Title: Another Travellers Tale
Summary: A meeting of travellers between worlds. Stargate Atlantis/Diana Wynne Jones books (Homeward Bounders) crossover.
Notes: Takes a few liberties with the setup in the book, but I'm not gonna point them out if you don't notice 'em. Also, I'm going to look the other way and hum innocently and pretend the time discrepancy isn't there. Set no more than a few years before Jamie meets Helen and Joris - not that Jamie knows that - and a vaguely generic second season SGA.
Notes 2: I wrote this a few years ago and then LOST IT until yesterday. I'm hoping I got my canon facts right back then because it's some time since I either read the book or watched SGA.
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.
Another Travellers Tale
I had lost count of time long before I experienced one of the odder encounters of my travels. The bounds had moved me very quickly through the previous several worlds - maybe as many as twenty of them, now all one arduous blur - and I was staying with a group of people I had found on the next world I had been allowed to stop and rest. They were good people-- I appreciated the rarity of this by then, and was grateful for the way they had accepted me into their midst. I thought of them as the 'tree-painters' because of the way they honoured their God by carving and painting special trees in the forests where they lived.
Maybe the fourth or fifth night I spent among them, I was drawn with many of the natives to a commotion at the edge of the settlement. Two people, a man and a woman both dressed in a strange style of clothing, had arrived at the village. I didn't know them, but I recognised instantly what they were. I pushed my way forward to where they were trying, without much success that I could see, to communicate. My sense of purpose deflated as I heard the woman talking quickly in a language I had never come across.
Then she turned to her companion and said in English, "It's no good. They don't recognise any language I know."
"I do," I said. They both turned to me in surprise, and when they did I knew, in just the same way I knew that they were Homeward Bounders, that they didn't know what they were yet. In all my time wandering, I had not encountered anyone that was new to the bounds. It was a strange, unwelcome feeling, that these two adults were suddenly somehow my responsibility. I suppose really I didn't have to tell them anything at all, but I had had to make my own way alone. I did not want to leave them so ignorant as I had been.
"What happened to you?" I cautiously asked, trying to gage how much they did know.
The woman was quite stately, with a quiet poise and composure that endured her ruined clothes and obviously exhausted state. The man behind her was thin and tall, and moved like a shadow. From the uniform nature of the small marks and burns visible on his body, he had recently been hurt deliberately and systematically. But he didn't look like he was cowed or still hurting. He looked like he was ready to do the same to somebody else. I kept half an eye on him warily. I wasn't keen for that somebody to be me.
Neither of them was armed, but the man looked as though his hands itched for a weapon.
"We were escaping," said the woman. "Now we're lost, and - I'm not certain how we got here." She eyed her companion, who was doing a fine job of looking tight-mouthed and threatening despite not having a face for it. "You're the first people we've seen in this place. Maybe you can help us. We're looking for something you might know as the stargate, or the gate of the ancestors."
"I don't know what that is." I glanced behind me as she looked around the tree-painters. "It's no good - they can't understand you at all. I can't understand them and they can't understand me. But they've been kind to me, and I think they'll probably share their food and fires with you, too."
Their surprise, I gauged, was not because the people were friendly - that, they seemed to take for granted, surprising me in turn, but then they were new to the bounds and perhaps whatever violence they had escaped from wasn't a usual part of their existence.
"We... haven't met too many people who didn't know of the stargates at all," the man said. His voice was rough, and I thought he'd probably used it too much recently for screaming, but it hid a subdued warmth. "Maybe another name? You sure you don't have anything around here like a big, round, standing ring, taller than a man..." He sketched with his hands in the air. "Maybe half as tall as that tree, with symbols on it...?" I shook my head and he looked helplessly at the woman.
"It has to be near here," she said to me, as though a reasonable tone and her trace of a plea could make me remember something I'd already told them I hadn't seen. She turned back to her companion. I wondered if he was a bodyguard - even with his evident injuries, he carried himself around her like a protector, in a formal sort of way that didn't suggest she was his wife or anything like that. "We must have come here somehow."
"There was a jolt that went right through your whole body," I supplied. "And here you were."
"How did you know that?" He could move quick as a cat, stepping forward of her.
"I know you didn't come here by any sort of gate. They sent you here. You've been banished to the bounds. You must have done something to upset Them, because this is what happens to the people who do."
"'Them'?" The woman looked confused.
Some recognition sparked in the man's eyes. "There was some other race working with the Wraith. I thought they were Wraith themselves at first, but didn't move like Wraith. They were cloaked, though, and I couldn't tell what they looked like underneath."
"You saw Them?" I asked.
"Yeah." He shifted uncomfortably. "The Wraith wanted me to make the city work for them - uh, the Wraith them, that is." He scratched a healing burn across his jaw. "Guess their persuasive charm is pretty obvious right now, huh? Those other things... they seemed to be hanging around in the background. Odd really, thinking back... the Wraith didn't seem to take any notice. Then I saw the cloaked guys again when we were running, right before we passed out, or... whatever, and woke up here. I swear they creeped me out even worse than the damn Wraith."
His companion evidently got more significance from that comparison than I did. She looked grim. I could understand that well enough, if Wraith were anything like Them. She said, "I didn't see them. Or Them. If that is what they were."
I said, "I can explain what's happened to you, but it's going to take a while. There's no reason I can't do it while we're all sitting in the warm, with hot food to eat."
I could sense their mouths watering at just the mention. Whatever they were escaping from, they hadn't eaten recently. I looked across at the tree-painters' chief, whose own painted face marked his status. He was a big, kindly man. I nodded, and smiled, and held out my arms as though to embrace the strangers, to mime friends, and then I mimed eating. He nodded and smiled back, and several of his people came eagerly forward to urge the man and woman to the warmth of the nearest fire and take care of their needs.
I told the newcomers helpfully, "The white meat and the yellow fruits here are very good."
The strangers introduced themselves as Dr Elizabeth Weir and Lt Colonel John Sheppard. The introduction gave me a momentary jump of excitement - Dr was a title I'd heard on other worlds that shared English as their language, but Lt Colonel was a term I remembered only from Earth. And I thought I placed their strange inflection of speech now. I'd heard it before, albeit a very long time ago. They were American.
But it was only an instant's excitement. What did it matter if they were from Earth, here? It didn't bring me any closer to home. I decided I wasn't going to mention that their home was Home for me, too. We couldn't travel together. It wouldn't help either of us for them to know. And they had already drawn conclusions of their own - it seemed they were used to travelling between worlds by other means, the devices they'd asked about known as stargates, and most of those other worlds seemed to speak English, too.
Sheppard was a soldier - obviously - and Weir was some kind of high-ranking diplomat, not a medical doctor after all. He deferred to her when it came to decisions, albeit not always without argument, and I concluded I had been right, after a fashion, when I thought he was her bodyguard.
"And you?" Dr Weir asked. "Who are you, and how did you come to be among these people?"
"And how do you know so much about those Them things?" Sheppard put in around a mouthful of the white meat. The fact he was licking his fingers clean of grease took some of the impact from his following glare.
So I told them that my name was Jamie, and I told them about what I had seen so many worlds ago that had caused Them to exile me to the bounds, and a little of my many travels since. They listened silently, without protest or disbelief, and I wondered if I had found two wanderers who had already seen far strangers things than Them.
After I finished, Sheppard said slowly, "I think that maybe the Wraith weren't working with Them after all. I think they probably weren't even aware They were around. If They were playing Their games in Atlantis, maybe the only reason I saw Them was because of the Ancient gene, something to do with the city's sensors and technology... And when They realised that I could see Them..." He shrugged. "Well, here we are."
I nodded, and Dr Weir frowned. "If what you say is true," she said, "then all we have to do is wait until these... bounds... take us to a world that has a stargate. There are gates on thousands of worlds. It doesn't even necessarily have to take us very long. Once we find a gate, we can simply dial home... dial Atlantis."
"Dial the Alpha site," Sheppard corrected grimly.
"You have to go Home to beat Them," I said. "Otherwise it doesn't count." Did it? I didn't really know. Maybe simply escaping the cycle would be enough. But I knew that Home for these people wasn't either of the places they had mentioned, and I wondered how to tell them without also betraying the shared home I had neglected to reveal before.
Weir and Sheppard exchanged a look.
"Well, we can't dial back to Earth from a normal gate," Sheppard said, sounding annoyed. "And Atlantis is full of Wraith, and we can't go there either until we join up with the evacuees at the Alpha site and figure out some way to give the Daedalus a buzz to return with reinforcements and pull our asses out of the fire."
I wondered what kind of gate they could dial Earth from, but there seemed little point in asking. I doubted they could teach me enough to do so on my own, should I ever come across one. I set the faint hope aside. Maybe I would ask later.
"It's a good chance." Dr Weir put a calming hand on Sheppard's arm in an unexpectedly familiar gesture.
He grimaced and looked apologetic. "I'd have had no chance at all if you hadn't got me out." Even so, it seemed he couldn't resist making an addition; "Ignoring what I told you about staying in hiding 'til the rescue crew arrived."
"I'd have been hiding a long time if I'd taken that advice." Her voice was sad. It drew some weary amusement as she added, "Last I checked, you're still not the one who gives the orders. And there'd be no shortage of irony in you complaining about having them disobeyed, if you were." She looked seriously at me, and her eyes were frank but canny. "Please. I realise you've been doing this a long time, but I need to ask you to question what you know. How much do you really know? How did you learn your information? What proof do you have about, for instance, what constitutes Home for a Homeward Bounder?"
Feeling my face redden as she continued her questioning, I was forced to admit, by gradual stages, that the knowledge I had amounted to tentative conclusions from experience, or word of mouth, and not very much evidence at all. Behind Dr Weir, Sheppard sat quiet throughout and eyed the back of her head with understated respect. I understood it very well - I had been wary of Sheppard, but that woman's calm questions could draw information from a serpent.
"I'm sorry," she said, leaning forward and pressing her fingers very lightly to my shoulder. It was a slightly less familiar variation of the gesture she had earlier used on her companion. "I know you've been trapped like this for a long time. But we need hope. You have to understand that. We must have hope."
She looked at Sheppard, then guiltily away. Sheppard, I thought, would burn himself out with hope-- if he didn't manage to force the world around to some better outcome by the sheer strength of the passion burning very like insanity, at the moment, in his eyes. His people were in danger without him, somewhere a long way away.
I studied the two of them again, thinking over what I had seen of their respective roles. I wondered who was really guarding who.
The next morning I woke up, I knew it at once. It's like that. It was faint yet, but the insistent tug inside me was back. I crawled out of the hut the tree-painters let me use for sleeping, saying a silent farewell to its very temporary comfort. It had been a nice respite, but I knew that by the end of the day that faint tug would have grown, and it would carry me onward to other worlds that were probably a lot less nice than this one.
Lt Colonel Sheppard was already awake and outside, though the rest of the village still slept. He sat on a tree stump in the circle where the fires had burned the night before and his right knee jiggled as he stared outwards into the trees, frustration on his face.
He looked up at me as I approached, and evidently saw something in me that he recognised already. "You feel that? That restlessness?"
I nodded because I didn't feel like putting it into words, but he stared at me quizzically until it became enough of an annoyance that I said, "It'll be time soon to move on. It's what happens. Always, sooner or later. They won't let you stay in one place."
He was quiet a long time, staring up into the red-brown face of an ancient tree carved with big white eyes that stared back. If the tree-people's gods were anything like their carvings, they were eccentric and owlish and benign in a slightly-crazy-grandpa kind of way. "I thought They were like the Wraith," Sheppard said. "But they're not. They're worse than the Wraith. The Wraith... we might be cattle to them, but at least we're not some damn game pieces."
I didn't have anything to say to that. I was fairly sure I liked the idea of being dinner even less than I liked being sent off to wander the bounds. Judging by the anger the thoughts had spread over Sheppard's face, his priorities were different. I could see he didn't at all like the thought of being played with.
"Tell you something," he said, clenching a fist, then rubbing at his grazed, healing knuckles, "Just what we didn't need is another damn enemy. Seem to be pretty good at making 'em."
"You can't fight Them," I said, surprised because the way he said it was like he could, and would.
He shot me a dour look, then inexplicably broke into a grin that pulled at the cuts on his face. But he didn't chose to explain it.
I glanced at the hut the tree-painters had given the strangers for their rest. It would have to be Sheppard who was awake - Weir was far the easier to speak to of these people. Sheppard's reactions seemed to bend reality into little twists and turns that left me mostly confused.
"She's still sleeping," he said. "She's been through a lot." He did a double-take. "We're not... together, you know? Like that. I..." He hesitated, abruptly uncertain. "It's funny, I keep thinking you're older..." I could see he was embarrassed about the mistake. Then his face took on a strange cast I couldn't fathom at all, and it seemed as though he was about to say something else, but he didn't.
The silence that happened instead disconcerted me. To break it, I said, "What's it like, the place you come from?"
"Atlantis? It's a floating city." A sideways smirk of a grin said, 'Isn't that brilliant?' and was pretty smug about it. I'd actually meant Earth, but a floating city sounded like something I definitely wanted to hear more about - in all my travels, I had yet to see one of those - so I didn't try to explain. "It's... It's not the same for me as for the others. I guess it's pretty neat, having the doors open for me, and everything light up when I walk in the room. I... I can't not get back there. The restlessness this morning doesn't begin to match it. The whole damn city comes alive around me. I never had anywhere that really made me feel like I belonged-- and the craziest part is, I feel more guilty thinking the place will miss me."
"Home," I said. I understood how you could feel that way about cities. Even an ordinary city that didn't care whether you made it Home or not. I wondered if Sheppard had an edge the rest of us didn't.
He looked at me sharply. "We can't go back there. Not while it's full of Wraith."
I found myself irritated, and thinking the opposite. At least if you made it back and another enemy killed you, that was an End. What would I do, I asked myself, if I had a possible route Home but knew I'd be facing something terrible when I got there? At least going back would mean I'd beaten Them. I thought Sheppard probably didn't hate Them enough yet: too much of his hate was still taken up by the Wraith. When he spoke their name I could see it; a few years old at least, though nowhere near as old as my own hate for Them must have been.
"I guess you've been doing this a long time, huh?"
It startled me enough to wonder if the ATA gene he'd spoken of came with mind-reading. I didn't find a reply before he was speaking again.
"Look - kid, we can maybe help you out here - hell, we can help each other out, we could sure use a native guide who's used to how all this works. If we can get back to Atlantis - to the Alpha site - we have friends who know the stargate network and the other worlds out there pretty well. It's possible we can get you back to your own home world."
I shook my head, too resigned even to feel disappointment. "It doesn't work like that. We can't travel together, it's against the rules." I quickly stalled his sudden concern: "The two of you are okay, they sent you together. But every time I've ever entered a boundary with another Homeward Bounder, we've been separated."
Sheppard pulled a face, and winced and held his jaw. "I'm really getting to hate these damn rules."
He rubbed at the bruise on his jaw, and I followed his narrow glare off into the distance, to where the bounds were calling.
I made some excuses and ducked away, as though to go back to my own hut, but that wasn't where I was going. I'd decided not to wait for the call of the bounds to grow any stronger. I didn't want to wait for Weir to wake up, or to talk to Sheppard any more. I was feeling angry at Them and the unfairness of it all, at being taunted with this unattainable glimpse of my own world, and I wanted to get away as fast as I could. I snuck around where the trees were at their most dense, and eventually came back out onto a clear path through the forest, wincing at scrapes from tangled branches that were the price for my subterfuge.
I all but ran along the path toward the boundary.
The boundary here was a row of very old, very big trees some way from the village, so old and big that the paint had flaked from them, and their hewn faces had twisted into grotesque deformities. These trees were especially sacred to the natives. I had known it when I first saw them: the older and the more ugly a thing is, the more sacred it's certain to be. I had come across that rule early on. I ran along the line of the trees.
Sheppard was canny and fast and quiet, but he was too late. By the time I heard him yell my name, I could already feel the bounds taking hold, and he couldn't dare come any closer without risking leaving Dr Weir behind. I had a last view of him as he was realising this and backing off, legs wheeling almost comically and the anger on his face replacing quickly with panic. I saw him trip and sprawl back in the undergrowth, undignified but out of the bounds' reach, and then I was swept up and on to my next world - which was a real pig of a world, I can tell you. But that's not a part of this story, and so I'll save it for another time.
I know they made it Home. I don't know how they did, or how long it took them, or which Home it was, but they must have done it. They weren't there at the end, when all the Homeward Bounders came together to fight Them - and of course Helen and Jorik and the others were exiled to the bounds after, where there wouldn't have been enough room if someone, somewhere, hadn't already made it Home. Lt Colonel Sheppard and Dr Weir, of all the people that I met wandering the bounds, had another possible route back.
I hope it didn't take them too long, and that their friends and families weren't all white-haired or even skeletons like Frederick M Allington by the time they returned. I hope their Home was the one they wanted it to be, and that they weren't killed by their own enemy when they got there, but won their own battles when they fought them.
But I'll never know that, unless... maybe one day I'll chance across the right world, or one of their stargates if I can figure out how to make it work - after all, I've learned a lot more about how things work since I chose this existence and deliberately chose to never go Home. And if I can go there, and someone there remembers, or someone who did remember has recorded it or written it down...
Because I know this was all a long time ago now. I've been travelling for centuries since then, and seen the people I knew on many worlds grow old and then not be there any more. I know they must be dead, just like all those others.
But out there somewhere, there's a floating city that lasted thousands of years before I ever heard of it, and can surely last a thousand more. I'm still trying to get there. I've seen a lot on my travels, but I've never seen a floating city. And I intend to see it, before it sinks and rusts.