackson said. "So yes, in that sense, the gods of our ancestors were very real, if not exactly what their worshipers thought them to be, and the resulting religious traditions had a basis in fact."

"Doctor Jackson," somebody said, standing up—a Bolian cadet, one Jonn had had a couple of classes with. "You do realize that my people are atheists, yes? We've never had any gods."

"That is a valid point," Jackson said, and started frantically tapping at his padd. "And actually a very good one, because if you're familiar with the legends of Tkaan Ebrish the Hero King, there are tablets recovered from the Daishtipt Valley that give him the epithet 'gbuurh han aerish,' which roughly translates as 'spirit-destroyer' or possibly even 'god-slayer,' which suggests—and this is a recurrent theme across many planets—suggests a war between gods, or between gods and mortals, in which the losing side were somehow banished or dispelled from the known world. To be perfectly blunt, Cadet, you don't have any gods because your people killed them all."

The cadet flushed a deep indigo color. "That is one set of tablets out of thousands, in one valley on a whole planet," he blustered. "You think you can rewrite our whole history based on one sentence taken out of context?"

"At this time-depth, it's frankly miraculous any tablets survived so long," Jackson said. "And in this case, the context isn't just Bolarus, it's this entire quadrant of the galaxy—one planet is an internal phenomenon, two is coincidence, but three, five, a dozen—"

Another jumped to his feet before the Bolian sat down, cutting Jackson off. "Sir, do you really think that every single planet where these aliens landed would've received them as gods? At least one planet had to be smarter than that."

"It's happened to enough Starfleet officers by accident, regardless of how 'smart' the indigenous people are," Jackson said. "And the civilization I'm positing doesn't exactly have a Prime Directive or principle of first-contact ethics."

"Exactly what civilization are you positing, Dr. Jackson?" someone called out, without even standing up.

"A highly advanced one," Jackson said, "at least on a level with much of the Federation's current technology. One that was, at best, utterly indifferent to their indigenous slaves and, at worse, actively tyrannical, a pattern that some indigenous rules afterwards attempted to copy, such as the Egyptian pharaohs, the Bolian hero-kings, the D'raan yelits, et cetera. They introduced the pyramid, logographic writing, images of animal-headed monsters or divinities, and possibly the kilt, though that one could've been an independent development on some planets."

He didn't seem to understand why some people were giggling on that, or maybe he was just surprised that people weren't bothering to cover it up anymore. The same interrupting cadet challenged, "And where are they now, then? If they were so advanced and so wide-spread? Or did they all get murdered by a bunch of Iron Age primitives with rocks and sticks?"

"By definition, Iron Age primitives have graduated to spears and swords, actually," Jackson said dryly. "As for where they went—well, that's not something I can be specific about at this time."

Jonn thought there was something a little weird about that phrasing, but the heckler—because that's what it was at that point, outright heckling. "So you're suggesting we all start hailing a bunch of invisible aliens as gods based on evidence you're cherry-picking from every world in the Federation?"

"You're exaggerating my claim," Jackson said, with a certain underlying weariness, as if he'd had this argument before. "I'm not saying these aliens are gods, I'm saying they were seen as gods, that they actively promoted themselves as gods—and I certainly don't consider them worthy of respect, much less worship. The one universal trait of these aliens is that their pretense of 'godhood' was based on lies and oppression, and perpetuated solely to enrich themselves, rather than the people whose faith they demanded."

Another hand went up, and Jonn realized it was Emmagen's again—odd that she was still bothering to raise her hand when half the rest of the class had devolved into muttering amongst themselves. She stood, and even managed to say, "With respect, sir," with a straight face. "Do you include the worlds of the Pegasus quadrant in this analysis?"

"I...no, Cadet, I'm afraid those worlds are a little outside my area of focus," Jackson said, blinking a little.

"I only ask because you seem to be describing a concept very much like our Ancestors," she said. "They, too, were highly advanced beings, who gave life to the people of our various worlds and established much of our common culture before they were defeated by their enemies and Ascended to a superior plane."

That provoked just as much muttering as anything Jackson said, and Jonn's ears were sharp enough to make out the details of a few remarks—something snide about civilized planets and something about superstitions. Jackson, though, seemed to consider this carefully, and ultimately nodded. "That's certainly an intriguing set of parallels, Cadet, and definitely worth exploring. Certainly many of the false gods of other words claimed to have created the people they oppressed."

"You misunderstand me, sir," Emmagen said. "I do not speak of claims, but of facts."

That seemed to wrong-foot Jackson, and even some of the cadets quieted down, at least ones who were paying attention. "You have proof, then, that your Ancestors existed?" he asked.

"If I may ask, what proof do you have of your false gods?" Emmagen shot back. "Aside from that already mentioned."

That actually got him to wince. "Well, I'm afraid my principle field investigation was conducted on Abydos, so most of that's still classified," he said. "As are, ah, most of my other sources, to be perfectly honest. But there are specific hieroglyphic inscriptions, the Daishtipt Valley tablets that I mentioned, a series of cave paintings on the polar landmass of Ruah IV—"

"Whereas the peoples of the Pegasus quadrant have a lengthy written and oral tradition regarding the Ancestors and their gifts to us," Emmagen interrupted firmly. "One which is quite consistent across all worlds, and predates any culture's use of spaceflight."

"Which is significant," Jackson said slowly, "but still, all that means is that the traditions have a common origin, not necessarily that they're founded in fact."

Emmagen's face darkened. "To borrow a line of argument, Dr. Jackson—on dozens of worlds, spanning almost half the galaxy, we see the form called humanoid. Bipedal, carbon-based, oxygen-dependent, often possessed of roughly similar internal anatomy and biochemistry. There is no reason this should be the norm, not when we have seen that more exotic species such as the Tholians and the Medusans can thrive. Yet on many worlds, at many times, we find life in the image and likeness of...someone, carrying the spark of intelligence and spreading out across the stars, and carrying with them some faith in a Creator, however old or unpractised it may be. Is that pattern, sir, or coincidence?"

Jackson winced. "Like I said, Cadet, I'm not very familiar with the myths of the Pegasus quadrant," he said weakly. "And, well, it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that we're dealing with more than one ancient civilization here, though I admit right off that it's risky to start multiplying entities like that."

Emmagen's chin lifted. "I do not speak of myths, Dr. Jackson. If the Ancestors are real, could not your hypothetical aliens be in fact gods?"

"No," Jackson said flatly, and his knuckles went a little white where he was holding his padd. "I'm sorry, but—no, they really, really can't."

"And so you condemn my gods as well?" Emmagen asked frostily.

"I'm not condemning anything, Cadet," Jackson said, "but I'm also choosing to withhold judgment about anybody's divinity until I see a little more evidence."

"Perhaps what you require is a bit more faith," Emmagen said, and to Jonn's surprise, she picked up her padd and walked out of the lecture hall. The conversations that had gone quiet while she and Jackson argued sputtered back to life, but Jackson just looked down at his hands, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

That seemed to prompt Yaxley out of her zone. "I'd like to remind everyone that Dr. Jackson is a guest as well as an employee of Starfleet and should be treated with all the respect that position entails," she said sharply, as if she hadn't been tuning out herself. That at least got the murmuring to die down. "Are you ready to continue, Dr. Jackson?"

"I think I'm done here, actually," he said quietly, and picked up his padd. "Thank you, Commander, for giving me an opportunity to speak. And if anyone has questions, obviously you can contact me after class...."

He didn't look like he really expected that, though. If this was the kind of thing he published on, Jonn figured he was probably used to it.

The rest of the lecture went more or less according to plan—Yaxley was handing out term paper topics, analysis of first-contact situations within a specific philosophical framework—and Jonn slipped out of the lecture hall as soon as he could. He was planning to head straight back to his room and lay low until dinner time, or maybe even later—Rodney usually kept a stockpile of emergency field rations on his side of the room (he claimed to like the taste) and if he wasn't going to be in the room to defend them Jonn felt he had a right to take whatever he wanted.

That plan dissolved as soon as he came around a corner and found himself face-to-face with Admiral Hammond and another officer in a yellow tunic.

"Cadet Sheppard," Hammond said, with a small but friendly smile. "I was just coming to look for you."

"Sirs." Jonn stopped, and wondered if he ought to come to attention or something. The rest of the class streamed by them, no small number daring to slow down and stare—they didn't exactly make an inconspicuous group, two high-ranking officers and one slightly damaged cadet.

Hammond didn't seem to mind. "Cadet Sheppard. I wanted to introduce you to somebody here—Captain Jack O'Neill of the Cheyenne. Jack, this would be one of the cadets who broke your shuttle."

"Thought he'd be taller, sir." O'Neill's hair was mostly silver and he had lines weathered into his face, but Jonn knew he was much younger than he looked; he'd heard of the man by reputation, for his actions on the Klingon border, but he'd never expected to actually meet him. Sure as hell not like this, anyway. "That's a hell of a shiner you got there, Cadet. Whose corn flakes did you piss in?"

"Just a misunderstanding, sir," Jonn said quickly.

"Not related to the simulation, I hope?" Hammond said with a small frown.

"Absolutely not, sir." Jonn turned back to O'Neill. "With respect, sir, I thought I'd heard you retired."

"Sure it was me?" he asked. "There's another Captain O'Neil, with one 'L.' No sense of humor at all. We get mixed up a lot."

"Captain O'Neill volunteered to sit on the discipline board for your hearing Friday," Hammond said, and the penny finally dropped. "Since he happens to have some free time while he's here in Colorado Springs."

"Yeah, and you know I'm just a sucker for administrative procedure," O'Neill added in a deadpan dry enough to blister.

Jonn knew what he was supposed to say now, even if it rankled a little bit for Hammond to spring it on him like this. "I appreciate your time, sir," he said, forcing a bit of a smile.

O'Neill averted his eyes. "Yeah, well, it was either that or follow Daniel around all day." He glanced around. "Where is he, anyway? I thought he was lecturing a class around here."

Jonn cleared his throat when he realized O'Neill was talking about Dr. Jackson. "He did. It...ah, didn't go over so well."

"Lemme guess, he talked really fast, said something crazy and then looked at you like you were an idiot?" O'Neill asked.

Jonn blinked. "Does he do that a lot, sir?"

"Yeah, we pretty much just learned to go with it," O'Neill said with a little shrug. "It's a lot easier to assume he knows what he's talking about and worry about what he actually said later."

Jonn found himself glancing in Hammond's direction, because he honestly couldn't tell if O'Neill was being facetious or not. Hammond just gave him an enigmatic half-smile. "Captain O'Neill was impressed with what you did in a Tereshkova, Cadet, regardless of the outcome," he said, as if this wasn't a complete change of topic. "Haven't seen one of those put through its paces in a while myself."

"They're not exactly built for precision handling," O'Neill said. "You ever tried that trick in a Gagarin?"

"I did something similar once in a Sanbao, back with the MDP," Jonn admitted.

"No shit." O'Neill leaned against the wall, eyes lighting up. "You ever get one of those to override its stability management? The response time is amazing."

"Yeah, but you tend to lose a nacelle that way," Jonn pointed out. "You can jack the thruster response easier if you just disable the inertial dampeners."

"And then you lose a lung," O'Neill said.

"Eh, who needs lungs?" Jonn asked. "Besides, the ones on the Perimeter never pull more than three gees on a good day—the original plasma manifolds got retrofitted with parts from the Tamerlane series, so they vent like crazy."

"Now that's a damn shame," O'Neill said emphatically, but before he could continue the communicator on his belt started to trill. "Sorry, hang on—O'Neill here." He stepped away, but his end of the conversation was perfectly clear, and Hammond wasn't even pretending not to eavesdrop, so Jonn really couldn't help but join in. "Nice to hear from you too, Daniel.... What? Where is he...? And you can't find Carter for this? Ah, jeez, all right, I'll meet you at the fountain in twenty and we'll go bail him out." He closed the communicator and grimaced at them. "We're gonna have to finish this conversation after the hearing. Teal'c found an all-you-can-eat pancake place."

"Do what you have to, Captain," Hammond said gravely. Jonn didn't dare ask who the hell Teal'c was, or why he wasn't allowed around pancakes. Hammond turned back to Jonn as O'Neill took off at a trot, and gave Jonn's battered hands a significant glance. "I should be going myself, actually. Try to take care of yourself, Cadet?"

"Can't make any promises, sir," Jonn said, and Hammond hesitated, as if there was something more he wanted to say, like advice or reassurance or exhortations not to dig himself any deeper. In the end, though, he took his leave, and let Jonn finally escape back to the dormitories.

Rodney was in the room when Jonn got back—in fact, Jonn could hear him from four doors away, and he wondered whether that was a good sign or not. When he actually got into the room, he nearly got a face full of Rodney's wild gesticulation; Zelenka was sitting on Rodney's unmade bed, working on a padd, apparently not even paying attention to the rant. "—and just completely ignored me! You can't treat students like that! You can't treat future colleagues like that!"

"Perhaps if you hadn't come on to her like a dog in heat she would have been more receptive," Zelenka muttered.

"I gave her a compliment!" Rodney protested. "Who doesn't like a complement?" He pointed at Jonn, as if he'd temporarily forgotten they weren't speaking to one another. "You compliment people all the time!"

"It helps that I'm actually a nice person and not a sex-starved maniac," Jonn pointed out automatically. Messing with McKay felt good, familiar, like broken-in boots, and it probably said terrible things about his character that he'd kind of missed it these past few days.

Rodney waved him off, tutting. "I get plenty of sex, thank you! And I'm a very nice person! And what the hell happened to your face?"

Jonn flopped back onto the bed. "Long story, McKay. Who are you bitching about now?"

"Guest lecturer this morning in Topics of Subspace Theory," Zelenka said, while Rodney was still working his way up to shouting volume. "Lieutenant Commander Carter. Very insightful. Very intelligent."

"Very hot," Rodney added.

Jonn fought the urge to literally cover his face with both hands. "You don't tell superior officers that they're hot, McKay. I'm pretty sure we covered that in basic."

"It was a compliment!"

"Thus she treats Rodney like clingy man-bimbo that he is," Zelenka said airly, "and thus he is outraged and swears to destroy her."

"Can you maybe wait to get on that until after the hearing?" Jonn asked, thinking back to O'Neill's hasty conversation. "Seems like it might piss off part of the discipline board."

"Oh," Rodney said, and his face slowly transformed, the outraged flush draining out as he seemed to remember all at once that they were in trouble. His voice came out oddly high. "That. Um. Right. What do you know about the board, exactly?"

Jonn shrugged. "At least two people there aren't out to get me personally, so that's good."

"Yeah, faint hope," Rodney muttered, and sat down at his desk.

There was an awkward silence, but Jonn was no longer in the mood to play around with people who were supposed to be his friends. "You two ever crack Weir's encryption?" he asked.

"Um. Maybe. Sort of." Rodney rubbed his eyes and turned to face his desk, away from Jonn. "I've had—I've been busy. With, you know, other things."

"What other things?" Zelenka asked. "You are ignoring all my messages."

"Things!" Rodney snapped. "I have things that I do! And you two are not always involved in them!"

"And what things are those?" Zelenka asked.

"None of your damned business!" Rodney said. He started fidgeting with his communicator without flipping it open. "But, um. But yeah. I think I've got an approach mostly figured out."

"You'd better do better than mostly by Friday or we're screwed," Jonn told him.

Rodney suddenly flung his communicator down on the desk, where it bounced down into the gap behind. "Surprisingly, Sheppard, they let me into the Academy for a reason," he declared acidly. "I've got everything under control."

"All right," Jonn said, and was surprised at how badly he wanted to believe that. "Just—we're all counting on you, y'know."

"Yeah," Rodney muttered, and crawled under the desk to retrieve his communicator.