“Crack! Crack!” yelled Teyla, pushing Meera down with a branch from one of the spindly gant trees. “See how you like my bantos, you nasty old Wraith!”
Meera struggled under the branch and began to cry. “Am not a Wraith, am not!”
“Yes you are, and I’m an Ancestor and I’m killing you dead!”
Teyla felt hands dragging her back and twisted in Halling’s grip. He frowned at her, already tall for a boy of fifteen summers. “Teyla, do not play so roughly. Meera’s mother will be angry at you both for getting dirt on her tunic.”
“I’m an Ancestor!” protested Teyla, still caught up in the game, breathing hard. “I can kill lots of Wraith and I live in the City of the Ancestors. I have many strong bantos rods, and knives, and, and weapons, like….” But here imagination failed her. “Big weapons,” she insisted, “Weapons to kill the Wraith and scare them away!”
Halling helped Meera up and dusted her off. Meera ran away toward her mother’s tent. “Yes, yes, big, bad weapons to kill the Wraith. You are very fierce and powerful.”
“I am,” Teyla said proudly. “You’ll see. One day I will go there, to the City, and I will live with the Ancestors!”
Halling pulled a sceptical face, smiling faintly. “Will you now. It is very far away, Teyla, and no one knows quite where it is.”
Teyla glared up at him. “I don’t care, I will find it!” She hated when he patronized her. He did it a lot, his long face serious but his eyes amused.
“I’m going to play with Kanaan now,” she told him and ran off. She didn’t care that Kanaan was recovering from kirsan fever; she had already had the fever last spring so that meant she couldn’t get it again. Kanaan was a lot more fun than Halling, hanging on her tales of the City of the Ancestors with wide, dark eyes. Perhaps she could persuade him to play “Ancestors and Wraith” with her if he was feeling better.
Teyla was pleased with the fit of her new boots. She had outgrown the last pair and Nevvin had made these from the urgul hide Tagan traded for at the midsummer market on Ammadain. Charin had embroidered the boot-tops with red, green, and blue beadwork bands: lucky colors.
Teyla hoped they would be lucky today. It was only her fifth trading mission through the Ancestors’ Ring, and everyone said that the fair at Ithros was a sight to behold. She had a new set of bantos which she had crafted herself – fire-hardened and carved so that even sweaty hands would not slip. They were very fine, and she wanted to trade them for a well-balanced throwing knife; the Ithrians were renowned for their metalwork.
“Excited?” Kanaan had come up beside her on the trail to the Ring.
Teyla flashed him a quick sidelong glance. Of course she was excited, but she was not going to let him see that and have him tease her for being like a child on naming-day. “I would not say excited, Kanaan, but I am keen to see what knives the fair has to offer.”
“Remember what I said – try the old Braxian trader at the far end of the Street of Knives. He is very susceptible to a pretty face.”
Teyla half-frowned, pleased at the compliment but irritated by his suggestion. They had reached the clearing of the Ancestors’ Ring, and the trading party were stepping through, two at a time. She turned to Kanaan. “I wish to find the best knife, Kanaan, not to beguile the seller like some Haldorian courtesan.”
She turned to walk into the rippling blue of the Ring, and the last thing she heard as he stepped up behind her was “No! I did not–”
His words rang in her ears as she joined the traders clustered, gray-faced, on the stone steps beyond the Ring. For several long seconds it seemed that Kanaan was denying blame for the devastation that stretched out on all sides, was saying he had not caused it. Teyla almost turned to reassure him as he stumbled through behind her and made a sound as though someone had punched him in the gut. She put her hand on his arm to calm him, distantly surprised that her hand was steady, not trembling. She was trembling inside, but her muscles were taut, ready for combat. No one came forth to offer battle; no one was alive here.
The destruction was not very recent – no smoke rose from blackened, skeletal houses; no fires still burned. Not just a culling but a punishment, she realised. The elders told cautionary tales of Old Athos and of other worlds whose people had become complacent and allowed technology to develop. Ithros had not been culled for centuries and the Wraith were less active, sleeping to allow human settlements to regenerate. But they were not all asleep; they were never entirely asleep.
Halling divided the traders into scouting parties to look for survivors, but Teyla could see that he thought it unlikely. Anyone lucky – or unlucky – enough to be left in the ruins would surely have gone through the Ring to some other less desolate place.
They searched several houses, hands blackening with soot as they opened half-burned doors and lifted charred furniture. Teyla found an inner room that had largely escaped the fires. A body lay sprawled on the bed – the mother of the house perhaps, her long hair spread white on the bedclothes. Her arm was thrown out, protecting a baby from the Wraith that had taken her years; she was just an empty husk now, withered and mummified. The Wraith had not touched the infant: too little life-force to be worth the trouble, after gorging on its mother. No, the baby had died of thirst and starvation, wrapped in its mother’s cloak and pressed against her dried out corpse. The child was long dead, but the smell of rot lingered. Teyla turned away and retched helplessly.
Tagan found her outside in the street, bent over with her hands on her knees, breathing raggedly. “Daughter, come away, we must return to the Ring. There is nothing but death here.” She helped Teyla up, gripping her shoulders to steady her, then inclined her head. Automatically, Teyla bent hers, leaning into her mother’s embrace, their foreheads damp and gritty.
“How could they allow this?” Teyla whispered, head still bowed. “Surely the Ancestors must return to fight the Wraith and stop this, this….” She straightened, back stiff with rage, her hand flailing out at burnt homes and toppled stonework, at bodies drained of life. “Why do they not combat the Wraith from their flying city?”
Tagan sighed and pushed a lock of hair off her face with the back of her hand. It was less dirty than the palm, but it still left a black streak behind. “I have been over this with you, Teyla. No one knows where the Ancestors went, but no one has heard from them for thousands of years. The City of the Ancestors is lost as well. The Wraith defeated them and we need to fend for ourselves, not look to some mythical past for salvation.” She held up a hand. “Yes, I know that to some, like Halling, that is sacrilege. But I am a trader, not a mystic, and this is not the first culled world that I have seen. Nor will it be the last. We must live with what is and make the best of it.”
Teyla’s mouth tightened and she swallowed bile. Her mother was right and she had been a fool, clinging to the elders’ tales of the Ancestors like a child. She was a woman of sixteen summers now and set to take her family’s seat on the Council in due course once Tagan was gone. Athos was not immune to the Wraith; the Old City was mute testament to that. Her father had been culled and in time she would lose her mother, and Charin too. Blinking away that thought and the hot tears stinging her eyes, she rubbed sooty hands on her skirt and set off toward the Ring after Tagan.
Kanaan tried to comfort her as they walked up the trail to their encampment. Teyla’s feet were leaden in her scuffed and blackened boots and she was in no mood for banter. She was short with him, and after a while he fell silent, hurt, and drifted back to walk with the other young men.
Teyla let rage move her numb, tired legs along the path. She let it congeal, using it to fuel her aching muscles and tamping it down deep inside her. She was not really angry with Kanaan, nor with Tagan, but with herself and the useless dreams she had clung to so stubbornly. No more of that. Heroes were not going to drop out of the sky or walk through the Ring and blast the Wraith away with terrible weapons. She would hone herself into the best fighter possible – already she was defeating the rest of her year-group. She would put away thoughts of Kanaan or any other man and make herself a warrior for her people.
Teyla had no need of the Ancestors. She would be her own weapon against the Wraith.
They walked through the Ring like any other travelers, but they were the strangest folk Teyla had ever seen. Their clothing came from no world she had ever encountered and they were laden with alien weapons. Their eyes darted about the Athosian encampment, assessing the threat level. While she applauded their military preparedness, she did not trust them. How could they not know of the Wraith? Assuredly they were lying.
The gray-haired leader was brusque and dismissive. What manner of people gave such a man leadership of a crucial scouting mission? They were either fools or arrogant beyond belief. Perhaps their weapons made them so? Teyla recalled her childish hopes that the Ancestors would return, bringing terrible weapons. She shrugged the memory aside – a group less resembling the Ancestors would be hard to imagine. There was no wisdom here, no grace, only ruthless soldiers looking to take and give nothing in return.
“We do not trade with strangers,” she said, facing the hard-eyed leader down. Let them underestimate her and the Athosian people. Others had made that mistake to their cost.
The one called Sheppard was a puzzle. Younger and smooth-faced, he tried to make up for his leader’s stiffness but Teyla noticed that his wary eyes scanned the perimeter like the rest of the soldiers. He made odd references which the Ring could not easily translate, saying that he liked riding great-wheels – whatever they were – and dangerously fast things, and kickball – a game played by children with an inflated bladder. How could she take him seriously as the spokesman for his group when he spouted such nonsense? Yet he sat down with her and with Halling, and drank tea, and spoke of friendship.
Later, she talked with him as night bled away into dawn.
“They call you ‘Major’ – is that your name? Major Sheppard?”
“Yeah, but it’s not…no, I’m John. John Sheppard. Major’s my rank.”
“A military title.” Teyla nodded. The Athosians had no such hierarchy, but she had seen it on other worlds. “Where are you from, that you do not know the Wraith?”
His eyes narrowed. “I, ah, I’m not at liberty to say.” He shot a swift glance at his leader, who was gesturing impatiently at two of the soldiers by the doorway. “Sorry.” He waved a hand vaguely. “Security, you know....”
Teyla was too tired to guard her tongue; the strangers had arrived very early and none of them had had much sleep. “You ask a great deal of us: friendship and trade, an alliance. And yet you give nothing in return, not even the name of your home.”
Sheppard ducked his head. When he raised it his face was tired but he looked her in the eye and smiled; this time it reached his eyes. “Yeah. Reckon we’re not much good at the trading thing, huh? You could teach us a few lessons.” She looked down at her tea and suppressed a smile, amused by his frankness. Truly, he was like no trader she had ever met. He traced a knot in the tabletop with one finger. “It’s hard to explain, and we’re…kind of in a bind. We’re new to all this traveling between worlds; it’s a little overwhelming, stepping through the Stargate.” He saw her questioning look. “The Ring. You call them Rings.”
Teyla nodded sympathetically, remembering her first few trading missions. Journeying through the Ring was disorienting at first. An image of Ithros flashed through her mind and she shuddered. Sheppard frowned, sensing her distress. He looked genuinely concerned and she felt herself warming to him. “When I was a child, Major Sheppard, I believed that the Ancestors would come through the Ring to save us from the Wraith.”
“Ancestors?” Sheppard frowned.
“Those who made the Rings. Legends say they lived in a flying city.” Teyla sighed and shrugged. “I thought for a moment, when you arrived, that you had come to us from the City of the Ancestors, to help fight the Wraith.”
Sheppard’s face tightened and he glanced off to his left. “We’re not the…Ancestors, ma’am. We call them the Ancients.” He looked down at his hands on the table, then up at her again. “They fought the Wraith? I’m guessing they didn’t win.” He raised one eyebrow and gave a wry smile. Teyla did not smile back, unable to find humor in the loss of the Ancestors. Sheppard bit his lip. “Yeah, we…heard that some enemy defeated the Ancients. Guess we walked into a war zone.” He made a face and scrubbed a hand tiredly through his hair.
Teyla regarded him, frowning. How could his people be so new to the Ancestors' Rings? How could they not know about the Wraith? She would take him to the ruins and show him the cave drawings. Perhaps if he better understood what they faced he would feel more able to confide in her.
He found her pendant in the Old City. Teyla was heartened but her pleasure was short-lived. The Wraith-sense erupted in her mind, and then all was fear and running and the distant screaming of children. Piercing whines from the harvesting darts filled the air, their culling beams slashing the forest.
Teyla ran to her people, too late to warn, with Sheppard behind her, forgotten. His weapon erupted, a terrible noise rivaling the chaos of the culling, but wasted on phantoms. She paused, torn, then went back and fetched him. Together they raced on toward the camp.
And then the light took her into darkness.
Teyla awoke behind webbing in a foul-smelling cell, the Wraith-sense pulsing in her head like a sickness. She had not believed that merely entering the Old City could draw down a culling, but her throat was tight with guilt and horror. She felt helpless and betrayed, yet the strangers’ leader was trapped along with them. Surely these people could not have called the Wraith?
Drones took Toran, despite Teyla’s protests. They took the gray-haired leader next and Teyla watched, silent. Later, she wished she had said some small word of farewell – he went with them bravely.
She had not thought Major Sheppard had the strength to end his leader’s life. The others whispered of it, saying he had also killed a Wraith Keeper. Teyla watched Sheppard’s hands flickering on the controls as he flew them up to where the Ring hung blue in the blackness of space. The Major was more formidable than she had realised. His people were unwilling to accept the inevitable; they fought against fate. Entering a Wraith Hall – she knew of no others who had done so and lived.
Sheppard and his people had powerful weapons, just as she had dreamed. Teyla wanted a weapon that could mow down Wraith drones, even damage a dart; she wanted it badly. She touched the cool, alien metal of the hull, crouched in the rear with the other refugees. This craft was of the Ancestors, she was sure, yet the Major operated it as easily as breathing, calling it a “Puddle Jumper”, shockingly casual. Could Major Sheppard be a child of the Ancestors, and if so, why had he woken the Wraith? Such a strange mixture of bravery and ignorance, and yet something stirred in her, answering Sheppard’s recklessness like a call to arms. He had taken them back after a culling, which she had thought impossible.
The Athosians lived simply, avoiding notice and eluding the Wraith. She had made herself a warrior and a leader and the Wraith had come regardless. No more hiding, Teyla thought, watching the Major dodge darts as he flung their Puddle Jumper toward the Ring. It is time to fight back.
The world stopped hurtling past and came to an abrupt halt outside the forward window. “Cool, huh?” said Major Sheppard’s second-in-command, turning around in his seat at the front. He was the soldier who had helped them escape – the Major called him “Ford”.
“You don’t feel the speed ’cause of the inertial dampeners!” Ford said, dark eyes bright. “Good thing we had ’em or else it would’ve been splat for us, like a bug on a windshield.”
Teyla had no idea what “inertial dampeners” were and the Ring was no help, giving only an impression of something fixed in place, trapped. Walls began to move past the window as their craft rose up into the air. This traveling with no sense of motion was very disconcerting and Teyla felt dizzy.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Major Sheppard, “welcome to Atlantis. Please remain seated ’til the Puddle Jumper has come to a full and complete stop.” He grinned and slumped back in his seat. Ford punched him lightly on the arm, beaming.
Atlantis? But that was, but surely that was.... Teyla tried to peer out of the forward window but saw only metal. She made a frustrated sound in her throat, then turned, as the rear of the craft folded down. She helped Halling gather the others and they stepped outside, peering about anxiously. “This way, ma’am,” said Ford, at her elbow, ushering her down stairs to the lower level.
They entered a great hall. Burnished metal walls rose up and the staircase was illuminated by the Ancestors’ script. She turned, and there was the Ring, now quiescent. The window behind the Ring caught her breath, tightening her chest with wonder. Around her the rescued Athosians gasped and pointed, wide-eyed. Teyla stared up at the sweeping grandeur of colored glass panels that caught the light and slanted it down across the smooth, patterned floor, painting them all in gold and russet.
“Really something, huh?” It was Sheppard, at her side.
“The City of the Ancestors,” Teyla whispered, awed.
“Yeah,” he said, shifting awkwardly and rubbing the back of his neck. “Uh, look, sorry I couldn’t say, before. We weren’t sure how it was gonna pan out and you gotta be careful on first contact…well, y’know. Sorry.”
“But you are not the Ancestors,” Teyla said softly. It was not really a question, or if it was, she already knew the answer.
“No, we’re from another galaxy.” Many stars, very far, the Ring suggested. “The Ancients went to our galaxy to escape the Wraith and they left us some calling cards.”
Teyla frowned, puzzled. “They left tokens?”
“Their genes,” explained Sheppard unhelpfully. The Ring showed her family likenesses across the generations, and coitus.
She shot him a look. “They are of your blood? Truly your ancestors?”
“Yeah. Well, that is, some of us,” he said with a shrug. “Some of us have the gene – ah, the bloodline – so we can operate their technology. I can, I have it. We call it the ATA gene.” Then he was swept away by his people in a whirl of greetings and questions.
Teyla was embraced by Kanaan, who clutched her arms too tight and trembled as he pressed his forehead to hers. All around them the Athosians who had survived were weeping and embracing, comforting Toran’s mother and clapping each other on the back. “It is the City, Kanaan,” Teyla whispered, throat tight. “We are in Atlantis!”
“Yes,” he said, straightening, his eyes glistening. “It is the City. They are not the Ancestors, though, Teyla.”
“But they are allies.” She grinned at him, fierce. “They will help us fight the Wraith.”
Kanaan frowned. “Fight the Wraith? That is not our way, Teyla. We are traders and hunters.”
“But warriors also, Kanaan. Some of us are warriors.”
“Some of us, yes,” he said quietly, glancing away. He sighed, then looked back at her. “Come, let me show you the Athosian quarters. Let me show you a little of the City.”
Teyla avoided drinking liquor at that evening’s celebration. She was drunk on Atlantis, its towers, its vistas, the vast expanse of water stretching out on all sides. And she was exhausted.
People swirled around her, from Athos and from…Earth. That was what they called their home planet. An odd name, but she understood. The soil was where all things originated – plants and the animals that fed upon them. How would they adapt, then, these people so tethered to the earth, in a City made of metal and glass?
How, for that matter, would she adapt? The City was beautiful but deeply alien and she had been raised in hunting camps, close to the land, blending into it. No more hiding, she reminded herself. No indeed. The City floated proudly on a seemingly limitless ocean, a taunt to the Wraith. Let them come then, she thought fiercely, baring her teeth. A stocky man in tan and blue with receding hair who had been gesticulating at a dark-haired man in a gray shirt stopped and stared at her, eyes wide, then shifted so the dark-haired man was shielding him.
Teyla looked down and smiled, moving toward doors opening onto a balcony where the Major was talking to the leader of these people, Doctor Weir. He looked tired and he was saying that he had made things much worse by killing the Keeper and his former commander. Teyla saw how troubled he was by the act and was baffled. Such a release was pure mercy, not cause for self-punishment. Life was not valuable in itself, no matter how damaged. Most lives were short, with death coming unbidden through the Ring or from the sky. Doctor Weir said something placating and gestured at the room where Athosians and people from Earth intermingled.
“I agree, Major Sheppard,” said Teyla, approaching him. She put her hands on his shoulders and bowed her head, waiting for him to copy her. He hesitated, uncertain, his muscles tense under her hands; then he let his head drop forward and touch hers, relaxing slightly. “You have earned both my friendship and that of my people. With our help you will make many more friends.” She gave his shoulders a squeeze and stepped back, amused by his relief at being released. He did not like touching and she wondered what had happened in his life to cause that. As traders, the Athosians needed to be expert in reading the reactions of others. The greeting was a way to assess their trading partners – fear and deception were hard to conceal when the breath mingled. She wondered if Sheppard sparred, if he would let her teach him stick-fighting. That will loosen him up, she thought wryly, schooling her face into a benign mask.
Teyla stood on the balcony with Major Sheppard and Doctor Weir and looked back into the crowded room. This was all she had of Athos now, these people; they could never go home. How will we live? she mused. The City was a haven, but it was alien. Her people were used to their campsites, to grass and trees, game to hunt. Earth, she thought to herself, they will want their own earth. She shrugged it off. No, this was sanctuary; they could not survive another culling.
And you? She asked herself. What will you do? But she knew the answer, had known from the moment she saw that wall of light through the Ring.
She saw Kanaan watching her, off to one side. He was standing there quietly, face sad. I have no choice, she thought, feeling it twist inside her as she turned away to talk to Major Sheppard. Shepherd, the Ring echoed under his name, sending images of herd beasts being guarded. A fitting name, then, for this man who had gone into a nest of predators to rescue the ones he protected. She would be proud to fight alongside him. And he will need you, she thought ruefully, if he is so careless with his life.
Doctor Weir’s panels were the colour of blood. Sheppard’s were black and she wondered what that meant. She looked up at the banks of machinery overlooking the Ring, technicians conferring while the party continued below. There was so much she did not know.
“Tell me about Atlantis,” Teyla said.
- the end -