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Darkness Is the Only Sound

Chapter Text

Before

The stasis field deactivated. Merah blinked sluggishly for several moments before remembering.

The urgency of fear sent it scrambling to check the readouts. A few systems were inoperable, but the rest suggested that the pod had made landfall on a habitable mass, so Merah sang the release.

The air set Merah to coughing. There was smoke near the pod, though, so Merah moved a few paces away and gradually managed to breathe more clearly. The air still held an unpleasant flavor. The land around Merah was dark with night, though there was enough scattered light to make the stars dim, suggesting some form of people did inhabit the world.

The radio spectrum was noisy, but the area was otherwise quiet. Merah had to extend its senses for a troublingly long time before detecting another pod. It hurried over and found that no one had yet emerged, so it sang the release for that pod as well. That triggered the tardy stasis to deactivate, revealing one of the smallkind.

Merah helped it free of the pod and to clearer air. "I am Merah. Which are you?"

"I am Eeen," it replied, singing a greeting. They pressed together for the comfort of companionship, but Merah sang only the abbreviated response, looking and listening intently across the field.

The night gradually resumed its own song around them, alien creatures trilling into the dark.

"Where are the others?" Eeen asked finally.

"I don't know," Merah admitted, fear growing within. The pod cluster should have held together on detection of a potentially habitable mass. What if the others had been captured? What if the Discord was closing in on the two of them?

Run. Hide. The haunting notes echoed in Merah's memory.

Eeen keened softly as they made their way back to Merah's pod. Merah dug down to the readouts and checked back through the logs.

The answer was devastating. The logs showed no sign of pursuit, but they had recorded a brush with a gravity well.

The pods had very little propulsion. The joinforce would have held the cluster together under most conditions, but it would have released the outer sections if the nearer pods could not escape a dangerous condition, rather than dragging the entire cluster down.

And only these two pods had held together for entry to a habitable world.

A mourning spilled from Merah's throat, raw with grief. First their home gone with all the tallkind, and now all the small- and midkind from their cluster. So many. So many.

Eeen huddled miserably against Merah, singing an unsteady harmony that trailed off into unformed sobs. "Alone. We're alone."

Merah held back from observing that at least they were two. If only one pod had broken free ….

"There were other clusters," Merah said instead. "We are not the last." The tallkind had sent clusters of the young in all directions, in the desperate hope that at least some would escape.

Run. Hide.

They were not yet safe. The Discord would not rest until the People had been destroyed.

So they must become another people.

Merah gathered their supplies from the two pods, making sure everything they would need was accounted for, and then set the pods to burn. Their entry would almost certainly have been noticed, and until they knew enough about the locals to alter and blend, they could be in a different kind of danger. Not all inhabited planets knew of the People.

"Come along," Merah said. "We must learn our new home."

For several paces, Merah walked alone, but then Eeen raced to catch up, taking Merah's hand. Merah squeezed back, relieved at the contact, and led them off into the dark.



Now

"I've seen this style of writing before," Rodney muttered. He started typing away at his laptop.

John squinted up at the image on the projection screen. "Looks kind of like … wingdings for Arabic."

"Yes, I'm sure there are droves of Arabs in Pegasus using idiotic font conventions," Rodney snarked.

"I said looks like, McKay. Not probably is." John knew it wasn't the most accurate comparison anyway, but it didn't really deserve that much scorn, either.

"I can see what you mean, though," Elizabeth said. "It obviously isn't Arabic, but it doesn't resemble any script I've seen here in Pegasus."

Rodney kept typing. "Yes, well, since we're the only Earth personnel in this galaxy …." He paused and then started typing even more rapidly. "Assumptions. Of course." With a swift keystroke combination he split the display in two. The left half showed the clearest one of the pictures Lorne's team had taken, while the right showed a rapid scroll of other pictures of strange writing.

Rodney finally paused the scroll and considered that image. "It can't be," he said finally, dubiously.

Elizabeth frowned. "That would certainly be surprising," she agreed.

John opened his mouth to tell them to stop being obscure, but Rodney tapped his radio and spoke first. "Corrigan. Get to the conference room now. Did I ask? Yes, we have a runic emergency, so get up here."

John raised an eyebrow. "A runic emergency?"

"If it turns out the Furlings passed through Pegasus, yes, I would say so," Rodney said, as if his own use of the phrase hadn't been dripping with sarcasm.

Lorne straightened, and Elizabeth said, "Yes, that would be a significant finding."

Everyone else just looked confused, so at least John wasn't alone. "I have not heard of these … Furlings," Teyla said.

"They were one of the four Great Races," Elizabeth said, "allied with the Ancients, the Nox, and the Asgard. We've found a few traces of them in the Milky Way, but no one seems to know what happened to them, or when."

"Alliance?" Ronon prompted. "Against what, the Goa'uld?"

"Perhaps, after a fashion. The Nox eventually chose to withdraw from other societies rather than fight the Goa'uld, though, and there are suggestions the Furlings may also have been pacifistic. They — or at least a subset of their society — created a Utopian world that they shared with any humans who cared to join them, for example."

"Which was then destroyed by a Goa'uld, so obviously that was an effective strategy," Rodney said.

"Regardless," Elizabeth said, "they were apparently a successful enough society for long enough to affiliate with three of the most powerful races we've known, so anything we could add to the very little we know about them would be remarkably valuable."

"If they toddled off to Pegasus, that could explain why we've found so little in the Milky Way," Rodney agreed. He frowned. "Though it seems odd they would happen to have moved to the one other galaxy we've explored to any degree."

Dr. Corrigan entered the conference room at that point and gave the display a confused look. "Furling script samples are a runic emergency?"

Rodney snapped his laptop shut, the grin of academic zeal replacing his thoughtful frown. "Looks like we're exploring this site further. Jackson will be so jealous."



Before

Merah managed to find both a dwelling and a stand of plants to hide within near it before dawn broke. They ate from their small supply of food, and Eeen soon drifted into a doze, but as the taller, Merah did not have that luxury. Merah instead pulled out the recorder and waited for one of the locals to emerge.

One eventually did, and Merah noted with relief that its shape was not too alien. From a distance, one might even mistake it for one of the People. Closer to, though, it was clearly different, though the garments it wore hid most of the differences. The little it left uncovered was strangely smooth, with tendrils apparently only at the top of its head — and, bizarrely, under the nostrils. Its fingers were short and blunted, and it had extras, as if to make up for their shape. The eyes were narrow and rounded, the neck strangely delicate. The ears were tiny.

A second figure emerged, and Merah saw with relief that its top tendrils were longer, falling over the ears to hide those almost entirely, while its face had none. Merah and Eeen might be able to pass as locals for a short while, if they were very careful.

They would eventually have to alter their shapes, but the modifier only had so much power, and they could likely use it only once. They would need all the information they could gather first. Besides, Merah preferred to retain its own shape as long as possible. Bad enough to be trapped on an alien world without having to be trapped in an alien body. Yet.

Merah opened its mind carefully. The locals were similar enough that Merah was able to gather impressions from their minds, so it switched on the recorder and collected impressions until both locals had climbed into some form of motorized object and rolled away.

The concepts Merah gathered for the recorder were bewildering, but that did not yet matter. No other locals were in the dwelling, and the two who had left expected to be away for most of the area's daylight, so Merah woke Eeen and they crept within. Eeen promptly curled up on the floor of the dwelling and went back to sleep, and Merah huffed with exasperation. Smallkind.

Merah was tired as well, but other matters were more urgent. It carefully explored the dwelling, finding various caches of garments throughout. The garments were too large for Merah, and they were far too large for Eeen, but they would serve as better camouflage than their own garments. They had a perception filter, but they would have to save that for emergencies, since it too had a limited charge.

Merah found hand coverings as well, and those fit only because they were too large, the greater size making up for the stubby fingers. The empty extra finger-sleeve on each hand was unnerving. The foot coverings, strangely, had no individual sleeves, instead simply encasing the entire foot in a stiff, nearly rigid form.

Merah arranged the smallest garments on Eeen, who slept through the process. With garments and hand-coverings, and with tendrils drawn down over ears, Eeen could be mistaken for a local. At least from a distance. By someone not really paying attention. Merah sighed and went back to exploring.

One room in the dwelling seemed to be for food storage. At least Merah hoped they were foodstuffs. Merah ignored the containers with no evident openings and avoided anything with strong odors, but there were still dozens of different substances within various containers. Some were on closed shelves, some in sliding drawers, and yet more in a sort of chillbox that had two compartments of its own. Merah broke bits off of each substance and used the scanner to analyze them.

Some were profoundly toxic, and Merah put them back hastily. The rest were apparently innocuous. Merah sighed again, resenting being the taller. It tasted tiny bits until it found one that wasn't too disgusting, and it then ate a few bites of that substance.

While waiting to see if its body could handle the supposed food, Merah switched the recorder on and lay down next to Eeen. This dwelling was at the edge of a grouping of several others, and Merah opened its mind as widely as it could, trying to collect other impressions to guide their integration.



Now

The installation with the possibly-Furling script was far from the gate, and they had two extra people to transport, so they took a jumper. John arced high to get an idea of the regional terrain before settling into the planned path. "So these mysterious Furlings liked the whole Pacific Northwest climate too, huh?"

"If they were here, there's a reasonable likelihood the planet had already been adapted by the Ancients," Rodney countered.

"I'm starting to think the Ancients got all their terraforming kits from some kind of Ancient IKEA," John said, grinning when that set Rodney off. Teyla shot John a long-suffering look from the other forward seat.

"I do not see a path," she observed once Rodney wound down.

"Hard to tell through the trees," John said. She had more experience with settlement patterns around gates, but he had more experience with aerial reconnaissance, and a footpath could be damn near invisible through a forest.

"It is," Teyla allowed, "but I did not see an obvious path near the Ring, either, nor any features within walking distance to draw traders."

That had come up at the briefing, too. This planet had made their investigation list based on marketplace rumors. The vendor had apparently cleaned out the small collection of mysterious artifacts near the gate, so he hadn't minded selling the address of an empty world. Lorne and his team had found the installation in their initial survey of the general region. Atlantis could always use alpha sites.

But Teyla, like other Pegasus natives, was wary of uninhabited worlds.

"Maybe whoever built this place had their own transports," John suggested. "Or it's just been long enough that their paths have grown over."

It probably had to be one or the other, because it took them a solid ten minutes at a good clip to get from the gate to the site. John started the descent, but Rodney suddenly told him to wait. "Go back up a few hundred feet."

John did, and they all studied the installation for a while, Corrigan and Stackhouse lurking at the back of the cockpit while Rodney stood almost on top of the dialing console. The installation looked like a jumble of gray stone blocks, but John didn't see anything remarkable.

"Looking for something particular, McKay?" John drawled finally.

Rodney turned back to his console and sent a dizzying array of graphs to the HUD. "Something's not right about this," he said.

"And is that a particular something, or just your usual gloom and doom?"

Rodney scowled. "Just land, funny man."



Before

Merah spent several days gathering information. The garments did a passable job of disguising the two of them, but they still kept to hiding places as much as they could.

Some of the information was comprehensible, at least to a degree. They were closer to the northern pole of the planet than they were to the equator, and the local region was passing into summer. None of the locals wore the hand coverings, but they all wore the foot coverings. Most wore abbreviated versions of the garments, and the few head coverings Merah saw were lightweight, doing nothing to disguise their meager ears. Since the garments Merah and Eeen had covered themselves in were sweltering, that all fit.

The locals retreated into dwellings at nightfall for the most part, though some used artificial light sources to remain outdoors well into the night, and the denser groupings of dwellings kept artificial lights operating outside all night long. Merah had found a few foodstuffs that didn't cause illness, giving both of them enough to live on, though they had to take the food without notice or permission. A few times they'd had to run from shouting locals, the voices cruel and entirely without music. Twice they had to resort to using the perception filter to escape.

Unlike the general environment, the local society persisted in making little sense. Part of that was likely inexperience; Merah had not been tall enough to travel even among the known worlds before … before. Even so, Merah could not imagine a framework in which this society would make sense. They had smallkind through tallkind, at least, but Merah could not interpret their daily tasks. They traveled on a variety of devices, some of which sprayed toxic chemicals into the air without restraint. Merah saw hints of familiar, if foreign, technology, but only in crude forms. The people never sang, and the translator function of the recorder accumulated a staggering variety of plain words but few inflections.

And they had a division, beyond tallness, that Merah could not begin to understand. They seemed to have two distinct body types, and their society divided any number of concepts between the two by no discernible pattern.

Run. Hide.

They couldn't wait much longer without the risk of discovery growing too high. This wasn't one of the known worlds; these people didn't even seem to know there were worlds. That made retaining their own shapes far too dangerous.

Merah finally selected a dwelling with two smallkind, one of each body type. While the dwelling was empty, Merah crept inside and inspected the sleeping pallets of each. The tendrils of these people seemed to detach easily, and as Merah had hoped, a few tendrils lay abandoned on each of the pallets. Merah collected one of each with distaste.

Since there were two of them and two body types, they would each take one. That should allow them access to both sides of any societal division.

Eeen was strangely quiet as Merah programmed the modifier with the alien tendrils and the recorder. Once the modifier was ready, they stood before it.

Eeen took Merah's hand, trilling a shaky but true-noted assent, and Merah activated the modifier.



Now

Thanks to a steep decline leading down to the site and rugged hills behind it, they couldn't park the jumper right next to it. As they left the jumper, and for the fifteen minutes it took them to cross the cluttered downslope from the landing site to the jumbled blocks, Rodney was preoccupied but Corrigan was grinning with excitement.

Once they reached the structure, Teyla and Stackhouse shadowed the two of them while John and Ronon secured the perimeter. They found nothing particularly exciting about the surprisingly intact structure, except that there weren't any other entrances to be found. The room the two scientists had started exploring had only the one entrance, and that room wasn't nearly large enough to account for the entire structure.

By the time they returned, Rodney was frowning and Corrigan looked worried.

After another hour, a deflated Corrigan approached a positively scowling Rodney. "Dr. McKay —"

"It's fake, isn't it." Rodney jabbed spitefully at his tablet.

"I don't think it's fake, exactly, but … staged, maybe?"

Rodney nodded, resigned. "Show me."

Everyone trailed after Corrigan as he led them on a tour of various writing samples. "See this cluster here, and this one here? You have cluster A repeated intact here and here, and cluster B repeated intact here, here, and here. Cluster C —"

"Which means what, exactly?" John prompted.

Corrigan turned to him. "Languages don't tend to be this … static. Obviously there will be set phrases, but —"

"But unless they like to put caution, shock hazard on pretty much any surface — but at different points in the signs," Rodney amended when Corrigan opened his mouth, "it's more likely that someone found a few pieces of script, didn't know what they meant, and just built fake signs out of them. Like those t-shirts Miko wears to middle-of-the-night emergencies, the ones with random English phrases."

"Okay, but if you don't actually know the language yourselves —"

"And there's no dust," Rodney added. "The Furlings have been missing for thousands of years, so where is the dust? Why do the materials of this structure seem to have been exposed to this planet for no more than a few months, if that? Where's the coherence? Nothing here actually fits with anything else."

John wasn't sure what about an old stone ruin with random inactive consoles was supposed to be out of place, but Rodney was theoretically the expert. "So it's a bust?"

"Oh, no, I wouldn't say that," Rodney said, brightening. "The bits that are here are quite possibly authentic."

"There are a few phrases we don't already have," Corrigan agreed. "They might be fake filler, but they might also be from other sources we don't have yet, which would definitely give us plenty to study."

"And the technology — there's not much, and I can't make much of that work, but there are pieces of some kind of harmonic locking system. Now we can't actually hear most of the frequencies it uses, but —" he waved his tablet "— our technology can, so with a few hours I should be able to open it and see what's inside."

"You sure this isn't going to be some kind of Al Capone's Vault thing?" Because John actually did have better things to do.

"No idea," Rodney said cheerfully. "But who cares? Maybe we find a map to the real Furling hideaway, or a ZPM, or — yes — maybe just a few empty bottles. But to be able to crack even one piece of Furling technology? Besides, it's literally a musical key — how can we resist?"

That apparently wasn't a pun in Athosian, but it was in Satedan if Ronon's expression was any guide.

But Rodney just looked so damn hopeful. He'd been beating his head against his own new math for weeks, with no success. If he could crack something different, something no one else had before ….

"Fine," John decided. "You get two hours."



Before

They had expected discomfort. Changing form was drastic; it would have to hurt. Their outer forms would shift first, the changes slowly working inward through their internal organs and then down to their very genetics over time, and the gross morphological adaptation would cause the greatest pain.

They expected the pain in their hands and feet, at the skin as their tendrils blended in, at the shape of their ears and eyes. But they hadn't expected the agony low in their torsos that made them double over and curl in on themselves. They hadn't expected the tearing misery that ripped through their heads and necks.

The process finally, finally finished, and Merah lay gasping on the ground, a strange quietness pressing down.

Behind Merah, Eeen made a strange croaking sound. Merah rolled over with difficulty to see Eeen batting and rubbing at nubby ears with stubby hands. Eeen croaked again and then started making a shrill thin noise.

Merah tried to quiet Eeen but was able to produce only a similar creaking. With growing horror, Merah felt its own throat as it tried to make any real sound, with no success.

This was why the locals didn't sing. They couldn't. Their throats could generate only a tiny range of ugly noises. Their ears couldn't process even a fraction of the sound around them.

They had no music.

Merah pulled Eeen close, realizing that the awful noise Eeen was making was the closest it could come to screaming. The noise was knife-sharp and leaf-thin and entirely inadequate to express their loss.

Better to be captured than this. Better to be destroyed.

But they were trapped. They wouldn't have been able to try the modifier until the current changes completed, which would take many days. They couldn't risk resuming their own forms anyway, even if they could persuade the locals to help them charge the modifier enough to revert even one of them.

They were muted and deafened, and they were stuck that way. Forever.

By the time the local tallkind came to investigate, Merah was screaming as well.



Now

Six hours later, John resolved to grow a backbone that could stand up to Rodney's pleading.

Corrigan had run out of ways to occupy himself with the few, apparently repetitive, script plaques and had retreated to the jumper to use its processors for analysis. Stackhouse had gone with him, for security, but John had kept the rest of his team behind. This whole setup was making him increasingly uneasy.

Why the staging? Why the use of some other civilization's script and technology?

It might be as innocent as the expedition using Ancient scanners and jumpers. And it might not.

Teyla was helping Rodney, having shown a surprising interest in manipulating sounds neither of them could hear. Ronon had decided John was wound up enough for all of them and was, to all appearances, taking a nap. John paced.

During a brief food-and-water break, Rodney had accused him of being annoyed that this wasn't something he could manipulate with his "magic gene", but it wasn't that. John was sure it wasn't that. This whole thing just seemed … fishy.

Rodney had lost his caution in the thrill of the puzzle, though. It figured. Then again, if they both managed to be suspicious at the same time … that never worked out well. So it was probably for the best.

"Ha! That's it!" Rodney exclaimed.

John was more than ready for something to happen, and he headed right over. Ronon somehow managed to roll to his feet and get there first.

"This is it," Rodney said. "You ready?"

"Should we get Corrigan first?" Ronon asked.

"We can show him later. If we don't start this final sequence within … two minutes, it'll reset, and we'll have to start over again."

"This sequence took over half an hour," Teyla said tightly. "I would not care to start over."

And it would take Stackhouse and Corrigan fifteen minutes to get there if they left that second. "All right, give me a minute." He called Stackhouse to let him know they were going to open the lock and to keep his ears open. "Go for it."

Rodney nodded to Teyla, and they started an odd sort of duet on the keys of the console and Rodney's tablet. Only about one key in ten generated a sound that John could hear, so it all made for a rather pathetic little tune, remarkably similar to the ones John and Dave had strung together with a touch-tone phone when they were kids.

A few of the keys caused other sensations, though. The faint hint of a forgotten taste, the memory of an unnamed scent, a vibration under the skin, a presence just outside perception. The overall experience was decidedly unnerving.

Teyla finally drew back, flexing her hands. Rodney raised his tablet and pressed one last key.

No audible tone sounded, but a panel in the wall slid away. John raised his P90 just in case, but the panel was only about three by three, and it revealed only a mosaic on the wall behind it. The mosaic was eerily fascinating — John couldn't say what it was, exactly, but it made him think of snakes and it almost seemed to writhe.

Something clattered noisily to the floor. John glanced over, just to see who was about to get reamed out by Rodney for mistreating equipment … except it was Rodney who had dropped his tablet. He stared at the mosaic, eyes wide with horror as all color drained from his face.

"McKay?" John prompted warily. He heard the whine of Ronon's blaster charging behind him.

Rodney staggered backwards, his mouth working soundlessly for several seconds before he managed to produce any sound. "R-run," he choked. "Hide."

John whirled, trying to spot the threat, but then everything went black.



Before

Merah was silent.

They had done something to make both Merah and Eeen sleep, to stop their screaming. Since waking, Merah had kept its poor excuse for a mouth shut. It refused to make those ugly, inadequate sounds.

No, that was wrong. His mouth. He refused. The body shape division drove even their language, and using the perfectly natural it for people was considered rude. Disordered. Merah knew because they kept correcting Eeen. Their minds pulsed with worry.

And even their minds were deaf and useless. Merah could feel its — his — sensitivity fading. Every day it was harder to pick up impressions from the locals, and eventually Merah would be as numb and insensible as they were, as the transformation completed.

The locals meant well, in their limited way. They did worry.

They worried about Merah, who would not speak. They worried about Eeen, who screamed any time they tried to separate the two of them and screamed on waking several times through the night. Shock, their minds whispered. Trauma. And orphans, which came with a truth and a pity that nearly choked Merah with the mourning it couldn't — he couldn't sing.

Eeen cooperated with them, as long as it — as she could cling to Merah. The locals asked questions, and Eeen answered in a dull monotone. Not that the voices they had left could be anything but dull.

Eeen gave their names, as if that mattered. What was left of their names from these mouths and through these ears was colorless and insipid, and the locals — with their impaired hearing — misheard even that. They decided Eeen was saying Jean, and then they promptly instead said Jeannie. They decided Eeen was calling Merah an infant's form of Meredith, and they laughed inside their heads, considering the name they decided to hear either archaic or "girly", by which they meant something that belonged on Eeen's side of the physical divide.

They heard an infant's form in part because, for their shape, Eeen's size belonged to a smallkind barely more than an infant. By their scales, they estimated "Jean" was between three and four of their years in age. And each day, with a brain adapting to that level of development, Eeen slipped further away, further back towards that infantile level.

In the time before, the modifiers had been used by more mature students nearing the transition to tallkind. Now, too late, they knew at least one reason why.

Merah was luckier on that score, tall enough to be judged perhaps twelve of their years. That was apparently developed enough to keep what little was left through the rest of the transformation.

They had their equipment, at least. Someone had brought it along after making them sleep, and by the time anyone decided to look more seriously at the specific objects rather than merely seeking what they considered identification, the two were both awake. Merah grabbed for the equipment silently, and Eeen grabbed for it noisily, and Merah managed in the confusion to get a hand on the perception filter. Toys, Merah pushed, and their minds slowly adjusted, picturing insipid little light games.

The modifier was little more than that, in truth, lacking the power for anything more than lighting the controls. The scanner was functional but equally useless, being song-activated. But the recorder and perception filter were vital.

The locals decided on their own that the perception filter itself was something they called a worry stone, and they supposed Merah needed the reassurance of keeping it. That was fortunate, since it meant they then expected to see Merah holding it.

Which Merah did, almost constantly, pushing we belong together and we belong in this society. Because the locals were suspicious at not knowing them and doubtful they would be able to keep them together, for some reason.

They already didn't like that Eeen and Merah insisted on sleeping together, needing the paltry comfort of contact as even their mental connection weakened. The locals thought it wrong that a "boy" and a "girl" would share a sleeping pallet, even though Merah knew for a fact that their tallkind slept together in such pairs all the time. Most of the dwellings they had collected from had such pairs.

But the locals disapproved and tried to separate them. That made Eeen scream, and it made Merah curl up and block its — his — blunted ears with deformed hands, and the locals eventually gave up each time and left them alone. That would have been acceptable, but their minds whispered for now and gloomily predicted that the two would somehow, for unexplained reasons, be sent to different tallkind for longer-term care.

They had to fit in, and they had to stay together, no matter how much of the perception filter that cost them. Merah had little time to convince them anyway; their minds weren't very receptive, and Merah's mind was steadily losing range and sensitivity.

We belong in this society. We belong together. Merah clung to the perception filter and concentrated fiercely on those two messages.



Now

John's head pounded.

Or wait, maybe that wasn't his head. He forced his eyes open with an effort.

He was lying on the ground, a strangely temperature-neutral but rough stone under his cheek. His mouth was paper-dry. There was certainly plenty of light, making him squint.

A shadow rushing past made him flinch, and another dull thump soon shook the room.

"Get up, Sheppard," Ronon snapped. He backed up and then threw himself forward again.

John carefully rolled over and sat up. He blinked firmly a few times to clear his head and then started assessing the situation.

They were in a small space, only a few paces to each side. The wall to John's left and the ceiling about ten feet overhead were more of the strange sand-yellow stone, but the other walls looked like glass. Didn't sound like glass when Ronon hit one, though. His weapons and gear were missing. Teyla lay sprawled on the floor to John's right near what was probably the front wall, the direction all the light was coming from, and Rodney … wasn't there.

John pushed himself to his feet and looked around hastily. He relaxed for a moment when he spotted Rodney, but then he tensed again. McKay was on the ground in the adjoining glass-walled cell, alone.

Their captors had isolated the one non-fighter in the group. John didn't like that at all.

Ronon obviously didn't either; the wall he was trying to knock down was the one separating them from Rodney. John quickly checked on Teyla, who stirred groggily at his touch, and then decided what the hell. On Ronon's next pass, John joined him, figuring the extra weight couldn't hurt.

He did that all of once, because the wall might look like glass, but it felt like stone. "Not coming down, buddy," he groaned. Then he felt the wall more carefully. Exactly like stone, yet transparent as glass.

Ronon tried one more time, probably from spite, before switching to shouting. "McKay! Get up!"

"Ronon, please," Teyla said faintly, holding her head. John had to agree. Ronon's voice didn't echo as much as he expected in the small space, but that didn't mean it wasn't still painfully loud.

"McKay!" Ronon bellowed again. "Get up!"

Rodney shifted slightly and groaned. "Stop … yelling," he rasped, making no move to sit up yet. His voice was muffled only slightly by the strange wall between them.

"Oh, yes," a new voice crooned, drawing out the sibilant lovingly. "Yes, time to wake, my little bird."

John looked around, trying to spot the speaker. There seemed to be more of the clear-walled cells in either direction, but he could see only a few feet of floor in front of the cells. The lights were angled in a way that left anything beyond that point shrouded in darkness.

Rodney slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position. "What's with the cartoon villain?" he groused. "And who took my shoes?" Unlike the rest of them, he was missing his boots and socks.

"Such bravado!" the voice mocked. "Stepping so willingly into my pretty trap. The others showed at least a little caution. Has it been so long that your fear has dimmed? Or is it the hunger to rejoin your own kind that made you so … very … foolish?"

McKay had a point about the cartoon villain thing. The guy had the kind of voice John wanted to punch in the face, just on principle. "Big words for someone scared to show himself," John said. They needed to know who or what they were up against.

The voice chuckled obscenely. "Such a clever monkey! No, little monkey, I do not fear showing myself." Something shifted in the dark. "I am simply savoring this moment. It has been oh so long, and I will have my full pleasure."

The figure stepped into the light then, a shape detaching from the uniform dark beyond, and everyone drew back a step involuntarily. Everyone except Rodney, still sitting on the floor, who scrambled backwards until he hit the wall.

The figure was a walking, three-dimensional version of the mosaic, a writhing darkness in a vaguely humanoid shape. The way it moved shot straight past training and logic to the instinctive level that reacted to spiders and snakes.

"Hiding among the Alterans' pets," the voice marveled. "So pathetic, so desperate, but effective. For a time. They have spread, haven't they? Oh, but consorting with warriors? That hardly befits one of the proud People." He spat the last word with contempt. "You've always thought yourselves and your pretty songs above such crudeness."

John glanced over at Teyla, who was the only one of them he would call any kind of singer. She first regarded the figure with confusion but then, surprised, looked over to … Rodney?

"Why are you looking at me?" Rodney demanded shakily, but he wasn't talking to Teyla. And if John looked closely, he could somehow tell that even though the dark figure didn't really have a face or an expression, his attention was on McKay. "I'm a scientist, not some pop idol."

That image would have made John laugh if Rodney wasn't so plainly terrified. John might find the dark figure unnerving, but Rodney looked as if he'd rather face a Wraith armed with lemons. Yet he was standing up to the guy — metaphorically, at least — despite his fear, and John was strangely proud of him for that.

"Don't bother to deny yourself, singer," the figure said. "Who else would be drawn to these trinkets, hoping to find its own? Who else could work the key made of your own voices?" The voice dropped chillingly. "Who else knows to run and hide from me?"

Which was a good question, really.

"Beats looking at you," Ronon said. Rodney glanced over, giving Ronon a flicker of a grateful smile for that.

The figure's attention shifted over briefly as well. "I have no quarrel with your kind, nor you with mine. You —"

"Touch McKay and that changes," Ronon snarled.

The guy barely paused. "You have not known the millennia of hate, the visceral revulsion. But —"

"It's called technology," Rodney blurted. He flinched as the figure's attention returned to him but defiantly continued, "It just means I can read a graph and manipulate a frequency emitter. That doesn't make me … whatever you think I am."

"Oh, and you've never known the Music," the figure said sarcastically, the capital letter somehow clear. His voice took on a cruel edge. "You don't feel the absence of the Song with every. Single. Heartbeat."

Rodney blinked for a moment, startled. He clenched and flexed his hands absently. "Wait, is this because I used to play piano? That was years ago. But I —" He swallowed but then firmed his mouth stubbornly. "I wasn't artistic enough to play professionally, so I moved on to more productive endeavors. Not to mention more lucrative ones."

That was news to John, and Teyla looked slightly surprised as well, though he couldn't tell if Ronon was. Rodney seemed not to have heard the trace of bitterness in his own voice.

The figure cocked what passed for his head and was silent for nearly a full minute, which frankly was kind of a relief.

Then he giggled.

"Oh," he breathed. "Oh. You don't know. Oh, this is delicious. You've hidden even from yourself!" He laughed with delight. "You ran so far and so long and now you don't even know. You forgot you were hiding. You forgot your fear and walked right back to me." The figure swayed side-to-side. "You cut away your own voice and your own ears and you don't even know." The voice dissolved into helpless, maniacal laughter as the writhing shape churned.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Worse than a Goa'uld," he muttered, just loudly enough for the team to hear.

John smirked, because he wasn't wrong. Teyla crossed her arms, unimpressed by their captor, and Ronon yawned loudly.

The figure gradually laughed himself out. He quieted again and regarded Rodney for several long, uncomfortable moments. "Did you truly think we had no stasis, no ships?" he asked, oozing menace now. "No machines? Did you think we could not be patient? Did you think we would rest knowing even one of you remained?"

"I know my brilliance and dashing good looks are compelling, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't work out between us," Rodney said with an admirable stab at nonchalance. "It's not me, it's you."

The guy sighed, almost fondly. "Oh, this has been far more entertaining than I had dared hope, but I find myself eager for the moment you realize just how badly you've failed. Allow me to lift the scales from your eyes."

The dark figure melted back into the greater darkness behind it. A few seconds later, a bar of even brighter light swept across the row of cells, front to back. John barely had time to raise his hands before the light was past them, and he braced himself, but nothing happened.

For several long seconds, nothing happened.

Then Rodney cried out in pain and toppled over.

"Mmm, yes, I did think so," the voice mused, pleased, barely audible under Ronon's enraged roar and charge at the front wall. "Pity you've come alone, but … that has its pleasures, too."

"Leave him alone!" Ronon demanded over Rodney's gasping cries.

The dark shape detached itself again, approaching their cell. All three braced themselves, but he simply shoved one of their canteens along the floor and … through? … the front wall at them. "Refresh yourselves," he said conversationally. "You may yet be of use." He withdrew again, disappearing into the black.

Teyla swiftly knelt and explored the space the canteen had passed through. It was hard to see in the bright light and against the clear wall, but her hands traced a gap. It was a few inches high and about a foot wide — enough to fit an arm through, but no more. It was in the center of the front wall, so even if Rodney's cell had a similar gap, it was too far away for them to pass materials from one to the other.

John hadn't missed the fact that Rodney hadn't been given anything.

Rodney was still obviously in pain. His eyes were wide and sightless, his mouth gaping open. He seemed to be trying to curl into a ball and squirm simultaneously. John pressed against the wall between them, as close as he could get. "Rodney? Rodney. Talk to me, McKay. What's going on?"

For a moment Rodney managed to focus on John, his eyes bewildered and pleading. Then another spasm hit, wrenching a groan from his throat, and though John kept encouraging him to hold on, he was pretty sure Rodney wasn't hearing him.

Watching someone else tortured and being unable to intervene was a special kind of hell. John would have traded places in a heartbeat, but all he could do was sit there helplessly and offer his voice as something for Rodney to focus on once the pain eased. He and Teyla did that for several interminable minutes as Ronon vented his frustration on the front wall, but John stammered and fell quiet as Rodney's hands blurred and started to shift.

That caught even Rodney's dazed attention, and he stared at his limp hands with growing fear and disgust as his fingers thinned and stretched, the smallest finger melding into its neighbor to disappear completely. That wasn't the only part of him changing — his bare feet were narrowing and elongating similarly, his eyes were stretching wider, his neck looked thicker, and his ears were growing and folding into a complex shape — but it was his hands that held his horrified attention.

"What — what are you turning me into?" he demanded hoarsely. "What did you do to me?"



Before

The locals were starting to think of Eeen as damaged and of Merah as retarded. The latter judgment had something to do with the simple fact that Merah didn't know their script yet — when even the tallkind of the People considered script only an amusing and obscure diversion — and still elected not to speak. Eeen felt the losses of regression and was turning ever more erratic and distraught.

The locals gave them both colored wax and paper as some obscure version of therapy. The goal was unclear, but so long as they made marks on the paper, the locals let them be for long periods. Merah eventually grew bored with making random designs with still-clumsy hands and decided to try to calculate which direction home lay in. A true calculation was impossible, because most of the necessary variables simply weren't defined, but … it was a distraction.

One of the locals took particular notice of Merah's calculation marks, though, and suddenly paid very close attention. Merah couldn't interpret the first marks that tallkind made, but the tallkind was patient for the moment and carefully demonstrated meaning of the marks.

The locals worked in base ten — so they can use their pathetic fingers to count, Merah thought viciously, curling the horrid hands small and tucking them out of sight — and used ten characters in a significant-position system. It was ultimately simple, and once Merah knew the rules and character set, switching into their system was easy enough.

The tallkind set a few practice exercises, but Merah soon grew bored and went back to the original calculations, using the new system for no better reason than that it required slightly more attention and therefore was a better distraction. The stars here were dim and distant, but Merah remembered a few measurements from the pod's report and could try to extrapolate others from those.

That endeavor somehow changed their label for Merah to "idiot savant", which didn't seem to be much better. Merah started working harder on understanding their script. It bore little relation to the insufferably minute distinctions of their spoken language, which were a million shades of muddy grey, but it at least showed some signs of conceptual consistency.

The locals meanwhile kept moving them from one building to another, each different from the last. The first had been some form of medical facility, but the ones since had wildly different populations and arrangements even though the locals used some version of the term home for each one.

That unpredictability, combined with Eeen's continuing degradation and their staggering losses, left Eeen trembling and fragile, frequently in tears. Merah wished fruitlessly that they had waited for Eeen to grow taller, despite the risk, though that would clearly have been impossible.

At the end of one dreadful day in which Merah sincerely feared Eeen's mind would shatter under the stress, Merah waited for Eeen to fall asleep and only then took up the perception filter. This would cost them badly, but Eeen was suffering, and Merah could at least do something to improve that.

Merah placed the filter on Eeen's forehead and covered it with one malformed hand. You are human. You belong with these people. Your name is Jean, or Jeannie. You are a girl. You are of this world. What else? You are my sister, the locals had said that. You are happy. You are loved.

Merah concentrated carefully, rebuilding Eeen's reality. In the time before, such a thing would have been unthinkable; now it was a mercy. Merah drew back only when fighting down fury at the Discord for making this a necessity became impossible.

Merah woke the next morning alone in the sleeping pallet and sat up sharply, worried. At first it seemed Eeen was sitting on the floor, drawing with the colored wax, but it was Jeannie who looked up from her drawing. It was Jeannie who smiled and said, "Hi, Mer!"

Jeannie was happy little girl and Eeen was gone.

And Merah was now truly alone.



Now

Rodney didn't say anything else. His body gradually stopped shifting, settling into an odd but apparently stable shape, but Rodney remained atypically, worryingly silent.

"McKay?" John prompted finally. "You —?"

But Rodney flinched at the words and clapped his hands over his ears. Or rather the oddly long hands over the larger, more complex ears. He flinched again at the contact, pulling the hands away again to look at them.

He shuddered and looked away. Then, carefully using neither hands nor feet, he dragged himself up onto his knees and elbows and retreated to the far corner, his back to the team.

"Come on, McKay, it's not that bad," John called.

Rodney tried to block his ears again by tucking his head between his knees, but he hadn't exactly been that flexible before, and the transformation hadn't changed that.

"Not so loudly," Teyla murmured. Barely raising her voice, she urged, "Rodney, please, come back. We are concerned for you. A few small changes are no matter."

"Seen you before coffee," Ronon muttered. "Can't be worse than that."

Rodney shuddered again and remained in the corner. John would mock him, but he knew how Rodney felt.

Pretty much exactly.

He sighed. "You've seen me turn into a bug, McKay. Now come on."

Rodney heaved a vast, defeated sigh of his own and gradually turned back. He scooted a little closer but stopped beyond what would be arm's length from them if an impenetrable wall wasn't already in the way. He sat cross-legged, trying to hide his feet from at least his own sight, and he wouldn't meet their eyes.

John and Teyla hadn't yet stood, so Ronon sat down to join them, which was more than a little crowded. They took a good look.

Rodney really wasn't all that different, all things considered. He didn't have newly colorful skin, for example, or at least not yet. John had already registered most of the changes. Rodney's hands were probably the most noticeable, the thumb and three fingers slender and almost twice as long as they had been. His feet looked almost like another set of hands rather than human feet, the toes taking up over half their length, though they did seem to be shaped to accommodate standing.

He'd gotten more hair out of the deal. The individual strands were thicker and longer than they had been, but they were still hair-like rather than looking like some kind of tentacles. More peeked out around the edges of Rodney's uniform, suggesting they covered a lot more of his body now, though John suspected his own body hair looked more impressive.

Rodney's neck was definitely thicker. His eyes were nearly the same, with just more of an almond shape to them, and his cheekbones were sharper. His nose was completely unchanged. His ears were larger and significantly more complicated-looking; after the hands and feet, they were probably the most obvious change.

If there were any other changes, they were hidden by Rodney's uniform and he wasn't mentioning them. John didn't see any disturbing bulges, at least.

But really, that was all pretty minor. Rodney hadn't ended up with tentacles or eyestalks or even weird skin changes. Not that John was bitter or anything.

"It's not actually that bad," John said. He wasn't trying to be snide, but he didn't try to sound particularly comforting either since they didn't really do that, and Rodney seemed to take his words as an insult. The death glare was worth it, though, because that meant their Rodney really was still in there.

"Are you still in pain?" Teyla asked softly.

Rodney started to give his automatic of course, but he stopped himself before speaking. He made a few faces, as if he was trying to figure out how to answer, but in the end he settled for shaking his head.

Teyla frowned. "Are you able to speak?"

Rodney answered that with a hesitant nod. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but in the end, all he said was, "Hard." The sound was strange — Rodney's voice was a part of it, but there was something else there too, something John couldn't really name.

"Hard how?" John asked. "Painful? Something in the way?"

But Rodney was already shaking his head. He started to make the universal symbol for I caught a fish THIS BIG, but that brought his hands back to his attention and he dropped them hastily. "Nuke … flyswatter," he said instead, speaking very carefully.

John needed a second to recognize the metaphor for overkill. "Like trying to thread a needle with a drone, you mean? Or trying to move a chopper exactly 1.5 inches to the left. Or —"

"John." Teyla was glaring at him.

But Rodney was, too, and that was actually a good thing, under the circumstances. "Okay, so you having a big voice — how's that different from normal?"

Rodney looking like he was contemplating murder was pretty normal, too.

"So what are you?" Ronon asked.

"How would I know?" Rodney snapped. And yeah, his voice was all over the place, as if he somehow was speaking in multiple voices at once. He winced at his own volume and continued more carefully, "I'm human, but I have no idea what this is meant to be."

"You sure about that?" John asked. "That you're human, I mean."

"Yes, I'm sure, and thank you for that vote of confidence. I've worked for your government for about a decade, Sheppard. You've met my sister, who has known me only her entire life. I was one of Carson's test subjects — not just for the gene therapy, but for the research before that, too. I may not have a very high opinion of medicine as a science, but I somehow doubt Carson could have tested me for the gene twice — and then again after the therapy for the comparison sample — but somehow failed to notice he was working with alien cells."

"Okay, fine," John said. "I just meant, that guy seemed pretty sure you were something else and didn't even know yourself, and you definitely seem to know him."

"What? I do not." Rodney was just as easy to read in his present shape as he ever had been, and John would stake money he wasn't bluffing.

That didn't mean his objection made sense on its own, though. "So why did you tell us to run the second you saw that mosaic? Why are you more scared of him than the rest of us put together?"

"Oh, I don’t know, maybe because it's nightmare-inducing! Were you looking?"

"Yeah," Ronon said. "Kinda gross, but a Wraith's worse."

John wasn't sure he'd go that far, even if Teyla was nodding. "Looks a little like something that crawled out of a Hellraiser movie, maybe, but it's mostly just a dark shape. And the whole 'gloating bad guy' thing kind of weakens the scare factor, really." He almost hoped the guy was lurking just beyond the lights, to overhear that, though it was impossible to tell.

Rodney scowled and crossed his arms. "Fine. Mock my perfectly healthy self-protective instincts. You think I don't already know you all think I'm a coward?" He winced at noticing his hands again and tucked them both up under his arms, out of sight.

"We do not think you a coward, Rodney McKay," Teyla said, sounding almost angry. She frowned sternly at Rodney, who was glaring his disbelief right back at her.

It was probably good they were too busy with each other to look at John, who actually did think Rodney was a coward. He didn't even think that in the it's probably a good thing sense, either. That didn't mean he didn't like the guy, and Rodney did have a weird courage at odd times. And John could also recognize that he, Teyla, and Ronon all had their reckless moments, so to the extent Rodney's occasional cowardice provided a little balance, it was probably useful.

"You do okay," Ronon told Rodney. "So that guy — he one of those Furlings you were looking for?"

That at least distracted Rodney. "What? Of course not, are you insane?"

Ronon frowned. "Thought you didn't know what the Furlings looked like. So how do you know for sure?"

For just a moment Rodney looked completely lost. "I … I just … seriously, just think about it for two seconds. The Ancients could be mercenary and unethical bastards at times —" Teyla's mouth thinned with disapproval "— but you think the Asgard and the Nox would ally with that?"

Ronon shrugged. "Don't know them."

"You've met Hermiod, haven't you? Rude, supercilious, but not homicidal. And the Nox are total hippie-dippy types, to hear SG-1 tell it. No, considering all that talk of traps, I suspect that thing is what happened to the Furlings." He frowned and muttered Furlings to himself again.

"Could that be what you have been turned into?" Teyla asked.

"Hm? Oh. I suppose it's possible. Furlings — why does that sound strange?"

"Because it's kind of a dumb name?" John suggested, but Rodney wasn't really paying attention to him.

Teyla had another question for Rodney. "Why are you the only one of us to change?"

That got his attention. "Obviously correlation doesn't equal causation, but that beam of light that hit me is probably relevant," he said, his tone caustic.

John raised an eyebrow and matched the tone. "You mean that light that hit all of us?"

That made Rodney pause. "It did?"

"Wasn't just you," Ronon said.

"Huh. No telling, then. The artificial gene? An intelligence threshold?"

"Do you still pretend?" the creepy guy asked, fortunately heading Rodney off before he could come up with even more insulting suggestions. Rodney flailed at the voice and pressed himself against the back wall. The figure oozed forward, regarding Rodney closely. "This grows tedious."

"Why did you change just me?" Rodney demanded — or tried to. He was trembling so hard the words were barely comprehensible.

The figure chuckled. "I did no such thing." His voice dropped into loathing. "What possible reason would I have to create more of your kind? I seek only to scour every trace of you from existence, no matter how disguised. No, I changed you into nothing. You were simply the only one in a position to change back."

"Maybe you should explain that to us," John said, trying to draw attention away from Rodney.

"I had hoped to see this one try to explain itself to you, but your suggestion has merit. That is a tale that deserves telling."

Oh, joy.

The figure swelled slightly and resettled itself. "Our victory, it was glorious. But over time, as we reveled, we came to realize that none could claim destruction of the children. Oh, one or two had that honor, a stray here and there, but we simply could not account for the numbers we knew must have existed.

"We searched, of course," he assured Rodney. "We couldn't imagine how so many could be hidden from us, but we searched through every last scrap of the wreckage of that festering pit that spawned your kind and found no sign. But then, then, quite by chance, one of our ships crossed paths with what we might have mistaken for nothing more than the shattered remains of a comet … if that seeming collection of rocks had not changed course slightly to evade collision. And once we broke them open, we found such treats inside, perfectly preserved. The stasis kept even their terror fresh, and their betrayal when they realized they had not escaped after all …." The voice trailed off in a satisfied hiss.

Rodney made a revolted sound, as if he was about to throw up.

"Even that gave us only a few, though, and with this proof of attempted escape, we needed to know where the rest were. The smallest were ignorant and useless, and we were flush and sated, so they served only as playthings until we had recovered our appetite. Prolonged terror proved to season their flesh quite nicely."

Ronon growled, low and furious, and was ignored.

"The older ones knew more, but no matter how we tormented them, no matter how long or how desperately we made them call for the others, we learned only that clusters of escape pods had been dispatched in all directions, tainting our victory and leaving us eons of searching. Though several among us did relish the hunt.

"It was then, however, that a mistake was made. We discarded the pods and their remaining contents, seeing no use for them. The toys and trinkets of immature singers — what use were they? So, yes, a mistake. Some slept and some searched, but always we sought the enemy we already knew.

"It was centuries before we recognized our oversight."



Before

Never before had Merah been completely alone. Never.

The People were social by nature. Small touches were common, and closer contact soothed. Wordless companionship could be had simply by opening one's mind. Another member of the Great Song could always be sensed nearby.

Merah hadn't considered how much difference Eeen's presence made, because the difference was literally unthinkable. Two minds were an inadequate fragment of the Song, but with only one mind in isolation, there was only silence. The Song didn't exist.

And Merah was fraying.

Now Merah was the one screaming awake at night, the one clinging to whoever responded — though Merah might as well be clutching wood, or metal, for all the good that contact did. Merah was the one left trembling and fragile by each progressively worse day. Not from degradation; that might have been a relief. Merah was instead all too aware of the crushing, smothering weight of silence and isolation.

Jeannie was alternately drawn to and frightened by Merah, some ghostly echo of their former bond driving her back after each scare. She tried to comfort him, in her childish way.

At least she was well. She was also popular. Several local tallkind were fond of her and even considered assuming responsibility for her care, but Merah had been an obstacle. These backwards people welcomed the staggering amount of care a smallkind of Jeannie's size required but hesitated to accept even nominal responsibility for a far more self-sufficient midkind. Merah clutched the perception filter and focused on together, keep us together with a single-mindedness honed by desperation.

The locals actually seemed to think Merah was improving, though it took several days for Merah to follow their flawed logic. If both children were traumatized, and if — from their perspective — Jeannie passed through screaming nightmares to peace, then Merah's progression probably appeared a slower imitation. They smiled and celebrated as Merah drew ever closer to shattering.

Yet their assumptions somehow led to a pair of tallkind agreeing to take them both. Jeannie was happy with them. Merah struggled to respond politely, the former vow of silence now pointless. Even screaming pressed that horrible muffling emptiness back only a fraction, only a moment.

In the sleepless dark between nightmares, Merah pressed against the window of the new dwelling, trying to see the stars, trying to see the way home. They had to escape, somehow. They had to get away from this planet and find others of their own kind.

But these people could barely visit their own pale moon, so Merah had to find some way to escape this crushing, deadening world. With no resources. Alone.

It was impossible. And every single day was worse than the one before.

At last, at long last, Merah gave up. This existence was literally intolerable, and Merah knew with cold certainty that its mind could not endure the stress any longer.

The only plan Merah had was risky and flawed. The midkind had been trained on the basic functionality of their equipment, but a deeper understanding of the mechanisms would not have been taught for years yet. The perception filter was almost certainly not designed to be used in this manner, and only desperation made Merah even try. Because it might work, and no other options remained.

Merah lay on the sleeping pallet, the recorder in one human-form hand and the perception filter in the other. Pressing the filter to its own forehead, Merah opened as best it could to the recorder and concentrated.

You are — I am human. I belong here. I am a boy. I am of this world. These concepts are mine. I am human. I belong with these people ….



Now

As the quiet stretched, John allowed himself to hope that the creepy guy had finished talking, but no. He was just enjoying a dramatic pause. He swelled again and resumed his tale, his attention lavished on Rodney.

"One of ours finally encountered another cluster of these escape pods, crashed on an airless moon. Some of the pods were still intact, others breached. That one was thorough, or perhaps simply weary — who can say at this remove? Regardless, that one lingered on the moon, scavenging from each pod in turn. While savoring the marrow of one of yours, that one then grew curious about the gadgets stored so carefully within the stasis. Imagine our surprise when numerous painstaking experiments revealed that these devices could disguise your kind as acceptable beings!

"We realized then our omission, but even then, we did not have enough information. So we experimented, of course, using those few wretched brats yet left to us. We learned such fascinating things — that the process of change itself became a torment after only a few transformations, for example. Or that that not all species were compatible, creating hideous mutated things that often expired in prolonged, agonized misery."

The guy interrupted himself then, thoughtfully. "Oh, but I should have loved to try these Wraith creatures as templates. I suspect the compatibility would be quite low. I could have put you through such delicious agony."

Teyla snarled, quietly but furiously.

The guy made that wavering movement again, dismissing either Teyla's reaction or his own thought. "A pity to miss such an opportunity, but irrelevant. We also learned that these devices worked only on your kind. We tested numerous other species — including these monkey pets — but they were keyed to affect only your tainted genetics. These devices could hide you among better species, and they could reveal you; those were their only functions. We therefore equipped our ships with the deactivation components, allowing us to winnow you out wherever you might try to hide.

"So do not pretend you can hide from me, singer, or think that you can confuse me. This close, I sensed you even in your borrowed skin, but now your true form is revealed. I name you, singer."

"I'm … I'm not …." Rodney protested weakly, but he was starting to look like he doubted even himself. "I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. I'm human. I have a sister. I'm Canadian. I'm human. I'm not this, this Furling thing or whatever it is you —" But then he stopped cold.

John knew that look coming over Rodney's face. He had last seen it on Doranda, when Rodney finally admitted he couldn't make the project work.

When he finally stopped lying to himself.

Rodney made a choked sort of noise, a humorless laugh. "It's not Furling."

The creepy guy was writhing away in anticipation. John tried to ignore him. "What is it, then?"

"It's …." Rodney closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment, and then spoke a sound.

Gate translation was usually a binary thing — either John heard English or he didn't. The Ancients must have known whoever these people were and coded their language differently, though, because John heard two levels in this.

He heard the actual sounds, a combination that had no kind of English equivalent. There was a sort of trill in there, followed by a ringing, and that could have been interpreted as "Furling", though that was an even more inaccurate approximation than "Peking" and "Bombay" had once been. But he also heard the meaning those sounds conveyed, and in that level, Rodney was saying The People of the Great Song.

"Not Furling," Rodney finished bitterly. He shuddered and dropped his head down to his folded arms. "Oh god."

The dark figure started to laugh.