Author: busaikko (and beta by liseuse)
Summary: Atlantis reads the Great Books. . . of Pegasus.
Original story: The John Sheppard Book Club by krabapple
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. damn.
John was hiding in the reading room, but Rodney hadn't really thought he would be, well, reading.
"Oh, my God, you are a total size queen," Rodney said, loud enough to make the gaggle of geophysicists in the corner look up from their towers of manga. Sheppard gave him a full-force glower, and Rodney grinned as it bounced right off the Teflon of his ego. "First War and Peace, and now -- what the hell is that?" He pointed at the book lying open in front of Sheppard on the table. It was about the same size as his laptop, only twice as thick.
"Tsaum Dlui Barghilianyothptarma," John said, leaving his finger on the lefthand margin of the righthand page to mark his place.
Rodney felt his hands freeze in mid-hover, his mental wheels hydroplaning. He stared at Sheppard, who stared back, a little gloating smirk growing at the corners of his mouth. Rodney made himself complete the action of reaching out for the book, flipping it shut so he could see the cover. Sheppard yanked his finger free at the last second and crossed his arms, looking put out.
"This says An Account of the Rape of Hilia and the Betrayal of Ptar," Rodney said. The cover was sort of like leathery plastic, and the title floated on it in a way that made him feel that he was viewing it in his peripheral vision. "Who's Hilia?"
"Where,"Sheppard said. "It was a trading ally of Sateda with a guerrilla movement that held off the Wraith for forty-eight years. Would have been longer except for -- "
"The betrayal of Ptar?"
"I haven't got that far yet," Sheppard said, sounding annoyed. "But that would be my guess."
"Clever of the Satedans to write their historical epics in English." Sheppard twitched. Rodney fixed him with what he thought of as his x-ray glare.
"Miko kind of did something to the 'gate's translation module," Sheppard said, his forehead lining earnestly as if to say, but surely you got that memo. "It only affects the reading room and a few stalls in the women's toilets. Or so I hear," he added quickly. "And it's not a history, it's a modern novel that explores the dynamic of power between the oppression of the invading Satedan mercenaries and the Hilian people, as expressed through the role played by Ptar. She's a very angry character," Sheppard continued, turning pages now, looking for where he'd left off. "You think, so, is humanity basically good at heart? And the answer here, so far, is you try to rise above and overcome, and the universe just slaps you down."
"Right," Rodney said, backing away slowly. Sheppard was reading again, his finger moving slowly down the page. "Um. Can I borrow that? When you're done?"
"Sure, Rodney," Sheppard said, and raised his other hand in a little dismissive wave.
"But was she wrong?" Rodney said one night after Ronon had made them all watch more episodes of Full House for their team bonding night, and his brain was desperately trying to reclaim some kind of an intellectual footing. "Ptar. She knew that if they stopped fighting the Wraith and started fighting the Satedans, that everyone would die."
"Yes?" Sheppard said. "So she should have told everyone to shut up and put up with the rape of their world?"
"Do you remember when the mercenaries took Ptar's sisters from the clanhouse?" Teyla said from her nest in the remarkably-like-a-beanbag chair that she'd brought back from M7Y-22G. "Ptar looks out at the wreckage of her world and it is written, she never saw them again. That is a reference to Satedan mythology."
"Dluwk n'mathal, Nginba n'mathal, Oo n'mathal," Ronon recited in a grumbly sing-song. "Ba'lok, ba'nba, ba'tsemb'o, o. The Dance of the Destructor." He looked at Teyla, one eyebrow raised as if in question, and then translated. "She never spoke again, or heard again, or saw again, and all was stone and ice and vacuum." He shrugged and slouched back, stealing Rodney's beer. "Had to memorise that in grade school lit."
"Huh," Rodney said. "We had to do Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote."
John twisted around to stare at him. "What?"
"Chaucer." Rodney frowned. He didn't think he'd ever heard any Pegasus natives speaking anything but stilted, 'gate-translated English. "Just what did Miko do to the translator, anyway?"
But John was leaning forward, clasped hands between his knees, looking at Teyla as if she knew things. "So you think the author was casting Ptar in the role of, what, the bringer of the Apocalypse?"
"Or that she was forced into that role, perhaps." Teyla made a palms-up gesture, as if weighing something on a balance. "I always found Ptar a very passive character, reacting instead of acting, and ultimately unsatisfying. I prefer stories about two cultures meeting, exploring their points of commonality and their differences, and making mistakes and compromises that lead to a deeper understanding of their shared humanity."
"Bodice rippers," Rodney squawked, and curled in on himself. "Politically correct romances and drawing-room comedies."
Teyla's chin went down. Ronon leaned forward. Sheppard gave Rodney a raised-eyebrows look that clearly said he was entirely responsible for extricating himself from the gaffe he'd fallen into.
"I finished the Helia book," Rodney said weakly. "And I've read all the Earth books except for War and Peace and anything sold at airports. So." He wiped his hands down his trousers. "If you have anything I could borrow. . . "
"My people didn't bring many books when we came here as refugees," Teyla said. "Only those that are the most precious. My favourite is Chu Tiq's Come What May. But," she added, sitting back primly, "Colonel Sheppard is reading it now."
Next to Rodney, Ronon silently licked a fingertip and made the universal sign for burn, and John cackled.
"Sheppard," Rodney said, swiping the door to the reading room open. "I swear to God if you aren't finished with that damn book by -- " He stopped as suddenly as if he'd been slapped, and turned an abrupt thirty degrees to his left and pretended to fiddle with his radio. "What?" he lied into the silent headset. "No, no, no, and no, don't touch anything, I'll be right there." He turned on his heel and stalked out.
He'd already read Come What May twice, and Teyla said that Tiq's last book -- the succinctly-titled Day -- was regarded as her masterpiece. But, Rodney thought, taking the long way back to his lab, he wasn't sure he would read it, now. Maybe never. Any story that could make John Sheppard -- Colonel John Sheppard -- double over shaking in agony like that was not something he needed to read.
Elizabeth had been given a bag of the Pegasus equivalent of paperbacks by the earnest kind-of-turnip farmers of M11-NB3. Rodney -- stole was such a strong word -- liberated them and left farces and comedies lying in strategic locations. In the jumpers, on the DHD, tucked into piles of mission reports, in the mess hall. After a few days, Sheppard looked more like himself, but there was still a kind of lingering. . . something. . . in his eyes. As if he'd been asked questions for which there were no good answers; as if he'd realized that for every person he saved, someone -- a whole village- or planetful, maybe -- was left behind.
After that, Rodney tried to keep an eye on Sheppard and to prevent any discussions about the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, or personal responsibility in his vicinity. The first part was easy: Sheppard spent a lot of time keeping an eye on Rodney, so he was almost always around, and Rodney could keep him occupied with Ancient artifacts or video games or -- sometimes -- a combination of both.
Keeping Sheppard away from debates was harder. Book clubs had sprouted like weeds. Even choosing a table for lunch was risky: each one had some kind of literary agenda. Rodney might feel that the Marines debating Japanese manga versus the graphic novels of M34-UP1 were too ridiculous to be a threat, but it was just his luck to sit down with Sheppard in the middle of a heated comparison of Cull Them All! with Akira's post-Apocalyptic vision and views on the individual and society.
"Cull's just derivative of Barghilianyothptarma," Sheppard said, dismissively. The red-haired sergeant protested that it was meant as an homage, and the woman with the cornrows asked if Sheppard knew there was a comic-book version of The Betrayal of Ptar with illustrations in the style of Satedan stick puppets. She could loan it to him, she said, and Rodney made an unhappy whimpering noise. Sheppard gave him a puzzled look, and then gave him his fruit cup.
They had no better luck at other tables. Rodney refused on principle to sit anywhere near romances involving Ascended beings, and he had no patience with mysteries whose denouements he didn't understand ("You!" Vlar eb'eia cried in rage. "You threw my tsrina to the awaw to be devoured!" "Yes," hissed la'Jyaaiu, "she discovered that I'd used kwio to klia the bibivrap -- the whore!"). Comedies didn't really seem all that funny when he thought about how the people who'd first laughed at them were all desiccated corpses by now. And there was nothing quite like a Pegasus galaxy horror novel: they were all rooted in solid, horrific fact.
One day, after a particularly trying off-world mission which had involved leeches and nudity and candle wax and four hours of poetry that rhymed, Rodney found himself standing with a full tray of food but unable to make himself move towards any of the tables. Sheppard, beside him, gave him a very odd look and then steered him firmly outside, and down the corridor, and into Conference Room B-2.
"You should maybe lay off the books," Sheppard said, setting his tray down and making a sort of nest out of two chairs. He slouched and put his feet up, and then wriggled until he was comfortable before setting his dinner plate on his stomach. He dipped one more-or-less-turnip fry into the blue sauce and crunched it with a happy sigh. "You get all het up."
"I get -- " Rodney broke off and gave Sheppard a narrow-eyed stare. Sheppard stretched out one leg and kicked a chair in Rodney's direction.
"Relax, would you?"
"Fine," Rodney said stiffly, and sat, and ate a good half of his meatish pie in huffy silence. Sheppard didn't even seem to notice that he was sulking, which was a waste of a good sulk. "I just think people ought to have better things to do."
Sheppard's eyebrows V'd together as if Rodney were speaking another language. "You disapprove of reading?"
"It encourages people to dwell on things," Rodney said, and now he didn't want to sound sulky, but damn it, he did. "They'd be better off just -- getting on with life."
"Ignorance is bliss?" Sheppard suggested, and said like that it did sound really stupid. Rodney threw his tomato. Sheppard caught it midair and popped it in his mouth with another expression of food-bliss.
"Never mind," Rodney said.
"I just thought you kind of liked this whole cultural exchange thing we have going here." Sheppard shrugged. "Didn't realize we were boring you."
"Look," Rodney said, because he was insulted now -- Sheppard should know him better than that. "In physics, it doesn't matter how you personally feel about it, if you have two systems that are in thermal equilibrium with a third, then they are in thermal equilibrium with each other. Laugh, cry, the universe doesn't care. The difference between the heat added to a system from its surroundings and the work done by that system on its surroundings is the change in the system's internal energy. First law of thermodynamics, and whether or not you think it's beautiful, it's true. But the people of Sateda are gone, dead, they're never coming back, and all we have is that, that -- that huge book in which the Satedans are the bad guys and everyone seems to be alright with that, and yes, you're right, I don't get that."
"Okay," Sheppard said, putting his food back on the table and his feet on the floor and leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees. "The thing with the stories, McKay, is that they make you think, and they make you feel, and sometimes it's an escape, but sometimes it's -- it's like a mirror. And what it shows you might not be beautiful, but it's true. And if a book written by some culled Satedan or Athosian makes you think or feel like they did, that's your fucking equilibrium right there, that's the measure of what it is to be human. That's survival."
"It's very unfair of you to steal my words like that," Rodney said. "And also? Bad physics metaphors make me break out in hives."
Sheppard dropped his head for a moment, looking down between his knees at the floor, and then looked up. "Miko says she has to put the translator settings back on default, anyway. Changing them makes the database run six percent slower."
"Is that what it was?" Rodney asked, diverted. "Elizabeth asked me if there was anything causing a drain on our resources."
"There won't be tomorrow," Sheppard said. "You can tell her you solved the problem."
"I'm good at that," Rodney said, and got up, trying to loosen his shoulders. He swept up his tray and flapped his free hand. "I'd better go and oversee. You know. I'll see you later."
Sheppard said something, but the door to the corridor was already open, and Rodney didn't catch it.
The translation module was ridiculously easy to modify, and Rodney didn't let Miko go until they were both satisfied that it couldn't be hacked or used as a weapon against them. He went to bed late and overslept, and it wasn't until late afternoon that he realized he hadn't seen Sheppard all day.
He looked desultorily in the usual places -- jumper bay, Sheppard's office, Sheppard's room, gym -- but without success. He tried the reading room next. He hoped Sheppard wasn't there.
But he was.
The room was deserted except for Sheppard, who was sitting at the same table, with the same enormous book open in front of him. This time he wasn't trying to keep his place. He was just looking. He was just looking as if someone had died, or as if he'd lost something, or as if he was saying his goodbyes.
Rodney wanted to run away again, but he supposed he shouldn't get in the habit. He sat down next to Sheppard and poked at the book with one finger.
"Someone should translate it," Rodney said, awkwardly. "Maybe Ronon."
"Translations are never quite the same." Sheppard shut the book but didn't look up from the table. "I thought for the longest time that The Betrayal of Ptar meant, you know, her betrayal. That she betrayed her people. Ronon told me I had it backwards. That Ptar was the one betrayed. And that changed everything -- it meant she was right, all along."
"It meant that you were right, all along," Rodney guessed, the shoulders of his jacket feeling a little too tight. Sheppard looked up sharply, glaring and defensive and nakedly raw. "Zeroeth law." Sheppard managed to produce a blankly hostile stare. "Transitive property of equality. Never mind. I just read most of those books so that I'd have something we could talk about," he added.
"I read those stupid romances so I'd have something to talk to you about," Sheppard countered. "Lots of talking, talking, talking, with the occasional festival or arranged marriage. I figured you liked them because of all the complex cultural insights."
"Maybe I just liked the simplicity of the plots," Rodney said; it was close enough to truth. "Meet, fall in love, start a family. It would be nice if life were that easy."
"Oh, yeah. Pegasus produces some great escapist literature."
"It can also rip your heart out." Rodney paused, wondering how to ask. "What was that book of Teyla's about? The one I didn't read?"
"Day?" Sheppard's shoulders hunched. "It was about trying your hardest but failing anyway. About losing everything -- everyone -- that's important."
Rodney couldn't do nothing. He reached over with one arm and wrapped Sheppard's shoulders, squeezing him close. Sheppard was resistant to the squeeze until Rodney told him not to be stupid, that he wasn't failing any of them, that he was doing a good job of keeping everyone safe.
"Not everyone," Sheppard said, very quietly. "You."
Rodney's stomach dropped so fast he saw little orange spots dancing in front of his eyes.
"That's mutual, of course," he said.
Sheppard turned to look at him. Rodney's arm, apparently out of his control, was still around Sheppard's shoulders, his fingers curled around his clavicle. When Sheppard turned, Rodney's hand glided up all by itself, resting at the base of his neck in a way that was terrifyingly intimate.
"If this were a romance, this would be easy," Rodney said, and the way he said it implied heavily that all the difficulties involved were Sheppard's fault.
"If only," Sheppard said, with a bitter twist of his mouth, and shifted just that little extra bit more, so that his head settled warm and heavy on Rodney's shoulders. It was natural to reach up and comb fingers through his hair; it was unnatural the way Sheppard sagged under the touch, as if he were broken.
"Do we at least get a happy ending?" Rodney asked, feeling pathetic for being needy in the one and only time Sheppard had ever turned to him in need himself. But Sheppard just snorted, and after a moment put his hand, so warm, on Rodney's hip.
"We get to write a story that will survive," Sheppard said. It made Rodney feel cold, in a way, because that was no guarantee that it would be a good story. The universe probably would slap them down eventually, just for having the temerity to strive. But Rodney intended to go down fighting, and he thought Sheppard did, too. Sheppard's breath was warm; his hair was shockingly soft. That was a good chapter, and later tonight (hopefully) they'd write another, bodies translating each other and without words finding truth, hope, beauty, meaning, trust.
Tsaum Dlui Barghilianyothptarma (An Account of the Rape of Hilia and the Betrayal of Ptar). Author: Dyefu Sep
* A modern masterpiece of Satedan literature. The story of how the Hilian people's defiance of the Wraith was undermined by their rebellion against the Satedan mercenaries who had become their oppressors. Sep makes good use of the weighty historical background -- painstakingly and unflinchingly accurate -- but the central figure of the novel is Ptar. It is indeed a cliche that university students gather in faasa houses to debate Ptar and her decisions well into the night; but any thinking reader will be captivated by this peasant woman and rebel whose strong beliefs and guiding moral compass, her drive to do the right thing, destroy her family, her society, and eventually her world. The historical Ptar's decisions are a matter of record; however, as she was culled in 11.923, her thoughts are forever lost to us. Sep gives this woman a powerful and believable voice, and by using descriptions taken from Sep's academic background in Satedan folklore he also demands answers of the Satedan people: where were they when these atrocities took place? how could they turn a blind eye? A painful story on both personal and political levels, it is yet a form of healing.
Supplemental material: Mao'a'otsa Babamye (The Dance of the Destructor)
Shippe Wa (Come What May) Author: Chu Tiq
Ju (Day) Author: Chu Tiq
Chu Tiq is the most prolific author amongst the Athosian people, and for this she is often dismissed as writing works which are trite or formulaic. Certainly, this is true of some of her novels, especially the earlier ones, which follow the usual pattern of girl goes through gate, girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love but are faced with differences based on their respective cultures, girl brings husband back through the gate to live in her clanhouse. But there are treasures amongst the trivial.
Come What May subverts the above cliched pattern from the start: the traveller is not a brave trading woman, but a man running from the law for unspecified crimes. He is not at all attracted to the heroine at first, and neither are we: she is a foul-mouthed keeper of tlibo, a drinker of fath, and the holder of many beliefs and prejudices. Her motive for giving the traveler shelter is at first purely selfish. She needs the help, following a devastating culling that has left her the last able-bodied adult in her clan. The joy in the story comes from the way their antagonism grows into honesty as they each share their cultures, while struggling with the necessities of survival. Tiq's writing is rich with references to Athosian ballads and hymns, and her descriptions of the seasonal changes are lyrical and vividly place the drama within a context of cyclic time. The woman learns that goodness and strength can be found outside of the narrow constraints of her religion; the man learns the value of an upright life. The ending, in keeping with the realism of the novel, hides none of the difficulties facing them and their fledgling clan, but is nevertheless hopeful.
Day, on the other hand, is unrelentingly stark. Written after Tiq's own clanhouse was culled, it describes the events of one day in heart-rending detail. Mothers, fathers, children, travelers, merchants, farmers: a broad swath of vibrant humanity, all poised on the day before a hiveship arrives. There is a sense, not of death, but of apocalypse and horror that overshadows all the poignant moments in the story. There are heroes, but their heroism is not enough; there are warriors, but their strength is not enough; there are lovers, but their love and hope is not, in the end, significant at all in the face of what happens on the day after. In many ways Tiq's most religious work, she explores the great questions of life. If we are just going to die, what is the point of striving? If terrible things happen, how can there be gods? What is the fundamental nature of evil and good? Boldly, Tiq posits no answers, but instead lets her readers try to discover them by themselves.
1. Is Ptar evil? What about Meima's mother in Day? Can evil be healed, as Tiq seems to suggest in Come What May?
2. Compare the uses of Satedan and Athosian folklore and religion in Come What May and The Rape of Hilia. How does it affect the overall tone of the work?
3. In each of these three works, the themes of the individual and the responsibility to the family or clan are explored. If you were Ptar, or Galae, or Eagen, what decisions do you think you would have made? Could you have lived with the consequences, afterwards?