Author's notes: I am grateful to CeeKay Sheppard for editing this story.
in which Major Sheppard chats with the Wraith, about whom the Old One will say eventually: "Never speak to him again. He can talk the Genii into being decent traders."
A warrior is tuned to survive
and he survives in the best of all possible fashions.
My people have a saying: It is easy to kill the Wraith.
It is difficult to understand one.
'Al' the Wraithling
The prisoner curled up on the floor of his cage, forehead pressed to the floor, hair matted and dirty, claws around his head, as if expecting a blow or hoping to scare off an unbearable headache. He didn't try to crawl into the corner anymore, after being stung with the force field, silent, immobile as an odd piece of the old furniture.
"How am I supposed to know what is wrong with it?" Dr. Beckett asked , standing next to Major Sheppard in front of the cage. "I never seen one of them behaving like this before. Did you try to poke it with the stick?"
"I did," the major answered looking at the creature with the mixture of concern and disgust. "I mean, I shot him."
"Nothing. Bled for a while. Didn't move, didn't even whimper. I think something is seriously wrong with him. When we found him, he just tried to crawl away, to hide – he didn't attack us, as any of them would. He could try to feed on us – but he didn't. I don't think he can anymore."
"Right. My medical verdict is – let the lad be. He just might come around. For all we know, the bloody things are immortal. I mean literally. Unlike you or me, for that matter."
"We could just stun him, so you could take a look."
"No. I am not walking into that cage. And it is not coming into my infirmary – I am not endangering my team or my patients for the sake of this monster!"
"I don't know what is wrong with him!" Dr. Beckett exclaimed in frustration, looking down at his new patient. "No visible injures, no internal bleeding, no nothing! And yet his vital signs are close to zero, he's barely breathing, and his temperature is mimicking that of his environment – infrared screening gave me a blank picture! He looks like a toy whose battery has run out."
"That's probably it – he can't feed and his battery has run out," Sheppard said thoughtfully. "But why…"
At this, the patient opened his eyes – in the bright light of the ceiling lamps his huge round pupils instantly narrowed into almost invisible cat-like slits. He hissed and tried to pull away from the humans, all in vain - metal-reinforced restraints kept him pinned to the bed. Dr. Beckett stepped back, looking alarmed.
"Be quiet," said Sheppard. "Be nice. You see, everybody is nice to you, trying to figure out what your problem is, wasting the doctor's valuable time."
Wraith considered that for a second, baring his pointed teeth, and rasped, "What do you want from me?"
"Oh, nothing – it's just what we humans do. Find somebody stuck in the shit, pull them out, clean them up real good," said Sheppard with mocking kindness.
"What do you want?" the Wraith growled . Its yellow eyes looked too alive on his dead-pale face.
"As I said – nothing. We just going to find out what it is you've got, and then give it to the rest of your kind." Sheppard bent over the bed, bringing his face close to the Wraith's, looking him right in the eyes. "And there's absolutely nothing you can do about it."
The prisoner snarled in anger and jerked, shaking the bed, trying to undo the restraints, his powerful talons ripping the bed sheets under his palms.
"Stop it!" Dr. Beckett cried suddenly, startling Sheppard, and added much more softly, "Just… stop it… You are killing him…"
He was looking at the monitors with a pained expression on his face, pressing fingers to his right temple as if in the throes of a migraine.
Major Sheppard merely shrugged and left the room.
"I'm killing him! I wonder what happened to 'it' and the 'monster'?"
"Carson, you look awful," Dr. Weir stated , looking at Dr. Beckett across the table. "When was the last time you slept?"
"I'm all right, Elisabeth. Really… Nothing to worry about… It's just this guy. He is dying… so very slowly."
"Not a "guy" Carson. The Wraith. He isn't worth your sleepless nights. He is simply incapable of appreciating your efforts. If he wasn't sick, he would die anyway – he would starve to death in his cage."
"I know… I know…" Dr. Beckett looked at the polished surface of the table, trying to find the right words. "It's just… He doesn't even hiss anymore, when I poke him with all those needles. He doesn't open his eyes for days. And I can't find what is wrong with him! It's driving me crazy! I'm sorry, I shouldn't scream," he added hastily, looking up at Dr. Weir for a split second. "Major Sheppard has a theory that this… Wraith… is unable to feed. But I can't find any reason why!"
"Calm down, Carson," said Dr. Weir, not unkindly. "It's a good thing, if a Wraith can't feed, remember? And speaking of Major Sheppard: I specifically requested the new sample for your research."
Dr. Beckett gave her a blank look.
"If safety permits, he will catch another one for you. A better one, even."
Carson felt himself on the verge of screaming, "I don't want a better one! I want this one!" but instead he said evenly, "Good. Maybe Exhibit B will know what is wrong with Exhibit A…"
The Wraith threw himself against the bars of his cage, and the merciless force field tossed him back one more time. Dr. Beckett winced. The bloody creature had been doing it over and over again, as if punishing itself for something.
Most likely for being bloody stupid, and getting caught… he winced again.
"Could you please," he began, "stop whatever you are doing? Just for a moment… I… need to talk to you…"
The creature crashed into the field with all available force, landed in the middle of the cage with an angry snarl, made a few small, impatient circles around the floor, and repeated the procedure.
"STOP IT!" Beckett yelled .
The prisoner drew a deep breath and turned to face his visitor. Then he slowly, gracefully moved toward the bars, not taking his strange yellow gaze from the doctor's face, and stopped almost touching the field dividing them, sniffing the air.
Like an animal… Were-something… were-cat perhaps… Dr. Beckett caught himself thinking. We should establish some Latin name for them… Werehomo iraticus…
He took a step toward the bars, then another one, trying to find something humanlike in the ghostly features of his opponent, then lowered his gaze. All the usual – white silky hair, long leather-like overcoat, trademark expression - hunger mixed with contempt.
"We have one more of you," Dr. Beckett began.
"One more… of me?" The prisoner snorted at the obvious incoherence of this statement.
"Never mind, didn't have much sleep lately," said Beckett, mostly to himself. "He is very, very sick. Could you please look at him?"
"I will not close my eyes," the prisoner stated with a humorless smirk.
"Remove the wall!" The Wraith was looking down at his fallen comrade through the bars of his cage. "I am unable to see through it!"
The Wraith on the gurney didn't stir – he'd spent last couple of days in this death-like semi-stasis. Restrains kept him fastened to the bed, but at this point even Dr. Beckett didn't believe them necessary – the creature was breathing its last breaths.
"Nonsense!" Dr. Beckett was standing on the other side of the patient's gurney, which he had wheeled right next to the bars. "The field is absolutely transparent!"
"Very well. His head is still attached, I can see that. His arms too, and perhaps even his legs." The Wraith in the cage put his fingertips together in front of his face, and was looking above them at the Dr. Beckett with obvious "you are an idiot" expression. "Most likely his physical body is absolutely intact," he declared with confident nod. "Are you satisfied?"
"Then why is he ill?" Dr. Beckett asked. "Why is he..."
"How should I know? I cannot see through this… wall."
"But you can see me, obviously!" Dr. Beckett exclaimed.
"I can smell you." The Wraith drew a deep breath and snorted. "I can feel your warmth. I can see your physical body. But I cannot see you."
"I don't understand." Dr. Beckett shook his head sadly and slowly. His eyes were weary and red-rimmed.
"It cannot be helped," the Wraith retorted, and turned his back on the doctor.
"And… if I turn the field off… will you be able… to see?"
"Most likely," the Wraith replied over his shoulder.
Dr. Beckett looked at the silent guards pleadingly. "Maybe for a short period of time?" he asked uncertainly. "What's the worst he can do?"
The prisoner slowly and carefully reached through the bars with his long arm, pressed his palm over the other Wraith's brow, face, throat, then with great precision over his chest, long claws stretched wide.
"Do you have to do that?" Dr. Beckett asked, grimacing. He didn't think the prisoner would reply, but quietly and thoughtfully the Wraith said:
"No. But it helps."
He pulled away and folded his arms in front of his chest.
"So? Did you find out what's wrong with him?"
"I will not tell you that, human."
Dr. Beckett was taken aback by the sheer indifference in the creature's voice.
"Then…" he stumbled, "can you heal him?"
"You murderous son of a bitch," the doctor stated, sleepily rubbing his face with both palms. "Even towards one of your own kind…"
"Do not feel pity for him, human," sneered the Wraith.
"Yes?" Beckett's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What else? Eh? I am who I am, and I will feel pity when I want, and towards whom I want! And not Dr. Weir, not Major Sheppard, not any of you," he stretched his finger towards the shocked guards, "not even you, you bloody monster! No one can tell me when and what should I feel!"
At this moment he realized that he was screaming at the top of his lungs again, and his outstretched finger was almost touching the Wraith's leader-clad chest. He retrieved his hand hastily and stepped back.
"Put the field back on, please. And… please forgive me. I really shouldn't yell like that…"
"I did not apologize to you," Dr. Beckett retorted, staring at the prisoner in disbelief – bloody thing, arms still folded in front of its chest, was laughing: baring its creepy teeth, and almost without a sound, but not sneering - clearly laughing, appreciating the absurdity of the situation.
Dr. Beckett waved his hand helplessly and shook his head, preparing to take his patient back to infirmary.
The Wraith's voice was again cold and distant. "You did not understand me correctly, human."
"What do you mean? Can you make him well?"
"Then we have nothing to talk about."
"Your… pet will die."
"He is not my pet… And he will die anyway, both of you will. You'll starve to death, to be precise, because we cannot offer you any sustenance. So if you don't know how to heal him…"
"I did not say I do not know how to make him well."
"So, you do?"
"Yes," Wraith slowly blinked, but his eyes did not lose their focus. "I know many things."
"For instance, I know how to remove this… wall… field of yours. I only need," he lowered his gaze, searching for the right word, "to intend it to be out."
He's nuts, Dr. Beckett remarked in privacy of his own head.
"But can I do it? No," the Wraith snorted angrily. "However, I know one who can."
"Remove the field?"
"I can remove it with the push of a button!"
"But you can not revive your… patient with a push of the same button, can you?"
Dr. Beckett pressed his fingertips to his aching temples. "So, you know someone, somewhere out there, who can heal him?"
"As strange as it might sound to you – you have no idea what a pain in the butt the very process of communication with you is…"
"I share your feelings, human. Usually, I do not communicate with your kind. Not as such."
"Shut up!" the doctor snapped, then closed his eyes for an instant and continued softly. "Just be quiet for a moment. So… There is a… doctor, you know about?"
"He is not a doctor."
"Fine. Not a doctor who can cure him?"
"How do you know him? Did he ever treat you?"
"I do not know him. And I never have been ill."
"I am trying to convince myself that you don't do it intentionally. And it's bloody hard!"
Wraith just gave him an 'it cannot be helped' look.
"All right. All right. You don't know him personally. But you know about him. Where from?"
The prisoner stared at the doctor for a long while, then said:
"It is common knowledge."
"Very good. And where can we find him?"
"I will not tell you that."
Dr. Beckett almost screamed in frustration, when he heard slow applause. Major Sheppard, leaning against the wall at the entrance, clapped his hands few more times and said, "I see you're getting hang of the art of interrogation. Actually, you're much better at it than I am! I hope we're recording all this?"
"Of course," answered one of the guards.
"John, please!" Carson gave the major an upset look. "We are just having a conversation! I never interrogated anyone in my life and never will, if luck permits! There are plenty of others who would enjoy doing it!" The doctor shut his eyes for a second. "I didn't mean it to sound like this, John."
"No offence taken."
"It just requires an enormous precision of mind, and I am so cranky today… But I can do it… We are getting somewhere… You see…"
"I was listening for a while. And please let me take it form here. It's time for the ranking military officer to take over."
"No, Carson. Go and get some sleep. And take that… corpse of yours out of here. I have it all covered."
"Conversation with you was quite satisfactory, doctor." The prisoner bowed his head slightly. "I do not think Major Sheppard will make an amusing substitution."
"You know, buddy, time is working against you. And it's going fast," said Sheppard, looking at Wraith's back. "The information you want to sell us has an expiration date – and it's getting close. If the doctor's little friend dies, we don't need that witch doctor of yours."
"He is not a doctor!" The prisoner turned on the spot, sending his silky hair flying in semi-circle, his cat-like eyes glowing.
"Save this stupid game for poor Beckett," said the major, holding his ground. "And tell me, what, exactly, is your proposition?"
"You will be unable to understand."
"Try me." Sheppard produced a marker from the pocket of his military vest and stepped to the nearest wall. "Let's put our trade balance on the wall. We have, as Dr. Beckett puts it, exhibit A. Exhibit A is dying, but Dr. Beckett wants him to live. We, the people of Atlantis, want Dr. Beckett to be happy – it's better that way. That's our first constant. We have exhibit B here, in the cage. He did not announce what he wants exactly, but basically he wants to live too. That is the second constant. And now we have an X. Someone out there - not a doctor, mind you - who can cure an exhibit A, so we can put him back in the cage, where he will eventually starve to death."
"My point exactly." The prisoner gave Sheppard a vicious smile.
"But, it will please Dr. Beckett. I mean the curing part. However, exhibit B here, who claims that X exists, will not give us his address without a concession. So, the question is – what kind of concession does exhibit B require?"
"You do not understand, human," said the Wraith, gazing at the major with his fiery eyes. "It would not help you to know where he is. He does not answer to anyone. He will not listen to you."
"But he'll listen to you."
"He will honor the agreement."
"So, what you basically want – is your freedom."
"Oh, yeah… And an elephant in cute pink pajamas…"
"You are even more stupid than I thought," stated the prisoner, and turned his back on the major once again.
"Hey, you!" Sheppard was taken aback. "Why should we be interested in an appointment with someone who can make a Wraith well? And wish the force field out…" his voice trailed off.
"I said, perhaps," stated prisoner over the shoulder in a calm voice.
"Who is he?"
"OK. I'll give you a chance. You will tell me all you know about this… non-doctor, and if I am interested, you will go and organize the meeting."
The Wraith's snort sounded more like a sigh. "Ask," he turned around and walked close to the bars.
"What do you know about him?"
The prisoner pondered the question for a while, then said, "He is old."
"How old, exactly?"
"I do not have such knowledge. And even if I did know - I would not know how to tell you."
"Is he older than you?"
"And how old are you?"
"Come on! You're not an aging lady – what harm will be done, if you tell me?"
"This is my sixth culling."
"Which makes you… well... about three and a half thousand years old. Plus-minus. And you are not old? At least, not very?"
The major bit his lip. "What is his name?"
John had the feeling that Wraith was about to turn his back on him again. But he did not, merely giving the major a look full of hatred - or fear.
"What's the deal with the names anyway? Is it such a secret?"
"No," prisoner lowered his gaze.
"Then what is yours?"
The Wraith screamed angrily and hit the force field with a claw, then jumped back and started to circle the cage, his colorless hair floating after him like a stingray's wings.
Sheppard shrugged. "Sorry I asked."
The prisoner stopped, drew a deep breath, and calmly walked toward the bars. "Even if this wall were not here, you would not be able to see it, human."
"OK. That's interesting. What about the Old One? Has he got…"
The Wraith stared. The pupils of his eyes dilated widely and narrowed again, he snorted and looked down.
"So I guessed right," Sheppard said slowly.
The Wraith's white eyelashes flickered.
"So he's got a name that one can pronounce, not just see. And his name is the Old One. Or some analog… I wonder why… Does his see-name bring bad luck or something?"
"No." The prisoner looked tired.
"It is impossible to use."
"Ok. Impossible to use. Good. By the way – is he one of your kind?"
"He is different."
"I realize that. But does he… cull people?"
"He does not participate in cullings."
Sheppard looked at the Wraith in disbelief. "Doesn't like it?"
"He does not need to. He feeds constantly." The Wraith gave a creepy smile and lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "He never sleeps."
"Got any… family? Clan? Or whatever you call it?" The major felt himself grimacing in disgust but couldn't help it.
"He is alone."
"He is alone, he feeds constantly – he should've been killed millennia ago! Just by probability laws! Somebody, somewhere, would figure out the way!"
"His people feed him freely." That wicked smile was starting to get on the major's nerves.
"He has people?!"
"He has the world."
"A planet? All for himself?"
"The World. Six suns. Ten inhabited planets. Billions of people."
"Damned old SOB. I can only imagine how much you guys… love him. And no one ever tried to take it from him?"
"We have an agreement," the prisoner stated haughtily.
Sheppard gave a short laugh. "I believe you!"
"We do have an agreement." The prisoner narrowed his eyes.
"As I said – I believe you! You leave his… world alone, he does something for you in return. But that's not the reason you haven't grabbed it yet. You can't! He has a way to stop you! Is he a sorcerer of some sort?"
"He is not!" the prisoner growled.
"Well, that's a matter of definition. For me, all of this sounds like magic. Can he take a spaceship from the sky just by wishing so?"
"He never did," the Wraith lowered his gaze.
"Can he?" John felt tiny tingles of triumph all over his body.
"So, you want your freedom and your dart… transport? And in exchange you will let us meet the guy, who can take the entire Wraith fleet from the sky in a blink of his eye? I think you got yourself a deal. But why? Wouldn't the others be mad at you?"
"Or would they?" the major continued pensively. "You hope that we might be even less amused with his warm personality than you guys are… Don't you? If we get him – his world is yours. If he gets us – Atlantis, or what's left, is yours. Maybe both. But try to imagine – we will find a common ground?"
"Do not dream for things which are much too big for you, human. Your..." the Wraith moved his hairless eyebrows up and down, "might collapse."
Major Sheppard felt the strongest urge to empty the entire P90 magazine into the Wraith's mocking smirk.
"He was tied up and blindfolded when we brought him here. He couldn't see the gate address. So we will do the same thing – leave him on some uninhabited world together with his dart, and set up some meeting place for this Wraith sorcerer, the Old One."
"If he exists," Dr. Weir interrupted.
Sheppard grimaced. "Oh, he exists, all right."
"How can you be so sure?"
"That kind of fib would be too complicated for a Wraith."
"Never underestimate your…" Dr. Weir began.
"That's not what I mean!" the major exclaimed irritably. "With the all the nasty things we can say about them – they seem to never lie. Oh, they do understand the concept, they do know that humans can say things that aren't true. Maybe they despise lies, maybe they find them unnecessary, maybe they consider us not worthy of lies, to unimportant, I don't know! But the fact is – they don't lie. Even for the sake of self-preservation. At least I never heard one lie!"
"We saw very few of them," Dr. Weir continued doubtfully. "We don't know anything about their morals, or conducts, or… And it's only one side of the story. Do you realize that, Sorcerer or not, this, our Wraith will continue to kill?"
"Of course I do! But there are millions of them – one more, one less, it won't make much difference. I know it sounds wrong! But maybe there's a way to stop the killings altogether! May be we can offer the Old One something he likes?"
"If he exists…"
"Oh, he exists, all right."
"How are you feeling there?" Major Sheppard asked, tapping lightly on the side of a rather small metal container that sat on a cart in front of the Stargate.
Without further hesitation, the major hit the box with his handgun. Deafened, the Wraith yelped, then said calmly, "It is very dark, Major Sheppard, and I cannot move, and my entire body tingles because you stunned me. But I will live."
"Glad to hear that."
"There was no reason to treat me like this."