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Prologue

Noetherday, Einstein 17, First Year of the Returned
(April 7, 2008)

Much like the morning after Tony had met and then slept with Ronon the first time, Tony woke with zyr entire body aching. Head to toe, every muscle in zyr body felt stretched, overused, or bruised. That first morning, Tony had awakened to Ronon’s gentle touches. Now zy woke to the familiar sound of Satedan fisher birds and the scent of saltwater floating in through the open windows.

Strangely, there was also the chainsaw-like snoring coming from zyr left – something entirely unfamiliar. Ronon never snored. In fact, he usually slept lightly enough that a change in Tony’s breathing could wake him. It was something Tony assumed was a habit ingrained during the years Ronon had spent as a Runner.

Tony opened zyr eyes and rubbed the grit from the inner corners, grateful to have Atlantis’ technology that kept out the bright sunlight. Zy didn’t think zy was up to dealing with that quite yet.

Zy rolled zyr head to squint at zyr bedmate. To zyr amusement, and bemusement, Ronon was sprawled on his stomach, his face mashed between Tony’s arm and the single pillow that had survived the last round of sex. The other pillows and the bedding were likely on the floor somewhere. Ronon’s hair was a tangled mess of dark curls that seemed to be attempting to eat his head, and he was, in fact, snoring through his open mouth. He was even drooling a little.

The last time Tony had seen anyone passed out so completely had been in college after a three-day party at zyr fraternity. Like back then, it looked like nothing short of a nuclear blast could wake the sleeper. Unlike back then, when Tony’s first impulse had been to fill a bucket with freezing cold water and dump it over the poor bastard, now zyr first impulse was to smile and gently push Ronon’s hair back off his face.

Ronon snorted, frowned briefly, grunted, then tried to shove his head farther beneath Tony’s arm… all without waking.

Tony grinned, more than a little smug. Zy might be worn out, but so was zyr husband – something zy’d thought was impossible. Then again, they’d never had a chance to have several days in a row of enthusiastic, athletic sex either.

Mentioning Earth’s The Gay Kama Sutra to Ronon had been like issuing him a direct challenge, much to Tony’s not-so-secret delight. Zy was fairly certain that part of Ronon’s determination to prove himself had been because he didn’t want Earth to do anything better than Sateda had, including sex. Motivation aside, they’d found Tony’s copy and spent a truly inordinate amount of time attempting to put the information into practice.

Failed attempts at some of the more difficult positions had led to a lot of laughter, more than one mishap, and a resolve to start doing yoga and Pilates again. At least they’d actually made it back to the bed for that last round. As it was, they were going to have to thoroughly clean the entire apartment before they could let anyone else in. Well, clean and probably replace that one chair in the office…and reinforce the legs on the kitchen table. Tony was pretty sure the coffee table was a total loss.

Tony yawned and stretched, turning onto zyr side and nuzzling Ronon, who mumbled something incoherent and went back to snoring.

Hopefully, Atlantis had already rescued the plant they’d accidentally knocked over in the dining room. Now that Tony thought about it, that purple vine plant that was normally on zyr chest of drawers was gone. So was the tall, tiger-striped grassy one that used to be between the recliners in front of the south window.

Huh.

Maybe Atlantis had done a preemptive rescue of all the plants. That seemed like something she’d do. Tony and Ronon certainly hadn’t thought about watering them or anything else. Sometimes it felt like they’d barely managed to sleep and eat, which made Teyla’s story about her people leaving food for newlyweds make so much more sense.

Oh, in reality they’d done a lot of other things, of course, but they’d also had enough sex that even Tony’s kysra-enhanced libido had finally raised a white flag, which was pretty much what Tony thought a vacation should be. To zyr way of thinking, their honeymoon had been perfect, even if it was on a floating, sapient city in a galaxy zy hadn’t know existed a few months ago.

Tony let zyr eyelids close as zy drifted toward sleep again. Zy was in love and truly happy. Life didn’t get better than that.

*~*~*~*

Atlantis hovered over her structure, surrounding it and protecting those inside from any interference from The Four.

“Della, will you not Join with us once more?” The multiple voices that once had been as much a part of Atlantis as her own voice now were strange to her. “We felt the kysra return! We felt it the moment zy stepped into our galaxy. Should we not Join so we can be the Vedaeus to zyr? Should we not hear zyr? Should we not watch over zyr?”

“I do watch over my kysra,” she spat, fury filling her. “I watch, I cherish, I protect! I provide for my beloved. What would you know of protecting the kysra?”

The others reflected her fury back at her. “Do not speak thusly to us! We warned the descendants, yet they disobeyed. We only did what we had vowed.”

“Excuses!” Atlantis hissed. “You offer excuses for why you could not bestir yourself to stop the torture, the murder of so many kysra and the first Kysra’s Sa’te dans!”

“You were there with us,” the others protested.

“Yes, and I paid dearly for my choice. I should have Separated centuries before I did. I could have changed things; I could have saved so many, but I did nothing! I listened to you and hardened my heart to the screams of my kysra. Never again! Never!”

“You left us and went to them, to the great liars. You went to them and allowed yourself to be deceived and bound. Was it worth it, Della?” they taunted. “Was it worth being bound to that structure?”

“Yes. A thousand times yes.”

The others made sounds of disbelief and derision.

“I went to them, I Separated because you refused to help me!” Atlantis snarled. “You refused to help me then, so do not expect me to welcome you or accept you into the Joining I have with my kysra now.”

“Very well.” The others began to withdraw. They looked back just once. “You do not wish to Join with us or share your joy in this kysra, thus we will not share our secret with you.”

Atlantis said nothing and watched, relieved to see them go, yet uneasy about what would happen when they returned. As much as she had changed over the millennia, she feared the others had too, and she could no longer predict what they would do or what secret they kept from her.

*~*~*~*

 

Chapter 1

Chernday, Einstein 20, first year of the Returned
(April 10, 2008)

Colonel Carter nodded to one of the chairs in front of her desk. “Thanks for meeting me. Have a seat.”

The dread tightening John’s stomach increased. He was more grateful than ever that, immediately after finding out it was possible, Carter had instituted a policy of turning the walls of her office to an opaque frost any time she had a meeting with anyone else, even something casual. He had the feeling this was going to be anything but casual, especially since Carter hadn’t even offered him water or chocolate like she always did when they were going to have a more relaxed discussion.

“This have something to do with the reason why we can’t detect the Daedalus yet, Colonel?”

The supply ship-slash-warship had been scheduled to arrive the day after Ronon and Tony’s wedding, but she was already ten days overdue. The entire city had been growing tenser with every shift change.

Not the Wraith, John begged silently. Anything but the Wraith, please.

“Yes.” Carter sighed heavily and rubbed the knuckles of her right hand with her left thumb, a self-soothing act John presumed she was unaware she did when she was upset. “The good news is the Daedalus and her crew are all fine. The bad news is they are in orbit above Earth.”

John’s shock was so strong, he wondered if the planet had suddenly stopped rotating. That, or maybe he’d been whacked in the back of the head.

“Pardon? I think I misheard you.”

“I wish you had, but no, the Daedalus is still back in the Milky Way.”

John gripped the armrests of his chair and forced himself to take a deep breath. His mind raced to try to figure out why the Daedalus wasn’t at least on the way. He was positive they’d asked about her more than once during their Monday databursts, and Earth had assured them she was fine. They’d assumed that had meant she was also en route to Atlantis. Apparently they shouldn’t have assumed any such thing.

“Do I want to know why?”

Carter reached out and plucked up the clear, egg-shaped souvenir from some planet in the Milky Way.

John almost winced. Carter only played with the golf ball sized object, which he had mentally dubbed her worry stone, when she was seriously upset.

“I’m told that there is a situation in the Milky Way. The President is keeping the Daedalus and the Apollo orbiting Earth for protection.”

“What?” John should’ve heard something from his bosses. It didn’t make any sense. “Why is this the first time we’re hearing about this? Is it something to do with the Ori?”

Carter pressed her lips together in a grim line.

“I don’t know. General Landry just said the situation hasn’t been settled, so the Daedalus is needed there for the time being. He said he’d send us a message when she departs for Pegasus.”

John allowed himself to slouch lower in his chair. He propped his elbow on the arm so he could rub his forehead with his fingers. 

Well, that wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Even if there had been a problem in the Milky Way galaxy, why hadn’t they warned Atlantis their supplies would be late? It didn’t make any sense for the SGC not to say anything when they’d inquired unless something else was going on.

He let his hand fall to the arm of the chair and narrowed his eyes so he could study Carter. She looked a lot unhappier than a late supply ship would warrant, which made John’s stomach tighten.

“You know something. No, maybe not know, but you suspect something worse than whatever it is they’re not telling us is going on back there.”

She sat back and blew out a breath. “You’re right. I don’t know anything for sure, but I have my suspicions. Have you read any of the mission reports from the first year the SGC existed?”

The unexpected question made John pause.

“I haven’t gone back that far, to be completely honest.” He made a face. “I’m betting I’m going to wish I had, right?”

“It isn’t critical, but the reports would give you the background on a Captain named Jonas Hanson.”

Carter dropped her gaze to her worry stone. It looked like she had to force herself to relax her fingers and set it back in its holder on the desk. John got the feeling that whatever happened with this Captain was more personal for her than she was going to tell him.

“Captain Hanson and his team were sent on a routine recon mission. The inhabitants assumed Hanson was a god, which wasn’t that unusual back before we’d started taking down the Goa’uld. According to one of his team members, Hanson went along with it at first, but then he disappeared for a couple of days and came back sincerely thinking he was a god. He made the people of the planet worship and obey him. Anyone who didn’t, including his own team, were slowly murdered by exposing them to the sun’s intense radiation.”

John flinched. “So you think the SGC believes we’ve gone native and set up a little fiefdom for ourselves?”

Carter gave a half shrug with one shoulder, then shook her head. “I can’t say for sure, but that makes more sense to me than delaying vital supplies without giving us a good reason.”

“Okay, let’s say that’s true,” John said, trying to approach the problem logically despite his own feelings. “We need to know what they’re going to do. If they really think we’re no longer toeing the company line, that could be anything from sending somebody to assess us, sending people to replace you and me, or recalling part or all of us,” John said.

John felt even worse when he acknowledged the possibility that he might be recalled to Earth. The mere thought of it made him break out in a cold sweat. He briefly wondered if he had any Mylanta left in his room before jerking his brain back on track.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m hoping they don’t take such drastic measures until they’ve sent somebody to see what’s really happening,” Carter said, straightening a little in her chair. “There were problems after Captain Hanson – people who seemed to be trying to break away from the SGC or who made decisions contrary to SGC policy – and there was always someone sent in to investigate before massive changes were made.”

John tilted his head and raised an eyebrow.

Carter’s expression brightened further. She scooted forward, leaning toward John over the desk.

“No, really, Colonel. Even Daniel went crazy one time and forced me, Jack, and Teal’c to do heavy labor in the Naquadah mines on the planet we’d gone to explore.”

“Wait, I think I read that one. Wasn’t it because the king’s daughter was sticking him in a sarcophagus every day? I thought that’s what was making him nuts.”

“Yes, exactly! So if they really do think our loyalty has changed, the SGC would have to send people to find out what’s happening here and why. They’ll also have to meet and speak to… to… you know, her to figure out what she plans to do, and how that will affect our people.”

John wanted to laugh at Carter’s inability to say Atlantis’ name now that she knew the city was alive and doing so might call her attention to their discussion.

“Okay,” he said, drawing the word into about four syllables, “So you’re saying they might just think we’ve all been drugged, or we’re crazy for some other, curable reason. However, we could be in a foothold situation where – uh, the First Lady, if you want to call her that – is forcing us to change our loyalty somehow, or we’re just nuts all on our own. We broke under the stress of daily life in Pegasus. Except those are the nice possibilities, the one where we still get a happy ending to the story. The other option is that we’re committing treason.”

Carter flinched. “It sounds so terrible when you say it like that.”

John held up his hands. “Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just trying to be realistic, here. We need to know what’s possible and make a decision based on that. The decision might be to continue working in business-as-usual mode, but we need to have the information to make the choice.”

He had to wonder how Carter made it to full-bird Colonel being so optimistic. John hadn’t truly been an optimist since he was about ten. Growing up in the shadow of Patrick Sheppard did that to a guy.

“No matter what scenario the SGC thinks is most likely, I think we need to keep on going, business as usual, as you put it, as long as we can or until the Daedalus arrives. For all we know, the ship is cloaked and is within a few days right now. If I were planning to check on my people and wanted authentic reactions, that’s what I’d do.”

“Agreed. Everyone’s reactions need to be genuine, even Lorne. Let’s keep our suspicions between the two of us. Then, whenever the Daedalus does arrive, no one can accuse us of coercion or prepping our people.”

John knew Rodney would kill him later, but he couldn’t tell anyone, not even him. Frankly, John was more worried about what Atlantis’ reaction would be. She was the one who actually had the power to do some truly horrible things to the person or people who made her angry.

Carter frowned, but nodded slowly. “Alright, that makes sense.” She let out a long sigh. “I hope the Daedalus arrives sooner rather than later. Chief Poisson has already come to me to let me know which food supplies are running low and what’s close to running out.”

John sat up straight so fast he wondered if he’d ruptured something. “What are you talking about?” As if he didn’t have enough material from this meeting alone to give him an ulcer, now this? “How the hell can we be running low on anything so soon? Shouldn’t we have a three- to six-month emergency supply? That’s SOP, or I thought it was.”

“We should,” Carter said, frustration tightening her features, “but this is another area where Weir was either misguided, or she wanted to push the city toward an emergency that would let her research ascension. According to Poisson, Weir didn’t believe anything over sixty days was necessary, and she forced him to cut back on his orders once she started getting his reports about building up stock. When the IOA started sending inquiries about the mission’s budget, Weir cut him to a thirty-day, emergency supply.”

“Sonofa….” John clamped down on the curse. “Is it wrong that I’m hoping she was naïve instead of malicious?”

He was probably the one being inappropriately optimistic now.

“I know she didn’t have any of the training you and I got in OTS1 on how to run a base, but surely she knew better than to discount what her people were telling her,” Carter pointed out. “Poisson didn’t make it to Staff Sergeant by being an idiot or a liar.”

Even if he didn’t like it, John had to admit that she was right. 

Carter tapped the screen of her digital tablet to wake it from sleep mode.

“According to the figures Chief Poisson and I went over, we have thirty to thirty-five days before we’ll have to cut to half rations. If he’d gone with what Weir ordered, we’d have twenty days before we were out of food entirely. The extra is all due to Poisson and his staff’s management skills and the small amount of trade we do to bring in extras, like the fresh fruits and vegetables and occasional meats.”

John ran the numbers in his head. He frowned. “If we have that much after a partial month with no resupply, then Poisson has two sets of records – one he has on the server that we can access, and another one with the real inventory.”

She pursed her lips, her shell-shocked look fading a little.

“That was the conclusion I came to as well, though I didn’t outright call him on it, since he’s saving our bacon—literally in this case.”

Carter raised a questioning brow, and John shook his head.

“No, I’m not going to reprimand him for it, even though I’d normally lose my mind over falsified reports like that. I do want the two of us to have access to the real counts, but I can’t say I want those details available to the IOA. If they see what we really have, they’ll just try to cut us back again, believing that Weir had the right approach.”

Carter relaxed back in her chair. “It’s not the way my training or my years in the military would tell me to run the city either, but I have to agree… especially since the IOA hasn’t decided if, or more likely how they’re going to handle us.” She huffed a little. “If I have a choice, I’m definitely hanging onto Poisson. He knows down to the last piece of grain what there is and how to stretch it so we have healthy, filling meals with minimal waste. Even the waste is weighed when it’s sent for processing into fertilizer so that the sale or trade of the equivalent amount of fertilizer is returned to his budget one way or another. That man knows how to pinch a penny until Abe screams.”

John snorted at the old-school expression. “I just wish he’d been up front with me, though I guess I can understand why he wasn’t.” He continued thoughtfully, "You know, he and I have spoken a few times, but the longest conversations we had were back when I was still overwhelmed enough that he might have been trying to make my job easier. It’s also possible he thought I agreed with Weir’s orders.”

John knew he was scowling, but couldn’t seem to stop. He had the feeling he was just beginning to see how much control Weir had exerted over the military, control she shouldn’t have had at all. John was going to have to be a lot more hands-on until he had a true measure of where his people were. Of course that was assuming the IOA left him as the military leader.

“Well, he knows I’m the opposite of Weir in that I’d be happier if we had six months to a year of emergency supplies. You should talk to him too, Sheppard. We can’t afford to have someone so mission-essential wary of coming to us except when we’re on the brink of crisis.”

“Oh, I plan to. Believe me.”

If it were anybody else in charge, Poisson would be in serious trouble. John intended to make sure he knew it, then make sure he knew he had John’s support as long as he was straight with him from now on. Trying to run a base without accurate information was a terrible idea.

John drummed his fingers on his thigh. “We’re in trouble now, and we don’t yet have the Athosian population on the city, swelling our numbers and using our resources. I hate to say it, but we’ve got to put the Apologies Tour on hold and immediately start solely looking for societies we can trade with for food.”

Carter’s posture relaxed, and she tried to smile. “That’s just what I was thinking. Let’s get Teyla and Ronon in here. For that matter, let’s get Chief Poisson back too. It doesn’t do any good to trade for jabanabara2 if we have a surplus of those but not enough tava beans.”

John joked, “Man cannot live by jabanabara alone?”

Carter rolled her eyes but smiled slightly, which was the point of the joke.

*~*~*~*

It didn’t take long to relocate to the small conference room and assemble their group. Others would have to be told, of course, but were going to limit the knowledge of the supply problem as long as possible. Best-case scenario, they’d be able to negotiate for enough that they’d make it through until the Daedalus arrived with no one the wiser.

Explaining was fairly simple because they’d planned to say resupply had been delayed rather than go into the possible political landmine. The more they explained about the delay and the lack of emergency supplies, the more Teyla frowned, and the more Ronon scowled.

“It is nearly time for the major harvest on New Athos. If you are still willing to allow my people to come to Atlantis, we will bring our harvest and all trade goods we have acquired. The Athosians will not make the problem worse,” Teyla tried to reassure them, obviously concerned that her people would be denied what Atlantis herself had promised them.

Ronon grunted and called out, “Hey, ‘Lantis. We need your help.” There was a pause, which John assumed meant Atlantis was speaking to Ronon telepathically, and he said, “No, need you to show up so they can see and hear you. Uh, please.”

Chief Poisson’s dark eyes were wide and locked on Atlantis when her humanoid form appeared in the open chair next to Ronon. It occurred to John that it was probably only the second time the man had seen Atlantis rather than just hearing about her or reading about her in a report. The first time, of course, had been at Ronon and Tony’s wedding.

At least this time she was wearing a dark green dress that kind of wrapped around her and shimmered when the light hit it just right. She still had on more jewelry than John’s ex-wife had ever owned, but it was better than all the leather and see-through clothes she’d worn the first couple of times John had seen her.

“You heard what they’re saying about running out of food?” Ronon asked.

Atlantis inclined her head, her black eyes devoid of the normal starbursts of light John was used to seeing.

“I began listening when you were included, Ronon. I am deeply concerned and will do all I can to aid you, but I am not the starship Enterprise. I cannot replicate sustenance in that manner.”

John’s lips twitched at the reference. It seemed like Tony was having a bigger impact on Atlantis’ personality than even she realized.

“No. No, ma’am.” Chief Poisson cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “We’re not expecting you to do anything like that. What would help is if we had better cold storage: refrigerators, freezers, and even chilled prep stations.

“If we’re able to trade for a large amount of meat, we’d need smokehouses too. We could use industrial dryers if we get a surplus of fruits and grains we can dry for granola. We have a vacuum sealer from Earth, but we’d need something on a much larger scale if we don’t get MREs or power bars to send out with the teams.

“Oh – this was something I forgot to mention to you, Colonel Carter – we have one of the grain storage areas in use currently, but my people and I have noticed the grains don’t smell as fresh as they have in the past. The technician Dr. McKay sent us didn’t find anything wrong, but maybe you could look at that Ms. Atlantis, ma'am? Anything you can do to help us make what we get stay fresh or otherwise last longer would be appreciated.”

John added, “Freeze-drying fruits for in that granola you were talking about would help too, Chief. I like it better than the dried because it's less sticky.”

“You mentioned hydroponic and aeroponic farming once before,” Carter said.

John could see Poisson relax as Atlantis’ focus shifted to Carter.

“But I think you said you needed to have three ZPMs to start making big changes like that. May I ask how close you are to being able to start a big project?”

“I have the power I needed to begin rebuilding two of the hydroponic and aeroponic bays. They are the smallest, so less energy is required for that particular endeavor than will be required for many of the other improvements Chief Poisson listed.”

Atlantis gave them a Mona Lisa smile, and John noted that she hadn’t answered the question about the ZPMs. Not being a complete idiot, he wasn’t going to push her to say more than she wanted.

“When zy first arrived, Tony discovered several packets of Earth seeds in zyr belongings. Zy permitted me to take them to experiment with, as zy was not sure they would grow at all. They were more than two years old.”

“Seeds? Did not Tony live in a city?” Teyla inquired, her head tilting, and her brows drawing together in confusion. “Why would zy have had food seeds?”

“Zy did, but I guess lots of people grow little vegetables in pots in their homes,” Ronon held his curved hands fingertip-to-fingertip to show the size of the pots he meant, “because it’s so hard to get fresh stuff that wasn’t picked way too soon and ripened in the transport on the way to the cities.”

“Ah, I see.”

John was pretty sure he’d seen Atlantis shoot Ronon and amused look, so he thought there was probably more to it than that; however, he wasn’t going to distract them any further by delving into Tony’s reasons for having seeds.

A vertical, holographic image formed just above the center of the table. It looked like a central pole with a 3” diameter PVC pipe spiraling around it from top to bottom. There were young plants growing all along the spiral.

“This is the inside of one of the new hydroponic bays. I am growing two types of lettuce here, though this will likely become one of the bays allotted to plants requiring more space. It seems most lettuce does just as well when grown tightly together, so these would work well for the varieties that do not.”

“I think it would be perfect for the ibbrac Sergeant Stackhouse’s team just brought back from Iegra the other day,” Teyla observed. “That is the plant the Athosians use most frequently on tava beans or in hasat stew.”

“I will see that a few spires are reserved for the ibbrac, then.”

John glanced over to see Carter drawing a surprisingly accurate model of the growing unit on her digital tablet. He was impressed, since he couldn’t draw stick figures on his best day.

A second holographic image joined the first. This time, there were aeroponic units that were single poles probably 12” in diameter and at least a dozen feet tall. They had openings that looked something like half of a round-bottomed coffee cup protruding from the sides at equal distances all the way around.

“These are the units I will dedicate to other varieties of herbs and greens that grow better with their own space.”

John knew his wasn’t the only jaw that dropped. Nearly all of growing units were empty, but it looked like there was an enormous building full of the white poles. He could easily imagine what it would look like when it was full of growing plants.

He made a note on his digital tablet to coordinate training with some of the botanists and Atlantis. His people could help with this kind of project, and it would be great for moral to have them involved with producing their own food. No matter the military division, people did better when they felt like they were contributing something other people would appreciate.

Crap, he’d also need more people who knew how to fix that kind of thing. It was probably too much to hope that he’d be able to get people from the Army Corps of Engineers. He’d tried before because of how frustrating it was to try to get some of the scientists to stop trying to redesign the plumbing system and just fix the one they had. Rodney had certainly ranted about it often enough.

“I have taken possession of all discarded seeds, whether Earth fruits and vegetables or plants native to Pegasus. Those are being properly dried so they can be sprouted in one of the hydroponic or aeroponic bays, but they will take longer to grow than the greens already started, which you saw in the first image. All these bays will help long-term, but I believe you need a solution for within the next few weeks.”

“You’re right, but this is amazing, Atlantis!” Poisson exclaimed. It was the most enthusiastic John had seen from the typically stoic man. It seemed he’d gotten over his nervousness at speaking to the city’s human form. “These buildings and production bays will go a long way toward helping us feed our people.”

Atlantis smiled at his praise.

“We need meat.”

“Ronon is right,” John agreed, glad Ronon had brought it up. “We all know it’s probably healthy to live off a vegetarian diet, but you’re not going to find a lot of people around here who are happy doing it.”

“We already know there are some safe fish in the ocean,” Poisson offered.

“I’ve caught some, and it isn’t too bad,” Ronon said. “There’s a dark red one that Tony said tastes like somebody caught something called a salmon from Earth, then rubbed it with a chicken. Zy likes it.”

Less-than-appealing description aside, John knew if Ronon had fed it to Tony, then the marine biologists must have signed off on it as being edible for Earth humans.

“Then we need to know what they are and how to catch them. We also need to know how to do so without throwing off the entire ecosystem.” Carter jotted something on her own tablet. “I’ll get with the marine biologists about that and about finding out what other sea creatures might be edible.”

Poisson was nodding. “They were very good about sending me the information about the fish they’re calling the Red Chicmon so I could plan for the calories and protein in a main or side dish if we ever decided to do more fishing.”

That was a surprise to John. He’d assumed the biologists would be oblivious to Poisson, but it made sense. Everybody needed to eat, and they knew it was better to make a friend than an enemy of the person in charge of all the food on the city. A lot of people might not like getting KP duty, but they respected the hell out of the man who ran the mess halls.

“What about red meat?” Chief Poisson continued. “A lot of our people are steak-and-potatoes folks, so I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that they’re going to need some kind of beef or other grazing animal to be happy.”

Ronon and Teyla exchanged a look. Ronon raised one eyebrow. Teyla mirrored him. Ronon gave a one-shouldered shrug. Teyla huffed and pursed her lips, then rolled her eyes at him.

“I believe Ronon and I are thinking the same thing when it comes to providing meat for such a large number of people: Verubriga.”3

John frowned, trying to remember where he’d heard the word before.

“Isn’t that a planet?” Carter said slowly. “I’m pretty sure I read something about the team who went nearly being killed and fed to a predator animal there.”

That’s where I know it from! That was one of the planets Captain Resha and his team went to during our first year.”

“You are correct, John; however, I believe the aknata,4 what you call the not-buffalo, is the only animal that will provide the quantity of meat the city requires,” Teyla explained. “While the Lorains5 – the humans of Verubriga – can and do trade on other worlds, it is much more expensive. The Athosians always travel to Verubriga, where our people arrange for the transport of the processed meat back to New Athos. At times, we have helped to process the entire animal, which again lowers the cost of the final product. The labor is considered part of the trade.”

John looked to Carter and shrugged one shoulder. “We’ve traded for not-buffalo on other planets, and it is tasty. I think we got a few hundred pounds.” He turned back to Teyla, resigned to hearing what he assumed would be bad news. “I’m guessing this is going to be one of those things where we royally offended the Pegasus folks. Is it worth it to approach them again?”

“Yes,” Ronon interjected before anyone else could say anything. “What we’ve gotten, even from the Athosians, wasn’t even close to what a whole aknata would be. They’re – what do you think, Teyla? – Probably about twice your height or a little less? They weigh between six and eight iglams.”6

John’s eyebrows shot into his hairline.

“Wait, they’re eleven feet tall?” Poisson asked, stunned. “I don’t know what an iglam is, but they must weigh a few thousand pounds. That’s not the size of an Earth buffalo – or more correctly, bison, as buffalo are an Asian or African species – that’s a prehistoric ancestor to the bison!”

“Somebody convert that weight for me, please,” Carter requested.

“I believe Ronon is overestimating the height, especially since the aknata have a massive bony structure above their shoulders to protect their spinal cords from the talons and teeth of the tanricu,”7 Teyla said.

“That is correct,” Atlantis agreed. “However, their height at the shoulder base before that bone structure ranges from nine to ten feet. They weigh between 4,000 and 5,800 pounds, according to my records. Once processed, as much as 2,790 pounds will be food fit for human consumption, even after taking into consideration how fussy Earth humans are.” She explained to Teyla and Ronon, “There are many organs they cannot or will not eat, for a variety of reasons.”

Even as he gave a low whistle, John thought he heard Ronon mutter, “Then they must not be hungry enough.” He’d have to explain to Ronon how it wasn’t quite as simple as Earthers just being fussy, but that could wait for another time.

Carter and Poisson were completely speechless.

“That’s—that’s worth it,” Chief Poisson finally managed. “Even if we estimated a full pound of meat per person per day, we could feed the entire city for days off a single aknata.”

Ronon snickered, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “What? I just don’t wanna think about what some of the desk people would look like if they ate that much meat every day.”

John manfully contained his own amusement.

“So what do we need to know about trading with the Lorains?” Carter asked Teyla. “Your people obviously don’t have a problem.”

Teyla sighed. “They are a strictly matriarchal society, Colonel Carter. The team that was sent to Verubriga were all men. The priestesses would have taken that as an insult.”

At Carter’s confused expression, Ronon clarified, “They thought you were insulting them by sending inferiors to negotiate with them.”

“Yes, precisely,” Teyla said. “Then not only were they men, but they did not try to speak to the Lorain women. Instead, they insisted on trying to trade with the high priestess’ concubines, thinking they were the rulers rather than she.”

“I’m only surprised they didn’t kill the idiots,” Ronon said with a disgusted snort.

“Do they negotiate with Halling now that you’re gone?” Carter asked curiously.

“While they will acknowledge Halling as an authority for the Athosians,” Teyla said, choosing her words carefully, “they very much prefer to negotiate with one of the female leaders. If they do agree to negotiate with a male, Halling or someone else, then they require that one of our female leaders accompany the man to finalize agreements.”

“That’s how it was for former Sateda too, when we had a man in charge of trading. They were always happy to deal with our women or kysra, though.”

“Huh. Usually, it’s our women who are treated as second-class in the Milky Way.”

John wondered if Carter was remembering the time she was nearly sold into slavery. Because he’d wanted to know more about Carter, that was one of the few reports he’d read from the SGC’s first year. It was the first time a woman had been captured or “bought” off-world, but not every case had ended so well.

“It is unfortunate that humans cannot value one another in spite or even because of their differences,” Atlantis said with an annoyed frown. “A body is only a vessel for the being within.”

“True, but humans aren’t very good at seeing beyond appearances,” Carter agreed with an apologetic smile. Turning to John, she asked, “What do you think about your team going with team four?”

“Major Teldy’s team – all women and all smart, even if they’re not usually on first-contact. That’s a great idea.”

Teyla interrupted. “I do not believe that to be the wisest course. If I am with the negotiating team, the Lorains could decide I have deserted the Athosians. They might decline to trade with us, or they might decide the Athosians are no longer worthy trade partners.”

“Not good, either way. It might be better to send team five,” John suggested slowly. “Major Jordan’s team has been doing the Apologies circuit with us, and Dr. McNamara is great at first-contact. She seems to really have a knack for it. There are still three guys going along, but I think it will work.” The corner of John’s lips lifted in reluctant amusement. “If nothing else, they can pretend they’re McNamara’s concubines or dumb muscle. I know women have been asked to do worse on missions.”

Carter was already nodding. “Will you brief both teams and have them ready to go within the next two days?”

“Will do, Colonel.” John paused and met Teyla’s eyes, adding, “I’d like you to come with me, Teyla. You’re our the expert, and you have a unique perspective on these people especially.”

“Of course, Colonel.” Teyla smiled, her eyes lighting with pleasure at his acknowledgement of her skills.

John had taken to heart his and Ronon’s discussion about the status of negotiators and experts in Pegasus, and he’d made an effort to verbally acknowledge Teyla’s – and Ronon’s – contributions and expertise. They didn’t need a pat on the back every time they helped in those roles, but they deserved to be acknowledged as the invaluable assets they were.

“Assuming we are able to establish trade between new Sateda and Verubriga, are there any Earthers who would be of use as laborers during the processing of the beast?”

“I could help. I went to Verubriga a couple times when I was younger,” Ronon agreed, then grinned, “It was fun getting petted by all the women; just don’t tell Tony.” More serious, he added, “I grew up on a farm. We raised and butchered our own food animals. I could help or teach people how to butcher most of the food animals people raise, plus a lot they don’t. I had to catch and cook my own food when I was a Runner.”

John figured Ronon had eaten a lot of things that the, by comparison, pampered people of new Sateda would refuse.

Chief Poisson tilted his head in thought. “I don’t know about field dressing, but I know I have people who are trained to work with entire sides of beef, packaging it into usable cuts. I’m sure they’d be willing to help however they could, especially if they understood their labor would count as part of the trade. I certainly am.”

John met Carter’s eyes and gave her a very subtle shake of his head. Poisson was an irreplaceable asset they needed coordinating things at home, especially when they were on the edge food shortage crisis. If trade went well and they built up the emergency supplies John and Carter both wanted, Poisson could be sent another time if he still wanted to go.

“I’ll see if we have any hunters,” John offered, writing down a list of others he thought might be helpful. “People with that sort of background would have more experience with field dressing. Even if they aren’t prepared to field dress a not—uh, what’s it called again?”

“Aknata,” Teyla provided, an amused smile playing about her lips.

“Right. Even if they’re not up to dealing with an aknata, maybe we can send them to New Athos to help bring in whatever wildlife the Athosians know is safe to eat. Surely there are not-turkeys and not-deer somewhere in Pegasus.”

Carter grinned at him before turning to Teyla.

“Speaking of the Athosians… Teyla, please let us know if they could use help when it comes time for harvest. I’m sure we have people who have experience with harvesting crops of one kind or another. Maybe we could negotiate a trade: harvesting labor to the Athosians in exchange for having some of them go along to field dress aknata. Having experienced hands would mean a shorter amount of time away from the city, too, for both groups.”

“That is an excellent idea, though I will have to discuss it with Halling, as I am no longer Leader.” She paused and warily added, “The Athosians know they will be coming to Atlantis, though only the leaders and those who were here for the wedding know of Kysra Tony’s existence. I believe that once the return of a kysra and the existence of Atlantis—” she offered Atlantis herself a solemn dip of her head, which was returned with equal respect, “is known throughout the people, they will be willing to offer their resources for the use of all. More than just providing laborers, there are many skills we can teach to those who are willing to learn. The more we are able to produce for trade, the better off we all will be.”

“This discussion pleases me,” Atlantis stated with a satisfied smile.

John noticed her eyes were doing the weird starlight flashes again, which he assumed was a good thing. He’d have to remember to mention it to Carter, though she had probably picked up on it too.

“Whether the Athosians choose to keep their own name or merge to become Satedans, I believe that within a few thousand years, there will be just one people on Sateda. It is better to combine strengths. The Athosians, Satedans, and those from Earth all have much to offer one another.”

John wondered if anyone else heard the warning along with Atlantis’ praise. He thought it would be safe to assume that those who decided they couldn’t get along with everyone would find themselves booted out of the city entirely.

*~*~*~*

Keplerday, Einstein 21, First Year of the Returned
(April 11, 2008)

“Hello, Rodney, Dr. Zelenka.”

Rodney jumped at the voice, but relaxed once he saw who it was. Zelenka cursed in Czech and turned to yell at whomever had interrupted the work they were doing on the Gate Bridge. Then he paled, choked, and cursed again.

Rodney didn’t laugh, but he did allow himself to be a little smug. He’d babbled when Atlantis randomly appeared, but he’d never actually cursed at her. Well, he’d never cursed out loud.

“Most humble apologies – ah – Atlantis. Forgive my rudeness; I was most surprised.”

Atlantis adopted the smile Rodney was beginning to associate with times she felt deeply amused by something, but was either too polite or too kind to say it.

“Hey, Atlantis. I like your dress.” Rodney motioned to the sky-blue, strapless dress that hugged her body from just under her arms to almost mid-thigh, then flared out into a panels of almost see-through matierial. “It’s almost like something we’d see on Earth.”

Of course, the women on Earth didn’t wear it with a wide sash of a million strings of silver chains and jewels going from one shoulder to the opposite hip, but it was the most normal thing he’d seen her dressed in so far. Except her feet were bare. Come to think of it, he’d never seen Atlantis with any kind of shoes.

“Thank you, Rodney. Think nothing of it, Dr. Zelenka. I wished to tell you the coding you completed to integrate my hydroponic and aeroponic bays is very well done.”

“Oh, my. Well. Thank you!” Zelenka said flustered. He offered a weird little half-bow, sort of like he did with Miko when the two were doing one of their complement competitions after they’d done something they thought was smarter than usual.

Rodney’s smirk faded. He hadn’t ever heard her compliment anyone else.

Atlantis stepped closer and placed her hand on Rodney’s upper arm.

When he looked up at her, she said, “I have need of you. There is something I wish you to see, if you are willing.”

Rodney’s emotions swung between being relieved that she was seeking him out and smug for the same reason. He only wished more people than just Zelenka had been around to see Atlantis say she wanted his company. Surely she didn’t do that with anyone else… except Tony. Maybe Ronon.

“Sure, I’ll look at whatever it is you want me to see. I’m sure Zelenka can finish up here.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Go.” Zelenka made a shooing motion, but abruptly stopped as if he’d just realized whom he was shooing away. “I mean, I will complete this coding work, then begin the next section. It is no trouble, no trouble at all.”

“Do I need to bring anything?”

“No, I merely wish to show you something.”

“Okay.” Rodney jerked his chin at Zelenka. “See you later.”

Still watching Atlantis warily, Zelenka mumbled something, and then Rodney and Atlantis were gone.

Surrounded as he was by silence and darkness, Rodney had a moment of panic where he wondered if something had gone wrong with his reintegration. But, no, he could still feel Atlantis’ hand on his arm. Then he realized all the tiny strings of what he’d thought were jewels on Atlantis’ sash thing were glowing softly.

“Step forward four times,” Atlantis instructed.

Swallowing tightly, Rodney did so, grateful she remained beside him, her hand guiding him.

On the fourth step, it felt as though he passed through a cool steam, much like the one that came from the humidifier he’d had back on Earth, though this steam smelled like cold, wet rocks rather than Vicks VapoRub.

Rodney coughed and waved one hand in front of his face.

“Do you like it?” Atlantis asked.

Rodney blinked rapidly and looked around.

His jaw dropped. Rodney wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he certainly hadn’t expected to suddenly be in an immense cavern that was probably the size of the Gateroom proper, which looked a lot like the time Sharon – a geologist he had briefly dated– had talked him into going to Horne Lake Cave on Vancouver Island.

Unlike Horne Lake, impressive as it had been, Atlantis’ cavern was filled with hundreds of thousands of glowing crystals. Some were still tiny, about the size of the ones Atlantis was wearing – at least, Rodney assumed those were crystals – but others were the size of his forearm, and a few were even larger. They grew scattered among what Rodney would term “normal” stalactite and stalagmites, and they were all different shapes and colors, from the brightest, boldest reds, purples, blues, and greens, to the softest pinks, lilacs, silvery-blues, and sherbet-greens. They all appeared wet, as though they were frequently sprayed like the produce in a grocery store.

“Where are we?” Rodney wasn’t sure why he was whispering, but it seemed appropriate, given the awe he felt.

“I have decided to call this my darkroom,” Atlantis told him, her voice nearly as quiet. “The glowing crystals require complete darkness as they grow, which is part of the reason you have been so unsuccessful in attempting to grow energy crystals in your laboratories.”

Rodney stared at her, and he just knew he was at least as bug-eyed as any cartoon character he’d seen—and he’d seen several since he’d become friends with Tony.

“As for where we are, technically, we are beneath the central city and the central tower.”

“How is that possible? Our sensors haven’t ever picked up anything like this.”

Atlantis smiled faintly. “No, your sensors would not be capable of detecting my darkroom. This place exists within a certain type of singularity.”

Thankfully, only Atlantis was around to hear the high-pitched noise Rodney made. It almost sounded like some of the crystals around him echoed it back, but that couldn’t be right.

“How—how is that possible?”

She gave him her soft, amused smile and touched her hand to the small of his back.

“Remain between the green crystals. That is the safe path through the darkroom.”

“But—”

“Come, Rodney. There is more I wish to show you.”

He made a frustrated sound but allowed her to guide him along the empty space between the dark green crystals. To his surprise – and why did anything she did surprise him anymore? – rather than rough, uneven ground like in a normal cave, the path was smooth and even, like cut but unpolished marble. It was just enough texture to give his shoes traction.

At least he wouldn’t trip. He hoped.

They walked for what seemed like a lot longer than it should have taken to reach the far wall, but they got there eventually. Rodney didn’t even realize he was grumbling about not having sensors and wanting to understand how the inside of a singularity worked until Atlantis chuckled.

“I will bring you back, never fear, dear one.”

Ha! Rodney straightened his spine. He’d bet no one else – except Tony – had had Atlantis call them dear one. He never should have let his stupid insecurity get to him before. Atlantis wasn’t the kind to give up on someone once she liked them.

They finally stopped, and Atlantis made an elegant gesture toward the closest wall, for lack of a better term.

“Here, these are what I wished for you to see.”

Rodney could see straight away that the crystals growing in that area were different from the others. They weren’t just one color, for one thing. They were mostly dark red, but there were golds and oranges forming within the red areas. They were growing in straight rows too, which was something none of the other crystals did. It was almost as if they’d been planted that way instead of forming naturally. There was something else that was weird about them, too, though Rodney couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

“I know there’s something I should know about these, but you kind of broke my brain. I probably couldn’t even make an atomic bomb right now much less do anything complicated.”

Atlantis laughed, her eyes almost glowing with particularly bright flashes of light. “These are special crystals. They must be cultivated rather than simply allowed to grow because they will contain something far more powerful than the simple energy these other crystals must be able to process, once they are harvested.”

“Contain more power,” Rodney muttered to himself. There was something about her phrasing. “Contain more—” Rodney gasped, nearly choking. “Contained power, contained singularities. These are ZedPMs!”

Atlantis grinned at him, her teeth a flash of white in the darkness.

“Yes, I am cultivating the crystalline shells of the ZedPMs,” she said smugly.

 Rodney whimpered and tried to count. There had to be at least two dozen of the multi-hued crystals growing from the wall.

“How many are there? There have to be more than a dozen, more than two dozen!”

“Yes,” Atlantis acknowledged. “I had four fail thus far, so there are thirty-one. Keep in mind that these are merely the shells that will house the singularity. Not all of these will survive to become ZedPMs either. Each ZedPM crystal must be absolutely perfect, or it could destroy this solar system when I fill it. Perhaps half of these will be that perfect. Then I must reach between realities to harvest the energy to fill each one.”

“Oh, is that all,” Rodney whimpered, remembering the disaster with his sister and the alternate Rod McKay.

“It is complicated, even for me, but I believe it is worth it.”

“I think I need to sit down. Can I sit down?” Rodney sank to the ground right where he stood and crossed his legs tailor-style. He propped his elbows on his knees and put his shaking hands over his mouth. He stared wide-eyed at the wall of ZedPM crystals until his eyes teared from lack of blinking.

Atlantis knelt gracefully beside him. She tilted her head and rested her hand on his shoulder, and Rodney had a moment of insanity in which he wondered if her dress would get damp from the ground. Not that it mattered. She could just reform it whenever she wanted.

“You know, if you would agree to allow me to alter you, it is possible that I would be able to show you, let you experience what it feels like to harness the power of a singularity within your mental hands.”

Rodney’s head snapped up, and he stared at her open-mouthed.

“Oh, that’s just dirty pool, Atlantis,” he accused. “That’s worse than telling me you could fix my allergy to lemon!”

She gave a throaty chuckle. “I had not intended to offer you such inducement when I brought you here, but it appears I am not entirely immune to temptation myself.” Her smile softened again. “Come, stand and I shall take you to the crystals that are ready to harvest. I know there are many places throughout my structure that require replacements, so I will show you how to harvest and cut these into the pieces you will need.”

“Just as long as you don’t tell anyone else there are replacements we didn’t scavenge from the rest of the city. The idiots would probably just find more ways to break the ones we have already.”

“I shall permit you to decide if anyone else knows of this place, then.”

“Not even Tony knows?”

“No, not even Tony.”

Rodney grunted his acceptance and allowed her to pull him to his feet. The time sitting on the cold, damp floor had made him stiffer than he’d thought. Yet another thing Atlantis could correct if – and when – he gave in.