Doctor Carl Van Sanders was one of the cultural anthropologists, first wave explorer of Atlanitis , and unofficial photographer of the expedition. Photography was one of his first loves and he indulged in a couple durable, high-end digital cameras to take to Pegasus the day he found out he was in on the expedition. He used them on missions and could be found at any given moment in the city with at least one within arms' reach. The other expedition members got used to him snapping pictures left and right at any given time whether during a mission or during down time.
Camera in hand, he watched the various new arrivals talk and laugh in the back of the jumper as they waited to embark on the latest mission. Up front Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard talked together quietly, their somber mood at odds with the joy of the other passengers. He understood their unease, sharing it as they approached the landing zone.
Ignorance was never an excuse in the Pegasus Galaxy. It just made you dead quicker. This they had learned during their first year and it was their duty to teach those that came after.
Starting halfway through their second year they instituted the first 'Memorial Walk'. It was not long after the second group of Daedelus scientists and military personal were delivered to Atlantis. At that time it was clear to see that the new ones did not take the threat of the Wraith seriously, believing them no worse that the Goa'uld and their slavery, only stories to frighten children and not something to worry about during missions. It was the members of the first expedition that decided they had lost too many already to carelessness and underestimating the Wraith. They decided to teach the others what had already been lost, hence the 'Walk'.
With a gentle bump they landed and Lieutenant Fisher opened the back hatch and motioned every one out. Though he had come through with the second wave, he was a survivor of the siege and understood the dangers of the Pegasus galaxy in a way that the new personnel never understood in their first days in Atlantis. All personnel that took part in leading the Walk were part of the first wave and those who fought during the siege. It helped remind them what was lost even as they taught the newest members.
They embarked in the middle of a village on M2L-988 and the laughter died. The scientists and soldiers stepped out into the middle of a ghost town, too quiet and lifeless to be anything but abandoned. Houses leaned, half collapsed and their colored awnings faded and torn, at odds with the pictures of brightly painted buildings and people populating the images they had first been presented with at the mission briefing.
The Colonel and McKay stepped out behind the shocked group. The newest members of the expidition all turned their suprised looks toward the men but neither showed any surprise at the ruins. The village looked as it did a couple months ago, as it did two years ago. Doctor McKay yelled for everyone to shut up and listen. The Colonel explained that there was a slight change in plans. Doctor McKay added a variation of 'Doctor Van Sanders was in charge and the better well listen' speech to his own scientists before he walked away in a huff. Sheppard squeezing Carl's shoulder in support before disappearing into the village. Everyone else stayed in the town square, eyes turning to the only remaining, Pegasas-experienced member of the group... him.
"We are going to take a walk," he addressed the whole group. "You will be silent and you will listen."
Every one focused on him as they stood within the ruins. Carl took a breath and began the story, as he had several times before.
"Atlantis Recon Team 5 made contact with the Ristani a month and a half after the expedition came to Atlantis. Their village was three hundred strong and they primarily lived off the forest, trading for what they could not grow or find. My team struck up relations, trading fruits and nut oil for medicine and metal replacement parts for a couple of their broken machines."
As he talked he led them towards the edge of the village, past the empty buildings and overgrown orchards and gardens, past broken carts and the bones laying undisturbed.
"Now, we knew of the Wraith but only a few of us had seen a live specimen and only one had seen a Wraith feed on a human. We were ignorant children back then, eyes bright with exploration and the newness of the worlds we visited. We knew the Wraith were terrible but we didn't know anything at that time."
"Come on, Doc. Sergeant Weiser wants us to load the last of the yellow grape thingies and then you can take as many pictures as you want."
"It will only take a minute, Sergeant," he told Markham. The other man snorted as he leaned against a wall.
"We know you. You claim that you will be done in a minute and hours later your still at it. You can take pictures of these nice young women later," and the said women giggled at the innuendo the man had injected into the sentence. They retreated under the blue and red awning and away from the late afternoon heat. Carl shook his head but still lowered the camera, letting it dangle from the strap around his neck.
His fingers tightened briefly on the camera strap as they passed one particular house, the awning that traditionally shaded the front falling over the entrance and blocking any view from the passersby, the blue faded and the red more of a rusty brown. He shuddered slightly before continuing to speak.
"My team had just finished bartering for some extra supplies when we heard the darts. Myself and Sergeant Markham were on the west side of the village, Sergeant Weiser and Urti, an Athosian trader who had accompanied us on the trip, were to the north and our cloaked jumper was to the south about a quarter of a kilometer away in a flat meadow past one of the bridges crossing the many ravines that were common in the area," he explained. "And the wraith destroyed the visible bridges around the village to cut off escape routes, including the one leading to the jumper before they started culling."
For a while he was silent, letting the men and women behind him dwell on what that meant. He led them out of the village, over a bridge shaded and hidden by large trees to the forest with it's worn trails. It was peaceful with the creatures of the planet clicking and cooing and making all those comforting noises. All he could remember of that day was the screams and the whine of the Wraith machines and the spears of pure light that stole many, including Sergeant Weiser, away.
He told the group that last thought and they listened like he had asked, nothing around them right now but the sun and the trees.
"Markham! Carl! Where are you!" Urti cried over the mic. Carl was too busy to answer but the sergeant was able to lift up a hand to his ear. "We're near the orchard. The villagers are leading us into the forest. Where are you and Weiser?"
There was silence over the comm as they entered the tree line following the desperate villagers. "They took him," the trader said in a pained voice. "They took him and Rachle and Nierta all at once. They are still taking others. I'm following some of the people that are left into the trees."
"Try to meet us at the gate," the sergeant gasped as they ran. " Whoever gets there first call Atlantis for reinforcements."
"Markham and I ran, down this very path." Looking around, it was hard to imagine the peaceful trail as he had first seen it, dark with the setting sun, fear choking his throat. "We didn't know it at the time but there were ground soldiers searching the woods. The Darts were unable to penetrate the tree canopy so a group of Wraith set out from the gate, travelling the same paths as us, heading straight towards us." He paused for a second when he reached the first bridge collapsed into the ravine, bullet holes riddling the remaining posts on the edge. "We didn't know the wraith were ahead, and they were hungry."
The only reason they were alive because of the woman's quick thinking. As Markham fired round after round into the Wraith soldiers crossing the bridge, she ducked to the side, the heavy axe she had carried cutting the ropes tying the bridge to the support posts, dropping the bridge, and the Wraith traversing it, into the gorge. Other Wraith caught her before they made it to the second bridge.
"We destroyed this bridge to stop the Wraith. Two of them made it across before the rest plummeted into the ravine. The ones that survived drained two villagers and partially drained a third before they were killed. The third was only five years old. Yesuthf, one of the villagers, picked the child up and we ran and you will run as we did, all the way to the gate."
He led them down twisting paths only to backtrack to a hidden bridge or different way. Marines started to pant and he was afraid one or two of the scientists were half a kilometer from collapsing all together. And, as they ran, he told them about people that fell at each spot, about finding clearings with darts occasionally circling overhead and having to take more distant paths.
He could feel the panic as they continued to wind through the forests. He knew many were hopelessly lost, unable to point out the direction of the gate or the village, turning around and around in a race already lost four years before. As the sun set beyond the trees darkness filled up the spaces, making everything worse. And as they ran he gave them the names of the lost, of the injured, of the partially drained that staggered on with the untouched.
Suddenly they broke out of the trees into another clearing and the soldiers and scientists stuttered to a stop. Waiting for them was Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay and Teyla Emmagen all dressed in somber gray and sporting P-90s held at the ready. Behind the rested two jumpers and a second team, blocking the rest of the path and protecting them from the ghosts of the Wraith that had hunted him and his team.
They grabbed villagers' arms and pushed others towards the right. Understanding flashed when people started disappearing between one step and the next. He followed, stumbling up the invisible ramp into the safety of a jumper. He collapsed on the bench, pressed between shell-shocked men and women. There may have been almost thirty originally in their group; now they were down by half. He had seen Sergeant Stackhouse pushing the other half of their group into another cloaked jumper as Lieutenant Ford helped children settle in adult arms, trying to fit as many in as they could inside their jumper. Up front the Major yelled for everyone to stay put as they waited for the Wraith to leave, that they had taken control of the gate again. They sat for almost an hour, the wheezing and coughs of prematurely aged lungs sounding loud and claustrophobic inside the jumper, the undercurrent of sadness and despair almost choking him. Someone nearby was crying and the man across from him sang lullabies to a dying child.
It was a welcome sight, the jumpers and people welcome years ago and welcome today because it meant his time as a storyteller was at an end. The rest of the story would be told in briefings and reports and whispered conversations told by those before. There also were the pictures, the other half of the briefing papers, the overly-detailed accounts of the survivors that the new scientists and soldiers would receive once they entered Atlantis.
The men and the women behind him stared in numbed by exhaustion and phantom panic, minds still filled with the run and the hunt and the names Carl had shouted at them, names that connected with the pictures they first had seen at the briefing, a popullation four years dead. They had seen what the Wraith had taken away, now they would know the horrors the Wraith had left behind.
There was a room deep within Atlantis, a homemade chapel and sanctuary. Wax and spent candles covered every surface and one wall was covered with a collage of pictures and small items of remembrance. Every evening after he had walked the too familiar paths of M2L-988 he would spend it here in prayer and reflection, often accompanied by AR-1 and the remnants of the original AR-3, Staff Sergeant Stackhouse and Sergeant Matthews, those that had rescued him and his team that day.
Colonel Sheppard hung near the doorway, expression pained but never entering when there were other people inside besides his team. Carl was sure that the man came on his own to look at the pictures, blaming himself for every death whether he could have prevented it or not.
They all waited while Miss Teyla lit a couple new candles and incense. Once she was done and settled to the side to meditate the other men only then entered the room. He walked over to one of the small shrines of the lost expedition members, the collage on the wall, followed by a muttering McKay.
He took note of some of the most important pictures to him, Markham smiling while sitting in the jumper cockpit. Weiser on one of the piers, Urti with the other Athosians at some sort of ceremony. These were the happy pictures he searched for every time.
They had lost Sergeant Weiser that day. Then they lost Sergeant Markham weeks before the siege, killed so suddenly above the city. He had lost a good friend that day but had no time to morn with the threat of the Wraith closing in. Urti, the last of the original group, had disappeared with the rest of the Athosians and never was found. Carl had made more friends and worked with other teams but his first team would always stay with him, ghosts he could not let go.
It was the memories of those ghosts that drew him away from the pictures and past the makeshift pews and meditations mats. On the other side of the room was the list of names etched on the wall. His hand hovered over the names. Unwillingly eyes lowered to the table below the names, one of the alter someone set up to honor the lost. Laid upon the surface were pictures and trinkets, mementos of a half a dozen religions and a flame that always burned.
The worst part were the pictures, they were the most painful things in the whole room to Carl. Habits ingrained by his father, a war photographer himself, made him use his camera. It was useful when he studied new groups because they got used to him taking pictures, stopped noticing as he absentmindedly used his equipment and it was easier to see people in their natural habitat. The most painful pictures he took in his life were during their flight through the woods and the short but painful ride in the back of the jumper afterward and he hadn't even realized it until a month later when he had downloaded the data into his computer.
He took note of the one that was placed on the makeshift alter to remember the nameless lost to the wraith and to the replicators and to the other dangers of the galaxy. A man was hunched over, cradling a small girl, arms and legs withered, holding her so gently in the last minutes of her life. He remembered sitting there, the man singing a French lullaby as she gasped, face filled with lines, fragile bones practically cutting through her skin. Doctor McKay brushed his fingertips gently across the small form in the picture before he moved on, shoulders just as hunched as that day.
Carl brushed the names of the known culled on Ristani, mimicking the other scientist's gesture. He touched Markham's and Weiser's and Urti's, of those that had fallen during the siege and sometimes just a planet name or designation. He remembered, the others remembered and someone else would make sure that the newest members of Atlantis would come down to this room to see the names etched into the metal walls and the victims of the galaxy and maybe there would be less names added in the future.