"Your help in increasing our defenses against the Wraith has been greatly appreciated. If the Wraith had come while the shield that masks the signature of the village was nonfunctional, I doubt there would have been any of us left. The last two cullings have left our population on the brink of extinction," Diwyn said, standing at the edge of the mountain side and watching as the rest of his people traveled back into their mountain dwelling.
"We were fortunate that there was a significant deposit of the minerals that were required to repair your shield. There is nothing like it in our city and I'm uncertain that Doctor McKay would have been able to fix it without the correct materials," Teyla said with a smile. "And the trade of crops that we've established will be beneficial to our people as well."
"I could have fixed it, and without having to open up my hands on that rock too," Rodney said with more than a hint of irritation. "It's a very simple system, actually, once you know what you're looking at. Your mechanics should have no problem maintaining it once they know what to do."
John smiled and stepped in between Rodney and Diwyn, far too used to leaders taking offense at Rodney's more than direct way of phrasing things. "What he means to say is that it was no trouble at all. We're happy to help our neighbors in this galaxy."
Diwyn turned to John and nodded. "Of course. And none of this would have been possible without your willingness to persuade your leader to help us. You are truly blessed by one of the Greater Spirits with honor and generosity."
"Well, I don't know about that," John said, feeling a little uncomfortable at the compliment even as Rodney made a disbelieving noise from behind him.
"It was our pleasure to help," Teyla said smoothly before either John or Rodney had a chance to respond. "Protecting people from the Wraith is one of the most important things we can do. There is no chance at successfully driving them from the galaxy if there is no one left to mount the offensive."
"I'm going to go check in with Ronon and Major Lorne," John said quickly, motioning out to where the fields were being harvested.
Diwyn bowed his head again. "Naturally. I understand very well what it is like to be separated from my people on a planet that is not my own. You and your people are joining us for an early evening meal tonight to celebrate the new trade and our ability to return to our ancestral homes, correct?"
Teyla smiled. "We'd be honored."
"Absolutely." John smiled too, the same artificial smile he'd been smiling the entire day as he and Teyla worked on a trade agreement with the Kamma Ket, as the people of P2X-977 called themselves. Really, Teyla had done most of the work even though Diwyn and his associate Marca looked to John for the answer at every opportunity. In the end, John had settled for stumbling through whatever he could come up with and letting Teyla provide clarification. Next time he was sending Elizabeth, even if he typically didn't enjoy sending her off-world unless it was necessary. He turned and walked down the gentle slope in the direction of the nearby fields, rolling his eyes when he heard Rodney's footsteps rushing to catch up with him.
"About time. I thought they'd go on forever," Rodney said as his steps fell in with John's.
"You didn't have to spend all day trying to talk with them. Every few minutes we had to stop and thank each other for the newfound friendship and bond between our peoples. This is why I'm not a diplomat. I hate this stuff," John grumbled, letting a little of the frustration from the hours he'd spent confined in a small office in the mountain side show through. As much as he'd had a lot of practice over the past two years helping with harvests, and it wasn't his favorite way to spend his time, he'd rather be doing something active than sitting around talking. Anything but talking.
Rodney held out his hands in front of him so that John could see the bandages on several of his fingers. "I suppose you'd rather have been pulling apart a stone age generator and chiseling pieces of conductive rock?"
John pretended to weigh the options and rolled his eyes at Rodney.
"Oh, I know. You'd rather be out in the fields with Lorne. Trying to sneak away for a romantic tryst!" Rodney exclaimed.
"First of all, no. Evan and I are responsible, we wouldn't go running off on an unknown world so that we could..." John trailed off and shook his head. "Second off all: 'tryst'? Who says romantic tryst?"
Rodney shrugged. "So I've read a couple of romance novels, I was thirteen and bored; sue me."
John didn't have anything he could say to that, though he filed the knowledge away as potential blackmail and teasing material. He'd feel guilty about that, but Rodney gave as good as he got and then some. Ever since Rodney had learned that John and Evan were dating, though dating didn't really feel like the right word for their situation, he had taken almost every opportunity to make suggestive comments about it to John. If John didn't know that it was just Rodney's bizarre way of showing that he was supportive of his and Evan's relationship, he'd have been a little disturbed and offended. As it was, after Evan had come to John's quarters late one night and told John that Rodney had threatened to space Evan if he ever hurt John, John had accepted that Rodney was just trying to look out for him. After John had laughed his ass off, though Evan hadn't been nearly as amused.
"Was it worth it?" Rodney asked suddenly.
"What?" John asked as he scanned out over the fields. He could see groups of the Kamma Ket coming toward the mountain, all carrying tools or pulling small carts. Every now and then he could see the dark uniform shirt of one of the marines who had been brought with them to help with the harvest and repairs to the mountain village; there were twenty marines total, not including the two lieutenants from Lorne's team, and he could see Lorne's botanist talking cheerfully with one of the natives at the front of the group.
"The man hours we're using to come help these people. Their population isn't big enough that they can survived beyond a few generations, and that's if they're lucky," Rodney said as he stood next to John and watched the people working the harvest.
"They're giving us a good portion of their harvest at a more than reasonable price, they don't have enough people to bring in the harvest by themselves, or to use it all before it would spoil. Selling it at the off-world markets would take more resources than they have this season. Besides, if we have to evacuate this will be one of the worlds we can fall back to. It's reasonably well protected from the Wraith and they have more than enough space to house the population of Atlantis," John reasoned.
"Well enough protected that they're almost extinct," Rodney pointed out. He sighed and ran his hands through his already messy hair. "I'm tired of arriving on worlds we're too late to help."
John nodded because he felt the same. He was beyond tired of seeing empty cities and burned fields, and it didn't take any one who was particularly observant to see how much it hurt Teyla and Ronon. "We did help. You fixed their shield thing, right?"
"Fixed is a bit strong of a world. I made it work again, but it was only intended to cover the section of the mountain where the main village is. I extended the protection as far as I could while maintaining the stability of the system, but if the Wraith come and anyone is out in the fields or out hunting, the Wraith wouldn't have any trouble finding them. The shield protects them from being noticed by the sensors on the Wraith Darts, but it won't do anything to stop the Wraith from seeing them with their eyes," Rodney sighed and looked at his hands. "I'm trying to teach their mechanics how to maintain the system, but their version of mechanics are stone carvers and people who work with very rudimentary farm equipment."
John nodded and put on his sunglasses as the setting sun hit an angle that sent the rays directly at them. "Then we'll schedule someone from your department to come check on it every month."
"Won't stop their population from dying out," Rodney pointed out. "Probably within four generations if there are no more cullings."
"They're not isolationists. I'm sure that they'll find other populations to intermarry with," John said firmly. Sometimes he thought that having Rodney on his team made him the optimist by default, as long as technology wasn't involved somehow. John was pretty sure if they had anything on Atlantis that would magically grow this planet's population, Rodney would be through the 'gate and trying to convince Elizabeth to let him try it out on the Kamma Ket. Despite the pessimism and sometimes blunt statements, John had discovered that Rodney actually cared about the planets and people they came across, maybe cared too much. "Look, there's Ronon and Evan. Let's go inform them that we have invites to dinner."
"Well, on the bright side I haven't seen anything resembling citrus on this planet," Rodney said as they walked toward Ronon and Evan, Evan raising his hand to wave at them as he rested some kind of farm implement over his shoulder with his other hand.
John waved back, unable to stop the small smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. He supposed that made him a bit of a sap, to be happy just to see Evan after a day of being separated, but he found that he hadn't been able to stop himself once it had started. "See, things are looking up already," he pointed out.
"If only they had chocolate. Or coffee, or-"
"Yes, I know your wish list," John said. They made it to where Suanna, who had been introduced in the morning as the person who was in charge of the harvest and the village storerooms, was currently directing traffic.
"Good harvest?" John asked as they stood to the side so they didn't block traffic of the carts and wagons.
Suanna nodded, her hair fiery and wild in the light of the early sunset. "Excellent harvest. If the rest of our people were still here, it would have easily fed all of us through the winter."
John nodded, well aware that the people of the village were still grieving from the most recent Wraith attack. "The portion of the harvest that is going to our home in trade will help feed many of our people. Do you need another team of marines here tomorrow to help with the rest of the harvest?"
"No, there isn't much left to do and we can prepare the fields for winter at our leisure. Your young men and women are very strong and capable. I can imagine that your world must thrive despite the Wraith," Suanna said with a quick glance to where Ronon and Lorne were walking toward them.
"We manage. We've lost people to the Wraith as well," Rodney said shortly.
"Everyone has, and I ask both the Greater and Lesser Spirits daily to provide whatever peace those taken by the Wraith can receive, no matter what world they were from," Suanna said. She reached out and placed her hand on Rodney's hand and squeezed briefly before letting go.
Rodney didn't object, despite the fact that Suanna's hands were visibly covered in grim and dirt, and John knew that the loss of a team that had three scientists in Rodney's department was still bothering him. It had been nearly a month, but as the numbers of people they'd lost to the Wraith grew it became harder to accept, not easier.
"Colonel, have you seen Doctor Parrish? I seem to have," Evan looked around the nearby area before continuing, "I seem to have misplaced him."
John smirked, mostly because he got to hear tales of woe concerning Evan's botanist wandering away almost every time Evan's team returned from a mission. Evan had only smacked John's arm, and not softly either, when John had suggested a leash or a tracking device after a particularly ridiculous mission. "I just saw Doctor Parrish a few minutes ago, Major. He was heading back toward the village with some of the Kamma Ket," John said, not missing the way Rodney rolled his eyes at their use of rank.
"Your harvest expert has been very valuable today, he has taught us much about the land. I believe I saw him walking with my nephew. They were quite deep in conversation about irrigation," Suanna volunteered as Ronon and Evan approached.
"Coughin, run ahead and radio me when you've found him," Evan ordered with a long suffering glance at John, who only smirked in return.
"Yes, sir," Coughlin said with a fond smile as he passed his gear off to Reed, the other marine lieutenant on Evan's team.
John reached out and took a piece of Evan's equipment from him and walked beside him as the group resumed their trek back to the village. "Everything go well out here?"
Evan nodded. "They're good people. Friendly, and the marines all seemed to enjoy themselves."
John glanced around them, noting that Reed and Rodney had dropped back a few steps and were chatting and not for the first time was grateful that his and Evan's teams had bonded so well. "I think you have a sunburn," he said, taking the moment where no one was watching to reach out and press his finger tips against the exposed and slightly reddened skin of Evan's forearm.
"A little bit," Evan agreed as he looked down to where John's hand had touched. "But in a week I'll have the best tan on Atlantis."
John laughed, wondering how it was that Evan knew how to make him laugh without seeming to try. "It's winter, I'm not sure there is much of a competition."
Evan just smiled. "Better than your tan. And I can prove it," he said quietly. "How did the trade negotiations go?"
"They went well, though Teyla might disagree with that if you ask her," John shrugged. "They don't seem like they have problems with women in authority, but they kept directing all their questions to me."
"Even after you made it clear that you couldn't negotiate your way out of a paper bag?" Evan teased.
"Hey! I negotiate just fine, when I have to. I just don't want Teyla to feel like we don't need her on the team," John said as they started the slow climb up to the village entrance in the mountain side, knowing that he was convincing no one, especially not himself.
"I'll get you the paper bag so you can practice," Rodney said as he passed them without looking back.
"Hey!" John said again, waving his free hand in the air. When Evan just started to laugh, John shot him a glare as well. "Traitor. Careful, I have the power to demote you."
Evan just grinned. "But then you'd be dating a lieutenant, and how would that look, Colonel?"
John rolled his eyes, pulling off his sunglasses so that Evan couldn't miss it. "I'm sure everyone would know that you deserved the demotion for driving me crazy."
"I'm pretty sure I'm the one keeping you sane," Evan said, his smile softening when John just raised his eyebrows. "Doing all your paper work so that you don't get the IOA on your case, again."
"For that, you're carrying your own farm equipment," John said, offloading the wood and metal tool back onto Evan before walking away to go join where Ronon was helping to unload one of the carts.
The dinner with the Kamma Ket was unfortunately as dull and rigorous as the trade negotiations had been. Diwyn, Marca, and Suanna sat at the head of the large table in the ancestral hall, with John and Rodney sitting in between the group in positions of honor. Like the negotiations, the meal was stopped several times as different dishes were brought out, each time to thank one of the Greater or Lesser Spirits for the dish and then Suanna would tell the story of how that particular Spirit had brought the dish down for the Ancestors.
John had tried to appear as attentive as possible, though that became more and more difficult as there was less eating being done than talking. Only the fact that Rodney was at his side and behaving himself admirably kept John from wanting to rest his head down on the carved table in front of him. Instead, he kept his focus on Evan, who was seated further down the 'table of the ancestors' and was smirking at John every time it seemed like Marca or Suanna was finished but then would continue on. John vowed that he was going to do something cruel to Evan, like hide his sketch book or have Atlantis make all of his showers cold, or at least the showers that Evan took alone. Atlantis liked John better anyway, even though Evan was one of the strongest gene carriers on the city. That vow was only renewed when he saw that the people further down the table were sharing dishes freely while the only got to take a brief taste of things at the front table.
When they finally escaped the mountain, Teyla and Ronon leading the group while John and Evan brought up the rear, John sighed as his stomach growled. Evan just laughed.
"It's not funny, at least you got to eat," John said with a sigh as he turned around and did a quick head count for the third time to make sure no one had gotten left behind in the mountain with the Kamma Ket. Sometimes he thought his job was comparable to being an elementary school teacher on a very extended field trip.
"But the faces you were making when you thought no one was looking were priceless. You're lucky I didn't pull out the camera and post it on the internal server. I would have titled it 'Bored Military Commander at Diplomatic Event', or maybe 'Colonel Waits for Eternally Postponed Meal'. What do you think?" Evan asked, still far too cheerful for his own good.
John shook his head as he counted the last marine. "I think if you replace 'bored' with 'hungry' you would be right on the mark. I'm raiding the mess hall for leftovers when we get back."
"That took forever," Rodney said as he dropped his pack down next to John and began rummaging through it. "The next time we're required to attend a diplomatic dinner for the good of Atlantis, it better actually involve dinner."
"Actually, the different Spirits that they attribute each food to and the folklore involved is fascinating. Well, from an anthropological point of view, not scientific, but even so," David Parrish said as he bounded cheerfully up to the group.
Fortunately Rodney's mouth was occupied by half of a power bar and he couldn't respond with any more than a muffled grunt. It had taken John and Evan two months to get Rodney to stop saying that botany was not a real science, at least not in the presence of David, and it would be a shame to undo all that work.
"Let's get back to the 'gate. I'm not sure how much time we have before the sun actually sets, considering it looked like it was setting when we went inside and that was hours ago. And the last time we walked back in the dark someone got a sprained ankle," John said, adjusting his pack as he once again checked that they had everyone, including Evan's botanist, and then gave the signal to Teyla and Ronon to start the group heading forward.
"That wasn't my fault," Rodney said, his voice still muffled by the power bar. "How was that my fault? I couldn't see where I was going and you kept telling me to run."
"We know, Rodney. But a sprained ankle was better than letting those creatures get you. How did you describe them, John? Like wolves crossed with sharks on steroids?" Evan asked.
"It was bears. Bears crossed with sharks on steroids," John said firmly. "That's what they looked like, fins and everything."
They were all quiet for a long moment as they started walking, Rodney grabbing his pack at the very last moment and rushing to keep up with the group.
"Wait, why would a bear need fins? That doesn't make any sense from an evolutionary stand point," David said suddenly, coming to a halt as he thought.
Evan went back a few steps and got David walking again.
"That's the point, it was unnatural. Uncanny. Disturbing," John said with a frown as he remembered the creatures he'd only barely caught sight of before they'd been pursued.
"Can we change the subject before he comes up with more adjectives?" Rodney asked, trying to dig in his pack and walk at the same time.
"Back, retreat back to the mountain," Ronon's voice came over their radios loud and urgent.
Teyla's voice joined Ronon's a moment later. "Five Wraith Darts, heading our way."
All the marines in their group moved in sync, readying their weapons as the group turned back toward the refuge of the mountain.
"Split up, stay under as much cover as you can," John ordered, struggling to keep his eyes on the group as the whine of a Dart ship sounded in the distance.
Everyone moved quickly, breaking into smaller teams and leaving the trail they'd been following back to the 'gate. John stayed with Rodney, Evan and David, urging them further back into the forest as the still setting sun streamed through the trunks. They were close to the shadow of the mountain, close enough that when John ducked back out on the path to urge a pair of corporals back into the other side of the forest he could see the gates where Rodney had indicated the end of the shield's protection.
John reached to his radio. "Get past the gates and find cover. The dart's sensors won't be able to find you once you're beyond the gates, but they'll still be able to see you if there are Wraith soldiers on the ground."
He rejoined Rodney and Evan just in time to hear Evan say "damn it, Parrish" before disappearing back into the forest.
Rodney paused, ready to go back and help, but John shook his head and urged them both forward. Evan could take care of himself and his team without their help.
The gates surrounding the mostly underground village of the Kamma Ket were mostly ceremonial posts connected to a wall that had deteriorated badly over the years. Getting into the protected area wouldn't be a problem even as they hurried through the thinning forest and ascended the moderate slope up the start of the mountain.
About five minutes later, stumbling over exposed roots as branches as the sun finished setting and plunged them into darkness, they crossed the wall and Rodney came to a sudden stop.
"We can't stay here," John said, placing a hand on Rodney's shoulder to urge him on.
"We're past the point the Darts can detect us, but I need to see if I can pick up Wraith life signs from here or if the interference is too much for Ancient technology," Rodney said, already twisting around to dig in one of his side pockets. "You want to know if there are any Wraith soldiers to worry about, don't you?"
John sighed and pulled Rodney behind a rock formation that was a dozen paces away, struggling to keep both of them on their feet. He did want to know, but that didn't mean he wanted to be out in the open where anyone could see them, presuming that the Wraith saw much better in the dark than humans did, while Rodney took the scan. "Well?" he asked when they were both crouched down.
"I can't see anything at the moment, inside the field or out. Give me a minute to recalibrate," Rodney said with a frown as he examine the life signs detector.
"Give it here," John said, not waiting for Rodney's protests as he took the device and thought at it with all the concentration he could spare. Sometimes using the ATA gene to force things along was a lot faster than fiddling with the programing of various bits and pieces of Ancient technology.
He could almost feel the way the programing rewrote itself, rearranging the way it worked at John's will and whim. It was a little unsettling when that happened, usually he could just feel a simple request for information being processed, but it was a little strange to know that he could actually change the way the technology worked just by directing his thoughts.
"There," John said and handed the device back to Rodney, who was more than slightly pissed off by the way he tugged the life signs detector from John's hands.
"I could have done it," Rodney grumbled as he examined the screen.
John shrugged even though no one could see it in the dark. "My way was faster."
"Okay, quiet. There are six Wraith soldiers in the forest, fairly close by, but they aren't moving quickly or directly toward the mountain," Rodney said as he examined the device.
"Sheppard, what's your location?" Ronon's voice called through the radio.
"Pile of rocks toward the dark side of the front gates. We're maybe five minutes from the main entrance hall," John said quietly, looking around in the dim moonlight but not wanting to risk taking out a flashlight just yet.
"We've been greeted by the Kamma Ket. If you are safe to do so, you should make your way to the side entrance that overlooks the fields," Teyla said over the radio.
Rodney pocketed his scanner. "I know where that is, I went through there when I was fixing the shield. This way."
"On our way." John followed Rodney, both of them creeping along and doing their best not make a lot of noise that might alert the Wraith to their position.
They made it to the cave nearly ten minutes later, welcoming the dim light of Kamma Ket lanterns as they moved deeper into the cave and found Ronon, Teyla, and a group of marines waiting for them along with Marca at the back of the group.
"Is everyone here?" John asked before anyone else had a chance to speak.
"We have eight of the marines here with us, Lieutenant Coughlin has radioed us to let us know that he has fourteen, including himself and Reed. Have you seen Major Lorne and Doctor Parrish?" Teyla asked, her face tight with concern.
John felt his chest freeze for a moment before he turned back to the entrance of the cave, shrugging off Rodney's hand on his shoulder.
"John, wait. There are no human life signs in the forest," Rodney said, rushing forward to try and stop John from leaving.
Shrugging Rodney off again, John kept going as his heart pounded painfully in his chest.
"Sheppard, come in," John's radio came to life just as he reached the opening of the cave with his team at his heels.
"Evan, where the hell are you?" John snapped before he could stop himself, air rushing back into his lungs.
There was a moment of silence before Evan responded. "David and I are somewhere on the mountain, though I can't give you an exact location. A Wraith Dart overhead drove us off course and we didn't come out of the forest where we expected."
Rodney tapped into the radio. "Major Lorne, I believe I've found your location on the scanner. You need to come partway back down the mountain and head toward the fields you were working in today. We're in a cave that overlooks those fields."
"Copy that, we're on our way. Lorne out," Evan said before closing the connection.
John gave himself a brief moment to rest his hand against the wall of the cave, the cool touch of the stone helping to remind him where he was and that he still had responsibilities. When he looked up he found his team all surrounding him, their expressions concerned. Well, as much concern as Ronon ever expressed at least. John had gotten a lot better over the past two years at reading the minute changes in the way Ronon held himself or the way his eyes would flicker down or to the side and knowing what those changes meant.
"The Kamma Ket are willing to give us shelter until the Wraith have gone from this world," Teyla said quietly. "They're still in the process of resettling their own people but Marca has assured me there is room our people for as long as we need to stay."
John nodded. "As soon as Lorne and Parrish are here we can get everyone settled. Rodney, what's the situation with the Wraith?"
"We still have six Wraith on the ground and they're spreading out to conduct a search. They obviously know we were there," Rodney said, the ominous whine of a Wraith Dart overhead punctuating his words.
"When the rest of your people are here we should retreat further back into the village. We can disguise the tunnel entrances so that the Wraith will believe they are impassible. Our ancestors evaded the Wraith for many generators in these mountains," Marca said as he joined them at the entrance. "I trust that the rest of your people were successful in escaping the Wraith culling beams?"
John nodded shortly and looked out into the darkness, wishing he could go out there and find Evan himself. "The last two are on their way to this location. We just spoke to them."
"They're moving right toward us, no Wraith in their vicinity," Rodney said, still looking at his scanner.
"I thought you said you didn't see any human life signs a few minutes ago?" John asked, not sure he'd forgiven Rodney for scaring him like that.
Rodney frowned and handed the scanner over to John. "Well, I didn't expect them to be halfway up the mountain. I assumed all the life signs in that direction were members of the Kamma Ket. This thing isn't exactly specific about locations in more than two dimensions."
They all fell silent for a few minutes, John growing more impatient by the moment even as he watched the dots that represented Parrish and Lorne making their way toward the cave. Even though he could see that they were almost to safety, and knew that the shield prevented the Darts from sensing them, he couldn't help but imagining a culling beam coming and taking them from right in front of him. He'd seen it happen, more times than he could count; people, sometimes his people, running for safety and being taken as they closed in on the safe location and had no where to hide.
The sound of rocks crunching outside set them all on alert and a moment later Evan and David stumbled into the dimly lit cave.
Evan was half supporting David, who had dirt streaking his uniform and was limping.
John met Evan's eyes for a moment and received a minuscule nod that meant they were alright. "Cutting it close, Major," was all John could say, far too aware of everyone watching them.
"It was my fault, I tripped over the roots of a very large Picea glauca and scrapped myself up a bit," David said sheepishly.
"Sure, he can name the tree but he can't stop himself from spraining his ankle falling over it," Evan joked, even though his eyes were still tight. He did a quick scan of the rest of the group that had gathered. "The rest of the marines?"
"They are helping to secure the front entrance," Teyla said quickly as she moved to the other side of David.
John swallowed and let himself relax a little as he urged everyone further back into the cave. "You might want to radio Reed and Coughlin and let them know you and David are here."
Evan nodded as he and Teyla helped David further back into the cave. "Yeah, they're pretty attached to Parrish. I can't imagine what they'd say if they thought I'd lost him."
John chuckled and shook his head, the back of his hand brushing very slightly against the back of Evan's free hand. "Just make sure it doesn't happen again. I don't think I can send you off-world if you keep misplacing the scientists," he said, the joking helping ease the tension of nearly losing Evan and David.
"I'm not something that can be misplaced," David said indignantly. "And it wasn't even my fault this time!"
"Of course not," Evan said soothingly as he exchanged glances with John.
"They never listen to me when I say that either," Rodney said, giving David a knowing nod.
Marca gave them an uncertain smile as he glanced over the group and paused where the cave widened and branched off. These caves had obviously been carved out and adapted by the Kamma Ket, and there were lanterns hanging in the hall every few yards. "I'll just secure the entrance and then we can go to the hall we have set up for your people for the night."
"Thank you, we'd appreciate that," John said. He and Rodney watched with no small amount of interest as Marca operated one of the machines that was built into the cave wall, a series of rocks appearing in the area they'd been standing in only moments before.
"It gives the appearance of a cave in, so should the Wraith wander this far they would not explore further," Marca explained when he saw John and Rodney watching.
"But it doesn't actually do anything to prevent the Wraith from entering?" John asked.
Marca frowned. "No, it is just a disguise, much as the shield that Doctor McKay fixed. But no Wraith has ever entered the caves of our ancestors."
John exchanged glances with Rodney and then looked out over the group of marines. "Jones and Gale, you're on guard duty at this entrance. Alert me if the Wraith approach."
"Yes, sir," the two marines said in unison as they separated themselves from the group and took up position at either side of the entryway.
"That's not necessary, although on behalf of my people I thank you for your concern and vigilance," Marca said, taking in the way the marines stood with their weapons ready with wide eyes.
"For the safety of both your people and mine, stationing guards at all the entrances is the best way of being prepared in case the Wraith start to investigate the caves. How many entrances are there to the village?" John asked calmly, not having any intention of leaving the entrances unguarded regardless of how badly he might be offending the Kamma Ket.
Marca bowed his head. "Your dedication is admirable. Beyond this entrance and the main gate there is one more way into the village. I will take you there myself once we have gotten your people settled and attended your wounded."
"I'm fine, no need to attend me," David called from where he was leaning half against the wall and half on Evan.
"Many of our people are skilled in the art of healing, I'm certain we can take care of Doctor Parrish, though we appreciate your offer of assistance," Teyla said smoothly before John had a chance to decline.
"As you wish. Please follow me," Marca said and led the way through the caves toward the main section of the underground village.
They walked past the ancestral hall, where they'd eaten dinner earlier, or where some of them got to eat dinner, John's stomach reminded him, and down a long hallway with a slow but steady decline. The chill in the air grew more pronounced as they went further and further underground, and finally reached a large chamber that was more like a cavern than anything they'd seen so far. The rest of the marines were already there and waiting, all of them immediately looking to John as he and the others filed in.
"I would have arranged for separate rooms, there are plenty of currently empty living areas in the village, but Diwyn believed that you would rather keep your people together tonight," Marca said as he looked over the room with a hint of distaste.
"This is great," John said quickly. "Let me just check-in with this group and you can take me to the third entrance you spoke of."
Evan, still helping David along, moved deeper into the room and began getting the rest of the group organized.
Reed, obviously relieved when he was Evan and David, came over to John immediately. "I left Coughlin and Rodgers to monitor the front entrance. The tech here seems a little unreliable," Reed said quietly with a quick glance over to where Marca was watching from the edge of the cavern.
"Good call," John said with a quick smile at the younger officer. "Help Major Lorne get everyone settled and set up a watch rotation consisting of six people for the entrances and two for this room. We're staying the night and with any luck the Wraith will be gone in the morning."
"Yes sir," Reed said immediately and hurried away to check in with Major Lorne.
John glanced over the gathered marines. "Fredricks, Stevens, with me!"
The two marines came over without hesitation and followed him back to Marca.
"If you'll show us the third entrance?" John asked.
Marca looked at the pair of marines and gave a nod that looked more bemused than anything else. "If you'll follow me."
The last thing John heard as he was leaving the room was Evan pulling off David's boot and saying that it seemed they'd have to amputate. John forced himself not to smile even though he was sure that if he heard David's response he wouldn't have been able to stop himself.
John made it back to the cavern within thirty minutes and was pleased to see that everyone was close to settled for the night. The marines had grouped themselves together in sets of four and five and John saw that there was an empty place for him between his team and Evan's. David was leaning against one of the walls with his ankle wrapped and propped up and apparently deep in conversation with Reed about something, while Evan seemed to be chatting peacefully with Teyla.
"Everyone in place?" Evan asked, handing John both an MRE and a scrap of notebook paper with a guard rotation sketched out on it.
Grateful, John set down his pack and forced himself to look over the rotation before he handed it back and opened the MRE. "Yep. I dropped by and made sure Coughlin knew you and David made it back alright," John said, though the reason he had insisted on going all the way up to the main gate was because he wouldn't have been able to relax at all if he hadn't seen everyone with his own eyes. He wouldn't be able to sleep anyway, not while they were camped inside a village with the Wraith knocking at the front door, but he would have driven himself crazy if he hadn't gone to check on everyone. Marca had accepted the detour with the same tolerant and slightly puzzled expression but hadn't said anything more about leaving guards. John took the victory where he could get it, but was glad when Marca wandered away after guiding him back to the cavern.
"David will be fine, though he should get examined by Beckett when we get back to Atlantis," Evan said as he shifted on his bedroll so that John had a more comfortable place to sit.
"I already told you I don't need to see Beckett," David called, leaning back so that he could see both John and Evan.
Evan smirked. "I wasn't talking about your ankle, I was more thinking about getting your eyes checked. Or maybe your brain."
"Very funny," David sat back up again and went back to his conversation with Reed.
John smiled and then actually looked down at the MRE he was opening. "Lasagna?" he asked, turning his best reproachful look on Evan.
"It was either that or the chicken parmesan," Evan said without a hint of remorse.
"Chicken?" Rodney asked suddenly.
Evan rummaged in his pack and tossed the MRE to Rodney without a word.
John just sighed and activated the heating packet that would make the lasagna brick at least passably warm and started mixing the coffee in the pouch that came with it. If nothing else he could have some really bad coffee.
"Doctor Weir will probably try to dial in and send a radio call as soon as the Wraith release control," Evan said, not voicing the fact that they all knew their failure to return or report in within the past six hours would be causing concern on Atlantis.
"She will. Hopefully they'll be able to dial in during a time when the Wraith are trying to redial after the 48 minutes are up," John said as he dug through the MRE packaging and pulled out the little sugary cake that was included as dessert, examining it a moment before handing it over to Evan who accepted it with a small smile. "Either way, they won't send anyone through until they have more information."
Evan nodded and dug into the cake as John pulled out a packet of crackers and dug in. "We've camped in worse places," Evan offered hopefully.
John looked around; one group of the marines was playing poker while another group was egging them on, his team and Evan's were gathered together. Ronon was gamely stealing pieces of the chicken from Rodney and David was trying to beg for the dried fruit packet while citing his injury as a reason for Rodney to be nice to him. John knew that Rodney would give David the fruit packet, mostly because Rodney didn't actually want the fruit, but Rodney seemed to enjoy having David around as a surrogate kid brother to torment and tease a little bit before handing over the snack. "Yeah, we've definitely camped in worse places," John agreed, mostly thinking of Antarctica and spending his meal times alone. He hadn't felt lonely or isolated at the time - he had welcomed the silence - but this seemed a lot better.
"Hey, Sheppard, are you eating your peanut butter?" Rodney asked.
John tossed it over without a word and checked to see if the lasagna was ready yet. He dug in and decided that it wasn't half as bad as the odd green and black spotted thing the Kamma Ket had him taste at their 'dinner', and ate with more gusto than was probably appropriate for an MRE. He let his knee fall to the side and shared a small smile with Evan as their legs bumped together.
After an hour or so the marines settled down and people started to drift off to sleep. Rodney was out as soon as he checked with John that he wasn't taking a watch that night and the rest of the group followed soon. The lights in the cavern had automatically dimmed over time and John's assessment of the left-over technology that was built into the caves increased, though he supposed that shielding life signs and holographic rocks were a bit more impressive than lights on a timer.
He had pulled his bedroll out, mostly so that he wasn't sitting on the cold surface of the floor, but he had no intention of even trying to sleep. When he looked to his right he found Ronon wide awake as well, not even pretending to sleep, and Teyla's eyes opened frequently. To his left, David was asleep although his eyes opened and he shifted every time he accidentally jostled his ankle, and Reed drifted in and out of sleep at almost exactly forty five minute intervals. Evan was awake for the most part, John had spent enough time sleeping next to Evan to know when he was awake even when he was still, though he kept his eyes closed as he rested.
"Lie down for a bit, even if you don't sleep," Evan whispered to John shortly after the guard change and Coughlin had joined their group.
John took a quick look around the room again, taking in everything from the marines just off their watch getting settled to Rodney shifting and thrashing in his sleep. He spent an extra moment pulling Rodney's blanket up around his shoulders and checking that his own radio was in place in case one of the marines guarding the entrances called for him, and then lied down next to Evan.
It was almost like being back on Atlantis, when John let his eyes fall shut and ignored the sounds of two dozen other people around them, and he focused on the steady in and out of Evan's breathing next to him. Leaving his eyes shut, John placed his hand on the edge of Evan's bedroll and waited a brief moment before Evan's hand wrapped around his. John tightened his fingers, letting himself accept that the Wraith hadn't gotten Evan even though it had felt far too close for comfort. They may have joked about it, even about David getting hurt, but if the Wraith had been a little bit closer or the Dart had flown overhead at the moment when Evan was helping David up from falling, they would be gone.
Evan squeezed back reassuringly, as if he knew exactly what John was worrying about. Of course, Evan had probably been just as scared of losing him when they'd been separated, knowing that the Wraith were out there and could take any of them.
It wasn't until John's watch, synchronized with Atlantis, read just before six in the morning that his radio came to life with a short crackle.
"Weir to Colonel Sheppard, please respond. We have rescue teams ready to come through the 'gate at your disposal," Elizabeth Weir said, her voice cracking and breaking up as it made it through the distance and the mountain above them.
"Sheppard here. All members present and accounted for, no need to send the rescue parties," John said quickly as he pushed himself to his feet and carefully walked around the sleeping bodies of his and Evan's team even though most of them had already awoken at the sound of John's voice.
"Good to hear that, John," Elizabeth said, the relief evident in her voice even through the radio. "We were expecting you yesterday evening."
"Several Wraith Darts came through the 'gate last night just as we set out for home, but we were close to the Kamma Ket village and they sheltered us for the night. No casualties for the Kamma Ket or ourselves. The shield that McKay fixed seems to be functioning," John reported from the edge of the room, watching as everyone began to get up.
"I'm glad. When you've had the opportunity to thank the Kamma Ket for their hospitality, I'm sure you'll be heading back to Atlantis," Elizabeth said.
John smiled. "Yes, I think we're all pretty eager to get home."
"I'll see you soon. Weir out," Elizabeth said, cutting their connection.
John stepped forward, automatically gaining the attention of everyone in the room. "Get packed up and ready to go. As soon as we're sure the Wraith are no longer in the vicinity we're heading back to Atlantis."
The bustle of two dozen men and women moving all at once in the slowly brightening light of the lanterns was a little too much for John after the long day previously and the unrestful night, and he returned to wrap up his bedroll with a yawn.
"Wraith gone?" Evan asked from where he was tidying up his area.
"Seems like it, but I'm going to take the life signs detector to one of the entrances and make sure before I recall the guards," John said as he tucked his bedroll away. He reached over Rodney to dig in his pack.
"What are you looking for?" Rodney asked as he woke the rest of the way and rolled out of John's way.
"The scanner. I'm going to go check that the Wraith are actually gone and aren't just waiting for us to reappear," John said, coming up empty handed.
Rodney started pulling on his boots. "It's in my pocket. I'll come with you."
John was about to argue but he spotted Marca and Suanna at the edge of the cavern and got to his feet. "Be ready by the time I'm back." He walked over to the Kamma Ket and tried to smile, though he was pretty sure that his facial expression didn't quite resemble happiness. Evan liked to tell him that he always looked particularly grumpy when he was exhausted even if he was trying to put on a happy face.
"I trust your people are well?" Marca asked with a small bob of his head.
"Yes, thank you again for taking us in last night," John said quickly.
"It is a cruel people indeed who would not provide shelter when the Wraith come," Suanna said gravely. "I cannot imagine anyone would forsake the Spirits in such a manner."
"You'd be surprised," John said with a tight smile. "Our people are waiting for us to return, so if you don't mind we'll just check that the Wraith are gone and be on our way."
"You must stay for the morning meal with us. It is rare we have visitors and we would dishonor the Spirits if you left without being fed," Suanna said quickly.
Marca nodded. "That is true. The meal is already being prepared. If you'd like to check for the presence of the Wraith before we eat, I'm certain that would put everyone's concerns to rest."
John glanced back at his team, knowing full well what Teyla would be telling him to say right now even though what he really wanted to do was hightail it back to Atlantis and hope they were serving pancakes or waffles in the mess hall. "We'd be honored to join you for the morning meal. Doctor McKay and myself will just go and check for the Wraith before we do so," John said, mentally adding that if he found them they might as well invite them in for breakfast, because it would be the polite and diplomatic thing to do.
"We'll meet you in the ancestral hall. I believe you can find your way," Marca said before both he and Suanna retreated back into the hallway.
John dragged himself back over to his team. "McKay and I are going to go check on the status of the Wraith. Major, can you get everyone ready to go and then down to the ancestral hall for breakfast so we don't dishonor the Spirits?" He was sure he felt one of his eyes twitch as he asked the question.
Evan grinned. "Of course, sir."
John grabbed his pack and motioned to McKay who was getting to his feet and pulling his own pack on.
"I just hope they actually feed us this time," Rodney grumbled as they made their way through the hallway up to the main entrance.
"You and me both," John agreed quietly.
They reached the front entrance quickly enough, both of the marines standing guard snapping to attention as soon as they spotted John.
"At ease," John said quickly. "Report."
"Quiet all night, sir," one of the marines said.
Rodney stepped up to the edge of where the false cave wall started and peered at the scanner. "No Wraith in the vicinity. They must have left on the Darts."
John nodded, relieved that they weren't going to have to camp out with the Kamma Ket for the day. "Let's get breakfast and go home."
The marines followed John and Rodney back to the ancestral hall while John radioed the other marines who had been stationed at cave entrances to join them there. Everyone else had arrived and settled along the side of the giant table, his people comprising nearly a fifth of the people gathered in the hall. It was good to see all of his team, Evan's team, and the contingent of marines in one place, a reassurance that they were all safe.
John and Rodney made their way to join their team, a space left for them between where David was resting his ankle off the side of one of the benches and where Ronon was already spearing some kind of meat with his knife, when Diwyn approached them with Marca and Suanna at his sides.
"The Wraith have gone?" Diwyn asked immediately.
John pasted his smile on, aware that Rodney wasn't even making an attempt to appear pleased at being diverted from a meal yet again. "We didn't see any sign of them."
Diwyn bowed his head. "That is very fortunate. If you would both join us, we would like to thank you again for your assistance."
"That's not really necessary," John said quickly as he gently pushed Rodney's hand down from where he was pointing to the food spread out on the table. "You've thanked us more than enough already. We were very honored at the meal yesterday."
"It won't take but a few moments and then you can return to your people to for morning meal," Marca assured them.
"It would not do to displeasure the Greater Spirits by refusing a gift from them," Suanna added.
John kept his smile in place. "Of course. We'd be honored to receive a gift from the Greater Spirits."
"Thrilled," Rodney deadpanned when the trio of Kamma Ket looked to him.
Diwyn smiled. "Please follow us to the chamber of the ancestors. It is the last place where the Greater Spirits had direct contact with our people," Diwyn said with another bow before turning to lead the way.
John quickly turned and caught Evan's eye, managing to communicate with an eye roll, a slight tilt of his head, and raising one of his shoulders slightly that he had to go for an alien ritual and would return shortly.
Evan just grinned but slipped his hand to rest on his holstered gun, letting John know that he was amused but had John's back just in case.
Teyla nodded her approval and Ronon tossed a piece of fruit to Rodney, who just barely managed catch it and started to eat it as they exited back into the passageway.
As they walked down the hallway, leading deep into the mountain and further down than they'd stayed the previous night, John felt a slight prickle at the back of his neck and looked back more than once to check the area around him. Diwyn led the way, with Suanna and Marca bringing up the tail end of their group, and John was starting to feel more like this was an escort than it was an optional gathering. The Kamma Ket weren't threatening; John hadn't seen any weapons or any indications of violence within their culture. He should have known, he decided, even though there wasn't anything more than the itching feeling in the very center of his back to found his feelings on. It was always the peaceful, idyllic societies that were the threat, not the ones that had their weapons at hand and were openly distrustful of foreigners.
John glanced at Rodney, wondering how much he was picking up and how far they might get if they had to make a run for it. They still had their radios, and their weapons even though John hated the idea of pulling weapons on people who were empty-handed, but it meant that Evan would be able to rally the marines and their teams and get them to safety with ease. Rodney seemed equally tense, his eyes shifting from Diywn and back to Suanna and Marca before chancing a glance at John. John nodded ever so slightly to let Rodney know that he sensed whatever it was as well and Rodney's eyes widened.
Before they had a chance to do more than communicate their discomfort, Diwyn pushed aside a thick curtain that covered an opening in the wall and stepped inside. John wanted to balk, say that there was no way he was going in a creepy little cave probably to be sacrificed to the Kamma Ket's spirits as a bribe to keep their people safe from the Wraith. It wouldn't be the first time a village had tried to sacrifice either one or all of his team, though usually they had the decency to feed them first. Well, either that or carve symbols on them, but John wasn't ready to judge the Kamma Ket's sacrificial rituals until he was tied down on the alter.
"I assure you nothing untoward is going to happen," Suanna said, reaching up and gently cupping John's jaw. "It saddens me that you have seen so much in the worlds among the stars that you have cause to fear us."
Marca nodded, his expression grim, and then stepped inside the chamber. Suanna followed, after pausing to rest her hand on Rodney's forearm, leaving John and Rodney out in the hallway by themselves.
Rodney turned to John, his eyes wide. "Well?"
John sighed and looked at the way back to the surface and the rest of their people. He figured that if they were to walk away, Diwyn wouldn't stop them. But apparently it was also 'dishonorable' to refuse a gift from the Kamma Ket's Spirits, and dishonor probably included lack of trade agreements. John did not want to see Elizabeth's face if he came back without securing the trade they'd gone to this planet specifically for, and that wasn't even mentioning the accepting yet slightly disappointed look Teyla would give him.
"At the first sign of trouble, radio Evan and get out. Don't wait for anything, just run back to everyone else, they'll send a team for me," John instructed, holding Rodney's gaze.
Rodney swallowed hard but nodded. "You don't have to worry about me trying to save you. You know I'll let the more capable members of our team pull off the non-technological rescues."
John actually doubted that very much. Two years ago, when they'd first been stumbling through the Pegasus galaxy without a clue of what they were getting themselves into, maybe, though John actually didn't think that was the case either. Rodney wasn't always the first one to go racing toward an explosion or a firefight, or the first one to reach for his gun, but he was fiercely loyal and determined. "Alright. Let's do this," John said. He turned and stepped over the small ledge that separated the chamber from the hallway, the first place he'd seen in the Kamma Ket caves that wasn't smoothed and rounded.
Rodney followed him and they both hesitated in the entrance. There were no blades, no alters, nothing that looked even remotely dangerous, though they had all learned that weapons came in many forms.
"If you'd just step inside and let the curtain fall shut. The Greater Spirits prefer not to do their work in the open," Suanna said, smiling as she looked at them.
John stepped the rest of the way into the room with Rodney at his side, the fabric dropping back down so they were all gathered in the small chamber. It was only then that he realized the chamber was lit with different lights than the lanterns in the hallways and other rooms, these ones were brighter and the coloring seemed more artificial and almost florescent.
"Please move into the circle, so we may call upon the Spirits. You may decide which of you goes first," Marca instructed as the three Kamma Ket arranged themselves around the circle. They each stood equal distance apart, grooves at the edge of the circle indicating their places.
Doing a quick visual examination, John decided that the markings were just metal inlays in the surface of the rock and not anything like a ring transporter. He stepped inside, giving Rodney another look that meant he was to call for help at the first sign of trouble.
Rodney nodded again as he got the message loud and clear.
"So, what kind of gift is this?" John asked, hoping for once that they were just in for a little chanting and light flickering. While he didn't believe in 'spirits' per say, he'd seen plenty of strange things that might pass as 'spirits' or 'ghosts' and they had encountered cultures who had small ways of communicating with the Ancients.
Diwyn looked solemnly at John. "You have been blessed by the Greater and Lesser Spirits in many ways, a truly courageous leader who cares deeply for both your own people and others who are threatened by the Wraith. Your companion is equally blessed with intellect and ability, and a remarkably quick tongue."
John glanced at Rodney with his eyebrows raised incredulously and saw that Rodney was startled by the description but also had a small smile of pleasure.
"Which is why we call upon the Greater Spirits to relieve you of the burdens that plague you," Suanna said firmly. She, Diwyn and Marca began to chant, their eyes closing in unison.
John typically associated the phrase 'relieving of burdens' with ascension and took a step toward the edge of the circle.
Rodney looked equally alarmed, his hand already reaching to activate his radio.
John managed to take one step before a wave of dizziness over took him and he found himself on his knees. He opened his mouth to tell Rodney to run but couldn't get his tongue and his lips to cooperate. A high pitched keening filled the air and it took John a moment to realize that it was coming from him. He kept his eyes locked on Rodney, watching as Rodney called for help and then rushed forward into the circle obviously intent on pulling John out. There was a brief moment where he had enough clarity to think that he had told Rodney to run before John's vision darkened and he lost awareness of everything except for the sharp edges ripping through his brain and burrowing under his skin.