It’s an old joke. The expedition members from California are predisposed to love the ocean, taking to Atlantis like ducks to—pardon the pun—water.
Stiles argues that the majority of Californians live far from the sea. Beacon Hills is two counties from the coast, surrounded on all sides by old-growth forest and bordered by the Rockies to the west. Save rare vacations, he’s never been lulled to sleep by the gentle shushing of the waves, never woken to the crashing of the rising tide. He didn’t grow up sailing, surfing, or snorkeling. He’s no more likely to respond to the call of the deep than someone from Toronto or Prague or wherever they find people crazy enough to sign on for a possibly-one-way mission to a galaxy full of real-life Dementors.
Dr. Zelenka explains the origins, once. They’re into their third hour of standing in fetid, knee-deep water in the desalinization tanks and are desperate for distraction. Stiles would give anything to stop thinking about the damp heat curling their hair and sticking their shirts to sweat slick skin, the itchy weight and awkward slide of their waders, the stench of half-corroded, millennia’s old, algae-ridden pipes. It has something to do with McKay and Sheppard and a timeworn, circular quarrel about who Atlantis loves best.
Stiles had to double-check that he heard Zelenka right. It was during the nebulous period before he fully grasped the peculiarity of life on Atlantis with the ATA-gene. That’s before he grew used to doors soaring open before him without a conscious thought. Before he realized it was him making the lights brighten cheerfully as he passes through corridors empty for centuries. Before he sits in a control chair for the first time. It’s before he flies over the peculiarly navy sea of an alien world and his ship responds like it was made especially for his hands, his head, his—
Anyway. Californians and the city; it’s an old Lantean joke. The thing is, Stiles sometimes thinks it’s true.
Stiles wasn’t old enough to be part of the expedition’s first-wave, isn’t really old enough to be part of the second, but Atlantis has returned to Pegasus and needs fresh staff. He’s got his dual-PhDs and his father’s blessing and now he’s on a spaceship headed for a galaxy far, far away. A familiar face in the mess assures him that he’s not quite the youngest addition to the city.
“I saw your name on the manifest, but I wasn’t entirely sure it was you,” Dr. Lydia Martin says, sliding onto the opposite bench at his table.
“You went to Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley with a lot of Stilinskis?” Stiles asks, doing a poor job of hiding his grin around a forkful of reconstituted mashed potatoes.
Lydia’s grin is blinding, all bright white teeth and scarlet lipstick. She’s talked someone into giving her an extra Jell-o cup, which drops onto his tray with a clatter. “No, but nobody’s seen your article theses in print and I was never entirely clear on your first name. How the holy hell do you pronounce that?”
“Carefully.” Stiles swaps his fork for his spoon, letting out a pleased hum around mouthful of gloriously-artificial, orange goodness. “And they’re not going to let me publish so much as an abstract until they declassify the program, i.e. not in this lifetime. I heard from Greenberg that you were teaching at UCL next term.”
“You heard wrong.” Lydia tucks a strawberry blonde curl behind her ear before precisely slicing into her probably-meatloaf. “Who’d they send for you?”
“General O’Neill.” At Lydia’s raised brows he waves a dismissive hand, accidentally sending a spoonful of Jell-o to the floor. “He served with my dad in the Gulf. Promised to pass on updates, within reason. They didn’t want to chance me staying behind for family if they could help it.”
“Wasn’t much of a problem for me,” Lydia shrugs, using a tine to trace fractal patterns in her potatoes. “Colonel Carter barely had the words ‘wormhole drive’ out of her mouth before I was signing the NDA. I did hate leaving Prada with Jackson.”
“And how is the charming Mr. Whittemore?”
“Slutting it up in Paris about now, I should think. I refused to tell him where I was going. He told me I was an idiot if I thought a military contract would make me happy. Like he ever had to consider one with an MBA.”
“At Stanford you did spend an awful lot of time talking about how you’d never let the government ‘classify my groundbreaking work into oblivion.’ There was a lot of talk about the Fields medal and the oppressive patriarchy if memory serves.”
“I was sixteen and didn’t have access to classified research. What did I know?” Lydia grins and steals his last piece of broccoli.
“Well, you definitely didn’t know about any top-secret missions with functional wormhole tech. At the lofty age of twenty-one, are we now equipped for life-sucking aliens in another galaxy?”
“I don’t think another decade or two would be particularly helpful with that one.”
They finish their Jell-o in companionable silence, eyes trained on the unfamiliar stars darting past the observation window.
There is a disproportionately large Californian contingent on Atlantis.
Stiles was half-convinced that was all in his head. That was before a scouting mission to PX7-413 went south and Beckett sentenced him to bed rest in the infirmary sans methylphenidate. His diagnosis is ADHD-HI, and his dosages are lower than they used to be, but a week without work has him squirming, feeling half a size too big for his skin. The pleased, atonal hum of Ancient tech in the medbay doesn’t help, so he monologues at Dr. Deaton with his talk of possible drug interactions until he gets the go-ahead for a reorganization of the personnel medical files.
Stiles is pretty sure Carson authorized his access so he’d leave Deaton alone, but, whatever. He needs practice reading Ancient and it’s a good exercise of his rusty computer engineering skills. It’s a win all around.
Of the 500-odd military and civilian personnel of an international (intergalactic) expedition, fifty hail from sunny California. Of those, thirty-seven show moderate to high ATA expression. When he examines the geographical profile of all Atlantian ATA carriers, 89% have lived in or are from coastal communities.
He’s not saying that the Ancients’ descendants are drawn inexorably west, or to the sea, but, yeah. It’s totally possible that they are.
Stiles, Lydia, and the handful of other science personnel are beamed directly from the bridge of the Daedalus to one of the main engineering labs. Lydia’s the only person who manages not to immediately and visibly geek out. Stiles sees the slight widening of her eyes, but files it away for later. Right now he’s too busy staring out the window at an unfamiliar skyline and the silvery glint of water beyond. They’re in the lost city of Atlantis; it merits a modicum of excitement.
Later Stiles learns they were lucky. Newbie scientists are usually lambasted by Dr. McKay upon arrival. Eventually they’ll be lectured about their general worthlessness and the fact that McKay’ll have to save all of their pathetic asses and the entire city and no doubt several solar systems before they’ve managed to surpass the usefulness of the lowliest grunts on-base because at least they can manage heavy lifting. As it happens, the Daedalus arrives while AR-1 is on a trade mission to P6S-221 (‘Planet of the Hats, obviously very pressing mission.’). The new military personnel are beamed to the armory and led through Intro to Atlantis basics by Major Lorne. The scientists get Zelenka.
At one of the workstations, a long white table covered in papers and wires and what looks like a miniature ferris wheel, a diminutive Asian woman in a baggy lab coat is frowning at a bespectacled man using some rather colorful Czech. The woman is shaking her head, tapping at whatever results she’s showing the man on her tablet.
“And of course now we get the infants,” the man continues in Czech when he spots them. Stiles bites down on his lip to keep from laughing. “They of course would deliver them while McKay is off-world and I am all that stands between us and imminent destruction.”
“Should we maybe come back later if destruction’s actually imminent?” Stiles asks in English, ignoring the feeling of Lydia’s eyes burning into the side of his face and the sudden hush of the others.
The man looks startled for moment before adjusting his glasses so they’re sitting at a slightly less wild angle. “It’s possible I exaggerate when I think no one is listening,” he explains with a small smile. “I’m Dr. Radek Zelenka. My official title is Chief of Engineering, but all you really need to know is I’m second-in-command of the Science Division. Our illustrious leader, Dr. McKay, is currently off-world. This is incredible good luck for all of you, you will agree with me later, of this I’m sure. To my left is Dr. Miko Kusanagi, who was just showing me the results of some tests we’ve been running on the naquada generators’ fluctuations in output. Wasn’t one of you a mathematician here for work on the wormhole drive, a Dr. Mattin?”
“Martin,” Lydia corects, stepping forward and straightening to her full 5’3”. Stiles is almost used to seeing her out of heels after eighteen days on the Daedalus. “Dr. Lydia Martin. You need power distribution simulations?”
Zelenka mutters what sounds a lot like ‘zaplat panbuh’ and Stiles poorly covers a laugh with a fake cough behind his hand. “Dr. Martin, you will get full tour later. For now, you are with Dr. Kusanagi. Miko, the generator lab on the East pier should work best, yes?”
Miko nods, motions for Lydia to follow her and flees the lab. Lydia flashes Stiles a pleased smirk and follows.
“The rest of you will follow me. We’re no more or less likely to expire than any other day. No need to fret. First we will head to Command. Then we split off by division.”
Stiles nearly trips over his own feet in his rush to follow, because he knows ‘Command’ is code for Stargate, and he’s never seen an activation in person.
“And you, Mr. Chuckles,” Zelenka slows his pace to match Stiles before switching from English back to Czech, “there weren’t any European scientists on the roster, unless you count the British, which I do not, so who taught you the beautiful language?”
“My grandfather,” Stiles replies in English, because he's out of practice and his accent's always been atrocious. “He was in Mauthausen for his involvement with the UVOD, emigrated after the war, married the daughter of a navy officer, and then spent fifty years teaching Slovak languages at UCSD. I think he mostly taught me Czech and Hebrew because my maternal grandmother was teaching me Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.”
“So you’re a linguist?”
“Oh, no, the languages were accidental acquisitions; I tend to pick them up when I’m not paying attention. Dr. Stiles Stilinski. General O’Neill said I may do some consulting for the linguists, but I was recruited for the engineering division. Masters in Aeronautical Engineering and Computer Engineering, PhDs in Mechanical Engineering and Astrophysics. I’ve been working on my thesis in mathematics, as well, but I don’t think Berkeley lets you do correspondence PhDs from the Pegasus galaxy.”
“You’d be surprised, Dr. Stilinski,” Radek grins, leading them around a corner into what seems to be a main thoroughfare. There’s suddenly a lot of people passing in BDUs and science blues, waving and tossing cheery greetings at Zelenka.
“It’s just Stiles. I get that I earned it and all, but it makes me feel so old.”
“Yes, you are clearly decrepit,” Radek deadpans. “And you may call me Radek.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Radek.”
“Alright, children,” Radek calls out to the whole group, leading them into Command and towards the balcony's edge. “On behalf of the entire expedition, I would like to officially welcome you to the city of Atlantis.”
It’s a while before any of them manage to pry their hands from the railing overlooking the ‘gate.
The winter that Stiles turns eight is more eventful than he would prefer. First, he finishes his junior high coursework. Two days later, torrential rain results in a flurry of wrecks that has his father hunched by an overturned car, holding the hand of a dying teenage girl. While Deputy Stilinski recites the Mi Sheberakh, Stiles sits alone in a small, spare room where his mother’s frail lungs finally fail to rise and fall. He sometimes hears the oddly lyrical tones of the heart-rate monitor stuttering before flat-lining in his dreams.
His father packs Claudia’s old Jeep full to bursting for the drive to San Diego. The sheriff kisses Stiles on the forehead and leaves him at Papa and Nana Stilinski’s house for a month. The days are filled with baking, his grandparents’ quiet affection, far too much football and hockey, and day-trips to anything that might distract a hyperactive, eight-year-old genius from the end of the world.
He likes the zoo just fine—the penguins are hilarious and the reptile house holds a terror-inducing sort of appeal—but his favorite day is when Papa makes him don layer after layer for a special surprise. Papa carefully adjusts Stiles’ wool hat and mittens, secures the Gryffindor scarf that Nana knit him for Hanukkah securely around the thin, pale skin of his throat. Stiles only flinches when his face is smeared with a thick layer of salty-smelling sunscreen.
They climb into the station wagon with its whitewall tires and its newly-installed booster seat and drive north to Torrey Pines. For four hours they sit on the beach beneath a hideous, orange afghan that Claudia finished days before her final hospital admittance. Stiles huddles in Papa’s lap, sitting still with surprising ease as they watch the whales.
Papa's voice rolls over him in a low, rumbly current, a mixture of the Czech and Polish that Stiles knows and English for the rest. He talks about ‘the majesty and breath stealing beauty of the great Gray Whale,’ the wonder of one of the largest and oldest mammals on the planet. He tells Stiles that long after the foolish people have come and gone, the whales will still be swimming back and forth. He says that they’re a miracle of and out of time, a blessing of evolution and the Creator’s hand.
Stiles isn’t entirely sure when he became a favorite of the so-called ‘soft science’ divisions. It’s common knowledge that he’ll pilot in his off-hours, leading the botanists and marine biologists, in particular, to take a shining to him. Dr. Aakash Patel, a reedy man with an infectious laugh and a lilting Estuary accent, conscripts Stiles to ‘whale watch’ after Nurse Lahey gives them their inoculations for Athosian flu. Isaac chats to distract the more trypanophobic patients. Somewhere amidst his tales of battling the marines in the mess to assure proper nutrition and earnest discussion of the relative safety of snorkeling off the South pier, he lets slip that Dr. Stilinski enjoyed his submersible lessons with Lieutenant Colonel Lorne.
Stiles has never been too sure about the Creator or his hand in making the wonders of the universe. The vast amount of senseless violence he’s seen--coupled with the existence of races like the Wraith, Ori, and Goa’uld--would indicate a more bloodthirsty deity than he’d like to imagine. But there are days when he’s deep beneath the surface of an alien sea, ensconced in an Ancient spaceship on a planet three million light-years from Earth. He’ll think ‘off’ to deactivate the shining lights of the HUD and watch a Flagisallus the size of a school bus swim past the cockpit’s window.
On those days, beneath the growing familiarity of the Ancient tech’s humming, Stiles sometimes hears the winter wind whistling off the Pacific and the gravelly warmth of Papa’s voice reciting the Wayfarer’s Prayer in his ears.
The only member of the expedition who’s known Stiles longer than Lydia is Doc McCall.
They first meet in preschool, when Claudia Stilinski is still insistent upon him socializing within his age group. Stiles is just gaining a keen awareness of the differences between himself and his peers. Scott, with a puppy-esque sense of fun and the unwavering loyalty of childhood friendship, is his only playmate for a very long time. In Pegasus, Scott’s a SARC, one of the Navy Hospital Corpsmen who are team-trained to care for recon marines and their special ops counterparts: deep recon, amphibious entry, and direct action. Scott never meant to become a supermedic; he’d enlisted so he could afford veterinary school.
“But I dunno, man,” Scott grins crookedly, slinging the tranquilizer gun over his broad shoulder. Stiles has a jarring moment of double vision, of the same warm eyes and crooked jawline accompanied by floppier hair and a higher voice. “How am I supposed to go back to Earth and treat housecats for fleas after all this?”
‘All this,’ as it happens, is the snoozing body of a massive, vaguely doglike, quadruped that has chased AR-14 across the grasslands of P4X-779.
“I’m sure we could acquire something akin to 'felis domesticus' in this galaxy if you so wish,” Dr. Boyd says, face smoothly calm as he carefully scrapes soil samples from beneath the creature's talons. He tucks the samples into his pack with the mineral and rock fragments they came to gather from the Qundum quarry. “What do you think, Sergeant Reyes? Are giant cats a possibility?”
“Oh, indubitably,” Erica nods, sagely. “Even a Ravenous Bugblaater Beast from Traal’s a possibility at this point.”
“See, you think you know a person, oh Sergeant my Sergeant, bloodthirsty light of my life,” Stiles opines, adjusting the volume on his earpiece, “and then you go and effortlessly incorporate Adams into the conversation and I have to wonder if you’re secretly nerdy as well as intelligent, beautiful, and deadly.”
“The heart of a woman may hold many secrets, Stilinski,” she says, using her K-BAR to take a sample of the beast’s fur. She passes the cutting to Boyd, who stoppers the vial and writes on the label in his precise, spikey script. “Yours is not to know, but to observe and enjoy.”
“I never actually know what they’re talking about,” Scott shakes his head, absently petting the snout of the snoozing almost-a-dog. “Except when they’re talking Batman or Wormhole X-Treme. Now those were examples of fine television.”
“Adam West. Now there was a frood who really knew where his towel was,” Boyd says, adjusting the straps of his pack. He winces at the creak of his stiff knees as he stands.
“You’re all terrible people. Oh, and a housecat is ‘felis silvestris catus,’” Scott adds cheerfully, giving their new friend a last pat between its surprisingly leporine ears. It stretches and grumbles half-heartedly. Its padded paws kick idly at the grass, but it doesn’t open its eyes. “Let’s get back to the ‘gate before Fluffy wakes up.”
“Fluffy? Like, 'three-headed dog' Fluffy, or your 'childhood pet bunny' Fluffy?” Stiles asks, trailing after Scott with only a small flail as he trips over his own bootlaces.
“Combination of the two,” Scott says, glancing back at Fluffy. “D’ya think Mr. Woolsey would—”
“No,” the team replies in unison. Stiles claps an apologetic hand on Scott’s shoulder.
“On the bright side, nobody got kidnapped, imprisoned, married, eaten, or even mildly nibbled on, today!”
“I was nibbled on,” Erica argues, twisting her disheveled blond hair into its customary bun. Running full tilt from Fluffy can do a number on anyone's coif. “Just a little bit, though. Probably won’t even need to see Carson. Or Deaton. I'm sure Isaac can stitch me up just fine.”
“If you were injured, you would’ve had me fix you by now. You just want to flirt with Nurse Lahey,” Scott scowls, digging around in his tac-vest until he finds a Power Bar. “I’ve got peanut butter.”
Stiles pulls out his own, checking the label. “Apple cinnamon.”
“Yeah, sure. Think they’ll have that fried almost-chicken in the mess again?”
“If they do, I hope they’ve got that Athosian slaw stuff, ‘cause that made for a kick-ass sandwich.”
“You’re both disgusting.”
“Says the woman who, given the choice would live on MREs!”
“Yeah, well, McKay gets some things right. The ingredients are listed right on the package. For all you know, fried almost-chicken is Fluffy’s cousin Fang, or something.”
“You’re a sick, sick woman, Reyes.”
“Shut up or I’m telling Cadman you’ve been skipping civilian fitness training, Stilinski.”
“I find it really unsettling there are two terrifying, blond explosives experts in one city.”
“Embrace the fear.”
The Wraith don’t dig graves.
As far as Stiles has been able to ascertain, they do nothing to dispose of their dead. There are no last rites, no memorials. It’s possible that the anthropologists have some theory involving warrior culture, space-faring peoples, and hibernation cycles. He thinks it’s just another indication that the Wraith aren’t people at all.
The first funeral he attends is the sea burial of his great-grandfather, who retired his commission after more than forty years of service. Stiles is too young to grasp much of what’s happening, but there’s a man in a pristine, gold-buttoned uniform calling ‘all hands bury the dead,’ and a bugler playing Taps, and his grandmother’s green eyes are shiny with unshed tears in her sun-weathered face.
What he remembers most clearly is the sudden, pressing hush when the ship cuts its engines. Waves slap softly and endlessly against the hull. The wind sighs as ash soars over an infinite stretch of sundrenched Pacific.
His mother’s remains sat for many years on his Grandmother Merriweather’s mantle in the Burren. They’re packed neatly in a wooden urn carved with the Cliffs of Moher on the lid. When Stiles signs on with the SGC he has to transfer them to a characterless cardboard box to make his weight allotment. He’s not sure why he feels the need to take any tangible piece of her with him. Yet, somehow, the knowing glint in Gram O’Brien’s brown gaze loosens a knot in his stomach he never knew he’d carried for thirteen years.
Scott joins him on the East Pier one sunny afternoon, a precious six pack of Longboards clenched in one fist. He sits silently as Stiles scoops up careful handfuls of ash to slide through his fingers into the New Lantean Sea.
Stiles has spent years being the man who’s inexorably left behind. Things change, people move on, pass on, grow out and up and away. Yet here he is with his first, best friend, drinking a beer on a not-quite-dock overlooking the not-really-a-bay as the too-orange sun drifts beyond the horizon. Stiles thinks, in another life, his mother would’ve loved it here.