This story contains adult content of a sexual
nature. Do not read if you are under the age of 18. Please also
to you, even if you choose not to read them.
I like long Headers. If you want to get straight onto the story, do scroll down. :-)
Or read the story at my LJ: http://lobelia321.livejournal.com/613820.html. Or at my niche: http://blithesea.net/lobelia/ichor.html
Author: Lobelia; ; lobelia40 @ yahoo.com
Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
Pairing: John Sheppard/Wraith. (This is the gourmand wraith from SGA 2.05, 'Condemned'. In canon, this wraith is not named.)
Rating: NC-17. 18. Adult.
Length: c. 30,900 words. 505 kb.
Spoilers: 2.1, 'The Hive'. 2.12, 'Epiphany'. 2.07, 'Instinct'. 2.20, 'Allies'. A lot of the initial desert dynamic and military outfit is taken from 1.12, 'The Defiant One', but no actual plot spoilers.
Warnings: Wraith. It's not going to be pretty.
Appeasements: On the other hand, this is not a rape fic. Sorry to disappoint. :-) Hurt/comfort.
Feedback: Yes, please. I would love feedback! Even if it's only one line, one word!
Summary: John is trapped, on a desert island, with a wraith.
Relationship to the evolving canon: This story was conceived and drafted in May 2006, many months before I saw SGA 3.07, 'Common Ground'. Sometimes the powers that be can read my mind and give me just what I have long desired.
It appears that the unnamed wraith from 'Condemned' is now widely known under a name. However, this name is mere interview canon, if that. I cleave to episode canon only.
Archive Rights: Wraithbait. My niche. Anyone else, please ask.
Disclaimers: This is a work of fiction. I am not making money. No copyright infringement is intended. These characters do not belong to me, nor does the world of Stargate Atlantis. The island is based on Anak Krakatau, off the West coast of Java, but its detailed alien-ness is my own invention.
Sources: Star names from around the world.
First aid treatment for survivors of disasters at sea.
Apparently, a man cannot survive more than around ten days on 2 ounces of water per day but then, the effect of the wraith enzyme changes all calculations.
Intertextuality: Tannhaeuser Gate quotation adapted from Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner, as written and spoken by Rutger Hauer (in the role of Roy Batty).
Shades of Shalott's / LJ-astolat's fic 'Time in a Bottle'; Marlen Haushofer's novel The Wall; the Zoo of Death in William Goldman's The Princess Bride; and Gabriel García Márquez's The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor may, no doubt, be found herein.
Lexical note: John Sheppard is American but I am not, and I am the narrator. Spelling, capitalisation and diction follow my own idiosyncratic whims and predilections although I have Ameripicked the direct speech.
Orthographical note: In this fic, I do not capitalise 'wraith', just as I do not capitalise 'humans', 'ancients', 'adam's apple' and 'god'. This is both an ethical and an aesthetic decision.
All the wraith discussants at lj-comm 'sga_noticeboard' and here.
Icarusancalion for her useful list of weapons here.
All the respondents to my question 'what is in the combat vest?' here.
Synecdochic for her post on military language here.
And thepouncer for gathering all these posts together here.
And to moonlash_cc for suggesting that the life giving force of wraith might be very rare.
Awed thanks to my amazing betas: Gloria. Sheldrake. Resonant. Sageness for Ameripicking.
My Ichor gallery.
The story's main picture shows Anak Krakatau ('Child of Krakatau'), the island thrown up by volcanic eruptions near Krakatau, off the West coast of Java, Indonesia, between 1927 and 1930.
Ichor noun. [Greek ikhor].
1. A watery discharge from a wound or sore.
2. A fluid supposed to flow like blood in the veins of the gods.
(adapted from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2002)
The first instinct was run. Run, run, run. Run the fuck away.
So John ran. He ran across black sand; he ran through clouds of midges; he ran up a slope that sucked at his shoes; he slid back down again; he ran with the roar of an off-world ocean in his ears.
His head throbbed. Down seemed to be up; up was down; he stumbled on something, a stone or a root. This planet was hot. Sun spots danced in the air. His balance wavered, confused by the fall and the crash and the sudden jolt back out from hyperspace.
As he ran, he fumbled at his temple. The earpiece was still there.
He hit the comm. "This is Sheppard. Come in, Atlantis. Come in."
A slight declivity upset his feet. Chest heaving, he threw himself into the dell -- puny shelter but better than the bare sand. He rolled onto his belly, pulled out his P-90, wrenched off the safety and braced himself, arms outstretched, finger poised on the trigger, eyes fixed on the crash site down on the shore.
The dart had landed snout forward. Its long spike of a bowsprit had snapped, its body concertinaed into jagged origami rucks. Smoke issued from its guts.
The horizon abutted the sky in an unbroken glittering line. Surf thundered somewhere within earshot but the sea in view was smooth.
He twisted his neck. A mountain rose in smooth hyperbolae: a black volcano.
"Come in, Atlantis. This is Sheppard." Slightly louder now, above the bellowing ocean. "I'm at an unknown location. Crash-landed in a wraith dart." He looked to the left and to the right. Slate-coloured sand stretched along a curving beach. "No idea what planet this is. Or what solar system. Damn. Hello?"
The comm was dead. Not even the faintest static. A cosmic silence screamed at John through the ether.
He tapped the earpiece. "McKay? Teyla? Do you copy?"
He felt faint, and light-bellied. There was a hot sun above. It was only a matter of time; the others would be here soon.
But where the hell was the dart's pilot?
His gun was slippery with sweat. Grit stuck to the folds between his fingers.
The smell of sulphur wafted on the air. Apart from the surf and his own breath inside his head, the day dozed. Silence lay on the land, like a sheet of gauze.
He squinted upwards.
The sky was hazy and blue. Oxygen blue. He dragged in a huge breath.
The sky was empty.
"Atlantis?" he said to the necrotic comm. "Guys?"
A smell of scorched membrane hung over the crash site. There was no sign of the wraith pilot, nor had the crew of drone soldiers rematerialised.
Sweat collected in John's eyebrows. He slipped his fingers into the top left pocket of his tac vest and drew forth his sunglasses. The view formed itself into an array of dark brown and sepia.
A noise, like the ripping of epithelial tissue.
Propelled by adrenaline, John jumped up and crooked his finger around the trigger.
The dart wreck gleamed in the sun.
A sick lurch convulsed John's innards seconds before his eyesight confirmed what his guts already knew.
A figure staggered from the wreckage. A silhouette, black against the fuming hulk.
It had the outline of a man but it wasn't a man.
It was the dart's pilot: tall of stature, sleek of hair, coattails flapping in the wind.
It was the wraith.
The air smelled of singed meat but the wraith was whole and alive.
Run, run, run... but John threw himself into the sand. His knuckles blanched tight around the P-90's grip. With his spare hand, he fumbled for the grenade in his left waist pocket, held it fast under his chin and inserted the pin between his teeth. All without taking his eyes off the wraith even once.
The wraith wove across the sand. It pressed its hands to the sides of its skull. It appeared disoriented. It turned back and dove into the wreckage, bending and picking things up, stepping through the twisted carcass of its dart.
What had happened in that dart? Hadn't John jostled against other cargo just before everything went haywire? Hadn't there been fire, enemy fire, wraith fire? Hadn't they got caught up in a full-on hive-on-hive battle?
All of a sudden, the wraith lifted its head and snarled. It sniffed the air, then it swirled around and stared straight at John.
Without a thought, John leaped up and fired.
He emptied round after round, and when the mag was empty, he yanked the pin out with his teeth, pelted down the slope, sand flying under his heels, gauged his range, and lobbed the shell at the wraith.
The dart wreck pulsed, and then it exploded.
Soot flew by, shrapnel; flaming shards of metal floated on the sea like will'o'wisps. The inside of the fire belched and roared; its outer edges blazed fluorescent green.
He had hit the dart but missed the wraith. Smoke billowed.
John spat out the pin, pulled out a reserve round, reloaded the gun. He didn't hang around to see the wraith rise again. He set off, not running full-speed but going at a trot, angling his legs from the hips, the knife looped through his belt hitting the back of his thigh at a steady beat.
With the crash site behind him, the volcano was at twelve o'clock. The black beach curved smoothly to the left and to the right. John veered right because he could see scrubland in the distance there. No signs of habitation, though: no huts or fences, no plumes of smoke, no trace of village life. The people must be farther inland. And the stargate, too. That's where rescue was to be expected. That's where he'd camp out.
One quick glance at the sky, and then get moving. Reconnoitre the terrain, memorise landmarks, learn the contours of the untried ground.
The beach culminated in a sharp promontory. Rocks tumbled into frothing surf. On the other side, the shore formed a shallow bay. Otherwise, the place was bare: virgin territory.
The scrubland turned out to be a mere clump of stunted shrubs, a pitiful excuse for cover. So he kept going, jogging in long loping strides, always along the flat sand with the mountain on his left. His shadow was now slightly behind him, and then it moved to the right of him, and then he saw smoke clouds in the distance and realised that he had circled round on himself, that he was heading back towards the dart, that this was an island, that there was no shelter and no village and no stargate and no way out.
He was trapped, on a desert island, on an unknown planet, with nobody around but a vicious space alien intent on eating him alive.
"Guys? This would be a very good moment to get me out of here. Hello?" The comm yawned mutely into his ear, like a tomb.
To John's left was the silent heat of the volcano. To his right was the clamorous surf.
John tugged his binoculars out from his lower right vest pocket. The sun burnt his nape. Keeping his right hand on the P-90, he unfastened the water canteen from its holster around his left thigh, used his teeth to unscrew the cap and took several deep draughts; he didn't count how many.
He shoved his sunglasses to his forehead with one thumb, raised the binoculars to his eyes and adjusted the lenses.
The wraith was nowhere to be seen.
John dropped to the ground. With his bare hands, he started digging himself a hole. He heaped the excavated sand into a low rampart. Within a cubit's depth, the sand became compacted but not, as John expected, cooler. It felt hot to the touch, not sun-warmed but simmering with innate calories. No doubt an underground sea of lava, cooking the island from below.
He hunkered down in his makeshift trench and rested the P-90 on its lip, ready for action. For good measure, he cocked the safety on his handgun and kept it next to the P-90.
Silence. Surf. Hot sand pressed against his belly and groin.
He peered at the sky with naked eyes.
Something gleamed to his right, and for a sick moment he thought it was the wraith, swimming through the sea, but then it was only the sun, striking the side of a wave.
He peered through the binoculars again, and there it was.
A hulked black figure, stalking around among the ruins of its ship. Sifting through the wreckage, crouching down among the embers. Its pale pink waist-length hair singed at the tips.
John flexed his trigger finger.
"Come on," he murmured.
But the wraith didn't come on. The wraith seemed to have no interest in its prey, at least not for the moment.
It dawned on John: the wraith was looking for a way to rematerialise its lost cargo. Those drone soldiers that had crowded into the dart behind John; eight, sixteen, at least twenty-four of them.
"Son of a bitch," John muttered.
He squinted at the horizon, tried to gauge the amount of daylight he had left. He could rush up to the wraith and shoot the crap out of it, and then wait for it to recover and shoot the crap out of it some more. Or he could get himself to some sort of hide-out until the rescue squad arrived. He could get himself to a good vantage point.
He took another swig of his water, jumped out of his hole and headed up the slope of the volcano.
It seemed the logical thing to do.
The ascent took longer than anticipated. The sand was slippery and sucked at John's shoes. He kept slithering back down and loosing thin avalanches of dark-grey dust. He ended up having to inch himself upwards in lateral crabwise scuttles. Sweat drenched his T-shirt's armpits.
The higher he climbed, the stronger the smell of sulphur. About half-way up the mountain, a wind rose. He turned his face into the breeze. A movement caught the corner of his eye: it was the crash site, small and far away. And then, through his binoculars, he saw a very strange sight.
The tide had come in. Long waves lapped around the wreck. Already, parts of the dart had come away. The fuselage was reacting oddly to contact with the water. Some bits looked as if they were melting; others unfurled like tendrils. Gaps appeared in the armature, the dart's skin puckered and melted, and soon, like a mirage, the whole structure sank in on itself, like a sand castle, and dissolved in the surf.
"What the," said John.
The wraith was a black figure on black, making its way around past the rocky promontory, towards the clump of stunted shrubs. Its hair streamed behind it in the gathering breeze.
Nothing else moved. The drones had not materialised.
By the time John reached the volcano's crater, the sun hung low, and then, without warning, it sank into the horizon and night fell. A million stars erupted in the blue-black sky.
John glanced at the illumined dial of his watch. 21:40. Atlantis mean time. The surrounding watch face was set to Atlantean shore time, Athosian time.
He considered the Athosian watch face, then re-set it to 18:00 hours. Six p.m. That would be, he decided, the hour of sunset on this island.
Far below him, breakers spilled onto the land.
The air up on the summit was dry and flatulent. The sky rotated on its spindle, brilliant with strange stars. The crater breathed hot gases. There was no moon.
John took stock. He had:
His water canteen: one-third full; enough for a day, if he was careful. The radio, still clinging hopefully to his ear. Two firearms plus ammo: the P-90 submachine gun with three clips of fifty rounds each, and the P-223 pistol, loaded, and an extra three mags on his left hip ammunition pouch.
Other gear, stowed in his combat vest: Powerbars and energy chocolates, three units each. One flare, one signal mirror, one fuel lighter, one flashlight. A coil of nylon rope, around five yards in length. One spool of duct tape. A medi-kit with band-aids, iodine pills, alcohol preps, field dressing, a blister pack of painkillers. One duo-pack of condoms.
Upon his person: One pair of sunglasses, one pair of binoculars. One combat survival sheath knife. The clothes on his back: one T-shirt, black (good for camouflage on this black-in-black planet, bad for heat reflection); one pair of standard-issue army trousers; one of underpants; and one of brown leather trekking shoes, cross-laced and profile-soled, worn in an entirely non-standard fashion without socks. One pair of ID tags, on a chain around his neck. One length of leather thong tied around his right wrist. One watch, counting out an alien time.
Was it enough for survival? Sure, the team would need to make some calculations, rig up a rescue mission, run some simulations. But how long could it take?
What if he'd ended up in some sort of infernal time loop, a time dilation zone, like that one mission when he got stuck with those ancients who were preparing for ascension, trapped in a valley where time moved 250 times faster than in the outside world? What if ten minutes of time in the outside world was ten weeks of real time on this island?
But no. These were nocturnal thoughts; fool he who entertained them. If there were time dilation, there would be ancients.
What if these ancients had ascended millennia ago? And the temporal zone stuttered forwards, in eternal repeat mode?
"Rodney?" he said to the comm. "Why don't you get your ass into gear with those simulations or whatever? I would like to be home for breakfast."
Yeah. That would be good.
"Breakfast," he told the useless radio. "Get me home for that."
He scoured the night sky with his binoculars. The constellations blinded him in their magnified radiance.
Now and again, a shiver went through John because one of the stars moved. But it always turned out to be one of two things: a shooting star, or the corner of John's eyelid twitching.
The watch display showed 9:30 Atlantis time. 26:50 island time. Almost eleven hours had elapsed since nightfall.
John didn't know how long the nights might be on this island. No matter, the others didn't need daylight to find him.
How long, really, for them to figure out where he was? He had jumped into the wraith dart with no forethought, as usual. He had seen a chance as it presented itself, and he had taken it. Nobody else had been near to tell, nobody else had been there to see him board ship and stow away in the cargo hold. There'd been no time to radio anyone.
Inside the dart, he'd squashed himself into a crevasse near the aft bulkhead while grists of wraith soldiers swarmed into the loading bay, each drone fizzing out in a puff of molecules as it crossed the threshold. Only John stayed solid, pressed into the labia of matter in the dart's abdomen.
Only John stayed solid -- and the pilot that entered last, zapped shut the door, strapped itself in, flipped on the nav panel, and took off in a shriek of zero-gravity thrust.
Almost at once, the dart rocketed wildly out of the straight and narrow. Missiles buffeted its walls. The pilot, soundlessly, pulled the vector switch all the way back.
John held onto the enveloping sheath for dear death. The dart tipped to and fro. Atoms whizzed in the electric air; sparks and flashes.
The wraith, totally silent, hit knobs and tapped buttons. The nav panel showed them: the other darts, whole battalions of them, an entire skyful of full-on civil war.
Shot after shot, the dart darting in and out of the path of projectiles; John admiring, despite himself, the agility of the pilot's manoeuvres; chaotic veerings; and then the sick surge of falling right out of the third dimension.
And flipping back into it, the wraith screaming now, John screaming, the very walls of the dart screaming and writhing and clutching at John's hands. John hurtled into the cockpit; up was down and down was up; the wraith whirled round and snarled, and then it too flew back and hit the nav panel, its belt ripping off in clouds of pollen. The wraith grabbed hold of a lever; John tumbled against its chest; more screaming, the walls collapsing inwards and ballooning outwards, everything rippling and scorching, "shit, crap", him scrabbling for purchase on the pilot's coat, wraith limbs flailing, as the dart hurtled forwards into gravity.
That they had survived was a miracle.
No, not a miracle. John, crouched on foreign sand, recalled the wraith's claw around that lever. An anti-gravitational device. An emergency flotational counter-pull. The dart had fallen from the stars but its passengers had only crashed from the height of maybe one tall ladder.
So here he was, at the top of a mountain on a strange planet, on an island with no habitation or water or shelter, bruised but breathing; thirsty and hungry and tired, but alive.
Dawn broke as suddenly as had dusk. It was signalled by no birds.
John looked at the pink ocean. There was a spell of cool light but already the heat of day bleated into the atmosphere.
He reset his watch to 0:00 island time. He tapped his earpiece and listened to the nothingness. Then he put on his sunglasses and considered his situation.
The lip of the crater was an excellent tactical position. It was high up, assailable only via a laborious climb, yet descent would be fast. Visibility was superb: 360 degrees of horizon, an entire hemisphere of sky and space. More importantly, John could survey all of the island on three sides. The fourth side was occupied by the crater, a wide round funnel with steep sides. At its bottom, there bubbled lime-green slime and purple effervescence. Its rim was encrusted with bile-yellow residue and stank of sulphur. John calculated that it would take the wraith around one hour to ascend to the top, and at least another half-hour to circumambulate the crater, and it would be in full view of John and in range of his firearms the entire time.
The island spread out below. John faced the horizon from which the sun had risen. He decided to call that part of the ocean 'east'.
This meant that the crash site was due 'south', and that the bay bitten out of the shore, near to where he had dug his hiding hole, was in the 'west'. He peered through his binoculars at the stretch of coastline further 'north' of the western hole; it was fringed by an obstacle course of smoking fumaroles. In a flight of fancy, fuelled by the energy of a new day and the certainty of imminent rescue, he decided to call that trail the 'Devil's Run'.
He decided to name the rocky outcrop on the eastern shore 'the promontory', and he decided to name the volcano 'the volcano'. The clump of stunted shrubs to the north of the promontory was the 'copse', and the stunted shrubs could be supremely ironic 'trees'.
Ensconced in the middle of the copse, seated with its back against one of the trees, was the wraith.
John ate half a powerbar, swallowed some water, positioned himself belly-down, and studied the wraith through the binoculars.
The wraith sat very still for a very long time.
It was pale green of complexion. Two gashes, like the gouged-out F-holes of a viola, flanked its snout. Two strips of wispy beard hung down from its chin, growing from the corners of its maw. The wraith's visage was sweatless and expressionless.
As the planet rotated towards its sun and as John's shadow was sucked into a sliver underneath his feet, it became clear that with all its strategic advantages, the mountain top was, in fact, a disastrous location.
There was no food. There was no water. It was true that John had seen neither food nor water anywhere else on the island but the volcano's edge seemed yet a notch drier and harsher. Worst of all, there was no shelter. The only shelter on the entire island was the clump of trees, and that was occupied by the wraith. There wasn't even any sweat; all sweat evaporated as soon as it left John's pores, and he knew what that meant. That meant dehydration.
Soon, the sand was so hot that he couldn't sit down but had to keep walking in his rubber-soled shoes; and after a while, even those were beginning to cook.
He tried to spit onto the underside of his shoe to see if the spit would fizz but he couldn't manage to collect enough saliva in his mouth. His piss was dark brown and reeked; it burnt his cock as it came out in drops of hot acid. He was losing moisture faster than he was producing it; his lips were frayed; his throat was raw.
There were fissures at intervals along the lip of the crater. Volcanic dust blew off the top like freckles off a face.
He spent some time sawing away at the hems of his trousers and fashioning a makeshift turban out of the strips of cloth. Still, by the afternoon, his skin popped with blisters.
The wraith did not stir once from its lair.
8:00 hours, and still the sun was fiery and the sky empty. No sail broke the monotony of the horizon. No cloud floated through the relentless blue.
The sky pressed blue against the top of John's head.
At 9:45 hours, the wraith reached into the folds of its long black coat and withdrew an object. John twisted the lenses of his binoculars. The object was a translucent cylinder, about as thick and as long as a test tube, with a plunger-like attachment at its open end. It looked like some sort of syringe.
The wraith unstoppered the plunger and raised the syringe to its mouth. John sprawled in the sand, the binoculars pressing into his eyes. He drank in the sight of the drinking wraith. He looked at the wraith's throat working. He looked at the trickle of water dribbling from the corner of the wraith's lips. The drops slithered along one of the wispy beards and hung, trembling, at its tip.
John shook his water canister. A few mouthfuls sloshed forlornly against the aluminium.
He watched very carefully, to note where the wraith put the syringe after finishing with it. The gadget was secreted in a barely-visible pocket or slit, near the brute's left hip.
He also noted that the wraith did not appear to have a life signs detector about him. And, more importantly, there was no sign of a stun gun.
Why was there no wraith back-up? John remembered: Didn't wraith telepathy work only within one solar system? Did the absence of wraith ships mean that there were no other wraith within the orbit of this sun?
John glanced up into the shapeless blue. The sky gave nothing away.
The wraith was sheltered in the copse of trees. He, John, was exposed on the top of the mountain, like a bug on a slide.
If he wanted to live beyond the next morning, in this unearthly heat, under this pitiless sun, he needed more to drink than the pittance in his canister. He had to get hold of that water syringe.
Also: He had to drive the wraith from the shade. He had to get rid of that wraith.
The beast was up in an instant.
"Wraith!" yelled John. "Listen to me, wraith!"
He'd rolled half-way down the mountain and now knelt on its sloped flank, P-90 trained on the copse.
"My people are coming!" he hollered. "A ship's on its way. If you want to save your skin, wraith, you'd better do what I say!"
The wraith stood, its paws twisted into fists. Its slime-hued skin glistened in the shade.
"Move away from the trees! I know you've got a water purifying device. Leave that under the trees!"
The wraith threw back its head and burst out laughing.
John flinched, but only for a second. "It's your choice!" he shouted. "You play nice, and I'll tell my people to spare you. If not--"
"Nobody is coming!" roared the wraith. Its guttural voice was harsh in the sere air. "Do not taunt me with your foolery! Nobody is coming, and I know this, and you know this!"
How? thought John. How do you know this?
"And it is not my choice!" bellowed the wraith. "It is your choice. You can attack me and I shall overcome and feed on you. Or you can stay on your mountain until you are so weak that you cannot lift one hand, and I shall come and feed on you there."
"Fuck you!" yelled John.
The wraith roared and made as if to run at him. John pulled the trigger and emptied another round.
But it had been a feint. The wraith had retreated into the copse. John shot uselessly at the knotted foliage. Then he clambered back up the mountain.
He tried to think but the heat burned into his head. He felt dizzy from the run.
What had the wraith meant when it said 'nobody is coming'?
"Shit," John said. "Shit and crap. Atlantis? Where the fuck are you?" He ripped the earpiece off his head and stared at it. He scratched at its little pockmarked face with his thumbnail. He shook the headset, pulled it, hit it against his gun. He dug around in his trouser pockets for a paperclip, something to twist around in its tiny screws. What he found was:
A mess hall token. Two crumpled-up pieces of paper: the ink was smudged but they looked like remnants of long-forgotten memos. A safety pin. A ballpoint pen with a cracked casing. An old candy of some kind, covered in lint and glued to the inside seam by repeat washings.
Twisting the safety pin around in the comm's screws had no effect besides that of snapping the pin in half.
At 14:00 hours, night came with blessed shadow. The crater cast a putrid glow.
So the night was as long as the day. Fourteen hours under the naked sun. Fourteen hours in the shadowed darkness. He fiddled with the watch to adjust its rhythm to a 28-hour beat.
Fires danced in the dark. He didn't know if they were hallucinations, caused by hypothermia, hunger, thirst, or if they were the mind games of the wraith.
In the noon of night, Rodney, sitting cross-legged on the sand, appeared to John. "Rodney," John said, his tongue thick and dry. Rodney said something in return but John couldn't understand what it was, and when he reached out, the air quivered and the other was gone.
By sun-up, fire rummaged in John's guts. He felt sick and feverish. He shook four painkillers into his palm but his throat wouldn't swallow them; it was too dry. He cut his thumb with his knife and sucked on the blood. It was sluggish and tasted of rancid rust. He forced the tablets down.
The swallowing made him dizzy and nauseous. He spent minutes dry-retching. Vomiting would be the death of him. All that lost moisture. Above all, he must not vomit.
How long could a man survive without water? Was it six days? Ten? And weren't you supposed to drink at least one pint every hour in cases of extreme heat? John tried to remember survival training but all that came to mind was the image of a waterfall; oh, all that sparkling water.
He peered through the binoculars. The wraith was in the copse, sitting against a tree trunk, its heavy-booted legs stretched out in front. Its hair was lanker than it had been. It slipped its claws into the coat pocket, withdrew the syringe and drank. Almost, John thought, it did so ostentatiously, flaunting its treasure, knowing that John was watching greedily.
He dug around in his pockets, took the mess-hall token and sucked on it, and then his fingers touched on something else.
John pulled it out. It was an airbead.
"Hah," he said.
The airbead was the size and shape of a kidney bean. It was semi-squashy between his fingers which meant that it was good for at least another thirty hours of air. He looked at it, and then at the ocean, and then at the copse. He had an idea. He had a Plan B.
First, he tanked up on energy. He ate another half of a powerbar and washed it down with a droplet of sunshine-warm water. He tucked his sunglasses into his trouser pocket and adjusted the knife on his belt. And then he buried his equipment.
It seemed the logical thing to do.
He dug a pit and put the firearms inside, wrapped in field dressing, and also his tac vest and his near-empty water canister. he did it carefully and methodically. He even excavated two decoy holes, a few yards apart.
All the time, he told himself the stuff would weigh him down in the water, and the weapons would suffer. Curtains of light hurried from left to right. John rubbed his eyes.
He dug out the old candy and sucked on it until thick syrup gurgled down his shredded throat. He tore off a thread from his trousers and chewed it into a pulped knot. The nylon rope from his vest he coiled around his waist.
He checked that the wraith was still in the copse, and ran down the western slope.
The air was a smidgeon cooler on the beach, and a whole lot fresher. John tore his shoes off and tied them around his neck. His feet were white, with black leather marks across the toes. He tucked his sunglasses into his trouser pocket, hitched fast the knife, and slung the binoculars around his neck.
He took out the airbead, wedged it into the rear recesses of his mouth and bit down on it with his wisdom teeth, hard.
And then, quick, into the sea before the wraith smelled him.
He plunged into the waves and submerged. The water was tepid and murky. Its wetness was a shock.
Salt clotted his ear holes. Beams of sun waved in the aqueous void; grit and motes floated by; everything was green. The air from the bead filled his bronchi with a musty gas.
He met no fish.
He swam out beyond the line of surf, then turned and skirted the island's contours. At intervals, he came up to check his position, emerging only to eye-level. His head skittered; his limbs trembled but he kept going.
He made his way all round the south end of the island, past the crash site, then struck back up north until he was on a level with the copse.
There he stayed, treading water.
The wraith wasn't there.
"Hah," said John again, surfed in on a glassy roller, darted up the beach, and threw himself onto the sand beneath the trees. The shade was blue and delicious.
He pulled out his knife and laid it at the ready, and then tried to climb up one of the trees but they weren't real trees, of course, only stunted shrubs; they couldn't support his weight. He looked around for the water purifier but, of course, found nothing. The shrubs had spiky fronds and flimsy squat trunks, covered in a fibrous substance. John tried scratching some of it off. Then he spied small hard green fruit in the foliage.
He didn't stop to think. He tore the fruit off the branches, one by one. Their skin was smooth; he bit right through it. Inside, the flesh was hard and bitter but he gulped it all down, all of it, even the sharp little seeds at the centre. His starved throat worked in spasms. Ember nuts. He called the fruit 'ember nuts'.
He shoved fruit after fruit into his mouth, and then he noticed a movement in the corner of his eye.
There was the wraith, striding towards the copse in a tall halo of dust and sand and sun, coattails flapping, hair streaming. And dangled loose against its side: John's P-90.
But it didn't aim the gun at John. No, it came right to the edge of the copse, lifted the gun high above its head in both hands, and then it snapped the gun in two and dropped the broken halves onto the ground.
With a ferocious cry, John sprang at the wraith and drove his combat knife into the brute's throat. He thrust the blade upwards and twisted, serrated edge outermost, then yanked it out and jumped out of reach.
The wraith grabbed for its own wound with floundering hands. It reeled, spun, staggered.
Then it fell on the sand with a thud.
In a flash, John was down next to it and felt along its left hip for the slit in the coat. There! -- his hand slipped in. The pocket was deeper than expected; it swallowed his arm up to the elbow but then he had it: the syringe.
It was empty.
John tore the rope from around his waist and bound it round the wraith's wrist in fumbled haste, tied a pile hitch, tugged and pulled until he had yanked the wraith's legs around, and knotted the remainder of the rope around the creature's ankles.
He inspected the syringe. It was smooth, warm to the touch; he tried to get the plunger off but it was sealed shut by some unfamiliar mechanism. He shook the device, turned it upside down.
He jogged down to the sea. He held the object up to the light, ran his fingers up and down its shaft. Then he had it: there was a thin seam up the side of the syringe, barely visible against the sun.
"Human!" bellowed the wraith, in its deep harsh voice. "Do not wet the vial!"
John spun around. "Revived already, have you?" His own voice was hoarse, no more than a croak. He swallowed dry spit and tried again. "I've got your water, so screw you."
"Do you know what it is that you hold in your hand?" The wraith was creeping along the sand on its belly, hands and feet still bound.
"Sure I know what it is."
"Do not put the vial in the water!" growled the wraith.
"And why not?" said John.
"This vial cannot be brought into contact with salt water."
The waves frothed around John's knees.
"You're talking shit," John said. "This is a water purifier. It's a desalination device, so of course it's going to be okay with salt water. Because that's what it does, you asshole: it takes salt water and removes the damn salt from it."
The wraith laughed a hideous snakeskin laugh. "This vial is not a salt water purifier."
"I saw you drink," John said calmly. He lifted the syringe demonstratively and got ready to plunge it into the sea.
"Stop, you fool human!" roared the wraith. " Did you not see the dart disintegrate?"
"Oh yeah?" said John. But his hand stopped mid-plunge. Sun flashed off the dart-like skin of the syringe.
"Give me the vial. It is of no use to you."
All of a sudden, the wraith loomed tall on the shore. It had wrenched the ties from its wrists and ankles, torn right through them with inhuman strength. All that bullshitting had been a trick! To stall John, to keep him there until that demon had freed itself!
John took two steps backward. A wave struck the back of his knees. He tightened his fist around the handle of his knife. "Back off!" he said. "Or I will drop this in the water!" He lifted the syringe.
To his surprise, the wraith did back off. It didn't follow John into the surf. It stayed on the shore, hair waving in the evening breeze.
It was the wraith's reticence, more than anything else, that convinced John that there was something to its claim.
He peered at the device. "So how do I get water out of this, if not through sea water?"
"You cannot. Only I can."
"Is that right? Is there maybe some special gene you need to activate this damn thing? Tell me the trick or you're not getting it back. You'll die of thirst! Because even wraith need to drink, don't they?"
"You will die of thirst," said the wraith. "I have poured all your own water into the crater."
"You son of a wraith bitch!" yelled John.
"I have also consecrated your other firearm to the lava. And your outer garment."
"My vest?" croaked John. "With all my stuff in it?"
"Also your radio. Everything I found."
John staggered. The planet turned underneath his feet. "Who cares? It doesn't matter. I'm being rescued soon."
"No. You are not. There is nobody nearby. You will not be rescued soon."
Shit. The telepathy. What did the wraith know that he didn't know?
"Have you been talking to your hive, have you?"
"No." The wraith's face winced, as if in pain. "There is no hive. There is nobody within reach."
"Right," said John.
The wraith had wasted his water. The wraith had destroyed his vest. The wraith had taken everything he needed for survival.
John had left his stuff behind, and that had been a huge, a phenomenal mistake. How could he have been so blind? Was it the wraith? Had it played with his mind? Or was it the heat and the stifling, aching thirst?
"Right," said the wraith.
"Pass me the vial."
If the wraith had the vial, the wraith would have water but he, John, would have nothing. He would die of thirst.
If the wraith didn't kill him first.
It was the only bargaining chip he had left.
"You say there's nobody nearby?" said John slowly.
"That is so."
"None of my people? But none of your lot, either?"
The wraith snarled in response.
"How do I know you're not lying?"
The wraith said nothing, just lifted half its welted lip in a sneer.
Waves crashed wildly on the rocks further south. Everything teetered. The sun was hot on the back of John's neck.
"In that case," said John and gagged on a dry swallow. "If I give you this, you'll have the water. But..." Blurred spots fizzed in front of his eyes. "...you won't have the food."
Surf heaved against John's legs and sucked his feet into the numb sand.
"Because," said John. He felt sick. "Because I am the food." He added, in a quick rush, "And I propose a deal."
"I do not accept any deal," boomed the wraith. But it stood on the shore, not moving.
"You do whatever you do to make drinking water in this device, and you share that water. With me. And in return, I will. I.
The wraith's hair blew in the rising breeze.
"In return, I'll let you feed on me."
Feel the ocean. Feel the sand whirl under your bare feet.
"In bits," John said. "You feed on me in increments."
The wraith hissed.
"Do you understand, wraith? Do you understand?"
"Naturally, I understand."
"Because if I die, you die! I'm all the food there is for you on this island! And..." Talking fast now. "And if it's true that it'll be a while before rescue comes, then you need me. Then you can't afford to kill me all at once. Do you understand me on this, wraith?"
"Yes, of course. You are offering fealty."
"You are offering fealty, as do the devotees of our hive."
"Jesus." John remembered the wraith worshippers on a hive ship, long ago. "Your human slaves."
"They are not slaves."
"Yeah, right." John felt nauseous.
"They give themselves voluntarily for feeding."
"But they die!"
"They will die, anyway. All humans die."
"Eventually! Eventually, yes, we die! But before that, we live. That kind of existence, being fed on, you can't call that living." He stopped. He didn't know why he was allowing himself to be drawn into this. You couldn't argue with a wraith. You couldn't talk sense to a wraith. You could only strike deals. And hope for the best.
And I will live, he thought. I will survive.
"Are you offering fealty voluntarily?" said the wraith.
John thought of his water canister, his powerbars, his broken gun, his medi-kit, his radio, his dreadful, fatal mistake.
The surf reeled. John stepped up and out onto dry land.
O MY BRETHREN MY SIBLINGS WHERE ARE YE ALL WHERE ARE YOUR VOICES AMONG THE SIDEREAL WINDS O ALL IS SILENT THE SILENCE PRESSES UPON MINE SKULL O ONTO THE INNER BOWL OF MINE SKULL THE INNER LINING OF MINE SKULL THE HARD MEMBRANE OF MINE THOUGHTS O ALL MILLING ALONE NOW THOUGHTS WITH NOWHERE TO GO O WHEREFORE ALLOTH CHOQUE CHINCHAY OPHLUCCI WHEN WILL MY HUSK EVER TREAD YON PATHS MORE O MY LOST BRETHREN LOST TO MY CALLINGS
"Kneel in obeisance."
The wraith had tucked the empty syringe back into the folds of its black coat. A thin thread of spittle trailed from one of its sharp upper teeth.
"I'm not kneeling," said John.
"It is the custom."
"No, it isn't. Not for me it isn't."
"You will fall. It is practical if you are not in a standing position to begin with."
Dots of light danced between the fronds. John dropped his gaze to the wraith's feeding hand, large against the wraith's belt, impossibly large.
"Okay. But then you've got to kneel, too."
The wraith sank to its haunches without demur. Its tiger eyes roamed over John's chest in a hungry circle.
John stayed standing. "I know how this works," he said to the wraith below him.
He didn't, of course. He didn't know a thing. He was floundering on a veneer of reason.
"First," he said, "I'll take off my shirt." He took off the binoculars. He pulled his T-shirt over his head. It scraped against burnt skin. His torso was strange and pale. He took a long time, folding his shirt, settling it on the sand, hanging the binoculars over a tree branch. His skin vibrated in the naked air.
"And remember. No full-on feeding. Go in small doses."
The wraith stared up at him out of inscrutable slitted pupils.
"And the enzyme," John added. "Don't forget the enzyme." I need that enzyme.
"You shall not die," said the wraith. "You shall guide my hand. Then I shall place my hand on you. I shall release the helpmeet, the tonic of resilience. Then I shall feed."
"Okay," said John. "Helpmeet." The ocean rumbled in crazy loops.
"My name's John, actually. John Sheppard. Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
The wraith's feeding hand lay in its lap, held fast by the wraith's other fist. The nails shone green-black, their cruel points curved over the pads of the fingers. The central talon was sheathed in black. Hard cartilage coated the back of the middle finger all the way down to the knuckle. On the back of the hand, there were thick rivers of arteries.
"What's your name? Not that you'll tell me. You guys never tell anyone your names. Still, though, be nice to know who's actually sucking the life out of me."
The wraith hissed; drops of rotted saliva sizzled into the sand.
"Okay, okay." John dropped to a tall kneeling pose, knees pressed into the sand, thighs at right angles to calves. "I'll think of a name for you later."
"Eight breaths," said the wraith, now just above John's eye-level. "I shall feed for eight breaths."
"What's that, about half a minute? Thirty seconds? Great. Whatever. I can keep count. Thirty down to one."
"Now guide my hand." The wraith held out its right hand.
John touched the wraith's wrist. The wraith's pulse was wild and strong, the skin slithery and surprisingly hot. John lifted the wrist. Slow, he told himself, slow. This was no worse than being at the dentist. Root canal treatment. Drilling without the anaesthetic. No, with the anaesthetic: he was going to have the enzyme.
He placed the wraith's palm against his own bare chest.
John's rib cage instinctively rebelled. It knew what was going to happen. The very hairs on his chest recoiled.
The wraith flicked a finger to move John's dog tags out of the way.
The wraith's pulse thrummed against John's solar plexus. The wraith hand's feeding mouth pressed against his skin.
"Now," said the wraith, "I shall inject the helpmeet." Its voice sounded starved, pent-up.
A drop of moisture formed in the dip below John's breastbone, leaking from the wraith hand's slavering maw.
Then the mouth opened.
Hot. It was hot. Searing. A rotating heat against his heartbeat, in the centre of his torso. The palm of the wraith had its own life; it was an inner cavity rimmed with squirming lips. The hand spread across John's chest, across John's whole body, it covered the entire sky. It palpated John's chest in peristaltic spasms; it gripped his skin; and then his flesh ripped open.
He didn't scream.
He could stand this.
He could withstand this.
This was pain. Only pain.
This was nothing.
Nothing, his brain gibbered, nothing nothing nothing.
The world burst into light; he must have had his eyes shut; his sensations swayed without anchorage.
Thirty, his brain gasped at him. Twenty-nine. He tried to hold onto the counting, onto the numbers, just as his hand was trying to hold on, gripping the wraith's wrist. Twenty-seven, twenty-six. The wraith's wrist throbbed thickly. Globules of viscous stuff surged under its skin, surged into John. He focused on that as well, on the enzyme pumping out of the wraith's system into his. He tried to latch some form of rational thought onto that, onto the mechanics of that, the capillary logic of it.
The numbers pulled him through a sea of pain. Numerical buoys.
His reason was scrambled but a strange power surged in his blood. I can do this. Seventeen. I can do anything.
Sludge pressed against the back of his left eyeball. He could hurl boulders, leap the volcano in a single bound.
Blood streaming down his flanks. The claws in deep; deep to the hilt.
He couldn't stand this after all.
Nothing could stand this.
His scream was ripped from his guts. An endless scream, straight from his soul.
The scream slashed his throat as it tore through. It rent the air. It rent him in two.
In three, in four. There wasn't enough breath for so much scream.
His mind vortexed down into a chaos of pain.
A thousand pores exploded into sweat on his body. A million cells convulsed. But it wasn't the agony of the flesh that unpicked the seams of his being. It was the white roar of utter existential terror, the incomprehensible horror of life running in reverse.
In the middle of panic, a number floated.
He clung onto that.
One. One. One.
A sliver appeared at the edge of insanity.
Like the rim of a world just before sunrise. Jumper wheeling at an angle to the asymptote.
All of a sudden, it was over.
Blackness swamped his edges. But he didn't faint.
He didn't faint.
His knees had worn grooves into the sand; they chafed raw against his trousers. He was upright, though; he hadn't collapsed, just slumped forward, leaning into the wraith, his mouth open against the wraith's throat.
The wraith's head was tipped back. A long hiss vibrated through its adam's apple.
John moved back heavily. Gravity pulled at his body. Underneath it all, there coursed a golden ferocity: the enzyme.
The wraith shook its mane and wrenched its hand from John's grip.
John sank into the sand. His knees buckled into broken joints. An eclipse clouded his left-ward vision.
A hot salve chilled his flesh. He blinked with his good right eye. The wraith was hunched over him. Its tongue swiped across John's skin, into the cleft down his sternum, into the corona of wounds around that central gash. One, two, three, four, five, six of them. One wound for each wraith claw and one for the feeding mouth.
Then they were all closed up.
The island heaved underneath him.
The wraith stood up in a creaking of leather. It licked its palm. Its tongue was sinuous and pink, longer and thinner than human tongues.
Relief and torpor dimmed John's vision. He fell into unconsciousness, with the sound of the sea in his ears.
John's right eye focused on the syringe that had materialised before his face in the sand. He watched his hand arc across to grasp it, watched his fingers pull the plunger as he slid his thumb along the seam -- it slid out easily. He closed his eyes as the first drop squeezed out. He lay on his back and let the water drip into his open mouth.
It was tepid like tea.
All that hydrogen. All that oxygen. Gorgeous, gorgeous solvent.
It filled him out. Even the hairs inside his nostrils began to moisten.
"Is there more?" He turned around.
The wraith was hunkered down in the shade, two trees away.
"No. That is all."
It had been barely a one-shot glass. Already, the need for more pulled at John's throat.
"Can't you make more?"
"I cannot make more than this amount at one time. There will be more later. This is your share."
John touched his bare chest. The gashes had puckered into raw red scars, five points in an arc above a vertical mark in the centre. The central scar was surrounded by fine lines, like the stretch marks around an anus.
"So," said John. His mind was dazed; his thoughts wobbled. "Is that it then? You give me a thimbleful, and I let you rip the life out of me in return?"
"You offered yourself voluntarily."
"Oh, shut up." Something churned in John's guts. He remembered the signal mirror, gone forever; it would have shown him how many years he had lost. He ran his hands over his face, over his stubbled chin, his burnt flaking nose. "Anyway, it's only until rescue gets here."
"Rescue will not arrive for some time."
"Well, maybe your rescue isn't arriving for some time. Which is a good thing because I'm not too keen on your rescue. But my rescue is on its way."
"You need not fear the hive. We do not kill our fealty devotees."
"That's what you say. And I'm not your damn slave. Try and understand that, okay?" John struggled to sit up.
"Your rescue is not on its way."
"Yeah, yeah, so you keep saying. But how would you know that? You're not in telepathic connection with my team by any chance, are you?"
"I know this," said the wraith and bared its teeth in a ghastly grimace, "because I set a decoy destination."
"You cannot fathom this."
"Try me." The tree bark scraped against John's bare back. "I'm a pilot."
The wraith looked at him with its unreadable eyes. "I set the hyperspace co-ordinates for a certain planet. This planetary destination left the space trace but it was not the intended destination. I changed the co-ordinates at the last nano-breath. This was a trick to divert the rival hive."
Sun glinted through the fronds.
"Let me get this straight," said John. "You set the co-ordinates for this hellforsaken planet?"
"I did not. The decoy destination sends pursuers into the whorls of perihelic fire at the universe's edge. I set the real co-ordinates for an outpost thriving with human fodder and hive activity."
"You're either lying or your navigation sucks, wraith. Because I'm not seeing any thriving outposts anywhere around here. If there are thriving outposts there, they're miles away, across this blasted ocean. If it weren't for your stupid little space tricks, we wouldn't be in this damn mess and we wouldn't be totally and utterly fucked."
"We are in this damn mess," and the gravel in the wraith's voice darkened, "because of you, human. You boarded the dart without permission. You confused the excess weight ratio. You jolted my body just as the co-ordinates were being set. The input slipped and the dart jumped to an unforeseen destination."
"I did not take us here!"
"Yes," said the wraith. "You did." It gathered up its syringe, brushed the sand off its coat and betook itself to another part of the copse. "As you would say," it added over its shoulder, "this is fuck."
John stared at the wraith's back. Then, despite himself, he laughed, a short sharp release of breath. "Yeah, you're right there. This is totally fuck."
He put his T-shirt back on and got to his feet. The air wavered in ginger mirages.
"Well," he said. "I'd better go find myself something to eat. And oh." He turned back briefly after stepping into the glare of the beach. "I've thought of a name for you. You can be called Ken."
Food on the island was small, and you had to eat a lot of it to take the edge off hunger. But there wasn't a lot of it so the edge was never taken off. Hunger turned into pain, and then into normality, a constant visceral cramp, a dizziness behind John's right eye.
He harvested the bitter little ember nuts with care, one branch at a time. He ate from each tree in rotation. And then he foraged.
He hadn't taken notice of anything before, except as cover or as obstacle, but now he combed the terrain step by step. He crouched on the sand and ran his hands along the surface. He was alert to every hint of shade in the black mica sand, every hump interrupting the foaming surf. He found some flora down in the ebb-tide, floating in the shallows of the western shore: a tough rubbery weed, kelp-like, smooth-skinned with round beans attached at intervals to supple stalks. The beans popped when squeezed by fingernails. Inside each, curled a fibrous pulp.
The pulp made John gag but he forced it down. Its texture was somewhere between fairy floss and lint, its taste vomitous. It stuck to his gullet. There was nothing to wash it down with.
He called the plant 'seaweed', and the beans 'seabeans'.
He tried drying the rest of the plant on the sands to render the stalks edible but they shrivelled to dark hard strings.
By the eastern promontory -- John renamed it 'Sunrise Promontory' --, a kind of limpet clung to the underwater rock. John prised it off with his knife. Each shiny black shell held a button-sized gobbet of flesh. John swallowed the globs raw at first, mere jelly-baby rations but meat, glorious meat. The taste was intense and fishy. Later, he learned to cook them over the fumaroles of the Devil's Run, in their shells until the insides boiled.
He called the limpets 'ladybugs'.
He roamed the shores and the volcano's edge, looking for the remains of his gear. A trail of troubled sand led him to a set of gaping holes. He peered into the roiling miasma at the bottom of the crater. He found nothing. Nothing was left, not even a shred of aluminium foil.
He soon learned that it was foolish to move away from the copse's shade during the day. The skin peeled off his arms in transparent strips; his lips cracked and frayed. He swore that he would never again wear anything so inane as a flimsy and short-sleeved T-shirt on off-world missions. Once, he fainted near the Devil's Run and came to, disoriented, his cheeks bloated, his pulse erratic and fevered. After that, he stopped going out during sunlight hours.
Dusk brought swarms of little insects that covered John in bites. He called them 'sandfleas'. When he caught one, it turned out to have eleven legs, not six.
He ceased to hear the surf.
He discovered that the sulphur-encrusted soil from the volcano's edge could be turned to mud by dousing it with sea water, and that this kept the sandfleas at bay. So every few dawns he climbed the volcano to fetch soil, then made it into mud and, in time for sunset, smeared his exposed skin with it -- his arms, his neck and cheeks, his ankles.
He was a constant hunter and gatherer, always keeping a look-out, underwater, overwater. One day, he plunged naked into the surf and struck out for the horizon. He swam in bold long strokes. Beams of sunlight slanted through the waves.
After a while, the island diminished to a hump in the distance, benign and impartial. A thin vertical column rose from the volcano. The view was strangely compressed, made of monocular vision.
Something slimy brushed John's leg. It was a big amorphous creature, gibbous, tentacled. On earth, John would have called it a jellyfish. It was the first creature larger than a coin that John had encountered on this planet. He made it ashore, clutching the mass of blubber to his chest. It didn't sting.
The taste of the medusa's flesh made him retch. But at the centre of its gelatinous mass, there was a kernel of knotted-up organs. This had an unexpected sweet taste, brackenish and rich.
John called the jellyfish 'jellyfish' and the edible centre 'oyster heart'.
He scoured the sky for a sign. He probed the horizon with his binoculars. There was never anything, not from off-world, not from in-world.
His wrist watch counted out the hours. There was a fourteen-and-a-half hour day, and a fourteen-and-a-half hour night: equatorial conditions. Dawn and dusk were short windows of bearability, and a lot had to be compressed into barely forty-five minutes each: the harvesting of seabeans; the gathering and roasting of ladybugs; the hunting of jellyfish; the collecting and preparation of anti-sandflea mud; the digging of a well near the copse, with his hands, until it occurred to John that he was probably sitting on a bed of subterranean lava, that he was unlikely to hit any water table, and that the only source of fresh water on this island would be rain from above.
The sky, though, remained forever blue and bereft of cloud.
John had no idea how the trees survived.
The nights were warm and dreamless. He tried not to think of his team, even though it was hard during the black hours of wheeling stars. But there was no point to it; there was no point in picturing Rodney at his simulations or Teyla, urging him on with a quiet voice, or Ronon, ready to kick wraith ass. They would be doing their thing and he, John, had to do his. And his thing was survival.
When the sun rose, refracting off a million waves, he ran down to the sea and washed the mud off. He needed his clothes to protect himself when out and about but during the hottest hours, slouched in the shade, he draped them over a tree to air and sat, with limp air cascading down his naked skin and sweat evaporating from his armpits and navel.
Ken the wraith never stirred from its side of the copse. It avoided exposure to the sun. It never bathed. It never took off its long leather coat nor its thick leather boots -- if they were leather. They looked like leather, and they creaked like stirrups against saddles but who knew what these things were really made of, some artificial fibre, some sentient material even? John started to wonder about that, why the wraith wouldn't take them off, if they provided some sort of life-support system, à la Darth Vader. He couldn't remember the science team on Atlantis ever mentioning anything of the sort.
As far as John could tell, the wraith didn't sleep, either, but sat with its lidless eyes open to the night air. He never managed to catch it making the water but every morning, a syringe of luke-warm water was stuck in the sand next to John's head, with the top fifth skimmed off by Ken for itself.
When the sun was at its height, the shade turned into a splash of purple directly under the trees. Nothing moved, only the ponderous waves.
Ringlets of heat rose from the ground.
When the evening breeze came in from the south-east, John sawed off a stretch of rope, bent the broken safety pin into a hook, worked it through the frayed end of the rope and waded into the sea.
He started on Sunrise Promontory. He spent hours dangling his bait -- a de-shelled ladybug -- from its outermost rock. He tried various locations, and the next evening he tried again, thinking that the fish might follow some unknown diurnal migration pattern. He swam along the island's coast, knife between his teeth, but all he saw were glinting motes and waving seaweeds.
He knotted the rope into a net of sorts and set traps around the rocks, and further out. He wished he had a lamp to use as a lure but his watch face had stopped lighting up, and his flash light was at the bottom of a cesspit, and no fish ever, ever bit.
"Do not expend your energy," said Ken the wraith, and John turned around, startled, half-immersed in surf.
"You must conserve your health." The wraith had actually ventured forth from its habitual place by the trees to stand near the edge of the tide in the dusk. "If you are too weak, you will not survive the feeding."
John drew in a breath. "Know what, Ken? You're not the only one worried about feeding. And you have all the food you need right here." He pointed a wry hand at his own chest. "But guess what? I don't. I've got to find food."
"What do you seek in the ocean?"
"I'm fishing, Ken. I'm trying to fish."
"There are no fish in this ocean."
"And how would you know that?"
"There is no vertebrate fauna on this planet."
John turned back to the water. "Yeah, right."
"No higher life forms have yet evolved. There are only invertebrates."
John's arm, holding the net, sank. "What are you talking about? Have you been to this planet before?"
"No. But I am cognizant of this fact."
"Hang on. You told me that, in the dart, I jostled you and accidentally changed the co-ordinates so that we landed somewhere unknown!"
"Not unknown. Unexpected. I did not set the co-ordinates for this planet but I did recognise the planet once I was here."
"You just said you'd never been here."
"I recognise it from the position of the stars."
Waves sloshed against the back of John's knees. The wraith stood on the sand, black against black. "The stars?" said John. "You can recognise a planet from the position of the stars? And then you know what kind of life forms it has?"
"Of course. We are aware of all the planets that have a potential to sustain breeding and feeding grounds. This planet will be ready in perhaps ten or thirteen cycles."
"Right." John passed a hand through his beard stubble. "And the stargate? Where is that?"
"There is no stargate here."
"The ancients did not care about planets such as these," said the wraith, and John thought he could detect a note of scorn in its voice. "Nor did they know about all the planets in our care."
"So you mean that this planet is possibly not in the ancients' database?" Which would be bad. Very bad.
"I do not know what the ancients did or did not keep in their databases. You should not expend your energy in useless fishing activities. The hunger grows, and soon it shall be time to feed."
With that, it stalked back into the shade.
John stood in the waist-high water.
Droplets tumbled among the spindrift waves.
John draped his T-shirt on a branch. He slipped the chain of his dog tags over his neck and hung it over the same branch. The scars on his chest were pink and young.
"Okay," he said. "Ken." He took some time over arranging his knees in the sand. "This time," he said, "why don't you make me see things? Distract me. Do your mind game thing."
"I cannot do that," said Ken the wraith, "while feeding at the same time."
John closed his eyes. "Okay," he said. "Do your worst. Thirty seconds, right? And give me some warning. Pump the enzyme into me first, before you start."
The enzyme pulsed into his veins, and he made himself count along. By the time he got to ten, he was sky high. By the time, he got to twenty, suns spun through his blood.
The enzyme was opening him up. It was preparing him for the feast. John had become attuned to the process but his brain was clear and fuzzy at the same time, thoughts at once wading through gel and whizzing through space.
First, there was the handprint, branded onto his breast and opening up a wound.
Then, as the wraith began to enter him, the lips of his wound softened in welcome.
Finally, the wraith's feeding tube, lithe and probing, emerged from the inside of its palm. Insinuating its blunt hot end past the labia of John's wound, enzyme juice oozing down John's chest, snaking in deep, into his existential core, eating him out. And then the overwhelming vacuum suction, the heady rush, the fall into the abyss.
The screams tore out of him in long burning scrolls.
Afterwards, the bliss of survival.
The sheer shocked joy at having come through.
He slumped against the wraith, then collapsed into the sand.
He didn't fall asleep. Just lay in tripped-out stupor while Ken the wraith licked his lesions shut and then departed to fetch water.
John's digestion was shot to hell. He got diarrhoea, and then he got constipation. Bowel movements were rare and painful. He crouched in the shallows on the western shore, one hand in the wet sand, straining and panting. More than once he bled into the water and afterwards worried about infection. Then it occurred to him that perhaps there were no infections on this world for him. If what Ken the wraith had said was true, then there were no mammals here, no complex animal forms at all, and therefore no bacteria to dwell inside complex animal forms.
It was an odd thought, the realisation that microbes, far from primitive, had actually evolved to adapt to highly sophisticated organisms. The tiniest bacillus was as advanced as the humanoid it contrived to kill.
He made himself not check the empty sky. He forced himself not to talk into his non-existent radio. He compelled his mind to stay in the here and now.
For fitness, John ran round the island at a steady trot. He managed to do three rounds every night, keeping the ocean always to his right. He could feel each of his ribs, like the spars on a ship's rump, and by rights he should be so weak as to make running impossible. But it was the enzyme. The enzyme was maintaining his strength.
John turned one of the trees into a calendar. Every morning, first thing, he carved a notch into its bark. He grouped the marks in lots of seven, to approximate earth's week.
Every fifteenth notches, he marked with an X. X for feeding day.
Every two weeks.
And how many years was John losing each time?
Well, he told himself, it's only until rescue gets here.
And when it did? What then? Would it be a hive ship? Or his own team, and how to warn them of the wraith?
the wraith killing him in one fell feed on the spot and ambushing his crew, he left without a radio and with no means of warning them? How could he prevent the wraith from killing him in one fell feed and ambushing his crew? And he, without radio or comm?
These, he decided, were matters to be figured out as and when they arose.
"Why don't you make more water?" John said, after having gulped down his daily ration. "Is it really necessary to keep me on the brink of dying of thirst? You're always telling me to save my strength."
"I, also, am on the brink of extreme thirst," said the wraith, its voice like silt in the dark.
"So why can't you make more of the stuff? And what do you need to make the water, anyway? A special technology activating gene? Because hey, I've got that." John touched the syringe all over, stroked its phallic body, jiggled its pump. Nothing lit up. Nothing hummed into life.
"No, you do not need a gene. You need the elixir of life."
"The elixir of life."
"What elixir of life?"
"You have something like it but your substance will not do."
"The closest human equivalent is the semen that is produced in the scrotal sac of the male. You must have this, for are you not a male?"
John dropped the syringe. "What?"
"The device is of no use to you without the elixir of life."
John's tongue was heavy in his water-wet mouth. "Are you telling me I'm drinking wraith spunk?"
"The alchemy of the vial transmutes our elixir into water. It is an emergency device."
John let his head fall back against the bark of the calendar tree. "So that's why there's never enough water? Because we're dependent on how much of a load you shoot?" He started to laugh in short, high bursts. "And the reason we've got to wait in between rations is because of your re-charge time? And at night when I'm not looking, you sit there and you jerk off? I didn't even know you had..."
But then what did he know? When had John ever paid any serious attention to the ramblings of the science team? They had dissected wraith; they had dismembered their anatomy. John couldn't even begin to imagine a naked body underneath all that leather gear.
Every fifteen notches, John took his threadbare T-shirt off, hung his dog tags over a branch, and knelt in the sand.
It never got easier.
It got easier every time.
His mind accepted the logic of the feedings.
His body revolted with a primeval biological reflex. But his instincts were being conditioned. Already, his skin chafed less at first contact with the wraith's sharp claws.
And his emotions? They, in curdled fractals, huddled in upon themselves and retreated into a null, flat-lined blank.
There was no point in having any emotions about this particular arrangement. It was what had to be, and that was simply it.
But then there was also something else, something deeper, something more vital. There was something that was being sucked out of him that was more than merely the years of his flesh. His life, yes. But what was his life beyond the mere years?
This something wanted to cleave to John; it wanted to cherish him and nourish him. It did not want to be hoovered out of him, piece by screaming piece.
There was an existential anguish to the process, but there was also a strange kind of twisted euphoria.
Because nothing was as intense. Everything else faded into washed-out sepia thereafter. The routine of the island, all his memories, earth, Atlantis. Parachuting, bomb runs, careening through wormholes, dodging space satellites, diving, soaring, puddle jumping. Yes, even that, even the jumper's startled flight.
Nothing came close to the high of the feedings.
Even the screams were a fearless release.
Even the fear. Going right into it, into its heart of horror. Coming out on the other side.
Like descending into hell and coming back. Every single time.
He knew he was having the life sucked out of him. But it didn't feel like that. It felt like cheating death.
It was terrifying.
It felt immortal.
Surveying his world from the lip of the volcano's crater, the evening breeze ruffling his hair and his beard, the horizon flat all around, he was lord of all.
A few grey hairs appeared. They might have appeared, anyway.
The skin of John's arms was leathery brown, and he assumed his face must be, too. His beard was bushy; snarls of it straggled down his throat. His hair was a mane; thick locks curled down his temples and over his ears, and strands of it got caught in his mouth when swimming. He ran his hands over his face and could feel his cheeks sticking out like blades. His lips were bloated with blisters.
The wraith, too, changed in appearance. Its skin faded to a greyish green. Its face was haggard. Its sleek hair had grown matted; its roots showed white; the pink sheen must have been dye. The wraith bound it up into a ponytail, using a length of John's nylon rope. The slime on the wraith's teeth had dried into a lichenous crust.
John squinted into the small rock pool that appeared on Sunset Promontory just after every ebb-tide. It was his only mirror, unquiet and dark.
It was the left eye that totally changed the effect of his face.
It had flooded completely. It was a black almond, no iris visible, no whites. A bubonic beetle of an eye.
He looked out to sea, with insects crawling through his vision. He closed his left eye with his hand: the insects still crawled.
John pulled off his shoes and all his clothes, and slid into the sea.
He swam until the copse was a clump in the distance. He played dead man and floated face upwards. The sun stabbed at his pupils but only one of them squinted. The other, like an open lens, allowed in all the light, every last lumen, and swallowed it all up.
He put his hands over his face.
"What have I become?" he said into his palms.
THE WAY OF THE WELL AND THE SHINING DANCE OF TZ'AB AND THE RINGS OF KURATKA THE BLACK PINS OF THE NETHERWORLD O MY BRETHREN MOTHERS ON FIRE OFF THE SHOULDER OF ORION C-BEAMS GLITTERING IN THE DARK NEAR THE TANNHAEUSER GATE ALL THOSE MOMENTS LOST IN TIME O WHAT IS LEFT WHAT REMAINS IF ONLY HUSK UPON A ROCK IF THE SHINING PATHS ARE LOST IF ALL COMMUNION IS LOST IF ALL IS LOST IF ALL IS
During the hot eye of the night, John woke up.
A voice had woken him. He lay confused for a moment until he realised it had been his own voice, talking to somebody in his sleep.
He turned his face towards the sound of the ocean. The sky was white with stars, and the sea was white with the sky.
There was nobody there, nobody to talk to.
Carved out of the night was a black shape: the silhouette of Ken.
The wraith sat some way away, its head bent back and exposed to the cosmos.
John got up on one elbow. His arm shifted sand. "Ken?" he said.
Waves lapped the shore.
Without turning, the wraith spoke. "There is Kungkarungkara. And there Kuratka. Tayamni-pa above, and the cluster of Sevencross: Denebola, Tauna, the Large Thought, the Small Thought, the Mouthstar, Krittika and Kozaru. And beyond them, the Gate, and the Nebula of the Queen. I wintered there once, and there, Sjostirnith, is the asterism where I hatched."
A wind startled the fronds.
"So you've given all of these stars names?" John said. He hadn't paid much attention to the stars himself. He only scanned the sky for moving objects.
"Alloth, Alnair, Dubne," continued the wraith. "Ophlucci, Pyxis, Choque Chinchay. The Claw. The Sailing Queen. Ship's Berth, with its five jewels: Hokihoshi, the Single Jump, Makali'i, Tz'ab, Azelfafage."
They were like names from a dream.
"Did you make all of these up?" said John.
"Certainly not. All the hives know them."
"You know all of these stars?"
"Of course. The stars, the planets, and all the paths between."
"The paths between?"
"The paths of our ships. The routes of travel." It lifted one hand in an open gesture. "The planets are but way stations. They are not where we live."
John gazed at the wraith. He gazed at the stars.
"How?" he said. "The constellations change depending on where you stand. They're different from every single planet, from every single perspective. And you've never been to this planet before. Have you?"
"Naturally I know all the stars," the wraith said, in its hollow bucket of a voice.
"How? How can you know all their names?"
"The names are only their husks, and the way they look from each planet is immaterial. The planets are but pins of matter. We are not planet-bound. We are not bound to any perspective."
"Aha," said John who didn't think aha at all but whose skin breathed the sand's reflected warmth and who felt languid in the cradle of the night. "So what's that one called?" He pointed. "That one with the lots of small ones to one side?"
The wraith moved in order to follow John's index finger. "That is The Claw."
"The Claw. And that one? Just above the horizon?"
Every star. Every single dot and every shadow of white had a name. The sky was not alien, not to Ken the wraith. The sky was a map.
"And what was that other one you said? The place where you... hatched?"
"Sjostirnith." The wraith formed a circle with thumb and fourth finger, a lens for John's eye. Inside it burned a single white spot.
"So," John said, trickling sand through his fingers, "what does that actually mean? To hatch?"
"You do not know?" The wraith seemed surprised. "This occurs after the final instar when the imago emerges fully-formed from the cocoon."
"Ken? I've got no idea what you're saying."
"This is your language I am speaking, is it not?"
"Yes, but it's kind of technical. It's kind of... biological."
"You are not familiar with the reproductive cycle of our kind?"
"No," said John. "Strangely, I am not familiar with the reproductive cycle of wraith."
"The drone ejaculates spermatozoa into the queen's brood pouch. There they remain until the queen fertilises them with her ovipositor and lays them in the Chamber of Larving. The larvae--"
"Okay, I get it. I get it. No need to go into the details of your weird alien mating rituals."
"I am not an alien," said the wraith. "You are the alien."
"No, I'm not. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm human."
"I had indeed noticed that you were human. I could not feed on you otherwise. But you are not from this galaxy. You are one of the Lantean usurpers. You are not one of our native humans."
"Hey, I'm not an alien."
"On this planet," said the wraith, "we are both aliens."
So John started having conversations with the wraith.
The wraith did not seem averse.
"You said the other night that you know the paths in between the planets," said John. "What did you mean by that?"
"The highways and byways of our journeyings," said the wraith. Its voice was heavy and dream-like in the heat. "The magnetic fields by which we navigate."
"Hang on. You navigate by magnetic fields?"
"Of course. The hive senses the tracks, and the ships translate the sensings through their ganglia to the outer carapace to propel us along the vectors."
"Like migrating birds? You just kind of feel your way through space? Like some kind of space nomad?"
"We can never get lost."
"Well," said John. "You can still get shipwrecked, though."
"It is not good to be on a planet too long." The wraith's voice was taut. John opened his eyes; at once, the heat assaulted them. "Planets are for beasts. They are pins of base matter."
"You should maybe get out more. You know, go for a little exercise. Have a swim. Get out of those hot clothes of yours. You must be rank under there."
"We are not meant to be exposed to the crude elements. We are creatures of space. This is not a regulated environment. The temperature here is extreme."
"Yeah, so I've noticed." But sardonic understatement was lost on the wraith. "So, away from your high-tech bio-ship you just give up and sit there and stew in your own juices, is that it, Ken?"
"We endure," said the wraith. "To survive in intolerable conditions, it is imperative to conserve energy."
"Okay. You just go on conserving, and I'll do all the work. Like finding the food and digging for mud and starving on insect-size rations."
"I know that the nutrition on this island is barely enough to keep you alive. Too much excess energy is wasted by you in collecting this meagre fodder."
"Spare me the false concern for my energy levels, Ken."
"It is not false. For millennia, our hives have husbanded our resources well. We tend to our herds with great care. We do not harvest our crop all at once but allow for regeneration during the cycles of hibernation. We have removed all obstacles to human health and fertility." The wraith's voice changed. "You do not perhaps know this because you are alien to our galaxy."
John looked up sharply. Had he detected a note of irony in the wraith's speech? But no, Ken continued implacably.
"We have obliterated most species of poisonous flora. We have annihilated all large predators, leaving only those that may be used in the nourishment of humans. We protect our herds."
John knew this was nonsense. It had to be nonsense. But at the same time, he couldn't remember encountering any large man-eating animals on any of the planets he'd visited. The only beasts the humans of the Pegasus Galaxy feared were the wraith.
"Humans are unable to survive without the guardianship of the hives. Observe your own example. Your body is riddled with damage."
"Come on, Ken."
The wraith pointed a tired claw. "A scar line circles your neck. There is another scar above your hip, and a large one across your left shoulder, and another one on your right shin. You have also a mark above your left eyebrow where no hair grows. Only recently, you inflicted a cut on yourself, along the back of your hand."
"Oh, and let's not forget the huge gaping holes in my chest." But it was disconcerting. John hadn't realised that the wraith had observed his body so closely.
"The feeding ring is sutured by the healing sap," the wraith said, and to John's heated ears it suddenly sounded vile and glib.
"Is this the sort of horseshit you tell yourselves? Let me tell you something. Guardianship? Everyone in this galaxy lives in constant terror of you! You zoom in without warning, you kill and cull--"
"We cannot come with warning," the wraith interrupted, "or the humans would produce debilitating hormones of anticipation. Only a sudden culling will preserve the purity of the lives to be fed on."
"It is true that some of our kind delight in the taste of wild fear. They like to hunt their quarry..."
"The Runners," John muttered.
"...and to sample the savour of adrenaline. But this is a specialised foible. Such lives are not sustaining in the long term."
Conversations with the wraith tended to do this. They started out as easy chats and ended in anger and revulsion.
John wanted to yell but forced his words to be measured and slow. "You make me sick." He articulated each syllable. "Protecting the herd? Where I come from, we have managed without your so-called protection just fine. We happen to be very good at surviving on our own. We're fantastic at survival!" He grew more heated. "You're the ones that hide away in your artificial space environments and as soon as you get out on an actual piece of land, you can't cope! You're dependent on one single food source, like fucking panda bears, that's what you are, nothing but a glorified panda bear insect, and when there's no human around, you die! I don't call that a great survival skill!"
"You also are dependent on one single source of hydrating fluids. You are dependent on water."
"Fuck you!" John shouted in helpless fury. "Plus you stink!"
"The smell of you, on the other hand," retorted the wraith, "is always exquisite to me."
John would have got up and stormed off but there was nowhere to storm to. The island brooded in ominous silence.
"This," said the wraith who had moved over into John's side of the copse, "is your reproductive organ?"
"Yeah," said John. He was naked. He didn't particularly like the wraith looking at his genitals but then again, he also didn't particularly mind, and at the moment, he was distracted, trying to pull bark fibre out of the top of a tree trunk, to use in the making of a jellyfish net.
The wraith hunkered down in front of John and peered at his crotch.
"Do you mind?" said John. "I mean, I know we've gone way past false modesty but there is actually such a thing as privacy." But then it occurred to him that the wraith probably had no such sense at all. What could privacy possibly mean to a hive mind?
Without warning, the wraith shot out its prehensile tongue and stroked it along John's bare cock.
"Hey!" John yelped and jumped back.
The tongue slipped off.
"What the fuck," said John.
"You use this to mate?" said the wraith as if nothing untoward had occurred.
"Yes, I use it to mate," said John. "So keep your fucking tongue off it, okay?" He looked around for his boxers. They were salt-stiff, hanging from a branch of the calendar tree.
"Human reproduction is inefficient and strange," said the wraith.
"Well, guess what? Wraith reproduction is very strange to me."
"I can oblige by enlightening you."
"You already have," said John. And then, in greater alarm, "No, really, cut that out. Keep your clothes on. Holy shit."
The wraith had moved aside the tails of its leather coat and opened a flap at the front of its trousers to reveal its crotch area.
It didn't have a penis. It had two of them. The twin penes were pink and nude, like new-born tubeworms, hanging loose on either side of a hairless mound. They were scored with the same incisions that marked the wraith's spiracles.
Oh, John definitely should have listened more closely at science debriefings.
"Put that away now, Ken." He grabbed his own boxers and slipped them on with speed.
The wraith smoothly closed its gaping flap. "Is it a hardship for you not having a female here whom to inject with your spermatozoa? Does it sap your energy?"
"Jesus, Ken. What is this, twenty questions?"
"Does not the act of procreational coitus provide a necessary stimulus for humans? That is what keeps you reproducing, is it not? It is a very interesting fact for the hives, and very necessary. It is what enables your continued breeding."
"Can we not talk about this?" said John and eased out the crinkles in his fly. "Much as I'm enjoying this little chat about the birds and the bees--"
"There has been speculation that the reproductive drive has weakened among your race. Our memories show that humans produced a far greater number of young in the past but that in recent times, fertility has decreased. Far fewer offspring have been hatched during the last two and three awakenings."
"Maybe that's because you're killing them all. Maybe people aren't so happy about having lots of babies when those babies are likely to be murdered by a bunch of life-sucking space nomads."
"Oh no. We avoid feeding on immature humans. Our breeding programmes are very intricate. It is humans who of their own volition are not breeding so well. Some of our kind argue that we have proved ourselves to be inadequate humanherds and that we need new methods. Is this a problem among your species in your own home galaxy?"
"I--," said John.
"It is, of course, unlikely that humans who do not enjoy hive protection would be able to achieve adequate reproduction rates," the wraith answered his own question. "It is the failing of a species that mates for purposes other than reproduction."
"Unfortunately, humans need other incentives to mate besides reproduction. You are too carnal to strive purely for the survival of your species. You are dependent on the sensations of physical gratification. Were it not for carnal gratification, humans would never mate."
John tried to process this. "Come on. Don't tell me the wraith never have sex without making babies?"
"Of course we do not," said the wraith. "Sexual reproduction involves a corporeal act. We limit our corporeal acts to the essential minimum. This," and now its voice took on a positively haughty tone, "is how we differ from you humans. We are of a higher order. We do not live for our bodies alone."
"You know what? I'm suddenly realising something here. You've got a hell of a lot more in common with the ancients than I thought. All that ancient stuff about the spiritual plane and ascension and overcoming the physical body. You totally buy into all that crap yourselves, don't you?"
"We are the hive," said the wraith, as if that explained everything.
Then it was dark again, and then light again. Subterranean rumblings disturbed John's sleep, or was it the ocean's booming? The fumaroles sputtered. John carved a notch into the calendar tree, and another one, and another one, and then it was the fifteenth notch, the wraith came to feed, John screamed, he reeled in exhilaration, and the next day he carved another notch.
He missed different things at different times. Sometimes it was his watch but then he forgot the march of minutes in the tidal fluidity of insular time. Sometimes it was the water canister but then he knotted the rope together in a basket-like shape and padded it with fibre torn from the bark, and that was good enough to carry the things he needed to carry -- ladybugs, mud, lengths of seaweed. Sometimes it was his razor, or a pair of scissors, but he knew that shaving gear hadn't even been part of his mission kit, and he copied the wraith and tied his hair up in a ponytail. He let his beard grow wild, just combed it with his fingers from time to time. He bit his toenails. His fingernails stayed blunt from scraping away at rocks to dislodge ladybugs.
He missed his long-sleeved jacket, and he really missed one tiny thing: a sewing needle. The sleeves of his T-shirt were coming apart at the seams, and he couldn't afford that. Already, the skin on his forearms was black with blisters. In the end, he pierced holes into the fabric with the tip of his knife, and threaded the sleeves together with bits of seaweed. They had to be re-threaded every few days.
The volcano coughed fiery air. Sweat suppurated from the roots of John's hair and collected in pools in his philtrum.
He missed people. He still missed people, despite telling himself it was pointless to. He even missed the disagreements and the misunderstandings. Because misunderstanding arose from a current of understanding, a constant, taken-for-granted undertow.
He missed being told, shut up, you're wrong, and snapping, I know what I'm doing, and being corrected, no, you don't, you haven't got a clue, look how you stuffed up, look how you allowed your gear to be destroyed and yourself to be wrecked. Look at the mess you got yourself into because you couldn't be bothered to hail anyone on your radio before you went off on some half-ass independent hero mission of your own.
But, he wanted to argue, but I did it to get intel! It was important!
He missed having arguments.
At night, he stared at the sky with his raw eye. The Claw. The Gate. The Small Thought.
The wraith was not in the copse. John found it standing near Sunrise Promontory, its face turned towards the stars.
"Hey, Ken," he said.
"Yes," the wraith's voice said, a growling among the growling of the breakers.
"Looking at the stars? Kuratka, The Gate, The Sailing Queen? See? I'm good with names."
A smell of bleach mingled with the smell of salt and surf. Wraith smell.
"What's your name? When it's not Ken?"
"I didn't think you'd tell me," said John. He walked past the wraith and clambered onto the promontory. "What is it with you wraith and names? Don't tell me you haven't got names."
"It is you who do not have names," said the wraith.
"No names? Pardon me for setting you right about that one." John settled himself on a rock. "We do have names. My name, for example, in case you'd forgotten, is Sheppard."
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
"Yeah. That's right."
"That is not a name," said the wraith. "That is a label."
"Excuse me, that is not a label. Okay, the Lieutenant Colonel part is maybe a kind of label but the John Sheppard part definitely isn't."
The vibrator voice of the wraith took on a high-pitched timbre for one moment, as of somebody sighing. Then it spoke very slowly, as if enunciating obvious truths. "These words, 'John Sheppard', are a label. Someone else labelled you with these words."
"Yes," said John, mimicking the slow enunciation. "That is correct. Someone else named me with these words."
"This label is not unique to you."
"Okay, Ken. A fair point. It's true that 'John' isn't the most unusual name on earth. Which doesn't mean that I'm not unique, though. It doesn't make me the clones of all the other Johns in the universe. Not like you."
"How are you unique?" said the wraith.
"All food looks the same to you, is that it? Well, I've got to say it's you wraith that all look alike. You're the ones that are clones. Nameless wasps in those hives of yours."
"We do not all look alike. Each set of spiracles is unique."
The wraith's leather coat creaked. John tried to see where it was pointing by the light of the stars.
"The breathing apertures on our cheeks," said the wraith.
"Oh right. Those. I thought these face markings were just some sort of tattoo?"
"We apply scarring to the spiracles but this is only to accentuate their natural uniqueness."
"A bit like fingerprints?"
"The spiracles are unique, unlike your name labels."
"My fingerprints are unique, too. And my, I don't know, my irises. My DNA."
The scars on my body. The stutter in my pulse. All the plans and all the memories.
The dreams I killed. The dreams I lived.
The scar around my neck where the iratus bug strangled me. The scar in my eyebrow where the beast of the ancients attacked me. The scar on my hand where I grazed my skin while gathering ladybugs. The scar on my hip, the scar on my shoulder, the scar on my shin. Battle scars. The scars of a military life.
The scar on my tonsils. The scar on my intestine. The scar that is my navel.
"What is DNA?" said the wraith.
"What?" John shook his head. "DNA? That's deoxyribonucleic acid."
"What is deoxyribonucleic acid?" Was this a genuine question?
"It's a genetic code. I'm sure you know that. Chromosomes. Double helix. You need a scientist to explain it all in detail but it's a blueprint for who I am. It's what makes me unique."
"This code makes you unique but you do not know the code?"
"Well, that would take years. It's very complex. Hang on, don't tell me you know your own genetic code off by heart?"
The fronds rasped their spines against each other. Something tiny clambered across John's bare toes.
"My name is like that," said the wraith.
"So you do have a name. I knew it!"
"It is unique and complex, like your deoxyribonucleic acid. It would take years."
"Come on, Ken. What's your name?"
"It must be found out. Humans have no access. It cannot be told in speech."
"You mean you can't tell me your name because you can only mindspeak it? Telepathy? You all crawl into each other's heads and figure out what's in there and that's what makes up your names?"
"Speech is an inadequate instrument," said the wraith. "Speech is nothing."
"Well, I don't know about that--"
"Speech," boomed the wraith, "is useful only for communicating with lower life forms. Humans are arrested at a base level of communication."
"Hey," said John. "I communicate just fine."
The stars burned like icicles.
"The hunger is very bad," the wraith said abruptly.
John froze. "It's not," he said. "It isn't feeding time. Yet."
"The little I take from you each time does not sate the hunger." Something was wrong with the wraith's voice.
"Well." John opted for a lighter tone. "Welcome to the clan. I'm hungry, too. I'm hungry all the damn time."
"But the hunger is not the worst thing," said the wraith. "The worst thing is the silence."
The surf moaned.
"We talk," John said lightly.
"Not talk! Not speech!"
The wraith's boots crunched in the sand. With angular bounds, it mounted the promontory, right up to John.
"In here," it said. "In here." It pressed its palms to its own forehead. "There is silence. There is nothing." Its voice caught on a tripwire of despair. It moved its hands, and now both of them pressed into John's skull, into the bone of his temples. Their moist mouths caught his hair. "Here," said the wraith, "here, where you always have nothing. Where you have only a void."
It pressed harder. Little spots exploded in front of John's right eye but he didn't move.
The hands slipped off. The wraith turned, leaped down onto the beach and disappeared up the coast, in the direction of the wreck site.
John sat in silence. The volcano shuddered and spewed forth a tongue of red flame.
From the south, there came a roar. A pained roar of anguish.
It was the wraith, screaming at the empty space.
ENDURABLE OR NO WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TO ANSWER WHERE THERE ARE NO ANSWERS O WHERE I CALL AND NEVER AN ANSWER NEVER A STIRRING IN THE FOLDS OF THE WORLD O MY BRETHREN MY HUSK DOETH CRAWL UPON THE CRUST OF THIS ORB UPON THE PEEL OF THIS GRAIN THAT PULLETH ME TO IT EVERMORE WITH SUCH FORCE WITH SUCH GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF AEONS O MUCH MORE OF THIS HOW TO ENDURE HOW TO PREVAIL O WHERE AND WHEREFORE ARE YE ALL YE LOST ONES MY SIBLINGS
John was harvesting seabeans when he looked up and saw a cloud of black smoke spume forth from the top of the mountain. At the same time, a quake shook the sand underneath his bare feet.
"What the," he said.
And then the volcano erupted.
"Ken!" John yelled. "Ken!" He ran, instinctively cowering, along the shore towards the southern beach. An ominous rumbling shook the air.
By the time he rounded the promontory, a cloud of smoke filled almost the whole sky. The wraith stood transfixed among the trees.
"Come on!" yelled John, running so that the sand sprayed up behind him. "Don't just stand there! We've got to get off this island!"
Ripples ran across the beach. The trees creaked. A mist of ash began to snow down, tinting the black sand grey and splotching the sunset.
"Shit." John was in the copse. He gasped for air. Sparks shot into the darkening sky. The sea snarled. Rents split open in the side of the mountain. Hair-line clefts crackled all the way down from the top, one to the south of the copse, one to the north. By the time, the clefts had reached the mountain's foot, they had widened to smoking crevasses. Great billows of steam hissed upwards.
With a chthonic groan, a mass of black and orange lava heaved itself up over the lip of the crater.
"Holy shit. It's coming down." John grabbed his knife and started hacking at the trees. "What are you doing?" yelled the wraith. "Making a fucking raft, is what I'm doing!" "We cannot make a raft." "The hell we can't. Why aren't you helping? No, you're right, there's no time. Jesus Christ." Magma streamed down the slope, in thick slurries, like burning porridge. The air stank of exhaust fumes and sulphur. An uncanny wind made the spiky foliage howl.
"Okay," said John, his mind cavorting wildly. "We'll just have to head for the sea without a raft." He pulled his trousers from their branch and felt for the small pellet in its calf pocket.
He forced his mind to focus on a tiny circumference of action. He stepped into his trousers, sheathed his knife and hitched it onto his belt, tied his shoes around his neck by the one length of lace that was left in them, pulled fistfuls of ember nuts from the trees and stuffed them into his button-down pockets. What else, what else? Wasn't he forgetting something? Something vital?
The air sizzled. The wraith's face glowed orange.
"Come on!" John yelled. He started running towards the surf.
The wraith wasn't following.
"Ken! Get a move on!"
"I cannot!" croaked the wraith, barely audible above the roar of the volcano.
"I cannot enter the ocean."
"Shit, Ken. This is not the time. You can't swim, is that it? Is that it?" John ran back up the beach and grabbed the wraith's sleeve. But Ken lashed out, and John flew backwards onto the sand.
The first bulge of lava hit the waves just to the south of the promontory. Flames engulfed the rocks. The sea spat and threw up fountains of foam.
"Well, okay then, you son of a stupid bitch! Stay here and burn. Are you thinking you'll survive?" John stood between shore and surf, his chest heaving. He tried to calm down. He tried to focus. "Okay, you're going to survive this, are you? You're going to be able to self-heal?"
"No," said the wraith. "I do not expect to survive. I have not fed recently..." I know. Not for fourteen days, thought John. "...and there may not be time to regenerate. These conditions are very ferocious."
"Yes, for Christ's sake! They are ferocious!" yelled John. "What the fuck are you waiting for?" He ran back up the beach and pulled at the wraith's arm.
"No!" hissed the wraith, close to John's face. "I cannot enter the ocean. The salt water will be worse than my death!"
"Don't be ridiculous." But already John was remembering the dart wreck, melting into nothing on the rising tide. And he was remembering the iratus bug, curling in on itself when rubbed with salt. "Shit," John said.
He looked at the heaving seas. He looked at the burning land. Ashes frosted the wraith's hair.
"But you'll die if you stay here."
"I must ask something of you, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
"Oh no. Don't start that. This is not going to happen."
"If you survive this catastrophe..."
"What part of you can't be exposed to salt? All of you? Your whole skin?"
"...do gather up my bodily remains in a sheltered spot, so that if rescue should ever arrive..."
WITHOUT YE MY BRETHREN ALL CHAOS WOE ALL CHAOS AND EMPTINESS WOE ALL NOTHING WOE ALL INFINITE EXPANSE NO WALLS
"Shut up!" John shook the wraith. The air was burning; it was starting to burn up his lungs. "What fucking part of you can't be exposed to salt?"
"...the remains may be returned home to the hive..." The wraith touched its cheeks with fluttering claws.
"The what? The spiracles? Only the spiracles? Take off your belt. Take off your belt!"
But in the event, John had to take it off himself. The wraith stood immobile and continued chanting instructions, letting its arms be lifted limply. The wraith's belt was heavy, laden with buckles. "Here," John muttered, and without ceremony he bent the wraith's head down and wrapped the belt tightly around its skull, taking care to cover up the breathing holes, winding it across the bridge of the wraith's nose, tightening the tongue in the central buckle. "Now come on."
The wraith did not move. It seemed stricken with horror.
NO ROOF NO HONEYCOMBS NO CHAMBERS OF THE SPIRIT ONLY THIS TOO HIGH ROOF OF COSMOS UNPROTECTED O WOE ONLY THIS TERRIBLE PIN SO FAR FROM THE MOTHER ONE LONG SCREAM
"Ken!" John roared in exasperation. "Would you rather burn to death, or would you rather take a chance in the sea? A chance, Ken!"
"IF WE DO DIE WE DIE AMONG OUR BRETHREN," intoned the wraith, in a keening mantra, its rock-strewn voice flushed with an unearthly tremor. "IF WE DO PERISH WE DISSOLVE AMONG OUR BRETHREN BUT WOE TO DIE IN EXILE WOE TO DIE BEREFT."
"Stop it! You stupid great big fucking crazy alien. You're frightened of dissolving in the sea, is that it? You'd rather burn up so that, what, I don't know what? I don't know what, Ken! Fuck!" O WOE MINE HUSK WILL ROT UPON THIS ROCK WILL DIMINISH IN THIS SALINITY The wraith seemed to have lost the will and the power to flex its muscles. WHO WILL ENFOLD MINE SPIRIT WITHIN THE SPIRIT OF THE HIVE So now John was pushing and tugging it towards the breakers. "Maybe you're prepared to die," he panted, "in that damn stupid ancient ascending let's-all-give-up-the-ghost fuck of a way, but guess what, I'm not. I'm not."
The first splash of water round the wraith's boots in the shallows seemed to startle it into reality. "No, no," it said. "This is not good. I am too heavy. MINE HUSK ENTRAPPED IN THE MIASMA OF THIS MATTER."
"You're not heavy. It's salt water, for Christ's sake. It's going to buoy us both up. Climb up! Climb up onto my shoulders. Keep your head out of the water."
"You will drown. TO DIE BEREFT LET ME AT LEAST FEED ON THINE LIFE ONE LAST TIME."
"I won't drown. I've got this." And scrambling in the wrinkled depths of the left calf pocket of his trousers, securely buttoned in, John drew forth the airbead. It was covered in lint but it was still good for another twenty-eight hours at least.
The lava was now rolling into the surf to the north of the copse. The ocean churned. Crevices erupted along the shore, and then the volcano burped; something was flung into the sooty air, and crumbs of pumice pattered down upon the surface of the waves.
They were shoulder-deep in the water. Just before John prepared to submerge--, airbead clamped between his back molars, the wraith's legs gripped around his neck in a panicked vise -- he remembered the something vital.
"Damn it, the water!" he gasped. "The syringe! Have you got the syringe?"
"Where? Where have you got it? Have you got it somewhere safe?"
"Yes. I have placed it somewhere safe. It cannot fall out into the salt water."
"It can't fall out? You sure?"
"I have inserted it in my cloaca."
"Jesus," said John. Then, with red flames dancing at the back of his left eye and pumice bouncing off the crests of the waves, he burst out laughing. "You stuffed the syringe up your ass! That was good thinking! Oh, that was brilliant!"
And with that, he sank beneath the gurgling waves.
John coughed up water, and more water. He seemed made of water. The airbead was limp and shrivelled, sucked dry of its last dram of oxygen. The sand frothed under John's hands. The pads of his fingers had lost their sense of touch; they were corrugated and spongy soft.
He coughed up another trickle of the world's ocean and then collapsed sideways onto the ground. His eyes streamed. He tried to focus his one working pupil. A surging patchwork of dark and light imprinted itself on his retina. The ground oscillated beneath him: were these quakes, the after-shocks of the eruption? Or simply his body's memory of hours and hours of floating in the waves?
"Ken?" His voice came out slurred.
There was no reply.
John struggled to his elbows. The wraith lay slumped on its right side, just behind John on the beach. Only its lidless left eye was visible. The eye was rigid and blank.
"Ken?" John repeated. "Wraith?"
He shook the wraith by the shoulder. Its body rolled over onto its back, and the right side of its face hove into view.
"Jesus," whispered John.
He rubbed his good eye and blinked but still the sight remained the same. The belt around the wraith's head was gone. The wraith's right spiracle had oozed open; the skin on that whole side of its visage had come away. It looked as if something had eaten up its skull from the inside, like acid burning a slow hole. The wraith's face gaped open from just below its eye to its chin. Gleet, pus and a viscous mucus seeped from the wound. There was a smell of dead things.
"Ken," said John, trying to steady his voice. "Wraith. Come on." He shook the wraith's shoulder again, tentatively this time. "Don't bail out on me now. Not after all this."
He fumbled for the wraith's wrist. There was no pulse. "No, no," he said. "No."
Used to the wraith's normal horse-strength heartbeat, it took him long moments of held breath before he finally located a faint quivering, a minute distension of the artery.
He tore off what remained of his T-shirt sleeve and dabbed at the discharge on the wraith's cheek.
"Come on," he muttered. "Do your thing, your self-healing thing. Seal up this hole in your face. Come on, stay with me here."
The wraith didn't move. Its pulse was a weak beacon, barely there.
John coughed again. He wanted to throw up. His throat ached; he hadn't had anything to drink in days, weeks, aeons; time had stopped under the surface of the sea. His own pulse jumped and knocked erratically.
The wraith's skin was cold, like a reptile's; John remembered it strong and hot. He clawed at the buckles of its coat. In all their months together on the island, he'd never seen the wraith's torso but here it was, pale green and glabrous, nipple-less, navel-less. He pressed his hands down on its sternum. He pinched its broad nose, pried apart its lips and tried to recall how mouth-to-mouth worked.
He kept breathing down the wraith's throat. He kept pumping the wraith's lungs.
A soft hiss issued from the gash on the wraith's cheek, like air escaping a punctured tire.
"Oh, shit. Oh, Jesus." He covered up the hole with his hand but even so, he could feel the air venting against his numbed skin. Instead of resuscitating the wraith, he'd done something to its respiratory system, and now the wraith was bleeding air, and there was nothing he could think to do.
"Come on, wraith, for the love of..."
But he didn't know whose love to invoke. God, yes -- but John hadn't called on any god in decades; there was no god; god was an expletive and nothing more, and John was left alone, on an island in outer space, and there was nothing and no one, no one at all.
Mist palled John's right eye. He swiped at it, helplessly; and then angrily. He moved his hands over the wraith's bare chest, along its neck, trying to pinpoint a pulse.
Then he remembered his own chest and its five-pronged wound.
"That's what you need to do. You need to lick this shut. Wraith, come on, all you need to do is..." He prised apart the wraith's set of teeth. He pushed his fingers into the wraith's mouth and felt around for its tongue, and he pulled that out past the teeth.
The tongue was long and slim but not that long. It was not long enough to reach the wraith's own cheek.
"You've got something," muttered John. "You've got something in your spit, haven't you, some kind of something, enzyme, healing sap. But how to get at it. How to get at it..."
He leaned down over the wraith's face. The wraith smelled of sea and salt only. Its own wraith stench was as faint as its heartbeat. John dug his fingers into the wraith's mouth, drew them along the insides of its cheeks, sank them into the fleshy pockets of the wraith's gums. He licked the tip of the wraith's tongue. He sucked it. He licked his own fingers, licked off the thin film of sticky residue, smeared it onto his own tongue, and then he bent across and licked the wraith's oozing cheek.
He licked all around the wound, willing it to close up. He dived in for more mouth mucus, mixed wraith spit with his own spit. He chafed the wraith's wrist, rubbed his gummy fingers over the hole in the wraith's cheek, into the hole. And at one point, swore and wiped his own eye because how stupid would that be, to re-infect the wraith with his own salt.
The wraith tasted of death, and the wraith's wound tasted of death; it made John dizzy, and after a while, he thought he would faint and die himself but it didn't matter because he would die, anyway, and then a shudder went through the wraith.
The wraith spluttered and retched and convulsed in spasms. Its pupils shivered into life.
When John lifted his head, he saw, through one throbbing eye, that the wraith's cheek was a ghastly colour and covered in pockmarks but that it was whole. It was healed.
He slumped down on the wraith's chest and fell into a mindless coma.
When John came to, stars burnt up the firmament. The cloud of ash was gone.
"Wraith?" he said.
The wraith didn't stir. Its heartbeat was steady against John's temple.
"Wraith," John whispered. He tried to sit up but couldn't. "Listen. I haven't had anything to drink in days. Two, or three, I don't even know. Come on, wake up. Make some water."
The wraith lay inert. Waves rushed the shore.
John didn't think he would be able to move but then he did. He crouched in the sand. It was all that he could think of: the syringe. He prodded the wraith until, after many attempts, it lurched to one side. He bunched up the back of its coat and tugged at its unbelted trousers. They weren't real trousers, it turned out; they were some sort of leg covering, knotted and lashed at the groins. John managed to pull off a flap over the wraith's lower spine and expose its lower back.
The wraith had buttocks, like a human man, and yes, in between the buttocks, there nestled a small rucked opening: the cloaca.
John, desperate and faint, crooked his finger into the wraith's anus, worked it up and touched a hard surface. The vial! He wormed another finger up, and then wept with frustration because he couldn't get a purchase. He curled in a third finger and widened the rectum. He managed to pincer two fingers around the base of the syringe, and very slowly, very gingerly, with the shivering patience of despair, he extracted it.
He looked at the vial with a dazed eye. It glinted in the starlight. He shook it.
It was empty.
"God," he said. "Oh god, what now?"
His temples pounded. He rolled the wraith back onto its back. He pulled at the front of the wraith's leggings. A leather panel flapped open, and there they were. The wraith's dual penes.
John looked at them, lolling palely against hairless skin.
And then he bent down and took hold of one of them between his thumb and forefinger.
He massaged the penis with the tips of his fingers. He kneaded its soft small shaft until it stood up against his palm; the other penis drooped to one side. It was a pointy thing, slim and hard like a tuber, lightly barbed at its tip. The scarifications encircled it in delicate relief.
When it twitched, John took it in his mouth and sucked.
He closed his eyes and sucked, tasting frog spawn and formic acid, until the penis throbbed once, and then he quickly upended the syringe over it, kept on working it with his fingers and felt the vial gain weight in his hand.
It worked. I don't believe it.
Thank you, god.
He clamped the lid down on the syringe and fell back, sucking in air.
He clutched the vial in his hands and waited. Water trickled out of his earholes. The stars turned, Kuratka, the Claw, the Sailing Queen. He waited for the alchemy to work.
He didn't know how long it would take, spinning gold from straw, straw from gold. He tried to remember; his thoughts were confused. He couldn't see the contents in the dark.
At dawn, he peered into the tube. It was clear. It looked like water.
He opened the syringe and put it to his mouth and drank in needy greedy gulps.
But then he stopped. He swayed to his knees and pushed the vial deep into the wraith's mouth. The wraith's adam's apple bobbed. The wraith swallowed.
John fell back into the sand. The water had been glorious. But it had been barely an ounce, and that wasn't enough. He tried to speculate about the wraith's re-load time, and wondered if he could maybe activate the other penis, and then the skies reeled and he passed out yet again.
It was the scent that woke him. It was a scent he hadn't tasted in months, in years: the mellow sweetness of honey, intermingled with an aroma of crushed sage, jasmine and lavender.
He sat up and gazed in wonder.
Flowers. Flowers everywhere.
As far as his one eye could see, the island was covered in flowers. He crawled over to the nearest clump: a profusion of small star-shaped blossoms, and another type, with petals growing upwards in the shape of a cup, and within the cup, gorgeous and wet, drops of gold-coloured nectar.
He tore up the flowers as fast as his hands would move. He stuffed them into his mouth whole, chewing on leaves and sepals and petals and whatever else they consisted of, and letting their sweet, sweet juices coat his throat. He got up and he ran into the meadows around him. Here was another kind, opulent and purple, filled to the brim with cordial. Its stem was fleshy, and when he tore it open with his teeth, a milky substance poured out and into his mouth.
He ran further. He threw himself down among the blooms and wallowed in their splendour. He had been transported into a dream. The sun was radiant. He was drunk with it all.
He dug his hands into the ground, and it was thick, crumbly soil. The flowers were burnt at the roots, and he marvelled to think that all this time, all these notches, their seeds had been buried in this desert sand, waiting, patiently waiting for an eruption and the stimulant of lava.
He whirled around, and there, not far from the shore, sat the copse.
The lava had destroyed the outermost trees but spared the rest. The calendar tree was gone, and with it his binoculars and his long-dead radio. It made sense. Why else would trees grow just there? The remaining tree clump was protected, in a huddled spot between two runnels. Ember nuts glinted fatly on singed branches.
John bent back his head and laughed wild laughs.
The wraith was there, alive, about. It had made its way to the copse and to shelter. It presented him with a full syringe, in shaky hands. "Keep it," laughed John, "drink it, drink it all. I've got plenty."
Rose-coloured crustaceans clambered out of the sea and staggered up the beach in their hundreds. They mauled the blossoms with their fragile claws and stuck their probosces into pools of nectar.
John whooped with delight. He scampered into the creatures' midst, scattering bodies, shell scraping against shell; he scooped them up, whole armfuls of them. He tore off their heads and pulled out their raw white flesh with his teeth, and when he'd had enough, he darted over to the other side of the island, full of energy, and found the fumaroles, and found some newly-opened fissures, and on those volcanic stoves he cooked more of the little crayfish -- although they weren't really crayfish; they had eleven legs, not eight, and strange facetted eyes, feeding tubes like butterflies; but they tasted divine, absolutely divine. Never, ever had John eaten anything so heavenly.
He staggered back home, crushing flowers and animals underfoot. "Drink, drink," he called to the wraith, slumped in the shade.
But then he realised what was really the matter, and still laughing, he scudded to his knees and pulled off his T-shirt. "You look like shit," he said. "You must be starving."
Glutted on nectar and ambrosia, John, in the nick of noon, put his hand to his crotch.
Sand crunched. The wraith stood by, and John took his hand away again.
The wraith settled down next to John. It stretched its leather legs out in front.
The air was still. The wraith didn't move; it stayed in John's part of the copse. Coal-seams of scent wafted across the trees.
"You elicited the elixir of life," the wraith said.
"Ah," said John. "Yes."
"You elicited it in a very unusual fashion. You applied your mouth to the penis and you sucked upon it."
"So you did notice that? I thought you were out cold-- Hey! Hang on--"
In the blink of an eye, the wraith had taken John's cock out through the slitted fly of his boxer shorts, and in another blink, it had bent forwards and wrapped its long tongue around John's glans.
"Stop," said John. "I told you before--"
"You did this," said the wraith, its voice muffled by its own tongue, and then the wraith tongue slipped up and down the shaft of John's cock, all the way from the very tip to the very root, and John's cock hardened in surprise.
He tried to squirm away. The grip of the wraith's tongue tightened, like a strand of seaweed twined around John's cock. The tongue probed. It was a prehensile tubeworm, sandpaper soft, slimy and undulant.
The sand rolled. John stared into the ember fronds.
"This provides a gratifying sensation for you," the wraith said, releasing its tongue.
"No," said John.
"There is evidence to the contrary. In humans, the erection of the male genitalia betokens carnal pleasure."
"Shut up; no," said John. He didn't move.
"You are lying," said the wraith, as if observing a fact about the weather.
John stared at the spiky sky. "Yes," he said.
And gave up. And gave in.
And if you gave in, then what did it matter? Then it's just the sun on your head and the sky in your eye and the slithery muscles of an alien tongue around your private parts. Snaking, sliding, probing. Trying out the slit at the top of your cock but withdrawing when you flinch. Curling around the base; shimmying along the ridge behind your balls.
Continuing along, one hand pushing you to the sand and clawing at the boxers. And you, oh you, you lift your hips obligingly, and the impossibly long tongue worms its way all the way back and up and into your arsehole.
John was on his back, with his knees spread wide and his hands above his head, clutching the trunk of the embertree, and the tongue slid in deep, so deep, so fucking deep; it was unbelievable what it was doing to the insides of John's rectum.
Honey-sweet sweat broke out on his forehead and in his armpits. In the confusion, he bit his own cheek instead of his tongue. He didn't know how to behave. Sound strangled in his throat.
It was too strange to be strange.
Further than anybody, further than anything, the tongue was in deep. It was soft and hard at the same time, taut and malleable, nosing along the corrugations of his guts. It moulded its hardness to the walls of John's insides. It moved in, and it moved out, and his arsehole closed around the tongue like a sucking mouth.
Fuck, he thought or moaned, fuck, oh fuck.
Then the wraith's hand closed around John's cock. The wraith's palm pulsed against his flesh, and in the palm, there was the feeding mouth, a thick moisture, a rippling like an octopus's arse, a suction pad around his glans.
Like a cunt.
Like a cunt fucking his cock.
John held onto the tree with both his hands. He held on for dear life. But it wasn't life that was sapping out of him, it was something else; it was come, pumping out of him in deep gulps.
He clamped a hand across his face and tried to stop the sounds falling out of him, the fuck, the god, the oh sweet heaven, but they tumbled out regardless.
His orgasm dumped him in zero gravity. Worms shot out from his balls, up through urethra, rectum, sphincter, all the way to his left eyeball.
Multiple suns orbited behind his eyelids. The sky pulsed.
His cock shrank. He could feel its tip nudge right into the wraith's oozing hand-mouth.
"Stop," he said. "Stop."
God, he'd come into the wraith's feeding mouth.
"No, really," he gasped, "you've got to stop now. It's over."
The wraith's tongue slithered out.
"That," said John and lowered his shaking knees. "That..."
The wraith sat up. "You cannot continue?"
"Hah." John laughed, a short drunken laugh.
"When wraith mate," said the wraith, "they ejaculate for many hours."
"Really?" John pulled himself into a vaguely upright position. Sand breezed across his naked thighs.
"It is a failing in your kind. The brevity of the human climax is doubtless one of the causes for the diminishing birth rate of your species."
"Yeah, right." John laughed again. "That must be something else, your wraith orgasm. And hey... can't you use that for making lots and lots of water?"
"Mating is a very different matter from producing water."
"Yeah," said John. "Yeah." He looked out across the flowers spreading to the horizon of his world.
The wraith lifted its palm and sniffed at it. "Interesting." It lapped John's come up with its slender tongue. A gossamer thread stretched between teeth and hand. "But not sustaining." John could think of nothing to say. "Now I shall make some water."
"Oh. You need a helping hand?" And then John burst out laughing again because life had spiralled into vortices of lunacy but it didn't matter, it didn't matter one whit for the entire island breathed the fragrance of orchids and the air rustled with the casings of crayfish.
He rolled out onto the sand and kept rolling into the zone of lava. He spread his arms and his bare legs and pressed his groin into the blossoms.
Some were wilting already but he didn't care. He was going to comb every inch of this damned beautiful island and he was going to find every last one of those seeds; he was going to shake the pips from the stamens of these flowers and plant them in the shade of the copse; he was going to collect lava from the cracks of the fissures and he was going to grow himself a fucking orchard of flowers, and he'd keep those little crayfish in a net-enclosed tank near the promontory and feed them on ember nuts and seabeans and he was never, ever going to be thirsty again.
Not once did it occur to him that this new plan did away with his need for the wraith's vial.
Not once did he ponder sneaking down to the sea at night and dousing the wraith in salt water until it dissolved into sand.
The crustaceans, one night, upped and scuttled down into the sea and disappeared into the deeps. The blossoms wilted. The sand reverted to its glinting black surface.
But a tiny field of flowers remained. That, and a small bevy of crayfish, swimming in circles among the promontory boulders, in a trough woven of seaweed and emberbark. John kept back a portion of his already minuscule daily water ration and used it to water his plants. He didn't expect anything to happen because this seemed to be a fire-responsive plant, and he had no fire. But within six notches, a scattering of buds did appear: tiny miracles.
"Pity you can't enjoy this," John said to the wraith and licked his fingers clean of the nectar and juices of oily lobster.
The wraith sat and massaged its genitals. It palpated the dual penes with the tips of its strong long fingers, stroking them like teats. Sandfleas darted from tree to tree.
John looked at the wraith penes, looked at the sea, looked at the wraith again.
They seemed to have moved beyond any notions of secrecy. Of modesty. Of shame.
Beyond shame. Beyond the pale.
"Here," John said. "Let me."
He pushed the wraith's talons aside and started pumping the penes himself with two hands, one thumb and finger on each of them. Everything was very still. Only the surf sucked at the sands. The wraith caught its elixir in the syringe and clamped the lid on.
John let go.
"And now," said the wraith, half-burying the upright vial in the sand, "it is time."
It placed its hand on John's bare chest and pulled forth the string of screams.
Fifteen notches later, the wraith, pale in the Mouthstar's shadows, was kneeling before John kneeling, and breathed on his forehead with its benthic voice.
"It has occurred to me," the wraith rasped, "that there may be a remedy for your distress during the feeding."
John couldn't see the wraith's face, and even if he had been able to, there was never any expression in the wraith's face, or at least none that he could read or understand.
"I have pondered this," continued the wraith. "It is not conducive to your health to suffer anguish. I cannot distract you psychically. But I can attempt to distract you physically."
"Well," said John. "I didn't know you cared."
"Your semen tasted of wraith," said the wraith, as if by way of explanation, yet John could not think what was being explained, and then his thinking yawed out of kilter because the wraith, without preliminaries, shifted to kneel behind John and pushed him forward. It pushed him just enough so that John's buttocks, bare in the hot night, parted by a fraction, and then the wraith drove its dual penes right in, both of them, right into the centre of John's arse.
Sand struck John's cheek and choked his tongue as he fell, open-mouthed and speechless, onto his elbows.
The twin organs crawled inside, stiff and smooth like the roots of a weed. They tapered like fingers. They slipped in without resistance as their barbed tips held open the entrance.
Once past John's sphincter, the penes fanned out, probing the cavity of human rectum.
There was no fucking as such, no pumping in and out. The wraith rested against John's arse, perfectly still. Only its penes moved inside him, and its breath hissed through its teeth, as if in pain. John's own breath veered in zigzags. His knees ached against the ground; his fingers clawed at sweaty granules. His loins moved of their own accord; they humped the sand in staccato bursts; they thrust up against the wraith's pelvis. The penes, like millipedes, palpated John's rectal walls.
The universe zeroed in on this sensation. John closed his eyes to block out vision; no, not vision, the night was black, the night was shining, eyes open, eyes closed, it made no difference. His brain reeled, and then shut itself off.
One of the penes looped round and round the walls; the other stroked spots with its snub-nose tip, spot after spot, until it touched the one spot, and John lost it, and new spots were made, and all of John was just one spreading spot.
He didn't know what was happening to him. Something was taking him apart, increment by increment, and then in great big gashes.
John howled primordially into the sand.
And then his howl flipped into a shriek as the wraith reached round from behind and dug its claws into John's chest.
It ripped him open. There were no thoughts to contain the world as it rushed in and out through the vortex at the centre of John's soul.
All went silent. The silence was eerie in contrast to what had been a ceaseless shriek, and mixed in with that shriek, which was John's shriek, had been the guttural roar of the wraith as it fed.
But now nothing.
The silence of utter death.
John was not frightened. He floated through a mute minute of nothing.
Somewhere in there blipped his orgasm, a grain lost in vastness.
But in the wake of that orgasm, riding its rippling slipstream, came a thought.
An alien thought, pointed like a snub-nose finger.
It lodged itself in John's head, and then gave a startled throb and blossomed out into something open and strange. A foreign presence opened his mind, unfolded him like a head of lettuce, peeling away leaf after leaf.
It was the wraith. It was inside his head.
It was an oil stain, spreading through the liquid of his self. It was foam, swirling through the fog of his mind. It was sharp like a lemon, bright like cymbals. Corridors opened out that had never been there before. Vistas. Vectors. The wash of stars.
Shadows moved and whispered. The shadowy shapes of wraith. And more wraith. Dimly felt as mulling murmurings. Sights he had never seen and had always known. The breath of the Mother all about him. The breath of home. The memories of a hundred others. Woven through it all, a terrible yearning.
Veering into their alien world, and then suddenly, he lurched into his own childhood, as if a trapdoor had been knocked through, and then another, and another, in bewildered succession. Odd unrelated snippets of memory, moments long forgotten. The goldfish frozen three feet from the surface of a winter pond. The smell of burn cream, applied to an electrified finger. The popping of ants' heads under the solar death ray of his magnifying glass. Pictures of a volcano, lava rolling -- but no, it was only television; and on he stuttered, wildly back and forth, interspersed with the murmurs of the wraith. The sound of the blue alarm clock. Folding paper airplanes and gluing paper clips into their snouts for increased speed. Ladybugs on his mother's grave. Stargates squelching, city lights, his hands like gloves on the mould of the Chair. And o my god, my life is flashing before my eyes, this is it this is it is this it O MY BRETHREN MY SIBLINGS Wherefore is this O THE SLIPSTREAM OF COMMUNION The beating home The long paths flying on the shoulders of time Mingling Merging Amalgam of HOME NEVERMORE TO BE O FOOD ON THIS PIN O HUMAN TO UNITE
John was a kite, flying through the infinite blue, and the wraith was the tail, clinging to his trajectory. John was the tail, holding onto a buoy in the puzzling cataract of woven worlds.
And sometimes the wraith was a point of certitude, and sometimes the wraith was baffled, aghast, unsure, torn between delight and fear.
John's own thoughts swam through a haze of alien realms. Foggy chimerae drifted along on waves of somnambulance. But the wraith's presence, his wraith, was clear as a gong, an enveloping grotto of branching memories and impressions, a questing, restless diligence, not at all the sluggish creature of the copse.
John gave into it. It drew him in. This oneiric weaving in and out of the other and of the self, this glide through the interstices of selves. The oddest thing was that the more John lost himself in the caverns of the wraith, the more he came up against his own being, but a being transformed and strangely scumbled, permeated and permeating, himself echoed back from within the wraith's mental vessels. There was all the substance taken from him during feedings and now part of the wraith's own make-up; and at the same time, the enzyme suffusing John's own self with parts of wraith.
John forgot how to speak. He forgot what was the point of speaking. He forgot about the gulf between identities that can only be bridged with words.
He forgot words.
The wraith's name sounded in his heart like a breve.
Sound slammed back into his eardrums: surf, wind, breath, the scrape of sand under fingernails, blood in his temples.
He was helpless on the ground. There was grit on his tongue. Oceans of liquid oozed from his anus which throbbed like an open mouth; streams of air were sucked into his innards.
Someone picked him up and whacked him against bark so hard that he began to bleed out of his nostrils.
Dizzy and sick, he crashed to the ground.
There was ragged breathing. There was more blood; John's chest was bathed in it. His eyes were open but there was nothing to see. Something batted his foot: it was his own hand, spasming uncontrollably.
He was turned over with brutal force. A moist tongue rasped across the wounds in his chest, viciously, deep into them, suturing them, and it hurt; wild pain returned; and John screamed.
A weight slapped him across his bleeding nose. John shouted again but more of a recognisable yell this time, more from an everyday sensation of pain.
Someone forced a crushed flower between his lips. Nectar squirted down his throat, just a few short drops. He gagged even so, coughed, spluttered up gobs of mucus.
Another slap, and he managed to groan, "What the hell, cut that out."
"You are alive?" It was the wraith's physical voice.
"Yes, fuck." John retched up a gobbet of blood.
The sand rearranged itself as the wraith stood up abruptly.
"What?" said John. Then he blacked out.
He awoke, smeared in blood, sand, semen, enzyme, and wraith ejaculate. He stank of life in its myriad rankness. Life.
He crawled to the shore on all fours and sprawled in the hard wet sand, letting the surf stumble over him. Then he dragged himself a few feet further up, into the black heat of castor-sugar sand. There he lay, in a stunned trance.
Inside his head, the wraith still marvelled and moved.
By the time John rose on unsteady feet, the sun was high. It had burned sore patches onto his bare buttocks.
He blinked into the aching glare and tottered up the incline until he reached the copse and slumped down in its shade.
Sandfleas flitted. He needed to tend his orchard. He needed to go and prepare mud. He couldn't move.
Sandflea-thoughts flitted around his brain. The wraith wuthered through his psychic conduits.
And there it was: the bodily bulk of the wraith. It loomed over him, breathing raggedly. John could see its hands, at the level of his eyes. They were streaked with blood.
John's gaze lolled.
He opened his mouth. No sound came.
"John," said the wraith with the voice of its throat. "John Sheppard."
"What," John tried. His speech was slurred. It had the timbre of an old man's voice. "What in hell was that?"
The wraith spoke, in a voice of tar. "I forewent responsibility."
"How," mumbled John. He struggled to focus his one eye. He was astounded to find that his body obeyed his will. His hands moved in soft sand. Rose-coloured spots danced among the fronds; it must be evening time.
The wraith was a silhouette against the sun's waning.
"I almost fed in full. I..." The wraith faltered. John could feel it faltering in his mind. "I did not know what was going to happen."
The sun rumbled.
"You fed" said John. "Almost in full?" His thoughts were long strings; they refused to be harnessed.
"We will not do this again," spoke the wraith, and John couldn't be sure whether he was hearing the words on the wind or reverberating in his own head. "I do not know why this happened," said the wraith. "In truth, I am..." The waves curled and withdrew, curled and withdrew. "...disconcerted by the loss of my control."
John shrugged. He had shoulders; they shrugged. He had a body. He had palms; minute grains of sand clung to the sweat on his palms. The world was underneath him, a solid earth.
"You must tend to your feeding," said the wraith. "It is important. I... do not have water."
"No water?" said John. Where had the wraith's water gone? "Ah."
They had forgotten themselves. They had got lost in each other.
The wraith abruptly turned. It staggered down the beach.
"Wait," croaked John. He jumped up, and he could. His body was dizzy with enzyme. He bounded after the wraith. Stars flew from his hair. Contrails of speed streamed along the surfaces of his arms. "I'll get..." There was the orchard. There was the pool.
Three-quarters of his flowers had died.
"How long?" he asked the wraith. "How many..." He gathered his language. "How many years?"
He touched his beard and his neck. There was a fold under his chin that hadn't been there before. He looked at his hands, at the liver-coloured spots on the backs of his hands. He looked down at his naked chest, at his hollow belly, at the ribs like spokes along his torso, at the thatch of pubic hair peppered with silver.
He had gone grey.
How many years had he given to the wraith?
In the dying light of the earth, the wraith was a ghastly apparition. Its formerly bronze-green skin was sallow; the markings on its cheek were sunken gashes, its eyes rimmed in red, the whites of the eyeballs bloodshot and veined, the fleshy lips broken and cracked. Just like him, John thought; the wraith was a mirror of himself.
And yet, it had fed. Almost to the full.
"What happened back there?" John said. "How many years did we lose?"
"Wraith," John said. He was careful to articulate the words with his throat and mouth. "What happened?"
The ocean slapped the sand. Sand fleas sank their tuberoles into John's skin; he had collected no mud; he didn't care; it was strangely good to be reminded of his bodily self in punctures of tiny pain.
"What happened to us?" John said.
The wraith's eyes were unfathomable. Fathoms plumbed John's mind.
"I did not know this could happen," said the wraith, at last.
"The thing" John said slowly, "the mind... thing. The sex mind thing--"
The wraith cut him off. "It is not sex."
John tried to crack a smile. "Could have fooled me."
"It is not sex," the wraith said. "It is..." It stopped. It seemed to struggle for articulation. John could sense the struggle in his own head, its effort to give words to something beyond words.
"It is the foregathering," the wraith finally said.
Moments passed. "What's that?" But even as John said it, a tremor of remembered communion murmured through the far reaches of his mind.
"There is no human speech for it. It is what we do. It is the hive's coming together. It is the foregathering. I did not know it was possible without the hive." The wraith's voice skidded on the edge of despair. "I did not know it was possible with a human."
John swallowed. There was nothing to swallow; his throat burned. "I wouldn't have thought it was possible, either... Inter-species sex--"
"It is not sex," the wraith interrupted in an abrupt tone.
"Oh yeah, I forgot."
"It is so perhaps for you. I do not engage in what you call sex."
"But you did. Actually. You did."
"I am not a beast. I transcend the material gratifications!"
"Shit, wraith." John laughed. He surprised himself into it. The laugh set up shaky ripples inside his mind. The ripples cradled the wraith's mind. "Not this again." Sparks of himself struck the wraith's tinder brain. The laugh reverberated within.
The wraith lurched towards John. "Humans are beasts," it hissed. "They have sexual urges. The urges drive them to mate. Humans mate even if there is no chance of reproduction."
The wraith's entire body was shaking now. Its voice strummed with revulsion.
"You are trapped inside your physical bodies and inside your individual corporealities. But this is not for us. This is not for me. It is..." He made a peculiar gesture with his hand. "... vile to me. Vile." Its speech trailed off into a confused spiral, and the spiral wound its whip way into John's thoughts.
"It's not bestial," John said, feeling stupid. "It's beasts that have sex only for mating. Humans, you said it yourself, have sex also for other reasons."
"What are the reasons? What are the reasons we experience this?"
John closed his eyes. Vermicelli squirmed in his dead left eye. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know the reasons. I don't know anything." I am old. I am tired. I sink into the hive.
There is no hive. There is only the memory of the hive.
There are only murmurings, traces like slime trails across the universe's sentient map.
What is it that I am? What is it that I was?
The wraith didn't know. Its presence in the folia of John's being groped and ricocheted. Alien thoughts within alien thoughts.
John opened his eyes. His face was wet; he couldn't remember how it had got so wet. He touched his finger to his cheek, and to his lip. Salt wet.
He couldn't afford to lose moisture. He had to care about these things. He had to take care of the matters of the flesh.
They were standing in the noon-day sun, even the wraith. Their shadows were puddles underneath their feet.
John's thoughts were wood shavings, curling along the corridors of the wraith's world.
"This foregathering thing you're talking about," he said. "That's some kind of collective hive orgasm, right? Is it like that hour-long mating that you talked about the other day?"
"I have, of course, never mated."
The sun hiccupped.
"You haven't?" said John blankly.
"I am not an inseminator." The wraith's thoughts shook with disdain.
"Ah," said John.
"The Queen consumes Her begettors. No one survives after mating. Naturally."
"Naturally," echoed John.
Spit froze on his lips. The ocean sang.
The words tumbled out. "How long does it last, this foregathering? Nearly all the flowers are dead. How long does it take for flowers to die? How long, wraith? How long did you feed? How long did you forget yourself?"
"It is a terrible thing to forget."
"Listen," John said. "I'll tell you what happened. You fed on me, and at the same time, we had a sort of... hive orgasm. And that made you lose control, during the feeding."
"There is no precedent. We enter virgin constellations. It cannot be fathomed."
"Yes, it can. Because you may not have mated but I have. And I can tell you that it's not so very weird to lose control when you're in the middle of it. To lose the plot a little."
"Simple," said John, in a voice so light it could be air.
As simple as trying to calculate dart speeds while in the middle of coming. Like being asked to stop shooting your load half-way through.
As simple as an orgasm that lasted hours not seconds. As simple as an orgasm that shattered the boundaries between worlds.
"You cannot understand," said the wraith.
"No, but I can," said John. I can. I do. I have.
WE CAN WE DO yes WE HAVE THE UNFATHOMABLE yes THE UNKNOWABLE but we know THE ARCHEAN THE NEVER-BEFORE
Later, much later or a little later, a few flowers later or none, John paced down to the surf and kept going. He swam under the sun.
The heat pressed in upon him and dissolved his boundaries. The ocean rushed on as blood inside his ears, and he was a speck on the foam. When he opened his right eye, the unbroken blue extended into eternity. There was no distance to it, no future, no past, no beginning and no end, no modulation of its brightness except for the sprites mottling John's eyeball.
Strange, how the sky was so blue yet it continued up and up until it turned into black space. And then it flowed on until it quickened to blue again, around the germ of another world. It was all the one thing: sky, space, the heavens above and the heavens below.
This, John thought, this was him. He was a creature of earthly matter. He could sprint and climb, he could dig and swim and hunt and eat. He could be fucked. He could come.
And he was a son of the stars. He could soar through the spaces of his mind; he could join hands with the wraith in a cosmic roundelay.
Time, thought John, as his eye stared at the immobile blue. Time stands still.
Then he thought, no, it doesn't. If I just lie here, without moving, even if I never do another thing, just lie here... Time will continue to pass through me. Because eventually death will come for me.
It was the one sure thing in all the universes. Death. In heaven as it is on earth.
If I just lie here, without doing a single thing, I will die. Dying is only time. Time works through me. It is time that is killing me every single moment.
It was a strangely peaceful realisation.
Death had been something to be actively sought out. You flew planes at breakneck speed, jumped down wells, steered into hive ships, sped into space. In seeking death, you miraculously cheated death. Time and time again.
But it wasn't like that at all. Death did not need to be sought out; it sought you out. Death did not need to be evaded because it was always there, like a security net. All you had to do was lie here and wait.
John had never known death to live in time like this.
No matter how alien the galaxy, it always had death in it.
He floated on the waves.
The island was a drop in the ocean, casting circles in John's soul.
"Even you die" said John to the wraith. "You heal amazingly, sure, but you die."
The wraith scribbled things in John's head. What it said aloud was, "We do not go into oblivion as you do. We slough off the material vessel and join with the living hive. The brethren will come and feed on us, and then our bodies shrivel because our bodies do not matter. They matter only because they allow us to feed and be one."
"Hang on. You feed off each other? On purpose?"
"That is how we become one with the song of the hive."
"You have them all inside your head? Is that what you're saying? All the dead wraith?"
John remembered a crashed wraith ship and a cannibal wraith, on a planet long ago. He remembered a hive queen bending over a humanised wraith, sucking out the wraith's life on a hospital bed, in a time far away.
His memories burgeoned with things that he only now understood: dark feedings, sweet release.
And what about me? What will happen to me once I'm dead? John thought, spinning in the endless blue heat. My body will decompose and rot into this soil. Maybe my DNA will change something minute in the make-up of this world, who knows. But what is going to happen to the other thing that's me? The not-body part?
The part that is taken by the wraith?
My life force. My years. My soul.
Taken by the wraith. Preserved by the wraith. Changed and tempered and joined.
But if death is everywhere, John thought, then it's the same everywhere. And it doesn't matter where I die.
The island, its black sand hard under John's hot spine, its air shimmering with sulphur, seemed as good a place as any.
The island rotated along with its world.
John braided intricate braids inside his head and let himself be played with, subtly, fussily, vitally.
One noon, he blinked and saw the wraith's body. It hurt to blink; his lids rasped dryly across their eyeballs. "You know, " John said and tried to clear his throat. He couldn't remember when last he'd spoken out aloud. "You're not looking too hot."
Deep within John's skull, the wraith lived attentive and bright, an alert and softly crawling presence. In all its alien wraithness, it was not the wraithness that revealed itself but the wraith's unique selfness.
The wraith's outer shell was a different matter. John had forgotten to inspect the wraith with his mortal eye, and now he did. "You look like crap, in fact. Your face is full of pus; and you're a yellow colour; and your hair's falling out."
The wraith, too, had not spoken in a long while. Now it did. "I have not fed."
John hadn't realised.
He had been lost in the universe of thoughts. He'd stopped counting days or notches.
"I will not feed on you anymore."
"What?" John's words staggered. "Why not?" A wild pulse started up in his chest.
"I will die. I can die after your death, or I can die before your death. Those are the choices. I do not want to die alone. Death by starvation: it is not a good death. Already, the hunger is terrible. I do not want to suffer this alone. I do not want to die after your death."
Psychic splinters, fragmented over the past few days or weeks, began to make sense.
"So you want me to suffer alone?" John said. "If you die, I'll be the one dying alone. The flowers need your water; I need your water."
I need you.
"John Sheppard," the wraith said with sudden urgency, turned and grabbed John's upper arm. Its breath was hot against John's face. It smelled of nectar and oyster hearts. "I cannot starve here. Alone. How will I merge with my brethren? I am lost, I will be lost, I am lost even now." Its voice and hand shook. John's mind flexed with the wraith's desperation.
"You mean because there's no wraith to feed on you? Once you're dead?"
"There is no wraith at all!" wailed the wraith. "There is only emptiness! I do not know what will happen to me."
"Once you're dead."
"I cannot be the last one. You must not die before me."
"Don't be ridiculous. We're neither of us going to die. We're going to be rescued. No one gets left behind." He said this but he knew even as the words formed that he no longer believed them.
"When you die," said the wraith, "I will lose my last solace. The emptiness will return. How much longer have you got? You are starting to look old; you have white hair; you have wrinkles; you have spots on the back of your hand."
They looked at one another with their physical eyes.
The wraith sagged against the ember bark.
"Feed," said John and pulled off the shreds of his T-shirt. "Feed, goddamnit." He slid in between the wraith's knees and took the wraith's hand in his own. "Feed on my death."
INSENSATE INCOGNATE INCOMMUNICATE BEREFT OF ALL THAT YE ARE O MY BRETHREN AH WOE WHAT IS LIFE BUT SURVIVAL IN THE ASTRAL DOLDRUMS IN THE LEE OF LIFE STUCK ON A PIN OF MATTER O DROWNING LOST SO ALONE WITHIN THE CONFINES OF ONE SKULL WITH ONLY ONE HELPMEET AH TIME TO DIE TIME TO SING THE UNISON OF NEBULAE O THREADS IN SPACE O BEADS IN BLACK ETERNITY O MY ONE SOLACE O MY LAST BENISON
John was in the shallows by Sunrise Promontory. He'd forgotten why he had come there; then he remembered. He bent and looked at the ladybugs. He needed to pluck these. He needed to harvest them; he couldn't quite remember why.
Oh yes, to eat. To feed on. To survive.
The wraith was in the copse. The wraith stirred in his mind.
The sky hummed.
Now, that was a strange sound.
He squinted up into the sun. A black shadow turned the day into night. He cowered down but then it came to him: He knew this sound!
"Hey, wraith," he said, in slow wonder. He scrambled to his feet. "We're being rescued."
The shadow screeched, banked, landed. There was a loud smell of gunmetal and tungsten. It ignited odd thoughts in John's mind, memories long shredded.
"Wraith." He faltered on his legs. The surf drowned in the shriek of an engine revving and throttling.
It was a gut memory. John knew what the ship was going to do, instants before it happened. The sounds were imprinted within his body, the changes in pitch, and he could see that it was going to land, right next to the copse, and then it had landed, and he recognised the hiss of the portals and the tramp of boots on steel.
"Guys," he said into the glare and the clouds of disturbed sand. "What took you so long?"
Time flowed and stuttered.
Something was not right.
ENFOLD MY SPIRIT WITHIN THE HIVE
A pain stabbed the centre of him. It was an inexplicable thing, a lightning fork driven through the heart of his soul.
"Stop!" he screamed. He was running now, stumbling through the surf.
TO END THE CELESTIAL ROUND NO MORE THE PUPAE SJOSTIRNITH
Run. Run, run, run.
But it was too late.
IF WE DO DIE
Without warning, others appeared. People. They swarmed across the beach in mad zigzags. People with high, tinny voices. There was a blur of faces; John had never seen so many faces. They stared at John with small hard eyes, pupils like pinpricks. They talked and shouted in their shrill voices, all at once, a cacophony of syllables.
And then nothing.
The copse exploded in a ball of fire.
John fell into the water.
Down was up, and up was down.
The wind whispered. A cosmic silence screamed through the ether. The universe flatlined.
He retched up dry sick. Alien shouts swallowed the sky. "John! Jesus, John! What happened here?"
Hands touched his clammy skin, human hands with short soft fingers.
"Sorry, Colonel, that we couldn't make it earlier," a voice shouted right near his ear. He was jostled and prodded. An arm was thrown around his shoulders; his skin flinched at the touch. "What happened to your face? What happened to your eye? Jesus Christ, what happened to your chest?"
Acrid plumes rose on the air. The trees, the shade, all the season's ember harvest, the orchard: it all crackled and fumed.
"Was that a wraith? That was a wraith, wasn't it? Dead now."
Names. These people had names. "Rodney," John said. "Ronon." Where was...? He touched his temple, the long-gone comm.
"John? You okay? Ready to come home?" The persons smelled of water and of chemical deodorant.
"I'm fine," he said.
And he was.
"Copy that? Over and out."
The sun whirled in the apex of the sky.
IF WE DO DIE WE DO DIE AMONG OUR BRETHREN IF WE DO PERISH WE DO DISSOLVE AMONG OUR BRETHREN THERE IS NO END OF US ONLY RECYCLING ONLY THE CIRCLE OF SPIRIT BUT WOE WOE TO DIE IN EXILE TO DIE BEREFT WHO WILL TAKE MINE THOUGHTS INTO THEIR THOUGHTS WHO WILL ENFOLD MINE SPIRIT WITHIN THE SPIRIT OF THE HIVE WHO WILL DRINK OF MINE AND FIND SUCCOUR IN THE MOTHER O WOE MINE HUSK WILL ROT UPON THIS ROCK BUT WHITHER MINE SPIRIT IT WILL WITHER INTO DUST ALREADY IT IS DUST EXECRABLE FILTH O MINE ONLY SOLACE
All original parts of this story © Lobelia.
9 May 2006. Final draft 29 April 2008.
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