Rating: PG-13, gen
Word Count: 3,276
Summary: The Puddlejumper crashed into the sea every night. In Sheppard’s dream, it was silent. Rodney’s mouth moved, but he didn’t scream. Teyla grabbed the side of her seat, but she didn’t gasp in terror. That happened over and over again, taken from his memory and muted. Behind him, Ronon said nothing and didn’t move. This was Sheppard’s imagination at work. He didn’t know what Ronon’s last moments had been. In the dream, he stared out of the cockpit window and didn’t flinch at the water rushing up to meet them.
Warnings: Character death(s)
The Puddlejumper crashed into the sea every night. In Sheppard’s dream, it was silent. Rodney’s mouth moved, but he didn’t scream. Teyla grabbed the side of her seat, but she didn’t gasp in terror. That happened over and over again, taken from his memory and muted. Behind him, Ronon said nothing and didn’t move. This was Sheppard’s imagination at work. He didn’t know what Ronon’s last moments had been. In the dream, he stared out of the cockpit window and didn’t flinch at the water rushing up to meet them.
The Aloshia said the ship burned, but in Sheppard’s dream it broke the surface of the water intact. It soared into the dark ocean like it was a continuation of the sky and sank from view, leaving gentle ripples in its wake. Then it was gone and the ocean rolled calmly over its grave.
He never saw this, because it never happened. There was no silent, unbroken crash. Had he watched it, he would have seen a ship shaking violently, its occupants rattling in place from the absence of internal dampeners. The speed with which the craft impacted the water would have split it into pieces, and the resulting explosion would burn them all to death.
But it never happened that way in his dreams. Sheppard almost didn’t believe it had happened at all, until the Aloshia brought him to the wharf where the wreckage was stored. They’d used their entire fishing fleet to haul in the manageable pieces. It was blackened all over and cracked from heat. But Sheppard never dreamt about fire.
He wasn’t burned. The crash that had killed his entire team gave him a bump on the head and a wet cough from water that had filled his lungs before the Aloshia fishermen pulled him from the sea.
It almost killed him anyway. His rescuers were villagers who had no idea how to treat someone who had nearly drowned. They brought him to one of the priestesses, who did her best to save his life. Afterwards, he realized this had mostly entailed putting him in a bed, burning incense by his feet, and praying until he woke up on his own.
Priestess Jethra took responsibility for his recovery, anyway. She looked like the rest of the Aloshia, dark-skinned and small boned. When he’d first awakened, he’d mistaken her for Teyla. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to forgive her for that.
“Where are my friends?” he asked, once he was sitting up and she’d stopped bowing to the totems in the corner for saving his life.
“They are sleeping with Aloshia now,” she said, still looking at the statue. “He keeps them within Him.”
Aloshia was the name of the sea God, the name of the village, and all who lived there. It was also the name of the sea, where the Aloshia cast their dead.
Jethra explained the ritual to him. The passed souls were stripped of their worldly possessions and bathed in sea water. Then they were wrapped in fabric with heavy stones gathered from the beaches. The bodies were released into the ocean, far from the shore and from the fishing channels. A temple priestess sang prayers delivering the dead from this world to the next. She had been the one to lower Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon into the water and say goodbye.
She asked him with great sincerity if such a farewell was suitable to their own beliefs, offered to bring him to their gravesite so proper rites could be performed.
Sheppard sat on his straw mattress and stared at her, feeling his heart sink from his chest and a great, cavernous hole take its place. He felt nothing, said nothing. Jethra got on her knees and continued to pray.
He never dreamt of ejecting. Every night, he steered the jumper faithfully into the arc that ended at the ocean’s bottom.
For two weeks, Sheppard waited for help. He watched the skies for another jumper. He expected the tingle of the Daedalus’s transporters to catch him at any moment, draw him up from Jethra’s temple. He mistook the attack screams of orange hawk-like birds who tried to steal their dinner from the hands of Aloshia’s fishermen for the buzz of a UAV.
No one came.
He fumbled out of his dazed, frozen fugue then. Mostly, anyway, enough to think things like find the ‘Gate you helpless moron.
Jethra had saved his boots. His BDUs were gone, and he hadn’t asked where. The shapeless, woven-sack he was wearing in their place fell barely long enough to be decent because he was so much taller than the Aloshia men, but the matter of his dignity was suddenly small and insignificant.
Sheppard wandered off by himself. Jethra was somewhere in the temple, praying or burning incense. She mostly left him alone in his room, dropping by only to give him bowls of fish soup and periodically wave burning incense branches at him for reasons that were probably meaningful to her. Talking seemed pointless and hard and Sheppard just wanted to go. He gave one her totems – a carved wooden bird – a pat on the head before he left, called it even.
He couldn’t find the ‘Gate.
Sheppard walked for a day, even after realizing that the flat, rolling lands hid nothing. He could see for hundreds of miles in every direction and there was no tell-tale circle anywhere on the green plains. The village grew small and retreated into the distance, ‘til Jethra’s temple was a tiny speck and he could no longer smell the sea.
The Aloshia saved him again that night. Not little brown fisherman, but an even smaller brown little boy carrying a spear twice his height. The kid couldn’t have been more than nine years old and he threw his body and his weapon between Sheppard and the thundering hooves of what looked like a giant antelope – except it had a hard armored shell like a fucking armadillo – and was apparently supposed to be the village’s one and only non-fish meal of the year.
Sheppard didn’t die. He definitely got bruised ribs and a withering look from his miniature savior, who evidently thought Sheppard was the stupidest alleged adult he’d ever met. When the actual grownup Aloshia hunters arrived on the scene, they had a similar opinion. They sent him back to the village in a saddle on a donkey-like creature that shuddered under his weight but otherwise seemed pretty thrilled to be going the opposite direction than the armored antelope. He also got another pint-size escort, one that was a little bit older and had mastered the art of feigned teenage disinterest in the proceedings.
He’d also mastered another far more important teenage inclination. The moment the hunting party was out of site, the kid tucked the reins under his arm, produced a small satchel from within his clothing, and promptly rolled Sheppard a joint. Aloshian weed smelled like sweet spices and carried a considerable kick. Within a few breaths, Sheppard no longer felt the throbbing in his side. He lost interest in bodily sensations and nearly slid off the donkey thing.
That was how he arrived back at Jethra’s temple, splayed out on the back of the creature with his arms more or less around its neck and his head dipping down next to its ears. Jethra helped him struggle off, taking in his red rimmed, glassy eyes and immediately sniffing him suspiciously. He wavered in place while she turned to his escort and, in a moment that seemed to defy her usual saintly demeanor, smacked the kid in the side of the head with back of her hand.
Jethra helped him stumble inside the temple, back to his small room and his straw bed. He sat on it, mostly because he couldn’t decide which direction to fall down in. Jethra appeared before him, the usual branch of burning incense waving before his face. He was too slow to close his eyes or turn his head, and a gasp of smoke caught him directly in the eyes.
His eyes stung, tears immediately springing forth. Jethra pushed him flat on the bed, still waving that stupid branch over him. Sheppard rubbed at his eyes. The burning didn’t subside; it changed into something heavy and wet that burned in a different way. Sheppard waited ‘til he heard Jethra’s footsteps pad from the room, and then he wept.
Sheppard tried to change the outcome of the dream. But the controls were dead under his fingers and when he reached out with his thoughts for the ship he found only an empty, consuming darkness. Rodney opened his mouth. Teyla grabbed the seat. Sheppard looked behind him, and this time Ronon looked back and shrugged.
The jumper started to dive, the blue surface of the water growing larger and larger as it neared. It wasn’t wet, though, just cold and smooth as it filled the cockpit and flowed over the seats. There was no heat, no flames, and his friends did not burn.
The Aloshia asked him to herd goats. Based solely on his unfortunate family name, probably, and the fact that it meant he’d actually start earning the share of the temple funds that fed him. It also placed him far from the community, out in the pastures where he could be strange and alien all by himself. Jethra asked him what job he had done for his people. Her face went strange and her smile false when he told her, and then he remembered she’d witnessed the last time he’d piloted anything.
The goats were okay. They were special sacred goats, apparently, meaning no matter how tired Sheppard was of fish (very), he wasn’t allowed to eat them. Jethra harvested their wool in the spring, but in the meantime they were all a vaguely dirty brown and smelled bad. He didn’t have to do much; the goats took care of themselves and didn’t even notice he was there. Sheppard spent a lot of time sitting under the lone tree, staring across the landscape at the coastline. He could see the little Aloshian fishing boats bobbing out to sea and dancing through the waves.
Sheppard tried to talk to his team, too. But his body was as frozen as the ship’s controls, his lips wouldn’t move even as he tried to cry out to them. Rodney screamed again, silently. Teyla gasped again, soundlessly. This time, Sheppard looked backwards and he imagined that Ronon blinked back at him and smiled. Somehow this made it worse, and when the water rushed in Sheppard woke up because his face was wet.
He learned shortly that the Aloshia only really needed a shepherd because that fucking antelope-armadillo beast was carnivorous. It gored him in the leg one night and took out half his flock. Really pissed off villagers – who looked utterly tired of saving him – carried Sheppard back to the temple. Jethra frowned at him, then upended what looked like a bag of pink flour over his wound. It burned like a motherfucker and then he passed out.
After that, he got an apprentice shepherd. It was the teenage kid that had brought him back from his first encounter with the creature, and his job seemed to be Sheppard’s bodyguard. It wasn’t bad. The kid was quiet and seemingly more interested in the sheep. If Sheppard complained about his injury, he would share some of that mind blowing Aloshian weed.
That night, for the first time, the jumper burned. Everything else was the same. Rodney and Teyla did what they always did. They didn’t even notice the flames creeping up the sides. Sheppard looked backwards and Ronon’s hair was on fire. He woke up and had to throw up, even as the water sluiced into the cockpit to extinguish it all.
Sheppard never smoked up again after that. The kid stopped offering and he looked at Sheppard with a kind of sad, guarded confusion. It was almost worth asking him to leave and telling the Aloshia he didn’t need a chaperone. The stupid armadillo-antelope wasn’t that scary.
There was less to do now, with fewer goats and full-time help that could basically do the job by himself. Sheppard watched the shoreline a lot. He’d memorized the schedule, knew when the boats would leave, where they would go, and how long before they went back to the harbor. He could even recognize if there was something unusual or alarming by the patterns the little ships made on the surface. He asked Jethra if they couldn’t find him something to do out there and was refused, mostly it seemed because they thought he was incompetent on solid ground and didn’t want to see what kind of disaster he could cause at sea.
Sheppard wasn’t in the jumper anymore. He watched it from a distance, now. It dove into the sea, and he couldn’t see inside. It was like he was standing on the shore, eyes on the spot in the water that the ship hit every single time. He thought it would be better, but it was worse this way. More real, more like it was, because he wasn’t in the jumper when it crashed. It didn’t burn, though, and he was thankful for that every time it vanished beneath the surface.
One day, the Aloshia sailing patterns changed. The little dots moved out far, beyond the shallow fishing lanes. There were more boats, this time, and they stayed in strange little lines for a long time. Sheppard watched, but he couldn’t figure out what was going on.
The kid came up next to him and watched the scene as well. He pointed out on to the ocean, at one of the little clusters of ships. “My grandfather is there,” he said, sounding almost serious. “They are making it yellow because it was his favorite color.”
Sheppard blinked, not comprehending. His bodyguard gave him a blank look and shrugged, not inclined to share. Usually, Sheppard ignored Aloshian rituals. They had a lot and Jethra was pretty much constantly doing one or the other, frequently with incense, and occasionally involving Sheppard without telling him why. But the villagers were out there, where the jumper hit, where his friends had gone. Leaving the kid to the goats, Sheppard walked out of the pasture and back to the temple to find Jethra.
She wasn’t there, but he was directed down to the harbor and told the color of her ship’s sails. He found her and a few other priestesses loading coils of goat wool into it.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Jethra smiled widely and gestured with one hand for him to come aboard. “It is the day of Aloshia! You wish to join us?”
“Okay,” Sheppard scrambled on board before she remembered they hadn’t wanted him around these parts.
She explained it later, after they lifted anchor and sailed out into the open sea. Sheppard could see that the clusters of ships were floating around wooden buoys. Floating docks had been laid out, allowing the Aloshia to walk upon the water’s surface while they worked. They were draping the buoys in strands of the colorful goat wool.
“Like Day of the Dead,” he guessed, before she said anything.
Jethra smiled. “Your people do this as well?”
“Yeah,” he said. “No. I don’t know.” His goddamn eyes were welling already, his stomach flipping like he was seasick.
He didn’t listen while she talked. It didn’t matter. Jethra took her ship out further, and when Sheppard looked at the shoreline he knew was in the right place. There were three wooden buoys already set up, and Jethra had been planning on doing whatever it was that Aloshia thought she should do.
Sheppard did it instead.
Jethra and her friends stayed out of his way, only laying down a long floating dock so he could walk easily between the three. He had no idea if he was doing it right, or what it was supposed to mean. He tied a length of red woven wool around the frame of Ronon’s buoy. It felt right, in as much as anything was right about this. Sheppard chose blue for Rodney, and then he had to use the ends of the strand to dab at his eyes. The cloth was soft and bright, and the colors didn’t run when it was wet.
He couldn’t pick one color for Teyla. Instead, he used the rest of the coils, covering her buoy in all the remaining shades. He thought he might ask if he was allowed to do that, but Jethra didn’t stop him and he couldn’t find his voice. When he was out of the wool, Sheppard dropped to a seat on the floating dock. His vision was liquid and he could barely see Jethra or her vessel.
Sheppard held on to the wooden planks of the dock with his hands, letting the edges cut into his palms. “I’m just gonna stay here,” he said, and his voice was so thick he wasn’t sure they understood him.
If they did, they didn’t listen. Jethra and the other priestesses pulled him back on board her ship with ease, and he didn’t fight them. He curled into the corner of her boat, hiding his face in his arms. He smelled incense and knew one of them was waving another goddamn branch at him. He put a hand out to grab at it, but instead his palm closed around another woolen coil. Jethra was leaning over him, extending a shorter woven rope. This one was black and thick, and it was something to hold over his face so he took it and put it over his eyes until it was warm with tears.
After that, he held it still against his face, and watched the buoys retreating into the distance as Jethra sailed back to the harbor. They got smaller and smaller, until he could only see Teyla’s standing colorfully out against the ocean.
He took his black wool rope to bed with him. Jethra tried to take it away from him but he snatched it back for reasons he couldn’t say.
“That is for the dead,” she said, and looked worried. He still didn’t give it to her. She sighed, but didn’t do anything besides burn the largest branch of incense he’d seen yet and wave it over him. His eyes were swollen and tender, so he pressed his face into the straw mattress until she was done.
That night, Sheppard was back in the jumper when it started its death run into the sea. He was back in the pilot’s seat with Rodney at his side and Teyla and Ronon behind him. Sheppard tensed, waiting for Rodney’s scream, Teyla’s gasp, and whatever his mind would invent for Ronon to do.
It didn’t happen. Rodney leaned back against his seat, looking at Sheppard expectantly. He laid one hand on Sheppard’s arm, warm and alive. Teyla leaned forward, but she didn’t brace herself against the seat back. She put one hand on Sheppard’s shoulder and the other on Rodney’s. Sheppard looked back at Ronon, found him resting a hand on Teyla’s knee and bringing the other up to land lightly on Sheppard’s other shoulder. His eyes crinkling in the corners, Ronon grinned.
“Let’s go,” he said.
And with that, the jumper came alive. As it reached the end of the arc, it instead shot upwards and away from the water. It strummed with life beneath Sheppard’s fingers and inside his mind, taking a new path up to the stars and beginning to glow.