ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks Tipper and Sable Cain for your comments, corrections, and support. This wouldn't have been finished without them -- so blame them both this time. There are probably issues here with medical stuff. I'm not a doctor.
CHAPTER 1: SORE THUMB
John Sheppard suddenly had a pretty good idea what it felt like to be slammed across the face with a frying pan. He stepped through the event horizon and onto P3M-433 and was instantly assaulted by a cold blast that took his breath away. The frigid air stuck at his nostrils, instantly freezing any bits that cluttered that passageway – cold, damn cold. He felt the freeze on his exposed skin, and he narrowed his eyes against it. It was one hell of a surprise when stepping from the pleasant warmth of Atlantis.
He'd forgotten what true cold felt like.
He turned when he heard a gasp behind him, and smirked as he saw Rodney stagger from the Gate. "Good God!" the physicist exclaimed, instantly ducking his head into his well-insulated shoulders. A blue fleece cap was quickly clapped onto his head – earflaps drawn down and strings tied under his chin. "They said it was going to be cold… but…."
Even Ford and Teyla looked offended by the chill that caught them. Oh, they'd been made aware of the situation on P3M-433 and had suited up accordingly. Three of them dressed in the military issued white snow gear. The fourth dressed in multiple layers, looked uncommonly plump. Long johns under a Maple Leafs wool sweater, beneath a bright red parka, black snowpants, a fleecy blue hat and the striped scarf.
Sheppard had harangued McKay to use what had been issued to them. But the physicist had been insistent, stating he'd had the hat and scarf for years, that the jacket and pants were of far better quality than what Uncle Sam saw fit to offer. Teyla had insisted the natives were uncommonly benign. "Besides," McKay had added. "How much time do you plan to spend outdoors anyway? Honestly, Major, it'll just be a quick trip to their households and then we'll be indoors the rest of the time as we hammer out this trade agreement."
"I won't have it," John had returned. "You'll stand out like a sore thumb. Not that you don't already, but I won't have a walking target in my midst. Damn it, McKay, you'll bring attention to all of us."
"Then you don't have to stand near me," McKay had responded. "I've had the jacket since before I left for… you know… before Siberia. I've found it to be the best parka out there. A little color is welcome in all that white and gray. It keeps me warm and dry, even in the worst weather. I'll be toasty warm, while the rest of you are freezing." And he had smiled smugly.
Finally, tired of the argument, Sheppard had replied with a quick, "Fine!" The damn Canuck had probably been looking for to a chance to play in the snow since they'd left earth. Well, they were going to get their chance here -- that was for certain. And the major narrowed his eyes at the white landscape. Cold as a witches…
"Damn," Ford interjected, rubbing his hands together, "If we stay out here for long, we'll turn into ice cubes." The lieutenant who'd previously mocked the scientist, suddenly looked at the comfy-looking Doc with envy, clutching his arms over the white military regulation jacket. Teyla looked particularly uncomfortable and pressed her hands together.
With a frown, Sheppard flexed his fingers inside his gloves, wondering if he was really feeling the cold leach into his fingers already or if it was just imagination.
All about them, snow. Snow on the ground. Snow in piles. Snow covering hills and the distant mountains. Snow over huts and trees. Snow piled all around the DHD. Snow falling – fluffy flakes that drifted down in clumps – big, shapeless, puffy clumps – reminding Sheppard of McKay in his parka.
Except – the flakes were white. Everything was white – so white it hurt to look about. Even the smoke that piped from one of the hills seemed to be more white than black.
Sheppard turned about slowly. "So," he started. "This is Ekuk?"
Teyla, looking downright miserable, nodded tightly. "Yes, Major," she responded. She huddled in her coat. "The Ekukians should be here shortly." She glanced about hopefully.
Ford seemed to over his initial shock as he smiled at the surroundings. "Thought it'd be more like Antarctica," he declared. "It isn't that barren. There's trees under the snow. It's kinda … nice once you get over the cold." He put on a positive expression. "Kind of a winter wonderland, don't you think?"
"You think so?" Sheppard replied, sharply.
"It looks like a Christmas card," Aiden added.
Sheppard grimaced. "Too cold for my liking."
"Aw, but Major," Ford cajoled. "It isn't any worse than Antarctica."
Sheppard moved to the edge of the platform, looking about for any signs of the civilians. "Well," he stated, swiping at the snow that collected on his shoulders. "I didn't spend a lot of time outdoors while I was there. Mostly, I stayed in nice warm aircraft."
"The climate is actually entirely different than Antarctica," McKay informed as he stepped forward. "There's far more moisture in the atmosphere here," he stated, pointing to the falling snow. "Antarctica is, if you would believe it, mostly a desert. Very little precipitation. This planet has seasons – all of the snow will melt away in the spring. Imagine what the run-off would look like." He turned to Teyla, asking pointedly, "By the way, I thought you said it would be autumn?"
Teyla, hugging herself tightly, lifted her shoulders a fraction and let them fall – a gesture she'd only recently learned and felt rather fitting for the moment. "It is early winter. Their warm seasons are short," she declared. "I was hoping for something a bit more accommodating."
"Well, as long as one is adequately prepared," McKay declared as he patted his insulated chest, "It really isn't too bad. Rather bracing when you get down to it. Don't you think, Major?"
"Bracing, yeah," Sheppard responded. I'll put you in a brace, he thought. How did people live in this region and WHERE THE HELL were the locals?
As if to answer his question, there was suddenly movement – figures coming through the snow. Sheppard squinted against the bright field, and finally fumbled with a pocket to find his sunglasses, fitting them over his eyes. Three people made their way toward then, all dressed in furs.
"Halooo!" someone shouted, waving furry arms. The man was dressed in dark brown fur, and the flailing made him look like a furious grizzly.
Sheppard returned the gesture less frenetically, lifting one hand and calling back, "Hey."
The figures trudged onward, over hard-packed snow, as more flakes fell all about. "Welcome!" the man shouted. "Welcome! Welcome to Ekuk!" He wore a huge furred hood that covered most of his face, and he pulled back the head-covering as he approached, revealing his thick hair, beard and bushy eyebrows. It was almost as if he hadn't removed the hood at all. "I am Akhiok!" He gestured with his mittened hands as he strode up the stairs to the platform. He smiled, showing off his yellowish teeth. "This is my brother Karluk. And this is my wife, Soldotna."
Sheppard looked over the other two, so covered in furs (one brownish and the other blackish), he was unable to tell which one was a woman. He hoped it was the shorter one. "Major John Sheppard," he introduced himself, then pointed to the others, giving their names. "This is Lt. Ford, and that's Teyla. And the big red blimp is Dr. McKay."
Rodney gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.
Akhiok looked pleased. He rubbed his mitts together. "Have you come to trade?" he asked hopefully.
"Yup," Sheppard responded.
"Excellent! Most excellent," Akhiok responded. "We are pleased!"
"Do you have fruit?" a surprisingly pretty voice came from under one of the hoods. "Oh, I've longed for the taste of fruit."
Teyla smiled, in spite of her discomfort. She indicated the case that she brought with her. "We have brought both fruit and vegetables for you to sample. We have come to trade for meat."
Akhiok smiled broadly, and clapped one hand firmly on Sheppard's shoulder. "Ah! Then come to the great hall. You have arrived just in time. The migration is in progress! Tomorrow there will be a hunt and we'll have plenty to bargain with. Come! Come!" Bigheartedly, he shoved Sheppard down the stairs toward the other two Ekukians. "We must go where it is warm and comfortable, yes?" And he laughed loudly as he clomped close to McKay and took in his appearance. "You are a colorful one, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Sheppard put in. "That's what we call him, the colorful one."
"Ha ha," was all McKay could come up with in response.
Akhiok chuckled. "You will want to be out of this chill, yes?" He wrapped one arm around the physicist's shoulder. In spite of McKay's best attempts to shrug him off, the Ekukian couldn't be shed. "Come! Come!" and he directed McKay to the stairs, laughing broadly.
The Canadian tried to give Sheppard a frantic look, but one of the other two furry figures had encompassed the Major, while the third waited for Ford and Teyla. And, the small group made their way to a big white heap – the one with the chimney. They clomped over the snow that was packed nearly as hard as a roadway.
Akhiok led the way, with McKay snuggled beneath his arm. Sheppard followed with what he assumed was Akhiok's wife, Soldotna. The final furred person was behind them, helping Ford and Teyla with their load of trading wares.
"Red!" Akhiok spouted, laughing still. "If I could have a cloak such as yours, I would be a happy man!"
"Ah, man of good tastes. It's down-filled of course," McKay stated, running a hand along the puffy box-quilt squares of the coat. "Ripstop nylon, water-resistant, light-weight, microfleece-lined collar, with a draw-string cinch …"
"McKay," Sheppard growled from behind him. "He didn't want to hear a commercial for the damn thing."
"I'm impressed," Akhiok responded as they approached steep side of one hill. "I would like such a thing for myself."
"Well," McKay replied as he crunched over the snow. "You're out of luck because this is the only one like it in the Pegasus galaxy. The color is called… 'Chili'! A bit of a play on words because…"
"We'll add it to the trade negotiations," Sheppard decided. "Fruit, vegetables and one chili jacket."
Akhiok looked over his shoulder and smiled widely at the Major as McKay sputtered. "I think I shall be happy doing business with you!" the native declared. They'd reached the entrance to a cave. Heavy doors were swung open, and a fur or cloth covered the entrance. Akhiok pressed back the cloth, revealing a dark space. "Come," he ordered, gesturing the way in. They shambled past the drapery that fell back into place heavily, and for a moment they were in the close darkness, away from the frigidness. Another cloth or skin was parted, and they stepped into an almost uncomfortably warm space. An air-lock, Sheppard surmised as they walked through. Oil lamps guttered along the walls, casting a warm yellow glow on everything, and they faced a hallway, dug into the hill
The first thing that Sheppard noticed was that the place stank – the closeness of people – the lack of ventilation – the burning oil – the cooked meat -- people -- the old stale odors were almost overwhelming. He coughed before regaining his composure. The others were similarly affected – only McKay went on a bit longer, screwing up his face against the unpleasant assault.
Along the hall, tapestries hung. And between the tapestries, heads peeped out from holes in the wall. Sheppard nodded congenially at them, but at that moment, he really needed to get out of his coat.
Mufflers were untied, hats removed, toques tossed, jackets unzipped, as outerwear were shed. Soldotna, once she was free of her wrappings, proved to be a beauty, with dark-hair and eyes. Karluk looked much like his brother, with a heavy beard, thick hair and discolored teeth. Coats were hung up on hooks near the entrance. McKay held onto his parka a little longer than needed, petting the puffy garment as if it was the last time he'd see it. Almost reluctantly, he handed it over to Soldotna, who carefully hung it among the myriad furs that decorated one wall. She seemed intrigued by the leaf motif on his sweater, but said nothing of it.
Once they had shucked themselves from the winterwear, other citizens of the caves stepped clear from their holes. Apparently it was good manners to wait until visitors had freed themselves of their furs before you greeted them. "Welcome!" "Welcome!" voices called out as arms reached. "Come! Come to the great hall! Come! Welcome!"
The people were dressed in what appeared to be wool and skins, skillfully made – and apparently they had little regard for personal space as they crushed near. "We welcome you! We will share with you our homes." Hand reached out to touch the newcomers, petting them.
Rodney ducked away in horror, and Sheppard winced – doing his best to not pull away from the friendly natives. Ford threw his commanding officer unhappy glances, while Teyla put up with the ministrations with a resigned expression.
Akhiok laughed again, and ushered the guests forward, down the main shaft that burrowed straight into the heart of the hill, past holes in the hall – apparently living spaces. Sheppard eyed the tapestries that covered the dirt walls – intricate pictures that illustrated snow-covered hills, or serene summer landscapes, or fierce battles with enormous creatures. He narrowed his eyes at the hunting scenes, taking in the prey animals that resembled Wooly Mammoths. They had neither trunks nor tusks, but they couldn't be anything other than mammoths. In the images, men in furs ran alongside the creatures, hefting ineffectual looking spears. Big fluffy white dogs were illustrated chasing down the beasts, leaping savagely toward their throats.
"You see the mammoths?" McKay asked through his teeth as they strode down the corridor.
"Seen 'em," Sheppard responded.
"That's what they'll be hunting?" McKay asked.
"Tapas!" Akhiok responded. "Yes, we'll be hunting tapas tomorrow. They come through our land twice a year – at the beginning and end of our winter. We have already had one hunt this season, and have our larders well stocked, but another will give us goods to trade. You'll join us on the hunt, yes?" He reached out one arm, giving McKay a crushing embrace as they walked. "You must! You will!"
McKay staggered, hardly keeping his feet.
"You'll love it," Akhiok assured. "You'll see."
"Yeah," Sheppard put it, chuckling as McKay struggled to keep up with their quick gait. "You'll see."