At first the water is deep, and dark, and he can feel it pressing in on him in his sleep. He can feel the slow wash of sand across the ocean floor, the murky blue seen through the ship's sensors, the dense cold water, as hostile as space. At first he listens to the jumper, to its clicks and whirs around him while he sleeps. He tries to feel safe in the jumper, like a hermit crab in its shell. He is always faintly awareof the slow relentless pulse of water outside, of the deep and lightless ocean.
He has no real sense of time, except for the way the ocean draws lower with the tide. He has no sense of time, and as the days run together the faint blue murk becomes as bright and transparent as the inside of a snail's shell. He hears the tide in his heartbeat; he feels the cold, sluggish water in his veins There is poison in his veins, and ice, keeping him still and cold, and his bones are light and full of air.
He slips out of his body like a crab out of its shell and goes walking.
The first thing Charin remembers is the dark, rocking and still, and the sea. The memory is her own and not her own all at once. She remembers it faint and small, as if she herself was faint and small, and she remembers warmth and amber and the shadows on the ocean floor.
The second thing Charin remembers is her brothers and sisters. She doesn't remember her mother - maybe a flash of blond hair and softness, and the smell of soap made with turenin flowers - but she also doesn't remember a time when her world wasn't full of siblings. She eats at the children's table in the mess hall; she goes to a schoolroom where they play and paint under the watchful eye of Athosian nurses. Sometimes, when her father takes a late shift in the lab, she sleeps on a cot in a row in the nursery. Charin was born in the tenth year after the Wraith War; there are twenty-two children in her year - eighteen of them ATAs - and she knows them all with the absolute and assumed familiarity of family. She is five when she learns how to slip past the door sensor with a quick, hard thought and can walk away, by herself, for a few minutes. The teachers come after her, of course, and scold her, but they also know that there's no real trouble that she can get into. The city will lock dangerous rooms, seal wall panels against her hands, and if she walks into a transporter she will find herself back in the nursery. Charin considers that cheating, on the part of the city, which she regards as a parent, or a friendly and overprotective pet.
Charin has no first memory of the city, any more than she'd have a first memory of air. Even on the mainland, when she goes to stay with the Emmagens or takes a class trip, the city is there in the back of her head. She always knows which way Atlantis is on the horizon, the same way that Jinto and Senna Emmagen always know which way is east.
Jinto is much older than Charin, and aloof - always running around with Ronon's daughter, his best friend. Nene is much younger - just walking - and Beltran is a baby in a sling on Jenet's back. But Senna is just a year older than Charin. Senna laughs when Charin comes to stay with the Emmagens and walks into doors that won't open in front of her. When Charin's father finally lets her stay in the Emmagen longhouse overnight, Charin wakes up screaming, because the light over her bed won't turn on in the dark. Jenet, the second mother of the Emmagen household, comes running and palms the light panel on the wall. Charin has never heard Teyla or Jenet speak harshly before, but they scold Senna so soundly for her inhospitality that Senna won't look Charin in the eye for days.
Charin is seven when she realizes that Senna can't hear the city. Only Jinto, the eldest of the five Emmagen children, can hear it. When they are collecting driftwood for the fourth-night bonfire on the beach, Charin catches Jinto turning, always turning, to where Atlantis sounds on the horizon. He stands there for a second, his hand raised against the glare of sunlight on water. When he turns back, he smiles at her - he is eleven to her seven - and Charin thinks, brother.
She never says anything to him about it, because mentioning it to him would mean mentioning it to Senna, and she already knows not to do that. She remembers when the cruel girls in her class - Anias Heightmeyer was their ringleader - discovered the difference between ATA children and everyone else. She remembers that she went home crying, because she had blonde hair. She remembers that Emily Lorne, who had to use the motion detector to get through doors, hadn't come to school for two days, and then three days the next week, and then her angry-eyed mother had come to gather her things and move them to the mainland. After that, the teachers had been much more careful to make sure that people who didn't have the gene were never singled out or made to feel slow or dumb. Sometimes they made a special point of helping children with no gene get around, or access the learning programs, or play with the mechanical toys.
Emily Lorne had been Charin's friend, and Charin missed her. They used to sit in the corner and draw on the big, shatterproof school tablets while Anias and her noisy friends played complicated hopping games on the light-up tiles of the plaza. Charin learns different games from Selena Dex, who runs around with the Emmagens, all of them shirtless and muddy in the sweltering mainland summer. They draw the squares for the game with a stick in the dirt; they swim in the quick, cold river. Selena teaches Charin to catch a fish with a sharpened stick - Charin cries the first time she has to gut one - and how to hide in the woods. Charin loves the settlement. She loves coming down the path in the evening between the longhouses lit up from inside like lanterns in the dusk, and the smell of eshbi cooking. She loves going to sleep in the sound of tree frogs and night birds, and waking up cold to the first light shining through the walls, to stumble with the blankets around her to the kitchen where gentle Jenet is cooking flatbread and beans for their breakfast. She loves the company of her cousins - all of them muddy and long-haired and heathen in the summer, despite Jenet's best efforts - and the sharp-smelling woods and narrow rivers of the mountains that rise above the string of longhouses. She is always relieved to go home, though. She is always waiting for that first footstep on the warm, living metal of Atlantis, and for the feeling of the city soaring up around her. Her father always exhales when he first sees her, his shoulders lowering, and she goes and leans against his side and listens to him talk on about his work and his staff and other things, a low and constant background noise like the ocean against the piers. Charin loves the noise of the City - the heave and push of the machines, the thousands of people, and the grand and giant knowledge that she lives in the most important place in the galaxy.
What Charin loves about the settlement is the silence. When she is in the City she misses the quiet, and the low sound of voices rising and falling around a hearth in the evenings, and the stories Teyla tells. Teyla treats Charin respectfully, as a cousin and the child of her friend. Jenet treats Charin like one of her children, the same way she treats Ronon's girl, scolding them all when they track mud into the kitchen tent and slapping at their hands with a wooden spoon when they steal griddle cakes off the stovetop and scooping them into her arms and rocking them against her when they fall and skin their knees. In the evenings Charin sits by the hearth, leaning into Jenet's side, while she and Teyla talk, and tell their children the long, lilting stories of Athos. Some of them are terrifying - Charin has nightmares about the Wraith, or sits up sleepless, listening for a whine in the distance. Some of them are so funny that the children fall against each other laughing, and even Teyla laughs the laugh that shows her teeth and shows the wrinkles around her eyes. Charin doesn't mind that most of the funniest stories are about Atlanteans.
Sometimes, though, she has a weird, itchy feeling that the stories about Atlantis have parts she is not hearing. Sometimes she's pretty sure Teyla or Jenet leave parts out when she's there. But when she is in the Settlement, she has mothers like any child has mothers, or aunts, or cousins. She is grubby and indistinguishable, and goes to a house like all the others.
Charin's father is not like other fathers, but no fathers are like other fathers, and lots of kids have no fathers at all. When she thinks this, she always remembers the shadows moving on the ocean floor, and is never sure why.
When Charin is eight there is an outbreak of Garanian Flu across the city, and it spreads onto the mainland before Dr. Keller can put up a quarantine. Garanian Flu is serious in children and the old, her father tells her. He comes home early that day. He has brought a box of old-fashioned ration bars with him. They wait in their quarters for one day, two, two and a half days. Charin is bored. Charin is bored and scared and wants to go to school and go outside and see her friends and eat something besides Powerbars, which are stale and too sweet and taste nothing like anything Charin has ever eaten or wants to. The Athosians in the northmost settlement make a sort of dried paste of pounded nuts, dried fruit, and marsupial fat; Teyla's children always dare each other to eat some when Teyla brings it back from trade trips as a goodwill gift. Even that, Charin thinks, is better than Powerbars.
On the third night, after thinking "open" at the door for an hour while she kicks her heels against the hollow part of the wall over the heating duct - and she can see her father's shoulders tense a little more every time she does it - she starts to go through the bookshelf. She's already read all of her own books, which are in English and Ancient on the computer or in the arched Athosian script on tuttle-fiber paper. Her father's books are heavy, and boring, and come from Earth twice a year. Her father likes to read them and laugh and write rude words in the margins.
There's a third shelf, full of thick, smooth-bound books with colorful spines. Charin's never looked at them. She's never seen her father open one.
She crosses the room - not a very big room, especially after three days - and pulls the first one off the shelf.
Jane Eyre, she sounds out, her lips moving with the English letters. Ancient letters come easier to her than English letters. The person on the cover has dark, heavy clothes and dark, heavy hair; the binding is a somber shade of purple. It doesn't look like a cheerful book, and Charin's not feeling very cheerful right now either, so she picks it up, takes it to the couch, and starts to read.
She is halfway through - interrupted only to have her temperature taken every four hours, and to eat more horrible Powerbars - when she feels a split in the pages, a little ahead of her place, and flips forward curiously.
Someone has stuck a photograph between the pages as a bookmark. She can tell with her fingers, before she sees it, that it's the rectangular glossy kind, not a printout. It must have come from offworld. She pulls it out and looks at it.
There's a beach - white sand, blue water - but the sky is the wrong color, and the tall trees along the sand are a strange shape, like a cartoon in the books at school. There are three girls in the front of the picture, a little older than Selena, their arms slung around each other. Charin's eyes go to the one on the right, who is standing in water to her knees, sunglasses pushed to the top of her head, wearing brief, tight clothes in bright colors.
Charin stares. Her mother's image looks back at her.
She closes the book, and tucks it under her arm - her father is staring into his computer morosely - and goes into her room. She slips the book, with the photo inside it, under her pillow. Then she goes out and starts kicking at the hollow plate on the wall again, thinking open. open. open. at the intransigent door.
It is another day before a nurse comes down the hall carrying a vaccine tray, and Charin doesn't even protest as he swabs her arm and jabs it with the needle. Her father picks her up after she's vaccinated and hugs her, so tightly that he squishes the air out of her lungs. When he finally sets her down his face is wet, and she stares at him, confused.
When school starts again there are two children missing. When she goes to the mainland, Teyla takes her out to the graveyard, where there are eleven tiny plots of fresh earth. The sixth is Jenet's baby, down under the dirt. The village is quiet, and still, and all the folding walls of Teyla's house are closed against the light. Charin lays on her pallet after dinner, listening to Senna and Nene breathe beside her. She puts her hand on her ribcage, where her breath moves, and stares up into the unopening dark.
Charin and Dusan Slolik are best friends. She is nine, and he is eight and from the coast village, and he has a mother and a father and no ATA gene, which means he and Charin can get married some day. She does not mention this plan to Dusan, but she's pretty sure it's going to work, because she's already taught him how to break open the door panels without the gene, and he's taught her how to build a peashooter. They get in trouble for landing a bean right in the middle of Zelenka's bald spot. Dusan is grounded, but Charin is ungroundable, and shows up at his door to eat the muffins his parents make and look at his cool mainland stuff, which isn't like Athosian stuff at all but looks like someone tried to make Earth toys and tools and decorations out of clay and fabric and metal instead of plastic. Dusan's family even dresses like the Earth people in pictures from books, in funny, bright, modest pants and shirts and sweaters. When Dusan goes back to the mainland, he gives her the hat that he wears, rib-knit out of cotton yarn, and she watches his family get on the jumper and bites her lip. Radek Zelenka teases her about the hat at dinner, and she gets mad and storms off and sits at the nine-year-old's table instead of with her father's friends.
She seems to spend a lot of time storming off in a huff when she's nine. Nine is an angrier age than eight was. She feels strange; her chest aches, her stomach hurts, her bones complain. Something in her thinks, too soon. Way too soon.
John Sheppard wakes up, and the light hurt his eyes. Laura Cadman is standing over him, looking weirdly small and freaked out, but he is in Atlantis, flat on his back in the medical bay with tubes down his throat, which is, he figures, pretty much another Monday.
It is the fourth time he wakes up - with some middle-aged lady in a medical coat standing over him barking out instructions, and what feels like a small army of nurses running around him - that things get weird. He tried to look around for his team - Ronon was on the mainland, coordinating the land-based weapons systems, but Teyla had been in the city, and Rodney, of course Rodney had been in the control room, which John knew was even more dangerous than flying attack runs in a jumper.
Rodney isn't there, and the sick bay seems a lot - bigger than it used to be, and John doesn't recognize anyone, anyone, except when he starts to black out again from the strange heavy feeling in his lungs, just as the room starts to go bright and gray and blur out at the edges, he sees his mother, young as her wedding portrait, standing over him in a nurse's jacket.
He feels sick enough that he is having trouble holding thoughts in his head, but he is pretty sure that that's disturbing.
By the time he's awake for more than a minute or two at a time, he knows something is very wrong. Once a Wraith soldier put his hand in the middle of John's chest, and John's hair went white and his body went weak, and his joints ached under the pull of gravity. He recognizes the feeling now, and when the nurse comes in - another unfamiliar one, dark skin and short dark hair and an Athosian accent - he keeps waiting for her to check his feeding mark. Clearly they've won - the city is still standing, and he doesn't smell smoke or burning circuitry, or hear shouting and running in the halls - and he wonders if there are any Wraith prisoners, if the one who'd done this to him is still alive somewhere in a holding cell and if it is as easy as finding him and getting him to give John his chi back.
When he turns his head slightly, he sees a pile of papers and some kind of computer equipment in the chair by his bed, and he realizes that this means that Rodney is probably alive, and will probably be along soon, and then Rodney will explain what's happening and they can fix it together. He goes back to sleep.
When there is no one in the room, it is crowded, and when there is nothing but the hum of equipment, it is noisy, noisy like standing in the middle of a shopping mall on Earth the day before Christmas, and John wishes it would shut up, shut up so he could sleep. The best thing about Antarctica was the quiet, and John tries to say "Shut up!" into the empty infirmary but what comes out is a rattling moan that scares him a little, reedy and faint.
There is the hush of a door, and a sense of nearness, and when he - barely - turns his head, Rodney is there.
Rodney's hairline has gone back three inches, leaving him with a rough halo of fading silver-and-brown hair that he clearly hasn't had cut in a while, and he is wearing no kind of uniform but rather jacket and pants of rough gray cloth. His face is lined, and there is a scar running an inch around his cheekbone. He had definitely gained weight, and that nags at John, nags until Rodney's hand finds his arm, around all the machines, and John suddenly remembers the last twenty years.
"Of course you can travel in time," Rodney will say to him later. "Everyone travels in time. It's just, unless you've got a time machine, we only ever go one direction."
Charin doesn't mind the whispered rumors, the teenagers thronging the hallway outside the infirmary. She doesn't even mind when John comes to live with them, even though he spends the whole day sleeping on the couch, which she's used to being able to use without negotiating with an undead relative. She's even pretty sure she doesn't mind John holding her father's hand, or the way John leans against her father's chest when they sit together after dinner. She thinks.
The first time she catches him reading one of her mother's books, she slaps it out of his hand.
She's aware of the city, all the time, pressing in on her and murmuring father when she looks at Colonel Sheppard. It's new, tangible, insistent. The city says father and she answers, fiercely: my father is a scientist. He is not a soldier. He is not a stranger, and he doesn't belong to a hundred different children. My father is mine.
Father, insists the city, and she grits her teeth and turns away.
Charin walks to school the long way, under towers turning pink with sunrise, under the spreading branches of the trees in their huge troughs of earth, and the noise of the birds that nest in the high towers and fly out to the reef every morning to fish. Charin is twelve years old; she has asymmetrical hair and one broken shoelace, which causes her to periodically kick her left boot outward as she walks. She is carrying a computer case on one hip, and there is no one else in the long plaza, but she isn't worried because the city watches. The city is always watching.
She passes empty street-level mess halls, their cafe tables wet with the morning fog; storerooms, workrooms, closed up for the night, and the open front of a botany lab, where someone's old U2 mp3s echo, faint and eerie in the chilly morning air.
The blocks around the Gateroom are busy, this early. Athosian traders stand bleary-eyed from the dawn jumper flight from the mainland, or are headed home, packs full, from planets where it's already day. A crowd of visiting dignitaries sweeps past, all haggard, gatelagged faces and ceremonial robes, and everywhere Atlantean scientists and soldiers bustle like ants, dressed in their black and beige in the long halls of the City.
Charin takes the lift to the fifteenth floor of the tower where school is held; she sits and eats her breakfast at her desk while the room fills up with other twelve-year-olds who look just like her. They greet each other, or don't; they've all known each other their whole lives. Towards the back of the room, there are a handful of students that don't have pointy ears or hazel eyes or the all-important ability to open doors with their minds. They are too young for the gene treatment; twelve is not an age that is kind towards difference, and even though Charin has known them her whole life, too, the non-ATAs keep to themselves. The teacher, who is very tall and not unkind, has been heard to observe before that it might be kinder to put them in a separate class, instead of in this mixed setting where they always seem to struggle. After all, she continues, unaware that she's standing by the door where her students can hear her, most non-ATAs drop out before the advanced classes anyway. Families where no one has the gene tend to move to the coastal village, on the mainland, which is an entire settlement of English-speaking Earth people. You can tell the villagers from Atlanteans, when they come to the City - they are sunburnt, and their clothes are different. Charin remembers her crush on Dusan Slolik with faint embarrassment now, but she sees the Sloliks and the Lornes when they come to trade, or to collect their shares from the increasingly rare shipments from Earth.
Charin likes school fine; at least, she likes the class part of school. When she was younger, the teachers taught Earth history, Earth literature, even some Earth sciences - things that children raised on Atlantis might need if they went to Earth universities. Over the years, though, as the ever-more-infrequent databursts sent by the SGC become grimmer, and the letters from Earthside scientists that her father decrypts at the kitchen table make him tight-lipped and silent, Earth begins to drop out of the curriculum. Charin's school teaches Atlantean technology and science, and Ancient history, and - carefully - the Wraith war, and the story of all the worlds that rose up against them.
There is a Wraith skull on the wall of an old armory down on the fourth level. Charin doesn't know who put it there, or who know that it's there besides the band of ghoulish grade-schoolers who discovered it. She touched it once, on a dare, and was surprised at how light it felt in her hand, how delicate and small the jaw, the domed cranium were. She woke up screaming that night, the next night, from dreams of pointed, rotting teeth, and hands like open wounds.
Her father has nightmares about the war, but she never asks him about it. Everyone's parents have the nightmares - the walls between the quarters aren't that thick. It's adult business, and Charin never asks him anything about those last two years, or the final battle. Most of them have never asked their parents about it.
John, on the other hand, is apparently a topic ripe for speculation.
"I heard he killed a thousand Wraith," Anias Heightmeyer says in a whisper, leaning over the work table in the lab. They are potting fig seedlings for the southwest plaza, the kind of pottering, enriching activity that Charin feels free to judge as silly. She goes out to the mainland every fall and spring for harvest and planting; there are brief, tough calluses on the bases of her palms. She is proud of them and curls her hands to hide them in class sometimes.
"That seems pretty unlikely," Scott Kusanagi says. He had a streak of dirt on his nose, and his mother's glasses; he keeps his hair buzzed short, so that it never really attains the height it obviously wants to. "He was in a jumper under the ocean for, what, the last three months of the war?"
"Yeah, but before that," Anias says. She is a tiny girl, always the smallest in their year, and restrains her huge Sheppard hair in a braid that is as thick around as her wrist. She and Charin carry the old, mutual grudge of siblings who have had time to forget the specifics.
"I haven't asked him," Charin says, her head bent towards her project.
"It's so unfair," Anias says. "He won't talk to anybody except you and your dad, and you don't even care." Her voice is a little plaintive. Anias's full name is Anias Sheppard Heightmeyer, and adults have always made much of her pointed chin, her pointed ears, her hazel eyes.
"I don't think he wants to talk about it," Charin says. She doesn't think it's Anias' business. Her father and John love to tell old war stories, about places Charin has never seen - she's never been offworld - and people who died long before she was born. Charin is getting a little sick of it, honestly.
This is one reason why Charin leaves school early - besides, there's no reason to stay after her work is done, the teacher really doesn't care. It's good to be out of the halls before everyone who Anias has talked to at lunch gets out of class, anyway. She doesn't want to go back to her quarters, which are full of John's dirty laundry and bad music and war stories, and she's pretty sure that if she walks in on them cuddling again, she's going to scream. She's still allowed in the Gateroom, though - the techs never get around to restricting access unless someone's really underfoot or causing trouble, and she's well-behaved in the places that count.
Charles Campbell junior is one of the only second-generation non-ATAs working on a technical crew, and when Charin was ten she had a ferocious little-kid crush on him, but now she's nearly twelve, and so when he says "Hey, Cher," and pulls up a second chair for her in front of the gate controls, she resolutely doesn't blush or stutter.
"Busy day?" she asks, looking over the gate controls. Chuck Senior used to let her press the symbols for dialing, sometimes, to her father's neverending consternation. She wonders if she still remembers any of the combinations - it's one of those things that they never quite get to in school.
Charlie shakes his head and gestures to the empty gateroom, which is empty except for a couple of bored, burly kids from the warehouse crew and some crates. "Three hundred kilos of salt for P3X-447," he says. "But you should have been here this morning. Two hundred and fifty-five goat things came through from M7G-667. We had to shut down the gateroom for half an hour just to clean up all the goat shit."
"For the mainland?" Charin asks, glancing at Charlie for permission before she brings up the gate display. She's definitely not done Gate Science yet - that's a full diploma in the Upper School, and not many people take it, even though her father scoffs and tries to make people sign up - but she likes looking at the power displays, and the starmaps.
Charlie shakes his head. "Meat on the hoof for the mess kitchens. Maybe they'll trade some out to the settlements for milk, though. It's Doctor Keller's consulting fee, and the tuition for those ATA kids from M76-667."
Charin wrinkles her nose. There's an abattoir down in the east, near the refrigerated warehouses that serve all the city mess halls, and the smell coming off of it in summer is godawful. She'll have to change the way she walks home.
"No Athosians going through?" she asks. She's been kind of hoping to see someone from Teyla's settlement.
"Not till the evening, now," he says, and then, apropos of nothing, "How's Colonel Sheppard?"
Her shoulders involuntarily hunch, and she's sure he's noticed, but she says, "Fine," and then, "Apparently universally fascinating," and there's a tightness in her voice that sounds just like her father.
Charin gets food from the mess in the same flimsy plastic boxes they've been washing and reusing since the last real food shipment from Earth. John eats in their quarters so that he doesn't have to face old acquaintances or freaky, staring children in the mess hall; Rodney eats in their quarters because he likes to be around John. Charin sits on the floor by the door and feels intense dislike towards both of them, but doesn't feel up to facing the mess hall by herself.
Charin gets shoved at school, a little. Her stuff starts to fall off her desk a lot. Anias is apparently still upset, and Anias is also pretty popular in their grade.
John has come to the mess hall a couple of times, and sat with Charin and Rodney. This has not helped.
Charin stops talking at school if she can help it, and she eats meals in the twenty-four-hour mess, where it's all overcooked noodles and techs with no families, or in quarters with John and her father. The creepiness doesn't end with Anias, though - a couple of older ATAs, students at the Upper School, are always catching her in the hall and asking her how John is, if he's said anything -
Charin stares at Devon Messier blankly, and he repeats himself. "Has he said anything about his reasons for returning now?" His voice is smooth, a little blissful, and he's creeping Charin out.
"There must be a reason," his girlfriend, who is Athosian, short, dark, intense-looking, says at his elbow. She presses her hand to Charin's shoulder. "We are so blessed," she adds, "that he chose you to be the instrument of his return -"
Charin has never had a worse case of the heebie-jeebies in her life; she ducks her head and runs the other way down the hall.
John avoids the ATAs like the plague, and because most of the young people who are being trained as medics and scientists and jumper pilots and city maintenance personnel are ATAs, he winds up avoiding just about everybody. He sits in Rodney's quarters and plays Sudoku. He has really awkward interactions with Charin. He has some cautiously middle-aged sex with Rodney, on weekends when Charin's on the mainland, and even then kind of unsuccessfully. He curls his newly pale and weak and thin body into the hollow under Rodney's arm and feels weird and kind of sick and also safe.
He waits for the babble and hum in his head to die down but it doesn't, and doesn't, and some days John can see shadowy shapes through the walls and floor, and make out the dim lines of circuitry through the metal. When Rodney is nearby John is itchily, hopelessly aware of him. It shuts out the rest of the noise a little, but it's also irritating enough that it's a relief when he goes off to whatever he does all day and John's sense of him recedes, and recedes, and finally becomes part of the crackle and roar of the City.
John thinks he's going a little crazy - Rodney's babble about human/computer interfaces and sensory deprivation and the ATA gene aside. Except, on his second month up and walking around, when the doctors have declared his immune system robust enough to withstand real dirt and real air, he goes to visit Teyla. As the jumper arcs over the wide blue-green ocean between the City and the Continent, the noise recedes, and narrows, until it's finally just a beep or a blip or a flash on the horizon, like a lighthouse across an inland bay. He gets out of the jumper into the silence of a mainland afternoon - heavy and hazy with midsummer, full of the faint shush of the hot breeze through the grainfield. He feels like he has cotton in his ears, or like the morning after concerts when he was nineteen years old - everything faint, and distant, and kind of peaceful. He smiles broadly, and smiles again when he meets Teyla's beautiful wife and beautiful children, all of them tall and wiry and so Athosian, even the one who looks like him.
He's not piloting the jumper, of course - they sent along a kid in his early twenties who John didn't look at too closely - and when John comes back to the jumper the kid's sitting with his feet up on the console, playing on one of the translucent, hand-held tablets everyone seems to have now. Rodney's lagged behind, caught up in some discussion about Charin's schoolwork with Teyla, and John ducks into the jumper and nods at the kid, who takes his feet down and looks embarrassed.
"Long way from the city," John says, looking out the window at the grainfield.
The kid looks at him, looks out the window, nods. "I like it out here," he says, finally. He's younger than John thought; his voice is still a little cracky. "The noise gets to you after a while."
John looks confused.
"You know." The boy frowns. He points at the tablet. "The computer noise, all the time. Some people say they can't sleep without it, but I'm going off-world as soon as I'm old enough."
John is still for a moment, and then says, "You can't hear it off-world?"
The kid's eyebrows arch, and he snorts. "Through a Gate? That'd take a stronger gene than mine." Then he seems to realize who he's talking to, and blushes, and looks very busy with the jumper controls.
When John and Rodney are back in their quarters that night, eating noodles in a plastic box from the mess, John says, "I know what I want to do now."
John has avoided Elizabeth since he woke up, after one single, painful encounter in the infirmary. She is frail and gray-haired, with the old faded scar of a feeding mark showing burn-smooth under her collar, and she has never once tried to justify to John what the city became while he lay under the ocean. She met his eyes, and she took responsibility, like Elizabeth always has, and then they avoided each other.
She is at this meeting, though - Elizabeth and Kate Heightmeyer and Jennifer Keller arrayed along the conference table like the Fates in a Greek myth.
"I want to work as a pilot," he says. "Jumper pilots go to the mainland five times a day, and through the gate at least daily. I can run traders around. It's what I was doing before I joined the expedition, more or less."
Elizabeth glances at Doctor Keller, who spreads her hands and shrugs.
"It's an interesting idea, John," Elizabeth says, gently. "You certainly are qualified." She looks at Kate Heightmeyer.
Kate Heightmeyer leans back in her chair. She wears her graying hair cropped close to her skull, exposing the clean curve of her neck. Her eyes are narrowed as she looks at John.
"I'm sure you're aware that you're the subject of some... interest to many of our younger citizens," she says, finally.
John's mouth tightens, but he doesn't say anything.
Kate glances at Elizabeth, like she's asking for permission, and then says, "We're at a precarious point. Politically. Many of the alliances of the Wraith wars are breaking up. Every world with a human population is in the middle of a population expansion, and the federations that were held together by the need for mutual defense - "
"-Like the Genii," Elizabeth supplies, her voice not strong,
"Like the Genii," Kate says, "are falling apart. We have the big guns, and strong alliances, but just past our borders -"
"And then there's Earth," Doctor Keller said, and then she won't meet John's eyes.
John looked at the three of them, and then he looked down at his own thin hands. "So what are you saying," he said, "it's too dangerous out there for a jumper pilot?"
Elizabeth cracked a smile. It looked a little painful in the web of wrinkles that was her face. "What I'm saying, John," she says, "is that we could use you a lot better than that."
"You're a potent symbol," Heightmeyer says, nodding. "You're like - the Atlantean."
Elizabeth folded her hands. "How about taking your old command back?" she says.
"Hell with this." John says when Rodney catches up with him in the hallway afterwards. He is shaking a little. "To hell. With this. I am going to move to the mainland, McKay, and I am going to grow beans. Do you hear me? I am going to marry a bean-farming Athosian women and have fat Athosian babies. Command post my hairy American ass."
Rodney grabs his arm. "Because what you need is more babies, you asshole." He drags Sheppard into the terminal alcove at the end of the hall. It won't do for the kids to see Colonel John Sheppard having a meltdown in the middle of a public thoroughfare.
John's eyes are a little crazed., but all he says is, "There's such a thing as enough war, Rodney."
"Oh." Rodney's arm goes around John's back, and then he finds a bench, and sits them down. John turns his face into the wall a little, and Rodney thinks, well, of course. It was months ago for him. Then he thinks some nasty things about Doctor Heightmeyer. "They wanted you to -"
"Why is Heightmeyer running the city anyway?" John says.
"After the war." Rodney says. "Elizabeth couldn't keep it up. She wanted to train Teyla, but Teyla went home and got married. And most of the diplomats moved to the mainland." He rubs John's back, a slow circle. He can still feel the vertebrae sharp under his hand. "We don't take much ruling. They mostly mediate fights over laboratory space."
"Offworld?" John says.
Rodney sighs. "That's all still Elizabeth." He's very quiet for a moment or two - long enough that John looks at him, surprised -
and then he says, "If Elizabeth won't turn you loose, there's another whole country out there."
John looks at him, surprised.
Rodney smiles. " Elizabeth isn't in charge of the Athosians. Let's go ask Teyla."
John takes an old set of pilot's BDUs from the city warehouses - not his own, which would fall off of his hips now, but some that were meant for some skinny teenage recruit. They are narrow, dusty, and still a little stiff with dye. He sits with the unfolded uniform on his knee, looking at it, until Rodney sees what he is doing, crosses to him, and tears the flag off the sleeve for him.
"There," Rodney says. "One less thing to get shot at for." And then at John's look he says, "You'll be fine, you'll be fine, Teyla visits nice little towns where they make wool socks and haven't seen a weapon in twenty years. Just - don't catch space tetanus. Or get eaten by wild dogs. Or something."
John looks at him again, and then leans up and kisses him - Rodney's mouth is soft and surprised under his - and goes to change.
Teyla had been delighted at their proposal. "I am taking Jinto to meet our trading partners," she said. "John would be most welcome on the journey - we are making a visit every three or four days, and sometimes staying on-world longer than that -" and then she had looked at Rodney. "Are you sure you will not mind?"
And Rodney had thought, guiltily, of quiet in his quarters, and long nights in the lab, and sleeping in the middle of his barely-double Ancient bed. "I'll get by," he said. "If John thinks it's a good plan."
The first trip is a four-day haul, sixteen towns on five different worlds, and Rodney tells himself not to worry. He actually succeeds, mostly. At least, he doesn't worry about John. He and Charin eat their meals in the mess hall again - Zelenka gives them an exasperated sigh, and moves down the table to make room. He learns that Charin has missed so much school that she's failing math, and they have a shouting match in their quarters, and she sits on the other side of the Zelenka family and won't speak to him for the entire second day. He realizes, suddenly, that the world has been going on without him for months. He is behind in the labs. Twenty-five students are on the waiting list for his next engineering seminar. Zelenka's oldest girl is going steady with an Athosian boy - a non-ATA, of course - from the Northern settlement. The biologists have reclaimed the third experimental bay and are up to something ferociously smelly involving fungus cultures, and he and Zelenka only discover it when they go in after a hard drive they left there a year ago. And Charin has gotten weirder.
"Why doesn't this map say Esha?" Charin says suddenly, after lunch on the third day.
Her father looks up from the document he's marking up. He's been setting her make-up homework, and then grading it himself. This has not contributed much to household harmony. "What?"
"Teyla's settlement. It's called Esha. It was a mountain on Athos." She points to her geometry sheet - a vector-drawn map, a little cartoon of a jumper, some questions involving Jumper A and Jumper B and looking for a lost trade caravan from the air. The communities of the mainland are marked with little round houses - Southeast, and East-South, and Northwest, and North. They're not creative names, but Rodney's always appreciated that at least you can get there with a compass bearing.
"What?" Rodney looks over the screen. "You calculated the diameter instead of the area here. You've got to read the question, Charin. It doesn't matter how fast you do the math if it's not the right math."
"Nobody here knows that." Charin uses her tablet more easily than pen and paper; Rodney, who never got out of the whiteboard habit, is glad he got her a computer young. It's one of the old Earth machines, not shiny, but serviceable, and increasingly rare. He remembers how excited she was when she unwrapped it, a bare four birthdays ago. "It's the most important place on the mainland. East-South is not the right name."
"East-South is what we call it because Esha is hard to pronounce." Rodney answers, tapping at another equation. "And because 'East-South' is useful for getting there from here. You know, you'd take up a lot less space if you rounded to two decimal points instead of five."
"But that's not what it's called." she snaps, and stomps off, and Rodney is completely confused, and more confused when she won't speak to him the next day.
"I think she's a teenager," he says to Zelenka later, in the lab. "She threw a pencil at my head this morning."
"You have not been among the observant, this last few months," Zelenka replies with dry sympathy. "It is not your fault."
Rodney folds his arms. They are standing in front of the power-consumption wall display, trying to figure out how to reroute around a broken conduit on level seven. Rodney wonders when he became a repairman. He wonders what all the obscure equations running in the background on his lab computer are supposed to be for, and who will ever see them. "I know," he says. "I guess I hoped things would wait. Is all."
John comes back with a bit of a sunburn - "Village number twelve was on a beach," he says. "It seemed like a good idea," and a box of dried limmi fruit from MST-4820 for Charin. Charin accepts the gift quietly, and cynically. She and Rodney are in a state of wary truce. It is certainly not their first big father-daughter fight, and it will not be their last, but Rodney realizes how hard she's been trying to behave recently. That's not fair. He wants his daughter to behave, but - "I don't want her to behave behave, you know?" he says to John, when they are debriefing in that sense where there's beer. "I don't need to raise a well-behaved girl."
"You want her to stand up for herself," John answers.
"Even when she's an enormous pain in my ass," Rodney replies. The beer is his coming-home present, like the limmi fruit is Charin's. "But is it so much to ask that she make some sense?"
"Teenagers," John sighs. His sunburn is peeling a little. He takes another gulp of beer, tilts his head, moves his leg to cross over Rodney's. "Where's Charin at?"
"She wanted to sleep over at Becca Arnold's quarters," Rodney answers. "Up on Level Eight. Emmaline Arnold's an engineer; father's from offworld. You probably haven't met them."
John shakes his head.
"I want her to have more Atlantean friends," Rodney says finally. "She spends all her time on the mainland."
"Teyla's kind to her."
"Yes, well. Teyla is Teyla." Rodney mouths at his beer. He's gotten used to the faint licorice note, but the not-at-all-lemon lemonyness still unnerves him. "It's the rest that I worry about."
When Charin goes home before school, Colonel Sheppard is asleep on the couch, again. There is a heap of Malonian beer bottles on the table, and she curls her lip as she picks them up, one by one, and pushes them into the reclamation chute. The last one she rinses out and puts on the counter. She'll use it to keep tuve branches in, she decides. The Athosians always plant tuve around their houses; they believe the smell of the leaves wards off sickness. She can bring some back from the mainland, if she's smart about it.
Rodney comes out of the bathroom, toweling his head. "Almost time for school, Cher," he says. She sighs, and goes to put her backpack together. "Look," he says, coming to stand in her bedroom door, "I haven't been so on top of things, these last few months. I'm sorry about that."
She folds her sweater and puts it in her bag. Sometimes the classrooms are cold. "It's okay," she says.
"But you're going through hard things too," he says. "Changes. And all that."
Hope gives a little hop in her belly and she thinks that he's talking about living with Colonel John Sheppard, Pegasus-galaxy messiah. Then she takes in the anxiousness on his face and the way he's clutching his coffee mug, and she realizes that's not what he's talking about at all.
"They talked to us about that in school, Dad," she says, disappointed, unstacking the pile of textbooks on the little table in the corner. Her room is tiny, four paces from wall to wall, and the skylight high on the wall is fake. She's never wanted to switch to a bigger room. "And Teyla gave me an undershirt for my birthday."
There is a pause. "It's not like Teyla's old shirts, is it?" her father finally says. "Because you can only wear those under a sweater until you're twenty."
She slings her backpack across her back and stands. "I've got to get to class," she says. "Say hi to the Colonel for me, when he wakes up."
War has broken out between the Third National Genii Quadrant and the New Revived Genii Brotherhood. Charin learns about it in school; Teyla goes to negotiate. Elizabeth dispatches troops in black-and-gray Atlantis uniforms. Elizabeth tries to send John, who will have nothing to do with it and pretends not to read the news about it. Charin lays awake and listens to his voice, and Rodney's, rising and falling after they think she's asleep. It's over by then.
"There were not many of them," Teyla says. Teyla answers her children's questions when she is asked. "Just a few families, on a moon." And then her face twists, and she says, "Atlantis and the Genii Federation are very old allies. Since the war."
Charin is sitting with Senna, helping her shell umuri for dinner, and she bends her head down, because Teyla is too polite to say more when she, an Atlantean, is in the room.
Sometimes John tries to go to meetings that Elizabeth asks him to attend. He doesn't know what's happening. He really doesn't want to know what's happening. The pieces he picks up from their conversations, and from the briefing documents he dutifully downloads to his notebook, don't make any sense and don't fit together. The Genii civil war is old news. Gelphinea A is at war with its moon, Gelphinea B; the Nonians, who John always assumed were the only inhabitants of the planet he marked "Nonas" on the gate chart, are apparently one of five hundred nation states on the third continent on HPT-314, all of whom are in conflict over control of the single Stargate on their planet's surface. Every single planet in the former Wraith territories has doubled or tripled its population in the years since the war; half of them are in ecological crisis, and the other half seem to be scraping by using Ancient transportation and Ancient irrigation, which most worlds or countries or cities or villages don't have the genes or the technical expertise to keep running. And there is an entire galaxy of people - not just one crowded planet, not even a solar system. John is not sure there is a number large enough to describe how many people there are in a galaxy, twenty years past the Wraith. Doctor Keller's team could do nothing but give people the gene therapy all day every day, and it would never touch a hundred thousandth of a percent of the people now living. If most of them would even accept it. John's not really sure.
It makes John feel tired just reading about it. Not that he cares, really, because Atlantis is here and he goes to and from the mess hall and the infirmary and enjoys not wearing a gun, even if the world is much creepier than it used to be, thank you gene project.
Elizabeth is frail, and seems to be in some kind of constant low-level pain, and she smiles and nods and still has that way of talking people in a circle that ends back at we're all reasonable folks here. Her edges have hardened. John catches her elbow, helps her up from a conference table where they have been meeting with the Arch Prince of the Glorious Herreman, a young man in leather armor like the hardened carapace of a beetle who is unstinting, and might, for all John knows, represent fifteen people or several billion.
Elizabeth spares him a smile. Her skin is thin, papery; in this meeting, she hasn't drawn a shawl up over the feeding mark on her chest, but let it show through the neck of her tunic, a brown brand against her fragile bones. The Prince's eyes moved over it, John realizes - and the prince's voice lowered and went respectful. Elizabeth knows her job and always has.
If it was twenty years ago, John would have hunted down the last Wraith in the universe, and stood over it, gun to its head, until it gave Elizabeth her time back.
There are no more Wraith in the universe. Elizabeth assures him of it. From time to time, a single pod is found floating out among the stars, and all the quarreling worlds unite to reduce it to glowing dust.
John prefers attaching himself to Teyla's missions, which are friendly and involve livestock and planets that they visited a long time ago, when they were young and there weren't so many damn people. John likes Harmony's planet, Duras, the best. The Queen is gracious to him, friendly, not the least bit ceremonious, and she smiles when she tells her courtiers the story of her unpleasant childhood hike with John. "I was a brat," she says, laughing a big, wide-open laugh. "I think the Colonel Colonel was tempted to shoot me himself."
She grants him free passage through her city, which is full of merchants and workshops, singers and booksellers and fine old stone buildings that catch the afternoon light as it sets over the Western Range. John spends a lot of time there, because Teyla and Jinto are caught up in some kind of heavy negotiations, and John walks in the market and buys Rodney weird cheeses and pocket-sized machinery with inscrutable purposes. Only once - his first visit - is his presence required in the Castle, and there the Queen asks him to stand beside Jinto, and says, to Teyla, "Yes. I see what you mean."
John likes Jinto, even though looking at him is like looking into a slightly-Athosian mirror, and he puts it out of his head, where he keeps all the creepy ATA things about the people he likes. If he had remembered that moment, it might have been less of a shock when Teyla let him know, discretely, that this would be their last visit together, as Jinto and the Queen were now engaged.
"It is bad luck for them to meet in person now," she says, sitting upright in the jumper seat in her long ceremonial tunic, and John blurts, "Engaged?" Jinto is seventeen years old.
"She's nice, really," Jinto says to Charin. "She looks younger than she is - and she's only thirty-five. That's practically my age." He is trying to smile. Charin has known him for too long to be fooled. "And Duras is pretty - I guess I'll be there all the time, after the wedding -"
Charin doesn't say anything, but she puts her hand through her half-brother's, and he looks away.
Gifts pour into Esha, on long wagon trains from the barges that sail back and forth from the Lantean Gate. Jenet sorts them, and makes long lists, and Teyla and Jinto do the hard work of dividing them up among the other settlements and the other families in their settlement, because it is bad luck and bad manners to keep too much for too long. Charin tries to help, but she finds herself putting off settlement visits, and when Jenet starts fitting her for an Athosian-style dress to wear to the wedding - out of a length of beautiful, shining orange fabric from one of the Queen's endless wagons - Charin starts to cry, and is ashamed.
She goes walking with Selena, up in the hills above the settlement. Selena has been avoiding Teyla's house altogether; she sleeps in the woods sometimes, more often now than before, and smells of woodsmoke and days on the trail.
"I know," Selena says, when she meets Charin on the forest trail behind her father's house, and that is the last thing she says for an hour as they check the trap lines. Then she says, "Too many of us are of the same clan, here. Jinto knew if he married he would have to marry through the Gate."
"He could have not married," Charin says, spitefully.
Selena doesn't say anything, bends to check an old snare, redoes the knot with the rope held in her teeth. She straightens, and starts to walk, and when Charin catches up with her she says, "Yes. He could have been an old uncle in one of his sister's houses."
"He could have married someone from here." Charin is out of breath; she is carrying three etem carcasses in a bag, from snares Selena has already checked, and they smell like dirty animal and blood. She also wants to cry.
"There is no one here," Selena finally says. And then she says, "He has a duty."
Title: Pangeneses (or, there are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning.)
Category: AU, Futurefic, Kidfic, Het, Slash.
Warnings: PG-13 for violence, hand-holding. Kidfic. More reproductive politics. OC's by the bucketload. The canon for this is composed of SGA seasons 1 - 3, plus Harmony.
This is a sequel to Panthalassa, so reading that first might help.
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard, many in the background.
Length: 16,000 words, 86 k.
Thanks: This story is dedicated to phnelt, who has been with this thing for as long as I have. Many thanks to betas lurkmuch, morganlefae, and rilestar. You guys have been awesome.