It seemed strange, emerging from the air shaft into dark woods. John wasn’t sure what he had expected. A city street? A military complex? At any rate, somewhere at once more civilised and more dangerous. Instead, here they were, surrounded by trees and night. He hadn’t known what hour it was; his sense of time, usually near-perfect, had been knocked awry by his imprisonment and the Wraith’s feeding. However, even his honed time-senses would not necessarily have told him when darkness fell on a strange planet. The darkness was at once disorienting and comforting. The same, he thought, applied to the trees, which could shelter a host of hostile soldiers but at the same time could shield him and his companion from view.
He looked at the Wraith. There was enough light from the planet’s moon and some remaining tinge of daylight to show him the pale luminous face of his – what? His fellow escapee, certainly. His co-conspirator, in a sense. His companion? Only in the most elementary sense that they were here together. The trees might be needed to hide him from the Wraith as much as from Kolya’s men.
The Wraith looked back, a kind of amusement glinting in its eyes. In his eyes, John corrected himself in his thoughts. He should not equate the Wraith with a dumb beast; he should remember that this was an extremely intelligent adversary.
‘We really should leave. They will check this exit point straight away.’ The Wraith spoke almost gently, as if to a child. It spoke quietly, too. John hoped there were no Genii listening. But they had to communicate somehow and the Wraith would not have command over human military gestures any more than John could use Wraith hand signals.
‘We could split up,’ he suggested. It would leave him wondering where the creature was, but perhaps that would be better than knowing it was close to him at all times.
‘Not until we reach the Stargate,’ came the reminder. ‘And perhaps not then. They will guard the gate.’
‘But with two of us we have a chance.’ John acknowledged the logic of the plan, a plan made so tenuously in the prison, with little information and even less trust.
‘A chance, yes, and one that we did not have before. You have given me a chance, John Sheppard.’ There was a questioning tone to the Wraith’s voice, but John thought the question, if it was one, was addressed not to him but to the Wraith itself. He shivered. There was no knowing what kind of chance was meant.
‘We have the guns we took,’ John said, and the Wraith nodded. It, or he headed off into the shadow of the trees. John followed.
It must, he thought, be male. It couldn’t be a queen because a queen would not be here, a prisoner of the Genii. A queen would not leave her hive, would not have been captured. A queen could be killed, he knew all too well, but not separated from her people. So this Wraith – already in his mind he was calling it ‘his’ Wraith – must be male. And he should think of ‘his’ Wraith as ‘he’. He argued with himself as he made his way along a trail through the trees. It occurred to him that the trail was new, made by the Wraith pushing tall weeds and young saplings aside. There were, it seemed, no animals of any size here. They crossed no other trails, anyway. There might be birds.
As if in answer to his thought, there was a noise. It was almost, but not quite, a hoot. It reminded him of an owl but ended on a whistling note that was not owl-like in the least. The Wraith stopped to listen, his head raised, his nostrils widened as if to catch some scent of whatever was making the sound.
There was an answering hoot-whistle from another direction, but no sign of the bird (if it was a bird).
‘Do you think...?’ They both spoke at once, both whispering, and John gestured for the Wraith to continue.
‘Do you think it is a bird, or a signal from one of the guards?’
‘Exactly what I was going to ask, and obviously, I have no more idea than you do.’ John sighed.
‘You might have more idea. You are human, like them.’
‘Some humans can imitate bird calls so well that even the birds are deceived.’ John thought about people on earth using bird and animal calls to hunt. ‘Can’t Wraith do that? After all, you can cause your victims to see things that aren’t there.’ He looked again at the trees. Could they be a hallucination? Unlikely. He didn’t think the Wraith could conjure up a whole forest.
‘I do not think Wraith are good at sounds.’ The Wraith spoke slowly, as though he had had to consider his answer carefully.
‘You speak our language.’
‘We have learnt that over centuries. We have never needed to pretend to be birds.’
As the Wraith spoke, a ball of what John could only describe as fluff plopped onto the path from a branch. It hoot-whistled softly. Almost immediately, a larger fluff ball plopped down beside it and began to nudge it. Or perhaps it was grooming it. At any rate, the smaller ball seemed to become slightly smoother then both extended wings a bit like those of bats, leathery and clawed.
Together the hoot-whistlers took flight and disappeared into the trees.
‘I suppose that answers our first question,’ said John, his voice normal again though still quiet. The Wraith nodded.
They carried on, sometimes swerving to avoid larger trees but mostly heading in a straight line.
‘Where are your friends, John Sheppard?’ The Wraith’s voice sounded weaker and less confident than when they had left the prison.
‘They’ll be on their way.’ John hoped he sounded as certain as he felt. He knew they would be looking for him, especially if they knew Kolya no longer had him. In the case of his team, he thought they’d be looking anyway. But even if their search was restricted to this area, there was still a lot of ground to cover.
‘You are very sure.’ The Wraith sounded tired and disbelieving. ‘You have a lot of certainties, John Sheppard. Your friends, your abilities, your knowledge.’
‘My friends, yes. We have a motto: Leave no man behind. It was a motto for me when I was on my home planet and I taught it to my team here. They will come for me. I know that.’
‘You know nothing, John Sheppard. You only hope.’ And, the voice implied but didn’t say, hope was a fast disappearing commodity.
John felt irritated, as much by the constant use of his name as by the lack of faith. Of course, the Wraith didn’t know his team. But since they’d escaped the Genii, for now, the Wraith should at least trust him a little.
‘You keep calling me John Sheppard,’ he said now.
‘Is that not your name?’
‘It is, but most people would just call me John or Sheppard, not both together. That’s the written form for official things.’
‘Which would you prefer, then?’
John sighed, not for the first time. ‘John, I suppose,’ he said. If he was going to die in this godforsaken wood on this godforsaken planet then at least he could do so in the company of someone who called him by his name. ‘But what should I call you?’
There was a sound. A gurgling, gargling sound. John didn’t think he could reproduce it accurately and was not anxious to try, fail, and give offence.
Silence, then the sound was repeated. ‘You asked for my name,’ said the Wraith, patiently.
‘I did,’ said John, ‘but I admit I thought I’d be able to say it. I could give you a name – a name between us – a name you could answer to, to me. That’s if you wanted me to. You seem to like using names.’ Maybe a name would help him regard the Wraith as less of an enemy and more of a companion. Maybe, one corner of his mind muttered, that would lead to him being careless in its company. But somehow he wanted companionship in this place.
‘You may name me,’ came the reply. ‘I may answer to the name you give me and I may not. We shall see. I always answer to: ‘[gargled sound]’, but if you cannot say it, you cannot.’
John thought. ‘Todd,’ he said at last.
‘Why not? But that’s the short answer. The long one is that I knew someone on my home planet who was as pale as you. An albino.’
‘What is an albino?’
‘A human with no pigment. Their skin and their hair are white, like yours.’
‘So you might name any Wraith ‘Todd’.’ He sounded disappointed.
‘No. I liked the original Todd. He was a companion. So it suits you. I wouldn't use the name for an enemy.’
‘You no longer see me as an enemy?’
‘Not until we reach the Stargate,’ John said.
‘Then I am Todd until we reach the Stargate. And perhaps beyond,’ came the reply.