Back to the rest of my SGA fanfic

The World to Come

by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)

 

Words: 6136

Rating: PG

Warnings: None

 

Summary: The world ended while John was sleeping...

 

Note: This was written as a pinch hit for the Gen Ficathon on LJ, for the genre "Team", and the prompt, "I found the end of the world, of course; And it's not the end of the world, of course (Gordon Downie, "Vancouver Divorce")

 

******

 

The world ended while John was sleeping.

 

When he walked out in the first light of morning, it was to an empty world. The road outside his father's house was blocked with cars, some of them still with their engines running, but most of them silent. He walked over to one of them, which was sitting at a crazy angle, half on the sidewalk and half on the road. The passenger door was wide open, and a map on the dashboard stirred slightly in the breeze. There was no-one inside.

 

John started to walk. He passed car after car, every one of them empty. "I've heard of traffic snarl ups," he said, "but this is ridiculous." His voice sounded too loud in the empty air, and each word came slower than the last. The only other sound was a faint hissing that seemed to come from everywhere, like background interference in the world itself. Then when he wrenched open a car door, he realised what it was - the sound of hundreds of car radios out of tune. He reached over to fiddle with the dial, but got nothing. It was as if every radio channel had ceased to broadcast overnight.

 

"Huh," he said, producing a wry smile to cover the creeping cold that he felt. "How long was I asleep?" His limbs were heavy, and he had no clear memory of anything before he had fallen asleep. He was fairly sure that he wasn't supposed to be here, but had no idea where else he should be.

 

"Well, first things first," he said. He returned to the house. As he did so, a sheet of newspaper blew across the grass, tangling with his feet. He stooped to pick it up, and saw stories of sports teams and smiling children, but nothing to explain this. He let it go again, and watched it flutter away; almost lost himself in watching it.

 

Something's wrong, he thought, then gave a sharp laugh, because duh, too right something's wrong, Colonel States The Obvious. What gave you the clue, eh? That thought brought faint memories of another person, but he couldn't pin them down. "First things first," he said. "Concentrate on the things I can do something about."

 

His father's house was as empty as the world outside, but unlike the world outside, it had the look of a place that had been deserted for months. Dust was thick in all the remembered places. John returned to the bed he had risen from, and found it just a bare mattress covered with a dust sheet like a shroud. This was his childhood room, bare of everything except memory. The dust on the floor showed no footprints except his own.

 

The television was like the radio, showing only the white snowstorm of a non-existent signal. The phones at least were working, but John's mind went blank when it came to thinking of people to call. He tried numbers at random in the end, but each time they rang and rang without an answer. "Is anyone there?" he asked into the silent phone. "Is anyone alive but me?"

 

Hours passed before he put the phone down for the final time, staring at it while his heart pounded in his chest. "Pull yourself together, John," he said at last, scraping a hand across his face. "There's got to be someone else out there."

 

He found a bag in a closet, and stuffed it full of bottled water and canned goods from the kitchen. Beneath its protective sheet, his father's desk was the same as it had always been. The desk drawer was locked, but John knew where the key was kept. The world felt a little safer when he had his father's revolver in his hand, but not much.

 

Just before leaving, he paused in the door and looked back at that single line of footprints in the dust. There should be more, he thought. "Three more," he said, frowning as he tried to clutch hold of memories that wanted to fly away like dust on the wind.

 

The sky was blue and perfect, the sunlight beating down on an empty world. But it's not my world, he thought, as he set off to find answers. Behind him, the door of his father's house swung shut, and he realised that he had no key with him, and no way of getting back in.

 

It didn't seem to matter much. A word came into his head, and he had no idea why he should be thinking about stupid old legends, except that the name felt important, and not stupid, not stupid at all.

 

Atlantis.

 

****

 

Sateda had fallen.

 

Ronon returned through the Ring to find only ruins where his thriving home should be. The horror was slow and cold, less fierce than it ought to have been. Numb, he walked through the main plaza, clambering over fallen masonry, his hands resting on fallen statues of glorious leaders who had gone before. A tattered flag hung limp on the flagpole, and smoke was heavy in the air.

 

There were no people. Far above, a bird of prey circled, but the only sound was the trickling of water from a broken pump. A cascade of fruit had fallen from a shattered window, and Ronon crouched to touch one, finding it still fresh.

 

"Is anyone there?" Ronon called. "You can come out. I'm a friend." He turned a full circle, scanning the wreckage, but no-one emerged. Then his hand tightened on the gun at his side, and he shouted it again, his voice harsh and challenging. "Is anyone there? Come out and face me!"

 

Stone shifted, settling into new positions. A puff of wind made the flag stir, its cords flapping against the flagpole. No-one answered him. The circling bird of prey moved on, its keen eyes seeing no sign of life.

 

The Wraith had come. The Wraith had broken through their defences while Ronon was away, and had taken the entire population in their culling beams. The numbness faded, but not as much as it should have done. This has already happened, buddy, Ronon thought, in a mental voice that didn't seem like his own. The thought brought vague impressions of a place far away and a life far removed from the one that here lay dying.

 

"Melena." He said her name aloud, and the numbness faded a little more. This was a time for fury and grief, he told himself. This was a time for vengeance.

 

He hurried to his home, through familiar streets turned unfamiliar by devastation. Landmark buildings had crumbled to dust. In places, fires still burned, but most had diminished to smouldering ashes. His own house was more intact than many of those around it. "Melena?" he shouted as he tore open the door, but she wasn't there, of course. A meal was on the table, half-eaten and still fresh, but she's been dead for years, he thought.

 

Sateda had fallen. "Melena?" Ronon said, but only quietly, as he went outside again. He sank slowly to his knees in the dirt and looked up at the smoke-laden sky. He rubbed the heel of his hand across his eyes, and it came away moist, but when he did it again a second time, his eyes were dry.

 

"Is anyone there?" he asked into the silence, but no-one responded, neither survivors nor enemies. It felt wrong to be so alone. He thought of terrified survivors huddled in the ruins, and enemies lurking in cunning traps. Before that, though, a different image flickered briefly on the edge of his mind, then faded away like something written on swift-flowing water.

 

Ronon pushed himself to his feet and started to walk. The only sound in the whole city was the sound of his feet on the shards of stone, but even that was faint. The ruins around him were utterly still, as if he wasn't here at all, but was seeing them on a screen in a place far away. Everything around him had the distant feel of an old grief, its razor-sharp edge long since blunted.

 

This has happened before. Once again, his mind spoke in a voice that didn't seem like his own. He turned round, suddenly sure that three other people should be walking beside him; he could almost see them there, like spirits in the air.

 

This isn't my home any more, he thought.

 

***

 

Lost in his work, Rodney failed to notice when the world outside his room came to an end.

 

He surfaced from his calculations with a sharp stab of triumph. The triumph faded quickly. His back ached and his limbs hurt from too long spent hunched over his computer. His mouth was as dry as a desert, and the thick air in the small room seemed to press down on the back of his neck like the hands of an enemy.

 

"Coffee." His voice had a hollow sound to it. "What do you need to do to get coffee round here?" He snapped his fingers. "Jump to it, people."

 

No-one answered. When he stood up, his chair scraped on the floor with an implausibly loud sound, echoing in a way that only happened in empty rooms. His footsteps to the door sounded like the steps of more than one person. He opened it and called down the hallway, but his own voice returned to him, echoing back the same questions: "Is anybody there? …anybody there? …there?"

 

The echo grew louder as he started to walk. Several times he had to turn around sharply to make sure that no-one was following him. "Oh, I get it," he said. "It's Play Childish Tricks on Genius Day. Ha ha, very funny. Now can I have my coffee?" The echo sounded like music - parts weaving between parts.

 

He pulled open the doors into other offices, other labs, but all were empty. He saw scrawled calculations in notebooks, with unfinished equations and half-written words. He awakened sleeping computers with a flick of the mouse, and saw unsaved work and blank emails with nothing but the salutation. Cold coffee sat in two dozen mugs on two dozen desks.

 

"Guys?" He said it quietly, his voice dry. Sunlight from a window showed a heavy fall of dust. "Very funny, Colonel." Then he frowned, because surely he didn't know anyone from the military. He was Rodney McKay, PhD, working, uh… here, engaged in… in very important work, and…

 

Even his thoughts trailed away. His words were locked inside, because the echo was, well, downright creepy. He carried on walking, though, through a totally deserted complex of hundreds of rooms, but in the end, his feet returned him to his own desk. The computer stared at him, promising answers, so he sat down in front of it, opened up a browser, and went to a news site. Nothing had been updated for a week. The second and the third site told the same tale. The fourth and the fifth were the same. Forum posts finished mid-conversation a week ago, chatting about inconsequential topics, promising to be right back. None of his friends were currently online. Webcams showed empty rooms and empty streets and abandoned places that normally teemed with life.

 

"This is…" Rodney swallowed, scraping his hand across his face. "If this is a joke, guys…"

 

An empty world shouldn't have affected him; Rodney had always claimed that he didn't need people, after all. They were convenient automata who scurried around obeying his orders, and it was useful to have people around who could do the jobs you couldn't do yourself, but…

 

"Of course I need people," he said aloud, staring at those lifeless images, at an internet entirely devoid of activity. "You can't receive the adulation of your peers if they don't exist."

 

The words echoed back with the hollowness they deserved. The images on screen blurred, and the hollowness spread, as if an enormous hole had been carved out from the inside of him, and nothing filled it but a gaping darkness.

 

But it wasn't those lifeless images that caused the void. "Something else…" he began.

 

The echo came back to him, its sounds weaving through and around his own voice. It was a three-fold echo, and his own voice made four. "Something," it said, and, "else… else… else… else…"

 

Something else is missing, he thought. Something more important than any of this.

 

***

 

Athos had never been a place of such silence.

 

Teyla walked through the homes of her people, and found them empty, tent flaps swaying in the breeze. Even the birds were silent, and no insects buzzed in the heat haze over the flowers and grasses. The stones of every hearth were cold, with charred sticks scattered across the ground as if by a strong wind.

 

"Is anyone here?" she called, but quietly, in case they had good reason to hide.

 

There was no answer. Of course not, she thought, because they have already moved on. She thought of other places beyond the stars, where the flame of Athos was carried intact and planted anew.

 

But why, then, were the tents and houses still standing? Why had people left their woven blankets and their caskets and the treasures that had passed from mother to daughter across the years? She found such things; passed her fingers, soft and sad, across their surfaces that told so many tales. All those material things that helped her people remember who they were had been left behind, but her people had gone.

 

Was it the Wraith? she thought. She pressed her hands to her chest and lowered her head, frowning as she sought a trace of them, but there was nothing there. Even the Wraith were gone. Her world was as lifeless as the ruins of the Ancestors, dead since time immemorial.

 

Of course it is, she thought again, not knowing where the thought came from, but knowing that it coursed through her like fire. This is an old story, told long ago.

 

She carried on walking, and things changed around her. Soon she came to homes more recently built, with less weight of past years about them. The trees closed in, and the air grew colder. Her people had gone, and someone had taken them. Michael, she thought. The Bola Kai. Her hands tightened on weapons that she had not realised she had. "Where have you taken them?" she shouted, but then she forced herself to relax her grip.

 

The woods were as silent as the village had been. A twig cracked under her foot, and she started, as if it was the only sound in the world. The breeze whispered in the leaves, telling her that her people were gone, that she would never see them again. Stories passed from mouth to mouth would never be told again. The names of the dead would be forever lost, because her people made monuments in songs and in hearts, and not in inscribed stone.

 

No, she thought, as she heard a small sound on the cusp between hearing and imagination. Another twig cracked beneath a foot heavier than her own. The whispering of the leaves was a man who kept up a constant litany of complaint. That dappled patch of light was the quick, elusive smile of a friend.

 

She thought of childhood stories gone. She thought of the last remaining few of a dwindling once-proud people, lost without trace, stolen and taken away. 

 

My people are gone, she thought, but the fleeting images that shyly darted out of view were not of the people who told those stories, but of something wonderful, something new.

 

***

 

John walked through a deserted world, but he dreamed of towers. He trudged along a suburban street, but his mind saw a gleaming city beside a silver ocean. When he looked at the wide blue sky, his blood sang with memories of flying in it, in a vessel that responded to his very thoughts.

 

"It's just a dream, John," he told himself. Just a dream. Something was seriously wrong with the world, and he had to stay focused. He had to find other survivors. He had to find answers. He couldn't turn away from reality by taking refuge in treacherous dreams. He had to…

 

His thoughts trailed away. Minutes passed before he wrenched himself away from dreams of the sky and the ocean. Very deliberately, he crouched down and pressed his hand against the hard road surface. "This is real," he said. "This matters."

 

But reality faded with every subsequent step. He tried to look for signs of life in the world around him, but far more real were the three ghosts who walked at his side.

 

It was free choice in the end that made him turn his back on the empty world and seek those towers of his dreams. With every step, they took shape around him, because he told them to. With every breath, the trees and the grass and the dark road faded, disappearing like fading smoke.

 

And then he was in Atlantis, but it, too, was dead and ended.

 

***

 

Sateda had fallen, but there were bound to be survivors. It was Ronon's duty to gather them up and keep them safe from the Wraith. It was his duty to his family and his ancestors to raise Sateda from the dust and ashes. He had to rebuild its walls and make its name live again in the mouths of children. He had to get revenge.

 

The Ring stood in front of him, tall and enduring, its empty centre promising so many things. His hand on his gun, Ronon gazed at it as the world swirled around him. The only thing that stayed unmoving was the circle of Sateda that he saw through the Ring, but then that, too, began to shimmer, turning blue and rippling like water.

 

Ronon tightened his fist at his side, let out a slow breath, and stepped through.

 

He found himself in a place that for a fraction of a second seemed strange to him, but then immediately felt as familiar as any home on Sateda. "Atlantis," he said, but the place was silent and his footsteps were too loud on the floor. Something twisted inside him, a cold fist around his heart. "This isn't right," he said.

 

"Just what I was thinking, buddy."

 

A ghost took shape from the empty air around him. Like Atlantis, the man was a stranger at first, but Ronon chased thoughts through the pathways of dreams, and then he knew that this was Sheppard.

 

A furrow appeared between Sheppard's eyes, as if he was chasing thoughts of his own. "Ronon," he said slowly. The frown deepened. "Everyone's gone. I was… somewhere else. This… this is worse."

 

"Yes," Ronon said, but he shook his head as he said it. It felt wrong to see a dead Atlantis, but having Sheppard here… That… That was right.

 

***

 

Rodney knew that those lifeless images on the computer screen ought to disturb him more. Something had happened to the world. Unless it was an elaborate practical joke… No, no, of course it wasn't a joke. Something had happened, and he, Rodney McKay, PhD, bona fide genius, with some of the world's most powerful computers at his fingertips, was in a position to do something about it. He had to get to work. He had to…

 

He let out a breath, and sat there, looking at the folded hands that lay so still in his lap. The slightest movement set the echo whispering. Moving as if in a dream, he brought his hand up and knocked his mug off the table. When the crockery shattered, the echoes screamed.

 

"Where are you?" he called, and the echoes came back to him: "you… you… you..." He stood up, knocked his chair over, and slammed his palm against the desk. "Where are you?" The echoes rose to a crescendo, like a wave of sound crashing over his head. "Wait for me!"

 

The wave shattered. The sound tore the world apart, and he was washed up on the other side, in the silence of a shining place where sunlight slanted through coloured glass.

 

"Atlantis," he said, and it was quiet, with barely an echo at all.

 

"Yeah," said a voice, and he turned to see two strangers, who suddenly weren't strangers any more, but Sheppard and Ronon, part of his team. Sheppard looked grim, but Ronon was smiling, and when he clapped Rodney on the shoulder, it felt suddenly like the most real thing Rodney had ever experienced, like water to a parched man.

 

Then Rodney looked beyond the two of them, to the shocking emptiness of a room that always teemed with life. "Where is everyone?" he asked, and there was still a faint echo there, as if he spoke with a voice that was not yet entirely whole.

 

***

 

Teyla turned her back on the place that had raised her, on the people who were long gone. But we depend on you, she heard in the rustle of the leaves. You should stay with us, find us, avenge us, lead us, said the thorns and the branches and the flapping tent canvas, as your father did, and his mother before him.

 

Teyla shook her head, slowly, sadly. A path of sunlight led to the Ring, and she stepped through it without looking back. I have already made this decision, she thought. I made it when my people were alive. Why, then, should I unmake it now that they have gone?

 

She emerged in the City of the Ancestors, famed in story and song. "No. In Atlantis," she said, and her smile made the spirits take shape around her, as if brought there by her realisation that this, this, was home.

 

"John," she said. "Rodney. Ronon." She greeted them one by one, her hands on their shoulders and her brow pressed to theirs. Their heartbeats were real beneath her fingers, and for a long moment, the scent, the touch, the sense of them drowned out the fact that Atlantis lay dead around them.

 

"What has happened?" she asked.

 

John shook his head, and the others echoed the gesture, like a chord of three different notes. "I don't know," he said, "but we're going to find out."

 

"And fix it," Ronon said, with the look of a man who could face anything.

 

Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again. His fluttering hands came together, clasping in resolve. "And fix it," he said.

 

Of course we will, Teyla thought. Turning round, she saw that the Ring was no longer behind her, and that she was here on Atlantis with no way back.

 

And there in the emptiness of Atlantis, with an empty world behind her, Teyla smiled.

 

***

 

Atlantis was dead. Power still flowed through its systems, but the consoles were abandoned with processes still running, and weapons were strewn across the armoury, thrown down before they could be properly put away.

 

"I can't find any log records," Rodney said, biting his lip with a consternation so familiar that it caused an unexpected stab to John's heart. The sound of Ronon's footsteps had the same effect, and the play of light on Teyla's hair. "There's no record of them dialling out for… well, for days."

 

The jumpers were all in place. The Gate was dead, with no possibility of contacting Earth. Atlantis still hummed when John pressed his hand against her walls, but had no answers.

 

"But we'll solve this," John said firmly. He clenched his fist tight, as if that could hold onto the vow and keep it safe. We won't let Atlantis die.

 

"It matters to you," a voice said. John looked up sharply to see a tall man at the top of the stairs, descending slowly. His hair was dark, and his eyes seemed to spill a glittering coldness across the rest of his thin face.

 

John drew his gun. Ronon was already in place, weapon held in both hands. Sitting at his console, Rodney had raised one hand. Teyla was poised, ready to placate or to attack. "Who are you?" John demanded. "What have you done with our people?"

 

"Nothing." The man shook his head, his smile like a thin crack in ice. "I say it again: it matters to you."

 

"What?" Rodney demanded.

 

"This." The man spread his hand imperiously. "Atlantis." He said the word as if it tasted unpleasant. "Each other." He walked down another step, his tawny-coloured robe trailing on the step above, raising the dust of a city long deserted.

 

"Don't come any closer," John warned him, steadying his gun. Ronon discreetly switched his weapon to stun, but his eyes flickered quickly towards John, making it clear that he would wait for a signal.

 

"Your worlds had ended," the man said, "but you cared not one whit for them. You turned your back on them, and you came to this place. You will fight for Atlantis, but not for anywhere else."

 

"That's not true," John protested, but he remembered lines of empty cars, and how he had packed his bag and walked away from them, seeking the ocean and its silver towers.

 

"You were alone," the man said. He took another step, and John gave the nod. Ronon responded instantly, but the man walked on without stopping. The red light from Ronon's weapon poured from him like water over a stone. "You were alone," the man said, his voice hardening, "but you found each other. You turned your back on millions, and sought each other, when you were not supposed to. You stand here together when you should be apart."

 

"It's what we do," John said. He might have said other things, more flippant things, but the man's eyes ripped truths from him. "We're team."

 

"Indeed."

 

The man was level with him now, looking down at John from his extra inch of height. He brought his hand up, and Rodney started screaming. A finger snap, and Ronon fell to his knees, his weapon falling from his hand and clattering down the steps. Teyla moaned, clutching her belly, writhing. John was powerless to move, powerless to do anything but look into those grey-flecked eyes.

 

"You would bring whole worlds to ruin," the man said, "to save these three from further pain."

 

"No." John wrenched the word out. He felt the pounding of his heart in the hollow of his throat, and a trickle of sweat running down the side of his neck.

 

"Would you sacrifice them to bring back the people of Atlantis?" the man asked. "Would you sacrifice them to bring back the people of your home world, the people that you abandoned so easily? Would you sacrifice them to save a million lives on a planet you had never been to?"

 

"No," he rasped, in desperate denial, because they were screaming and in pain, and he couldn't… he couldn't… He clenched a slow fist: the only movement left to him. Yes, he thought, because he knew that he'd risk anything for his team, but there had to be limits, and paths that you couldn't walk down. "I would," he forced out, "but only if… I knew… the threat was real… and there was no other option… no other price."

 

The man drew a knife from his long robe and stabbed John in the stomach. John sank to his knees and then sagged further, held up only by the blade of the knife. The pain was worse than anything he had ever felt before.

 

"Would they sacrifice you," the man said quietly, a sibilant hiss, "if that was what your life could buy?" He pulled the knife out lingeringly. A thick bead of blood fell to the ground.

 

John looked at him. His team were all suddenly still, staring at him with desperate, anguished eyes. "No," John said, as another drop fell, "but I would order them to, if I knew it was worth it." He smiled at them, one after the other, encompassing all three. "And they'd disobey, and they'd find a way to make it so no-one had to die."

 

"You lie," the man said coldly. "Your actions show otherwise."

 

He raised his hand, and the towers of Atlantis crumbled…

 

***

 

…and Rodney found himself in a small, dark room, lying on his back on a cold, hard surface. He raised his head, and pain stabbed through each side of his forehead. He tried to move his arms, but straps held them down. "Hey," he tried to say, but his voice cracked as if he had shouted too loudly for a very long time.

 

The door opened with a chilling hiss of sound. A man with a pale face and paler clothes bent over him and began to unfasten the straps. When his wrists were free, Rodney raised his hand to his throbbing head, and found blood, actual blood, there on his fingertips. When his feet were free, he dimly thought that he ought to be fighting - Sheppard would fight, and Ronon and Teyla - but he felt wrung out and drained. He remembered searing agony in his chest, and the echo of it was still there.

 

"Follow me," the man said, his voice without inflexion.

 

Rodney staggered when he tried to stand. "Uh, where?" he asked in that cracked and broken voice. "Because if you're going to, uh, torture me, or… or kill me, I think I'll stay right here, if you don't mind." The man just looked. His eyes promised many things. "Uh, coming." Rodney swallowed.

 

The man led him past other identical rooms, where wide-open doors showed metal slabs with unbuckled straps on them, and tangled wire filaments at the head. "Where are the others?" Rodney asked. "Are they okay?" The man said nothing, but led Rodney up a short flight of stairs - "not too fast," Rodney gasped. "Injured man here." - and into a room that Rodney recognised. Rodney and his team had stood there on those dark grey tiles when they had presented the case for alliance. "And you captured us," Rodney protested, "and tortured us--"

 

"It was necessary, Doctor McKay," said a new voice, and Rodney raised his eyes to see the tall man who had stabbed Sheppard in Atlantis. Sheppard! Rodney thought, but Sheppard was there, and so were Ronon and Teyla, each one closely guarded by their own pale-clothed shadow. Rodney's first thought was that they were unharmed, then he noticed the subtle indications that they all felt as bad as he did, if not worse.

 

"Necessary?" Sheppard said. "I have to agree with Rodney here. You tortured us--"

 

"Tested you." The tall man spread his hands. "You must understand that in times like these, we cannot enter into an alliance with anyone until we know their measure."

 

"And now you've done that," Sheppard said, "so let's--"

 

"You misunderstand." The man's smile was as cold as it had been in the… the virtual environment, the dream, the vision, the… whatever it was. "We tested you. You failed."

 

"Failed?" Rodney gasped.

 

"You are too selfish and too soft," the man said. "We presented you all with scenarios in which your entire world had perished, but what you mourned the most was your city by the sea. We showed you the loss of millions, but what you felt most sharply was the loss of a few friends. Friendship means nothing: it is just a transient relationship of people who pass in the night."

 

"No." Teyla surged forward. "If you believe that--"

 

The man gave quick gesture, and one of the guards pulled her back. Ronon made as if to attack, and he, too, was restrained.

 

"You will be allowed to return to Atlantis." The man continued to speak as if nothing had happened. "All we ask is that you never return." He turned towards Sheppard, and perhaps he still had an element of control over their minds, because Sheppard's mouth snapped shut, and he didn't say whatever he'd been about to say. "You are not worthy to clasp our hands in the bonds of alliance," the man said. "You were not even intended to share the same vision, but you came together, such was the strength of your foolish, irrational bond. We cannot ally with people who are guided by such petty things."

 

Sheppard again tried to speak, and again failed. His eyes blazed as he glared at the tall man. Then Ronon moved towards him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and Teyla took her place by his side. Rodney edged towards them, and nobody stopped him. Only when they were together, sharing the same small circle of floor, did Sheppard speak. "I think you guys are the ones not worthy of alliance, if you value these things so little."

 

The man blinked, his icy composure fading just for a moment. "But you would sacrifice our entire world if that was the price of saving the life of just one of your team-mates. I saw deep into your souls. I robbed you of everything, but the bonds of friendship shone more strongly in you than anything else. I tried to make you forget each other, but none of you did. You came together. The test cannot lie: it shows what every person values most."

 

Sheppard met his damning gaze. "Like I said, if you feel like that, then we don't want you as allies. Come on, guys. Let's go."

 

They walked out side by side, watched by people with cold eyes and faces devoid of laughter lines and smiles. Outside, in the square, everyone walked alone, occasionally exchanging quick words with practical purpose, but never anything more. The four of them drew closer together, shoulders sometimes brushing against each other as they walked.

 

The citizens looked at them as if they were something strange.

 

***

 

They didn't talk much about it. Woolsey told them that they'd been gone for two days. Keller said that they were all dehydrated and exhausted, with strange brain chemistry, and phantom traces of injuries that didn't exist. John himself had the symptoms of blood loss from a stab wound that had never happened outside dreams.

 

Normal patterns of thought were slow to return. John sometimes found himself drifting away on an observation, or seeing the world around him with the textures of a dream.

 

"I saw the world ending," John said one night, beneath a starless sky.

 

"So did I," Rodney said. "Seriously, it was freaky. But I didn't… I didn't care about it, you know, not as much as I did when I got back to Atlantis and found that it was empty, too."

 

Ronon had both arms on the railing. "I saw Sateda," he said, after a silence that went on almost too long. "That's old news now. I chose to come here."

 

"As did I," Teyla said. "I chose it many years ago, and I choose it still."

 

John turned around, resting his back against the railing, looking in towards the warm lights of Atlantis. "Was he…?"

 

"No," Teyla said firmly. "He was wrong. Friendship matters. It makes us worth saving. It is what sets us apart from those that we fight."

 

"Yeah." Ronon grunted a reply, closer to an inarticulate sound than to a word.

 

"It wasn't a proper test, anyway." Rodney was jigging from foot to foot, his arms wrapped around his body against the cold. "I knew it couldn't be real right from the start."

 

"I knew it," John said slowly, "and didn't know it, both at the same time. The choice was real. I chose to come to Atlantis, and I'd choose it again. I chose you guys." He looked away, hiding his face, but knowing that these people had shared a dream with him, all four of them clawing their way into a shared vision when they were supposed to suffer their visions alone. You couldn't really have many secrets after that. "I'm glad I've got you guys."

 

"As am I," Teyla said, and Ronon grunted an assent, and then suddenly, roughly, pulled John into a one-armed hug, then wrapped a squawking Rodney in both arms.

 

"Uh, yes, yes," Rodney said, pawing him away. "So am I, okay, even though…" He stopped himself; let out a breath. "So am I."

 

Above them, the clouds parted, showing a few faint stars. "I saw the end of the world…" John murmured.

 

"But it wasn't the end of the world," Rodney said, almost wonderingly.

 

No, John thought, because I still had Atlantis. Because I still had you. But there were some things that couldn't be said out loud, not even on a night like this.

 

But the others knew it, of course.

 

***

 

END

 

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