‘Tell me again why we’re doing this.’ Ronon sounded seriously grumpy, and the others looked at him in surprise.
‘I can’t have understood the first time,’ he elaborated.
‘We’re looking for naquadah,’ John said patiently. ‘Rodney and Radek made some improvements to those hand held sensors so now we have a ship-wide sensor and if there’s a planet out there with any naquadah we’ll find it.’
‘Except there isn’t any in the Pegasus galaxy,’ said Teyla, as patient as John and a lot less grumpy than Ronon.
‘So far as we know,’ muttered Rodney, ‘but there’s always a chance.’
‘Yes, there’s always a chance. We have no idea how far it could have been spread,’ said John. ‘And that’s why Rodney and Radek have been working hard on the project.’
‘So I did understand,’ said Ronon, looking gloomily out at the blankness of space surrounding them. ‘We’re on a fools’ mission to find this naq stuff that might not even exist on a planet we haven’t identified, for a reason that doesn’t make sense.’
‘It makes sense,’ said John. ‘We need it to make gates.’
‘We have gates. Lots of gates,’ Teyla pointed out and Ronon rolled his eyes, agreeing with her.
‘But we need to build more gates to replace the ones that have been blown up, buried, disabled. We need to reach more planets including some we’ve visited before but can’t reach easily.’ John was quite sure he’d explained all this before they set out but clearly his words hadn’t truly reached the members of his team who were from the Pegasus galaxy and not his own.
‘But why?’ Teyla seemed to be supporting Ronon’s not-quite-complaint. ‘We have gate codes for more planets than we need to visit.’
‘None of them have zero point modules,’ said Rodney. ‘We need them to run the city and to create defence. You both know that. We all know. And this might be a chance of getting some. I haven’t been working my socks off just on a whim. I have the greater good of the colony at heart. Radek, too. Not the greater good of Radek. I mean he’s been helping.’
‘I thought the new sensors were his design?’ John interrupted what was clearly going to be a long and bitter ramble, raising an eyebrow in Rodney’s direction. It was always as well to stop Rodney in mid flow. John admired his intellect but others did not often appreciate the lectures.
‘He might have done a lot of the work but the idea was mine in the first place,’ said Rodney, ungraciously.
‘All right,’ Ronon conceded. ‘So we need the modules and for that we need to visit some different planets and get easy access and for that we need gates. But there are two problems.’
‘Only two?’ Rodney was being sarcastic, as he so often was, but sarcasm was, as usual, wasted on the Satedan.
'First, if we find these planets, or even just one, we might very well have led the Wraith to them. And to the ones where we build these gates you’re so keen on. Second, once we land, we can’t exactly drag the ship around looking for the exact source of this naq stuff. Do we have any of the original hand-held sensors? I haven’t seen any.’ Ronon looked around as though expecting a sensor to manifest in mid-air.
‘We have one,’ said John. ‘It’s not all that accurate but we have it. And we have Rodney.’
‘Rodney is a brilliant scientist but how can he help find the naq-whatever?’ asked Teyla. Rodney might have preened, and John might have preened on his behalf.
‘Because he’s sensitive to naquadah,’ said John. ‘When he worked with Sam Carter on the stuff they both acquired a kind of special ability when they got some of it into their bloodstreams. He’s more sensitive than the hand held sensor. That’s just back-up.’
Ronon and Teyla both looked at Rodney as though he might have two heads, one of which they hadn’t noticed up to now.
‘Sensitive?’ Ronon sounded doubtful.
‘It’s like my Ancient gene and Teyla’s Wraith one,’ John continued. ‘Except of course that he wasn’t born with it. Still, it’s useful, and he can lead us to a source of naquadah.’
‘Which, by the way,’ Rodney interpolated, ‘is not that hard to say, so if you could both stop saying ‘naq stuff’ you would stop offending my scientific mind.’
‘Calm down, everybody,’ said John, glaring at Rodney but including the others. ‘You agreed to the mission and I could have clarified things before we left but we’re somewhere out in space now and the search really is important or we wouldn’t be here.’
All three were obviously about to speak when a strident beeping from the ship’s computer silenced whatever they were about to say.
‘That’s it,’ said John, ‘We’ve found one. Prepare for entry and landing.’
The planet was a total surprise and not a particularly welcome one. Gleaming black lava fields, hardened and glassy, stretched as far as the eye could see. They might stretch further, might cover the entire surface, but in any case, the ship had brought them to the spot where it had sensed the mineral they were seeking.
‘That’s that, then,’ said Ronon. ‘We can’t dig this stuff. We could blow it up, I suppose, but we couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t destroy the naquadah. And I can pronounce it perfectly well. I just don’t care to.’ He glowered at Rodney.
‘It’s here,’ said Rodney. ‘It’s within a few hundred metres of where we are now.’
They had climbed out of the ship, cloaked it from habit as much as necessity, and were standing on the featureless plain. There was nothing suggesting mines or quarries, or even any kind of artificial alteration of the landscape but John knew that Rodney knew what he was talking about. He knew he could trust him to have his facts, and his senses, absolutely right. It was just one of the things he loved about him.
‘There are some holes in that escarpment to our left,’ said Teyla. ‘They could be caves.’
‘Worth a try,’ said John, and he set off in the direction she had indicated. The others followed him.
The holes were indeed caves, and seemed to be quite deep.
John hesitated. ‘What do we think?’ he asked, wanting this to be a team decision. ‘Shall we go in?’
‘No sense posting a guard,’ said Ronon. ‘There’s nothing here to guard against and the ship said we weren’t followed. So if one goes, we all go.’
‘Then we all go,’ said Rodney, ’because that’s where the naquadah is.’
He headed confidently into the nearest cave, certain that the team would follow him. They did.
At the back, there was a narrow opening. John, Rodney and Teyla squeezed through without problems but Ronon was cursing by the time he joined them. The passageway they’d entered was slightly wider, so John’s first thought, of telling Ronon to go back and stand guard, vanished. They walked single file, Rodney leading and Ronon bringing up the rear. There wasn’t room to change the order of their line.
The walls were cool but dry, as flat and shiny in the light their head torches cast as the ground outside. They were also perfectly formed and created a symmetrical tunnel that seemed to be the work of intelligent beings, though John thought maybe crystalline structure might be responsible. The strange corridor led deeper and deeper into the planet. There was a downward slope, not steep enough to cause them problems but enough to make them aware that they were heading to much lower levels in this subterranean world.
They didn’t talk. The air was perfectly breathable but seemed somehow to deaden sound. It was a struggle to communicate with everyone at once and even talking to the person in front or behind was less than easy. Maybe the material in the walls had some kind of property that dampened sound waves. As new visitors with only torches to guide them, further investigation wasn’t possible but John made a mental note to get another team to come and explore. He was sure Rodney was thinking the same. He wondered vaguely about telepathy, or just about the effect of closeness on thinking, all the while watching Rodney in front of him, only just visible but definitely Rodney-shaped and exactly what John wanted to watch.
So they walked, in silence, for what began to seem like for ever. They were going in a straight line so far as they could tell, and always slightly downwards. Then, just as the entire thing began to feel preposterous, they came to a crossroads.
The artificial nature of the passages was more obvious here; there were even signs, in some unknown script. Rodney turned unhesitatingly to the right hand opening, but then paused. There was enough room at the juncture to permit them to group together and talk.
‘The naquadah’s near,’ he told them. ‘I can sense it strongly.’
‘Yeah,’ said John, ‘but I can sense intelligent life forms, too. If they consider the naquadah theirs, they might not be too keen on our hunter gatherer invasion.’
‘We have our communicators,’ said Rodney. ‘I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.’ John could just about see the others’ faces and interpreted their expressions as mirroring his own feeling that previous experience was not always great in this respect.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘take care. And make sure we stay together.’
‘There can’t be anyone here,’ said Teyla. ‘I’ve never heard of this place and there are no signs of life on the surface.’
‘Had you thought they might not be human?’ Ronon knew quite well that Rodney would have thought of this, but his tone said it needed saying anyway. 'Our communicators could be useless.'
‘They’re unlikely to be Wraith, down here, anyway,’ Teyla pointed out.
‘But there could be other things,’ John reminded them. Then he spoke again, to stop what was clearly about to be an argument. ‘All I’m saying is that we need to be careful, Rodney. Go ahead, but don’t walk blithely into any traps.’
Rodney scrunched up his face in a deep frown. At least, that was the way it looked, though the low light might have played games with his features. Then he turned and set off, keeping up a steady pace. Again, speech was almost impossible and John was glad because if nothing else it prevented Ronon from sniping at Rodney. He didn’t want to play favourites while they were at work, but he did want to protect Rodney. His partner was fragile, under all the bombast and apparent confidence.
Suddenly the path underfoot was steeper, and the walls were closer and the ceiling lower so that John worried for Ronon. The big Satedan would be struggling here. Only Teyla would have no difficulties at all. The composition changed as well. The new material was paler and gave off a ghostly light which didn’t really illuminate their way but made their torches dimmer. There were lumps and bumps in the walls and ceiling and after a few moments these became more obviously some kind of stalactite. There were damp patches, too, and once John felt a drop of moisture land on his head. He was just thinking it was a good job there were no stalagmites to trip them up when the passage opened out into a perfect circular space with a domed roof.
Breathing sighs of relief they formed a group again, and found they could see each other. The glow of the walls was increasing in intensity. John switched his torch off and the others followed suit. No sense in wasting battery life, even though there should be enough for a long expedition.
‘This,’ said Teyla, somewhat unnecessarily, ‘is definitely the work of intelligent beings.’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Rodney. ‘Beavers,’ he added, and John could see his point though it would be hard to explain to the other two.
‘Termites' he said, assuming Rodney would get the connection and that Ronon and Teyla would at least understand that John and Rodney had experience of creatures that built by instinct rather than any architectural intent. ‘On the other hand,’ he continued, ‘beavers and termites could be highly intelligent and simply unable to communicate with us.’
‘I have no idea what your beavers and termites are,’ said Ronon, ‘but if you’re suggesting whatever made these tunnels might not be able to talk to us using our communicators, then we should consider getting out of here.’
‘Except that we’ve come so far,’ said Teyla. ‘It seems a pity not to learn more while we’re here.’ She sounded quite wistful. And indeed, there might be a new culture here, one she could negotiate with, using all her diplomatic skills.
John knew he could, as team leader, make the decision for everybody, but he preferred to keep their preferences in mind. Rodney, he assumed, would want to go ahead, and it appeared Teyla agreed. So unless he sided with Ronon... He nodded. ‘We go on, for now,’ he said.
‘Go on where?’ It was Teyla who asked. The room, if room it was, had multiple openings, a bewildering choice of passageways.
‘There,’ said Rodney, pointing. And again he led the way, oblivious to any concerns and merely heading for the naquadah he sensed ahead of them.
The passage broadened imperceptibly until they realised they could walk abreast and that Ronon no longer needed to stoop to avoid the stalactites. Then they became aware of smaller passages leading off on both sides, lit dimly by the light from the walls, the phosphorescence if that was what it was. Most of the side pathways twisted and turned so that they couldn’t see further than a body’s length along them. There was sound now, as well: a low thunder that could be a waterfall or a rushing river; echoes of their own footsteps; a pattering that could be the fall of many drops of water or could even be the footsteps of others.
Rodney seemed to ignore it all. John felt cautious but not yet alarmed. He half turned and found he could see the others. Teyla looked scared but determined. Ronon was frowning but gave no indication of any specific emotion. Then the pattering increased, coming from all sides at once, and before they could discuss it, they came to another circular chamber, this one quite brightly lit, and found themselves surrounded.
There must have been about twenty people in a circle with the team in the centre. They had come from behind, in front, and both sides. They looked very serious and held bows drawn, with arrows ready to fly. John could see that something glistened on the arrow tips. Poison, perhaps.
They were tall, as tall as Ronon, but very slim. All were incredibly pale. Or perhaps that was only to be expected if they lived this far underground. Their hair was also pale, and long, and through it their ears poked up, pointed and large. Their eyes were large, too, deep pools of grey that stared at the invaders, as if daring them to take even one more step.
Whatever or whoever they were, they resembled no Humans, or Wraith, for that matter, any of the team had ever encountered in the Pegasus galaxy.
‘Elves,’ muttered Rodney. ‘It had to be elves.’
It was clear to John, if not to Rodney, that Teyla and Ronon were not familiar with the term. And John wasn’t certain he would use it. Elves were surely a storybook creation, and these archers were all too real. Then the one directly in front of them spoke, and the communicators chattered to life. So they weren’t so alien that they couldn’t be talked to, negotiated with, receive explanations and even apologies if necessary.
‘Who are you and what are you doing in our lands?’ The leader, or at least the spokesperson, asked the question quietly and coldly.
John began to explain. He mentioned Atlantis, and then the fact that their hunt for naquadah had led them here. He apologised briefly for the intrusion and hoped they could trade satisfactorily. ‘Because,’ he concluded, ‘we would have got in touch earlier if we’d known you were here.’
None of the bowstrings were relaxed. The leader spoke again. ‘Why do you want naquadah?’ Well, yes, his question went to the heart of things.
‘To create stargates.’ Rodney saw fit to join the conversation. ‘We need to find more naquadah and more zero point modules. If we can find naquadah we can create more of those. We need it for energy, defence, and manufacturing capability.’
‘Defence against what – or whom?’ The voice was low and cool again.
‘Against the Wraith in particular,’ said John. ‘But against any other threats that might arrive in the future, too.’
The leader sighed. ‘But in seeking this material you risked leading the Wraith to our planet.’
‘You know of the Wraith?’ Ronon sounded surprised.
‘Of course.’ The reply was quick and for the first time the speaker sounded animated. ‘They were the reason we retreated underground. The reason we altered our planet so that our presence would not be suspected. And now here you are, your ship acting as a beacon to anyone who wants to know what goes on here.’
‘Our ship is cloaked,’ said John. ‘And you’ve done a wonderful job if you’re responsible for the landscape up there. We weren’t aware of any inhabitants, never mind intelligent ones. But our chief scientist here,’ he added, gesturing towards Rodney, ‘can sense naquadah ever since he worked with it back on our home planet. That’s why we’ve come down into your caves.’
‘It might be cloaked now,’ said the speaker, ‘but you could have been followed.’
‘We weren’t,’ said Teyla. ‘I would have known, and so would the ship.’
Eyebrows were raised almost into ash-blond hairlines then another of the bowmen spoke. ‘You can sense the Wraith?’
Teyla admitted her Wraith genes, and there was murmuring around the circle. But the one who had asked her sounded satisfied when he said that they also had Wraith-sensitive people, and that their abilities were indeed useful and reliable.
‘For the moment,’ said the leader, ‘we are inclined to believe you mean no harm. Please give us your weapons and we can take you to our council hall and discuss your presence further.’ He didn’t sound likely to accept anything other than absolute obedience.
John nodded to the others and they duly placed their weapons on the ground, carefully and slowly so as not to alarm their... what? Captors? Hosts? Interrogators, certainly. They were badly outnumbered and he had no desire to find out what that substance on the arrow points could do. Later, if things looked bad, well, they were all trained in unarmed combat and could give a good account of themselves. The corridors were no place to fight but that applied to the others as well as the team. So there was a chance they could reach the ship.
Some of the group loosened their bows and slung them over their shoulders to carry. They formed what could be seen as an honour guard around the team while the rest maintained their armed vigilance. The leader turned his back on everybody and led the way into yet another passage, a wide and well illuminated one. The team, perforce, followed.
The council hall was impressive. It was built from the glowing pale stone and had pillars and carvings that made it look like something out of an illustration for a fairy story. It was in the centre of what appeared to be a sizeable town. As they walked towards the steps of the hall they passed streets of houses, mostly built into the rock, groups of inhabitants (all similarly tall and pale with pointed ears and big eyes) and biggish spaces where smaller beings, children by the look of them, played with balls, hoops and skipping ropes. This must be the centre of an extended administrative area and it was apparent that these people were representative of a large population.
‘What do you call yourselves?’ John asked. ‘Rodney and I are Terrans, Teyla’s an Athosian and Ronon’s a Satedan.’ He offered the information freely; it might help to establish some semblance of friendship.
‘We don’t,’ said the leader. ‘We are just the people. We expunged the name of our planet from all communication, even amongst ourselves. Names can lead to curiosity, and to searching. We don’t leave the planet but someone might, some time, and we take no risks. So it’s just the planet and we’re just the people. That applies to other groups as well. It was a whole-world decision.’
John gulped. If this town was merely a group, and there were other such groups spread across the underworld of the planet, then this was a huge civilisation that they had never heard about. He looked at Teyla and saw she was similarly surprised.
They had reached the doors of the building and were led into a hall that resembled a courtroom in America. John wasn’t sure whether Teyla or Ronon would have the same frame of reference but he assumed Rodney would find their surroundings both familiar and slightly intimidating. There was even a trio of what looked like judges: elderly people (going by their wrinkled faces) wearing long white gowns and looking down their noses at the unexpected visitors.
The proceedings were eerily like those in a Terran court of law, too. Everything had to be said over and over, sometimes simplified, sometimes summarised, and always noted in actual printed books by the judges who held pens that they occasionally dipped in what seemed to be ink.
‘We need naquadah to build more stargates,’ said Rodney patiently. John was impressed at the way Rodney was talking to these people. He was not showing his usual impatience at all. ‘We need it for defence, too. I’m sure you know its explosive capabilities. We need to explore the entire galaxy and the naquadah can help us develop better star drives and power more ships. We need more zero point modules, you see.’ He had already explained what these were and how they were used.
‘We know,’ said one of the judges. That was all he said, then there was a lot of writing, and a discussion that was just a low murmur, the details inaudible to the team. There was a long wait and it appeared that talk during the wait was discouraged. Their guards frowned whenever anyone started to speak.
Eventually one of the judges rapped on the bench in front of him with a wooden gavel. Not that he needed to get anyone’s attention. Nobody was looking anywhere else and there was virtual silence in the room.
‘We have come to some decisions,’ he said. ‘You may have whatever quantity of naquadah you can carry in your ship. We will help you to take it to the surface. When we reach the surface your weapons will be returned to you. However, we do not wish your exploration to advertise our presence to anyone watching. For that reason you will stay with us for ten sleep periods. By then, anyone observing your flight will, we hope, have given up and assumed you to be dead. You have told us your ship is cloaked and we believe you.’
It seemed almost too good to be true. John spoke for all of them: ‘And may we come again to get more of the mineral?’
‘No.’ A different judge answered and sounded adamant. ‘In fact, once you have left we intend to destroy the cave entrances you found and used. There are other routes to the surface, although they are less convenient and indeed pass through other lands. But we do not intend that you should find us this way again. That would break treaties we have with those lands, so we are sure they will allow us to use the routes if there is any emergency. We assume they will disguise their exits more carefully when we tell them how you found the caves.’
‘You are honoured guests while you stay with us,’ said the third judge. ‘Anyone who fights the Wraith is to be respected. Oh, and we have a spare zero point module you can take with you.’
They were barely able to stammer their thanks and agreement before the judges left their seats and the guards led the team out of the hall. There was, it seemed, to be no discussion or negotiation. Everything they had said had been weighed, believed, and used to reach the conclusion that had been delivered. There would be no dissent.
And so they were taken back out into the streets and the leader gave some rapid instructions to a couple of the archers. They hurried off, presumably on a mission of some kind.
‘We are looking for suitable accommodation,’ the leader said, as the group followed more slowly. ‘You will be provided with sleeping chambers and can eat with us communally.’ He didn’t sound much friendlier despite the judges’ reassurance that they were now honoured guests. But that might just be his personality, thought John.
One of the archers returned and there was a hasty discussion. Then the rest of the guard peeled off in various directions and the leader took them to a door that seemed to be flat on the wall of the town’s main cavern, and knocked sharply. The door swung open almost straight away and the person holding it ushered them indoors. It occurred to John that as yet they’d seen nothing to distinguish male and female. Children, yes, both by size and by their playful antics and their concentration on what were certainly toys. But not any kind of gender differentiation either in form or in clothing.
There was a large room behind the door, filled with comfortable cushioned furniture and lit by softly glowing lamps. There were, including the door opener, four people looking expectant and interested.
‘Here are your guests,’ the guard said. ‘You have them for ten sleeps and their comfort is your responsibility.’ Then he looked at the team. ‘These are your hosts,’ he told them, and with no further introduction or information he merely gave a stiff bow and left, closing the door behind him.
The two sets of four looked at each other then the one who had opened the door spoke. ‘Don’t worry about Lev,’ he said. ‘He’s always like that. I’m Shon, and these are Aram, Wera and Sovi. You’re very welcome. I gather you’ve had a long walk and then been to see the council. So no doubt you’d like to rest, eat, drink and freshen up. We’ll be eating in the communal hall soon, but we have some drinks here.’ He didn’t point to anyone when giving the names so there was no way yet of knowing who was who.
There was plenty of space on the cushions and the team sat, introducing themselves individually. Foreign names were always hard to remember at first but they hoped they would soon be at ease and on good terms with their host group. Taking their seats was apparently a sign that they would welcome a drink before seeing more of the accommodation, and one of the group went to a low table at the side of the room and brought translucent mugs of a dark liquid. John sipped cautiously then he grinned at Rodney.
‘It’s as near coffee as anything gets in this galaxy,’ he said, and Rodney’s eyes lit up as he took a huge gulp. He then grinned from ear to ear and said quite a gracious thank you to the drinks bearer.
It was iced coffee rather than the hot variety but the flavour was good and it did seem to pack a caffeine hit or something similar. John and Rodney enjoyed every mouthful. Teyla and Ronon were less impressed but drank without any sign of discomfort.
‘This is what you were so desperate for when the Daedalus arrived?’ Ronon sounded incredulous.
‘It’s mildly addictive,’ Shon told them.
‘So’s our version,’ said John.
For a few moments they made small talk about food and drink, then Rodney wondered aloud whether he would be able to tell if any of the foodstuffs contained citrus. When they’d explained what citrus fruits were like, Shon shook his head.
‘They don’t grow underground,’ he said. ‘We’ve heard of them. There are descriptions in old books, especially tales for children, but they’re something exotic and I don’t think you need to worry. You dislike it so much?’
‘It dislikes me,’ said Rodney and he went on to explain about allergic reactions. After a few moments his listeners were nodding, enlightened and clearly familiar with the concept.
It’s almost time to eat,’ said one of the others. ‘You won’t have time to rest properly unless you’d rather sleep than eat?’ His or her eyebrows rose as they spoke. John reassured them that they could do without sleep for now, and they were shown to the communal bathroom.
‘Here you can clean yourselves,’ said Shon, opening a door off the room into what looked like a fairly conventional bathroom with a toilet, basin and shower. There was also a grid in the wall that John suspected would blow hot air, in lieu of towels. After they’d all used the facilities in turn, their hosts took them back into the town and along the street to an area with what looked like a gazebo housing trestle tables and benches. There were already dishes set out, full of food, and John was quite glad, after the cold coffee, to see that some of it was clearly hot, with steam coming off it.
The food was bland but acceptable: soup, then an assortment of root vegetables, dark bread, and a cold salad of variegated leaves that were as pale as the people. The team gathered that the people were largely vegetarian, not from principle but because they hadn’t brought much livestock underground with them.
‘The great retreat was a long time ago.’ said Shon. ‘Wera can tell you all about it. She teaches history to the children sometimes.’
One of the others, presumably Wera, began to talk. ‘Our ancestors suffered from the attacks of the Wraith,’ she began.
Ronon interrupted to say they obviously hadn’t suffered as much as the Satedans and told them briefly of his people’s fate.
‘Then you know why we did what we did,’ said Wera. ‘This was a long time in the past, not in recent history. The various countries of the world sent representatives and it was decided there could be no quarrelling between them till the greater threat had been fought. However, they soon had a plan that did not involve face to face fighting. The planet has always had many volcanoes and vast numbers of cave systems. Working together, the governments ensured that everyone in the world could be accommodated underground, not in luxury but in some comfort.’
‘So these caverns are natural?’ John thought about cave dwellers on earth from the Stone Age to modern underground living in Australia’s opal fields.
‘To begin with, yes,’ said Wera. ‘Then our ancestors expanded the system and mapped it. They didn’t manage, at the time, to make room for the other creatures of the world and that was sad, because once the caves were readied, with all the systems connected, our ancestors used the power of naquadah to force the volcanoes to erupt.’
‘The farm animals and wildlife all died?’ Teyla sounded shocked.
‘It was them or us,’ said Shon.
‘The animals died, yes, which was tragic but inevitable,’ said Wera. ‘At least the people were all saved and the sacrifice of the other creatures meant the Wraith would think a natural disaster had overtaken the planet and would not visit again. A few animals came underground with us though we have no room for large scale breeding programmes. There are fish in the rivers here, too. We gradually made the caves more to our liking, with proper houses and so on. And we knocked through a few exits to the surface just so that we could check the situation, very carefully of course. That’s how you found us. We just hope you didn’t bring the Wraith following you.’
‘We hope we didn’t,’ said John. ‘Ronon was worried about just that, but we’ve been as careful as possible. We were aware of the risks.'
‘But,’ interrupted Rodney, ‘naquadah and zero point modules are essential to our survival. We have no wish to sacrifice you, of course, but we need the power in those minerals.’
‘And perhaps we could help defend you as well,’ said Teyla but their hosts were scornful. They refused to believe their council would allow any communication with Atlantis.
‘And certainly not trade or exchange of weapons,’ said Shon. ‘When you’ve gone we’ll make sure you don’t find us again. Even if you return to the planet I don’t think you’d risk blowing us up to gain access to our world below ground.’ He sounded slightly doubtful and John hastened to reassure him.
‘We wouldn’t dream of it,’ he said, ‘but talking of weapons, what’s with the bows and arrows? You have immensely powerful stuff lying around, so much you’re prepared to give it away, but you have what we regard as primitive arms. No guns?’
One of the other people laughed. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘Guns, or any explosive weapon in our narrow corridors? And in normal times we don’t need them. Our various countries disagree about things like the best way to organise society but nobody comes to blows over the disagreements, let alone using weapons. The arrows are to deter groups who might try to invade from one country to another, but so far as I know, they’ve never been used in anger or in policing.’
‘They have poisoned tips,’ Rodney pointed out.
‘They do,’ said Wera, 'but the poison would only send you to sleep. It’s a drug, nothing fatal.’
That was good to know, and the team ate their meal with lighter hearts. They thought their hosts were probably being completely honest with them and it did seem that the leader of the guard had merely suffered from a surly personality.
After dinner they returned to their accommodation and Teyla couldn’t help yawning.
‘You must all be tired,’ said Wera. She gestured towards three doors on the left hand side of the room, opposite the bathroom facilities. ‘Those three rooms are free,’ she said.
‘They each have a large bed, big enough for two,’ said the host who had so far not spoken to them. ‘So we thought since two of you will wish to share...’
‘Who...?’ John and Rodney spoke together.
‘Why, you two, of course,’ said Shon. ‘We thought you were mates.’
There was an uncomfortable silence.
‘What made you think that?’ John felt he had to ask because Rodney seemed to be retreating into himself. He was also blushing, which was endearing but not helpful.
The hosts all looked confused. Teyla and Ronon looked confused, too.
Then Teyla spoke. ‘I think you call it body language,’ she said.
‘So everyone knows?’ Rodney’s question came out as an awkward squeak.
‘Most people, yes,’ said Ronon. ‘You can’t hide what you mean to each other. But I don’t think the other Terrans know.’
‘I’m sure they don’t,’ said Teyla. ‘They’re incredibly good at ignoring and even disbelieving anything that doesn’t accord with their stated world view.’
‘But we know,’ said Ronon.
‘As do we,’ said Shon.
‘And you don’t disapprove?’ John hoped they didn’t, but didn’t want to assume anything.
Ronon frowned. ‘People love who they love,’ he said, shrugging, and Teyla nodded agreement.
‘Aram and I are a couple,’ said Shon. He pointed to the door next to the bathroom. ‘That’s our room.’
‘So are Wera and Sovi partnered?’ asked Teyla.
Wera laughed. ‘Sovi’s my daughter,’ she said. ‘And it’s probably her bedtime as well. We share a room, too, but because we’re a family.’ She dipped her head towards the door at the other side of the bathroom.
They chatted for a few more moments, learning that as they had suspected, the pale skin of their hosts was due to generations of living underground.
‘And the big eyes,’ Sovi said.
‘Don’t forget about the ears,’ said Aram. ‘More than one of our ancestors must have had slightly pointed ears. Now it’s a trait that has spread to just about the entire world. Babies born with rounded ears are considered abnormal now.’
Their height was another feature inherited from those ancestors.
‘Sort of etiolated,’ muttered Rodney, ‘like plants kept in the dark.’ But of course it wasn’t dark and even though the light was artificial it was kept at quite high levels.
‘But don’t worry,’ said Sovi, ‘the bedrooms will be dark when they know you’ve gone to bed.’
‘They?’ asked Teyla for all of them.
‘The bedrooms,’ said Sovi patiently, as if talking to a child.
They knew a lot about their ancestors, because although the move underground had all been so long in the past, probably while the Ancients were still in Atlantis, there were plenty of books and even films to keep the history alive. John looked forward to hearing more about it in the next few days.
After using the bathroom they went into their assigned rooms. This, thought John, was to be their home for the next ten nights, and he could share his space and his bed with Rodney without anyone caring. The room was almost circular and had only a bed in it. It was a huge round bed heaped with colourful blankets and pillows. There would not have been room for any more furniture though there were a few shelves hollowed into the walls.
Rodney was lying on the bed looking upwards. John joined him, almost shy now that they were supposed to be together and didn’t need to hide. He looked up too, admiring the stalactites that decorated the ceiling. The light in the room dimmed.
‘It starts to go off when you lie down,’ said Rodney. John had shoved his torch in one of his pockets and now took it out. The light caught the stalactites, creating a wonderland of glinting stone icicles.
‘I think I can enjoy ten days here,’ he said. ‘Or should I say nights?’ He turned to Rodney and hugged him.
‘Yeah, ten days with elves,’ said Rodney, his eyes gleaming in the light of the torch.
‘Not elves, exactly,’ said John.
‘If it looks like...’ began Rodney and John laughed.
‘True,’ he said, ‘and there are those arrows. But there’s no magic.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Rodney. The practical scientist sounded wistful.
‘Well, said John, ’so far as I’m concerned there’s plenty of magic. It’s right here in this room.’
‘The stalactites? They look magical but...’ It seemed Rodney was about to treat John to a lecture on geology, but John didn’t want to hear it.
‘Those too,’ he said, ‘but I wasn’t thinking about the decorations. I was thinking about us.’
The ten days passed all too quickly. There was much to learn, much of interest, and most of the people they met were friendly, like their hosts. They saw Lev occasionally and he was always surly so they decided he wasn't particularly hostile to them, just to the world in general. The nights passed quickly too, John and Rodney holding each other on the great round bed, aware of the exquisite stalactites above them. Sometimes, one of them would switch on a torch, just for the pleasure of seeing the formations shine and the expression of wonder on their partner's face.
When what they thought of as an enjoyable quarantine was over, they were led out of the caverns by a group carrying bows and arrows but also dragging sleds filled with naquadah and a carefully packed zpm. Lev was not in evidence. Instead, their host Aram led the party. They had said goodbye to the others but were glad one of their hosts would be among their last contacts with the people.
Aram and his helpers were impressed with the cloaking of the ship. They helped pack it, and then shook hands formally with the team.
"We won't see you again," said Aram, "but we wish you well." He turned and headed back towards the cave entrances, followed by the others. Their sleds were not completely empty; once they were well inside they would detonate a rockfall that would deny any future access to their world that way. John waited till they had been swallowed by the cave mouths before firing up the ship.
"Well, we got what we came for," was all he said, but from the looks on their faces he knew his team had got far more than that. Learning about the people had been fascinating and instructive as well as raising issues of politics and morality. He and Rodney, of course, had had special reason to value their stay but he needed to address that now before getting back to Atlantis.
"We can't afford to have any of the Terrans commenting on our shared accommodation," he said. "I assume we can rely on you to keep our secret."
"Of course," said Teyla, "though I have to say I find Terrans strange."
"Of course." Ronon echoed her. "Although I also find Terrans strange and a little mad."
"We need to keep the planet secret, too," said Teyla. "We can tell everyone what we found and even talk about our stay, but we must on no account let anyone know the location."
"Just what I was about to say," said John.
Their return was greeted with jubilation about the naquadah and the zpm. Their debriefing went well, and Elizabeth understood perfectly why they would not give her the co-ordinates of the planet.
"It would be as well if you forgot them yourselves," she said, and the team agreed. Teyla could not be ordered not to tell the Athosians but John knew she would never give away the secret.
There was an impromptu party in the mess and hot coffee figured on the menu. Despite the lavish helpings of chocolate cake, Rodney slipped away after a while and John followed after a respectable pause. He found him outside, looking over the sea.
"Enjoying the fresh air?" he asked.
"That and the water and the stars," said Rodney. "I missed being outside."
"Me too," said John, "though the people were hospitable and the ceilings were magical."
"Yes," said Rodney, and John could just make out his smile in the deep dusk of the Atlantean evening. "But there's magic here too."
"The stars?" said John, pretending not to understand.
"Those too," said Rodney, "but I really meant that wherever we're together, the magic is all around us."