From orbit, the Alpha site looked pretty much like any other Earth-type planet they'd seen before. The deep blue ocean was broken by a long continent with a vaguely crescent shape which concentrated most of the planet's land, while small islands sprinkled around the remainder of the sea. The gate was situated in a temperate zone in the northern hemisphere, in a similar latitude the Mediterranean Sea would be on Earth.
None of that told them anything about what was happening down there.
"I've finalized the scanning, Captain," Hermiod said, causing many on the bridge to turn to him. "The sensors only show human life-signs in a ten-kilometer radius around the Stargate and most are concentrated in a single place." His hands moved over the controls and a new image appeared on the screen. It showed a small town built around a central square, with several streets converging radially on it. Small dots indicated the life signs.
"That's the Alpha Site," Alvez confirmed. "And that's the road to the Stargate," he added, pointing to the widest street, which extended past the town's limits in the southwest direction.
"You are correct, Lance Corporal," Hermiod agreed while he highlighted the position of the gate. "I detect two human life signs around the gate, armed with Tau'ri weapons."
"Where was the command located while you were there, Corporal?" Colonel Caldwell asked.
Alvez examined the image for a second. "Here, the big building at the north side."
"Only two life signs, that's good," Donovan said.
"I would advise you to proceed with caution, Lieutenant," Hermiod intervened. "One of the life signs shows anomalous readings."
"The baseline is human, but it does not coincide with any of the known Homo Sapiens subspecies."
"The Mad Tau’ri," Alvez murmured.
Donovan patted his shoulder. "What was this area used for?" he asked, signaling the area behind the house being used as command center.
"Storage," Alvez replied, "but most were unused back then."
"Could you transport us here, Hermiod?" Donovan gestured at a small street a block behind the command center.
"Yes, Lieutenant. It would not be a problem."
"Get ready, then." Caldwell ordered.
Donovan Shadowed both of them as soon as they landed, after he had taken a quick glance at the LSD.
"We're in the clear. Your turn, Alex."
Alvez nodded and inhaled deeply, grasping Donovan's hand firmly. As he exhaled, he activated his Phantom Gift and pulled Donovan out of phase with him. After the phasing stabilized, he pulled him through the wall of the house. Inside they found piles of mismatching supplies, some from Earth and others they didn't recognize, but didn't stop to examine them. Alvez pulled them both through the walls until they exited the house on the other side, just in front of the back wall of the command center.
Donovan signed at him to bring them out of phase and shook the quicksilver off the LSD to check it again. There were still only two occupants in the house. He pocketed it and Alex phased them out again and pulled them through the back wall, but more carefully this time.
The first room was a kitchen, clean but sparsely equipped. A couple of bowls and cups were piled on the counter alongside a big carafe of water. They walked through the open door into a corridor that branched at both sides. Donovan signaled Alvez to continue through the wall in front of them. The next room was being used for storage, with piles of stuff haphazardly arranged. The third room looked like some kind of office, with a sturdy wooden table and a single chair in the middle. An SGC-issue tablet PC lay dormant on the table next to the chair, with a hastily written list on top, with two notebooks and a couple pens and pencils by it. Donovan signaled Alvez to bring them off-phase, removed the list and switched on the computer. He lacked a valid login, but Alvez's credentials got them in. Donovan frowned at the security mishap that represented, but before they could explore the contents, they heard voices coming their way. They hastily left things as they'd found them and Alvez brought them back off-phase.
The tanker swerved dangerously, pushing a car off the road into a direct collision course with a tree. She had to swerve sharply to avoid it. A horn blasted suddenly ahead. As the tanker swerved to the right again, she saw another tanker blocking the road. She stepped on the brakes, but the car didn't slow down. She tried to turn the car along the shoulder, but a minivan hit her on the tailgate, pushing the car forward. The two tankers collided, and the road became a storm of fire that advanced relentlessly towards her...
"NO!" John jumped awake with a sharp cry that woke up Rodney. John sat up on the bed, his head tucked against his arms on his knees, breathing harshly.
"John?" Rodney asked, sitting up and touching his mate's shoulder. "What happened?"
It took John a moment to answer. "What did you see?"
"Fire, fear, it was just flashes."
John tried to calm his breathing and raised his head. Rodney was surprised to see the trails of tears down his cheeks.
"My mother, she had a fatal car accident when I was twelve," he swallowed, brushing the tears from his face. "A collision against two tankers transporting highly volatile chemicals. There wasn't much left to recover."
"Damn, I'm sorry," Rodney said. He didn't know what to do. Maybe, for the first time in his life, Rodney felt the need to comfort someone who wasn't his sister, or her daughter. He put his arm around John's shoulders, in an awkward one-armed embrace. "Do you dream about her often?"
"About her, yeah," John gave him a hint of a smile. "About the accident... never before coming to Atlantis."
"It's not the first time?"
John snorted. "More like the fifth."
"In ten days?" Rodney frowned.
"Yeah. Don't know where it came from." John leaned against Rodney's warm body, snuggling into his neck. Rodney pulled him down, allowing him to further snuggle into him. He didn't know what to do or to say. This comforting thing had never been his forte, but John seemed happy to just be there with him, if the contentment flowing through their bond was any clue. So he just settled comfortably on the bed with his arms around John and allowed him to take what he needed.
Donovan and Alvez had barely faded from view when the door banged open and Sergeant Bates strode into the room, face like a thundercloud.
"You can't come here and start ordering my men!" he shouted while turning to the door. Alvez tensed when he saw who it was with him. The spiky sandy blonde hair and the arrogant, disdainful smirk was the same as he remembered, though there had been some changes, like the circular scars under his left eye.
"Come on, Dean, relax. It was just more efficient, that's all."
Donovan looked at Alvez questioningly. "Sherman," he mouthed, and Donovan frowned. A Corporal speaking that way to a Staff Sergeant?
"I don't care about your fucking efficiency! Unless the Colonel sends someone else, this base is under my command and you'll go through me, Sergeant Sherman!"
Donovan's eyebrows shot up in surprise, as did Alvez's. Battlefield promotions were quite rare outside of an active war zone.
"OK, OK... don't get your panties in a twist," Sherman drawled, leaning carelessly on the table. "Is everything ready?"
"It's prepared as the Colonel ordered." Bates kept glaring hard at him as he clicked on his radio. "Parker, Jordan, load the requested supplies onto the Tower's carts." They didn't hear the response, but Bates seemed satisfied. "Anything else?"
"No news about our friend, I suppose?" Sherman narrowed his eyes, all carelessness gone.
"Your snitches at the gate would have told you already, if there were any." Bates’ voice was cold, all traces of fury gone, his body rigid.
"We are all in the same boat, Bates," Sherman answered, getting off the table.
"Of course," Bates returned icily.
Sherman’s expression was a disturbing mix of a smirk and a condescending smile. "See you next week," Sherman waved him carelessly before walking away and soon they heard the banging of the main door closing. Bates followed his way out from the window, eyes tight and hands holding onto the back of the chair hard enough for his knuckles to turn white. Several voices could be heard from outside, but neither Alvez nor Donovan had Sentinel hearing, so they only could make out a few random words.
As the voices moved away, Bates let go of the chair and let himself fall on it, tension still visible in his frame.
"Fucking ass kisser..." he muttered between his teeth. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply several times before his body lost the coiled tension. Rubbing a tired hand over his face, he turned his attention to the tablet PC on the table but stopped suddenly and swept his right hand along the silver edge of its casing. He looked at his fingers pensively, brushing them like he was checking something on them. He got up and walked to the window, looking out for several moments. He brushed his fingers again and then turned around decisively.
"You know, I worked with a Shadow once, one of the Fawkes, in Afghanistan," he said, apparently to no one. "A really handy guy to have in combat, but he also liked to play tricks a bit too much and left speckles of quicksilver everywhere. Pretty much like these." He turned his hand around to show his fingers.
Hidden in the corner, Donovan stilled and stopped Alvez, who'd taken a half-step forward. Alvez looked between him and Bates, his eyes shifting from doubt to hope and back.
Donovan narrowed his eyes, examining the Sergeant. He'd read Markham and Alvez's full debriefing and he knew of Bates' actions, but that information was eight months old. A lot of things could happen in eight months. Yet, it was strange that the ranking NCO had been exiled to the Alpha site, and Sherman's attitude didn't speak highly of Colonel Sumner's opinion of Bates. That was something in his favor, but was it enough to risk his and Alvez's safety, and that of the rest of the expedition? He had neither Foresight not Empathy, but that Gift did run in his family and an Echo of it made sure that his gut feeling about people was never wrong.
And now it was telling him he could trust Bates.
He closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply. When he opened them, he nodded at Alvez, who gave him a small smile before taking them both back in phase. Once they were corporeal again, he allowed the quicksilver to flake out of them.
Bates smiled when he saw Alvez. "I'm glad you're OK, Lance Corporal. Markham and Stackhouse are as well?"
"Thank you, Sir. And yes, they're... safe." Bates threw him a sharp look at the phrasing but didn't comment. "Staff Sergeant Bates, this is 1st Lieutenant Kyle Donovan, Delta Force."
Bates immediately threw him a sharp salute, which Donovan returned. "At ease, Sergeant."
"Since you weren't part of the Expedition, I suppose Earth finally has been able to spare a ship to look for us?"
"Affirmative, Sergeant," Donovan said. "The Daedalus is in orbit around this planet, ready to intervene if necessary," he added, looking at him pointedly, testing his reaction.
Bates let out a relieved breath and his posture relaxed. "Thank the heavens!" he said, letting himself lean against the table. "Asgard transporters?" Donovan nodded. "And Healers?"
Donovan nodded again. "Is there an emergency, Sergeant?"
Bates looked at the floor for a second before replying. "Yes, but I don't think they've ever seen anything like it." He straightened up and turned to the door. "Follow me. There's something you should see."
Rodney marched into John's office with his temper barely in check.
"Do you all really expect me to believe all this sh... thing?" Rodney asked, showing John the screen with the Goddess 101 document on it. John took the tablet and gestured for his mate to sit.
John sighed. "The short answer is no; nobody is going to force you to believe."
"Good, because there's nothing..."
"However," John interrupted, "what everyone is going to demand is that you respect their beliefs," John explained, looking at him pointedly.
Rodney frowned. "That means not telling them how stupid it is to believe in a supreme deity?"
"Basically, yes," John grimaced.
Rodney glared at him for a couple of seconds but then his eyes took on a serious look. "Do you believe, John?"
"Yes, Rodney, I do."
"That's what I don't understand!" Rodney exploded, pacing in front of John's desk. "You, Harris, Beckett, Porter... you're people of science, of logic! Hell, even your goons use their heads to think, at least sometimes!"
"Don't compare our beliefs to the ones of the mundane’s churches, Rodney. Unlike them, there's no conflict between science and the Goddess." Rodney snorted despite the hard note in John's voice. "I know you're used to mundane beliefs, Rodney, but ours aren't like theirs. We don't believe in a holy book that has all the truth, or in a punishing God, or in demons who try to drag us to hell. That's not what the Goddess is."
"What is it, then?" He stood with his arms crossed over his chest and a challenging expression in his eyes.
John studied his mate for a long moment, and then got up round his desk and took Rodney's hand. It took him a couple of tries, but finally Rodney let himself be pulled to the balcony. The crystal doors slid open and he guided Rodney to the rail, letting him pass to embrace him gently from behind. The vast expanse of the ocean spread out at their feet and John took a minute to collect his thoughts.
"The easiest way to explain it is that the Goddess is like a mother, who cares and looks after her children but lets them live their lives and discover the world on their own. Her eye," John signaled Atlantis' only moon, barely visible in the clear morning sky, "is not judging us for reward or eternal damnation. My people, our people," he squeezed Rodney's waist in assurance, "finds comfort in thinking she's watching over us, and we want to make her proud. And living and learning is a way to do so, and science is part of it."
Rodney frowned. "But I thought you believed in God too?"
John let out a tired sigh. "For the sake of coexistence with mundanes, we let them believe so, but the truth is a bit more complicated." Rodney threw him a skeptical look over his shoulder. "I'm not a priest or a theologist and, believe me, there had been long, prolonged and convoluted theological discussions about it that go totally over my head." He gave Rodney a knowing smile. "But in the end, we'd always been inclined to believe that they're one and the same."
Rodney frowned. "That sounds like the Two-Eyes Theory in reverse."
"Don't compare them, please," John groaned. "The Two-Eyes Theory is a contorted religious twist the church had to concoct to not lose their influence because the medieval kings were not willing to force us to convert."
"Of course, they weren't!" Rodney snorted. "You left the Roman Empire to fend for themselves when the emperors tried, which was one of the main reasons they were rolled over by the Germanic tribes of those same kings!"
"Exactly!" John grinned while Rodney rolled his eyes. John turned Rodney in his arms. "I'm not going to try to convert you, Rodney. Nor will anyone else. But you need to understand that the Goddess is important to us. She's a part of who we are, of how we define ourselves."
"So, I need to keep my opinions to myself."
John sighed. "Talking about the Goddess is not forbidden, Rodney. You can discuss her and what you believe, but what you can't do is tell people their beliefs are nonsensical rubbish or that they're dim-witted inbred morons for believing," he added, raising an eyebrow pointedly.
Rodney groaned. "I'm not going to win this one, am I?"
"Afraid not," John chuckled, brushing a soft kiss on Rodney's lips.
Rodney huffed in annoyance. "I hope you have good dentists because I don't think my teeth are going to withstand that much grinding!"
John rolled his eyes at his mate's antics. "I'm sure you'll manage," he said dryly.
Bates led them down a set of stone stairs into what looked like a cellar. Apart from the stairs, the only other entrance was a wooden door on the far wall. He took a set of iron keys that hung on a nail on the wall beside it and chose one.
"Please, stay by the door." He told them as he put the key in the lock. "I don't know how he'd be today."
He turned the key and pushed open the door with some difficulty. They saw that the wall was at least 10 cm thick and the door was as thick as well as made of solid wood.
The room was almost as long as the house and about five meters wide. The only illumination came from a narrow window on top of the north wall. A low bed and an upturned square table were the only furniture. Bates sighed when he saw it, before walking right to it and picking up the broken crockery scattered around the floor.
The heap of blankets on the bed moved and was flipped over, revealing the occupant's face. Alvez gasped and took a half-step back in surprise.
"Ricky?" he muttered. "It's him?" he asked Bates.
The short answer made Donovan frown. "Alvez?"
"Sergeant Ricky Medina, Sir." Alvez swallowed and turned to Bates. "With all due respect, Sir, what the hell happened to him?"
Alvez took a couple steps in. It was clearly Medina, but his friend wore little resemblance to the man who had helped them escape The Tower months ago. His olive skin was pale and bumped in places. Short, blunt bone spikes emerged from his cheekbones, chin and eyebrows, not that there was any hair left in those. Red scabbed-over marks spread from his ear to his jawbone and down into the visible part of his neck. A long scar bisected his shaved head from his forehead. Medina turned around, pushing off some blankets before settling down again. The head scar ran down his spine as far as they could see, and the same blunt bone spikes emerged at random intervals, with more red marks spread over his ribcage.
"It goes all the way down the whole spine," Bates said, his lips pressed in a thin line.
"Holy Goddess!" Donovan muttered.
The muscles on Medina’s shoulders and upper back looked abnormally developed. The skin stretched over them, revealing the exact form of each bundle. The anomaly spread over the trapezius muscle down his back, but it didn't reach the dorsal muscles, which just looked toned.
"The muscles on his back, is it just me or...?" Alvez asked.
"No, it's not you." Bates said.
On the bed, Medina made a distressed sound, and Bates pushed them out the room. He locked the door and went back up to the kitchen, throwing the broken crockery in the trash.
"Sit down and explain, Sergeant," Donovan ordered quietly, while he and Alvez took seats at the table.
Bates sat down stiffly, with his hands crossed on the table, and took a couple of deep breaths. "Two months after you escaped, Keller discovered Medina and Zelenka were Potentials. I don't know how," he added as Donovan frowned, "but she did and was... too gleeful about it. Weir declared Zelenka mission essential. Despite everything, he's the best expert in Ancient technology she has, and she knows it. Medina however, was just a... dumb grunt," he spat the words, "and Keller was given free reign with him."
"And Colonel Sumner said nothing?" Donovan asked.
"The Colonel... isn't the man he once was."
"She still has him pussywhipped?" Alvez blurted. "Sorry, Sirs," he apologized. Donovan waved it away.
"Yes," Bates gave him a hint of a smile, "but that's not all." He stood up, served himself a glass of water and leaned against the counter as he took a long gulp. "I suppose you've heard about the Mad Tau'ri?" he asked Alvez.
"Just scuttlebutt," the Lance Corporal answered. "That they're unpredictable, violent, way too strong..."
"A good description." Bates left the glass on the counter. "It started four weeks after that. A recon team found a lone Wraith on an uninhabited planet. They disposed of it, but not before he injected Lieutenant Ford with an overdose of some enzyme. Shortly after, he started showing enhanced strength, speed and stamina. Keller analyzed the enzyme and deduced it was used to strengthen the body and that they probably use it to keep their victims alive while they feed, so they don't die immediately from the shock." Bates looked away for a moment before continuing. "Things were already a clusterfuck, but then they started to go FUBAR at light-speed."
Donovan narrowed his eyes. "I believe Markham said something about seeing Summer punch a hole through a solid brick pillar?"
Bates nodded. "Yes, that's the enzyme. But it comes with a price. When taken regularly, it also impairs judgment and heightens aggression."
"And I assume Sumner is using it?"
"He volunteered, Sir."
"The mission commander volunteered?" Donovan asked with incredulity. "Why he would do something so stupid and reckless?"
"I can only give you my opinion on that, Sir." Bates answered and Donovan motioned him to continue. "Due to all the things he said on those earlier days, my bet is envy, Sir. I think it's where his dislike of Bloodfires comes from. He made it quite clear that he envies your Gifts, those of Warriors especially, and resents you for having them. He also mentioned something about a cousin of his being a Nascent, and his opinion of him was not... positive."
"He called him an 'unworthy asshole', Sir."
"Marvelous," Donovan groaned. "And I suppose he saw the enzyme as a way to get his own gifts." He sighed and let himself fall against the chair. "Continue, Sergeant. And sit down, please."
Bates took his glass and complied. "Well, I don't know exactly what Keller did, but at some point, she decided to use the enzyme to try to kickstart Ricky's Firing. She was only partially successful. You've seen the results." Bates’ eyes narrowed when Donovan and Alvez shared a quick sharp look, but Donovan urged him to continue. "Weir wanted him on the field. She called him her 'war hound'," Bates spat, “So he went out on a few missions, until he went MIA. I still don't know if he escaped or just got lost. His bouts of lucidity don't last that long." He sipped his water, trying to calm himself. "Anyway, Weir wanted him back, and Sumner sent out searching parties. Fortunately for Medina, the ones who located him were men of this base, and we smuggled him in without the gate guards noticing. They're loyal to Sumner," he added at Donovan's questioning frown. "Since then, we've kept him as comfortable as possible. A friend from medical smuggles us some drugs that help him, but that's all we can do for him." Bates looked down for a few moments before looking back at Donovan. "I hope your Healers on the Daedalus have more luck, Sir."
Donovan crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes, staring intently at Bates. Alvez's gaze ping-ponged between them while the tension grew for several minutes, until Donovan finally relaxed against the chair.
"I don't think they'd be able to do much in the Daedalus, but it's probable they could help him in Atlantis."
Bates almost jumped off the chair. "Atlantis? The city let you stay?"
"Do you remember that Rhea bloodline thing, Sir?" Alvez asked and Bates nodded. "Colonel Sheppard has it."
"And that made him Praetor of the city." Donovan let him see a hint of a smile. "For all intents and purposes, Atlantis is ours."
Major Lorne clicked on the tablet and displayed a new document, passing the tablet to his CO.
"You have to sign these too."
Colonel Sheppard groaned. "Can't you just forge it for me?" Lorne raised an eyebrow and looked at him pointedly. "Of course not," he sighed and started to read it. "How many more do we still have to go through?"
"A few, Sir."
"I can hear your smirk, Major!"
"Sorry, Sir," Lorne smiled, which only made Sheppard huff and mutter a few curses under his breath.
"Haven't I signed something about munitions already?" Sheppard frowned.
"That was for the standard weaponry, Sir. This is for the Bloodfire-only equipment."
Sheppard groaned again. "One day these Washington paper-pushers are going to make us count how many times we breathe and how much air we use!"
"Don't give them ideas, Sir," Lorne grinned.
Sheppard glared at him but, before he could reply, strong feelings of anxiety and angst flooded into his mind from his bond with Rodney. The table creaked as he grabbed it to ground himself while he tried to contain the flow of feelings coming from his mate. He felt Evan's hand on his shoulder a moment before his Beta's cool, calm mind slipped through the Pride's empathic bond to provide support. Kate's warm touch flowed into his mind seconds later and, with their help, he was able to contain Rodney's feeling to the back of his mind, where he could feel them but they didn't overwhelm him. As his breathing calmed, Kate and Evan retreated to the usual background of the Pride's bond.
"Go to him," Evan said before he could talk. John nodded in thanks and ran from his office.
John ran through the city's hallways following Lania's map on his mind with Rodney's location. The people he passed by never really registered. He'd apologize later if he pushed or knocked down anybody. He found Rodney in one of the engineering labs, huddled up in a corner and covering his head with his arms. Alison and Nick had pushed all mundanes out and were standing guard on the door, trying to block the sight of Rodney from the curious eyes of the mundane scientists. They parted silently to let him pass and the door closed and locked behind him. He wasn't sure who did it and he didn't care. John immediately sat next to Rodney, taking him into his arms and projecting love and comfort through their fledgling bond. Rodney crawled into his lap, burying his head on John's shoulder. John softly caressed his hair, laying soft kisses of whatever part of his face he could, and waited for Rodney to be ready to talk.
"How can you stand it?" Rodney muttered against John's skin. "The numbers..."
John sighed. "Sorry, I should..."
"They're everywhere! Everywhere! I can't even look at a wall without seeing its height, width, area, angles... I can't even think!" Rodney growled while trying to burrow closer to John. "Tell me how I can switch it off, please..."
"You can't," John’s answer got a pained whine from his mate. "Gifts don't work like that. But you can learn to control it. Push it into the background and ignore it when you don't need it. I'll teach you how."
"You need to calm down first, Rodney," John kept caressing his mate while pushing loving, calming feelings onto their bond. Rodney seemed to gradually relax into his arms. "I'm here, Rodney. I'll take care of you, I swear."
Staff Sergeant Dean Bates knew there was some strange irony in the fact that the first planet he saw from space was the Alpha Site. Except for the arrangement of the landmasses, it wasn't that different from the famous "blue marble" images of Earth, but the contradictory feelings it brought up inside him were completely different from the silent marvel those evoked. He slowly traced the form of the main continent on the glass. It wasn't a dream. Earth had come for them and Weir was going to have to answer for her actions.
The door slid open behind him and Bates turned swiftly, throwing a sharp salute when he recognized Colonel Caldwell.
"At ease, Sergeant," Caldwell said after returning the salute. “Please, sit" he gestured at the chairs around the conference table. He took the seat at the head, while Donovan and Alvez sat at the Colonel's left, in front of Bates. "Lieutenant Donovan and Lance Corporal Alvez had informed me of their discoveries down there but I'm going to need some more information from you."
"Whatever you need, Sir."
"The people on the Alpha Site. How much can we trust them?"
Bates took a moment to answer. "Weir and Sumner had been using the Alpha Site as a dumping ground for not only people they consider difficult, but also as a punishment."
Caldwell frowned at that. "How so?"
"The Alpha Site is a sort of prison, in a way. The guards on the gate are men loyal to Sumner, so we can't gate out without an approved reason. We also depend on them and the few alliances they've made for survival, due to the reputation they've given the Tau'ri in this galaxy. So the ones who aren't willing to blindly follow them are dumped there, to hunt laphs and do the grunt of the trading work. And for those who misbehave, it becomes a punishment."
"And for which reason were you sent there, Sergeant?" Caldwell asked.
"I refused to take the Wraith enzyme, Sir. Colonel Sumner told me he was disappointed with me."
Caldwell frowned. "You're the ranking NCO for the expedition."
"I was, Sir. Colonel Sumner field promoted Sergeant Barroso to take my place and assigned me to the Alpha Site."
Caldwell shook his head sadly. "You've still not answered my original question, Sergeant."
"Currently, there are 63 people on the Alpha Site, not counting Medina. 29 are military and 31 are civilians. Of the first, eight guard the gate in four two-person shifts and they're enzyme users. They shift every two weeks and the new shift came yesterday. Overall, I completely trust 23. Most of them have been here from the start. There are another seven I believe can be trusted, but I'm not completely sure yet. Another 13 were sent here as punishment and most of them probably would do anything to return to the Tower."
"Most of them?"
"It wouldn't be the first time someone got himself exiled to escape the Tower." Bates shrugged. "It hasn’t happened often, but there have been a few cases."
"Interesting," Caldwell noted while he wrote on his notepad. "Continue, Sergeant."
"Of those, three are enzyme users on full-on withdrawal and currently under guard. The remaining 11, I'm just not sure."
Caldwell scribbled quickly before raising his head. "So, the Expedition left Earth with a complement of 185. Minus the three Bloodfires who had left, the 14 lost to the Wraith, the 23 you trust plus Medina and yourself, we have 143 hostiles left?"
Bates negated with his head. "No, Sir. Last word I've heard, the number of KIA was 27, 18 military and nine civilians. Also Drs. Zelenka and Cole are still under guard, but my information is probably out of date. And we also have a few allies within."
"So, about 127 hostiles then."
"Plus the aliens."
"Aliens?" Caldwell sat straighter. "Which aliens, Sergeant?"
"There are a dozen or so who joined them for the Wraith enzyme, but the ones you really need to look out for are those who call themselves the Travelers."
Alvez's brows shot up. "Since when did Weir like aliens?" Caldwell threw him a glare. "I'm sorry, Sir," he apologized, wheeling his chair closer to Donovan’s.
"I'd like to know that too," Caldwell told Bates. "Sergeant Markham and Lance Corporal Alvez's debriefing gave me the impression that she doesn't think highly of the Pegasus natives. What makes these Travelers special?"
"They have spaceships, Sir."
"Spaceships?? Are you sure about that?"
"Yes, Sir. It's how they evade the Wraith. They live on their ships and move around constantly."
"Do you know the capabilities of those ships?"
"Their fleet is... eclectic, Sir. I've heard they salvage anything that flies. I can only tell you about those who've used the Alpha Base for refueling and a few rumors from The Tower."
"Better than nothing. You'll debrief Captain Kleinman after we finish here."
"Are any of those ships scheduled?"
"No, Sir, but they often appear unscheduled."
Colonel Caldwell clicked his radio. "Hermiod, we may have hostile ships coming, type unknown."
"I do not see anything in the long-range sensors, Colonel, but I will keep watch," the Asgard answered and the radio clicked off.
"Do they have any other alien allies?" Caldwell asked.
"As far as I know, apart from the enzyme addicts, there are only other two aliens living in The Tower."
"Who are they, Sergeant?"
"Dr. Kavanagh's wife and her son, Sir."
The Stargate activation alarm sounded mid-afternoon. Sheppard walked quickly out of his glass-walled office as the wormhole established.
"It's Lieutenant Donovan's IDC, Sir."
"Drop the shield."
"Yes, Sir," Campbell replied as he pressed the button. Alvez and Donovan walked in, the latter carrying a big man asleep in his arms. As Sheppard zoomed in with his Sentinel sight, he activated his radio.
"Medical to the gate room!"
"What's the emergency, Colonel?" Beckett replied.
"I'm not really sure Doc, but it doesn't look good," Sheppard explained as he trotted down the stairs.
"I'm on my way."
The gate disengaged as Sheppard joined his returning men. A quick sense scan told him they were unharmed. The man in Donovan's arms, however, was another matter.
"He smells almost like us but... wrong at the same time," he frowned. "Who is he?"
"Sergeant Ricky Medina, Sir," Alvez answered.
Sheppard's eyebrows shot up. "And what the hell happened to him?"
"Dr. Keller, Sir," Donovan said.
"I hope you have a better answer than that, Lieutenant," Becket admonished as he hurried into the gate room. "Holy Mother!" He turned to one of his nurses. "Take him to the infirmary and run a full set of scans, now! And you," he added, whirling back to Donovan and Alvez, "start explaining!"
The conference room was quiet after Donovan and Alvez finished their debriefing. Becket had left as soon as he knew the source of Medina's illness, cursing Keller to seven hells and back. Sheppard gritted his teeth as he tried to keep his claws from carving grooves into the table. Lorne had discarded his jacket ten minutes ago, as the ire made it difficult for him to keep his bone spikes sheltered.
"Major Teldy, I want a plan for taking over the Alpha Site. And I want it before tonight's Induction Ceremony." Sheppard didn't raise his voice, but it was hard as steel.
"Yes, Sir!" Teldy's red Arachne eyes looked like they would burst in flames at any moment and her black claws scraped the metal of the chair as she got up. "Donovan, Alvez, with me!" She gave both Sheppard and Lorne a brisk nod and walked out the room without looking back to check if they followed her. Donovan and Alvez looked briefly at Sheppard, who gestured at them to go, and they rushed to catch up with her. The door slid closed after them.
Silence reigned for a long minute. "We need to tell them, John. They should know it if we're going after her."
"I know, Evan," John sighed with resignation. "But not tonight. Tomorrow is soon enough. I don't want anything tainting Rodney's ceremony."
"Yeah, he deserves it. I'm going to set up a gathering after breakfast, if that's ok?" John nodded in agreement and Evan squeezed his Alpha's shoulder in silent comfort. John threw him a grateful smile.
After he left, John stayed seated for a while, trying to ignore the way his Foreboding screamed. He didn't need his Gift to see how their elders’ mistake so many years ago was coming back to bite them in the ass.
The circular greenhouse garden had been their best discovery in Atlantis and was also the only one they haven't shared with the rest of the expedition. It helped that it was inside the tower they've formally claimed as Pride land. According to Lania, another garden existed elsewhere on Atlantis but unlike this one, it hadn't been kept in stasis and they currently lacked the energy to revive it. The Pride needed a place like this, and it was the reason they decided to keep quiet about it.
The garden was organized around a central lake, deep enough to swim in. A myriad of different kinds of trees, plants and flowers filled the space, carefully laid out, creating walking paths. Three-quarters of the wall surface was covered with an unbroken sheet of crystal capable of resisting most types of weapons, which Rodney immediately had added to the ever-growing list of things he wanted to grill Lania about.
The Pride was reunited in the garden under the light of the full moon, wearing simple short white tunics. John smacked Rodney's hand when he tried again to pull the edge lower. His mate had blushed when John presented it to him after the ritual bath and John had to shield to not let slip how damn cute he looked. He wouldn't have heard the end of that in time for the ceremony.
They were arranged around the shore of the lake closest to the outside wall, in a roughly balanced half-circle that extended at both sides of John and Rodney. Even Marcus had insisted on coming, and was sitting in a hoverchair provided by Lania, with Jason at his side and Ariel keeping his vitals stable.
Behind the circle, small lamps burned several kinds of incense that scented the air: lavender, for calmness; cedar, for success; and sandalwood, for serenity and purification.
As Priestess of the Goddess, Kate stood in front of them, a shallow silver bowl and an athame with a moonstone handle on her hands. Everyone else held unlit small white candles. Carson came forward and unlocked the clasps that held Kate's tunic. It fell soundlessly to the ground and she walked into the lake until she reached the place where the moon reflected on the water.
"Blessed Goddess, we stand upon your full gaze in your most sacred night." She took the athame in her right hand and turned in a circle, cutting the water following the shape of the reflected moon. "Join me, my brothers and sisters."
One after the other, the Pride members undid their tunics. She sprinkled the water from the athame to her right, and the people from that side waded into the water. She repeated the action in the remaining three directions until everyone was in the water and had arranged themselves into a circle around her. Only John and Rodney were left.
"You didn't tell me there was going to be nudity!" Rodney hissed in John's ear, trying very hard no to look at anybody.
"We gather here today under the full moon to welcome a new brother into the Blood." Kate looked at John. "Who presents him to us?"
"I do," John answered.
"Who are you?"
"I'm John Sheppard, born out of Athenais Stetson by Patrick Sheppard. I'm Prime of the Northeast Clan by right of blood and Alpha of this Pride by my pridemates' will."
"The Goddess knows you, John Sheppard of Northeast. Who do you present?"
"I present my True Mate, Meredith Rodney McKay," Rodney threw him a glare at the mention of his full name and John squeezed his hand without looking, "born out of Jessica Adams by Douglas McKay, begotten outside the Blood but Blessed with the soul of one of the Goddess' children." Rodney gave a small snort at that, and John squeezed his hand harder in warning.
Inside the lake, Kate made a new cut in the water in front of her and towards John and Rodney, creating a ripple in the water.
"You both may come."
John let his tunic fall and looked at his mate, who was blushing furiously.
"Hey, Rodney," he said, blocking his view of the rest of the Pride. "Ready?"
"What do you think?” Rodney hissed. “You should've warned me!"
"You know casual nudity is not a problem among Bloodfires."
"But I didn't know it was going to be so soon! I thought I'd have more time to... to… get used to the idea!"
John chuckled softly. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Rodney." He undid the clasps of Rodney's tunic and pulled it down despite his mate's best efforts to keep it on. John took his face into his hands and kissed him softly, distracting him enough for John to take his hands and pull him to the lake.
"Damn! It's cold!" Rodney complained, but John just smiled and kept walking backwards, following the symbolic line created by Kate's athame, but keeping his eyes on Rodney's. His mate seemed to relax a bit once his private parts were covered by the water and John turned around, pulling him into their place in the middle of the circle in front of Kate. She sprinkled water at the way they've come, as if to close the path she'd created. She then nodded at Laura, who used her Vulcan Gift to light the candle on her hand and then used it to light Nick's, who stood at her right. Following the circle, the flame passed to one another, lighting their candles until it finally reached Niall standing at Laura's left. The circle of candle flames enveloped Kate, John and Rodney with its golden glow and the sweet aroma of vanilla, bringer of friendship.
"Meredith Rodney McKay, do you stand before us tonight out of your own free will?" Kate asked, and Rodney noticed she left out the part of standing before the Goddess the book had mentioned. John had explained the ritual would be adapted for him to be able to make all promises in good faith, since they were legally binding, but he'd been nervous about what form it would take.
"Yes, I do," he answered, relieved to be able to do so sincerely.
"Have you chosen by your own free will to become part of the Blood?"
"Yes, I have."
"If someone knows a just cause why Meredith Rodney McKay cannot lawfully be part of the Blood, speak now under the Goddess' gaze or forever hold your peace."
Kate placed the athame over the silver bowl, in a way that the pointed end hovered over its center. She held it towards John, who pierced his thumb with the athame’s pointed end and let a few drops fall into the bowl until his Healing closed the wound.
"Accepted he is," he ritually said.
She then turned to Evan as John's Beta, who also pricked his thumb and watched as the blood drops fell.
"Accepted he is."
Kate kept turning right and everyone on the circle repeated the ritual. Teldy, as John's Gamma, closed the circle.
"Accepted he is."
Kate returned to her original position and pierced her own thumb, allowing several drops to fall.
"Accepted he is." She took the bowl back in both hands. "So shall it be remembered that no just cause was raised!" Rodney seemed to relax at the declaration.
"Remembered it will be!" the Pride members acknowledged.
Kate placed the athame under the silver bowl and raised both to eye-level. "To be a member of the Blood is to share happiness and sorrow. It is to smile at our Bloodmates' joy, and weep at their pain. It is to walk beside them through light and darkness. It is to share the delight of success and be there when trouble calls. It is to hold onto your oath no matter the stakes upon you. It is to know that they'll be at your side to hold you strong through the storm. It is the highest gift and the greatest responsibility. It is a promise that no force and no being can break." She lowered the bowl to look directly into Rodney's eyes. "Meredith Rodney McKay, do you honestly and without encumbrance or doubt in your mind and soul pledge yourself to the Blood, and vow by your honor and volition to follow our laws and customs in the foremost way possible?" Once again, Kate left out the part about pledging himself to the Goddess and Rodney was grateful for it. This was a promise he could make.
"I, Rod..." John smacked Rodney's arm, "Meredith Rodney McKay," he amended, giving his mate a quick side glare, "pledge myself to the Blood by my honor and free will, and swear to follow the Blood's law and customs from this moment on."
Kate took a step towards Rodney, mixed the blood in the bowl with her right index finger and took some with it, drawing a vertical line with a left hook on top from Rodney's brow to the end of his nose and two rising curves on each cheekbone: a very simplified form of the Bloodfire's phoenix symbol. "Let it be known that, from this moment on, Meredith Rodney McKay is one of the Blood!"
"Known it will be!" The Pride confirmed.
Kate took a bit more blood and, raising her finger to Rodney's forehead, she drew a round circle with two half-moons on each side, their backs to each other: The Goddess’ triple moon symbol.
"Let it be known that Meredith Rodney McKay is known to the Goddess!" Kate said.
"Known it will be!"
Rodney felt a shiver going through him. He was a bit uncomfortable with that step, but John had explained how important it was to his new Bloodmates that he be known to the Goddess, even if he didn't personally believe, so he kept his objections to himself.
Kate nicked Rodney's thumb with the athame, mixing his blood with the drops remaining on the bowl and softly lowered the bowl to the water, letting it go. The bowl floated alone for several seconds and she smiled, taking it in her hands again. The introduction book explained an old legend that said the bowl would sink down if the Goddess rejected him, but Rodney was simply too nervous to roll his eyes at it.
Kate once again collected the blood with her finger and drew a five-point asterisk over his mouth and chin, and then over her own: a simplified form of the five-pointed star that symbolized Bloodfire's unity, each point representing one of the five original clan bloodlines.
"Your friends are our friends, your enemies are our enemies," everyone repeated the wow alongside Kate. "So shall we share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness. So shall you never be alone as long as there is still one of us walking the world!"
Kate laid her right hand over his heart. Rodney inhaled deeply and repeated the words. "Your friends are my friends; your enemies are my enemies. I will share happiness and sorrow, success and troubles, light and darkness. So shall none of you be alone as long as I walk the world!"
As he finished his vow, he felt a soft push into his mind from Kate’s Gift. The Pride's empathic bond bloomed at the same time a strong wave of happiness and love flowed into him from John. He could feel it though their primary bond but also some of it flowed over the Pride's bond, alongside the feelings of sincere friendship, camaraderie, welcome and acceptance coming from everyone else. A tear fell down his cheek as John embraced him from behind.
For the first time in his life, he'd found a place to belong.