The Daedalus dropped out of hyperspace over Lantea. Atlantis drifted below them, pale blue spires in a sapphire sea. White twists of clouds ringed the world's equator, typhoon season in full swing. The city was unaffected, sunlight glinting off of glass and metal even from orbit.
“Atlantis, this is the Daedalus requesting permission to land,” Colonel Caldwell said. It was formality at this point, Lieutenant Colonel Bishop was already plotting the landing.
There was no answer.
Caldwell felt a distinct chill in his stomach. “Atlantis, please respond,” he said.
“I'm sure it's nothing,” Bishop said. His fingers hovered over the commands that would send the ship into atmosphere.
“Their shields are down,” Lieutenant Stuart observed.
The city drifted calm and peaceful in the ocean below. There were no shields to betray a problem, no damage to speak of an attack, no cloak to hide them from an unseen enemy.
“Take stationary orbit,” Caldwell ordered. Bishop redid his orbit and the engines rumbled.
Stuart sat up, radio to his ear. “I have something,” he said. He put the transmission on the screen.
Atlantis looked normal. Extremely normal. Empty, yes, but the structure itself was unchanged, there were no alarms, there was no sign of distress at all. And then a man in a biohazard suit dropped into view, nearly falling off the console in visible exhaustion. The radio conveyed the sound of pained breathing. “Daedalus... stay away... Don't...”
Caldwell recognized the voice. “Dr. McKay, what happened?”
McKay shoved himself into a sitting position. The lights inside the suit gave his skin a pale eerie color, or was that due to something else? But the strange dark mottling on the left side of his face...
“It... doesn't know how to get... out of the suits,” McKay said, speaking slowly as he fought for breath. “The others... It's airborne... But once it's in you... it needs light... The others tried... tried to stay in the dark... but it made them... Colonel, it made them... find light...”
“What happened?” Caldwell demanded.
Dr. Parrish tramped through the jungle, eyes wide. It was like one of those old pulp stories from the 1930s, back when authors thought Venus might look like a giant steaming jungle. There weren't any dinosaurs, nor were there any of the scantily clad women of those stories, but the trees, the flowers...
Major Lorne followed behind, a smile on his face. This place was beautiful, the green dapple of light through the oddly transparent leaves of the jungle canopy, the broad flowers that seemed to bloom as they passed, the little jungle animals hiding among the ubiquitous orchids...
“I've never seen so many epiphytes in one spot,” Parrish said. “Not in a healthy ecosystem like this. They're beautiful.”
Lorne's boots squelched in the muddy jungle floor. A soft drifting drizzle fell from the jungle canopy. It wasn't even raining, it must be some sort of trick of condensation. He fanned himself. The moment he stopped walking it hit him just how hot and still this place was. “You wanna take a sample?” he asked.
“Lots of them,” Parrish said. He prodded the jungle floor with his boot until he found a moderately dry place, likely the remains of an old log. He put his pack down and stretched, unhindered by the heat or the humidity.
Lorne found a decently bare tree to lean on. He tried not to squish any of the orchid's air roots. “Hot,” he observed, leering.
Parrish hummed in agreement, distracted by work. He tested a knot on a tree and stood on it so he could get closer to a specimen. He slid his fingers underneath a smooth leaf and the orchid's main stem seemed to turn toward him. “Oh,” he breathed. “Hello there.”
“You'll tell me if the plants talk back, right?” Lorne joked.
“Don't mind him, he wouldn't understand,” Parrish said. He winked at Lorne before turning back to the orchid. “But you...”
“Don't get too friendly,” Lorne warned. “We don't know anything about this planet.”
“Nothing in the database?” Parrish asked. The orchid's flowers dangled right in front of him. He brushed them out of the way.
“And nothing from Teyla,” Lorne said. “The Ancients listed it as an address and that's it.”
“Makes sense,” Parrish mused. “If there's really nothing here but orchids.” He felt something tickle his nose and he pulled away. If he didn't know any better he'd think the orchid had moved its flowers to dangle them in his face. “Okay, okay, I'll smell you,” he said and leaned in to delicately sniff the offered blooms.
The flowers didn't smell like anything at first sniff. But then something changed and he could sense a hint of the sweetest pollen he'd ever smelled. He pulled away and looked closer. The orchid's pale purple flowers bobbed in the still air, their sudden scent almost dripping off of their petals in pale yellow drops.
“Does it smell nice?” Lorne asked.
“It... does...” Parrish leaned in to smell again. He dropped all pretense of delicacy and all but stuffed his face into the flowers, the individual blooms curling around his face. He moaned as that scent became a taste, a cloying fruity sweetness that filled his senses.
“Whoa, slow down there,” Lorne said. He pulled Parrish out of the orchid. Parrish stumbled off the tree's knot and ended up on the muddy ground. Lorne rolled his eyes at the goofy grin on Parrish's face.
“Wow,” Parrish said.
“Was it good for you?” Lorne drawled.
Parrish snapped out of his reverie and smacked Lorne in the shin. He then reached up to rub his neck.
“You okay?” Lorne asked.
“Think so,” Parrish said. “Feels like a bug bite.”
Lorne slapped Parrish's hand away and had to wipe off the mud. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary. “Looks fine,” he said. “You feel okay to continue?”
Parrish stood up and rubbed his butt. It was more out of habit, the jungle floor was too soft to hurt on landing. “I'm fine,” he said. “I still want some samples.”
He looked up. Strange, there were more orchids than before. The air around them grew sweet.
“They do smell good,” Lorne admitted.
“How... could we have known?” McKay whispered. “There was no sign... they didn't mention anything... and by the time...”
“What happened?!” Caldwell demanded.
It made no sense. McKay was rambling about orchids in a jungle when it was evident something had taken control of the entire Atlantis expedition. McKay was affected, he'd admitted as such, visibly fought against some sort of mind control, he'd moved away from the console. The large rent in the biohazard suit was evidence enough that he was compromised.
“What happened to the others?” Caldwell asked.
McKay wasn't visible anymore, curled up somewhere outside the camera's field. The tortured mantra of “no, no, you can't make me, I won't, please no, not like that” drifted through the radio link.
Caldwell made a motion and Stuart turned the volume of the transmission down. Mad ramblings went soft, audible just on the edge of sound.
“Get a team ready,” Caldwell said. “We need to see this for ourselves.”
A barely audible voice screamed at them. “NO! No, don't come down! If you do they'll find you! They'll take you! They'll--” The voice was cut off on the Atlantis end.
“Is this a good idea?” Bishop asked.
“Do you have a better one?” Caldwell asked.
The flash of the transporter faded. Four figures stood in the Atlantis gateroom, all of them sealed inside hazmat suits. Three held weapons at the ready in case of attack.
Colonel Caldwell lowered his weapon. Near him Lieutenant Anders and Captain Cooper followed suit. Dr. Monroe went for a console and plugged in a laptop. Monroe opened the laptop and began querying the system.
Aside from them the gateroom was empty.
“Dr. McKay was able to contact us from here, right?” Cooper asked.
“Right over there,” Caldwell said, pointing to the main communications console.
Cooper moved to the console and stopped. “Weird,” she said.
“What is it?” Caldwell asked.
An orchid with sapphire blue flowers sat on the console, its air roots curled around the Ancient crystals like it had grown there.
“Weird,” Caldwell agreed. “Dr. McKay ranted something about orchids.”
“Doesn't make sense,” Anders said. “Why would it be here? There's no water source.”
“I guess that's what we need to find out,” Caldwell said.
“There might be something in the infirmary,” Cooper suggested.
“Let's go,” Caldwell said. “Anders, stay here. I want everything you can get out of the main computer.”
Anders took over the computer and waved them off. The gateroom grew quiet as they left. He buried himself in the mystery of what had happened here even as the sapphire orchid twitched, its flowers turning toward him.
The infirmary was dark.
It made sense. Most of the lights were out in the city although there was no reason for it. The ZPM was running normally, it even carried greater than 50% charge. The backup naquadah generators were set for automatic startup in case of ZPM shutdown.
Instead every window seemed to be open. The labs they passed were messes of blown paper, shorted computers, blank whiteboards, and tangles of orchids. The mess hall was cleared, the city had had plenty of warning before whatever this was happened, but there was no one here. Only the clinging air roots of what felt like hundreds of orchids and the eerie sensation of being watched.
But the infirmary...
Caldwell shone a flashlight at the corpse tied to the bed. It had similar qualities to a death by Wraith feeding but there were differences. For one thing, this corpse wasn't aged. The hair was still dark. But it had the same dried and brittle quality of a Wraith feeding, like a complete dehydration.
“Nurse Brenda Previn,” Cooper said. She held the corpse's chart.
“Any idea what killed her?” Caldwell asked. “Was it this... whatever it was?”
“It's noted that she was infected,” Cooper said. “She...” Cooper shuddered. “Steven, she volunteered.”
“She volunteered,” Cooper said. She handed over the chart.
Caldwell read the notes. Nurse Previn had been infested but still had some control over her actions. She volunteered to test the effect of darkness on slowing the infestation. If necessary the infirmary staff were to tie her securely to prevent her escape until the effects of prolonged darkness on the infestation were known.
“She wanted to know what would happen,” Caldwell said, an odd note of pride in his voice. He looked closer at the body. He handed Cooper the notes. “Hold the light for me,” he said as he used a pen to examine something he noticed. Previn's corpse wasn't the only dead thing here. There was something more. He pulled a dried tendril off of the corpse.
“Maybe 'infestation' is a better word than 'infected',” Cooper admitted.
Monroe made a face behind his hazmat mask.
“What does this look like to you?” Caldwell asked.
“A dead thing?” Monroe said.
Caldwell tapped his radio. “Anders, what's your status?”
All he heard was static.
The gateroom was empty.
Caldwell found the computer still hooked up to the Ancient mainframe. Next to the computer he found the helmet and gloves of a hazmat suit.
“Anders always did hate wearing these things,” Cooper offered.
Caldwell glared her to silence. “Search the room,” he said. “I need to know what happened here.”
He sat down at the computer and tapped at keyboard to awaken it. He brushed away the sapphire orchid that seemed to be curled around the console and then stopped. He stared at the blue flower. But it...
He looked back at the communications console. Two orchids curled around that console, one with gray flowers spotted with brown and one with deep green flowers streaked with gold. He sat back, leaning away from the sapphire orchid. “Don't touch the flowers,” Caldwell said.
“What, sir?” Cooper asked.
Dr. Monroe crawled out from under a console. “Why not?” he asked.
“Don't touch the flowers,” Caldwell repeated. “That's an order.” He looked back at the computer. There was a video file open, waiting to be played.
He clicked the file and watched in dawning horror.
The first part of the file was just Anders working. It seemed he hadn't noticed the laptop's webcam activating. Nor, it seemed, had he noticed the sapphire orchid uncurling from the communications console behind him. It dropped onto the floor and crawled ominously out of frame, toward Anders and where his feet would have been.
Then he wasn't alone. Hands pulled the out wire of his radio and then the tubing of his air tanks. Anders had been shocked to see his assailants, he never even reached for his gun as more hands reached out and pulled his helmet off. Then he was spun in his chair to face the computer. He wasn't afraid, he was more confused than anything. Perhaps there was a little disgust in his face, or was that arousal? Caldwell couldn't tell and didn't want to dwell on it.
The nude woman behind him knelt down slowly. Caldwell did not need to know Dr. Weir that intimately to realize the strange veining and green mottling on her bare skin were not normal. Nor were the tendrils wrapped around her neck, her arms, her torso. The orchids that seemed to grow from her shoulders were almost an afterthought of weirdness. Their deep green leaves curled around her, accentuating the almost playful look of ownership on her face as she leaned on Ander's shoulder.
He finally made a noise, perhaps an attempt to call for help. But then the orchids draped over Weir shoved their gray flowers, spotted with brown, into his face and he seemed to melt into her embrace.
A voice laughed behind them, a voice Caldwell knew as well as Weir's. New hands, mottled green and brown, reached around her and gripped her belly. She hummed and leaned against him, wiggling in a manner meant to entice both Caldwell and Colonel Sheppard behind her. Sheppard's own infestation of deep green flowers, streaked with gold, seemed to leer at Caldwell from the video file as Sheppard purred and bit her neck.
“What the fuck?”
Caldwell hadn't heard Cooper or Monroe behind him. They watched the file with varying levels of disbelief.
“We have your technician,” Weir said. “He's already exposed. How long can the rest of you hold out?”
The file ended with Sheppard's hand gripping her breast.
Caldwell sat back. He had the oddest feeling that the sapphire orchid was laughing at him.
“This started with Dr. Parrish and Major Lorne,” Caldwell said. He recalled the mad ramblings of McKay through the radio, the strange description of the pulp-Venusian planet. It all started with the orchids on that unnamed world, an address that McKay couldn't even remember.
Cooper and Monroe followed, panting inside their hazmat suits. Lantea's typhoon season was in full swing and the entire equatorial latitudes of the planet were drenched in a summer that didn't care about hemisphere or orbital tilt. The twisting breeze that fluttered through the open windows and the broad balconies did nothing to quench their heat, trapped as they were in their suits.
“It's airborne,” Caldwell warned. “We can't risk it. We can't risk going back until we know what this is.”
“The transporters can isolate any pathogen,” Monroe said, gasping.
“So should Atlantis,” Caldwell snapped. “This city has a quarantine system better than ours. Yet it doesn't seem to care.”
“You don't think Dr. McKay could program this city to ignore whatever this is?” Cooper asked.
Caldwell paused in the hallway so the others could catch their breaths. Lorne's private quarters were nearby. Maybe there was something left behind there, a journal, a diary, an accounting of what was happening to him. McKay had lamented how they didn't come forward fast enough, how they were already infested when... “McKay warned us not to come here,” Caldwell said. “He'd kept his mind until now. He'd have done everything in his power to fight this.”
Lorne's quarters were oddly organized considering the wide open windows. A captivating breeze blew the Athosian curtains, tempting them into removing their helmets and partaking. But the entwined orchids by the window were a stark reminder, one with blue flowers streaked with gray, the other with pale gray flowers streaked with green.
“What's up with the orchids?” Monroe wondered.
Caldwell gave him a look.
“Okay, I get that they're evil,” Monroe said. “But what's with them?”
“They're mind control parasite orchids?” Cooper asked. She sighed and scrunched up her own face. “Oh god that sounds like a bad movie.”
“I'd watch it,” Monroe said. “It's like Day of the Triffids.”
“Triffids eat people,” Caldwell said absently as he went through Lorne's things. He found a handbound notebook and several sketchbooks. He flipped through the sketchbooks until he found the one that wasn't full; it was the most likely to be recent. He handed that one to Cooper.
Cooper opened the sketchbook and flipped through until she found a likely page. She whistled and turned the sketchbook to get a better view of the centerfold-like drawing. “He's good,” she complimented. “The guy's skinny though.”
Caldwell looked at the drawing. It was a soft graphite drawing of Dr. David Parrish. The man was nude. “Check the more recent drawings,” he said. “I want to know what was on the Major's mind right before the end.”
“Yes sir,” Cooper said. She stopped leering and began turning pages.
Lorne's sketchbook was filled with little bits and sketches. Hands, faces, quick sketches of people standing in the gateroom or sitting in the mess hall. Some were so generic, so undetailed that it was clear they'd been quick 5 minute sketches. Others had to have been posed. A careful charcoal of Dr. McKay sleeping in an infirmary chair. An anatomical study of Ronon in various poses with sticks. Dr. Weir standing on the balcony overlooking the gateroom. Colonel Sheppard asleep in the pilot's chair of a jumper. But many of them, so many, were of Dr. Parrish.
“Looks like our boy had a crush,” Cooper said. She turned the page to find another posed portrait, of Parrish asleep in Lorne's bed, the haphazard blankets barely covering the man's nudity. “Oh my.”
“Not just a crush,” Monroe said, looking over Cooper's shoulder.
Soon after this the sketches changed. Parrish still featured heavily in them but he was generally posed with flowers. The flowers started as more generic types but over time the sketches began to evolve into orchids. Into a specific orchid.
Monroe looked at the orchid drawn with David Parrish, at the specific pattern shaded into it, at the delicate spiny petals. It...
“Steven,” Monroe said, his voice quiet and serious. He tapped the drawing and pointed at the orchids by the window. They weren't entwined anymore, nor were they by the window. Instead they were dangling from the ceiling. Pale gray flowers streaked with green, the same pattern and the same petals as the orchids drawn with Parrish.
Caldwell did not seem surprised. “The orchids in the gateroom,” he said. “On the communications console. They were from Dr. Weir and Colonel Sheppard. I wonder, are they controlling the orchids or are the orchids controlling them?”
Cooper pulled the sketchbook closer and started studying these last pictures. Portraits had changed, growing sultry and sinister, orchids draped over each person.
Caldwell found some relevant passages in the journal. He read aloud. “'Something's been bothering me since the jungle. Post-mission medical check showed nothing wrong but I keep thinking about that place. I never understood orchids before now. Maybe David can help me sneak one into my room, I know he brought back plenty. They're a big hit with the science department. Dr. Zelenka says he's never smelled anything so beautiful.'”
Cooper found a drawing of Dr. Zelenka with a pale blue-green orchid, the petals short and twisting.
Caldwell turned the page and found another. “'Dr. McKay noticed it first. There's something strange about the orchids. I admit the one in my room moves around at night. David says his does too but it's all right, they're nice. I have to agree with him. My orchid seems to enjoy crawling on me, especially when I lay in the sun with it. It doesn't even itch anymore when it begins to grow. But I'm finding it hard to take it off for my shift.'”
“That's fucking creepy,” Monroe said.
Caldwell continued. “'The others have begun to give up on clothing. I don't blame them, it's typhoon season and this world gets hot around now. Dr. Weir is holding out, I think she killed three orchids before she accepted this one. They're always much more agreeable once they've taken an orchid.'”
Cooper turned the page and found a portrait of Dr. McKay with a sapphire orchid, its fat petals delicately curled. It looked almost like... “Sir, are you sure Dr. McKay resisted?” she asked.
“He tried to warn us away from here,” Caldwell said. “Resisting was driving him mad.”
Cooper showed him the drawing of Dr. McKay and the sapphire orchid.
Monroe stared at the portrait then looked away. It was too creepy. Then he made the mistake of looking around them. “Guys?” he said.
The room was full of orchids.
Caldwell felt the soft thump on his helmet. He grabbed for the hose on his air tank but only grabbed tendrils, so many air roots, and then he was hit with a cloying sweetness. Its scent filled his nose, overtook his mind, dripped down his throat like honey. He staggered on his feet and fell to his knees.
“Oh god,” Cooper whispered. She ducked under dangling tendrils and ran from the room. A scream came from down the hall.
Monroe held his hands up to defend himself, something, anything.
And then it was too late.
Caldwell thrashed against his bonds.
His hazmat suit was gone, pointless now that he was exposed, possibly even infested already. But he was alone, alone with these naked, mottled, orchid-draped people that he once called colleagues. Orchids sat on his shoulders and his wrists, their air roots and tendrils binding him as living ropes. Their flowers kept bopping his face, almost rubbing against his cheeks. It felt like one was trying to crawl up onto his head, perhaps to sit there like a strange green toupee.
Lorne was there, his blue and gray orchids dangling from him like a cloak of tendrils. He was distracted, his arms and roots around Dr. Parrish. His own gray and green orchids entwined with Lorne's as thoroughly as his hands entwined with Lorne's.
Weir stood naked and glorious, green and brown mottling making her look like a lizard as she basked in the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.
“Atlantis suits us,” Sheppard said. He circled Caldwell, soft footfalls padding on the floor. His green and gold orchids watched from his shoulders, from the balcony, from a console, from Caldwell's own wrist.
“Why?” Caldwell asked. “At least tell me that.”
A new voice answered him, a voice terrible for its familiarity. “Because we can.”
Caldwell's hopes all faded as he realized Cooper had been correct. Dr. McKay had not resisted.
McKay with his sapphire orchids that drooped all around him, that clung to the walls in the labs, that crawled over every console like they grew there. McKay with his dappled green skin that soaked the sun until his hair turned yellow.
“Oh, they're too interested in each other,” McKay said, his orchids gesturing to Lorne and Parrish. “If it was up to them they'd still be the only ones. David showed me the orchids the moment they got back. I was the first.”
“I was second,” Sheppard said, sounding oddly proud. “I had to be. I noticed something was wrong with Rodney before he did.”
“From there it was easy,” McKay said. He straddled Caldwell, holding the man's jaw so he couldn't look away. Those cursed sapphire orchids bobbed and almost seemed to titter. “I convinced Atlantis there was nothing wrong with a few plants. Then I sent the pollen into the ventilation system. Carson wanted to do his tests so I let him. Brenda had such beautiful dark flowers, almost black. Black flowers are so rare. But she's still here, we have a few of her orchids in the greenhouse.”
Sheppard leaned close to Caldwell, close enough that his orchids mingled with McKay's. “Teyla's off with the Athosians,” he said. “Soon they'll have flowers too.”
“You... warned us off,” Caldwell said, forcing the words out.
McKay laughed. “I did, didn't I,” he purred. “We had to. We can't take Earth, Earth orchids don't smell like anything. There has to be a smell, you see, otherwise there's no point. The Daedalus doesn't have orchids, what would we infest you with? We didn't think you'd leave without losing a few exploratory teams but we never thought you'd send you!”
“And Rodney used to call me 'Kirk',” Sheppard said, whispering the words in Caldwell's ear. “At least I didn't put myself front and center on every away team.”
“Only most of them,” McKay drawled.
“The interesting ones,” Sheppard agreed.
McKay got off of Caldwell's lap and sauntered around behind him. Caldwell heard the sounds of flesh against flesh and distinct moans right behind him. He tried to ignore it and to ignore the leers of interest from those he could see. The orchids on his skin began to itch. He shifted uncomfortably.
He didn't want to think of what that meant.
Weir sauntered down to him. “You're going to warn your ship out of here,” she said. “If they know what's good of them, they'll never return.”
“They'll return,” Caldwell warned. “They'll come back to destroy this city.”
Weir laughed. “We have the shield, we have the cloak, we have weapons to knock you out of the sky. Your entire ship fits on one of the city's landing piers. And... we have you.”
“If what I see here is any indication, soon I won't even have me,” Caldwell drawled.
“You'll be you,” Mckay promised. “Your truest you. You'll be more you than you've ever been before. And when we send orchids through the gate to all the orchid worlds, you'll be eternally you.”
Somehow Caldwell doubted that.
“Message from Atlantis,” Stuart said.
“Finally.” Bishop stood up from Caldwell's chair and straightened his uniform.
“It's a recorded message,” Stuart said. “It's...” His shoulders fell as he shifted the audio message to the bridge's speakers without prompting.
“Daedalus, by the time you get this it'll be too late.” Caldwell's voice sounded tired, like he'd been fighting something horrible. “Atlantis is lost. An alien infestation has taken hold and is using the humans here as hosts. It starts airborne, makes you pliable for their interests. Then the infestation begins. It's... not painful but... it's not reversible. We've been exposed, all four of us. The hazmat suits weren't enough, not against this. Anders went first, I shouldn't have left him alone, he always hated the suits. Then Cooper, they got her next. I don't know what happened to Monroe. I hope to God he died first. I... I don't know how long... I can...
“This was a trap. McKay was infested first. Don't... don't trust... anyone... Please, Colonel Bishop, Patrick, get them out of here. Atlantis is lost! Don't land, don't beam anyone out, don't look back. The Milky Way needs you. The--”
Caldwell began to scream. The screaming turned to hideous laughter that ended in a glorious sigh. Caldwell's voice was very different now. “Leave,” he purred. “Before we change our minds. This galaxy is small and we hear yours... has orchids...”
The recording cut out. Stuart looked confused. “Orchids?”
Bishop didn't want to know. He wanted answers but... “Fourteen days to a gate on the Milky Way network,” he mused. He wanted answers but he needed orders. And... if anything they heard was true then Atlantis was indeed already lost. “We can't stay here.”
Bishop looked around at the bridge crew and made a decision. “If we leave now we'll never come back,” he said. “We'll be reassigned to the Ori front.”
The bridge crew all knew what he meant. They'd stand by his decision.
“Land the ship.”
In the skies above Lantea, among clouds drifting along the outer edge of a typhoon, the Daedalus descended to land on the East Pier.