They saw it when they rounded the headland, the pair of them plodding through the sand in a dawn that was staining sea and sky a soft rose-pink shot through with silver. The air was still, sharp with the smell of salt and rank with seaweed: the tide was on the ebb, leaving the usual tribute of flotsam on the shoreline. The bay cut into the land like a shallow sickle, the beach stretching away to the next headland. They were the only two living things moving along the shore just then, but for a few early birds in flight over the sea, black against the pink sky. John could hear faint screams and screeches as the birds wheeled and dived.
"Maybe it's art," said Rodney. He blinked and rubbed briskly at his eyes, muttering something about sand being blown about. He didn't meet John's gaze. "Some sort of installation sculpture."
John pushed his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stared over the rims. When they'd come through the gate an hour earlier in the pre-dawn dark, Rodney had rolled his eyes and asked John if he needed to be surgically separated from his ray-bans , so he wasn't going to admit that the light still wasn't really bright enough to justify them. He was blinking himself and was glad to blame the dust; the sunglasses hid that neatly. Although, come to think on it, he'd welcome some snark right then, to get the taste of failure out of his mouth and Rodney wouldn't need much of an excuse to rant at him. "A pile of driftwood?"
"That's the point. It's not a pile of driftwood. It's been constructed." Rodney tilted his head as he looked at it, squinting. "Not very well, mind you. It's not a real structure. That was never a house or a shelter; it's just been built to look a bit like one."
John stared, taking in the details. Rodney was right. It wasn't a real shelter.
He glanced behind him to the bay he and Rodney had just left. Teyla and Ronon emerged from the deserted fishing village. They must have given up on finding anything. Teyla had her head bowed as she walked past nets strung out on drying poles, not watching where she was going as she trudged through the sand as if it were sucking her down. Though Ronon's head was held high, his hand brushed the butt of his gun over and over.
Nothing in the village but ruins and the husks of the dead. Men, women, childr—
John turned abruptly, to face the bay ahead. Teyla wasn't even looking at him, but he didn't want to see the expression in her eyes when she did.
No abandoned fishing villages in this bay, no dried out husks and, just like the bay they'd left, no survivors hiding amongst the rocks at the base of the distant cliffs. Just the soft endless whisper of the sea ravening on the land, its hunger never appeased, and the flat, level sands stretching out to the next headland a quarter of a mile away.
And the driftwood... thing sitting above the high tide mark in the exact centre of the bay.
Ignoring Rodney's squawking protest about damp feet, John stepped over the line of seaweed and shells and onto the wet sand. It was easier to walk on. Every step that he took towards the driftwood left a little depression. Wet sand became dry for an instant under his weight, then as he moved on, the footstep filled with water seeping up from below and smoothing the marks out again as if he'd never been there.
"It's non-Newtonian, you know." Rodney's tone was subdued. "Waterlogged sand, I mean. It's in colloidal suspension. It's a dilatant, like ketchup."
John glanced down at the sand. It wasn't quite flat. It had ripples in it, a more solid version of the waves that had surged over it a little while ago. There was water in the little valleys between the curving lines of ripples. "I thought you despised non-Newtonian thinking."
"No," said Rodney, slowly. "No. There're better things to despise than that. Or worse."
There was no arguing with that. John walked on, hunching his shoulders against the knowledge of what was behind him.
Up close, it was clearer that whatever this structure was, Rodney was right about it having no practical use. It wasn't a real shelter and never had been. It looked more like the skeleton of one; grey, sea-washed ribs leaning up against a central keel-bone of a spar. Pebbles and shells had been set around it, each rib braced by stones where it plunged down into the sand. That the wood, stone and shell been set there deliberately was obvious; the placement was too careful to be the random deposit of sea and wind. It might be art but if it was, it wasn't intended to be beautiful.
Behind him, he heard Teyla gasp and Ronon said something John couldn't quite catch, his tone surprised.
No, not surprised. Awed. Reverent, even.
John turned to look at them, steeling himself to see his failure reflected in theirs. But Ronon was grinning and even Teyla's reddened eyes were brightening.
"A stra'al," said Teyla. "A real stra'al! I haven't seen one since I left Athos."
Gate technology was a wonderful thing, and usually the translation units worked so unobtrusively that John forget that when they were talking to non-Earthers they weren't really hearing English. But every now and again, one small untranslatable word was a sharp reminder that they were the aliens here.
Teyla frowned. "You have nothing like the stra'al back on Earth?"
"Not that I know of," said John. He stood easy, his hands resting on the P90 slung in front of him. Rodney shook his head, still uncharacteristically muted. "Doesn't look like there's an equivalent word for it."
"They are a living thing, a living symbol. An icon." Teyla stepped up to the driftwood. Her touch was gentle, as if she were afraid the wood would crumble under her fingers. "Many of them are centuries old."
"And yet every one is brand new." Ronon took a deep breath and relaxed taut shoulders. He looked less angry than he had in the village, as though something had soothed him. "They're always new."
Rodney snorted, flaring into brief Rodney-like life. "They're either one or the other, Conon."
Teyla wouldn't let things get out of hand. Her quiet Rodney got a mumbled apology. "What Ronon means is that the stra'al might have stood here for hundreds of years, but that these pieces of wood, the stones and shells, will change every time someone passes. Pieces will be taken away and others added, or maybe just shifted around into a new pattern. The stra'al changes constantly, yet is the same." Teyla stroked the grey wood, and smiled. "That is its whole purpose."
"Oh," said Rodney. "I was right, Sheppard. Art. I just wasn't expecting audience participation performance art."
"Yes." Teyla couldn't have missed the edge to Rodney's voice, but she didn't take him up on it. "If you like. It's a symbolic thing. One that belongs to everyone who passes."
"We had them on Sateda, too. Ours were usually rocks."
"A symbol of what?" John put his hand over Rodney's wrist before he could say something to provoke Ronon. Rodney's mouth closed, the snark unvoiced. John was sorry, but everyone had to make sacrifices in the name of team harmony. Even him.
"Is it not obvious?" Teyla shook her head in that pitying way that made John want to shuffle his feet and duck his head. "The individual pieces change, but the stra'al endures. People come and go, but the stra'al endures." Her voice trembled with the weight of what they'd found in the fishing village. "The Wraith come, but the stra'al endures."
John looked at the unlovely structure, trying to see the beauty in it that Teyla and Ronon did. A pile of wood with a few shells at its base. Nothing to see here, move along.
Rodney surprised him. "The individual pieces aren't important on their own. Just in how they fit together."
Teyla's mouth curved up into the starved ghost of her usual smile. "And in what they make when they come together."
John reached for something to say that would satisfy her. "Permanence out of transience, right? Life's transient, but this—" he waved an arm around him to sea and sand and sky, "—this will always be here."
He got an approving look and he had to fight down a smirk. Give that boy a gold star.
"Yes. And what little changes we make to it do not, in the end, change the fact that the stra'al is here."
"I'm going to look for some wood." Ronon turned on his heel and stalked off down towards the water's edge, his coat billowing behind him.
"We are newcomers to this world. We haven't earned have the right to move any of the pieces. We can only add to what's here already, and leave our mark on it." Teyla turned to follow Ronon. She paused and said, turning her head to speak over her shoulder, "It will honour the dead if you do this. It would comfort me."
No moral pressure there, then. John nodded.
Rodney didn't even say how stupid this was, how much it wasted his brilliant mind and precious time he could be spending on research, on bending the universe to his will. He trudged after Teyla instead, scanning the long line of seaweed and debris for something he could use.
John sighed. He didn't need a shifting sculpture to tell him that everything was transient. He knew it, right down to the soles of his boots. What he didn't quite believe was that there was any permanence as a result. One harsh winter storm and this would be likely be another piece of flotsam floating on the water.
Still, he took his time choosing the right piece of driftwood. He found a tree root over near the rocks of the next headland, twisted and contorted but smoothed into silk by the water. That should be contradiction enough to satisfy even the Pegasus galaxy. A piece of quartz caught his eye as he walked back, its once-sharp planes rounded by eons tumbling in the water. It would do to anchor the wood.
Ronon had placed his wood by the time John got back and was watching Teyla as she added hers. Rodney was standing with one hand outstretched, thumb up, and staring down his arm at the stra'al the way artists were supposed to do when they were checking perspective. He'd found what looked like a fragment from a boat, a piece of curved wood showing the remnants of paint. It had been a bright blue once; the colour of Rodney's eyes. He grinned tightly at John when he'd put it into place. John put his driftwood on the other side to Rodney's, up against Ronon's piece. He took a few minutes to turn the wood this way and that, until the shape it made against the stra'al felt right. The quartz had little black veins running through it, that he turned so they'd catch the light.
They all stepped back and looked at the stra'al. Teyla's hand slid into John's left. She was already holding Ronon's right hand. She smiled at him when he glanced at her; that expectant, glad smile. The one that held a message he had to figure out for himself.
Rodney always was quicker on the uptake. His warm hand took John's right one, fingers curving around John's, palm to palm. A moment while John's heart hammered, then he tightened his grip slightly, watching Rodney's reaction sidelong from behind his sunglasses. Rodney's face was downcast, but he was smiling, just a little bit.
John turned his attention back to the stra'al. It wasn't so ugly, really, not now the light was strengthening and warming the grey wood into softer shades. Not so bad at all. And this was one world where a piece of John Sheppard might stay for a while. Until the next big winter storm, anyway.
The sun was almost up.
He straightened, letting his shoulders relax and rolling them to ease the tension. He held Rodney's hand still, and Telya's. "Time to go home."
"I don't want to go back though the village," said Rodney. "There's nothing we can do for them."
"We can cut inland and get around it." Ronon pointed towards the cliff. "That way. I can see a path to the top."
They had to let go of each other. John took point, Teyla and Rodney behind him and Ronon on their six. Their usual combination; the usual way that they meshed.
Their own stra'al, he guessed.
He could see the Stargate from the top of the cliffs, glinting in the sun. Behind them, the stra'al was left to be the only thing visible on the flat beach, and the sky to the east was cooling from its first rosy blush into a clear blue.