propinquitine: John, looking up while in a cell, from the lovely blue-lit episode Aurora. (Default)
[personal profile] propinquitine
Title: Lost Horizon
Rating: PG
Word Count: 4800
Characters/Pairings: team, gen
Spoilers: some basic developments in season 5, but AU plot-wise
A/N: Huge thanks to [livejournal.com profile] beadattitude for the speedy and thorough beta, and for helping me figure out what this story was actually about. And thanks to [livejournal.com profile] highonstargate for partnering with me on the [livejournal.com profile] artword challenge, and creating such a beautiful cover.
Summary: There's so much wonder in the world, but you have to be able to see it.


Written for the [livejournal.com profile] artword 015: Astronomy challenge.
Cover by [livejournal.com profile] highonstargate


John can’t see the stars. Even so, the view from their high-rise, luxury hotel room window is brilliant, all shimmering lights and blinking traffic on the street below.

The city sits under a haze, the twinkling lights extending only so far as the horizon, or up to the pinnacle of the nearest skyscraper. The sky itself has dimmed from dusky blue to faded black under John's gaze, losing color and gaining nothing of its own interest, no pinpricks of light, no constellations visible, due to the beams of man-made light that arc across the sky.

John feels smothered here, under the blank, sky-blurring blanket that people on Earth have drawn over themselves, the light pollution that hides every terrible and amazing thing that's happening out there and allows them to bustle along, eyes to the ground, never seeing the stars, never looking up.

It's no one's fault, the gradual blotting out of the fearsome beauty overhead. Or maybe it's everyone's, every single person who ever wanted a light of his own at night, who looked up into the unimaginable vastness of space and trembled. A century and a half of electric light can't completely obscure millennia of awe and reverence for the night sky, but it can overshadow it. People still fear the night, but their fear is closer to the ground.

They don't wonder about what's up there, and if they do, and they're good enough, they'll get snapped up, gagged with non-disclosure agreements, and thrust into a world that's more terrifying and wonderful than they could've ever prepared for.

That is, until some paper-pusher somewhere decides that it isn't cost-effective any more.


----


The fact that Ronon, and not Rodney, had been the one to lead them to one of the flat-out weirdest examples of astrophysics in action still made Rodney twitch, years later. Of course, just thinking about that planet still made John twitch, so maybe Rodney's reaction wasn't entirely ego-based.

After his first few months on Atlantis (and one visit to the labs where he loomed over Rodney until Rodney'd explained the expedition's planetary designation system), Ronon would occasionally speak up during mission planning meetings with comments like, "Yeah, there's a big meadow around the gate, but there's a cliff to the north side that comes up pretty fast," or, "No. It's not inhabited any more." Over time, he started volunteering more information: possible allies, planets with good hunting, people who could use their medical assistance.

One evening, as they all sat together enjoying dinner and sort-of listening to Rodney's mini-lecture on the relative likelihood of planetary formation depending on the stellar concentration in that part of the galaxy, Ronon interrupted. "Yeah, I know a world like that."

Rodney swallowed the mouthful of mashed not-potatoes he'd taken at the interruption. "What? A world like what?"

"One where there's a sun, but a lot of stars real close in the sky, too. Like you were talking about. A cluster world, or whatever." Ronon shrugged and dug into his green beans.

"Oh." Rodney looked as surprised as anyone that someone had actually been following the thread of his one-sided conversation. "Well, that would be something to see, they're very rare, you know, it's difficult for any significant mass of rock to coalesce in such a gravitationally dynamic environment--"

"Seemed pretty big to me," Ronon grinned, and Rodney rolled his eyes and began a rant on the unreliability of human perception of orders of magnitude that carried them through the rest of the meal.

Still, the planet sounded pretty cool, Rodney was kind of excited, and even Teyla seemed more than usually interested in the idea of such a planet, so John put it into the mission rotation. He tried to get more information about it from Ronon, but Ronon had just shrugged. "Only went there once. Not for long."

Before long, they were standing on the gateroom floor, dressed in radiation suits ("Cluster star world, Colonel. As in, lots and lots of radiation-emitting bodies very close by.") and ready to head out. As the gate whooshed to life, John grinned. This whole "first people from the Milky Way to ever see this" thing could be fun, sometimes. Beside him, Ronon huffed out a heavy breath, momentarily fogging the faceplate of his helmet. And then they were through.

They'd planned to arrive on the planet at dusk, Rodney calculating what time they'd need to leave Atlantis to get to the planet just as the local sun was setting and the other stars were coming out, so when they walked out into dazzling light, John was momentarily thrown. "McKay? You working with imaginary numbers again?"

Rodney snorted. He turned his head and pointed across miles of a barren, baked landscape. "No, Colonel, as touching as your faith in my abilities is, if you'll look to your left, you'll see the planet's primary star is over halfway below the horizon. This," he said, gesturing vaguely, "this is what we expected to see."

"Oh yeah?" John was pretty sure he hadn't expected this, this bright, glaring desert of scrub brush and cracked earth, the sunset glow on the horizon feeble, drowned out by gigantic stars, some easily bigger than the largest harvest moon he'd ever seen on Earth, and yeah, those had been an effect of the atmosphere, but these stars were just close.

"Yeah," Rodney answered, but quietly; it sounded more like a question. "Yes," he tried again, still with something that sounded like awe, "of course this is what -- I mean, with the relative proximity of each stellar body, what else could we have thought? I -- I mean, I knew they'd be close, but perhaps I didn't realize . . . ."

Ronon thumped him on the back. "Yeah, human perception sucks sometimes."

They stood around, staring at this distinctly alien world, for several more minutes, until Teyla asked, "What are those shapes on the horizon? Natural features of the land?"

"Yeah, caves," Ronon answered. "They're not too far. The starlight makes distances look funny. At least, to human perception." Rodney, who was curling intently over his tablet, made a rude gesture in Ronon's general direction, but the effect was kind of lost under the thick glove of his radiation suit.

"Let's check 'em out." John started toward them, taking point. The sun-star had set completely now, leaving the planet only slightly dimmer. The remaining, more distant, stars cast a strange light, not as cold as the reflected light of a moon, but still off -- it wasn’t sunlight. The weirdest thing had to be the shadows that every thing cast, which never got very distinct but shifted depending on the relative intensity of the different sections of the sky. Between the twinkling shift of the starlight through the atmosphere and the planet's relatively quick rotation, their shadows seemed to dance slowly about them, flickering in and out as they passed through several different equivalents to high noon.

The sudden darkness inside the caves was disorienting. John squinted, his back to the brilliance outside; it was taking a long time for his eyes to adjust. As the team huddled together in the mouth of the cave, blinking at each other, he thought he noticed movement just out of sight. "There animals in these caves?" he asked. He looked directly at the spot deeper in the cave where he'd seen the motion, but he still had a giant sunspot in the center of his field of vision.

"Yeah," Ronon said, "These lizard things, harmless, kind of like a cross between a feirger and an ostinal, but pale. Good eating," he grinned, a flash of white in the dark.

Rodney made a gagging sound as one of the animals crawled closer, and John had to agree: the eyeless, scaly creature looked slimy and wholly unappetizing. "Did you eat many of these?" Teyla asked, dubious.

"Nah," he said. He nodded his head at the opening of the cave without looking back toward it. "Like I said, I didn't spend much time here. It's kind of . . . ."

"Flat and bright and the only cover is a system of caves you can't be sure are empty because you're stumbling around half-blind all the time?" Rodney finished.

"Something like that."

John could hear the tension in his voice, and in Rodney's escalating pitch. He felt it himself, crawling up his spine, the itch of being stuck between the unknown dark and unsettling light. Beside him, Teyla inhaled and exhaled deeply, using the calming-breath techniques of her meditation practice.

They stood in strained silence for a few more moments, until Rodney broke in with, "Well, I'm sure we can all agree that this is more unnerving than anticipated, that Ronon has once again impressed us all with his skills as a survivalist, and that we should go home now.” He waved his tablet at them. “We certainly have enough data to provide a survey team with an adequate baseline, freeing us up to go . . . somewhere else. I know I've got a jealous stellar cartographer back at the lab, and some spare geologists and astronomers lying around.” He nodded toward the back of the cave, where a distant roaring sound was just barely audible. “They could do some spelunking. It'd be good for them. Not us. We should go.”

John laughed, the harsh sound of it echoing weirdly in the caves. "Sounds like a plan," he said, and they turned back and headed out into the brilliant alien night.


----


John never could see any stars over Cheyenne Mountain. Not at night, when the military's security blanket of lights (standard issue) blocked out everything but the moon. Not when he and Rodney left, though it had been cloudy, and daytime, and that really was stacking the deck.

"Going to get some lunch," he'd tossed to Carter while tugging Rodney from the lab by his elbow.

Sam had nodded, gaze too soft, too understanding. John knew they had her to thank for their lack of security detail. (Neither Colonel Sheppard nor Dr. McKay pose a significant flight risk, her report had read. To flee would deprive them of contact with the information and Ancient technology that was brought back from Atlantis, a risk I do not believe either man would take. She had to have known that Rodney would hack the personnel files while the two of them were waiting for their “reassignment”.) He'd been counting on her to at least let them get a head start.

And anyway, if they didn't get far enough, fast enough to let Rodney finish up before the Daedalus returned, John figured he had some plausible deniability. Maybe they just really wanted cheesesteaks for lunch.


----


"Another festival?" Rodney wasn't exactly whining, but it was a close thing.

"Yes, Rodney, and one we should all feel honored to be invited to attend." Teyla folded her hands on the conference room table. "It is a mark of great respect for the Ishia to request our presence as they honor the singhe."

The Ishia had been supplying them with high-protein tsollu grain for several years, so John was glad to participate in pretty much any cultural ritual they suggested, to keep them happy. (Well, within reason. He'd prefer to keep his clothes on, this time.) "We do feel honored," he said, giving Rodney a hard look.

Rodney just rolled his eyes, waving a hand and saying, "Yes, fine, we'll attend their festival, now can we please discuss the staffing changes our IOA overlords are demanding? I know no one really needs xenoichthyologists, in the existential sense, and maybe we don't need two xenoichthyologists on staff at the same time, but I'm not just going to sack Torvald or Hopkins and exile them back to Earth.” Rodney frowned. “Besides, how would I tell which is which? They're always together: one dives, the other drives the boat. Or, as the case may be, one falls into a swarm of are-you-absolutely-sure-those-aren't-piranhas, the other blithely sticks her bare hand in and fishes her out. I'm not assigning anyone else to that job and they clearly can't be left unattended.”

“Xenoichthyologists travel in schools,” John added helpfully.

That discussion, and variations of it, continued through the rest of the meeting and beyond, so John didn't give much additional thought to the Ishia's festival until they were standing in front of the gate a few days later, waiting for Chuck to dial. "So, what're we celebrating, again?"

"The flight of the singhe, Colonel." Teyla tilted her head. "I have never witnessed it myself, but I understand it is a truly astonishing sight to behold."

"Yeah, I think my mother's mother did this once," Ronon said. "Any time we'd see a meteor shower, she'd say it brought back memories of them."

"Wait, meteor shower?" Rodney asked. "I thought these were animals." Teyla just smiled as the last chevron engaged.

The singhe, it turned out, were animals, though John privately thought that "super-cool fantastical creature" might be a more appropriate category. They were birds, or bird-like flying things, that had somehow merged gene pools with lightning bugs, or maybe jellyfish, resulting in a bioluminescence that was linked with the singhe migratory cycle.

Rodney, after standing quietly dumbstruck as they watched what John had thought was a field of luminarias suddenly rise into the sky en masse with that characteristic muffled whump of bird wings, began asking around for local ornithologists, trying to get an explanation for the glowing birds.

When he was told for the fifth time that, "The singhe are winged lanterns, lighting the way for the sun's return," Rodney gave up, muttering that "just because it's near the solstice, it doesn't mean that it's time to ignore science." He recovered sufficiently to join Ronon in a fast-paced game of Name the Constellation (made orders of magnitude more difficult because the points of light kept moving).

John moved from where he'd been chatting pleasantly with the deputy headman of the Ishia to stand by Teyla, whose face was lit up with the kind of breathless joy that he usually only got to see when Torren did something amazing, like suck on his own toes. "Hey," he said. "This is pretty great, huh?"

She laughed. "It is considered one of the Wonders of the Galaxy, by those who keep account of such things, made even more precious by the Ishia's strict regulation of who is allowed to witness it. So yes," she nodded solemnly, "it is pretty great."

"Are we talking 'once in a lifetime' kind of thing, or can we come back next year?"

"Now that we have been invited to share in this festival, we have moved in the Ishians' estimation from trading allies to sister-tribe and should find our exchanges with them correspondingly more cordial. Unless something occurs to irreparably damage our relationship, we will almost certainly be invited to attend again. And --" she broke off, uncertain.

"What?" John prompted. Now was about the time he expected to hear that, to prevent 'damaging their relationship' with the Ishia, someone (John) was going to have to perform some embarrassing ritual or nominally death-defying feat of bravery, cunning, or mime. He rolled his shoulders, loosening them; it had been a nice break, watching the birds, but Teyla should know that he was used to this kind of thing by now.

Teyla shook her head, laying a quelling hand on the arm he was limbering up. "No, there is no additional test or task to be set to us. Truly, the Ishia have embraced us as a trustworthy people. With that trust, we gain the ability to recommend others of our own to be permitted to visit the Ishia, now without the supervision of our team."

That had been a sticking point in their negotiations; the Ishia were happy to trade tsollu with them, but the first-contact team had to be present at any interaction. Several scientists had visited the planet over the years, but their ability to do so was constrained by SGA-1's availability, which pretty much boiled down to "not often enough to keep the anthropologists from grumbling".

“So we can vouch for people now?"

"Yes, for everyday concerns and," another slight hesitation, "we have a somewhat more limited permission to bring guests to festivals such as this. Because attendance is such an honor, they must be selected with the utmost care."

"So we'll bring Torren and Kanaan next year," John said. The little guy would have a blast and would be steady enough on his feet by then to join the other kids in chasing birds into the sky. And Kanaan had always given off that poet-y vibe, after he'd stopped being brainwashed, at least; John figured he'd be into all of this natural beauty and wonder stuff.

"Hey, did I hear you say we get to come back?" Rodney asked as he and Ronon wandered over. John had been watching them out of the corner of his eye, more a reflex now than a response to perceived danger.

They seemed to be enjoying themselves, though they'd nearly come to blows over whether the singhe could ever have grouped themselves into something resembling the 83-point crest of the Satedan royal family, even if Rodney's back had been turned for a full fifteen seconds.

"Yeah, apparently we're the Ishia equivalent of made men, now. We can send unescorted scientists and bring people to see the singhe."

"Oh, good," Rodney said with a short nod. "Torren should have the opportunity to run screaming into a flock of birds and the singhe seem much less pestilential than pigeons or seagulls. And Kanaan's never seen this either, has he?"

"No, but as much as I wish to share this with them, I cannot 'allow my own sentiment to cloud the making of this decision.'" Teyla sighed, just a little, quoting back a phrase that kept popping up in the increasingly frequent memos from the IOA. "We must remember that the Ishia will examine our choice of guests very closely, and will make judgments about the kind of people we are based on those guests' qualifications."

"They're yours," Ronon said pointedly and shrugged. John and Rodney both nodded; what other qualification would they need?

Teyla took several steadying breaths, her eyes growing bright. "As are you," she said finally, reaching her arms out to wrap around Ronon and John's waists and bowing her head toward Rodney. John completed the circuit and hooked an arm around Rodney's shoulders, while Ronon reached over and popped him one in the arm.

"Ow, yes, group hug and casual violence, this is lovely, really." Rodney hmph-ed and settled his shoulder more solidly under John's arm. "And now that we're really in with the Ishia, we're sending back a team -- bird people, fish people, bug people, hell, even some of our mammal people, and see if they can't get someone to explain how these damn birds light up." He threw the hand that wasn't snaked behind John's back and resting on Teyla's shoulder toward the horizon, where the setting sun glowed almost as bright as the improbable birds overhead. "And just let the IOA try to tell us we don't put all of our people to work."

The four of them stood together, a single silhouette against the sunset, and watched as the singhe grew brighter and brighter, pinwheeling in the sky.


----


The lights blur as they speed down I-76, illuminated billboards and signs for fast food joints merging to cast a dull glow up toward the hazy sky. John drums his fingers on the steering wheel, trying not to think about why they're driving. It makes his heart race, his bile creep up his throat, his breath come in angry gusts – all in all, he'd rather just focus on getting them safely away. He feels like kind of a jerk, leaving Rodney to mull over the details, but he just . . . it's better for everyone if he stays focused and doesn't think too hard.

"As much fun as I'm having reenacting Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” Rodney pipes up, “we're going to need to go to ground somewhere in the next couple of days. Preferably somewhere with a securable Internet connection, privacy, and an in-room espresso bar."

They're driving through Ohio at this point, in their sixth rental car under his third false identity; they'd been busy, those weeks before they slipped away. "Those aren't pillows," John mutters, not really paying attention until he hears Rodney snort. He flicks his eyes over to the passenger seat, where Rodney's biting his lips and making these squeaking little grunts as he tries not to laugh.

John just loses it. It's been so long since he's cracked a smile that he's afraid his skin might tear, but he gives into it, the laughter bubbling up into his throat, the deep guffaws coming from his belly. Rodney joins him with rapid, uncontrollable giggles that he's so getting teased about, later. John pulls into the breakdown lane and stops the car, his whole body shaking with the release of it.

Rodney's no help, ready with a, “Train don't run out of Wichita, unlessin' you're a hog or a cattle,” or a “Six bucks and my right nut we're not landing Chicago,” any time John seems like he might be pulling it together. John leans his head against the head rest, eyes closed and grinning, and listens to Rodney exhaust his list of quotes.

"Nah, not Chicago,” he says once he's finally got his breathing under control. “I was thinking we'd head to Philadelphia,"

Rodney wipes at his eyes, still chuckling. "Right." He tips his head to the side, considering. John starts up the car. "Because who the hell ever goes to Philadelphia?"


----


At night, it was more beautiful than ever, spires and towers aglow with bright points of its exterior lights and the radiant suffusion of the interiors through the stained glass. It was just one city, though, Atlantis floating alone in the inky nighttime sea, the only man-made source of light on the planet.

From the pier, John could see too many stars to count, even before they had to go back to rationing power like they had in the beginning and kept most of the city dark most of the time. The rationing had made getting out to the pier, and returning after knocking back a few, more of an adventure than usual, at least until Rodney started bringing along the crank-powered flashlight he'd cobbled together out of spare parts. "It's things like this, if they would listen, that would show them that we can be self-sufficient," he'd said with a sniff.

They both knew their self-sufficiency wasn't what was being questioned.

"I have to hand it to them," Rodney said, settling his empty can down with a metallic scrape against the decking. "They've made it extremely challenging to do anything but what they want us to."

They had, the devious bastards. The past eight months had been like being nibbled to death by culturally myopic, bureaucratic ducks -- if it wasn't power rationing (only until they found a renewable energy source, of course, or a cache of ZPMs big enough to satisfy every single one of Earth's energy whims twice over, plus one for Pegasus), it was denial of requisitions or a hiring freeze or a recall of "auxiliary" personnel, when they knew very well that the expedition didn't hold anything or anyone in reserve. They'd been pared down, every single element of superfluity excised and reclaimed. And still they stood.

"How long d'you think, until the final recall?" John asked. "Three weeks?"

"Mmmm," Rodney hummed. "That would be just enough time to wrap everything up, wouldn't it? So say two and a half." He arched a sardonic eyebrow at John. They both knew what to expect by now.

"And how much time . . . ." John trailed off. They'd known that they would need some kind of plan eventually, ever since the first sign of increased IOA interference. (This, amazingly, had been over two years after Woolsey took over. John felt a deep thrum of satisfaction at how thoroughly the city and its people had converted the man. He'd be one of the last to leave, John was sure.)

They never talked about it, not really, but John knew Rodney was planning for contingencies, setting things in motion, getting all of his duck-badger things from M39-824 in a row. He wasn't the only one: John and Radek and Teyla and Lorne and Ronon and Woolsey -- hell, probably even Chuck and Amelia in the gateroom -- they were all coordinating for something, anything to keep their city whole. It was kind of like playing chess by mail, except you didn't get sent the other players' moves, you had to guess what they were doing and why they were doing it just from seeing the results, and those were kept as hidden as possible, unless you knew to look for them. And they were all playing on the same side, against someone who could take the entire board away at any time. So really, it was nothing like chess.

"More than three weeks." Rodney said it with a heavy finality, and John whipped his head around to stare at him. "Oh, for the -- I'm not giving up," he glared at John, "but thank you, for having such faith in me."

"No, that's not what I," John shook his head, and concentrated on the cluster of stars just over Rodney's shoulder. "It's just, if you didn't . . . I mean, I couldn't --"

"Yes, well, I very much doubt that." But Rodney sounded gratified. "I figured out months ago that they weren't going to give us enough time here, so I started working on how to get back."

John's heart thudded in his ears. Getting back was much harder than never leaving in the first place. "And how's that plan coming?" he croaked, throat suddenly too dry for anything but heavy drinking.

Rodney picked up another can, passing it from hand to hand. "It's not ideal," he said, finally. "I know it's not. But they've gutted us, there are things that we need, people who should have the option, and it's -- it's the best I can do."

"Then it'll work." Rodney looked at him and John quirked up one corner of his mouth. "It always does. It has to."

Rodney ducked his head, shoulders hunched and muttering something about "no pressure," but he was smiling as he rolled the can back and forth between his palms. John leaned back on his hands and widened the spread of his legs a little, just enough to bring the edge of his foot into contact with Rodney's.

They sat like that for a long time, quiet, the stubborn glow of the city at their backs and the dazzling galaxy before them.


----


Rodney's quiet when he comes into the darkened bedroom from his makeshift office space. He walks over to the window, stopping just behind John, brighter, warmer and more real than any of the lights outside. John doesn't know what Rodney's looking at, really, but he's seen more than enough. "Well?" he asks, craning his head around to look at him.

"Things are about as ready as they're likely to be, from what I can tell. I have to be careful, what systems I access, but -- yes, from what I can tell," he repeats. "There's not much more I can do."

"But there is something?" John asks. Why would they leave anything undone?

Rodney shrugs. "There's always something. I could, I don't know, sew pockets inside all of my clothes to hide food, or work on my endurance or resistance to sleep deprivation, or try to cut down on my caffeine dependency." They both chuckle at this. "I could work on my aim," he says soberly, "though I doubt the hotel staff would appreciate that."

John nods. There's always some way to be better prepared and he never knows what detail will make the difference. "The big stuff's in place, though?"

"Yes. They'll track us down fairly soon, beam us onto the Daedalus to give us a stern talking to and then we'll, well, mutiny, not to put too fine a point on it."

John shakes his head. "Not mutiny if you're not part of the crew."

"Fine, they'll mutiny, and we'll commit piracy. Grand theft spaceship. Who knows, maybe Caldwell . . . ." He doesn't finish the sentence. "We'll do what we can."

John turns back to the window. "And then we'll go home," he says, and feels Rodney's hand come to rest on his shoulder as he looks up at the blank alien sky.









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propinquitine: John, looking up while in a cell, from the lovely blue-lit episode Aurora. (Default)
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