Humming, soft and gentle.
When Teyla regained consciousness, she found
herself staring at a canopy of leafy green. One tree, branches
elegant, old and covered in leaves reminiscent of the shape
She tried to remember what had happened but
failed to recall beyond their arrival on M33-604 and the short
trek toward the nearest village. The sun had been warm upon
their faces, the breeze carrying the scent of drying hay. She
still could smell the lingering sweetness of it in the air now.
The reason for her unconsciousness confused
her, but she did not worry. As long as the others were with
her they would not let her come to harm while she was vulnerable.
Thinking of the Colonel, Dr. McKay and Ronon
gave her the motivation she needed to work against the sluggishness
that seemed to have settled so deep in her bones.
When she tried to rise, she found that she could
not. Not one toe, not one finger responded. None of her muscles
reacted. She tried to speak up and could not. Blinking was unattainable.
She tried to draw breath and found even that was impossible.
She could hear her breath, slow and shallow, but could not voluntarily
draw, nor feel it. A stunner blast never was this efficient.
She tried again and again. Minutes, maybe hours
The wind was cool on her face as the sun began
to settle and the light made the leaves glow a pale, translucent
Night would be falling soon and she would be
the perfect prey for any predator on its hunt. She contemplated
her options and tried to fight the mounting fear that was gnawing
at her. Fear was something she could not afford at this very
moment, she had to find a way to get out of this situation,
somehow. One of her team-members could be hurt, or similarly
It was in the middle of this deliberation that
she heard the sound for the first time. A soft, metallic tinkle,
the sound of heavy pieces of metal shifting against each other,
as though lined up on a string. There was something about the
rhythm of the tinkling that only heightened Teyla’s anxiety.
She wished she could at least feel her heart pound, but there
was nothing to feel except for this horrible numbness, only
hearing the painfully slow heartbeat in her ears.
The tinkling came closer, resolving into footsteps
accompanied by the metallic jingle.
A shadow fell over her, and a new scent followed
– incense, so strong that it would have made her cough
if she could have had the ability.
Concern slowly escalated.
A murmur of voices, in a language Teyla did
not understand but was familiar with, a language long dead.
Fabled. She remembered her father telling her stories of those
who spoke it by the fire of their winter settlement on Athos.
Another shadow fell across her face. Something
gauzy and grey obscured her view, touched her face. She wanted
to recoil from the sensation only to realise that she did not
feel the touch of the ... veil. It was a veil, multi-layered
and as stone grey as the sky over Athos on a cold autumn morning.
More veils descended around her, obscuring her
view of the tree, shrouding her in nothingness and incense.
Her heart did not beat faster. Her breath did
not speed up. Her eyes did not widen.
But when the face appeared from under the veils,
the dark tracks of tears tattooed into the skin under the grey
eyes, Teyla found herself screaming inside as her worst childhood
fears became reality:
They cry for those who have no one left
to cry for them.
They were not a story after all. The Lamenters
To John, waking was like a slow dissolve from
sleep to awareness. At first, all he saw was a blur of light
and mingled grey, then his vision cleared and he could focus
on a cloud-striped sky
Obviously, he was lying on his back. He tried
to sort out how he got there.
He remembered being dizzy, swaying on his feet
while the blood in his ears rushed louder and louder. The sound
had turned to white noise in his head. Then nothing. He must
have passed out, but how and why he couldn’t say. Since
it had happened so suddenly, he assumed he’d come in contact
with some dubious substance. Something in the water, something
in the air? It sure had been effective.
John began to sit up – or well, he intended
to sit up. It didn’t work. None of his limbs would move.
Not even so much as an inch.
Now, that was problematic.
The first thing that sprang to mind was a Wraith
stunner, the effects were similar enough. John discarded the
idea, but couldn’t fully shake his uneasiness. He made
an effort to be reasonable. There was only a very small chance
that any hostiles could’ve crept up on them. Teyla would’ve
sensed them. Ronon would’ve heard them five miles against
the wind. Not an attack then, he could convince himself of that
It didn’t change the fact that he was
as stiff as a board.
John was still puzzling over his condition when
he caught a drift of distant music. Music was so very unlikely
in these deserted parts, he was sure he’d misheard. Yet
when he listened closer, the noise was still there and by then
more discernable. A swinging, silvery sound, like wind-charms
in a tree. It was coming closer, too.
He barely got the chance to make sense of it
before the noise arrived at his side and stopped. He heard the
rustle of clothing, another wayward tinkle, then a head moved
into the field of his vision. At least he thought it was a head.
It was hard to tell since all he saw was a grey sheet, long
and plain, covering the newcomer’s potential head, shoulders
and torso. John could see the source of the tinkling, though.
Small metal coins were woven into the hem of the veil and dangled
from filigree threads. They jingled against each other with
every slight movement.
Featureless, with not even the shadow of a face
behind the folds of sleek fabric, the stranger looked down at
What’s going on? he asked the
masked figure. Only he didn’t. The question was stuck
in his head; his lips didn’t form the words. He tried
to speak, but his tongue lay like a swollen mushroom in his
mouth and he couldn’t make it move. He couldn’t
move his head. Couldn’t move a finger. He decided to close
his eyes to calm down.
He couldn’t do that either.
Hands on his face. Dry, sandpapery fingertips.
He was able to feel them, touching his cheek, his forehead,
the base of his throat. There was a smell of herbs, which he
couldn’t place. His open eyes were beginning to feel arid
and gritty – a feeling he couldn’t relieve because
blinking was just as impossible as talking. At least he was
still alive. Otherwise he wouldn’t feel or smell or see
any of these things. Death excludes sensory perception.
How would you know? The question was
chilling. He shoved it aside. Choked down the panic that wanted
to stir in its wake.
He was breathing, he was almost sure of that.
That is, his lungs didn’t scream for oxygen or anything.
Which, again, would be kind of redundant if he were dead. Dead
lungs didn’t need air.
Get a grip, he ordered himself. He meant to
clench his fist, but once more his unresponsive body curbed
the reflex. A wave of frustration hit. This whole situation
was getting more fucked up by the minute. Would somebody please
explain what the hell was going on?
The hands disappeared, their movement accompanied
by the rhythmic tinkle of the coins. There was a shuffle of
footsteps, a shadow falling over him, before he was gripped
by the ankles and beneath the shoulders. Next thing he knew,
he was hoisted from the ground. His head tilted back without
resistance and for a moment, he saw the world upside down. Grey
figures moved around the road, two of them carrying a limp figure.
Rodney, by the color of his clothes. Was he paralysed, too?
What the hell was happening?
John was lowered down only to be lifted again,
this time on a stretcher. He knew it must be so because he could
feel the contact all along his back and calves and heels. He
could feel, god dammit. He had to move, too. Whoever these people
were, wherever they were taking them, he needed to get up. Look
for his team. Get to his weapons. He couldn’t leave them
to be dragged off like this.
The more he struggled, the more his body seemed
to shut down on him. It was like battering against the lid of
a coffin from the inside. He cried out furiously, but the shout
was locked in his numb throat. He was not getting anywhere with
this, nothing changed. John smelled, saw, listened, helplessly.
Sounds of grass, seesawing in the cool wind,
rustling as the grey folk carried him . . . where? No way to
determine the landmarks since he couldn’t turn his head.
There was only the sky up above, the white scrawl of cirrus
clouds and the fading blue of dusk.
Ronon knew something was wrong as soon as he came to. His hunch
proved true as soon as he tried to reach for his gun and couldn’t
lift so much as a finger from the ground. A quick run through
the rest of his limbs asserted that he was entirely paralysed.
When he’d still been a soldier in training,
one of his tutors instilled to him the need for clear-headed
assessment. In the event of finding yourself trapped, the first
step must be to study the knots that tied you.
“Get out in here, first,“ the old
man had said and tapped Ronon’s forehead with one finger,
”then use your muscles.“ Throughout his running
years Ronon had found it useful advice. No reason to neglect
it now. So he settled within himself and moved back in his mind
to before his blackout.
They’d reached the village nearest the
stargate and found it deserted. They assumed rumours true; a
Wraith culling had taken place on M33-604. It was the natural
conclusion, although Ronon had his doubts. Usually a culling
left marks in its wake, tracks of flight, upended carts, possessions
flung about, and demolition caused by Dart ordnance. They found
nothing of the kind. Instead it looked like the villagers had
just upped and left. McKay had consulted the Lantean life signs
detector but nothing showed. If the people of this area were
hiding, they’d found a safe and well covered spot. With
nothing to gain but pointless questions, Sheppard had moved
his team back toward the stargate.
Whatever happened to him must have happened
on the way back. Ronon considered all that had happened there.
Nothing out of the ordinary, no one followed, only the empty
track ahead, McKay complaining about insects . . . Ronon stopped
there. He recalled the scientist’s curses; Sheppard’s
edgy amusement and he also recollected being stung himself.
Dizziness had set in shortly after.
He’d been poisoned, then, and the others,
too. The midgets had been eating McKay alive, or so he’d
said. Ronon assumed his teammates were somewhere close by and
as immobile as he was. He wondered if they understood what was
happening. He’d something of an idea himself. He’d
heard accounts of such conditions as this, brought about by
the venom of an insect widely called Ker. Effects included
paralysis and partial impediment of the senses. It applied.
To his knowledge, the paralysis was also temporary. While his
first instinct was to struggle and rage against the forced stillness,
he knew it wouldn’t help. As much as he hated being unable
to do something, his years as a runner had taught him exactly
when fighting was a waste of time and energy. Little more to
do than wait then.
There was more in connection with the name Ker.
Another snippet, something about wakeful sleep, but he couldn’t
quite remember it yet. It might’ve been one of his mother’s
many tales. She knew countless of those, collected and carried
over from many worlds until they reached her hearth. But before
Ronon could put together what else she’d related about
Ker flies, he heard a tangle of sounds approaching.
The hidden villagers? He doubted it.
The air around him was suddenly flooded with
scent, perfumes like waves rolling to shore. Burning herbs,
dyed linen, something darker, more subtle . . . sweat mingled
with body oil. The noises were an undulating jingle and reminded
him of the chimes the warrior dancers wore back on Sateda.
Two veiled figures moved at the edge of his
vision, ashen robes shifting around their tall shapes. Rows
of brass sequins caught the fading daylight and glinted. One
of them circled to Ronon’s left side, the other seemed
to get to his or her knees right next to his head. The folds
of their clothing shifted close to his ears. Both reached for
his face, wide sleeves revealing hands the color of murky tea.
As they touched and prodded him, Ronon’s
thoughts wandered back to his mother’s legends and the
myth of Ker. The fly was supposed to be native to a
planet few ever visited. Merchants who claimed to have been
there brought back tales of caravan-members supposed dead and
buried. Some were lucky enough to be detected in time; others
had to suffocate with all their senses still alert. Ronon had
always taken such sensational titbits for gossips’ exaggeration,
now he revised his opinion.
He wondered briefly if such a burial was in
store for him. He tried to move his hand, but nothing had changed
yet. Wait a little longer.
Another figure joined the couple and stood above
Ronon’s head. With their flowing garments, they reminded
him of slender and vast-winged ardeas, lighting on a lake. On
his home world, those water birds were believed to be heralds
of death. The thought brought him up short. He looked at his
silent sentries with new suspicion.
Most of his mother’s stories he could
recite by heart. He’d never told her, but he suspected
she’d known all the same. Now the weave of words she’d
spun throughout his childhood led him to the information he
needed. The melodic intonation of Lore was back in his head
as Ronon remembered.
. . . wanderers from world to world, drifting
in the evening light, gathering the forgotten. Their blessing
has no words, their lament no sound. The rest they give knows
Lamenters, they were called.
It seemed like legends came to life in hosts
Ronon sunk into inner calm with a will. He wasn’t
going to waste any reserves on struggling prematurely, but he
would be ready the moment he sensed the slightest agility in
If he was right about these people, he had not
much time to regain power over his body.
The first thought he had when he opened his
eyes and saw nothing but tall grass and shadows flickering over
the ground was: Oh, great.
What was it this time? He vaguely remembered
the buzzing of insects, remembered warning them all to take
care, but did anyone ever listen to him? Of course not. Ronon
had laughed and Teyla had smiled at him.
Of course he had been right.
”Didn’t I tell –”
That was only in his head. He heard nothing.
No vibration in his vocal chords. No sound. Rodney tried to
clear his throat and realised that he couldn’t.
Fantastic. Losing my voice because of a
bug-sting has always been high on the top list of my priorities.
Thank you, Sheppard.
He tried to move his arms in order to push himself
up and glare at Sheppard – only to realise that his arms
wouldn’t move. He tried a leg, a hand, a finger, his head
– nothing. His lips wouldn’t form words. He was
vaguely aware of his heart beating and of his breath flowing
slowly, much more slowly than it should. Everything seemed strangely
subdued, as though experiencing it from behind a wall of cotton
This was not good. This was far beyond the realm
of good. This was heading straight into very, very bad territory.
Calm down. The fact that you’re still
breathing and that your heart is still beating means that you’re
But where were Sheppard, Ronon and Teyla? Whom
he would gladly kill if they ever so much as tried to mock his
caution again, but that was beside the point.
Still alive. Alive is good, alive you can
work with. But if you’re alive and yet can’t move,
then how will anybody else know you’re alive? Is the heartbeat
still strong enough to detect?
The thudding was slow, too slow. His breathing,
he noticed, was so shallow and slow that someone who didn’t
know what to look for would probably not realise he was still
Oh, god. Anabiotic. You’re anabiotic.
He could still hear, the rustling of trees above
him, the wind in the grass, the distant tinkling of metal against
metal. Scent of sun-dried hay in the air, and something sweeter,
almost like the heavy perfume his aunt Cecilia had always worn,
the one that always made him choke. He should be having an allergic
reaction to it by now, but there was nothing.
Anxiety morphed into fear morphed into panic
and yet he couldn’t feel any of it. His heart wasn’t
beating any faster. His breath wasn’t picking up. No cold
sweat, no prickling scalp, no shaking hands, no pressure behind
the forehead, nothing. All the comforting physical reactions
of a panic attack were missing.
Anabiotic. Oh, God.
He was trapped inside his body with no way out,
no way to come up with a brilliant plan to save the situation.
Claustrophobia had always happened in small places, as it should.
Now, the claustrophobia happened inside his
What if no one notices you’re still
They’ll bury you.
While you’re still alive.
He had always hated fire.
Will it hurt?
Will you notice--
-- will your consciousness stay with your
-- burn to death?
The tinkling came closer, the scent grew stronger.
Shadows around him.
The panicked swirl of thoughts gave way to a
wild rush of hope when he heard steps and the soft rustle of
I’m here, I’m here, I’m
still alive, do something, damn it, Sheppard, do something,
if you can hear me do something, do something, help me, I need
to get out of this, get Carson, get the fucking Nox, I don’t
care, just get me out, get me out, I don’t want to die
like this, not like this, please, please, not this way, I don’t
want to be buried alive --
Something grey moved into his line of vision,
pooled on the grass next to his face. Heavy coins woven into
grey, gauzy fabric that moved with the breeze.
A hand cool on his face.
The veil moved over him, covering him.
Grey. His world turned grey and he clung to
his mantra: Please, please, I’m still alive, please,
don’t go away, don’t leave, do something, get Sheppard.
Hands on his arms, under his arms, lifting him.
His head lolled back.
More grey veils, upside down.
I’m still alive!
People. Figures, the veils covering their entire
bodies, head to toe, like grey ghosts, the veils fluttering
and billowing in the breeze.
They put him onto something like a stretcher
and then there was sky above him, clouds moving slow and lazy.
The coins tinkled, a soft melody to the measured
steps of his rescuers.
Yes, get Carson, please, get help. Still
The movement stopped after what seemed like
hours to Rodney. More of the grey-veiled people appeared above
him A barely visible face hovered over his, uncomfortably close,
letting his unblinking and dry eyes see more gauzy material
wound around the figure’s mouth and nose. Hair cropped
short. Ashen. Dark, inquisitive eyes. A track of tears tattooed
into the skin under the eyes.
Those eyes scrutinised him for a while, then
closed. A single tear trickled down the track of the tattooed
A language Rodney didn’t completely understand
was spoken, but there were enough pieces of Ancient woven into
it that the panic slammed back fully into his mind.
Mors, he heard. Requietum. Aeternus.
Not dead, he wanted to scream, I’m
not dead, I’m NOT DEAD, but no sound made it past
They carried him head first into the event horizon.
After using the stargate for God knew how many times, John had
thought it would never feel alien again. He’d been wrong.
Entering the wormhole without seeing it, hearing
its watery ripple as a disembodied gurgle, then the quicksilver
liquid flowing over his forehead, filling his eyes . . . it
was deeply unsettling.
They came out in darkness, the other side pitch
black with not so much as a single star in the sky.
Supposing there was a sky.
A whiff of sulphur, something crackled, then
a pale flickering at the periphery of his vision. Seconds later,
a thick orange glow spread over John’s head. There had
to be torches, a couple of them.
The procession continued; John could feel the
stretcher bump with every step of its carriers. After an indeterminable
period of time, he was set down.
John heard the unending tinkle move back and
forth, the rustle of robes on sandy ground. Someone bowed over
him, head outlined against the glowing smoke of the unseen torches.
The veil was gone, revealing a bald head and haggard face. In
the flickering light, the features were hard to discern, but
John saw markings that ran down from the stranger’s eyes
like tear-smudged kohl.
A drop of sweat trickled down John’s temple.
The shock of it seemed to vibrate in his belly. Did he imagine
it? No, it had been there. A reaction of his body. Another drop,
following the track of the first, more quickly.
John willed the man above him to react. Watch,
damn it. Watch me!
The head disappeared. There was hardly any time
for disappointment, though. John felt movement at his feet.
Someone was untying his boots and slipped them off his feet.
His socks went, too. The night’s chill grazed his bare
feet and crept beneath the hem of his pants. Hands emptied the
pockets of his tac-vest almost gently, removed his sidearm from
As of now, he couldn’t decide whether
he was just baffled or really creeped out.
Alarm cranking up another notch over the lack
of his sidearm, John waited for another sign from his body.
He refused to believe that the droplet of sweat had been false
The bald man reappeared, leaning once more into
John’s limited field of vision. He lifted a hand to cover
John’s face and his palm smothered John’s already
He’d closed John’s eyes. Fuck. It
seemed like the perfect time to run through all of the expletives
he’d ever heard. No one would hear him anyway.
Once more plunged into blackness and wrestling
the dread that simmered just above the surface, John listened
to the ongoing soundscape. He tried to make sense of it. Was
his team still with him? They had to be. The urge to make sure
was maddening. After a while, the sound of the coin-fringed
veils started to move away. Noises grew faint, distant and vanished.
The rest was silence.
John lay unmoving. His keyed up mind expected
a bang, some sort of climax. The sickening rush of air in free
fall. It didn’t come. He just remained . . . suspended.
Rigid. Blind. Perfectly lucid.
This wasn’t how he’d thought he’d
go out at all. But then again, you couldn’t exactly call
this going, could you?
There was no way to tell how much time passed,
but after a while, the cold covered every inch of skin inside
his clothing. A shiver ran down his arms and his jaw twitched.
Like the sweat, it was a brief signal and isolated. Nothing
else improved, not immediately.
More time passed and the waiting nearly drove
John out of his skin. He wished it could have. He tried to distract
himself, reciting the specs and top speeds of all the planes
and helicopters he had ever flown. Gradually, he became more
aware of his gooseflesh. Was it possible . . .?
John frowned and found that he could. Frown,
that was. He tried drawing a deep breath next. Cool and dry
air filled his lungs. Just breathing for a couple of minutes
was the best feeling he had experienced in a long time.
He tried to wriggle a finger. It took him what
felt like another two hours to manage. Dry sand crept under
his fingernails. He tried moving a toe next. There was a light
breeze tickling his bare feet. At last he just went for it,
bent his knees and sat his feet flat on the ground. It worked.
More sand between his toes.
John licked his dry lips and let the air whoosh
out of his lungs. He scrubbed a hand over his face and could
feel the relieved smile; touched it deliberately just to believe
it wasn’t only in his imagination. He had control over
his body again. Everything back to normal.
He hoped Ronon, Teyla and Rodney were recovering
the same way he was. If they really had been left here, too.
Wherever here was.
He turned his head to his right and opened his
eyes. Nothing. Utter, inky blackness. The familiar heaviness
of the tac-vest was resting on his chest, so they couldn’t
have removed everything. His boots were gone for good, though.
He was still weirded out by their removal. What the hell had
that been about – take his boots but not his tac-vest?
There was breathing nearby. From the many off
world missions, he was familiar with Rodney’s slightly
nasal, almost congested breathing, Teyla’s light and nearly
inaudible one and Ronon’s deep and steady breathing patterns.
They were all here, and at the very least all of them were alive.
Time for a sit-rep. Rolling to his side, he
sat up. His head still felt as though he were on the fringe
of a hangover, but at least moving was possible again.
“Rodney? You all right?” he asked.
His answer was a sharp intake of breath that
told him Rodney must have been awake for some time already.
“If this is the afterlife, I demand an exchange. I fully
expected to be met by Einstein and Marie Curie and have a couple
of beautiful angels around me, feeding me citrus-free delicacies.
I did not request to have you there as well.” A pause.
“Unless this is hell.” Rodney’s voice wavered
just a little too much for John to smile at the forced sarcasm.
“You’re not dead.”
“I’d better not be. I’m too
valuable to die so young.”
“You’re forty, McKay.” That
was Ronon’s low rumbling voice. Another weight slipped
off John’s shoulders.
“Thirty-eight!” came Rodney’s
indignant reply. Another pause. “You’re here, too?
Then this really must be hell.”
“It is not,” Teyla said. Her voice
was unsteady, too, but John passed it off as relief.
He reached into his tac-vest, where he felt
the reassuring weight of the flashlight. “Let’s
get some light into this place.”
“No!” Teyla’s voice was as
hard and clear as glass.
John’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Do not turn on your flashlight.”
“Are you insane?” Rodney bristled.
“Why the hell shouldn’t we?”
“Do not ask me to answer this question,
“Rodney’s right, Teyla, why the
hell shouldn’t we use the flashlights?”
“Trust me in this.“
John was surprised to find no protest from Ronon.
“Just trust me. Please, John.“
He didn’t know what rattled him more.
Her using his first name, or that fierce little ‘please’.
He put the flashlight back in his vest.
He scrubbed a hand over his face: “All
right, let’s focus: Anybody hurt?”
Ronon and Teyla declined. Rodney’s answer
was a huffy: “Except for my mental state and the fact
that Kate Heightmeyer will be working overtime when we get back?
“My shoes are gone,” Teyla said
He heard Ronon shift. “So are mine.”
“Since my feet are almost frozen solid,
you could safely assume that my shoes are gone.” He paused.
John pulled his knees up and felt the sand shift
under his toes. “I felt them take away my sidearm and
go through my tac-vest. Check what they took.”
A few moments of rustling in the dark followed.
God, he was getting a headache. “ So,
anybody have an idea what happened? This time?”
John heard Ronon shift on the sandy ground.
“Could you be any more specific?”
“The insects buzzing around us on M33-604
– they were Ker.”
“And those are --”
“The heralds of death,” Teyla said,
softly. “Their sting leaves you paralysed for a few hours,
enough to make it seem you were dead. They are living mutually
with small predators known as Leshan. The Ker
uses its sting to immobilise the prey, and the Leshan
later comes to feed on the victim while the Ker draws
the blood of the Leshan to survive.”
“Charming,” Rodney commented. “So,
why aren’t we all Leshan food?”
“I do not know.” The miniscule pause
Teyla made before answering made John uneasy.
“I do not know, Colonel.”
“Okay, those Ker ... why didn’t
we know about them? I’m sure there would have been something
in the database --“
“They were believed to be extinct on almost
“Always good to find the exception to
the rule.” And, yes, that was Rodney back in full sarcasm-mode.
“All right, folks, I’ve had enough
of sitting around,“ John said, rising to his knees and
dusting off his hands on his pants. “We have to find out
where we are and how to get back to the gate. Suggestions?“
Rodney huffed. “What, you don’t
have superior night-sight? Wait a moment, I’ll have mine
switched on in a few seconds.“
“I can see well enough,“ Ronon said.
“Of course you can.“ John didn’t
need to see Rodney’s face to know the side of his mouth
was turned down in disdain.
“We use our belts,“ Teyla explained.
“Each of us holds one end, this way no one will get lost.”
She paused as though the next sentence cost all her strength
to force over her lips. “I will take point and use my
“What, suddenly there’s light allowed?”
The same question was on John’s lips but
he bit down on it when he heard Teyla’s breath hitch.
“Let’s do it,” he said instead,
ignoring Rodney’s outraged “What?” and undid
After this, there was a good deal of fumbling
in the dark. Rodney muttered along the whole time through, a
running commentary of their ‘ridiculous performance’.
He didn’t grumble too loudly, though. John suspected he’d
picked up on Teyla’s nervousness, as well. If they’d
learned anything on previous missions it was to pay attention
to her sixth sense. Although John had never seen her quite like
this before. He was familiar with Teyla being wary, alarmed,
or even on edge.
Freaked out was new.
When they were all properly linked, Teyla switched
on her flashlight. She pointed it at the tip of her feet –
bare, like John’s own. In the narrow beam of light, the
sandy ground looked ghostly white. Teyla moved and the beam
of light skittered ahead until it hit on a strip of gravel.
“This way,“ Teyla said and they
set in motion.
Once on the gravel they fell in line and followed
what John supposed to be a road. He could see Teyla’s
legs, but nothing else. He’d never been much good flying
shotgun. Letting others navigate made him itchy, always had.
But this was Teyla, so he forced down his misgivings. She must
have her reasons. Strange, Teyla-like reasons, but reasons all
“Ow!“ Rodney’s voice, followed
by a tug at the belt-line.
“What’s wrong?“ John asked
back over his shoulder.
“Sharp pebble. In my foot.“ More
tremors in the belt as Rodney presumably hobbled the next few
steps. “Not enough that they left us in this godforsaken
place. Did they have to steal our shoes as well?“
“They did not steal them,“ Teyla
said from the head of the line. “It is part of their ritual.“
“And who the hell are they?“ Rodney
demanded. “Since you obviously know what’s going
on, can’t you at least tell us who those people were that
dragged us here?“
“I’d like to hear that, too,“
John agreed. He fully expected Teyla to explain, but was surprised
by her silence.
Still nothing. As if that wasn’t unusual
enough, it was Ronon who answered in her stead.
“They’re called Lamenters,“
he said. “They’re a travelling order.“
“Again, this would strike me as something
the Ancients would have included in their data base,“
“They came after the Ancients had left.“
“My father told stories of them,“
Teyla said quietly. “People who had lost their families
or else left their worlds to join the order out of conviction.
They wear . . . they have markings on their faces.“
“I’ve seen them,“ John cut
it. “Black smudges, like running paint?“
“Tear tracks,“ Teyla said. Her hollow
tone sent a chill down his back. He was starting to feel a little
freaked himself. Teyla’s cryptic behaviour was puzzling
enough, but John was also bothered by something else. Noting
he could put his finger on but, well, . . . something.
Maybe it was the total silence around them.
John waited to hear anything, even the tiniest noise like the
flutter of a nocturnal bird, but heard nothing except the sound
of their clothes rustling.
No world was this quiet, not even at night.
“And what does this order of yours do,“
Rodney spoke up once more. “Prodding unconscious people
at the roadside, carrying them off and adding foreign boots
to their collection of intergalactic footwear?“
“They gather the forgotten dead.“
John could feel the vibration in the belt-line
as Rodney faltered in his steps. His own hand had clenched into
a fist on the strip of leather that linked him with Teyla. He
recalled the shrouded head with sudden vividness and again felt
the phantom fingers closing his eyelids.
Someone’s walking on your grave.
He’d no idea why he thought of that phrase
right then. He didn’t like the feeling it gave him. He
tried to concentrate on their progression. Was he imagining
it, or did Teyla pick up her pace?
As they plodded on, John’s head was filling
with questions. In a galaxy plagued by cullings it figured they’d
have a death cult as well. People might appropriate the thing
that harried them most. It made sense . . . in a morbid, disturbing
His thoughts kept spinning back to the veiled
figures. Now, as then, they seemed hardly human. Before he could
stop it, his imagination filled the gaps he’d rather have
left empty. A culture drowned in grief, trailing the scourge
of death, picking up the husks that were left behind. It was
Memories began to rise in John like evening
fog. He knew Teyla’s Lamenters from before. He’d
seen them walking empty streets, carrying shattered bodies,
their sorrow too vast to have a voice. Once more he smelt the
engine grease, the hot metal of his Black Hawk and the fine
blue smoke that still lingered in the air. He saw women in black
veils, holding men that should be too heavy for their arms.
Somewhere in the distance, another chopper took flight, rotor
howling in the torrid heat.
Swirling sand. A young woman digging bare-handed
through charred rubble. Her hands leaving bloody marks on the
stones she threw aside with the strength of the desperate. John
stood paralysed, ears still ringing from the force of the explosion
that had rocked the village, his team no longer around. Just
him and that woman. Frozen in time. She was keening in a local
dialect he didn’t understand, her voice an eerie counterpoint
to the rattle of machine guns. She never once turned to ask
him for help. John sank to his knees anyway, felt sharp stones
digging through his BDU pants and didn’t ask what she
was looking for.
The image of the small, broken body they had
pulled out from under the rubble had haunted John for months
before he had managed to lock it away. The mother’s silent
cry of absolute anguish still echoed in his mind when everything
grew too quiet. John hadn’t had time to grieve the boy.
It wasn’t his child; it wasn’t his business. He
was a soldier. Death was something he had to deal with. But
that never stopped him from feeling responsible.
Mitch and Dex died the same day.
Two years later, he went to another galaxy and
woke the Wraith. And he was just as helpless and paralysed as
he’d been back in that village in Afghanistan.
John closed his eyes to stop the images from
surfacing. It worked. Barely. When he opened his eyes again,
he was calm, his former anxiety turned to ice.
He repeated Teyla’s words.
They gather the forgotten dead.
Gather them to bring them where?
John was once more keenly aware of the silence
around them. He shivered, but the cold he felt now came only
partly from the outside.
“How do we know we won’t get lost?“
Rodney asked suddenly.
“There’s just one road,“ Ronon
rumbled from the rear.
“Have you been here before?“ Rodney
asked, hope sparking in his voice.
“Then how would you know?“
“We came here in a straight line.“
“How long until we get to the stargate?“
He’d become aware of a subtle odour –
sickly sweet, thick at the back of his throat, cloying, instantly
nauseating. It was a faint smell, no more than a tinge in the
still night air. He knew it all the same. Had smelled it too
many times before.
John clamped down on the images that fought
their way to the surface, unbidden. That moment he’d an
inkling why Teyla had wanted the only source of light. Rodney
would freak out, and if he was honest with himself, John didn’t
know if he’d be that much better off.
The trek seemed endless. Not seeing where they
went didn’t alleviate the impression. Teyla, who’d
never answered his question, set a brisk pace. Rodney didn’t
At one point, Teyla handled her flashlight too
carelessly and the beam slipped to the side of the road. The
light flicked back to the trail immediately. John still caught
a glimpse of that which she hid from them. A bony ankle, a withered
It was enough.
They didn’t stop, and the hours in paralysis
without nutrition started to take their toll on John. He had
searched his pockets earlier and found that all his food supplies
were gone from the various pockets of his tac-vest. It just
figured - the dead didn’t need any food. He couldn’t
think of eating anyway, though. Ever since he’d detected
that sickly smell, he was unable to ignore it. Hazy though it
was, it still had him close to throwing up. He spent most of
the walk concentrating on fighting nausea.
Behind him, he heard Rodney mutter under his
breath. Breathing that was as shallow as John’s. John
found that this and the nonstop murmuring calmed him.
When dawn finally came, he almost missed the
sliver of light on the horizon. Pale, sallow sunlight crept
over the rise of a hill and bathed everything around them in
smudged ochre. Gradually, the haze cleared into a cheerless
ivory brightness that, once it hit the cloud-cover, came from
everywhere and nowhere.
As dawn stretched fully across the hillside,
it removed the cover of darkness without compromise. No more
protection from the open space and the view it revealed. After
a while, John lifted his head.
He shouldn’t have looked. Really, he shouldn’t
“Oh, God.” Rodney’s voice
broke in horror, telling John exactly when Rodney had copied
his movement and had looked up from the trail.
“Keep your head down, McKay.”
“Oh, God, how many --“
“We’re walking in an open grave,
excuse me for doing the only sensible thing.”
“And that would be what?” Ronon
“Freak out!” There was no heat behind
Rodney’s exclamation, only abject terror. John was glad
he couldn’t see his eyes.
He knew now why the night had been so silent.
The landscape he tried to ignore stretched vast and endless
on either side of the trail. His traitorous gaze searched for
landmarks, but didn’t find a single tree. Nothing lived
on this world, nothing grew, not even so much as a weed on the
road. Instead, everything was covered with an off-white dust
that could be pulverised stone, but wasn’t. He could feel
a layer of chalky powder on his soles of his feet, between his
He looked at the skeletons to his left and away
again. Like stones in a grid, they lay isolated, symmetrical.
He’d lain like that. They all had.
An open grave. John sometimes hated Rodney for
being so damn concise. He concentrated on walking again; climbing
the rise of the hill along the path. Teyla stopped abruptly;
John barely avoided stumbling into her.
“I can see the stargate,” she said.
Her voice was quiet and flat. No emotions.
He realised that Teyla hadn’t looked up
from her feet once during their walk. Her head had been bowed
the entire time, only seeing the next step, no more.
She was looking up now, her body a dark silhouette,
fraying out on the edges against the diffuse sunlight. John
was inappropriately reminded of Lot’s wife.
It was what was beyond her that made John think
of just how close that comparison hit to home after all.
The gate was ahead of them, maybe four or five
miles down the hill, manageable in a little over an hour. But
the trail was no longer straight; it curved and on its way down
the hill, opening their view onto fields. Fields of what, at
a fleeting glance, could be mistaken for firewood. Perfectly
even, long lines of firewood stretching along all the way to
Only, they weren’t firewood at all.
Bodies, thousands, maybe millions of them were
arranged in exact positions, shoes removed, hands on the ground
next to them all facing the stargate as though ready to greet
incoming travellers - skulls and withering corpses and not one
of them buried, god, no, he couldn’t --
Behind him, Rodney listed to the side, pulled
on the belt, and retched.
John’s own stomach jumped in sympathy.
They’d been stacked. The dead were so
numerous they’d been heaped on top of each other.
“Teyla, move,” Ronon rumbled from
behind them, his voice low and commanding in a way John had
never heard before. Teyla didn’t react and stood as if
paralysed all over again. She’d let go of the belt and
John realised the broken line was dangling from his fist. He
could see Teyla’s feet and ankles, turned white by the
remains of crumbled bones.
“My father is among them.”
John winced. Behind him, Rodney straightened
again. Neither of them had any words for this. In the end it
was Ronon who managed to snap Teyla out of her trance.
“Teyla.” At this, she bowed her
head and began to put the flashlight back into her vest.
“We better get going,” Ronon said.
“God dammit, Ronon,” John snapped.
“Give her a moment.” He turned and saw Rodney, too,
glaring at the Satedan.
“We move now,” Ronon repeated, expression
hard and unreadable. “Unless you prefer to actually die
“Why?” Rodney demanded, “It’s
just about to get really cosy here, don’t you think, Colonel?”
Ronon’s face twisted into a parody of
a smile. “Because they make sure whoever comes here dead
That revelation made anything John might have
wanted to add stick in his throat. He recalled the susurring
whisper of robes and the tremulous tinkle of little coins. His
empty stomach twisted sickeningly.
Of course they took the shoes. Once you were
here, you’d done all the walking you ever would do.
Without another word, Ronon moved to the head
of the line. John let Rodney step past him and brought up the
rear himself. After a while, Rodney moved up to walk beside
Teyla, close enough their shoulders almost touched. Her stride
seemed firmer with the contact.
They all kept their eyes glued to the trail
as they walked down the hill, wordless for once. John felt shadowed
the whole time through, was almost sure he could feel the Lamenter’s
breath on the back of his neck. Every sound in the stacks of
bones made the hair on his arms rise further. He couldn’t
shake the memory of the Lamenter’s veils and in his mind,
their herbal scent mingled with the stench of this place, became,
after a while, identical.
He imagined the stargate, it’s welcoming
ripple, the familiar rush that would pull him through space
and time. He tried to recall the sun-dappled halls of Atlantis,
the saline air and the soothing patter of living voices. One
step through the wormhole and they would be there.
He looked up; saw the gate far in the distance
and the pale road, stretching for miles on end through fields
of bone and decay.
“Do not look back.” Teyla said and
Rodney, who’d been about to turn, stiffened his shoulders.
It took John all the restraint he’d left not to turn around
himself. He all but felt parched hands reach for him and a jolt
of sheer panic flared through his body.
“Sheppard,” Ronon called without
turning to look at him.
The taste of incense was on the back of his
tongue and he felt a breeze on his skin, soft, sleek, like a
veil grazing his ankle.
Maybe death had been his shadow after all.
John closed his eyes for a second, looked ahead
again, kept walking.
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?