It began with malfunctions, a memory, and Jennifer Keller.
At first Teyla assumed these things were most likely unconnected, and anyway she did not often think in tautologies. It was best, in her experience, to simply expect the unexpected. And that was the Athosian peace of mind in, as Jennifer would say, a nutshell.
It was hard to have any kind of peace of mind when it was so hot, though.
The city had been up in arms since the return to the Pegasus galaxy a week ago. For the first time in scientific memory, a ZPM had failed without any warning. Rodney and the rest of Science were stumped. The sputtering-out of the environmental controls was the latest in a long stream of malfunctions that supposedly stemmed from the ZPM failure.
Consequently, Atlantis was sweltering. The sparring room was the hottest place, with the sun feeding relentless light through the gold-paned windows. But there was something more about the heat, something heavy and far back in her mind. Teyla could not quite name it; there was a smell of burning wood, a rush of heat to the face -- Charin's face -- why Charin's face?
Her wet hair settled aggravatingly against her neck, and Teyla threw away her thoughts just in time to scrape past a rough shoulder swipe from Ronon. The knowing grin on his face was enough to give her temper a decided edge.
The doors to the sparring room swished open just as she disarmed him with a strike to his unprotected side and wrist. It took both sticks to do it, but that was inconsequential.
Dr. Jennifer Keller hesitated in the doorway.
"Hrgh. Nice hit," Ronon grinned. "But lucky."
"Perhaps you are mourning the loss of your balance," she said, glancing at his close trimmed curls. Ah, but she was roasting.
Surrounded by heavy drifting trees, they sit in a half circle around a fire pit. To Teyla it feels like they -- ten young ones close to twelve, the age of the ordeal -- are all alone deep in the darkest wilderness of Athos, instead of a mere few meters from their homes with a trusted village relative.
" 'Least I'm comfortable." He easily dodged her next jab, but not her kick. "Ooomph."
Charin unfolds a cloth kit. She lays out stones, braided hide, beads made from hardwood. Then the firelighter glimmers briefly behind her cupped hands. They all watch, breath caught, as the flame leaps to the pile of brush and logs. It crackles and catches quickly, spitting small sparks that makes some of the smaller ones shift and giggle. Teyla rolls her eyes, and scoots closer until the warmth enfolds her.
It is past twilight and time for mischief. Charin's brow flickers with crawling shadows.
"Tonight," she says in the voice reserved for ceremony, "I will tell you of the Burnt Ones, the Serapha."
Teyla shook her head. She looked down, and saw she had gone from standing to straddling Ronon, her bantos rod firm against his throat. Her knees ached against the hard wood of the floor.
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "What's wrong?"
"Uh." The scene, no, the memory was gone like smoke before she could fully glimpse it. Strange. "I - nothing."
"Good." He grabbed her leg, and she let him wrangle her into a full-scale wrestling match. While it did absolutely nothing for the heat, the sweat did allow Teyla the satisfaction of wriggling out of all his silly Satedan death holds.
"Um," Keller said, still in the doorway. Surprisingly, she looked more impatient than embarrassed.
"Hey." Ronon rolled away from Teyla. "You look...good."
She did, Teyla thought as she hoisted herself up and over to the towels. Cool and neat as usual, with her hair tidied back into a ponytail, Keller looked as though she and her science blues had never known sweat.
"Yeah, Zelenka ran an auxiliary patch for the infirmary, so it's ice cold in there."
"Be seeing you soon," Ronon said. "I'm in need of medical assistance." Teyla pitched a sweaty towel at him. "What? You're the one who beat me up." He escaped out the door.
"He's like a little kid," Keller said, her face reddening. She helped Teyla pull the mats back and stash the gear, and then wiped her hands on her pant legs. Teyla rubbed away sweat with the last remaining towel and watched, intrigued. Whatever Keller had to say, it was weighing on her. Something regarding Rodney, perhaps? There had been heated words overheard, and rumors of an angry but bloodless scene during the hyperspace trip back to the Pegasus galaxy. Keller was pacing now. Teyla wrapped up her bantos rods, stuck them in her bag, and waited.
"Listen. Do you have time for lunch with me? I'm having some -- er -- issues with a couple Athosian kids that I wanted to talk over with you."
"Certainly." Teyla tied back her hair. Issues. It was such a vague, halfway kind of word, there was no real translation in Athosian. "Let us walk and talk, then."
The Marines had rigged fans in the primary corridors that served mostly to blow the stuffy air around, but it was better than nothing at all. They took the longer way through the gate room, where Chuck was talking Woolsey through a very complicated-sounding procedure regarding the Stargate. Woolsey looked up as they approached.
"Teyla, Jennifer, glad you're here -- we're having an emergency briefing in ten minutes."
"So soon, " Teyla said. "What is it regarding?"
Keller shot her a raised eyebrow, but Teyla couldn't help it -- no one who had skipped breakfast for a Ronon workout would voluntarily miss lunch. Woolsey frowned and gave a minute head jerk in Chuck's direction.
"City issues, among other things. "I'll need all the senior staff."
"Guess we'll eat fast, then." Keller pulled at Teyla's arm and they escaped out into the corridor and down to the mess.
In the wake of the briefly-activated wormhole drive and the SGC's flat refusal to Rodney McKay's demands to use it to return Atlantis to Pegasus (just so the science team could run some tests and "iron out the kinks," a phrase which, Teyla noticed, had induced particular shudders in Colonel Carter), they all had endured the standard three week journey in regular hyperspace. The failure of the ZPM, the heart of the city, had come almost instantly after they set down gracefully and gratefully into the New Lantean ocean.
After the environmental controls began blinking in and out, the transporters had gone down. Operations and Science combined had spent two full days of tinkering to repair them. The following day a pair of water treatment consoles sparked and began scrolling text equivalent to Ancient profanity. It was perplexing and somewhat ominous to Teyla, especially when considering the talent available, that no one could get ahead of the problems.
According to Dr. Simpson, who earlier in the week had taken time out from console repair to eat burnt breakfast bagels with Teyla in the mess, turning on the wormhole drive was analogous to putting a free-loving multi-universal hand up Atlantis' figurative skirt, and the retaliating slap was reverberating throughout. The subsequent conversation they had regarding free-loving, hands up skirts, enterprising males and Earth slang in general was illuminating for them both.
"The only place that hasn't had a whisper of a problem," and Simpson had knocked her knuckles against the synthetic tabletop, "is in the ZPM room. Isn't that weird? Considering it all started there. But Dr. McKay's riding us hard enough as it is, and I don't think much for my personal survival if anything funny happened down there, much less to the other two modules."
Today the mess was hot and crowded, but no one was eating: some of the science staff were poking at a panel out on the balcony. A team of Marines surrounded Dr. Cole, who was handing out rations of stimulant.
Keller and Teyla snagged trays and loaded up with bread, soup and rice, and Teyla appropriated an entire bowl of ranna fruits with the vague intention of bringing some back to her room, for Torren. With a shameful thud in the pit of her belly, she realized she had not thought of him except in passing over the course of the morning. Kanaan had left with Torren for the New Athos settlement on the day Atlantis returned to Pegasus. For a moment, the longest moment she had spared her son that day, she had forgotten where he was.
She supposed it was due to the recent stresses, and to working in Atlantis, to having two homes. But that was not going to change any time soon. If she had her way, Torren would grow up in both worlds -- the way she had worked and lived in the last five years. That was good, another link between her two chosen peoples. That was wise. Wasn't it? Charin would have known.
There was already friction with Kanaan for so many reasons: the unexpected length of the city's absence from Pegasus, the fact that Torren had been in Atlantis and not safely relocated to the alpha site during the battle, her own constant work since the return.
She should go to New Athos tonight. She would.
"All right." Keller tried to steeple her fingers and tear a piece of bread simultaneously, and ended up with her brow furrowed. "God. Some days I just want a cookie, you know?"
Teyla raised her eyebrows.
Keller swallowed. "Right. Sorry. Anyway. I haven't brought this up with Mr. Woolsey yet because, well, frankly because there just hasn't been enough time and the infirmary's a mess -- er." She put down the bread. "I saw this type of anomaly, mark -- well -- injury in some of the Athosians who came to Atlantis yesterday. It's a little strange. I don't remember seeing it before, and I wondered if maybe you could identify it, ease my mind." She smiled ruefully. "I admit I'm inclined to jump at shadows these days."
"An injury? I don't understand." Teyla tried some soup. It tasted too heavy, too much starch. She pushed it aside.
"I left my laptop in my office, but -- " Keller pulled out a pen and started sketching on a napkin. "I'll try to keep it to scale. Here." She pushed it across the table.
She'd drawn a roughly-lined shape the length of Teyla's thumb. It was like a leaf, except it had sharp, jagged edges and a thin sort of barb on one end. The ink was thick and smelled like a liquor Teyla had once drank with the people of Pandaar. The drawing itself was odd and familiar all at once.
"I -- I am not sure. This is familiar."
The fire, the wash of light flickering up into the dark pockets of the trees. A stick tracing in the sand surrounding the ring of stones, tracing a shape.
Keller spooned up soup. "There's nothing about it in the medical database, but I haven't checked the main databanks yet. Rodney isn't letting anyone log in from outside Science."
"No, I know this." Teyla closed her eyes. "Continue, I will let you know when I remember."
"Oookay." Keller sounded slightly skeptical.
Teyla sighed. "You said there are injuries related to this. When did you begin seeing them, the Athosians?"
"I told you, yesterday. Woolsey has declared the city officially open, you know. He doesn't want to have bad relations with our allies. So a bunch of kids, well, teens, I guess, came over from New Athos."
"Yes, I met with Marta." Kanaan and Torren had not been among the Athosians who came. Because Teyla had been occupied with that, and with her duties, she had missed this injury, whatever it was. Think about that later. She tried to focus on what Keller was saying.
"Anyway. It's hard to classify as injury, but." Keller waggled her hands. "The kids I've seen have it branded into them. Um. Like the image was carved into metal, and then the metal heated, and then -- "
"Enough. I see." Too well. Teyla's throat constricted, and she tried to school her expression. Metal hot enough to burn... "Where? Where on their bodies were they branded, I mean?" The word felt heavy and uncomfortable in her mouth.
"Their necks, about an inch or two below the ear."
Teyla brushed her hand against the skin there. It was a tender place, even to her. The relaxed mentality she always had after a workout was long gone, and she could not begin to straighten out all her questions: which children, exactly? How old were they? Any patterns? Had any adults been seen with them? Where were they now? Really, it was too hot to think, as though she was sitting too close to the fire and stifling.
"The thing is," Jennifer continued. "And I wouldn't say this if I didn't know Wex and the others, you know? But they acted funny. This was before I noticed the brands."
"Funny how? In pain?"
"No. Like -- well, themselves at first. They're all into mimicking Ronon and Halling, becoming these big time stoic warriors and er, peaceful mediators, which is kind of a funny combination."
Teyla smiled in spite of herself. Keller grinned back.
"You should see Wex's older brother -- he's the worst, he encourages them -- "
"Gardani, yes." Teyla tapped her fingers and stilled them immediately. "Please go on."
Keller straightened her shoulders and took another spoonful of soup. "But this one time, on one of my first visits to the New Athos settlement, well, Wex and Jinto took me on a hike around the area. It was pretty. We saw a bunny-type thing, and a waterfall -- " She made a scrunched face and waved her hands. "Sorry. Anyway, I mentioned it to Wex yesterday, and he had no idea what I was talking about. And that would've been fine, because young guys, you know, they don't remember stuff sometimes. So I didn't push it."
Were her hands trembling? Teyla chewed her bread, ignoring the tightness in her throat.
"But then he started saying things."
Keller actually blushed. "It's not really worth repeating. Explicit, er, sexual things -- and totally inaccurate, of course. Er, suffice to say, he's never said anything like -- like that around me or -- or in reference to me before. And he looked so strange. Like he wasn't really saying it. Like he was, um, just letting his mouth work off steam while he thought about other things."
"This is unacceptable." It was stomach-turning. It was frightening. Was it limited to Wex? Were there others? A plague, a sickness of some sort, induced by something among her people... "And then you noticed the brands."
"Yes. Understand, they didn't come to me for examination. I practically forced Wex to sit down while I checked him out, and honestly, he wasn't happy about it. There was a girl, too -- Liaya."
Tonight, I will tell you of the Burnt Ones.
And suddenly the memory was there, like it had never been gone. Charin, the fire, the other children. "The Serapha," Teyla said.
"Uh. Sorry, what?"
"The mark." Teyla touched the drawing. "It is part of a myth among my people. Creatures of energy. They are -- well, they are not well known." Already she felt drawn back to that night around the fire with Charin. "They were similar to the Ancestors."
"Oh." Keller looked uncomfortable. "Gods?"
Teyla pressed her knuckles against one of the ranna fruit until it turned to dark purple mush, staining her skin. She wanted nothing more than to 'gate to New Athos immediately. Calm, calm, calm.
Woolsey's voice burst into her earpiece, startling her. "Teyla, Dr. Keller, we're waiting for you in the conference room."
Keller sighed and gobbled a fast final spoon of rice. "I don't know about you, but I really hope this doesn't turn into another morale discussion."
"Replaced?" Rodney choked on his coffee, and Teyla was forced to smack him on the back until he regained his composure and frowned at her. "I thought you guys had all that political crap worked out."
The conference room was stifling, so they sat around the table with the doors open. At the sound of Rodney's voice, some passing scientists slowed to peek inside.
"That's not what I said, Dr. McKay." Woolsey frowned at the loiterers outside the door, and they hurried away. "The IOA is temporarily adjourning and will reconvene after a summit at Cheyenne Mountain to discuss the recent turn of events, that is, Atlantis making her appearance on Earth. In the interim, the SGC has lobbied that the expedition immediately be reclassed as highly sensitive -- "
"Reclassed?" John smirked.
"What were we before," Rodney snapped, "numb? I'd have to say that while we weren't top priority -- "
"Highly sensitive," Woolsey continued loudly, "and therefore under a combined military jurisdiction, in effect making this a military rather than a science outpost, until the IOA and the SGC come to a mutual decision. At which point I may be -- may be replaced as leader of this mission."
"First Sam and now you. Step right up for a limited annual appointment to another galaxy," Rodney said. He poured himself more coffee from the pot he had appropriated, and Teyla held out her mug for a fresh fill.
Woolsey took off his glasses and polished them against his sleeve. "Actually, Colonel Carter is on the short list of possible candidates to run Atlantis - "
"Oh. Well. In that case -- "
John snorted. "Oh, sure, in that case, for the love of -- shut up, McKay -- "
" -- but nothing is final," Woolsey pushed on. "It should be relatively painless if we all cooperate -- "
Teyla said, "I thought Colonel Carter was in command of the Hammond."
"I'm not privy to any decisions regarding the ships," Woolsey replied rather primly. "I've no plan to just hand over the job. I think we've done well under my leadership, and saving Earth should give me a leg up compared to the other candidates, as long as we don't start any wars, or, er, blow anything vital up in the meantime. Which brings me to the point of this meeting."
Woolsey paged through a thick sheaf of reports next to his notebook. "The malfunctions are spiraling out of control. Dr. Simpson reported a problem with the coolant tanks, and Dr. Kusanagi's team shut down a radiation containment leak on sublevel two -- "
"We are working on it," Rodney grated around the mouth of his mug. "It's unbelievable. We fix one thing and another breaks -- it's like the pissed-off ghost of Rube Goldberg down there."
They debated around the table for a while, and when Rodney pulled up the Ancient database schematics on the desalination piping and John made strange grimaces Teyla recognized as suppressed yawns, Keller interrupted to rattle off a quick summary of the Athosian anomaly and their lunch discussion. Rodney turned away, toward Teyla, and she saw his face before he shuttered it. She felt a stab of pity for him, and squashed the urge to pat his hand.
John's head jerked up halfway through Keller's report.
"Well, I call them kids," Keller began, flushing. "But -- "
"Wex and Liaya are the same age as Jinto," Teyla interposed smoothly. "They have taken part in the Athosian coming-of-age ordeal and are now considered adults."
"Huh," John said. "It's only been five years since -- yeah, now I feel old."
"And you think that these, ah, entities may be responsible?" Woolsey asked.
"The Serapha. Yes."
Rodney looked skeptical. Teyla was somewhat bemused when he did not say anything, but instead began searching through the database.
"They were tricksters. Godly to us, like the Ancients. It was an Athosian tradition when I was young, to learn about them upon our coming-of-age. They possess bodies, influence minds, meddle with people. They could be in multiple places at once, and they were connected to fire. For example, they did not ascend into light as the Ancestors did -- they descended, burning, into fire."
"Fallen angels," John commented cryptically. "Things are the same all over. As usual."
"Energy entities," Rodney reported. "They give off heavy amounts of energy, and they feed on it, though there's no specifics about that. There's a whole section on them in here, and some linkings to other sections, though, huh, those are defunct. I'll get Zelenka on it, too. But if we're talking tricksters, I'm thinking all our malfunctions? Aren't so random or mystifying after all."
"With permission, I would like to investigate this among my people," Teyla said. "And for Dr. Keller to accompany me."
Keller coughed, her eyes widening. "Er," she said. "Just the two of us? I mean -- yes. I'd like that."
Things adjourned rather quickly after that. John left to oversee a jumper mission underneath the city. Rodney stuffed a doughnut into his mouth and left for Science, his muffled voice rising as he addressed a hapless someone over the radio. Teyla intercepted Keller before she could sidle out behind Ronon.
"Are you adverse to the idea?"
"No, of course not." Keller smiled, but it was guarded. "Meet me in the infirmary? I'd like to get that laptop."
True, the last time they had ventured out together to visit New Athos, things had been a little...rough.
Or she is worrying about Wex and Liaya. Or she is thinking of Rodney. No way to know, a little voice inside prodded her.
She smiled grimly. One issue at a time, she thought, and set off for quarters.