The urge to hold Halling’s hand was strong. Halling was like a rock; solid, always where you wanted him and, even though she was nearly twelve years old, he still towered above her, just as he had done when she was a really little girl. But Teyla wasn’t a little girl any more, playing in the dirt in the grounds of Athos House. She was a young lady on her way to her first term at Atlantis Academy and, though crowds and noise and dirt surrounded her, she would not cling or show her fear.
She had never been to the City of London before, and had only rarely been out of the commune where she had been born; just the occasional trip to the nearby village, where the villagers stared and their children mocked her strange clothes and ways of speech.
Teyla looked up at the arching ironwork, far above her head. The grey-white sky of early autumn looked impossibly distant through the dirty glass. Early autumn was normally a time for harvesting and preserving, laying down what they’d grown against the coming winter. But not this year; not for Teyla and the older children.
“This is where we go through,” said Halling. “Are you ready, Teyla?”
She stared at the blank brick wall in front of her, familiar enough with Ancient devices to realise that there must be some kind of forcefield, penetrable only to those with the blood of the Ancestors running in their veins. Jinto and Wex pushed ahead, rolling their laden trolleys before them. They disappeared with a laugh and a wave to Halling. Teyla took a firm grip on her own trolley.
A boy approached them, taller than herself, skinny, with messy black hair and the yellowing remains of a bruise on one cheek. His black t-shirt and jeans were faded and worn, and Teyla, who had been making all of her own clothes for years now, thought they were several sizes too big. His bulging hold-all fell off his shoulder and landed with a smack on the concrete.
“Sorry, but, um…”
Halling smiled. “Are you looking for the train to Atlantis?”
The boy nodded mutely.
“Your first time?”
He nodded again and his lips quirked into a lop-sided smile.
“It is my first time too,” said Teyla. “Shall we go through together?”
“Perhaps you have not encountered such an illusion before,” said Halling, kindly. “No?”
The boy shook his head.
“Here.” Halling pointed to Teyla’s trolley. “Put your bag on top and Teyla shall lead you.”
Halling took charge of the trolley, while Teyla put out her hand, admitting to herself that she didn’t mind the idea of a hand to hold at the beginning of this new stage in her life. The boy just stared, so she plucked his hand up from where it dangled at his side and tugged him toward the wall.
“What? No, I don’t -”
“Close your eyes,” she told him and, not waiting for another protest, she dragged the boy forward.
Teyla’s ears buzzed and her skin tingled and then they were through. And there was the train, its carriages shining a dark red welcome and, past the station canopy and out in the sunlight was the cloud of steam which surrounded the engine. As a small girl she had always gone to look at the engine and waved to it as it departed, thinking it a kind of Ancient dragon. Now, though, the carriages were her concern. The hand, cold against her warm fingers, twitched and tried to pull away.
The boy looked pale and his eyes darted about, nervously. He licked dry lips and croaked, “This is just too weird.”
“Quick, find a carriage,” urged Halling. “The train will soon depart.”
Teyla ran along toward the front of the train, her new friend in tow, until she came to an open door. “Here!” She pushed the boy ahead of her and then scrambled in herself. Halling lifted in her heavy trunk and set it on the luggage rack, dumped miscellaneous bags on the seat and the tattered hold-all onto the opposite luggage rack. The conductor’s whistle blew.
“Halling, you must get off or you will have to come too!”
Halling laughed. “My studying days are over, little Teyla!”
“I am no longer little, Elder.”
“You will always be little Teyla to me,” he said. He bent and touched his forehead to hers so that she looked into his smiling, deep set eyes. Then he leapt down and slammed the door and the train clanked into motion.
Teyla opened the window and waved until Halling and the station had disappeared into the clouds of white and grey. Then she closed the window, turned away and sat down. The boy sat opposite, fiddling with the hem of his over-large t-shirt.
“My name is Teyla Emmagan,” she said, thinking that it was high time the formalities were observed.
“John,” he mumbled, not looking up. “John Sheppard.”
“Truly?” Teyla leant forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the downcast face. “You are truly John Sheppard?”
“Yeah. Shouldn’t I be?”
Teyla regarded the scruffy figure with new eyes. “Yes. Of course. I just did not expect… I had assumed that you… I mean, you are going to Atlantis?”
The black brows frowned heavily. “I’m on the train, aren’t I? What’s your problem?”
“I am sorry. I suppose I assumed that you would be educated privately. After what happened and nobody seemed to know where you lived, so… I am sorry.”
John ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up more than ever. “I don’t know who you think I am, but, look, maybe you could tell me what the hell’s going on. I got this letter.” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his jeans pocket and thrust it toward her. “It’s about this school, Atlantis Academy, which is a stupid name for a school if you ask me. And the foster family I’m with at the moment… was with, I guess… well, they said, ‘Fine, that’s you sorted then’ and dumped me at the station this morning.”
Teyla waited for him to continue, but John just sat, his letter held out, a kind of confused desperation in his eyes.
“You have been with foster families,” she stated, feeling her way.
“Yeah, my folks were killed when I was a baby. Car crash.” He shrugged.
Teyla swallowed, uncomfortably. “The families you have lived with… They knew of the Ancestors?”
“Ancestors? What, my parents? Or grandparents you mean? They’re dead too, I guess. At least, no-one’s ever told me about them.”
“No, I mean the Ancestors. The Ancients.”
John’s frown changed to exasperation. “Like historical guys?” He shrugged again. “Some of my foster carers watched the history channel sometimes.”
Teyla covered her face with her hands and blinked into the darkness.
“Um… You’re not crying, are you? Cos, er, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She emerged and tried to smile. “No. You have not upset me, John Sheppard.” Teyla pulled a string bag toward her, took out a paper parcel and unwrapped it on her knee. It contained several slices of a fruit pie. She looked up to find John’s attention totally absorbed by the pie. A loud gurgling noise came from his direction. “Please, have some,” she urged.
“Yes! I am well supplied, as you see. Take that piece,” she said, pointing to the largest.
John grinned at her and picked up the pie, cradling the sagging pastry in one hand, breaking off chunks with the other and devouring them with appreciative moans. Teyla began to eat more slowly, not really hungry even hours after her huge send-off breakfast.
“‘S good,” said John, through his pie.
“There is plenty more,” said Teyla. “And while you eat, I will tell you what I know.”
He nodded, mouth full and made a thumbs up with a pie-sticky hand.
Teyla considered her words carefully, not too young to realise that if she told all that she knew, this boy would scarcely believe her. And yet, if she held too much back, how would he cope with life at Atlantis? Halling would have known what to do.
“The Ancestors lived many thousands of years ago,” she began, omitting the fact that they were a race of aliens whose population spanned galaxies. “They were possessed of technology far in advance of our own.”
“What, like the people who made those crystal skulls? I saw something about them on the Discovery channel.”
“I do not know if they made crystal skulls. Perhaps. Have some more pie.” John took another piece and Teyla continued. “Their devices were attuned so that only those who have the blood of the Ancestors in their veins may use them.”
“Like genes and stuff?”
“I believe so. Many of these devices have survived, passed from one generation to the next, kept within families in which the bloodline holds true, although sometimes in Ancient families there are those who can’t use the technology and sometimes the blood runs true in families where there have been no users for many generations. Atlantis Academy is a school for those who can use such technology.”
“Cool,” said John. “So, if that’s me, then how did some guy know? This Professor What-his-name that sent the letter. And what does this ancient junk do? Is it like really old stone calendars and stuff?” He opened his mouth around another piece of pie and then paused. “And, hang on, you knew my name. What’s that all about?”
“Your name is well known amongst Ancient families, John. But, this may be hard for you to hear.”
The chewing paused.
“In the years before you or I were born, there was a time where… bad people tried to destroy the Ancient devices and those who could use them.” He’d have to know, eventually. He’d have to know about the Dark Wraith; but not just yet. “There was one above all, a woman who we call the Queen, although that is not her name. She killed many people.” Teyla paused. “Including your parents.”
“My… What?” John stared at her, licking his sugary lips, his eyes wide. “No. They were killed in a car crash.”
“They were not.”
“Yes, they were, because I was with them and they were killed but I was fine so I ended up in foster care.”
“John, they were killed by the Queen. And then you stopped her. A baby, little more than a year old, stopped the Queen of the Dark Wraith and nobody knows how.”
Teyla stood up too and put a restraining hand on his arm. He shrugged her off. “John, please, everyone else on this train will tell you the same thing.”
“Then I’m getting off the goddam train! I’ll go to the local high school like the other kids.” An aching gulf appeared in his stomach at the thought. After years of not belonging, of one home after another, John had thought maybe Atlantis was somewhere he could belong. A weird out-of-the-blue letter hadn’t been a great beginning, but he’d take what he could get. Except this.
“Don’t, please! It is all true. You stopped the Queen when you were just a baby, and nobody knows how.” Teyla dug in her pocket. “Look!” She held out a flower-shaped crystal on the palm of her hand.
“It is just a toy. I am not very good at it. Please, sit down and I will show you. Please, John.”
Growing up in foster care, John had met a lot of people - a lot of kids and a lot of adults - and with Teyla, the honesty was right there, shining out of her eyes and in the complete openness of her face. He could see that she liked him too, and that was something you didn’t just throw away. So what if she was a bit kooky? There were worse things.
John slid the door closed and sat down again, regarding her warily. Teyla closed her eyes and frowned, and just the very tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth. Then her face relaxed. She smiled. The flower was glowing softly from within.
“Very pretty,” said John dismissively. “But it’s not magic. Just a battery inside.”
“It is not magic, no, but there is no battery. Not the kind that you know, at least.”
The little flower continued to glow a flickering orange on the palm of Teyla’s hand.
Suddenly the door to the corridor slid back and a sharp voice broke in.
“What’s that? Oh, you have a device! Hmm, you’re not very good, are you?” The door slammed shut. “Give it here!” The flower was snatched up by a peremptory fist. “There, that’s better.”
Teyla’s flower lit a pure, strong white. The boy who held it had wide blue eyes, which darted inquisitively between her and John. His mouth was tight and crooked, a strange mixture of pride and uncertainty. He bounced into the seat next to John and looked at them expectantly.
“I am Teyla Emmagan.”
“Meredith McKay, that is, no, I’m going by Rodney now, because no-one knows about the whole Meredith thing, so I thought a clean slate would be good. Except now you two know, so bang goes that idea.”
A quirky grin flashed and disappeared, Rodney curled one arm tightly around his waist and anchored it under his elbow as if he was afraid it would escape. He chewed the thumb nail of the other hand. The grin flickered and died again and the blue eyes darted.
“We will not tell anyone, will we?”
It was kind of nice being part of a ‘we’. John shook his head, watching the flower. His hands twitched toward it. He clenched his fists and pressed them into the sides of his legs.
“And you are?” Rodney prompted.
The light flickered and died. “What, the John Sheppard? Really?”
John’s mouth flattened and his eyebrows lowered like shutters.
“John did not know about the Ancients until I told him. Or anything about our world.”
“Oh, neither did I until a couple of weeks ago!” said Rodney, blithely. “And I hope I haven’t made a mistake committing to this Atlantis place, because I had a nice little opening lined up at Oxford with a programme of study all worked out. Private tutorials and everything.”
“Your family is not of the Ancients?”
“No. Dentists,” replied Rodney. “This Ancient stuff is new to me. Obviously I’ve done a lot of reading and it sounds promising, but I’m reserving judgement. And I didn’t have anything to practice on. But now I know it actually works.” He threw up the little flower and caught it again. “Pretty cool, is my tentative verdict! Why don’t you have a go, miracle boy?”
“I don’t think I can do anything like that. I wouldn’t know how.”
“Apparently you don’t need to know how, if reports of your infant activities are true. Here.” He tossed the flower at John who caught it neatly in one hand.
There was a sudden blinding flash of light, John yelled and dropped the flower and it fell, blackened and smoking to the ground.
“Whoa! I’d say you’ve got a few control issues there!”
“Are you alright, John?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess.” He rubbed his hand and regarded the charred flower. “Sorry about that.”
Teyla knelt down and picked up the toy. The crystal was split from one side to the other. “Your ability is very strong, John.”
“Well, we know that already, don’t we? Maybe that’s what you did to the Bad Queen,” he said, cheerfully. “Blackened, cracked and smoking. Serve her right by all accounts.”
“I didn’t do anything to her,” John muttered. This other kid had heard that crazy story too. How could it be true? And if it was true and everyone who knew about all this Ancient stuff knew about him - how come they’d just abandoned him? He’d killed some kind of evil Queen for them and they’d let him grow up in foster care? It didn’t add up.
“There were no remains found,” said Teyla repressively.
Rodney shrugged carelessly “Oh well, whatever. Is that pie?”
“Please, help yourself.”
Rodney put out a hand, but hesitated. "Does it have lemon in?"
"We have no lemon trees."
"No lemon trees, indeed. Haven't you heard of those, what-do-you-call-it? You know, shops?"
"We try to grow all of our food."
John let his head loll against the seat cushion and watched the landscape flash past through drowsy eyes. All that delicious pie - he hadn’t felt this well fed in a long time.
"You grow all your own food? Really? Where are you from?"
Rodney huffed impatiently. "Town? County?"
"The village is called Peddlesten, but we do not go there much."
“Hmm. Homemade clothes, stilted speech. What kind of place is Athos House? Is it a cult? No, because they wouldn't let you go to school."
"It is not a cult! It is a commune. We try to live a simple life, in tune with nature."
His interest sparked, John shuffled around in his seat to face his new friends. "Hey, d'you have buttons?"
Teyla looked down at the buttons fastening her top.
"Oh, yeah. Well, I just thought, cos there was this movie about Amish and they didn't have buttons."
"Witness? That Harrison Ford one? And um…" Rodney blushed. "Kelly McGillis?"
"Huh, yeah." Tingling warmth lit John’s face. "That bit when she…"
"We do not have television,” said Teyla
“No TV?” All of his foster homes had had TV, even if he’d never had one in his room. “How d’you watch football?”
“We play sports ourselves,” she said. “We do not need to watch them.”
“Maybe there’ll be a TV at Atlantis,” said John. “You need educating.”
Teyla laughed. “I think that’s why we are going to school!” Her eyes were bright and eager. “I do not have a great ability with the relics of the Ancestors, but I am looking forward to learning about language and world affairs.” She lowered her voice and her gaze fell to the floor of the carriage. “I would like to be a diplomat when I am older.”
The boys looked at each other. “Oh,” said John, blankly.
“I am hoping to continue my training in martial arts, also,” she added.
Rodney laughed. “So, what, you’re going to try diplomacy and then if that fails, you can kick their butts?”
John grinned alongside him.
“I had not thought about it in those terms.”
John slouched lower, crossing his long legs at the ankles and wedging them beneath the opposite seat. “So, what else will we learn beside this Ancient stuff?”
“Oh, you can expect all the usual lessons,” said Rodney, knowledgeably. “English, math, science, (rudimentary no doubt), then I suppose the arts and various brutish sports.”
“Sport? There’d better be football.”
“We will be taught to ride airboards and play Skybattle!” said Teyla.
“Airboards? Skybattle? Is that some kind of video game? I hope it’s as cool as it sounds!”
“I’ve read about that. If only it were a video game there wouldn’t be so much risk to life and limb! It’s extremely dangerous,” said Rodney. “People die. All the time.”
“Cool!” said John. "Tell me about it.”
Teyla kicked off her ankle boots and sat cross-legged. “Have you ever surfed in the sea?”
“Yeah. One summer the family I was with had this beach house. They were this older couple - okay, I guess, but didn’t really know what to do with me. I just hung around the surfers until someone leant me a board, gave me a coupla lessons.”
“Well, an airboard is like a surfboard, but it flies.”
“It flies? No way! Really?”
“Hence the term, ‘airboard’,” Rodney snapped. “Look, I don’t suppose you have anything else to eat? My parents only packed dentist-type things, carrot sticks and so on.”
Teyla rummaged in another bag and brought out some bread, meat and cheese, from which Rodney began constructing a frighteningly large sandwich.
“Wow, real flying! I can’t wait to try that,” said John. “I’ve always wanted to fly.”
Teyla assembled a sandwich for John. He thanked her, absently and began eating, his eyes staring into imaginary skies.
“There are flying ships too,” she said. “Puddlejumpers. The first years always travel from the station in them.”
John grinned around his sandwich. He didn’t know what the hell was going on and right now he just didn’t care. He was on his way to a school where he already had two actual, honest-to-God friends and maybe a chance of finding somewhere that he really belonged. And yeah, there was the whole ‘Queen of the Dark Wraith’ thing, but that must be a wind-up. It had to be. Anyway, there were the flying surfboards and if they were real then he was more than happy to go along with all the other craziness.
The train sped on. As John ate, he watched the darkening landscape fly past until the hills and valleys merged, black-on-black with the sky and, reflected in the carriage window, he saw the golden, flickering images of two boys and a girl, all of them on their way to begin a new life.