The greeting party is on their way to the council chambers when Radek notices the pigeons. Generally, the flight of birds catches his eye more from habit than anything else - he hasn’t kept pigeons since the early-90s as a grad student in England.
These birds wheel about the sky, soaring on the currents over the town in large numbers. But one or two fly out of the flock, arrowing over the rooftops towards an unseen destination within the town.
Radek automatically turns to see where they’re headed.
“Is something wrong, Dr. Zelenka?” Dr. Weir turns to see what he’s looking at, and then nothing will do but for the Balvans to similarly turn, intrigued by this new and strange behaviour of their guests.
Radek feels his cheeks heat. “It is nothing. I just saw some pigeons and was curious.”
“Pigeons? Oh,” says the Burgher of Commerce, Zer Hurvasindh, his lugubrious face brightening, “you mean the columbari - the messenger birds. You are a keeper of the columbari?, Dr. Zelenka?”
“No. Not anymore. I used to - a long time ago.”
He doesn’t say that Atlantis doesn’t need such things, that pets are frowned upon for personnel assigned out by the Air Force and the SGC, that many people within the expedition would consider pigeons as a nuisance rather than something to keep.
“You must speak with our keepers, Dr. Zelenka!” It’s clear that Hurvasindh is an enthusiast. “It is rare to find those who use the columbari anymore, although it was once much more common.”
“Why is that, Zer Hurvasindh?” Dr. Weir asks, sounding truly interested and not just polite. “The disuse of pigeons - columbari.”
“Well, I suppose most places use other things. Riders, perhaps. Or those devices like you wear on your shoulder.” Hurvasindh taps his shoulder to indicate the radios that most Atlantis personnel take with them when going off-world.
Radek blinks and pushes his glasses back up his nose - looking down from the sky and the wheeling birds dislodged them. “You do not use such technology?”
He hopes it does not sound quite so disdainful as it would were Rodney saying it. There are reasons one might choose to live at a lower level of technology - or reasons one might not have been given the options in the first place. Eastern Europe is a far cry from America, after all.
“Our founders came to Balva to avoid that,” says Zer Hurvasindh with a shrug of ample shoulders. “We live as simply as we can and hope not to attract the notice of the Wraith. So far, we have been mostly successful - the Wraith cull, yes, but that is the risk. And there are others who tried to develop themselves while the Wraith slept, thinking to challenge them when they woke...”
“We’ve met some of them.”
Dr Weir’s voice is hard, as it well might be when referring to such as the Genii.
Zer Hervasindh merely regards her mildly. “Then you have not met them at all. For their worlds lie in rubble and dust, their people scattered and seeking refuge, their Stargates buried so none may return.”
“Hervasindh!” Another burgher hurries over, having overheard their conversation in a pause during his own talk with the marines. “This is no topic for a day such as this!”
“That’s true, Gurubinas.” Hervasindh looks chagrined. Doubtless, he has only just realised that depressing talk might lead to Atlantis being less generous in their trading agreements. “Dr. Weir, Dr. Zelenka, I apologise.”
“There are plenty of things we don’t know about the Pegasus galaxy, Zer Hervasindh,” Elizabeth smiles. “No need to apologise.”
“Still, it is not-- I mean, I should not-- Dr. Zelenka was interested in the columbari, not in the state of other planets.” He turns to Radek. “You must come see our loft if you have time after the council. It’s even in the same building!”
“I suppose. That is, if there is time,” is all Radek says. He will not make promises when he does not know if they can be kept. Besides, he has heard how these things can go bad very fast - one moment they are in trade negotiations, the next they are running for their lives. Even the fact that it is Rodney doing the telling does not mitigate that Major Sheppard’s team returns through the Stargate harried as often as they do satisfied.
But he would rather like to see the Balvan columbari.
“You did not need to come,” he tells Dr. Weir on the narrow turn of stairs up to the bulbuous dovecote attached to the side of the council chambers - and on its top floor.
She smiles down at him from several steps up. “It’s good exercise. And colour me curious about the Balvan’s messenger pigeons. My experience of pigeons are mostly the kind that flock in cities and will eat anything that you leave unattended. I’ve never seen kept pigeons.”
“Oh, these would be quite different from the pigeons found in most American cities,” Radek assures her. “Those are bred from domestic pigeons, gone feral. Usually, a messenger pigeon is purebred and trained up from an early age.”
“How do they find their way to the recipient? You hear about messenger pigeons that can cross - well, thousands of miles to deliver a message. How do you tell them where they’re going?”
“You don’t. You let them go, and they fly to their home loft. You see, they really are homing pigeons - that is, when they are released, they fly home. At least it is so on Earth. So the sender must have a pigeon from the loft of the recipient in order to send them a message.”
Radek pauses to catch his breath - talking and walking is one thing when it’s flat ground, but these stairs up to the dovecote just seem to go on and on, and he is no longer young. A few steps above him, Dr. Weir also stops. She doesn’t look quite so winded, but then, he has heard that she does a little jogging at night sometimes. She would have the build for it - long-legged and limber, her hair up in an informal ponytail as she runs, her face set with concentration...
It takes him a moment to realise she is speaking. “I am sorry?”
“You were saying that I couldn’t send a message to you, unless I had a pigeon that would fly to your pigeon loft.”
“Yes, yes, that is exactly right.” Radek pushes his glasses up his nose again. “On Earth, people would travel with their birds to send messages home, or else form networks of carrier pigeons between lofts. I imagine they do much the same thing here. It is a very inconvenient way of messaging when compared to our modern methods.”
“But effective when the situation fits the purpose.” Dr Weir looks up the next flight of stairs. “They don’t need instant communication for these things.”
“Only when the Wraith attack.” The smile fades from his face. “And even then it is doubtful that the warning would arrive ahead of the Wraith.”
“Zar Weir? Zer Zelenka?” Clumping steps down the stair treads heralds the Balvan man who was leading them up to the messenger loft. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, thank you, Sobanden,” Dr. Weir reassures him. “Dr. Zelenka and I aren’t as fit as you. So we were just taking a break.”
“Oh.” Big eyes blink at them; Sobanden is clearly not usually given to the consideration of less-physically fit visitors to the loft. “I suppose you want to slow down then?”
“Just catch our breaths,” says Dr. Weir.
“It’s just that if you want to see the columbari in their roost, you’ll have to hurry. They get fed very soon - there’s a bell for it, and a song down in the square.”
Radek gives Sobanden a hard look. “You mean we did not have to climb all the way up here to see them?”
“Well, no.” At least he has the grace to look abashed. “I suppose not.”
“We’re this far already,” says Dr. Weir in encouraging tones. “We can climb a little more. Are we halfway there at least?”
If they are only halfway there, then Radek is not going to climb the rest. He is a scientist, not an adventurer. Rodney is an adventurer at heart, always wanting to go off and explore - even as he complains of the danger and the trouble and the general stupidity of people. Radek prefers to stay in the city - too many dangers out in Pegasus, in his opinion. Better to let them come to you.
Like pigeons, really.
“Oh, well, yes. I mean, we’re over halfway - maybe even three quarters of the way? It’s not that far.”
Radek has heard that before, but he refrains from the sardonic observation. Sobanden is young and callow and he will learn - as the young and callow often do.
So he shrugs and looks at Dr. Weir. “Since we are this far, we should press on to the top.”
“Ad Astra Per Aspera.” And now her smile has a distinctly impish tilt to it.
Radek finds himself smiling up at her like he is fourteen and susceptible to a pretty woman smiling at him, not like he is pushing forty.
They continue to climb, somewhat doggedly, but determined to make the top. Radek glances up to ascertain if he can see the end, then hastily averts his gaze from Dr. Weir’s trouser bottoms. The expedition uniform is not particularly tight-fitting, and yet...
It is generally agreed among the males of the expedition that Dr. Weir is a fine-looking, classy woman - generally agreed, but not commonly spoken.
On the remainder of the toil upwards, Radek has to make an effort not to watch Dr. Weir climbing the stairs.
Sobanden is correct in this, at least. There is not so far to go.
Still, when Radek reaches the top, he is glad the climb is over. Then he pauses in the doorway of the loft to catch his breath.
It is a large loft, taking up almost the entirety of this turret, and nearly ever pigeonhole has a curious head poking out from it. Dark and pale, they tilt their heads curiously at the newcomers, bead-like eyes inquiring as to whether it is time for their food.
The scent of their droppings is fairly strong, but the wooden floor is scraped clean quite regularly from the look of it, and only a few downy tufts of groomed feather-fluff puff their way in the corners of the room.
Radek pushes himself off the doorway and walks slowly into the middle of the loft, as Dr. Weir asks Sobanden curious questions about their keeping. He turns in a tight circle, looking at the pigeons he can see, squinting at the ones higher up on the ledges, their forms and markings blurry with distance.
Still, he can see echoes of the birds bred on Earth in the columbari - here the Kijivskij svitlij - Kiev Tumbler with its nape ruff, there a Chinese Nasal Tuft with the little puff of feathers over the beak. And surely that there is one that looks like a Mariolinha - one of the oldest and smallest breeds on the European continent, brought to Portugal in the train of the Moors?
One of the bolder ones - bright eyed, with lovely white striping marks amidst the brown of her feathers tilts her head to regard Radek, then launches from her ledge to soar down to his shoulder.
She looks like one of the breed known as the Ancient Tumblers - with a very short face that most people unfamiliar with pigeons would say it was non-existent, a deep, narrow keel from chest to spine, and a broad span of wings. And Radek turns his head just enough so he can see the tiny head out of the corner of his eye.
“Ah, that is Savatiri,” says Sobanden cheerfully. “She likes people. One of our best, in fact. Comes tame to the hand, flies fast and true with her messages.”
“She seems to like my ear.” It’s not a hard nip, just a soft, affectionate nibble.
“Yes, she does that. You can take her on your hand if you don’t mind the claws.”
Radek holds out his hand, and Savatiri nibbles it with her beak, then steps obediently onto his finger and half-unfurls her wings a couple of times to gain her balance. “Hello, my little one,” Radek says, charmed and delighted by the creature. “You are a beauty indeed.”
“She’s very tame,” Dr. Weir is saying.
“Oh yes. They all are - to varying degrees. Savatiri is one of the best, though. We’re trying to breed her right now, but she’s picky, aren’t you?”
Savitiri coos, and does a little waggles of her tail, as though to say that a woman of her class has a right to be choosy.
Then her head lifts to the sky at a sound too high for human ears, and she launches from Radek’s finger up into the air. Dimly, Radek realises this must be the call to feeding, and stands still as the air around him fills with feather-dust and swirling air.
He is vaguely aware of Elizabeth coming to stand beside him, smiles back at her when she smiles at him. But what he sees and feels and hears are the pigeons. For one brief sliver of time, he is not standing in a loft on another planet in another galaxy, but just home and at home with himself and the stirring beat of wide wings.