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A Life Against Nature

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A dark room in a high tower, a gloved hand, a soft, sibilant voice: "You have them?" A listening pause. "Yes, bring them here." Another pause. "I will deal with that." Conversation concluded.

He rose from the marble-topped desk, opened the door of a heavily carved wooden cupboard, placed the communicator inside and carefully closed the door. It locked with a satisfying 'snick' and the key went back round his neck, hidden beneath layers of dark fabric. A beautiful, elegantly simple plan, he thought and his thin lips curled into a slight smile of unnerving subtlety.


Postulant Brother Merren was doing penance again. Postulant Brother Tal, who knew he should be keeping his eyes down on his own bowl of soup, glanced sidelong to see the offender rise, shuffle a little further along the refectory table and kneel to place his earthenware bowl for the attention of the next brother in the row. He was supposed to kneel and wait, eyes down, hands clasped, the picture of perfect humility, but Tal could see Merren's fists were clenched and, although his head was lowered, a burning spot of red was visible on his cheek and his brows were frowning thunderously. He'll earn himself another penance if he can't look a bit more humble, thought Tal, returning his attention uneasily to his soup. He wondered what Merren's offence had been this time: probably breaking the Rule of Silence again. Whenever Tal had occasion to pass the infirmary, where Merren worked, he always seemed to hear Merren's voice, grumbling or upraised in protest.

Tal's problem wasn't silence, at least not outward silence; he found that quite easy. It was his inward silence that was lacking, the stillness of mind that would allow the Grace of the Ancients to come to him, apparently. Vanity too, thought Tal, forgetting once more to still his thoughts. When he'd learned that his head would be shaved if he committed to the Order and became a novice, he had to admit to a kind of panic at the thought of losing his dark, unruly mop of hair. But hair was one of the things that marked you as an individual, so, according to the Rule, it would have to go.

Tal's eyes were caught by movement; Merren rose, having gained his allotted two spoonfuls of soup, moved along the line and knelt again to silently beg the next monk in the row. He worked his way along until he came to Tal and set his bowl down. Tal, carefully donating two spoonfuls of his soup, caught a glimpse of Brother Merren's eyes, their blue depths a complex mix of anger, desolation and confusion; they determinedly lowered to stare at the floor but Tal could see the flare of humiliation and the thin, downturned mouth as Brother Merren gritted his teeth. For some reason, Tal suddenly wanted to grab his hand and run; he felt that if he did, there was nothing and no-one that could stop him. Instead, he let Merren pass on down the line and, having filled his bowl, stand at the end of the table to consume his cold, unpleasant meal.

The bell rang and the brothers filed out, some to their work, some, like the postulants, to a rare moment of leisure. The recreation took place in the cloister garden, weather permitting, and was their only time for free speech, although even this freedom was limited and controlled by Brother Lensel, the Master of Postulants.

Brother Lensel looked around the seated circle of his charges. Tal felt as if the monk's sharp brown eyes could see all the stains on his soul, or at least that he knew which sins each postulant was most likely to have recorded in the notebook given to them for that purpose. He addressed Brother Merren first.

"Brother, tell me of your progress in obedience to the Ancients' Rule."

"I don't think I'm making any progress," replied Brother Merren shortly. He folded his arms defensively. "What it comes down to is this: I don't know why I'm here. I don't think I'm supposed to be here and I'm pretty sure I can't live according to a set of rules geared toward total self-abnegation. I mean, do I seem like the kind of man who would've committed to that? I don't think so!"

"You cannot know what sequence of thoughts or actions led you to us, Brother," said Brother Lensel, gently. "That is the purpose of the memory block. It gives you a chance to approach the religious life without prejudice or bias and then, when your period of postulancy is over, the block will be released and you can make your decision with full knowledge of your previous life."

Brother Merren rubbed his eyes tiredly and slumped in his chair. "I think I must've been pretty desperate even to try this, if I knew anything at all about what it would involve," he said, which Tal thought was pretty rude considering it was a life to which Brother Lensel was obviously wholly committed.

All Brother Lensel said was, "Perhaps you were desperate." He turned to Tal next. "How are you progressing in your religious journey, Brother Tal?"

Tal tried to sit up straight and not shrug his shoulders. "Some of it feels... sorta right." He absently rubbed the back of his neck and then, realising, tried to force his hands to stay relaxed in his lap. "In the Temple, when everyone's all in line, all wearing mostly the same thing, that feels familiar, like I'm in the right place. And," he paused, trying to find the words, "um... it feels right that there should be rules to follow and I think if I decided to be here I should do my best to stick it out. Like, if it was my choice, I kind of have a duty to give it a go, yeah?"

Tal noticed Brother Merren raising his eyebrows and shaking his head, but ignored him.

"What do you struggle with most?" asked Brother Lensel.

"Um..." Tal felt his face heat and he looked at the ground, seeing the circle of toes poking out of sandals beneath the plain brown robes of the postulants and the richer black of Brother Lensel's. "Lotsa things," he mumbled. Brother Lensel waited. "Okay, so, if I have to do a penance I do it and think 'fair enough, do the crime, do the time. ' But if I have to watch someone else do it," his eyes flicked to Brother Merren, "I get pretty angry. Like I'd rather do it for them or I'd fight for their right not to do it at all."

"A transgression in thought is still a failure in obedience to the Rule," said Brother Lensel. Brother Tal couldn't suppress a shrug this time.

"I don't think I'm normally an obedient kinda guy."

Brother Lensel smiled and moved onto the next postulant.


The bell rang and they rose to go to prayers. Brother Merren tugged Tal's sleeve to get his attention.

"Hey! Whatever-your-name-is! Brother Tal!"

Tal mimed a zip closing his mouth.

"Hey, c'mon, talk to me!"

Tal frowned, annoyed that Merren was trying to tempt him to disobey the Rule of Silence. A crude epithet sprang to mind; he felt his cheeks redden and he cringed inwardly. This would all have to go down in his notebook and it was Tal's turn for the public Telling the following day, where he'd have to read it all out. Now he'd have to declaim before everyone the word with which he'd bad-temperedly labelled Brother Merren, never mind that it was only in his head.

"What?" he hissed angrily, mentally reminding himself to write down 'broke Rule of Silence'.

"You looked at me, just now, in the rec."


"So, did you mean me? You get angry when I do a penance?"

"Yeah, okay, I meant you. Now leave me alone!" Brother Tal quickened his pace toward the Temple, unwilling to add 'late to prayers' to today's long list of wrongdoing. And it's always when Brother Merren's around, he thought grumpily. What is it with that guy?


Brother Merren regarded Brother Tal's retreating form in puzzlement. He knew if he didn't 'get his ass into gear' he'd be late for prayers and have to prostrate himself in front of everyone, but stayed, rooted to the spot nevertheless. His eyes wandered round the cloister, the fine stonework of the supporting columns, the slanting mid-afternoon light falling on the broad slate flags. He looked down and regarded his coarse brown robe, his toes sticking out of the end of his sandals; he wriggled them up and down.

Data, he thought. Or lack thereof. All he knew was the cloistered life, the monastery and the feeling that he did not belong. And one more thing: he knew Brother Tal, and Brother Tal, despite his attempts to fit into this world, knew him. Brother Merren reluctantly turned toward the Temple and braced himself for the feel of the cold stone floor against his body; he was always late.


Silver-blue light flickered against the lenses of Richard Woolsey's glasses as he emerged from his office.

"Major Lorne's IDC! Lowering the shield."

Woolsey stared intently at the figures emerging from the Gate: Lorne's team, Lorne himself and finally, Teyla and Ronon, shoulder-to-shoulder. He knew before Lorne looked up and shook his head; he could tell by the blank faces of the Marines, by the set of Lorne's jaw, but most of all from Teyla and Ronon, dejection in their every movement, commiseration in their mutual glance and in their fleeting touch of hands. They would debrief, but Woolsey needed no formal mission report to know the stark fact: Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay had disappeared and left no trace, no clue, and their desperate search had gained them precisely nothing.