Rating: Gen; PG-13 for violence
Characters: Sheppard, McKay, Weir, Ronon, Teyla, Beckett, Zelenka, Lorne
Spoilers: seasons 1 & 2, up to and including Grace Under Pressure
Summary: Sheppard is stuck on an alien planet with something the Ancients left behind.
Note: Resources I used while writing this are listed at the end of the story.


Ars Arboreous
by Mahoney

*

...bonus dormitat Homerus (loosely, 'even Homer screws up')
-- from Ars Poetica, Horace

*

John came out of the Stargate onto a narrow stone platform. It extended just far enough out from the gate that, presumably, anyone standing just off the edge of it wouldn’t get incinerated when the gate was activated.

Ronon stepped out beside him and walked out to the center of the platform, gazing around.

“I can see what you liked about the place,” John said.

Teyla and Rodney appeared behind them, and as the gate switched off Rodney groaned. “Oh, wonderful. Exactly how are we supposed to get through that?”

‘That’ was a sea of grass, taller than any of them, crowding around the gate. Except for the area taken up by the stone platform, the gate was completely enveloped by it, only the very top of it arching above the red spires and purple seed heads. The pale stalks packed tightly together, barely moving in still, warm air that was already becoming oppressive. John thought he saw the DHD just off to the right at the end of the platform, swallowed up by the grass.

It would be a good place to get lost if you were on the run from the Wraith, but it was going to be a pain in the ass to walk through.

“McKay,” John said. “Run a scan for life signs.”

“I thought Ronon said the place was unpopulated,” Rodney muttered, but he already had the scanner out.

“Yeah, well, it’s been a few years since he was here.”

“And some of those fleeing the Wraith culling may have found this place and settled here since then,” Teyla added.

But Rodney shook his head. “I’ve got nothing as far as life signs. Scanning for energy signatures now –“ He paused, adjusting the scanner controls. “Okay, no, that can’t be right.” He looked up and stared out over the grass; John followed his gaze to a tree line close by, straight out from the gate.

Rodney turned on Ronon, pointing in the direction of the trees. “Is the Ancient outpost in that direction?”

Ronon nodded.

“I thought you said it was small? Only a fraction of the size of Atlantis?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, are you sure?” Rodney demanded. “I mean, you were being chased by a Wraith. I’ve seen how fast you run, maybe you just glanced at it as you zipped by, and saw a small portion of something possibly bigger?”

“I camped near it the night after I killed the Wraith,” Ronon said flatly. John knew Ronon still wasn’t entirely used to McKay’s tendency to question everybody to death, but at least he refrained from taking Rodney’s head off. In both the literal and the figurative sense. “It’s as big as I say.”

“Rodney?” John prompted, imbuing the word with as many levels of ‘get on with it, please’ as he could manage.

Rodney went back to the scanner, peering closely at it as if the readings would change from across a shorter distance. “It’s just that this doesn’t make sense. I’m reading enough energy to power a whole city coming from that forest. And by city, I don’t mean Atlantis, I mean, for example, New York.”

Rodney held the scanner out for John.

“…wow.” That was a really big energy signature. John handed the scanner back and looked a question at Rodney, who shrugged.

“I have no idea. Could be any number of things. A naturally occurring power source. A civilization that can shield their life signs but not their energy output. If you want to swing around to the really ugly end of the spectrum, it could be several dozen or so Wraith hive ships with the all the crew in hibernation.”

“I vote for option number one,” John said, adjusting the strap of his P90 to settle it more comfortably in his hands. “But since nobody’s counting my vote, we’d better dial Atlantis and let them know, just in case. Who wants to try to get to the DHD over there?”

*

“Once,” Rodney panted. “Just once, it would be nice if Elizabeth said ‘gee, you guys have been sent into so many potentially life-threatening situations lately, why don’t you come on back and we’ll let somebody else put their ass on the line today.’”

He paused and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. Coming through the dense, razor-sharp grass had been bad enough; he’d nearly twisted his ankle half a dozen times, the skin of his face and hands had been flayed off, and, god, the heat. It was cooler under the forest canopy, but only a few feet in the ground began to slope upward. Giant trees of a size that would shame Sequoias marched up the incline; thick, heavy-looking vines, some with huge, pale pods hanging off of them, threaded around and through the trunks and branches; enormous boulders clustered in places all over the hillside like herds of petrified elephants.

This planet, Rodney thought, does everything big.

“Oh, come on, Rodney,” Sheppard said from up ahead. “This could be the mother lode. The answer to all of our power needs. You want to let somebody else be the one to find it?”

Sheppard didn’t even have the decency to be winded. He also didn’t stop. Rodney shoved off his tree and trudged after them.

“Since it’s more likely to be something that explodes, causes skin-rotting diseases, or eats people, they’d be welcome to it.” But, he didn’t say, if it is the mother lode – an Ancient city with, say, a handful of fully powered ZPMs lying around radiating powerful energy signatures….

Well, honestly, why did they think he kept coming on these insane missions? The potential for history-making discoveries (the good kind, not the one-more-alien-race-that-wants-to-kill-us kind) was too good to pass up. Plus, they needed him around for when hand-to-hand combat wasn’t an option and saving the day actually required brains.

And he would never admit it to anyone, but there was also the fact that sometimes, on good days, with this particular group of people, the missions could be maybe just a little fun.

Not on days when hills were involved, though.

Watching his feet and willing them to keep moving, he didn’t see the others stop. He collided with Teyla, who sidestepped and caught his arm to steady him.

“What are we stopping for?” he asked.

Ronon pointed to the top of the hill, at a tall ridge of vine-strewn rock. “We’re here.”

“What, that?”

He took several steps forward, and suddenly soft angles and planes that didn’t quite match the surrounding rock resolved themselves beneath the foliage. As they drew closer, he saw that Ronon hadn’t understated the size of the structure after all. It looked to be only two or three stories tall; towering rocks bookended it, and from one end to the other it couldn’t have been wider than maybe twice the width of the gate room in Atlantis. On the other hand, there was no telling how far back it went.

Sheppard brushed aside a curtain of creepers, exposing part of a dirt-crusted but gracefully arched window. “I guess it looks pretty much Ancient.”

“Look at this,” Teyla was at the left end of the building. She pointed to where the design had been modified to allow the structure to mold almost seamlessly against the rock. “It seems to have been constructed to blend in with its surroundings.”

“Or maybe to allow the surroundings to complement it,” Rodney said. “Like, the Ancient version of Organic Architecture.” He tried to imagine it without the grime and encroaching plant life. “It must have been striking. But I’ve never seen an Ancient structure that deviated so much from the typical angular, pointy-spire look. Maybe it wasn’t built by them after all.”

“Well,” Sheppard said, stepping back and sweeping his gaze over the structure. “We might know more once we get inside. Let’s see if we can find a door. I’d hate to bust out one of those pretty windows.”

Ronon moved directly to a space about dead center on the ground level. “The door is here. Last time I tried opening it without having to cut away the vines, but it’s locked up pretty tight. I couldn’t have got it open without blasting it.”

Sheppard nodded. “Well, I’d like to avoid shooting it open, but since we’re not worried about anybody knowing we went in we can be a little less careful.”

As Ronon pulled out one of his scarier knives and began to slice through the vines, Rodney got out his scanner and moved closer, staying just far enough from him to avoid being accidentally gutted. The energy readings were close by. If the structure went much farther back than they could see from here…but it would have to go much, much farther back, given the area the readings covered.

He heard a sound behind him; it was soft enough that, as engrossed in the scanner readings as he was, it didn’t occur to him to be alarmed. He half-turned and glanced up absentmindedly.

A vine hung down from one of the trees above him. It hadn’t been there just a moment ago; if it had he would have walked right into it. It unfurled slowly, almost deliberately. Out of the corner of his eye he saw several more dropping with little more than a whispering rustle, hanging down around him and Ronon.

“Huh,” he said, because they began to bend at the ends in a very un-plant-like way, and seemed to be heading toward Ronon, who continued massacring the thick creepers obliviously.

Rodney forgot to shout a warning. He just lurched sideways and shoved Ronon out of the way.

The next thing he knew, he couldn’t breathe and his arms were trapped against his body. His feet left the ground and he shot into the air.

He flailed with his legs and twisted against the constricting vines; they were pulling him steadily up, as if to tuck him away in the leafy canopy for – he had no idea what for, but he objected to whatever it was just on principle.

The branches and the long vines that supported him suddenly exploded above him, in time with the sharp rattle of a P90 and the muted thunder of Ronon’s gun coming from below. He clamped his eyes shut against the debris, and then the world turned over and around as he fell -- but something bashed him in the head and he never hit the ground.

*

John and Ronon dove forward to break Rodney’s fall, Ronon catching most of Rodney’s weight, and both of them were borne to the ground.

As Ronon hefted Rodney onto his back and checked for a pulse, John rolled up to his knees. He looked around quickly, sighting down the P90, and listened. The vines in the trees were motionless now, showing no sign of having tried to kidnap one of his team only minutes ago. Nothing at all moved in the forest, in fact, and the only sound was the wind in the trees.

“Teyla? You see anything?”

“No. But I think perhaps we should leave.”

“Yeah, I agree.” He stood slowly, keeping his eyes on the forest around them. “Ronon, how’s Rodney?”

“Alive, but out. I’ll have to carry him.”

Ronon heaved Rodney over his shoulder. John waited until he pushed to his feet, then said, “Okay. Let’s go.”

And that’s when all hell really broke loose.

*

Shoving through the thick grass, John decided he would have felt a lot better about their chances of getting off this planet alive if the damned trees hadn’t taken their guns.

He could see the gate ahead, just the top above the grass. He heard Teyla shout that she was at the DHD. Ronon plowed ahead with Rodney slung over his shoulder, and John stayed close on his heels, taking advantage of the path Ronon broke through the prairie. Even so, the blades stung his hands and face as he went.

He had brief, unpleasant visions of the grass coming alive and wrapping them up like flies in a web, or roots bursting out of the earth to snare their ankles. Nothing like that happened, though; the only danger was coming up fast from the rear on multiple sets of four legs.

“Go, go, go!” Sheppard shouted at Teyla, before he could even see her. He could hear the creatures crashing through the prairie behind them, too close. Just a few more feet.

They stumbled out onto the platform in front of the Stargate, picking their pace up to run the last short stretch. Then something big hit John in the middle of the back and he flew forward into Ronon; something else plucked at his leg as they fell through the gate.

At first there was –

*

The security detail had the gate surrounded almost immediately after receiving Teyla’s communication that they were coming through with hostiles in close pursuit. This sort of thing didn’t cause a moment of shocked paralysis for Elizabeth any more, but she still came out of her office at a run.

She made it to the balcony as Teyla came through the gate, dashing across the platform to get out of the line of fire before turning to watch for the rest of her team. A moment later, a tangle of bodies fell through. Ronon crashed to the platform, throwing his arm out and twisting, trying not to land on nor lose his hold on the man he carried. Elizabeth had only enough time to see that it was Rodney, because the other body that had come through with them scrambled to its feet – its four feet – and opened its mouth, as if to roar. Instead, something long and slender shot out, caught Ronon around the throat, and jerked him forward.

Two more of the beasts shot into the gate room as security opened fire on the first. The command to raise the gate shield caught in Elizabeth’s throat. Sheppard hadn’t come through yet; if he tried to come through and they raised the shield, he would be killed. If they deactivated the gate and he was trapped on the other side – with more of those creatures, or god knew what else – at least, she thought, at least he’d have a chance. She shouted over her shoulder,

“Shut down the gate!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Chuck shouted back, but the gate remained on. “I can’t – something must be en route.”

“Keep trying.” Elizabeth clutched the balcony railing and willed that it was John on his way.

Down in the gate room, the first creature sprawled on the platform unmoving. One of the Marines went down under the weight of a second as the third tried to dodge the hail of bullets.

“Got it –“ Chuck said, and the gate winked out.

For a moment all Elizabeth could see in the chaos below was what had come through gate; and all she could think was no, no, dammit, no, because it wasn’t John Sheppard.

*

-- then John slid back out of the gate, and sudden pain took his breath away. He curled up, swallowing a scream and yanking at the thing that had punctured his leg. He thought tongue because it came out of the creature’s mouth, but under his desperate fingers it was cylindrical, hard and dry. The sharp end had gone through his calf at an angle, come out the front of his leg, and wrapped around his knee. The creature it was attached to backed slowly away from the gate, dragging him with; every few steps it jerked its head back, yanking hard on John’s leg and sending agony through him.

Hands caught at him; tall figures surrounded him, grabbing hold of his wrists and legs. The thing in his leg suddenly whipped out, and his vision went grey. When it cleared again, he was on his stomach, his wrists being bound behind his back.

“Shit.” He gritted his teeth, and forced down the urge to struggle. They were clustered around him, several holding him down while another worked on the bindings. He knew couldn’t fight them off right now; he had to save it for when he actually had a chance.

Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was dealing with. They rolled him over, pinning his shoulders and legs to the ground, one of them pressing firmly down on his chest and making it hard to breathe. He couldn’t have breathed for a moment, anyway, when he finally saw what had him.

They were basically human-shaped. They had the same number of arms and legs, unusually long and thin but all in the right places. They had one head apiece and two eyes, never mind that the eyes were glassy and dark, lacking anything that looked like an iris or a pupil. Their noses were…nose-like.

From there the aliens’ appearance diverged from human, though. Their skin was, depending on the individual, shades of ash or dirt, hairless that he could see, covered in bumps ranging from nightmarish zit to welt in size; it was incredibly creepy, but he thought that as long as he didn’t have to touch them, he could deal. Sheppard also considered that a lack of ears in and of itself wasn’t so bad.

The empty space of pebbled skin where a mouth should be, though – that, for some reason, made him scream a little inside his head.

And they were just…staring at him. Silently. Their mouthless faces blocked out the sky above him, and he thought, goddammit, why didn’t Ronon mention these creepy-ass bastards BEFORE we came here?

Suddenly the one pushing on his chest stood and stepped away from him. He took a deep, grateful breath; the others continued to hold him down, but straightened, moving out of his direct line of sight.

Sheppard took the opportunity for a quick look around. There were other aliens surrounding them. A group stood mostly hidden in the grass flanking the open space around the deactivated Stargate. They held what he assumed were weapons aimed at anything that might dial back through. A couple of them shifted away from each other, and one stepped between them and moved directly to where John lay.

It stopped beside him, staring down at him. John stared back, waiting. For a long moment the only sound was the rustling of the grass around them as the guarding aliens shifted in place, and it chafed his nerves. He didn’t know what he was waiting for – interrogation, torture, death; he sure wouldn’t say no to them letting him go, but he figured that was probably out of the question.

“I think,” he said, because he couldn’t stand the silence any more. “This is where I should say that we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot.”

Nothing. No reaction. It just stood and stared. They had no ears, they had no mouths; he wouldn’t bet on them being able to hear him, much less respond, but at the moment anything was better than silence. Plus, this was the Pegasus galaxy, where Wraith used mouths in their hands to eat. Maybe these things could hear him and talk, just from somewhere else.

“So, maybe we could try again. Start over fresh?” He tried to shift slightly, because they were pressing his bleeding leg hard against the stone and holy shit that hurt, but their grip on him just tightened from steely to crushing. “Ow. Right. Look, I apologize for shooting your trees and your – your, I don’t know, what the hell are they, dogs? And that thing with the stun grenade, that might have been premature. But in my defense –“

He stopped because the one standing over him had begun to change color. All of them were dressed from neck to ankles in a rough fabric of a dirty green color. It wound around their bodies, their arms and their legs like snug togas, or like the wrappings on a mummy. The bumpy, dull skin of their hands and feet and faces was left exposed; but in the case of this one currently staring him down, the skin was no longer dull. First it had paled, and now it began to flush gradually to dark, brilliant orange.

Of course John wasn’t sure, but instinct told him that was probably bad.

But all it did was turn and walk away. John was hauled to his feet. They didn’t bother waiting to see if he could walk, just dragged him along with them. It was a smart move on their part, since as soon as he was upright his head spun and his body flushed with pins and needles; he’d have fallen on his face if they’d tried to make him stand on his own power.

They were more than a head taller than him and really strong, and his toes barely scraped the ground as they carried him to the DHD. A pair of aliens used long knives to clear the grass away from the device. Once they were done, John was hoisted around to the business end of it, where they dropped him to his feet. He sagged sideways when his injured leg refused flat out to hold him up and his other leg decided it wasn’t really sold on the idea either. He was saved from going down completely by their grip on his arms.

For a moment they stood there, the orange one staring at him wordlessly. The aliens guarding the gate kept their attention on it, expectantly, weapons still ready. Finally the orange one angled its head at John, at the DHD, and then at the gate.

“What, you want me help you dial back to where I came from?” Well, naturally. For a moment, he considered doing it. He could dial the gate and not send his IDC, and send them through to obliterate themselves against the gate shield and that would be that. Except there was a good chance they’d take him along, and he wasn’t ready be zapped out of existence quite yet. “Sorry, I can’t do that. I’m not really keen on the idea of letting a squad of armed aliens into my city.”

The alien bobbed its head again: John; DHD; gate.

“No.” John shook his head.

The backhand nearly took his head off. John wobbled his head back into a forward-facing position, unable to decide what hurt more, his face or his neck. These guys might have arms and fingers like twigs, but he was pretty sure they were made of rock.

He blinked muzzily a few times, ignoring the head-bobbing shtick while he moved his jaw experimentally. Ow.

He saw the next one coming and jerked his head back. This time just his nose and mouth exploded with pain and he tasted blood.

The alien was changing colors again, the orange deepening to an unhealthy-looking purplish red as it shoved John hard at the DHD.

He grunted as he fell forward against it. Turning his head to look up at the alien, he said flatly, “Sorry, answer’s still no.”

The last blow knocked him out cold.

*

It was late, but Elizabeth hadn’t been sleeping when Carson called. He had something to tell her about the alien that had come through the gate; he sounded excited, which she hoped meant that at least alien hadn’t died.

She had been sitting in a chair in the dark, looking out at the ocean, and only required a pause to squint in the brightly lit hallway before she was on her way to the infirmary. She spent a lot of nights kept company by the Atlantean sea. When things went wrong -- even when she knew she had made the right decision, that didn't mean she liked to be the one to send her people into danger -- in the darkness especially the endless sea was more comforting to her than any place or person on Earth had ever been. She sent her fears and her grief out to the sea, and wrapped herself up in its solitude. Sometimes, it helped.

“Dr. Weir.”

She slowed briefly, letting Ronon catch up to her.

“Ronon,” she said. “What are you doing up so late?”

He had a ring of bruises around his neck, and still wore the expression of tightly controlled fury that had hardened his face when he found out they had left Sheppard behind.

“I want to apologize again.”

She shook her head. “You didn’t know. You said you never encountered these aliens when you visited the planet.”

“I should have known,” he said. “I should have seen signs.”

“Ronon –“

He stepped in front of her, gently touching her shoulder to stop her. She could see, in his face and in the way he immediately dropped his hand into a loose fist at his side, the effort he was making to not let his frustration and anger out at her.

“You have to let us go back.”

She understood. Even for her the waiting was hard, but Ronon thrived on action, on striking first or on quick retribution. Sheppard kept him in line, but right now Sheppard wasn’t here.

“You know as well as I do we can’t, not yet. We know nothing about these aliens except that their weapons can put a hole through our gate room wall. I have Dr. Zelenka studying the weapon we confiscated, but at this point, I don’t want to risk sending even a cloaked jumper to the planet. If the aliens are guarding the gate, several of them firing blindly might be enough to bring it down.”

He stared at her, the stare that said not good enough, and she knew it referred to her reasoning as well as herself. She was a civilian, and he did not accept a civilian as his commanding officer – again, unless Sheppard was there to tell him to.

“Ronon, we will get Colonel Sheppard back. But I will not authorize any kind of rescue mission until I believe it has a chance of succeeding.”

He held her gaze for a long moment. At first she thought he would continue arguing with her, but all he did was turn and walk silently away.

She sighed, and continued to the infirmary.

*

The lights in the front section of the infirmary were turned down low. In a bed along the wall, one of the gate room security contingent slept; he’d suffered several broken ribs after being tackled by one of the wolf-like animals. Next to him lay a civilian, an archeologist who had been on the other side of the wall when the alien weapon punched through. Luckily she hadn’t been in the direct line of fire, and had only suffered a handful of broken bones and some injuries from flying metal and sparking wires.

Further down, Rodney sat up in his bed hunched over a laptop. He pressed his fingertips to his forehead a couple of inches away from a white bandage that partially covered a swollen, blackened bruise as he peered at the screen.

“Rodney,” Elizabeth said softly, making her way to him. “Shouldn’t you be resting?”

He made a ‘pfft’ sound. “Probably, but thanks to my splitting headache and the non-stop chattering of Frankenstein and Igor over there, I can’t.”

Elizabeth glanced over to where Dr. Beckett stood near the door of one of the private rooms, talking quietly but animatedly to one of his nurses. Usually those rooms were kept available for severe trauma patients; that one was currently housing an injured alien.

“Any news about Sheppard?” Rodney asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m hoping to talk to our guest and see what we can find out about its people. They may turn out to be peaceful, willing to negotiate.”

“Oh, right, negotiate, kind of like they did when they set the entire forest and those animals on us. Or when that one shot up the gate room. And I’ve seen it -- it doesn’t even have ears, or a mouth.” His voice had begun to rise, but he glanced at Beckett and forced himself to speak more softly. “Exactly how to you intend to communicate with it?”

“I don’t know yet,” she admitted. “But I’m going to at least try.”

“Do we even know if –“ Rodney stopped, and though his changing expression showed there were any number of things he wanted to say, he couldn’t seem to settle on one.

Elizabeth smiled softly and encouragingly, hoping she looked less worried than she felt. “It hasn’t even been twelve hours yet, Rodney. He’s fine. We’ll get him back.”

“Twelve hours,” Rodney repeated. “Twelve hours is a long time when you’re alone in the Land of Killer Plants with creatures from the Twilight Zone.”

“It will be okay,” she said gently, firmly. “John knows we’re doing whatever we can to get to him, and --”

Something dark and helpless flared up in his eyes and he snapped, “Oh sure, I bet he has all kinds of confidence in our ability to mount a speedy rescue. Because the last time it only took us, you know, six months.”

“Rodney,” she said, but didn’t really know where to go from there. Most of the time Rodney seemed to compartmentalize his failures – real or, as in this case, perceived – somewhere in his brain where they didn’t affect his ego or any of his other higher functions. It was admittedly much easier to deal with him on that level; when something happened to bring guilt or uncertainty to the surface, Elizabeth always felt a little at a loss.

But he waved a hand to cut off anything she might have said. Shoving the computer from his lap onto the bed, he sighed deeply.

“Sorry,” he muttered, motioning at his bruised forehead. “It’s the – it’s just that my head is pounding, and my back hurts, and words like ‘X-men’ and ‘Cyclops’ keep turning up in Zelenka’s preliminary findings on the alien’s weapon, and Beckett won’t let me leave yet, and I’m just…. Sorry.”

Carson was gesturing to her. She hesitated, still feeling as though she should say something but knowing that anything she could say would not be what Rodney needed to hear. Instead, she just gave his arm a gentle squeeze, and followed Beckett into his office.

*

Carson handed Elizabeth into his office and into a chair. He was wound up; at first he stepped around his desk, but didn’t sit down; then he came back around to the front of the desk and half sat on the edge of it in front of her. Finally he took a deep breath and said,

“Well, I don’t know exactly where to start.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure how to take that. They didn’t really have the time to puzzle out an incredibly complex life form at the moment, but Carson’s eyes were bright with excitement.

“This is –“ Carson began, and then broke off, his hands coming up in a helpless gesture. “This is just incredibly fascinating. We – well, all right, first of all, we were able to remove the bullets from the alien’s arm and shoulder. We appear to have stopped the bleeding as well. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe its condition is stabilizing.”

“That’s excellent news,” Elizabeth said, relieved.

“But that’s not the exciting part,” Carson continued. “As you know, I initially had no clue how to approach treating this alien. The subdermis is incredibly hard, it responded badly to even the small doses of pain relievers I attempted to give it, and I really thought I was going to do more damage than good no matter what I did.

“But the nurse I’d given the skin and blood cultures to noticed that the cells share certain significant chemical and structural characteristics with – well, with plant cells.”

Elizabeth frowned skeptically. “Plant cells?”

“Yes.” Carson sat down in the chair next to her and leaned forward. “In fact, based on my description of the wounds, a friend of mine in Botany recommended we treat them with a paste generally used to treat damaged or diseased trees. I know that sounds bizarre,” he said at Elizabeth’s incredulous look. “But it seems to be working.”

“Diseased trees?” Elizabeth managed.

“That’s not all. I’ve done a high level genetic comparison between Pegasus galaxy human DNA, the alien’s DNA, and DNA from plant material we pulled from Rodney’s clothing. On a genetic level, this alien is directly related to the native plant life and to the humans of this galaxy.”

“Related to...?” Elizabeth was having a hard time wrapping her head around this. “Are you saying these beings are like the Wraith, except with plants instead of insects?”

“No, not exactly,” Carson said. “The Wraith are the result of an accidental combination of insect and human DNA, but I don’t see how that could have happened naturally here. The plant material I’m looking at contains some elements that indicate it could be compatible with animal DNA, but only in the hands of a very skilled and creative – and probably quite mad – geneticist.”

Elizabeth’s head was spinning a little. “These creatures were genetically engineered. Human DNA purposefully blended with plant DNA, specifically from this planet.”

“Yes.”

The purposeful, successful creation of an essentially non-human species. Elizabeth couldn’t decide what astounded her more – the level of scientific advancement that would have been required to accomplish this, or the fact that the Ancients were even willing to try.

But that had to wait. Twelve hours is a long time.

“That is fascinating, Dr. Beckett,” she agreed. “But how does this help us communicate with the alien?”

Carson’s face fell a little. “Well, I don’t know that it does. I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

“Have you tried talking to it? Does it seem to understand us at all?”

“Unfortunately, it has either been in great pain or unconscious.” Carson shook his head. “I haven’t been able to gauge comprehension yet.”

Elizabeth clasped her hands in front of her to keep herself from burying her face in them. “It’s already been almost twelve hours, Carson. We need to try to talk to it soon.”

*

John didn’t honestly remember that much from earlier, but there were flashes in his mind – images of hallways, stairwells, and especially of that room with the bright lights and the alien who did really unpleasant things to his leg. Those places, as far as he could remember, were overwhelmingly organic. Wooden walls, a lot of leafy plants everywhere, wood and even stone furnishings – the tools the alien had used were metal, but the table they strapped him down to had felt grainy, like nearly-smooth stone.

So the room he eventually woke up in seemed out of place. He couldn’t see what it looked like; there was only enough light, coming from someplace down a long hallway, to allow him to see a dim outline of the cell door. But as he crawled around the cell’s perimeter, exploring with his hands, the floor and the walls felt unmistakably metal. The walls were almost uniformly flat and smooth, and rang when he rapped them with his knuckles in a way that suggested they might even be hollow in places.

Some organic material was built into the set-up – the thick bars across the cell door twisted and curved in a way that the kinds of metal bars he was familiar with didn’t, and when he touched them they felt woody. But in some places the wood had chipped or worn away, and beneath the wood was more metal. It was as if vines or roots had been grown, trained to a shape, and then hollowed out and reinforced with a stronger substance. It was different, but effective.

And also, it was cold. Probably not cold enough to make hypothermia a concern, but cold enough that he couldn’t stop shivering. He still had his shoes, pants, and t-shirt, but his vest and jacket were gone. The air was cold and damp. He had found a wide, shallow indentation in the back wall tucked into a broad, angular frame. Sitting up against it gave him a direct view out of the cell but the floor and wall leeched the warmth out of him. His face ached, his neck was stiff. He could hardly bend his leg, which throbbed with every heartbeat and generally felt like it was on fire. He was hungry and tired and really, really thirsty. And, again, it was cold. And dark. And completely silent. And pretty much miserable.

“This sucks,” he told the darkness outside the cell. “In case you wondered how I felt about it. Not that you did, you creepy, alien…assholes.”

At least the rest of his team was safe. Rodney hadn’t been in top condition at the end there, but he had the hardest head of anyone John knew. He’d be okay.

John sighed, and traced the dim outline of the cell door with his eyes, rubbing his cold, sore arms with icy hands. He felt like he’d been in the cell a long time, but sitting in the dark for extended periods tended to screw with a person’s sense of time.

He knew somebody would come looking for him. It was a pretty strange feeling – he’d always been sort of on the fence about expecting that sort of thing from other people, and he’d spent six months fairly recently convinced he had been right about never trusting anybody ever at all about anything, but especially about not abandoning him somewhere to rot when it wasn’t convenient to rescue him.

He’d been wrong about that, though. After he got over the various levels of shock – it had only been a couple of hours? They hadn’t forgotten about him? That thing was a fucking figment of a bunch of blissed-out Ancients’ imaginations? – after he shaved, slept in his own bed a few nights, and sat down to a few meals with the people he’d thought had given up on him….

He understood that for other people, no matter what their relationship to you, sometimes it was right for them to cut their losses. That’s why he wouldn’t have fought whatever the Air Force had decided to do with him after Afghanistan. He did what he had to do, and they did what they had to do. That’s just the way it was.

The last place he expected to find people who did things the way he did was in some back corner of a distant galaxy where survival was hard enough without haring off to rescue every stray expedition member who got himself in trouble. But he understood now that to these people, none of them were – he wasn’t – just an expedition member. It was strange; unexpected; kind of made him feel self-conscious; but really…nice.

This wasn’t like the last time, though. This time there were enormous dogs with prehensile tongues, and armed aliens whose security system consisted of an entire fucking forest that could disarm and probably kill you. The people back in Atlantis wouldn’t even know what they were up against -- his team had encountered the animals and the forest, but the aliens hadn’t shown up until after the others had gone through the gate.

If the Daedelus wasn’t weeks away, he wouldn’t be worried. But he didn’t like the odds without Caldwell’s ship in the mix, and he wished that for once his people would just leave this alone.

He knew they wouldn’t, though, because he knew he wouldn’t, so he had to get to them before they came after him. Somehow. He tucked his good leg up and hunched over with his forehead on his knee, and tried to figure out how to get himself out of there.

*

Part Two


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