Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A.N: This is not an Atlantis-team centered story, but they will make an appearance in later chapters.
A.N#2: Had to clean this old relic up. Edited 1.8.16 to James Newton Howard's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 OST and Shingeo Komori's "Traditional Song of Shadows," all three parts.
"You need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than the other girls."
- J.M. Barrie
The young girl ran out of her da's tent and towards the river. Once there she stripped out of her clothes and splashed into the water, gasping at the cold. She didn't mind the burn; she'd grown up by the river her entire young life, and the cold was a familiar discomfort. It was a treat to have the place to herself and without adults, and she played with the unhurried grace of a child accustomed with solitude. When her stomach growled she left the water and hurried back the same way she came, unaware she would never swim in the river in her life again.
She was halfway up the trail, humming, when the Ring activated. Off-hand curiosity flickered in her. She knew travelers sometimes came by to trade with the camp. A ship punched through the glowing portal. Dark and needle-pointed, it screamed over the treetops, pitching at breakneck speeds. Then another appeared. Then another. Soon the sky became filled with their harsh and raucous screams, matching the sudden uproar of the camp. The girl stood frozen, eyes wide. She watched as if from a thousand miles away, people she'd known her whole life scrambling to escape the strange ships, colliding with each other in their haste. Blue beams slurped them up, leaving nothing behind. It was a vast, dizzying nightmare. Before the horror could consume her, her da grabbed her up and ran into their tent.
His scent and warmth were familiar. She clung to him, not wanting to ever let go. She wanted the screaming outside to stop, but before she could open her mouth to cry, her da crouched before her. His hands were heavy and shaking on her damp shoulders.
"Listen to me, child, there is little time. Stay here and do not, under any circumstance, move. Understand, little one? No matter what you may see or hear."
"Da, why's everyone screaming?" the girl said. She began tearing.
Instead of answering, he bent his head to touch his forehead with her small one. She could feel him trembling. He said, "Stay here." His breath was warm against her nose. "I will return for you."
And with that, he left the tent and was gone. The girl stared uncomprehendingly after him. Though she repressed this memory for years, sometimes on rare mornings she wondered how her life would've changed if he kept his promise. But in that moment, shaken and not quite understanding the cause of all the fear, the girl only crouched underneath a root-rack. She pressed her hands over her ears, hating the agonized wail and scream of the ships, half-ready to cry herself. She didn't know how long she listened to her roaring pulse. When her arms grew tired she peeled her hands away.
And heard nothing.
It was unnatural stillness outside the tent. The ships were quiet. There were no more shouts. Only the faint gurgling of the Ring indicated it was still open. Just as the girl was beginning to unfold herself from the small space, low hisses and rough voices alerted her she wasn't alone. Hardly daring to breathe, the girl waited in the tent, her heart pounding to the point of pain against her sternum. There were the sounds of someone throwing a heavy tarp away and the sudden outburst of a man's begging. Morbidly curious, unable to stop herself, the girl peered through a slit in the tent's canvas, watching as a tall creature hold a man by his throat as if he weighed nothing at all. The girl recognized the man: he wove fishing nets for her da and often carved her wooden animals. As he dangled, the creature slammed its hand on his chest. The scream of agony that ripped from his lips was nothing the girl had ever heard. She didn't realize she was screaming herself until the man went limp. She slammed a hand over her mouth, but it was too late. The creature dropped the shriveled husk and headed towards her tent, its pace the unhurried confidence of a curious predator.
She finally realized this creature was the Wraith of the stories her da never liked to tell. They eat your life through their touch, he said. But I wouldn't worry, my little one. They're asleep now, and wouldn't bother a small camp like ours.
When the shadow fell across the tent, the girl bolted.
There were wings on her feet as she tore through the forest, uncaring for the branches whipping her face and legs. She ran as never before, adrenaline and fear pushing her beyond her limits. The tears she'd held back now poured down her face, obscuring her vision and hiding the root in her path. She tripped and fell hard, hard enough to nearly bite through her tongue. Jarred out of her mindless charge, she became aware of several things at once: her legs sizzled, her lungs hurt, and she wasn't alone. By some stroke of hellish misfortune, she had tripped near one of the Wraith.
She froze. She knew he was aware of her presence and there was nothing she could do now. He was unbelievably tall in her eyes, taller than her da, shoulders broad and chest narrow. She was used to people with fibrous, loose clothes; this creature wore his clothes like royalty, his strange white unbound hair flowing like silk against the polished leather. His face was far from anything she'd ever seen: there were the right number physical features, but the similarities ended there. There were twin facial slits on his cheeks and two elegant mustachios on his green chin. But out of all of these alterations, it were his eyes which were the most removed from humanity: pupils slitted, irises greenish yellow, they carried no recognizable emotion. Cold and alien, beautiful in the way predators were, he regarded her in the manner of a bird looking at a worm.
She shivered under the hooded, bland regard, and when he started walking towards her, the girl found she couldn't move. Too terrified to feel her legs, she could only watch his approach with mounting horror. When his shadow fell on her, the girl squeezed her eyes shut and prepared for the agonizing death-touch.
The shadow came.
The shadow went.
The girl's eyes flew open. As the Wraith strode towards the camp without hurry or backwards glance, she realized she'd been dismissed completely. No one would chase her now. It was her chance.
Run. Run. Run run run runrunrunrunrunrunrun
But the girl couldn't move. She didn't run. Her cheek was warm and throbbing. Her knees hurt. Her legs were sore. When human-eater rounded a bend and disappeared from sight, an inexplicable fear that she'd lost him filled her. It made no reason, but she couldn't fight the overwhelming sense of abandonment. Without a single thought in her head but every emotion in her heart, she staggered to her feet and she sped on spent legs until she reached the striding figure.
For several moments the two walked together as if nothing were amiss, neither looking at the other. When the Wraith slowed to a stop, the girl steeled herself and stopped as well. He tilted his head down at her, and she looked up at him. Even years later, when the Wraith retold the story of their first encounter to the young girl, she was reluctant to believe she had acted so fearlessly with him.
The Wraith lifted a pistol-thing at her, expressionless. The girl didn't move. She watched as he knelt on one knee at her level, surpassing her height by a large margin. She was so close she could even smell him. Cobwebs, she thought for no reason. Unexpectedly, he reached over and took her little chin between his clawed fingers, seeming to examine her face. His skin felt just as a human's but colder, despite the summer's heat. The girl stood still, passive and immovable. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, the creature grunted deep in his chest. Seemingly coming to a decision, he released her and continued walking, ignoring her as if nothing had happened. The girl followed, but he didn't discourage her or bring up the pistol-weapon to stop again.
The two unlikely travelers made their way back to the camp. He turned at looked at her, his regard still bland.
"Stay," he said. The creature spoke as if he had rocks in his mouth, the words harsh and guttural, nothing like the smoothness of a human throat. But the command was clear, accent or no.
The girl stayed put. It seemed natural to do as he said.
Silent, the Wraith headed towards a group similar of his kind. When they saw him they straightened and ceased their actions. The girl watched, feeling disconnected from the whole scene. Her ankle hurt and her knees were sizzling, but even that felt numb and far-away. But she stayed where she was told, and would until the human-eater came back for her. She knew her da would never keep his word, and where she was going, there would be no place for him.
Her hair was still damp from her morning swim.
The young girl awoke to darkness. For a moment she stayed curled beneath unfamiliar covers, warm and comfortable. Then she remember the events of yesterday and she stiffened, skin tingling. She didn't dare breathe. But the more she huddled in fetal position, the more she realized she was alone.
With slow movements, the girl shrugged off the blankets and sat up.
Neither tether nor string bound her, but she didn't leave the cot she awoke in. Curiosity burned within her, her fear vanishing as amazement at her new surroundings took hold. The room had an overall dark blue cast, but her eyes adjusted enough to see. She'd never seen such a high-vaulted ceiling, nor such strange yellow lights. They reminded her of dragonfly wings. More of the organic lights clung to the other side of the room, highlighting unrecognizable symbols engraved in the walls. There was a rack of weapons in the far corner, and farther along was a bed of some kind similar to what the girl herself was on. Without meaning to, the girl couldn't help but compare the utilitarian room to the cluttered tent she and her da shared. Homesickness and confused grief welled within her. Da, she thought.
Before the girl could succumb to tears, the blended door hissed open. Yellowish light, stronger than those on the ceiling and walls, flooded in as the Wraith from yesterday walked in. The door closed and darkness returned. The child held herself still, trying to blink her eyes back into adjustment. He was dressed differently than before, the wide belt over his shoulder absent. He moved as if she didn't exist, ignoring her completely as he crossed the breadth of the room to the large desk by his bed. He was silent as he removed his leather gauntlets and thin belt. By the time he was tying back his long white hair, the girl dared scratch her nose and rustle the blankets. Her subtle ploys for attention went unnoticed. She was almost disappointed when the Wraith walked out of the room without glancing her way, but she didn't call to him.
When the doors closed, the child explored the confines of the room. It was chillier outside the comfort of the blankets, but she grew accustomed to the cold. The gritty, hard floor gave minor vibrations beneath her soles, but it wasn't enough for her to care. The strange animal pelt on his bed intrigued her more. Out of everything in the room, it reminded her of her tent and home. Skin-side down, fur-side up, she gave it an experimental stroke. It was softer than anything she had ever touched. The overhead membrane lights dappled it yellow and orange. Homesickness clutched her heart, making it stronger than before. She climbed the bed and buried her face in the softness, clenching her fists in the long fur. She pretended it was her da hugging her, and unbidden tears soon began to drip. She didn't know how long she cried into the soft fur, but soon fell into an exhausted sleep. It wasn't until she felt a a cold, gentle breath on her cheek did she jolt awake.
For a long, suspended moment, the girl and the Wraith stared at each other. He was close, closer than he was back at the forest, sitting on his heels. There was no kindness or concern in his eyes as he regarded her tear-stained cheeks, but his head cocked nonetheless, his gaze sharpening. Was he upset she was on his bed? Would he punish her? But his face was bland, not angry, and he had yet to raise his hand for the death-touch.
The Wraith's strange, vulpine eyes tracked her movements as she slowly sat up. Aside from that one word yesterday, he had not spoken to her. As a human and once part of a tactile society, the girl found herself craving a sign of contact, verbal or otherwise, from her new caretaker. She found herself regarding the creature before her with heightened keenness, eager for a recognizable emotion or signal. Aside from the vague, often reluctant snippets her da told her about the Wraith, she knew next to nothing about them. She didn't know why she hadn't been eaten yet.
The Wraith lifted an arm. The girl flinched, ducking her head.
When she looked up again, she saw a nugget of bread in the clawed hand. It had to be bread: it even smelled like flour. She reached for it, hungry. The Wraith lifted it beyond her grasp and growled a meaningless word, nodding at the food. The girl blinked. She'd never heard the tongue he spoke. She stared at him. Again he brought the bread close and repeated the foreign word, and again lifted it out of reach when she tried to grab it. She frowned. It seemed odd he would be cruel now. But then she remembered this was similar to the teaching games she played with her da, and when the Wraith intoned the word, she repeated it the best she could. She didn't know if she was saying 'bread' or 'eat,' but when she reached for the bread for a third time, the Wraith held steady for her.
Within seconds the bread was gone. The Wraith watched her eat without moving, white lashes hooding his eyes. Somehow the child found comfort in his gaze, despite the unhuman fashion in which he regarded her. He had yet to hurt her in any way, and the bread sat well in her belly. When he reached for her again, she didn't flinch. He tapped her chest and said something in his tongue. The girl mimicked his head tilt, frowning again. He tapped her chest and repeated the sound. She brightened, sat up straight, and smiled. She repeated the sound, finding it hard to mimic his deep voice with her high-pitched one. She guessed he was calling her a name, and it would only be much later before she learned it translated to Little Dagger.
He made her repeat the sound until he made an abortive sweep of his hand. She waited for him to repeat the exercise with himself for his own name, but he said nothing, nor made a motion to. Emboldened, she leaned and poked his shoulder. The Wraith visibly stiffened, the leather creaking as his spine straightened beneath the leather uniform. He said nothing, gaze cool. The girl repeated herself and poked him, though retracting her hand faster this time. Again, there was no verbal response.
"Warrior," the girl said. She had just enough left-over confidence to gesture at the air.
She felt her resolve crumble as he appeared to ignore her. Just as she was convinced she had something wrong, the Wraith mimicked,
The girl beamed, the dried tears on her cheeks forgotten.
An untold number of days passed within the little room. Althea, as she was now understood herself as, remained within Warrior's room. She saw neither other Wraith nor humans. He made her universe with his sporadic comings and goings. Though he only rested in the room for short periods of time, his presence eased any lingering loneliness and homesickness. Keen for attention, eager to please, she obeyed his every command. Though rudimentary in nature, the vocabulary between them widened exponentially as the time passed. The Wraith was quick to rebuke her if she spoke the language she grew up hearing, and praised her if she used his. It hurt her throat, but his low hn of approval was worth a thousand discomforts.
A day came when the Wraith strode into the room, his long white hair loose and hanging in thick sheaves on his shoulders. By reflex, the girl lifted her head to peer at him. She hardly saw the alienness of his face now, recognizing the aristocratic features as something familiar and comforting. She had once looked up to a face with similar feeling, but that face was slowly fading from her memory.
Warrior gestured to his side. "Come," he said.
The girl ran over and looked up. The crown of her head reached the start of his hip. With a hand large enough to crush her skull, he nudged her towards the door. He walked through the open doorway, his hand guiding her to follow. It would be her first time outside the room, thought there were comforting similarities: the same membranous yellow and red lights appeared every fifty feet, casting their glows along the long corridor.
The Wraith began to walk as if he'd forgotten her presence. After a hesitation Althea realized it was her duty to follow him and stuck by his leg, hurrying to keep up with the sinewy stride. It struck her they'd done this before, in a forest she was already starting to disassociate from and forget. The faint sense of déjà-vu made her belly feel weird, but Warrior's presence helped. To take her mind off the strange pain, she paid attention to the organic walls. They were covered with the same unfamiliar symbols in Warrior's room, and just as foreign.
Just as it felt as if she had been walking forever, lost in a spider's dream, the girl heard heavy footsteps just beyond them. Althea veered closer to Warrior's side, resisting the urge to clutch at him. Of all the lessons he was teaching her, not touching him was one of the hardest ones.
The clunking grew louder and another Wraith appeared on the other end of the corridor, heading toward them. Her eyes widened. A quick glance at Warrior's haughty aloofness reported this was a common sight and not to be troubled. The girl studied the new Wraith. It wore a boney facial plate where a face would be and no other features. Its bare arms were much more muscular than her Wraith's and was decked with heavy chest armor. Cradled in its arms was a strange rifle-gun. As the strange Wraith drew close, it nodded slightly to Warrior and completely ignored the girl. Althea felt the strange no-face's passing with some relief. She already preferred Wraith with eyes she could see and faces she could recognize.
The two kept walking until Warrior paused in his step. Althea looked up and decided to test her new words she received from her lessons. "Stop?" she asked.
The Wraith glanced her way. He didn't answer but nudged her around him until she was on his left side. A window of space greeted her. If it weren't for her and Warrior's reflections, she could've thought she could step out into the void. So we are on a ship, she thought. She pressed her face to the cold glass, mouth slack as she marveled the splatters of nebula spiraling past. The stars were little more than streaks, sleek and cold like the edges of a knife. She didn't know why, but Althea secretly looked at her Wraith. He appeared lost in thought, gaze turned inward. The girl want to ask what he was thinking of, but she knew if she tried to speak her language, he would rebuke her. Though he never hit or cuffed her, his sharp tone was enough to quell most reasons to incur his disapproval.
At last Warrior said, "Come." The girl did as she was told, the small prints of her hands still on the window.
The Wraith's pace never hurried or slowed as they navigated the seemingly endless corridors. By the time they reached the destination, Althea was hopelessly lost. When he stopped in front of a double set of organic doors. She thought they had returned to their room, but when the organic door slid open and she was nudged in, she saw it wasn't the room at all. Thanks to the numerous membranous lights stretching the walls and ceiling, she had a perfect view of ten children. All of them ceased their actions to gaze at the strange intruder. Some stared at Warrior's tall form instead.
Althea tried to back away but Warrior's hand on her spine stopped her. His nudge was firmer this time, almost enough to make her stumble forward. She was forced to stand in the room, her hands gripped the front of her fibrous shirt as Warrior strode forward. The children parted. The girl watched him walk up to another adult Wraith who appeared out of the shadows, and the two began conversing faster than she could keep up. Unable to help herself, she looked at the children. At first it was difficult to tell their genders: they each wore nondescript white clothes and all had long brown hair. It wasn't until a few approached did she distinguish the masculine slant to the feminine ones. If she was right, most were male, with maybe two females. Their skin wasn't green yet, and their features were softer somehow, less defined. It almost made her forget them as Wraith and as human, and she stopped clutching the front of her shirt. She stood up straighter. When Warrior told her to stay, she only nodded.
The moment Warrior left, one of the males walked up to her until they stood toe-to-toe. Althea matched his height. Unlike the others his hair was black, and his eyes was an odd green. There was no friendliness in his regard. Suddenly he roared in her face, his voice still high from the lack of maturity, teeth sharper than her own. Without thinking, Althea took deep breath and roared back. The male blinked, mouth falling slack. Something like appraisal crossed his face before he turned to walk away. As if a flood, the other children gathered around her. With their own version of youthful abandon, they touched her face and hair, murmuring to each other in their tongue. Though still too fast to comprehend, Althea thought she could understand the gist of their conversations. One of the females reached down to feel the strange fabric of her clothes between a thumb and index finger. Althea felt a warm glow at the interaction and at the sudden attention, not realizing how much she'd missed physical contact.
The children scattered as the caretaker waded through them, cuffing at those nearest. She towered over Althea, her hands flexing and relaxing in equal measure. She had long white hair like Warrior, but unlike him, hers was plaited in a braid. She stared down at the girl with a hint of a curled lip, then said,
Althea dared not disobey, and trailed behind the flowing figure without hesitation. The caretaker led her into a smaller alcove. A table waited for them. It stood in the centre of the room, under a direct beam of focused light. The female Wraith hefted Althea up from under her arms and placed her on the table's surface.
"Be still," the female said, standing before her.
Althea went as still as she could, even trying to limit her breathing. She squeezed her eyes shut as the Wraith suddenly began cutting her clothes away with her sharp claws, centimeters from her skin. The quickness of it all took her breath away as, too shocked to move, her ragged clothes fell away from her shoulders. Naked and shivering in the room, Althea waited, biting her lower lip. The Wraith narrowed her yellow eyes and made a complete circuit around her before stopping. She grunted once before retrieving something from a small outcropping. When she returned, she held something white in her hands. Clothes, the girl thought. The she-Wraith put it besides the girl and growled something. Butterflies erupted in the child's stomach as she realized she didn't recognize the word. But she did know what to do with clothes, she when she started putting on the shirt, the she-Wraith did not cuff her to stop.
The softness of the material between her fingers reminded her of the pelt on Warrior's bed, and when she pulled the shirt over her head, she couldn't help but smile at the downy texture: it was like wearing summer. The shirt molded to her straight child's body, long enough to cover most of the pants she slipped on next. The cold was immediately forgotten. The she-Wraith grunted and lifted Althea off the table and onto the floor. With another word, the Wraith led the girl back to the children's nursery. And from there, Althea walked back to the Wraith children and, shyly at first but warming up, to play.
Hours passed before Althea's Wraith appeared through the door.
She raced to him. "Warrior!" she said.
The Wraith spared her a glance before lifting his chin. The female caretaker parted through the children and exchanged a brief conversation with him, in which Warrior took two more similar pairs of white children clothes. He looked down at Althea again and told her to follow, to which she obeyed with a smile. But the day's adventures had left her worn, and the journey back to their shared room blurred into one long blend of footsteps. Her head was nodding by the time Warrior nudged her through the threshold. She yawned her way through a small supper before the Wraith motioned her to her bed.
Meeting those children and exploring the ship with him left her flushed and happy, and when the Wraith knelt before her to examine her face as he sometimes did before she went to bed, she reached out and hugged him before he could pull away. She was human, a tactile creature by nature, and despite the repeated gruff "No's," Althea was willing to disobey. She still craved physical contact, and some of her anxiety eased when she could feel the slow drum of his heart against hers. A child's love bloomed inside her. She had hugged someone like this before, she was sure of it. She could feel the Wraith tense and begin the motions to remove her, but she buried her face in his neck and hung on tighter. He never reciprocated her hugs. She didn't mind. She embraced him for the both of them.
With a strength greater than her own, he removed her arms from around his neck.
"No," he said, but it was gentler than the other times. He shook his head. "No."
"Understand," Althea said.
He took her chin and gave it a firm shake. "No."
"Understand," Althea repeated.
The Wraith leaned in and shook her chin for a second, harder time. It almost hurt. "No."
And for a third time, Althea parroted back what he wanted to hear. At last he released her and leaned back on his heels. He stood up with a visible shudder. He then helped her into her bed, where she quickly fell asleep, the disarray of her hair flowing like sandy waves over her pillow.
Weeks became months, months became years. Althea grew tall and whippish. Under her guardian's firm tutelage and her eager willingness, she began to understand more and more about the language and culture of her adoptive people. Whilst most of the Wraith slept on the ship, the head female was called the Keeper. During times of Awakening, when most of the fleet were awake, Warrior spoke of Queens, not Keepers, who ruled the Hive. Warrior, she learned, was one of three males who led beneath the Keeper. To parcel out power was to show weakness during Awakenings, but as most of the Wraith were asleep, it didn't matter to the Keeper. Althea never met the Keeper of Warrior's Hive, nor did she ever want to. Warrior said Althea would be an old woman by the time the Wraith Awoke again, and to cast her worries from her mind.
When the girl reached the age of ten, the Wraith allowed her to roam the upper level corridors of the ship without supervision. The bone-faced soldiers never spoke to her. Adult males would cast vaguely disinterested gazes her way, but Althea kept her head down and averted her gaze as taught. As Warrior's ward, she knew the others couldn't touch her without risking his wrath. All the same, the girl loathed Warrior's disappointment, and didn't want the other Wraith to think he reared her poorly. She did her best to stay quiet and respectful, both when Warrior was away or when she was with him.
When the ship landed on a planet and cut their engines, Warrior would sometimes walk outside with her. He taught her the names of trees and things of nature in his language. Her ability to communicate improved rapidly to the point of fluency; after five years of Warrior's lessons and attending the nursery, there were little she had trouble conveying. Out of the ten children who first greeted her, the male who roared in her face became her closest playmate. It was he who showed her the finer nuances of the language, and rarely left her side. Althea never knew what made him stay with her while all other friendships cooled, but she never questioned why. He was quiet for a male, his gaze keen and haughty. His calm, sometimes aloof mien reminded the girl of Warrior.
His name was Lynex.
Althea closed her eyes, drawing in deep breaths. It was a clear day, the twin moons clear as cut crystals in the sky. Hidden chickadees warbled to each other. A silver brook burbled just beyond her curled feet, little narcissuses bending their drooping heads. The sunlight dappled down on the soil, speckling the surroundings with light. The pine smell permeated the cool air, sharp and aromatic. It smelt of home.
She glanced over to where Warrior sat nearby. One knee was drawn to his chest, his arms encircling it with his hands clasped together. His hair was tied back in a low queue. His eyes were closed. Althea knew from experience it meant her guardian was meditating or in deep thought, so she occupied herself by scratching little designs in the soil her fingernails. Over the years he hadn't changed in either feature or demeanor, and her love for her laconic, undemonstrative guardian never wavered.
Her drawings were cut short when Warrior opened his eyes and said, "It's time to go."
"Okay," she said.
Althea found early on she enjoyed the solitude of ranging the area by herself. She loved its quiet peacefulness. Sometimes, if she went alone into the forest without Warrior or Lynex, sometimes she felt a curious nostalgia in her chest. But those moments were few and far between, and over the years, occurred less and less. She never told Warrior about them.
The Wraith beside her was quiet as they walked through the depths of the ship. That in itself wasn't unusual, as he rarely spoke without reason. Althea glanced around. She knew all the levels of the ship by heart, all except the lowest tier. Warrior had always forbade her to venture there. When he stopped, Althea stopped as well. The lighting was dim, many of the membranous lights on the ceilings and walls absent. The air was thicker, mustier. When she looked at him for guidance, the Wraith seemed passive.
The girl decided to risk his patience. "Why did we stop?" she asked. "Where are we going?"
"I want you to go down the corridor," he said. He met her upturned face, his expression bland. "Then return."
"Yes, Warrior," Althea said, trying to hide a frown at her strange instructions, but she didn't question them. She walked down the dark blue path, fighting the urge to rub her arms. It was darker than any other level, but aside from the lack of membranous lighting, it was a normal corridor. She hoped there wouldn't be a surprise test she needed to pass. She continued to walk towards the end of the hall, her curiosity ebbing as nothing helped fuel it. Then she reached a bend. She rounded its corner and instinct made her look up.
It was a human in a pod-like case, motionless and silent. His face was weathered and worn, creased with a thousand wrinkles, as if his skin was paper. Cobwebs covered the visible skeletal parts. She didn't know if he was alive or dead. If he was alive, Althea knew he was better off dead. She could only cringe, her feet frozen, struck with the strange sensation she'd seen this before. But the memories were half-formed and confused, and she didn't want to believe them. Althea pushed the thoughts down with a grim force of will and stepped back to find an entire row of similar half-dead humans. But still she couldn't scream. A resounding puzzlement and a deep hurt was welling inside her, growing by the moment. Pale, hands clenched, she walked back to where her Wraith stood waiting.
One look at his calm face was all she needed: she knew he know what she'd seen, and that he'd knowingly made her see it. Suddenly, a terrible thought unfurled in the back of her mind. Had she just witnessed her fate?
For the first time in years, the girl flung herself at Warrior and hugged him, burying her face in the leather. She felt him stiffen, as he always did when she touched him, but he made no motion to detach her. Instead, he bore the physical contact, tense and silent. It was Althea who disengaged first, backing to a respectable distance away, sniffing. She watched as the Wraith bent his knee before her, as he did whenever he wanted to observe her up close. When clawed fingers grasp her chin and lifted it, she knew better than to pull away. At first, she thought he would shake her as punishment for touching him, but he did nothing.
"What did you see, Little Dagger?" he asked.
Althea tried to shake her head in denial, but the Wraith's claws held her in place. There was no pity in his regard.
"Hu-humans," she said. Her eyes and nose stung. His fingers were cool against her hot skin.
The Wraith nodded. "Yes, humans. We use their life-force to survive, as they are our only source of nourishment." His head tilted. "Do you understand?"
"You . . . you eat them?"
Tears dripped down her cheeks and onto the Wraith's fingers. "Why do you cry? Are you sad for your people?"
"Am I going to be like them?" Althea asked. The tears fell harder.
The Wraith released her chin to rub one of her cheeks dry with the pad of his thumb. Something akin to a frown crossed his face. "'Be like them?'"
"Are you going to eat me?"
The movements of his thumb stopped. He blinked. "No." His hand fell away. "No. Though human, no one will eat you."
It was the girl's turn to frown as she used her sleeve to wipe her nose and eyes dry. "But, I'm Wraith, not human," she said.
Warrior looked at her. Though she tried searching his face for any discernible emotion, she could find none. Neither frowning nor smiling, eyes neither calm nor agitated, the Wraith took her right hand in his and turned it face-up. He used a finger the length of her entire palm to flatten her hand out.
"This is your hand," he said, "and this one is mine." He unfurled his own right hand and held it flat, palm up, next to hers. It dwarfed hers in size, milky green, but her eyes fell to the vertical slit in its centre. It was puckered closed, and though it looked ugly and gash-like, it didn't smell like a wound. Her Wraith didn't seem in pain. Overcome with curiosity, the girl started running her finger along the length of it. Aside from developing a fine tremor in his hand, Warrior didn't react. When he spoke again, though, his voice was tighter than before.
"This is a Wraith's hand. Yours is a human's."
"Those aren't my people," Althea said, louder now. For a second, the Wraith's face tensed. The expression was gone before she was sure it ever existed, but in that moment's time, the girl thought she saw sadness.
The Wraith stood up, slower than his usual fluidity. "Perhaps you are right, my Little Dagger. The lesson is over. Go back to the quarters."
That night in the room, Althea cried out in her strange language. She didn't know what the nightmare was, but she woke from it, she couldn't help the feeling of terrible desolation. Though he made no move to comfort her, neither did Warrior leave, hovering like a dark shadow from her dreams.
The following morning, Althea went to the Lynex in the nursery. The young Wraith's unusual dark eyes followed her approach as she neared.
"You took your time," he said. "You're not usually this late."
"I didn't sleep well," Althea said.
Lynex blinked. "Your voice sounds odd. Are you sick?"
Althea opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. She shook her head. "Can I see you hand?"
The young Wraith eyed her askance. "Why?"
"Please? Your right hand."
Her friend paused, brow furrowing. Wordlessly, he offered it to her. Taking it in hers, she turned it palm up and flattened, as Warrior had done to hers the day before. It occurred to her it was the first time they were touching. His skin was cooler than hers, and smooth, as if he had no hair. Though still young, she could feel the strength in the fingers as they tried to relax. His nails were like hers, soft and blunt. Warrior told her it would be much later before they grew and hardened into claws.
"Thank you," Althea said, as if in afterthought.
"Care to explain? I think you have a right hand as well."
"But not this," she said softly. As she'd done with Warrior's, she ran a finger directly over the centre of his palm.
Lynex jolted, whipping is hand back with a loud "Oh!" He held his hand tight to his side and pretended not to notice the curious looks glanced their way. When the other children looked elsewhere to other interests, Lynex fixed Althea with a hard stare.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked, suddenly mortified. She'd done the same to Warrior yesterday.
"No," he said, though his cheeks flushed. He still hadn't let go of his hand. "It . . . it felt funny, that's all. You surprised me."
"Oh. Good. As long as it didn't hurt. I was just curious."
"Curious?" Lynex unclenched his hand and looked at it. After a contemplative, wary pause, he allowed her to look at it too. Althea leaned in close. There, in the centre, was a thin, near-invisible slit on his palm. It was like a white thread only visible to those who knew what to look for. "Why are you curious with it all of a sudden?"
"I want to know if I'll be able to feed like you," the girl said, trying to stem the strange sadness inside her. Her stomach felt weird and twisty.
Unlike Warrior, the young Wraith's face was still open enough to read. He looked at her with pity.
"I don't think humans feed on other humans like that," he said.
Althea's head snapped up. "I'm Wraith."
The young Wraith's brow furrowed. He peered at her as noticing her for the first time. Instead of wriggling under the intense focus, Althea lifted her chin. At last Lynex broke his gaze, nodding.
"You're you, Little Dagger. I apologize for forgetting."
The warm glow Althea felt for her friend soothed the strange hurt in her stomach. She controlled the urge to hug him, knowing it would embarrass him and make the other children gawk.
Ten years passed since the day the Wraith showed her the humans in storage. Althea gripped the hilts of her practice blades, trying to control her breathing. She circled around. Without taking her eyes off her opponent, she tested her footing and ground, her toes kneading the grassy soil. She was clad in a leather hunting outfit, a piece of rawhide tying back her hair. Sweat ran down her brow. Lynex, clad in a casual leather hunting uniform for adolescents, mimicked her movements. His eyes never left her as he tested his own footing. Now twenty years old, his hair was as white as salt. His claws were sharp and painful, and his voice had richened to a smooth rumble. He was tall now, towering of Althea by a foot, not an ounce of superfluous fat on him.
Wraith and human glared at each other, circling like wolves, their eyes keen for the smallest opening. Suddenly Althea attacked with her blades, one in each hand, feinting to the right. Lynex spun away, parrying one of her lashing blades with natural ease. Without pause Althea cut her body to the left, this time aiming one blade to his knees and using the other to block his next lighting-flash downward strike. The dock, dock, dock sound of the wood hitting together in the early morning stillness echoed across the clearing. Althea sprang away, light on her toes. Lynex walked back, breathing calm. They circled again, each seeking an opening.
The fought each other for an indeterminate length of time until they stopped by mutual agreement. The girl wiped the sweat off her face with a soft animal hide and looked up. It was mid-morning. She and Lynex had been sparring since dawn, practicing on honing her skills. With his superior control and reflexes, she knew it was for her benefit the young Wraith exercised with her. Over the years, the girl wondered why he participated in her training. She suspected he enjoyed it. Ever since her guardian introduced her to the art of a hunter and fighter, Lynex had been by her side. At first Althea treated the exercises as sources of entertainment and fun, but ever since strange humans in the Ancient City awoke the Wraith a year ago, the exercises had gained a serious edge. The Wraith were awake, and though Warrior tried to hide it, there was a tension in his shoulders where none were before. They were supposed to Awaken in fifty years, Althea thought, remembering her lessons. She drank some water. There won't be enough humans to feed all of them.
"Let's call it a morning," she said, her breathing returning to normal.
Lynex nodded in agreement. Unlike her, he didn't drink. "Yes. We've practiced enough."
She smiled to herself, and though the young Wraith peered at her, she didn't explain her amusement. The two companions walked back to the Hive in comfortable silence, each in their own thoughts. They separated when they entered the dark depths, she heading to the upper levels, he remaining on the mid-floor. She entered her private quarters and quickly washed herself. She was drying her hair when Warrior entered through the organic doors.
"Sir!" she said.
Althea fell into a parade rest but he waved her down. He approached her. It'd been years since she last initiated physical contact of any kind, but she never quite outgrew the urge to hug him. Just before falling asleep she could sometimes remember the feeling of his heartbeat against hers. My Warrior, she thought with a flood of affection. Aside from the unscheduled Awakening which left his shoulders tense, he appeared as changeless as the halls. She wished she could take away some of his worries and burdens. Some of the now-familiar sadness crept into her heart, but she hid it from her expression.
"You've improved," the Wraith said. He motioned to her practicing clothes. "Pack sturdy clothing and your pistol, then go to the ship waiting by the platform. We leave in an hour."
"Sir?" the girl asked, her heart beginning to beat harder.
The Wraith leveled her an indiscernible look. "You're to join our ranks of hunters. Is this acceptable to you?"
Althea schooled her face into a faraway mask. Inside, she was leaping. "Yes, sir," she said.
When he left, Althea could only stand in dizzy happiness. It was an uncommon thing to receive praise from the laconic Wraith, but made only a small part of her surprise. She was joining the other hunters. I am a Wraith, she thought, looking down at her unblemished hand. Otherwise, why include her in a cull?
She did as she was told, gathering her small pistol and some extra clothes. She put in a small bag and went to the platform, where a slim scout ship waited for her. Since the Awakening, the corridors were filled with Wraith. Those who watched her grow ignored her presence as if she were invisible, but she felt the stares from the newly-awakened as she headed to the loading dock. She passed the guards and entered the bowels of the ship, blinking to adjust to the dimness. A bone-faced guard directed her to a small room. She wasn't surprised. Ever since she reached twelve years of age, she always had personal quarters. Althea sat on the hard slab which constituted her bed and didn't move until the walls began to thrum. The girl closed her eyes and bit her lip until the worse of the shaking was over. Aside from a faint vibration in the floor and the distant hum of internal machinery, she could pretend she was on land. A small window stood above her bed. She lost herself in the sight beyond its thick glass, watching the purple blur of hyperspace with the rapt fascination of a child.
Someone ping'd entrance to her room. It was Lynex. Althea sprang up as he walked in. She blinked. When has he become such a fine adult? she thought. He used to be such a scrawny child.
"Ah," the other said. He stood by the door, body angled as if to leave.
"It's a surprise for me too," Althea said. "I was told an hour ago I'd be joining the cull."
"What would—" The Wraith stopped. Though the lighting was dim, she thought she could see his cheeks darken.
She smiled slightly. "Whatever I could to help."
The Wraith's shoulders drooped. He walked further in her room until he stood close enough she could feel his body heat. "I am sorry. That's not what I meant," he said.
Althea flicked her hand in the air. "It's fine. I understand. But I will do my best so I won't be a burden, either to you or to the Commander."
Lynex grunted, nodding. Before he could move away, she asked, "May I see it again?"
The Wraith paused, quiet, before allowing her to hold his right hand close to face. His fingers twitched as she traced the inconspicuous slit. He endured it for several more seconds before pulling his hand free. He massaged his palm, as if to remove her feather-light touches. Althea didn't know why she enjoyed provoking such a response.
"It's grown since I've last saw it. Are you going to feed when we reach the planet?" she asked.
"If the Commander allows it," the young Wraith said. "More likely we will put the humans in storage. With all the Wraith awake in the system, there isn't enough food to go around. We must begin rationing now we are to survive as a Hive."
Althea nodded. She remembered the exact day a year ago when the tenseness appeared on her guardian's shoulders, as if he bore a heavy weight. Even before the premature Awakening there were already rivalries between the Wraith; this was a major problem with few solutions. She even heard of battles breaking out over even minor cullings.
When Lynex left, she returned to stare out the little window. You're going to go hunt humans, a little voice whispered. Those who look like you.
No, she thought. She shoved the little voice away. Her hand clenched. I am Wraith.
The scout ship continued its course for three more days. During that time Althea sparred with Lynex down in the training pits or rested in her quarters and maintained her pistol. It was when the glow of a planet's atmosphere replaced the the blur of hyperspace did she know they were close. Her stomach tightened. When the ship landed, Althea took a deep breath and walked down the plank to join the others. She wore the same outfit as the others. Even her hair style mimicked theirs, bangs out of the way and hair loose over her back. She closed her eyes and inhaled, reveling in the small breeze. Though the trip had been quick, living on a grounded Hive ship had left her used to breathing air she could see. She took a deeper pull.
The usual smells of pine needles and fir sap weren't there. Lots of broadleaf, she thought, opening her eyes to look at the leafy boughs. She walked across the clearing the scout ship had landed in, heading for the cluster of Wraith. There were seven in all, each flexing their hands or rolling their shoulders. A tense eagerness hung in the air. Lynex was already there, listening to Warrior. By the time she reached them, Lynex turned to her.
"What did I miss?" she asked.
"If things go wrong, we are expected to initiate the self-destruct sequences rather than be taken," he said, rechecking his weapon.
"Oh," Althea said, blinking. She strove to quell her own sense of apprehensive excitement. "Are we expecting trouble?"
The Wraith curled his upper lip. "Be ready for anything. Culling in this scout-formation keeps us off other Wraith sensors, but makes us vulnerable to attack should there be one."
Althea nodded and glanced away, trying not to frown. She jerked her head up when the Wraith rested a hand on her shoulder. The physical touch surprised her more than anything. His grip tightened.
"I'll watch your back, Little Dagger," he said.
Before the young woman could reply, Warrior called for their attention. "The ship's sensors picked up several small settlements in the vicinity of thirty miles. The nearest one is close. We strike this settlement and transport the humans to the ship. Each of you is allowed one kill before they're for the Hive. Only one." Warrior paused, eyeing each of them in turn. He passed over Althea. "Remember: an unsuspecting human is a calm human."
All bowed their heads in consent. He set a fast, ground-eating pace into a thicket of birch trees. At once, the Wraith loped after him, Althea bringing in the middle, Lynex not too far away. Like hunting back home, she thought as they fanned out. The familiarity of the motions eased some of the tightness in her chest, and soon she fell into a rhythm. No one spoke. When Warrior at last raised a clenched fist, the hunting party stopped. They were at the forest's edge. A field spread before them, dotted with dirt roads and small houses. She could smell someone cooking food over a fire. Althea crouched down, trying to ignore the grumble of hunger from her belly. Warrior stared at the small, noisy human settlement just beyond the forest, eyes narrowing. The other Wraith followed his example, peering through the foliage, studying, still panting from their run.
Study your prey. Know their weaknesses. Recognize their strengths.
What odd primitive shelters, she thought, blinking the sweat from her eyes. The clothing the humans wore were fibrous and loose. It was nothing like durable Wraith leather. Something deep inside her twinged, but it was almost too subconscious to notice. She observed them as one would animals, curious and unsettled in equal measure. She counted sixteen humans.
Warrior waved them forward.
The hunting party fanned out, approaching the small cluster of roads and huts on soundless feet. Within seconds they breached the border. Althea didn't know who shot first, but soon stunner fire filled the air. Humans poured out of their homes once the screaming started, their eyes wide and faces pale. A child began crying. Still confused by the swiftness of it all, the humans were felled as the Wraith descended upon them. Lynex caught one young male attempting to flee, one hand on his chest and the other clamped over his mouth.
It was over in minutes.
Althea averted her face. She couldn't watch the feasting. She wandered away from the main congregation, finger still on her pistol's trigger. She had counted sixteen humans and seen sixteen bodies accounted for, but the hairs on her arms still rose. She rounded a corner of a dwelling, then froze. It was her guardian. And a human child, she thought, eyes widening. She didn't move. The child was young, maybe five or six winters old. Male? Female? Althea couldn't tell. Its eyes were tearing and its cheeks were wet, but it wasn't screaming. It stared at the tall Wraith, almost wobbling in place as it stood with its head craned back. The Wraith's back was to her, making it difficult to see his expression. Would he feed on it? She wanted to look away, face already scrunching with distaste, but morbid curiosity kept her rooted in place. The Wraith opened the door the child stood in front of. The child didn't move, still staring. Gently, as if easing a flower back into place, Warrior nudged the child into the dwelling and closed the door. Althea still couldn't move. Her guardian remained by the door for a long moment, hand on the latch, face still turned from her.
Althea took a step back, prepared to give him privacy. The sound and movement had Warrior turning. I've seen that look before, she thought, startled. But where? She wanted to ask why he appeared sad, but her tongue was cemented to the roof of her mouth. The two regarded each other for a moment more before the Wraith dismissed her with a glance and began heading towards the others. She inclined her head, shaken. She didn't know why she froze the way she did. She was still trying to place the expression on her guardian's face when she saw Lynex walking up to her.
"There you are," he said when they were within conversational distance.
"I was checking the parameter," Althea said. She didn't know what else to say. She nodded towards another Wraith who was putting small devices on the unconscious bodies of the humans. "What's he doing?"
"Our technicians created them," Lynex said. He was rubbing his feeding hand. "They are designed to transport the energy signatures to—ah, there you go."
The humans disappeared in a similar flash of light dart ships employed.
"Do they go on the ship we came on?" she asked.
"Yes. They're short-range devices that transport the humans from one location to another. Makes this sort of hunting easier. The Wraith back at the ship will stow them for long transport."
His voice trailed off. Althea's eye caught his rubbing motion and asked, "Did your feeding go well?"
A closed expression came in his vulpine gaze. "Yes,"he said, but would say no more.
They culled two more human settlements. Though she didn't have much time to study her look-alike species, she couldn't help but observe. The humans had neither intense strength nor powerful weapons, making them easy targets. As the Wraith hunting party swept through, they would cry and bleat like sheep. A few of the males and females attempted to fight, but they were all subdued. They were truly no match. Althea watched everything with an disassociated eye. If humans raised her, she wondered, would she be as weak and helpless? Would she run, screaming, or try fighting? She glanced at her fellow Wraith, her gaze lingering on Lynex. As far as she could remember, she'd been around Wraith. There was no other time in her memory, but even as she built her conviction, a new thought came to her. What if she'd been like that child Warrior had saved? He could've eaten it or brought it to be culled, yet he hid it from the others. Did she just see her past? Her mind was a storm.
"Little Dagger." It was Lynex. Althea tried not to jump, but she knew he knew she'd been caught off guard.
"This isn't the time for a wandering mind," he said, but his voice was gentle. "The Commander said we will attack the next encampment not far from here, then return to the ship. The hunt will be soon over."
Good, she thought. She looked up. Dark clouds appeared above the edges of the clearing. The breeze from that morning had turned into a strong wind, sending the grasses rustling and bobbing. The sun flickered and flared, back-lighting the shadowy thunderheads moving to encircle it.
The wind continued to blow through the treetops as the Wraith and young woman reached the last human settlement. The settlement lay in shadow, the forbidding thunderheads darkening it. The small, inconspicuous cluster of simple houses stood before them, inviting. The nearest dwelling was so close if she got up and slunk a few feet, she could have touched its grainy, brick-like side. Two humans, males, roamed about. Guards or sentries, perhaps? None of the other humans had guards, Althea thought, but dismissed it from her mind. The hunting party began to move. They crept slower than before, backs hunched like crabs' as they traveled deeper into the settlement. The young woman could smell moisture and ozone on the wind, and knew it would rain soon. Thunder crashed like rocks above her head.
Something about the situation she didn't like. Other than those two, she'd yet to see any humans. The Wraith fanned out, pistols ready. They were almost in the centre of the settlement and Althea froze. Oh! she thought. One of the men stared at her, a smile on his face. He hailed to her in a strange language, pointing a finger in her direction. She lifted her pistol to shoot him, but hesitated. What if her timing was off and she threw the hunt? Rain began to come down in a gray sheet, soaking her skin. She still didn't shoot, finger on the trigger.
Lightning shattered the sky. It cut through the blinding downpour, lighting the dozens of humans all crouched and waiting. Althea widened her eyes.
"No, it's a trap!" she cried out, but wind stole her words.
The waiting humans surged forth, weapons in their hands. Bullets cut down half the Wraith down before they could unleash a shot. Althea gripped her pistol and rushed at the attackers. She stunned the first human and tagged a second. Men fired at downed Wraith or attacked the living ones, their bullets ricocheting off building corners. The Wraith fought back, their roars dim against the rat-tat-tat of the human guns and the drill of the rain. With their strength and speed, the Wraith fought to escape the ring of humans, but despite their healing abilities, fewer and fewer Wraith got up after being cut down. Althea tried to reunite herself with them, shooting any form she could get a bead on. She turned in time to see her guardian fall. She screamed his name and tried to help him but someone struck her in the back of the head, driving her to her knees. She buckled. White lights exploded in her vision and corkscrews of pain filled her head. She went limp, and knew no more.
Althea woke with her cheek pressed against a cold floor and a throbbing headache. She swallowed back a groan and despite a deep lurch of panic, pretended she was still unconscious. Something was caked to the side of her face. Where am I? she thought, eyes flickering from their vantage point. It was dim, wherever it was. She struggled to remember the events which brought her here.
Someone must've hit me from behind. It was a hard blow, she thought, wincing.
The young woman closed her eyes again, concentrating for the sound of approaching footsteps or heavy breathing. She slumped with a sigh when she heard neither. Whoever were her captives, they weren't close. She struggled to sit up, a wave of dizziness washing over her. The throbbing in her head jumped to a sharp pain, but she breathed through it.
She was in a cage. It was large enough she could walk ten steps in either direction. There was a bucket in a corner she assumed she could relieve herself in. To her relief, Lynex was also in the same cage as hers. He lay on his back on the floor, eyes closed. When she shook him, he was unresponsive. At least he's alive, she thought, placing her hand on his chest and feeling the up-down motion. Was he asleep? Gathering strength? He must be sleeping off a sedative, she concluded.
She peered about. They were in the middle of a dank, windowless room. Artificial light streamed down from strange globes from the high ceiling. The air had a musty quality to it, as if no one had breathed in her for a long time, reminding her of the Hive's storage room where they kept humans in suspended stasis. Althea struggled to calm herself, taking deep breaths. She strove to control it with a grim push of will. Several other cages stood next to hers, all empty except for the one closest to her. More relief swept through her when she spied Warrior. He was close enough for her to reach her hand through the bars and touch his chest. As with Lynex, he didn't react to her touch. She stayed as she was for a moment more, satisfying herself with the silent, steady heaves. His heartbeat, she thought, face growing soft.
All she could do was wait.
And wait she did. Without windows or a timekeeper to tell the passage of time, it was difficult to judge how much time passed. Althea sat, mimicking a Wraith's style with arms around one knee drawn to her chest. A mixture of indignation and confusion boiled within her. Who were these people to trap and confine them? What purpose would their capture serve? When Wraith captured humans, it was for food. Did the humans capture us for food? She somehow doubted it. Then why? Althea glanced at her unconscious companions. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it. Harder to ignore was the cottony dryness of her throat.
She was thinking of escape when a soft groan caused her to look down.
"Lynex! You're awake!" she said as she crept to his side.
Lynex blinked, pupils dilated. He propped himself on an elbow, holding his head in one hand. "Little Dagger? Is that you?" he asked.
Althea marveled at the sedative's power. "Yes, it's me. We've been captured."
Lynex bared his teeth. "Captured?" He lifted himself into a sitting position. "They hurt you," he said.
She brought her hand up to touch the blood on her face, noticing it for the first time. "They hit my head and knocked me out." At least they didn't shoot me, she thought.
"I will rip their guts through their mouths for that."
Althea's mouth quirked, a warm glow in her belly. "I appreciate it. But I don't know what they did with the others. The Commander is here, but the others—"
"Presume them dead."
Althea said nothing.
Lynex bared his teeth again as, grunting, he pulled himself to standing position. He swayed, leaning on the thick iron bars. "What have they done to me?" he growled, holding his balance.
"I think they put a sedative in the weapons that hit you," she said, still kneeling. Despite their predicament, listening to Lynex's muttered curses under his breath gave her a slight smile.
When Althea's guardian awoke, he asked after her and Lynex's wellbeing, then went silent. Being in a different cage allowed him to keep his back to them, barring any and all attempts for communication. Lynex and Althea spoke softly and avoided him as much as possible, even averting their gaze in his general direction. She could feel his anger as if it were a cold wind, and she shivered. Despite this, it comforted her to see his anger. His wrath was something to lean on.
It was almost a relief when their captors made their appearance. Even before they entered the cage room, she received a peremptory signal from Warrior. She got up and moved to the far corner. Warrior stood, the effects of the drug long since gone, and waited in the centre of his cage. Lynex mimicked his rigid-backed stance, standing in similar placement in his cage, protecting Althea. A man in a green military uniform entered, followed by four others. Bodyguards or sentries, she thought as they took places along the wall, leaving the first man to stand in front of the cage. Maybe mid-forties, she thought as she watched him. She didn't like him. I'm not the only one, Althea thought, watching Lynex make a curled fist behind his back.
Two others appeared, a woman dressed in a lighter-green coat that went to her ankles, and another man. Althea's eyes widened in shock. It was the sentry from before, the same one who waved and pointed to her. He surveyed the captives with an aloof, arrogant look. He started speaking in an unfamiliar though bizarrely familiar tongue to Warrior. The Wraith didn't give the man the satisfaction of an answer. Instead of being cowed, the man laughed. Althea bared her teeth at the harsh and dissonant sound. Her dislike for the man surged as he continued to speak to her guardian, his tone mocking and scornful. To her amazement, Warrior spoke back to the man in the same tongue, tone cold. Althea gaped at him. How did he understand the human? He spoke so fluently. I've heard it before, the young woman thought. But where?
She had little time to mull over this before when the woman whispered something to the man and pointed at Warrior. It was too soft for Althea to hear. The man nodded. He then opened the cage door and shot Warrior with Lynex's own stun-pistol. When Warrior went down with a snarl of pain, Lynex leapt at the bars, roaring. Without blinking the man shot Lynex as well.
"No! Not him," Althea shouted as they began dragging her guardian away. "What are you going to do to him? Leave him alone!"
They ignored her, leaving her pacing her cage.
It didn't take long for Lynex to awake from his stunned sleep. Althea spared him a look before returning her focus on the doorway, waiting for her guardian's return. Besides her, Lynex began to utter strong oaths.
"I'm sorry," Althea said, if only to dissipate the Wraith's fuming curses.
"This isn't your fault," Lynex said. As she expected, he sat up, calmer. "We hunted in the wrong place at the wrong time." He cast her a look. "The other Wraith on the ship would have returned to the Hive by now. At least our people will still be able to eat," he said, eyes closing.
Althea was about to respond when she stiffened. "I hear people coming!"
They both stood. Althea jolted to the bars when the human guards appeared, dragging an unconscious Warrior behind them. Lynex watched with cold and hostile eyes as Warrior was shoved into the cell. When the door was closed and the humans were gone, she rushed to the nearest point and stuck her arm into her guardian's cage. He'd been place close enough for her to put her hand on his chest. The slow heave comforted her. She tried to pass the time by sleeping. She had fitful dreams. It only took a few shakes from Lynex to wake her. It feels like I didn't sleep at all, she thought. Her hunger clawed at her belly. She looked around for anything she could drink, her spit dry. She could feel Lynex regard her, but pretended not to notice.
"What's wrong?" she asked, wiping sleep from her eyes.
"It's the Commander," he said. There was a bitter helplessness in his tone. "He's awake."
Althea rolled to her feet and crouched to Warrior's cage. Her guardian was clutching his stomach, huddled in a corner, eyes slitted and teeth bared. Perspiration rolled down his face. His breaths were ragged, as if each breath caused pain.
"Sir?" Althea whispered.
The Wraith acted as if he didn't hear her.
"Sir!" she said, louder now. The other flinched.
"Leave me be," he said.
"What have they done to you?" she asked.
"I don't know." The Wraith bared his teeth, eyes glassy. He had yet to look at her. "Leave me be."
"You're hurt," she said. "Let me help you."
The Wraith clutched at his side, his fevered eyes glaring up at hers. "Wraith do not help mortally wounded comrades. If it is their fate to die, then let death claim them."
"I won't abandon you," Althea said, trying to hide the knife in her heart. "Not now, not here. I will help."
The Wraith rolled on his side, back to her. She could see the line of his shoulders trembling. "Leave me be, Little Dagger," he said for a third time, voice softer than before. Instead of being comforted, the knife in her heart dug deeper. Heartsick, Althea bowed her head and retreated back to Lynex's side. She never felt so desolate, so frustrated at her inability to find some solution. When she was finally given food and water, she ate and drank without tasting. She tried to offer some of her water to cool Warrior's brow, but he didn't respond to her soft queries.
Lynex tried breaking or bending the bars, scratching a way under, slipping himself through, everything. Nothing worked. The humans in light-green coats passed by in regular intervals, taking notes on Warrior as if he was an animal. Althea hackled whenever they came close, snarling to warn them away. Lynex never said nothing, quiet and cold.
Time passed. For better or for worse, Warrior's writhing and clenching passed into fevered chills and long periods of sleep.
"Why would the humans do this to him?" Althea whispered to Lynex as the humans stood by her guardian's cage. "Why do they watch him?"
Lynex shook his head. "Humans have always tried to find ways to stop our feeding process or make themselves immune. Maybe they're trying to find ways of poisoning us." He snorted. "They cannot change the fact we need to feed. They are food. It's just as simple as that."
Althea made a small noise in the back of her throat. She then frowned and looked at the other. "Are there others that will be looking for us? The Commander is going to need help."
The Wraith's expression closed. "I don't think so."
"When the others on the ship didn't receive any sign or signal of our arrival, they no doubt left. We are stranded." He gazed at something beyond her shoulder. "Besides, they had the storage filled with humans. They needed to return to help feed the Hive."
"Yes. Of course," Althea said, but the discomfort in her belly didn't leave.
"Maybe they'll spare you," Lynex said slowly. "Because you're—"
Althea shot him a fierce look. The Wraith didn't finish his sentence.
Rough, raised voices from outside the hall drew their attention. Althea shot to her feet, stomach in her throat. They would not have Warrior again to test their experiments. He seemed to be getting better, and she couldn't bear watch him get worse after his ordeal. They will not take him.
Althea waited, prepared to throw herself at the bars.
But what walked through the door wasn't more scientists after her guardian.
Four new humans were pushed and herded into another cage. More prisoners? Althea thought, observing their rough-handled demeanor. She turned her attention back to the ones who guarded them. Who were these people, to trap their own? Did they perform experiments on other humans too?
Besides her, Lynex stiffened and froze.
Althea frowned. "What's wrong?"
Lynex spat only one word: "Lanteans!"
Atlantians, Althea thought. The ones who awoke the Wraith fifty years too soon. These were the travelers from the infamous city? They were less than she expected. These were a small people, sharp and quick. She wanted to laugh at the one with the nervous eyes. She glanced at the one with the messy dark hair. Handsome, she thought without reason. She flushed, unused to gawking.
A disgusted snort from Lynex besides her brought her back. "Filthy trespassers," he said. He glared at them as if to kill them with his eyes alone. "Thanks to them, there is no more balance. The number of humans are still too low, and our people are hungry."
"They seem to be in the same pit as us," Althea said, watching them converse in a far corner of their own cage. Two of their number couldn't stop staring at Warrior. There was a warmth in her belly where there'd been fear. She wanted to tremble, but not in fear.
Lynex tch'd. "I would never compare myself with their kind. Self-righteous lot. They should've stayed in their own galaxy."
"I meant our current situation. We ourselves don't hold the key to our escape," she said. "You admit we've tried everything."
Her companion didn't answer.
"Alone, neither of us have a chance. Maybe we can help each other escape."
The Wraith's face remained frozen as he moved his eyes to look at her, amazed. He wrinkled his nose. "It would never work."
"Just a thought," she said.
"Next time, keep such thoughts to yourself."
A little hurt and surprised his sudden coldness, Althea got up and walked over to the bars closest to the other humans. They didn't notice her. You've stirred up so much trouble, she thought, sitting on her heels. You've caused civil war and rationing. There's nothing special about you.
Two of the males were arguing, their words sharp. Even from her distance she could see the thin sheen of perspiration on the shorter one's brow. His lips moved very fast, almost too fast to get all the words he wanted to say at once. He didn't seem to be a hunter or the warrior type, nor did he appear to be an adolescent. Althea's brows lifted. A scientist? True, Wraith scientists are not hunters, though they could prove dangerous opponents when backed into a corner, but this human lacked anything remotely dangerous. The female ignored them. A lifetime of studying reactions and expressions showed the tenseness of worry and readiness of a fighter. She's beautiful, Althea thought. Despite her arguing companions, her expression was disciplined.
Other other male was staring at her. Althea froze under its intensity. He was large and powerful in the way the bone-faced guards were, his hair held in a style she'd never seen before. She became a little thankful of the metal bars as he continued his heavy, pointed glare.
With as much dignity she could muster, the young woman lifted her chin, got up, and walked toward where Warrior slumped against the bars of his cage. That blank, venomous stare bothered her. There had been no reason within that look, no explanation. Humans, she thought. Will I ever understand your kind?
"Sir. How are you feeling?"
The head turned, the white hair whispering as it slid over the leather. "Better."
"There's no more pain?" she asked.
"There is a sensation, but it is not what we call pain," he rasped. He spoke no more afterward, both hands resting on his flat stomach, face calm.
Althea licked her lips.
"Sir, do you remember what happened to you? What caused you to be like this?"
She was graced with a hooded look. The white lashes made as if he was half-asleep. At first she thought he wouldn't respond to her at all. Then: "I heard one of their scientists mention salt water."
"Salt water," Althea echoed. She frowned. "How could salt water do this to you?"
The Wraith coughed, wincing. Althea quelled the urge to ask if he was alright. He waved a hand in the air. She sank on her heels: he didn't know.
"I am sorry, Little Dagger."
Althea's head perked. It was rare for him to use her name. She frowned again. "Sir?"
"I had hoped you would live out your days uneventfully until you were an old woman, but now the Wraith are awake, and you are neither Wraith nor human. I have removed you from your people. And for that, I am sorry." His mouth was neither frowning nor smiling. His skin seemed mottled and pale beneath the harsh, florescent lighting. "I've even taken your language from you."
"My language?" That's it. That's where I've heard it before, she thought.
"Before these humans took me, I spoke the humans' tongue. I am sure you are aware of this." At Althea's nod, he continued, "When you were a child, it was your language as well. I could've let you keep it, but I was curious. Never before had a human been taught our words to such an extent, and I wanted to see if it could be done. So I stripped you of yours to sate my curiosity."
Althea shook her head. "You've given me something better," she said, shifting at his strange tone.
Her guardian snorted. He waved a hand to encompass the cage. "Better than this?"
I could've ended up in your stores, she thought, shocking herself with such a thought.
"I have no regrets. True, this will make conversing difficult with the humans, but I'm not angry," Althea said, softening her words. She forgot how long it'd been since they've spoken like this.
"I fed off your biological father," the Wraith said with the same strange flatness. He turned his head to stare her straight in the eye. "Do you still think I've given you better?"
For a long moment, all she could do was stare. "I'm going to ask the Lanteans for help," she heard herself say.
The Wraith didn't answer right away. He resettled, profile to her. There was an unhappiness there. "Do what you will."
Althea found her way back to Lynex's side, head in a daze. No, she thought. We need to focus on escape first. She struggled not to glance at her guardian.
Althea squared her shoulders. "Will you translate for me?"
His pupils dilated. The Wraith peered hard at her. "Translate for you what?" he said, enunciating each word.
"Translate the Lanteans for me."
"Why would you ever want to speak to their kind? They are the root of our problems." Lynex leaned back against the bars. Artificial light streamed down, highlighting the whiteness of his hair.
"If it wasn't for them, many things wouldn't have changed," Althea said. "But now, we need them to get out of this situation. For that, I want to speak to them."
The Wraith was quiet.
Althea stepped closer and put a hand on his bicep, leaning in. "Please. I'm asking as a friend. We may have little time before they try to take Warrior away again . . . or you. I couldn't bear either."
There was a long pause, then a shoulder shifted.
"Very well. I will translate for you," he said, waving a hand in an accepting gesture. "But that doesn't mean they'll listen to what you say." He had yet to shrug away from her. When she released him, she inwardly marveled at his solidness.
Althea crossed her cage until she was nearest to the humans. The artificial light glared down, bleaching everything to an unnatural, sickly glow. She sat crosslegged on the hard ground. A little behind her, Lynex kneeled as a Wraith: one knee up to the chest, arms encircled and hands clasped. They both waited. The scientist was pacing, hardly glancing them a look. He seemed to be still arguing with the leader. The large, rough man still stared at them with the same blank, unsettling glare. The woman kept watch, head cocked as if sensing for fire. Ever so often she would glance at the other cages, as if to account their presences, and resumed watching the doorway. It wasn't long before she caught Althea's desire to speak with them.
"Sheppard," murmured Lynex, already beginning to translate, despite his distance. Althea felt her blood tingle. It had begun.
The leader cut off his retort to the other and looked at her. "What is it?"
The woman nodded at Althea and Lynex. The Lantean leader smirked.
"Looks like we've got company," Lynex translated, complete with sarcastic intonation. How could he hear that far? Althea thought. Even now, as she sat, it seemed they were whispering.
"Let's go greet our neighbors," Sheppard said through Lynex. "Teyla?"
The woman drew her gaze from the door and back toward where Althea was sitting. Her face was impassive, though a flicker of caution shaded her expression.
"I see no harm in mere speaking, but take care. Remember the one you called Neera."
Neera? Have they encountered others like her, Wraith-raised? Something twitched in Althea's belly.
"I'll dot my i's and cross my t's, if that's what you mean," Sheppard replied. Even at the distance, Althea could see he pitched his voice lower and leaned toward the woman. However, Lynex was as keen-eared as ever.
"Do you sense anything?"
The woman slowly shook her head.
"I sense . . . reluctance from the Wraith." She glanced at the man. "Sheppard, it would safe to say the human besides it wishes to speak with us, not the Wraith."
"Do Wraith do that? Hell, I'm surprised they aren't sucking the life out of her as we speak! But let her talk? Even with that worshipper it didn't seem she have any freedom with the Wraith," he said through Lynex.
Worshipper? Althea thought.
"I cannot say," Teyla said.
"Alright. I'll see what she—they, whatever—has to say. What would be the harm, anyway? We're stuck as it is, and a little banter wouldn't be too bad between someone other than Rodney."
"Hey! I heard that!" the scientist said, ceasing his pacing for a moment to glare at Sheppard. Lynex mimicked him simultaneously.
If a Wraith Leader had been spoken to in such a manner, the offending party would've been killed. To her surprise, the Lantean leader shrugged, as if it was nothing. The scientist, Rodney, she thought, began to grumble something Lynex didn't translate. Sheppard got up and sauntered over to where Althea and Lynex sat. The large man got up as well and shadowed the other, now directing his hostile glare at the Wraith. The man showed no fear as he sat crosslegged before them. Althea glanced at Lynex. The unusually dark eyes for a Wraith met her for a second, giving her the barest of nods. He spoke to the human leader in the their tongue, voice cool and condescending. Sheppard made a sneering comment, but Lynex didn't translate it.
"He was speaking to me," he said to Althea, his face impassive.
"State your piece, Wraith," the rugged man said. Lynex's translations was so smooth and quick, Althea almost forgot her interpreter. She felt she was talking directly to the humans.
Sheppard ignored the other and said to Althea, "What do you want?"
"The same as you," Althea said, hiding excitement behind a neutral mask. A curious mix of hesitation and purpose filled her.
"Oh? And what would that be?" Sheppard replied, cocking his head, mocking interest. He grinned, but his eyes were untouched. Behind him, the rugged man continued his blank glare.
"Got any ideas?"
Althea thought before answering. Besides her, Lynex kept his peace, swopping glares with the larger human behind Sheppard.
"No. But I was hoping if we would work together—"
"Together?" Sheppard said, cutting her. He gave a small laugh. "Wait, are you saying you want us to help you out of here?"
"No. I said we could work together to get all of us out," Althea said.
Sheppard narrowed his eyes. They darted to the Wraith and then back to Althea. "Even them?"
"You know," Sheppard said, tone confused, "them."
Althea stared at him. Lynex leaned to her. "The human means the Commander and I."
"Yes. Them too," she said.
Sheppard leaned away from the bars, rubbing his mouth. "Why?"
"Why not? If they help you, it's only fair you help them."
Sheppard leaned in close. A subtle change appeared in his expression, as if he had suddenly seen something dirty in her. "Are you saying you don't care?" the human asked. "Oh, I see. You're being held hostage, isn't it? You have no choice but pretend or else they'll suck your life out, right?"
"No,"Althea said. "They raised me."
"Liar," growled the other human, speaking up for the first time.
"Ronon, I got this," said Sheppard, not taking his eyes away from Althea.
"Ronon," she said before she could stop herself.
"So you can say his name: good job," Sheppard said. Lynex hackled.
Althea dipped her head. "I am sorry. I've never heard a human's name before."
"See? Now that ain't natural," human said. "How can you live with these monsters?"
"I know no other way of life," Althea said, mouth dry. Sweat ran down the valley of her spine. She was dismayed they weren't talking about what she wanted to talk. "They took me in as an orphan—"
"Liar," Ronon said again. "Wraith don't do that."
"One of them did," Althea said, snapping. Lynex matched her tone.
"They probably made you an orphan in the first place," Sheppard said.
Althea tried not to flinch. Her guardian's I fed off your biological father echoed in her ears. "It's true," she said, nodding, trying not to frown. "The Wraith took my old life away. But they allowed me to live. They've given me food, clothes, education—"
"They eat us!"
"The essence of life is eating life," Althea said.
"That depends on what you eat, miss," Sheppard shot back. "What if they turned around and ate you?"
"Then—" Althea fumbled. She didn't look at the Wraith behind her. It was difficult to meet the human's eye. "Then they eat me."
Sheppard leaned back again, rubbing his mouth. Teyla crouched besides him. "It's no use," she said. "You will make yourself ill trying to understand madness."
"Clearly," Sheppard said under his breath. He shook himself and took a deep breath. Then his shoulders relaxed, his eyes lightened. Althea tried not to flinch when he smiled at her. He feels completely different, she thought. His brightness was as artificial as the overhead lights.
"You guys have names, right? I mean, you don't go wandering about and calling each other Steve all the time, do you?" he asked.
Althea stared at him, only half understanding the human's speech. Steve? "We do have names," she said.
"Oh, really? What's yours, then?"
She felt Lynex tense besides her in warning, almost hearing his mental plea for her to stay silent. But what if it's an act of good faith I tell Sheppard my name? she thought. So much of the conversation had gone awry. Maybe he wouldn't be so distrustful. Over the years, Althea had come to understand a Wraith's name was more than an identification: it was the essence of its being. No two Wraith had the same name. The highest rank knew the names of their underlings as a sign of dominance. Peers may know the names of their peers as a sign of unity. Close companions told their names as sign of friendship. But the humans throw their names as if it means nothing. Maybe I should do the same, like a human.
"I'm called Little Dagger," she said.
Lynex was rigid besides her.
"Aal-thea. Althea. Uh, nice name," Sheppard said. As she suspected, the significance of her name meant little to him. He bobbed his head towards the Wraith next to her. "And I suppose he has a name too?"
"Theirs are for themselves," Althea said. Short of death, she would not speak for her friend. She fidgeted. "Will you accept, Sheppard, a joined alliance?"
After a pause, Sheppard said, "I will speak with my people about this."
Althea bowed her head. "We will wait."
The humans started to stand but stopped when Althea asked, "Wait. One more thing. Who are our captors?"
Some of the artificial brightness dimmed in Sheppard's expression. "They're called the Genii, and let's just say they get touchy if people knock on their secret doors."
"Do you know what they want with us?"
Sheppard shrugged. "They're nasty sons of bitches. But if I had to guess, it'd have something to do with your buddies," he said, nodding again to Lynex. He smiled, the brightness returning. Althea made the mistake of glancing at Ronon. There was what some could call a smile on his face as well, but there was nothing friendly about it. She shivered. She returned to the centre of the cage, feeling as if a dart ship has slurped her up. Lynex followed more slowly, not speaking. Before she could ask, two Genii walked in. She recognized the pock-marked face. The second man Althea hadn't seen before, though he wore a scientist's green coat. With an air of analytical curiosity, the scientist walked over to where Warrior rested against the bars, asleep. He was within easy reach. Lynex remained in his far corner, impassive and cold as Althea rushed to Warrior's side, a shout in her throat as the man bent down besides her guardian. It didn't matter the first man had a weapon trained on her. The scientist glanced at her, a small smile on his face. He raised his hands, palms up, in a peaceful gesture.
Lynex's translation floated to her as the man began to speak. "I just need to feel his pulse." Althea hackled. The man saw her reaction and gave a dry smile. "You can make this simple or difficult. Either I reach in here and take my measurements or I have Koyla here beat the crap out of you so I can have peace. Your choice."
Althea hovered, but didn't crouch closer. Koyla, she thought. I finally have your name. The man threaded a hand through the bars. He grasped one of Warrior's unresponsive hands and placed two fingers on the upturned wrist. He waited for a second.
"Hm. Somewhat fast," he said to himself, which Lynex translated with ease, "but nothing to worry about. I thought I judged the dose better than that. I must have misjudged the relative ratio of muscle to fat. Hm."
He dropped the hand and fearlessly put a hand over Warrior's sleeping face. "Breathing. That's good. A bit shallow. The purge must have worked as planned, but too little in his blood. Next time, I'll have to increase the dose."
Next time? Althea thought. Her stomach dropped.
The scientist stood, brushed his lab coat, and walked away. As he left, Kolya stayed behind. There was a metal canister of food in his other hand.
"Supper," Kolya said with mocking cheerfulness. "We have a different menu for you."
Althea's mouth watered at the sweet aroma.
"Now," Kolya said, still with a drawl of assumed geniality. "Let me explain the rules. I give you food. You enjoy. Any messing about, and I stop waiting on you and you go hungry. Understand?Good. Rarby, ready the weapons. Orient yours on the girl. Shoot if she twitches. I have the Wraith."
The one called Rarby moved. "Ready, Kolya."
Kolya's lips shaped a small, humorless smile. Without further comment, he opened the cage and went inside.
Lynex glowered in his corner, his jaws parted so his teeth showed. But Kolya was efficient as he placed the food on the ground and pressed a button on a water-trough contraption, filling it. He was out before Althea could react. Even though Lynex didn't translate, she could hear Sheppard throw a cutting remark to his back. Althea went quickly to the food, famished. It was a sweetmeal mash. She bolted it down. Within minutes it was all gone. She drank to clear her mouth. When she was finished, she turned to look at Lynex, who continued to remain in the corner.
He was glaring at her.
"What gives them the right to ask your name?" he demanded when she moved closer. "And what gives you the right to answer?"
Althea stood before him. I used to be taller than him, she thought. She came to his shoulders now. "It was a sacrifice. I thought I sensed some trust when I told him my name."
"The Commander may let you converse with the humans, but that doesn't mean to be serious with this."
An unpleasant warmth stole through her. The cloying taste of sweetmeal clung sticky to her mouth.
"All I care about is escaping," Althea said. "You've known from the beginning."
"You gave your name as if you didn't care," the Wraith said, eyes flashing with something she had never seen before.
"What are you saying?" Althea demanded. She'd never expected such a heated reaction. "Whether I give my name is my own choosing."
"But to our enemies," Lynex said, clenching his fists. "You had no right."
The scent of sweetmeal lingered in her nose, sickeningly sweet. She flushed. "I'm just as desperate as you. I will gladly give my name if it means getting out of this cage! Besides," she said, struggling for calm, "I'm sure you're starting to feel hungry. Do you think the Genii will feed you? Or maybe they're waiting to see how long it'll take before you succumb and feed on me."
Astonished, the Wraith stared at her. His jaw worked, but he didn't respond. Althea swayed on her feet. She blinked to clear her vision, hand on her brow. The cage was too small. She wanted to get away where she could sort through all the thoughts in her head. Why did I say that? she wondered. Moving away, she stumbled. The depth of her abrupt fatigue surprised her. Her limbs felt heavy. The bittersweet mash lay in her belly, as weighty as a stone. Her vision blurred. Lynex seemed no more than a black and green shadow when her legs collapsed.
Althea woke tired. Her mouth was gummy and dry. With great effort, she heaved herself up and stumbled to the water bowl. She lapped what was left. When she finished, she sat and tried to blink away the heavy sleep from her eyes. When she remembered the last thing she said to Lynex, her face flushed. She climbed to her feet and walked over to her guardian. He was still sleeping. His skin had taken a pallid shade and there were bruise-like circles around his eyes. Warrior, I need you now, the young woman thought. She missed his comforting stability. How would he react when he found out she'd given her name to ensure trust between them and the Lanteans? She did not know how long she sat besides the sleeping Wraith. In the background, she could hear the faint whisperings and low talk of the Lanteans. Her expression hardened. She couldn't do this alone.
Althea rose and walked to the kneeling, brooding Lynex. She kneeled a little ways from him, letting him register her presence without encroaching his space. Neither of them spoke. Lynex stared straight ahead, ignoring her. Althea kept silent as well, feeling the atmosphere thicken. Just when she opened her mouth, Lynex broke the quiet first.
"What do you want?" he said.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean the last thing I said to you."
Lynex's entire back rippled as he stiffened. He continued to look ahead. "I could be starving," he said, "and I would not feed on you."
"I will never feed on you." He turned his head to her. "Ever."
"I'm the one who should apologize," the Wraith continued. "It angered me to see you tell your name to that human as if you knew him. I was jealous."
Althea swallowed. It never occurred to her Lynex favored her in such a way. I should've known, though. He's been my shadow for so long I've grown blind to him, she thought. Though she'd paid little attention to the dynamics among the female Wraith, Althea never saw him fawn over them. She shuffled closer and leaned her head on his shoulder. She felt him tense beneath her, but the soon the muscles softened in a way Warrior's never did. She closed her eyes. She thought she felt him lean into her, but the motion was so subtle she wondered if her mind was playing tricks.
"You are getting hungry, though," she said. He was cool against her cheek.
The Wraith tucked his chin, grunting. His jaw clenched and unclenched. "I can control it."
"Whatever we do, it needs to be done soon," she said, looking at the small huddle of the Lanteans in the corner of their own cage. She was glad Ronon appeared to be sleeping.
The two remained near each other until Sheppard motioned to them. The Genii would not make their rounds again for another fifteen minutes. Althea kneeled across from Sheppard. The other humans waited and listened behind him.
Sheppard spoke without preamble, Lynex translating. "We've agreed."
"Well, not all of us," Rodney muttered. "I'm still a bit iffy one following a Xena Warrior Princess and a bunch of life-sucking—"
"But we've still agreed," Sheppard cut, fixing the other with a peremptory stare. The scientist quieted.
"Good. Then we can think of something," she said.
"I'm always opened to suggestions," he said, smiling that bright, artificial blitheness. "Any ideas?"
Althea shook her head. "No, I don't. I was hoping we decide something soon." She allowed the smallest of frowns. "The Wraith grow hungry, and I am afraid whatever purpose they hold for the Genii would be disastrous to them."
Sheppard's smile tightened. "Worried you're next on the menu, sweetheart?" Before she could reply, his face lightened and he waved her away. "Ah, too bad they can't eat like us. Then we wouldn't have such a time-limit. Sleeping on us didn't really help much."
"Sleep?" Althea echoed.
"Your food has been tainted," Teyla said.
Althea looked over Sheppard's shoulder at her. "Tainted? How?"
"The food ordered for you was laced with dreamroot. It induces heavy sleep, making the rebellious docile to the captors' will," Teyla said. Her expression matched her tone, lacking warmth.
Althea felt her gorge rise. Then an idea came to mind. "What if we use it to our advantage? They may not know we know. A trap could be sprung from it."
"So a distraction, then. You pretend you're drugged. The next time they open the door for whatever reason, you guys knock em out. You grab the keys, then bam, we all get out."
Althea nodded, musing. "But if we free ourselves, we wouldn't know where to go."
"We've been around the complex before," Sheppard said. "We know where they keep our gear. And yours, too, probably. We get them, give the Genii a little hell, and be back before supper."
"If this is to work," Althea said, staring Sheppard hard in the eye, "you must promise not to harm my companions. If we are to carry through the day, we must overcome our differences. They're hungry, but promise not to touch you." She couldn't help but gaze at Ronon. He gave her the same unsettling grin from before.
Sheppard's face went blank. He looked at her for a long moment, then leaned forward. "We have their word?"
Althea glanced at Lynex. The Wraith spoke a word and drew back his lips in a smile, translucent teeth sharp. To his credit, Sheppard only tipped his head. Rodney gulped and fidgeted behind Teyla, whose neutral mask did not sway in the least. Ronon mimicked the same smile. "Fine," Sheppard said. He slapped his knees. "Let's give this a spin."
Althea shivered, but not with cold. She feigned sleep, pretending the tainted sweetmeal had knocked her out again. Somewhere behind her, Lynex kneeled in his usual position, eyes closed. Her guardian pretended his own tranquility, though how much of it was pretend worried her. The Lanteans waited too. They spoke amongst themselves, not looking over at Althea's cage. They didn't react when the footsteps of two Genii signaled their appearance. Althea forced herself in time to go limp. She opened an eye a barest crack, staring straight at a black pair of boots. Kolya. Only he wore those types. There was low, foreign talk. Though Lynex didn't translate, Althea thought the lead Genii sounded scornful. There was a clank of keys. The metallic door swung open and the smell of cloying sweetmeal wafted to her nose. She wanted to gag. No, she wanted to do something better.
Her eyes flew open. Direct and deliberate, she stared straight at Kolya. He made a small sound of surprise as she kicked his legs from under him. He fell to the floor with a grunt, the sweetmeal flying from his hand. When she scrambled after him he punched her shoulder, face thunderous. She gasped in surprise as corkscrews of pain filled her vision. Somewhere above a pistol shot flew over her head. Kolya tried rolling away, still within the doorway of the cage. Althea reared back and hit him hard across the temple. He went limp. She looked up in time to see Lynex feeding on the other Genii guard.
I will never feed on you.
Voices turned her head. It was Sheppard, pressed up against the bars of his cage. He kept repeating a word, motioning to Kolya's belt. Keys, she thought. She knelt, brushing trembling fingers around for anything that might open the cage doors. She grunted when she found them. She went to the Lanteans' door opened it, then repeated the process with her guardian's cage. Her shoulder screamed where the Genii had punched her, but it didn't stop her from helping Warrior up. He was far taller than her. She grunted as he leaned into her.
"I need help," Althea said to Lynex. The other Wraith appeared by her side and took over, slinging the elder Wraith's arm around his shoulders. The three of them left the cage and found the humans staring at them. Sheppard raised his hands, palm up. He said something to Lynex, though it was Warrior who responded, voice rasping like the bristles of a steel comb. Althea glanced at Lynex.
"What's being saying?" she whispered.
". . . our part of the bargain. Lead us out of here, Sheppard of Atlantis," Warrior said through Lynex. If the elder Wraith noticed Lynex translating, he made no mention of it.
"Alright. We'll go to the weapons' room and pick up our things," Sheppard said. There was hesitation in his voice. "Rodney and Teyla, you stay in the middle and keep a lookout for any Genii you see. I don't want them knowing we wanted a scenery change. Ronon, bring the rear and—" in a lower voice, "—keep an eye on our 'buddies.' No offense, Miss Little Dagger," smiled Sheppard in a louder tone when he noticed Lynex hadn't stopped translating.
Althea hid a wan smile. She didn't care for complete trust. All what she cared about was escaping. If they wanted to keep an eye on her and the Wraith, she would let them. She watch her guardian. She could tell from his subtle wincing time was running out.
"Lean on Lynex, sir," she said. There was little time to speak as Sheppard began leading them out of the room. A metallic watery smell filled her nose as they ran down long, featureless corridors. Huge bellies of pipes hung from the dimly lighted ceilings. Longer, narrower pipes rested on either side of the tunnels, forcing them to trot in the middle. The compactness made Althea sweat. If they had to fight, they would have no room. There was no place to return an attack. More than once Althea thought they'd lost their way in the concrete underground labyrinth. Sheppard seemed to follow directions only he could see, taking turn after turn without pause. At last Sheppard stopped. He exchanged low words with Teyla. Rodney began a high-pitched chatter before Teyla shushed him quiet. When it was clear they'd come to a decision, the procession moved into a small room. It's not guarded, Althea thought.
It was a small room, filled and bristling with all sorts of weapons. Sheppard reached into a pile and pulled out a weapon—theirs, Althea assumed—and began to toss them to each of his members. He rapped several hushed orders to Rodney and Teyla. Rodney paled as he and Teyla cocked and loaded their weapons. Ronon, however, received a different sort of weapon. It appeared to a pistol, which he charged. He growled something low to Sheppard. Sheppard looked at Althea, then to the Wraith.
Warrior ignored them, concentrating on breathing. Lynex said nothing, as if waiting for the elder Wraith to speak first.
"Where are our weapons?" Althea asked. Lynex translated.
Sheppard shrugged, cocking his own weapon. "Looks like you're outta luck, folks. Their scientists must be experimenting on them or something. Rodney? What would you do if you got your paws on Wraith technology?" Without waiting for a response, Sheppard continued, "Just stick with us and we'll lead you out. Consider us your escort. Besides, if we have weapons, I don't see the logic in getting some for you when we're here.
"You never see logic," Rodney murmured, loud enough for Lynex to translate. Rodney grew red. He became pale again when Lynex offered a toothy grin at him.
That wasn't what we agreed, Althea thought, but said, "Very well. We'll follow without weapons."
As Althea ran behind the humans, she could sense the change in the air. It smelled fresher, less like a basement. They had run into three patrols, each time quickly ducking behind corners or underneath pipes. Each time they'd gone undetected. When they reached a ladder leading to the outside, they ran into another Genii patrol, five strong. At its head was Kolya, a nasty bruise alongside his head.
Kolya sneered at them. "I am impressed. I thought the cages would hold—"
Sheppard and his crew opened fire, their weapons cutting through the Genii's number. Kolya fled before the lethal rain of bullets. He rounded corner, calling for recruitments. Sheppard bellowed something. Although Althea didn't understand his words, his gesture was clear enough: climb up the ladder and get out of here. She needed no further encouragement. She watched as Teyla and Rodney climbed it, followed by Ronon. Sheppard flicked his head, as if in encouragement, since the greater threat of the Genii momentarily washed away any distrust. Lynex followed more slowly, still acting as support for Warrior. When he finally made it, Lynex quickly looked over to Althea. Words would have been a waste of precious time. Althea climbed after the Wraith, Sheppard right behind her.
Starbursts exploded behind her eyes when the sun hit her face. Rough hand grabbed her arms. She blinked away tears of pain at the brightness. White hair caressed her upturned face. It was Lynex. His skin was had taken a grayish cast. In the bright light, she was afforded the rare sight of his pupils: needle thin, they were slitted against the sunlight.
"Hurry," he said.
They ran toward the Ring, fanning out. Althea wanted to cry at the sweetness of the wind. The sky was the colour of blue flame, matching her mood. Grass as high as her ribs swayed as one blade in the afternoon breeze. Sheppard looked over his shoulder once, and then pulled out a small device. Althea glanced at it, watching him pressed a button. Behind them, there was a roar that sent a tremble through the ground. Flames and black smoke roiled out of the house's windows.
Rodney began dialing the gate the moment they reached it. Ronon and Teyla kept their weapons pointed at Lynex and Warrior. The elder Wraith pushed Lynex away to fall on bended knee, breathing between gritted teeth. Althea resisted going to his side, knowing her efforts for comfort would be rebuffed. Teyla hailed Sheppard, speaking with forced calm. They stopped speaking when they heard hard, angry voices behind them.
The Ring activated with a giant swoosh. Althea had never been happier to see the glowing blue depths. Sheppard made a low sound, then backed into the portal with the rest of his team. Althea and the two Wraith were alone. The voices were getting louder.
Althea looked at Lynex. The Wraith caught her gaze and gave a strangled growl. "Who is to say they won't do the same to us as the Genii?" he said. The sounds of the approaching humans grew louder. The portal was still open.
"We have no choice. It would take too long for us to dial another planet, and if we don't leave now the Genii will catch us again. And this time," she added, "I doubt we will have such good luck."
He stared at her. The hooded look came to his face, mouth tightening. Althea's guardian shifted his weight behind them. The wordless gesture broke their attention. Heart beating and stomach tight, Althea helped Lynex guide Warrior through the Ring and into Atlantis. Her skin crawled with apprehension as she stepped onto the other side. Next to her, she could feel Lynex tense under his leather. His lips thinned and a hard, desperate look fell across his face. The first thing she noticed was how well-lit and spacious the room was. It was the opposite of the darkness and closeness of a Hive ship. Even the air had an unfamiliar brininess to it. The sea, she thought. Light streamed down from glass-stained windows, making the guards a stark contrast. Even the staircase was cased light. The moment the Ring deactivated twenty humans encircled the Wraith and the young woman, their weapons cocked. No one spoke nor moved, their eyes and guns trained upon them. Althea hoped they wouldn't hear the sound of her own heart thudding in her ribcage.
They have us surrounded but they haven't shot us, she thought. She hoped it was a good sign. The humans seemed much more advanced than the militaristic Genii. She hoped they treated their prisoners better.
For a long moment, both parties were silent. Besides her, she could feel Lynex's maintained tension. Warrior continued to lean on him, eyes closed, breathing through gritted teeth. Beyond the closed circle of bristling guards, Sheppard and his team stood on the white-lighted steps. Sheppard barked something at the guards, causing them to loosen. Sheppard turned when a woman appeared from the top of the stairs. She had short brown hair, graceful neckline, a pendant of some kind around her neck. Maybe the Queen, Althea thought, or a human equivalent to one. The Queen exchanged tense words with Sheppard, lips thin. Sheppard seemed to be arguing with her. More words between them. The Queen nodded slowly after a certain point, glancing at Althea. Althea felt her stern gaze and quickly darted her eyes to the floor. When she looked up again, the Queen was walking back upstairs with Rodney, in deep conservation. Teyla, Sheppard, and Ronon stayed behind, the ranks parting to let them in front.
Sheppard said something at the Wraith. A growl leapt in Lynex's throat.
"Lynex? What did he say?" Althea said, not liking the ranks merging around them.
Lynex didn't answer, but continued to stare at Sheppard.
"He wants us to be led somewhere," he said, white hair glinting in the sun streaming down from the huge windows.
"We have no choice," Althea hissed back. "We have to."
The Wraith grunted, eyeing Ronon. The rugged man pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Lynex, rumbling something. Lynex wrinkled his nose at him in disdain before Sheppard could snap at Ronon with a warning tone.
"Listen to him. You've got the Commander weighing you down and weapons all around. It would be no use to fight back now," she said.
Her companion eyed her a second longer. His jaw clenched before he relaxed. Relief made her heave a sigh. He turned and began to allow himself and Warrior to be led away. Althea started to walk behind when Teyla stepped in front of her, shaking her head. Althea frowned. She tried to sidestep the woman but she was blocked again. Teyla stared at her with cool, composed eyes. Again she shook her head, refusing her passage.
"Little Dagger?" Lynex said, realizing she wasn't following. A deep, threatening rumble was emitted from his chest as he started back for her. The circle tightened around him, the humans tensing. Ronon held out his weapon again, ready, as if eager for resistance.
"I'll be fine, Lynex," Althea called back, swallowing the quiver in her throat. Teyla was now maneuvering her away. "Don't worry about me. Just—just keep going. Please."
"If they harm you I'll kill every human in this place," Lynex said, allowing Ronon to drive him back.
Althea wanted to smile but instead kept her face impassive. With one last growl, Lynex and Warrior were led out of sight, leaving Althea with a smaller group of guards including Teyla. Teyla inclined her head and said something in a smooth tone. She began to walk in a direction. Althea followed. She was led into a well-lit room and prompted to sit on a flat bed with skimpy sheets. Her separation from the Wraith baffled her. Will they perform tests on me? she thought, watching Teyla out of the corner of her eye. She observed the evident lab equipment and other rows of sparse beds. Strange unfamiliar designs not unlike Wraith speech were carved into the walls. Light streamed down, filling the room. Odd machines with blinking lights buzzed in the background, faint.
A rustle of clothing alerted the young woman of an approaching human. It was a male and female. He was dressed in a white coat. His hair was dark, his eyes light blue. By the way he walked with confidence, he was most likely the one in charge. Althea recoiled, a faint growl of warning in her throat when he reached out to touch her. Somewhere in the background, unimportant, the two guards repositioned their weapons. The man said something to them. The guards relaxed back into their usual postures. The man looked back at her again. He spoke now, this time to her. He sounded non-threatening, as if he soothing her. He continued to talk. Althea could see nothing dangerous in that. This human bore no weapon nor made no hostile movement. It was soft and soothing and when he reached his hand out again to touch her, she watched him but did not shy away.
An easy smile broke out over his features. He nodded encouragement and before Althea could react he began to feel her neck with deft fingers. She stiffened. Her red welts and bruises were examined. He felt her rib cage, never ceasing to speak to her. His warm hands were firm and precise, as if he had done this countless times. His face was neutral but broke into a small smile whenever he caught her looking at him.
Wraith see humans as food and equate them as animals, Althea thought. But no animal knows mercy or have technology such as this. The man helped wash the blood on her face with a soft material. Did they have family ties? Did they treasure their young? What were their favorite foods? Would this man help a wounded Wraith?
The questions buzzed in Althea's mind. When the man began to turn away, she impulsively caught him by the sleeve. Surprised, the man turned. The guards cocked their weapons. The man snapped at them and they relaxed their weapons. Teyla's cool composure never shifted. When the man looked at her again, expectant, she pointed to his the coat, hoping the man would understand 'white,' then touched her own hair. She repeated her gestures, now tying her hair in a more common Wraith style. The man's face brightened. Then he faltered; he looked at Teyla and exchanged a few low words with her. Teyla's beautiful mouth thinned. Althea feared her request would be denied. Then the other woman inclined her head to Althea and began to lead her away.
The young woman didn't know how long they walked through the long tunnels of Atlantis. The lights were now artificial instead of coming through the wide windows. Althea forced herself to recognize the route they were taking in case she needed to free Lynex and her guardian. The two armed guards maneuvered her into a dark room. Teyla followed close behind. The only light came above a sole cage. It was the only thing in the entire room, the centre of it cast into green light. In it was Lynex, rigid and silent. His eyes were closed and jaw clenched.
Althea rushed over to the cage. "Lynex!"
The green eyes snapped open at the first sound of his name, the white hair framed around his face tinted green as well. He went to where Althea stood, almost pressing his face through the slabs.
"Did they hurt you?" he asked.
Althea shook her head. "The opposite. They had someone check my wounds."
Lynex snorted. "Are sure you've not been threatened? Humans are masterful in the art of treachery." He brought a hand up.
Althea frowned, thinking of the gentleness of the human doctor. "I wouldn't hav—"
With a short thrust Lynex struck the space between the bars, causing a hidden shield to bloom and snap. Althea jerked back. Lynex brought his hand close to his face as if it was an object of intense interest. He flexed his fingers, teeth bared.
"The humans will hide many things from you," he said.
"I'll remember that," Althea murmured.
"First the Genii, now the Lanteans lock us in cages. Cages! Already I am sick to death of them."
A sinking feeling settled into the pit of her stomach. "Where's the Commander?" she asked. She'd realized the other wasn't with him.
The Wraith didn't look at her. "He was taken away, maybe put in another cage somewhere else. Sheppard ordered us separated."
"Do you think he's alright?"
"Yes. For now," the Wraith said. A strained expression crossed over his face. He still didn't look at her, eyes faraway. Althea felt the sinking feeling in her gut return. She glanced over at the guards and blank-faced Teyla stationed at the entranceway. Lynex caught her expression.
"Relax. They can't understand us. We speak in a tongue outside their comprehension."
Althea nodded. Nonetheless, she pitched her voice low and said, "I don't know how long it'll take, but I will free both you and the Commander. We'll escape this city. I know we will."
She dropped her head, afraid he would peer into her soul and see how childish her thoughts were: that somehow, if she was brave enough, if she loved enough, she would make it all right. She heard a rustle and creak of leather and when she looked up again, she saw the Wraith's face was very close to her own, nearly touching the barrier. His unusually dark eyes were black in the dimness.
"This will one day end," he murmured. "One way or another."
Althea sat on softer bed than in the medical area. It'd been her room for two days. Her attention flicked to the Ancient language on the walls. A little bit like the Hive's walls, she thought. The room was large, larger than any she had back on the Hive ship. She tried to ignore the clench of homesickness. She slipped off the bed and made her way to the window which consisted of half her room. Bright yellow light streamed through it. She touched the stained glass surface of one of the panels. The strange, hard material was nothing compared to the organic and membranous substance of the Hive ships. She glanced at the door. Sheppard should've been arrived. Since her arrival, he would escort her to see Lynex or Warrior.
She walked away from the windows in time to see the guards opening the door. Sheppard strolled between them. His hand rested by the handgun by his waist. She went to him, stopping beyond his reach. Sheppard cocked his head at her, a cheeky grin on his face, and said something. Althea stared at him. Sheppard said something to one of the guards. Both guards gave a chuckle.
"Are we going to have fun all day? Or are you going to let me see my companions," Althea asked dryly. She knew they couldn't understand her. But maybe my tone, she thought. Sheppard arranged his face into his customary bright insincere one. The young woman walking straight-backed between the guards. She could feel his presence at her back, but ignored him. She couldn't help the brush of relief when she walked into the dark prison room, her eyes trained on the crouched figure in the corner. The Wraith was kneeling in his customary position, eyes closed and ignoring his surroundings. His long white hair glinted green in the harshness of the cage's light.
With a split-second decision, Althea turned to face Sheppard, fumbling over clumsy Common phrases. During the two days, she'd forced herself to pick up words. She tried the word that meant open. Sheppard's mouth and eyes tightened. He shook his head. Althea repeated the phrase open, adding a pleading tone to her voice. Sheppard cast her with a jaundiced regard. He was quiet for so long she feared he wouldn't let her in. After a moment of silence, a throaty chuckle sounded from within the cage. She half-turned, seeing Warrior was now on his feet, his entire figure wiry and majestic, just as she remembered before the Genii drug. Sheppard shot something back. Warrior didn't raise his voice, his replies calm. After a moment of this, the man shrugged as if it was beneath him to care. But he took his gun from his sheathe and the two guards behind him shouldered their stunners. With a start, Althea wondered if they were going to shoot her guardian.
By an invisible command, the cage door slid open. Warrior stood still within it, a faint condescending curl to his lips. He neither moved nor threatened to move, staying where he was even though the door was wide open. Althea entered without a backward glance at Sheppard. The door slid back into place. The invisible shield re-activated again, leaving Althea and Warrior in the cage. The Wraith's expression was hooded. He didn't approach her nor made a move to, vulpine gaze tracking her movements as she stopped before him.
The last time we spoke, he told me he killed my human father, Althea thought. Her stomach as in confusion.
"Are you feeling better, sir?" she asked, voice matching the quiet of the room. Beyond them, Sheppard circled.
"You needn't worry for me." The Wraith's regard flickered from Althea's face to a point over her shoulder. "The humans hide behind their shields and weapons. Rightly so."
"Then the drug is gone?"
The Wraith grunted. He surprised her when he asked, "And you? You seem well."
"I—yes. Well enough. They've treated my wounds and haven't threatened me. I only suffer from close surveillance."
"The physical similarities you possess makes you easier to trust," the other replied. His tone was odd. Althea couldn't place it. In the background, Sheppard continued to circle.
"Physically, nothing more," Althea said, slowly. "I'm no more human as you are. Sir."
"We've had this conversation before," he murmured. He turned his head, and Althea found herself in the rare position of holding the Wraith's full attention. The overhead lighting cast long shadows over his eyeridges, giving him a hollowed, gaunt appearance. His catlike eyes were unblinking.
"Perhaps this is your best chance," he said. Though he was looking at her, she felt he was looking through her at a distant point she could not see. His voice had softened almost beyond her hearing. Then the moment ended. His shoulders straightened and his voice grew louder. "Have you considered staying with the humans?"
Althea stepped back. "What?" Her hands clenched. "No!"
The Wraith tsk'd sharply. "Be calm. I've raised you better than that."
"Yes, yes you have. Because you're all I remember," Althea said. She took a deep breath. She relaxed her fists. "I have no memory of my life before. I struggle to speak even a word in the human language. I don't want to live with these humans."
"The Hive isn't safe for you anymore," Warrior said. "There is civil unrest. There will be wars. If our faction falls, there is a good chance you'll share the same fate as any human."
Althea studied her feet. Her pulse was loud in her ears. "That doesn't matter to me. I want you and Lynex. I choose the Hive."
She heard the faint creak of leather before a clawed hand cupped her chin and gently titled her face. The Wraith regarded her, gaze softer than she could remember.
"Bold as always." His guttural tone was midway between purr and growl. "My strange daughter."
"Sir?" She swallowed. ". . . Warrior?"
He released her chin, leaning away. "That name you've given me is the only word you've retained from your native tongue."
Althea couldn't reply, her throat too tight. The Wraith's voice was odd, but unlike the flatness in the Genii cages, it was soft and directed inward. He said, "During the cull of the first village. I know you saw me save that human child. It seems no matter what I do, I cannot escape my curiosity of your kind."
"Is that . . . what you did with me?" she asked.
"You were so bold, I was curious to see how far you'd follow." One corner of the Wraith's mouth twitched. He gazed at her in what might've been fondness, but it was too hard, too pitiless for human affection. It knocked the breath from her lungs. "It seems you're willing to follow me to the end."
"I am," Althea said. Her chest felt tight.
"Then find out their routines," the Wraith said, "and then work from there. Learn their patterns. Search for weaknesses and beware their strengths. I cannot aid you more than that, for I am stuck in this prison."
The spaced bars of the cage seemed to loom around them. Just beyond them, Sheppard circled.
"Sir, how soon must you feed?"
"Hunger has always been a constant companion for us. I am old, much older than many. Human life-forces' sustain me for much longer intervals than others. But you must move quickly. Lynex is strong, but young. His latest feeding will last him no longer than a week. Two, at the longest."
"That doesn't give me much time."
"No. It doesn't."
Althea bowed her head. "You can count on me, sir. Tell me how many guards do you have and when do they switch places, and at what intervals would be best to free you."
"Come again in a few days and I will have your answer," the Wraith said. He then raised his chin and spoke to Sheppard in Common, signaling the end of their conversation. Althea was let out. As she was led from the cage, she felt her resolution harden: she would do everything in her power to plan an escape. She looked over her shoulder to the tall figure. I will always love you, she thought, but didn't it out loud. In the Wraith tongue, the word 'love' had an almost cruel meaning. But it suits them. It was hard and without pity. She'd seen it when he'd looked at her. It suits them.
Ten days had passed since the fateful visit to her guardian's cage, and Althea spent much time with the doctor. Sitting in front of her, Beckett nodded in encouragement, making his optimistic sounds. She still saw Sheppard, but had begun to see more and more of Ronon. He followed her wherever she went, watching at a distance. She never saw Rodney. As for the Queen, Sometimes she would catch sight of her speaking to Sheppard or see both of them watching her from afar. I look human, Althea thought, so they will trust me. I need their guard down so I can mount an escape. Little by little she had explored the Atlantian City. She was allowed to eat her meals with the other humans, though two soldiers and a foreboding Ronon guarded her. She became familiar with the paths and routines of the general population, keeping a subtle eye on the number of guards and the time of their rotations.
She fumbled over the phrase she was practicing. Beckett shook his head and tried a different route. "Happy. Food. People gathering," he said, pantomiming 'gathering' by sweeping air in a two-handed gesture. Althea rocked back in her chair. Light streamed in from the glass windows. Humans, coming together in peace to enjoy the food they've gathered? Such peace and amenity never existed among the Wraith.
"Happy, food, people, gathering," Althea repeated.
The human's face broke into an easy smile. Next, he said, "Teyla's people."
Teyla's people had came through the Ring. Althea's satisfaction at completing both the phrase and concept faltered. I miss my people, she thought, thinking of the Hive. The room became too warm. The light streaming down was too bright. The plants were too peaceful. The young woman felt skittish and resentful without real cause. Beckett sat back, regarding her, his smile gone.
"See Wraith?" Althea asked, leaning forward in her chair.
Beckett scrubbed his face, sighing between his fingers. Althea waited and was rewarded a moment later when he nodded. He spoke something at her guards, and the young woman was soon heading down the familiar way to the prisons. They led her to Lynex. As she stepped into the dim, green room, she found the Wraith pacing in his cage. He didn't look up when she stopped in her customary spot, his movements rough and circular.
"Lynex," Althea said. She kept her voice soft.
He made another circuit.
The Wraith's head jerked up and he went still. His hands clenched, knuckles white. An oppressive helplessness clenched Althea's stomach as she noticed how glazed with hunger his eyes were. Despite the overhead green lighting, his skin appeared a mottled, pale gray.
"Little Dagger," he said, not moving. His pupils were dilated. Althea gave an uneasy start at the hunger in his voice.
"Lynex, I came t—"
"It's clawing my insides, wrenching me apart. I need food," he said, scratching his feeding slit as if it pained him.
Warrior's right, she thought. Lynex won't last much longer. Ten days is already pushing it.
"Listen to me. I'm breaking both of you out tonight. There is a human gathering of some kind, and it will be noisy and crowed. The Ring will be—Lynex?"
Lynex, hands fisted, had begun to pace.
"What!" he snarled, rounding on her. He recoiled a second later, blinking. Somewhere in the background, Ronon watched, muscular arms folded over his chest.
"I'm—I apologize. I can't seem to concentrate," he said. He rubbed his temple with a shaky hand. "I'm so hungry."
With a sudden, full-throated roar, the starving Wraith whirled around and slammed his hand into the force field, then cried his hurt and astonishment when electricity sizzled in the air. The two guards gripped their weapons. Ronon didn't stir, smiling. Lynex bellowed them in their tongue. Althea picked up feed and enough and free before losing the rest in jumbled snarls. Her heart was torn. Just a little longer, Lynex, she thought. Just a few more hours.
A movement caught her peripheral vision. It was Ronon, hulking and rugged. He went to the cage, sneer on his face. He was taller than Lynex. He glared down at the Wraith, only the thin shield separating them. Lynex slammed his hand into Ronon's face again and again. Ronon never moved nor flinched, watching with unmasked satisfaction as the starving Wraith's blows grew weaker and weaker. Althea marched over and wedged herself between the human and the Wraith.
"Enough." Her voice was a swallowed growl. She glared at him. "No."
Ronon returned the glare, open contempt on his face. Althea didn't dare look away, her hands cold. After another minute, Ronon gave a low grunt and stepped away. He folded his arms and gave her his vague yet menacing smile. The two guards eyed him, faces sweating.
Althea crouched down, safe on the other side of the cage. The Wraith had sunk to his knees, his entire figure trembling. His hair acted like a curtain over his face. The hand that had struck the force field hung limp at his side, the other clenched so tight drops of blood fell where sharp nails pierced skin.
"Can you hear me?" she asked, her voice a light touch.
"It's killing me," Lynex rasped from behind his hair, as if the very act of talking pained him.
"Live for a few more hours," Althea whispered. As much as she yearned to comfort him, she knew he would feed on her. Or would he keep his promise? she wondered. A small, traitorous part of her was glad she didn't have to find out. She was close enough to see him trembling as if cold. She remained kneeling in front of the starving Wraith until the humans ushered her out.
Althea forced to eat the food given to her, scarcely tasting it. All around her, the other humans in the mess hall laughed, called to comrades, or chewed. There were equal amounts of Lanteans and Teyla's people, each animated in the prospect of the festival of bounty. The sounds of laughter and speech turned the air into a live, buzzing thing. Althea's guts twisted. She glanced at the windows, gauging the hour by the amount of orange in the clouds. Her two guards and a watchful Ronon were with her, but one of her guards had struck up a conversation with a young woman and the other kept eying the pitchers others were drinking.
Althea blinked. Beckett gave her a small, cheerful grin. She plastered a matching, if distant, smile. "Yes, good," she said. He glanced at her half-eaten meal. She scooped up a large helping and took a hearty bite.
When the sky was the colour of old wine and fire, the artificial lights of the City lit up, casting the immediate area in a warm glow. The warm air from outside prickled at her nose, smelling of brine and machinery. She stood by one of the open windows. The sun hung low over the western horizon, its light a tepid, golden amber, not yet deepening to crimson. When she looked down, she felt her breath driven away as if a Wraith had punched her stomach. A planet of water, she thought. The very vastness of it made her feel insignificant and small. She didn't doubt it was similar to what had poisoned Warrior. Do they know? she thought.
Althea shrugged, gooseflesh erupting along her arms despite the balmy warmth, and watched the surging gray waves.
When night fell, she asked to return to her room. Ronon was absent, pulled to the side by Sheppard. As she was escorted back, her two guards talked behind her, as if sharing a joke. Their laughter was soft and happy. Althea gripped the eating knife she had secreted away during the meal, a thin sheen of sweat shone on her brow. The bustle from the feast died down the further they became. The halls emptied, the wall lights bubbling. When they reached the door to her room, Althea spun around and planted the knife in one of the guard's throat. He fell with a gurgle, clutching at the bleeding puncture. Without missing a beat, the other punched her in the gut, and would again if she didn't head-butt him first. The guard stumbled, dazed. Althea gritted her teeth against the pain, falling on her back. She kicked upward, catching the man hard in the groin. The human fell to his knees, grunting. Althea proceeded to kick him in the face until he became limp.
The young woman held her breath for a moment, her guts still cramping from the guard's blow. There were no footsteps. Dim laughter and voices echoed down the halls. Arm cradling her midriff, Althea opened her door and dragged the guards into her dark room. She ignored their human weapons, choosing instead to take the Wraith stun pistol each had. She was a ghost as she ran down the empty halls. As she figured, most of the personnel of the Ancient City were attending the feast. She saw four other humans, but they didn't see her slink by. She went to Lynex's prison first. She'd visited enough times to know the placement of the two guards, and before either could react, stunned them both. The Wraith didn't react inside his cage. When she went to the control pad to open the cage, he still didn't move from his huddled position on the floor.
It was only when the door opened with a pneumatic hiss did Lynex stir. Althea scooted back and stood in the shadows, finger on the stun trigger. The Wraith strode straight for the closest guard. The man became a dried corpse within moments. At least he was asleep, Althea thought, knowing it was a carrion comfort. Lynex latched onto the other guard and fed upon him with an explosive sigh.
His shoulders heaved in a deep breath as he stood. He had yet to turn to her. "I meant what I said," he said, after a moment has passed. "I will never feed on you, even if it costs my life."
"Let's get the Commander. I never want to see this place again."
Althea gave one of her stun-pistols to him and began leading him to the Commander's cage. The halls were empty and quiet as the two of them hurried. Even the creak of their leather and the dragging sounds of Lynex's trench coat whenever he crouched beside her felt too loud. When they were at last outside the prison's door. The artificial lights glinted off of Lynex's white hair. By unspoken agreement, they entered and attacked the two guards. Althea opened Warrior's cage and averted her gaze as he fed on one of the stunned humans.
"Go on," the elder Wraith said, nodding to Lynex. "I require much less than you."
The younger Wraith devoured the last human without a second urging.
When both Wraith were situated, Althea led them towards a more circular route back to the feast. Sweat ran down her spine as the sounds of laughter and talking grew louder. She could almost hear the gurgling of the open Ring. Althea's stomach plummeted and her heart leapt to her throat as she heard heavy footsteps from behind them. Guards! she thought.
"We run now," the Commander said. "Now!"
It was a full party of humans, each sporting a heavy vest and cradling a stunner. The two Wraith and young woman rushed in the midst of the eating humans. An outcry of Wraith! Wraith! soon had the mess hall in pandemonium as people scrambled over each other in their effort to escape. Tables overturned. Chairs upended. People screamed. Althea lost sight of her companions in the milling confusion. She saw flashes of white hair and redoubled her efforts to reach them. Have to make it to the Ring! she thought. She could hear Sheppard barking orders, repeating the word clear. It won't work for you, she thought. Shoot us and you'll hit Teyla's people too. She lashed out her elbows, trying not to lose her footing. Humanity pressed all around her, suffocating. Throughout it all the Ring beckoned like a giant pool of shimmering water. People rushed through it, tripping into the blue depths. Althea felt her flesh draw tight. Her pulse slowed. Her running became firm and natural. She drew in a deep breath, feeling as if her lungs would never fill completely. With a cry, Althea leapt into the Ring, feeling the sensation of submerging in a bowl of cold jelly. When she reopened her eyes, a golden field met her. The sun hung low in the sky, casting the thick woods eight hundred meters away in shadows. People continued to stream away from them, shouting at others to escape. Ahead of her the two Wraith beckoned at her, hissing.
"Get to the trees. The Atlantians are sure to follow," the elder Wraith said.
Althea ran after the them, her legs and arms pumping. The wind whistled through her hair. They were halfway to the trees when a hot stitch formed in her side. She slapped a hand over the pain and tried to run through it, but the cramp grew into a white-hot knife. The more she tried to ignore it, the more it spread. At last she stumbled, gasping. She looked over her shoulder as shouts echoed behind her. Five figures were emerging from the Ring, each running towards her, Sheppard in the lead. None of them carried stunners. No time, Althea thought. Her legs were jelly. Her cramp throbbed.
"What are you doing? You can't stop," Warrior said. He had doubled back and now clutched at her upper arm. Lynex waited for them, twitching towards the trees.
"Sir, I can't make it," she said, her side on fire."You have to go on without me."
The Wraith paused, mouth softening. In a move he hadn't done in years, he lifted a hand and gently tousled her head. What are you doing, she wanted to shout. We don't have time! But she couldn't move. Her scalp tingled where his claws had run through her hair.
"Go," he said, nodding. "Take her."
"What? No!" As Althea pitched herself forward, an arm as strong as steel wrapped around her. She watched in horror as Warrior began running towards the humans. "Let me go!" she sobbed, fighting against the vice-like embrace. "Let me go! He'll be killed!"
Lynex dragged his struggling burden without a word. Fighting against him was like fighting against a mountain, and no matter how much Althea kicked and punched, the hold never wavered. When they were within the safety of the trees he wrapped both arms around her body in an unyielding hug, her back to his chest. There were shouts. When the gunshots cracked across the air, a horrific wail stuck in her throat. She watched, winded, as Warrior fall and didn't rise again. Though Lynex placed a cool hand over her mouth, she was quiet. Even if she wanted to scream, there was no air left in her lungs. The pain in my side is gone, she thought with hysterical clarity.
With the same strange clarity she watched the humans circle around the body in the grass, eyes dry. Behind her, Lynex kept a firm hand around her waist, hand still on her mouth. She wanted to tell him I'm fine, I'm fine, but she made no attempt to break through his hold. She knew they would wait until activity settled down before dialing to a safer world. She didn't resist when Lynex pulled her deeper into the trees, his arms still around her. His heartbeat drummed against her. The simple proof of life had her own heart aching.
"Do you hate me for this?" Lynex asked above her. His voice was closed.
Althea shook her head. "No." She spoke as if down a long corridor. "I will never hate you."
Just as you'll never feed on me, I will never hate you, she thought.
When Lynex finally released her, she kept her head down until the Wraith lifted her chin with his thumb and index finger. The gesture reminded of Warrior, and if she closed her eyes, she could pretend it was him, the weight of his hand still against her hair.