CALIBER - Former and Future Foe
There are, without a shadow of doubt, an absolutely infinite number of variations of ways to die, to expire. There is, however, four basic methods of burial. By earth, in which the last remains are interred in either a coffin or a tomb of some kind. By water, in which the body is cast into the sea or in which ashes are spread to the water. By fire, in which the body is burnt to nothing but a fine ash and burnt again and again until only the memory and faint carbon traces remain. The fourth method is seldom heard of; sky burial.
Colonel Steven Caldwell has never considered his burial options even when faced with all manners of unsavory predicaments until now, when it seems he has no other option. The Wraith are crippling the Daedalus right out from underneath him. He has beamed as many out as possible, but the ship is coming apart and even Hermiod's great skill cannot keep her airborne for much longer. They cannot even beam themselves out now to the safety of the planet below.
Caldwell turns to the Asgard who, despite the gravity of the situation and the sparks flying about him, seems unearthly calm and composed, befitting his people. Hermiod dips his head to Caldwell but says nothing. There is nothing to say, and nothing they can do so badly outnumbered and outgunned. Not anymore. It is a simple act of both respect and acceptance.
Caldwell sighs, looking to the blue and green sphere below and the hive ships circling about them before easing into his seat. The chair feels so familiar and comforting. He could have died in any other way. At home from a heart attack or in the field from a gun shot wound. No matter what the means, this just feels right. Caldwell gazes intently to the hive ship turning towards them, knowing this is it; this is the end. He will die with his boots on, at the helm of this, the Daedalus, his ship, his life. And his burial will be a grand sky burial the likes of which no one on the planet below has ever or will ever see again.
It is Colonel Steven Caldwell's last gift when he smiles to himself. "Hermiod?"
Caldwell closes his eyes for a moment. "It's been a pleasure working with you."
The Asgard blinks strangely before continuing to work at the controls and keep the Daedalus aloft for just a few more seconds. "And you."
Caldwell grins to himself even as the ship's drive kicks to life. It is a fitting burial for his life and for this end as the Daedalus cuts through the night and the air, screaming through the hive ship with a wrenching of metal upon organic structure. Both ships burst into a massive fireball, licking out at the night. The Daedalus explodes in a rain of shrapnel that flickers in the night before sliding through the atmosphere to flare and burn up to nothingness along with remnants from the hive.
When Colonel Steven Caldwell and Hermiod are gone, they remain, as stardust endlessly sprinkled in the heavens. It is a grander funeral than any other, even if none of the witnesses below knew what it was. Their remains will dance across Earth's heavens for the rest of time, even if their sacrifice does not change anything.
A singular figure stands upon the lip of the ridge, staring down at the wide river snaking languidly between the jagged mountains and towards the sea. It is a solitary man, alone in a barren, empty world, seated astride a stocky, ruddy looking horse. He is waiting. He has been waiting for a long time now, far too long, but he can wait a bit longer.
The mountains about him are awash in a splash of vibrant colors. However, sentiment does not become this man, leaving no passing appreciation or wistful dreams of the fiery scarlets and blazing oranges that blanket the trees upon the ridge face. He does not see the exquisite, wild beauty to the fall display. His mind is churning on two entirely dissimilar veins, but neither is so foolish or childishly naive to be entranced by the dazzling array. The scientist in him - which he occasionally fancies as quite dead and gone - rears its head in a rare display of brief and rather dispassionate recognition of the phenomena, attributing the kaleidoscope of color somewhat callously to the seasonal decay of chlorophyll and other pigments in the leave due to the coming surge of winter's cold. The scientist drones on in the back of his consciousness about subtractive and additive color systems before being quickly banished back to man's mind.
Simultaneously, the survivor in him is torn between between savoring the creeping cold and fearing it. The winter is coming, and it will be a long, hard one, the man knows. He knows it not by portents and signs, nor by almanacs and arthritic pain flaring up; these pathetic fancies have no place in the real world anymore. The man knows it by the chill in the air and the all too heavy evidence around him.
As if to emphasize the point, a bitter cold wind caresses his cheek with a frosty kiss, sending both delicious and horrible shivers down his spine. The nights were growing longer and longer, and the air colder, almost by the minute. The rocks and leaves have sparkled with frost for weeks now, and morning had greeted him with ice upon the sides of the road. Oh yes, the winter fast approaches, heralding the security of the long, frigid nights.
The Wraith are cold blooded in both psychological and biological nature, befitting their insect ancestors. In the summer, it works against the few survivors of the culling, as the Wraith fare exceptionally well in the seasonably hot weather that otherwise stops most humans in their tracks. In the winter, however, the mountain cold slows the Wraith down, stopping them in their tracks. The cold is what has kept the Foothold safe these last three years. In the summer, the survivors are cautious and careful to avoid notice, while, in the winter, the survivors feel safer, secure. However, they cannot be outside during the day without the cover of trees, meaning they must brave the driving cold of the mountain winter for fresh air, travel, and trade.
However, the icy winds of the mountains are a double edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. Humans are not nearly as resilient as the Wraith, often succumbing to the cold that the Wraith so easily hibernate through or avoid altogether if possible. Their kind had lived for far too long in the false security of their decadent society, hiding behind the all too fragile wall of technology. They had forgotten how to survive in the wild once their precious empires were dashed to pieces, leaving nothing but the scattered pockets of civilization here and there that were steadily vanishing. This is why those who were so shortsighted to flee to the mountain tops did not last the first winter after the culling.
The vast majority of humans are soft and ill-prepared to face the cold. He was once that way, but not anymore. This man upon the ridge is hard and stolid. He used to be prone to panic, but, now, the man knows it serves no point to waste energy in fits of blind hysteria. His twitches had disappeared well within the first months on the run from the Wraith, save a few small gestures of self comforting that remain even now. Where he was once flighty and nervous, he is still and calm for the most part, stifling such tendencies. Fear and hesitation are luxuries his tenuous existence will not afford him. He has no other choice now. The Foothold depends upon him so very much, as this man is the only living person who has any real knowledge regarding their enemy. He must be as sure as the rock he stands atop, as the mountains that tower around him.
He sighs, a heavy and resigned sound that stems from deep within him as though born of every fiber of his being, shifting his weight uneasily in the saddle. He has waited far too long for the Gap to respond with no response. It bothers him. The ugly mare beneath him senses his tension and stamps impatiently with an almost cheery clip of metal on asphalt before tugging upon the bit to reach for some of the weeds and grasses that peek through the cracks. The lone man reaches down and pats the muscular neck, shushing the horse softly, knowing that she has waited far too long as well.
The man pulls a set of battered binoculars from his saddlebag to scan the mountains and cliff faces on the other side of the river for any sign of the Gap. He has never seen the Gap with his own two eyes, much as the people of the Gap have never seen Foothold. It is for their own safety. Should either outpost be taken by the Wraith, no amount of questioning or torture would betray the other outpost's location. There agreement has always been to establish radio contact and meet up here, at the bridge, but the Gap has not responded in hours. Nor does the solitary traveller see any sign of the camp he knows should be just beyond the golden tree line in the mountains above the other bank, nor any tracks. Nothing.
The man shakes his head and replaces the binoculars in his saddlebag. He likes the people of the Gap. He has been trading with them for some time now, and, out of all the outposts, the Gap is always been the most prompt to respond. If the Gap still exists, they would have already come down to greet him already, and he would probably already be well on his way home to Foothold. There is no question in his mind. The Gap is gone, its people likely culled.
It has been like this since the beginning. The outposts keep dropping off the map. Last month, they had lost contact with High Point. The month before that, Ramapo stopped answering transmissions, along with McCormick Isle. Before that, it was Spruce Run just a few peaks away from Foothold. Over the last winter, they had lost all contact with all the outposts to the north and many of the ones to the west, leaving but a few, scattered safe havens to the east and to the south. The outposts have steadily dwindled down to a meager, a great nation brought to its knees before the hungry Wraith. Now, it seems, he must admit that Foothold is alone on these eastern mountains.
He stares out over the river, hoping that he is wrong before giving another solemn shake of his head. Foothold isn't safe anymore. With the other outposts gone, as soon as the spring thaw hits, the Wraith are sure to find Foothold and the people hiding there. Aside from that, food is already running short, and there are too many mouths to feed through hunting now that they have raided the last remnants of civilization in their area for supplies. They will need to move as soon as it gets cold enough before they die at the hands of the Wraith or the grip of starvation.
The traveller hisses through his teeth and runs his fingers through his thin hair. He doesn't like this not knowing at all. He is a man of extreme fact and reason, to a fault at times. And moving Foothold is a risky venture no matter how well they plan. He wants to know for sure before making any hasty decisions to abandon Foothold in favor of the road, where nothing is certain save the constant threat of the Wraith.
The man reaches his radio glumly to try one more time, uttering his memorized speech but not expecting anyone to answer; this will be his last transmission here.
"This is McKay calling the Gap..."
Twin shadows slip across the exposed rock at the top of the ridge, both keeping a wary eye upon the sky and another eye upon the man below. They have been following him for two days now, out of the mountains and down to the bridge where he has sat in wait since dawn. They watch in silence as the man makes his last radio call before shaking his head and turning his horse back towards the path he rode down from.
One of the hunters glances at his companion, nodding. They do not speak. There is no need for words. They know what must be done. The two shadows slink back down to the woods, to their own mounts, swinging into the saddles.
They do not rush to race after the man, galloping into the woods at breakneck speeds. There is no need. The long man is careful to conceal his trail, but they have been doing this for much longer than he. They can find even the most hidden of signs and follow the most difficult of trails. The pair could find the solitary man if they wanted to, if they needed to, but they do not need to.
They already know where he is going.
Perhaps hundreds miles away, to the southwest and on a different set of equally icy mountains, a lone woman strides through the looted and filthy remnants of what had once been a large, sprawling grocery store. The woman has tied her horse under the overhang meant for the shopping carts that lay scattered and abandoned across the parking lot, but, still, she moves as quickly as possible. The woman does not feel safe so exposed and so close to town.
Before the Wraith came, humans felt secure in numbers, clustered in towns and cities, but that time is long gone. Cities herald nothing but gangs of roving marauders with no sense of morals and the Wraith. The Wraith are not drawn to the cities for the technology or the comforts of Earth dwellings. They are drawn to the once heavily populated areas because humans are drawn there, pulled there by an intrinsic nostalgia and a yearning for some semblance of normalcy in a world turned upside down- as well as for the needed supplies for survival. The Wraith lay in wait because they know, eventually, the food just wanders right up to them. It is risky to venture near any sort of settlement, no matter what the size, but it is a risk the woman must take.
The woman cuts through the produce section swiftly, the bandanna tied about her pale face as a doing nothing to hold back the stench of fruits and vegetables long rotted away to festering pools of fermented sludge. Boxes long gutted by desperate survivors and bits of glass litter the floor, while the shelves spread barren before her. She steps lightly around the overturned soda racks stained disgusting colors by beverages gone long ago. Any usable food stuffs are either gone from the first waves of rampant theft or have perished beyond any salvageable levels.
The solitary survivor makes her way to the pharmacy. Fortunately for her, no one has had the foresight to ransack it. Either that, or the steel shutters that seal the customer service window there have been enough of a deterrent to keep the precious drugs safe behind there. However, unlike the standard looter, she is patient, calculating, and in dire need of the chemicals behind the counter. The incision upon her back throbs with a dull ache from her last attempt of cutting away at herself. She needs antibiotics for both herself and Jack.
No. The woman mentally corrects herself with a small, remorseful pang. Jack is dead now, fed upon by the Wraith unto death, and she is alone. It hurts to think about him, but it hurts worse to even think about purging him from her mind. She can still see his eyes in her sleep, pleading with her, begging her.
She pauses for but a moment to gather herself for the task ahead of her, picking through the crushed and empty vitamin bottles at her feet until she found a tool suitable for the task in a long, slender piece of metal that might have, at one point or another. The woman wedges the end of the rod under the shutter as a level and shoves down hard upon it. The shutter gives with a metallic groan before opening just a crack, just enough for her to slip over the counter and inside the pharmacy. The woman reaches into her pack and pulls out her flashlight, cautiously peering inside for any raiders or other survivors before slipping over the counter and setting to work. The woman scans the shelves of pills and bottles, tossing anything and everything into her pack she might need in the long haul but leaving what remains for any other survivors who might come calling after her.
She moves with a purpose, for Samantha Carter hasn't any time to waste if she's to make it out of town before the Wraith notice her presence.
The Wraith smiles in smug satisfaction. He has waited in relative isolation after his deserved exile through three revolutions of this tiny, seemingly insignificant planet about its small sun. He is not bothered by this. His patience knows no bounds by human standards. It is the Wraith way, after all. They have existed for countless centuries at the top of the food chain, challenged only by the pathetic little Lanteans. It matters not. Wraith have tremendous life spans compared to the flickers of life humans have.
The Wraith stands over the primitive console, enjoying this moment. He has been waiting for three of this planet's years to reestablish contact with the far flung galaxy he has not seen nor has any hope of ever seeing save this desperate plea. His hive turned on him shortly after finding this once fertile land teeming with lives to feed upon. He has spent many years contemplating that day when he dared chance the ire of the Queens, but never regretting it. After all, he can and will have his "just desserts," as the humans say. And regret is not a Wraith sentiment.
These computers and machines are ugly and blocky compared to the biomechanical world of Wraith technology. During the initial culling waves, when the Wraith had penetrated this mountain stronghold, someone had gone through and smashed everything they could, rendering the Stargate useless without any controls. It has taken him sometime to study their design and repair them to a functioning capacity once more, and even more time to learn both the languages of these people upon the machines and the unusual symbol system upon the Stargate, so very different from the symbols upon their own. It would have taken far less time if he did not have to work in secrecy, concealing his actions from all of his kind.
He dials, punching the keys and watching with a small, sophisticated smirk upon his face as the gate responds, lighting up and rotating with a hiss of metal on metal. The Ancient technology responds by spinning about its self before locking in the last, critical component and opening the wormhole. A crisp, blue, liquid seeming event horizon punches through with a tremendous wave, swelling out before settling into a shimmering pool of light bound by the metal rings.
The Wraith looks to the primitive radio and holds to his lips. He has had much time to memorize the safety protocols that these people had instilled long before the culling. They will require identification from him. For any other Wraith, this might be problematic, but not for this creature.
Quite the contrary to the popular belief held by humans, Wraith do, in fact, have individual social identities despite the appearance of an entirely hive mentality. Such classifications provide stability and order in a hive, as well as maintaining established rank and genetic cast, just as much as human names and titles do for their species' social structure. Unfortunately for their human prey, the names of Wraith are not pronounceable in any human tongue. Their identities are not expressed verbally, but through social gestures, tattoo markings, and pheromones in a manner not much unlike ants and bees. It is a vastly complex system that no man or woman of the species H. sapiens is ever likely to even vaguely comprehend, as it is so absolutely different from their own conventions.
This particular Wraith, however, does, in fact, have a verbal, human name. It was given to him long ago, saddled upon him by a human that fancied himself cute, but he has not used it in ages. The Wraith has not seen that human in three long years, not since their supposed alliance. While his kind are not particularly prone to nostalgia, this one sometimes finds himself wondering what happened to that human. He almost hopes that the sniveling little worm of a creature is still alive to receive his message after all this work.
He must be quick. His kind will surely notice the Stargate activity and be upon him. Nor has he an power module that will provide a stable wormhole for much more than perhaps a few minutes, if that. He will have to use that name, no matter how sour it makes him feel.
"Atlantis," he speaks in a low drone, facing what he has already learnt to be a human video transmitter of sorts. "This is Todd. I know you are listening. Respond."
Tension rolls in Lt. Colonel John Sheppard's stomach. It is has been precisely 3 years, 5 months, and 17 days since Atlantis last made contact with the SGC and exactly 3 years, 4 months and 28 days since Atlantis lost contact with the Daedalus on the return trip of an otherwise routine milk run back to Earth. Several attempts have been made to bridge the gap between Pegasus and the Milky Way, but, for that whole time, there has been nothing. Any attempt to connect to the Earth gate has been unsuccessful, and there seems to be no other way to hop from gate to gate back to the Milky Way Galaxy. Without the a functioning gate connection to the SGC and without Daedalus, the Atlantis expedition has been stuck in Pegasus.
It hasn't been too bad. In fact, the entire expedition party was prepped for this from the beginning. With how difficult it is to locate ZPMs to power transit between the galaxies, it has always been known that loosing contact with Earth is possible. In fact, John Sheppard had signed up to the mission knowing full well it was likely they might never return. After three years, Sheppard has gotten rather used to the idea of never returning to Earth.
The only bad thing about the last three years is that Rodney McKay has been dearly missed. Radek Zelenka is an excellent worker, engineer and scientist, but he is no Rodney McKay. No one is quite like McKay. No one could be. Shortly before Atlantis lost contact with Earth, Jeannie had relayed a message through the SGC that she was expecting another child shortly but that her pregnancy had been a difficult one ending in doctor ordered bed rest for her last trimester. Rodney had returned for the Christmas to visit her before the birth about two weeks before they lost contact. And it has been a difficult time since then without the expert on Ancient technology, no matter how annoying he could be at times.
However, that is not what bothers John Sheppard. What bothers John Sheppard is the fact that there is an incoming wormhole from Earth after all this time. He stands at the command center beside Woosley, his arms folded across his chest as he stares at the open, glittering wormhole, waiting. The IDC is clear. SGC.
One of the underlings that Sheppard recognizes to be Johnson announces, "Incoming video transmission from Earth."
"Put it up onscreen," Sheppard orders quickly.
The video is presented to him promptly, and all gathered gasps. The monitor displays the SGC, but it is not the clean, orderly place any of them recall in their distant memories and dreams of Earth. It is a charred out, mangled shell of what it had once been. There are computer parts strewn about the room, scattered in utter disarray. But, what is worst, is the figure appearing before them. A tall, pale figure with long, white hair. The Wraith. The entire scene sends shivers down everyone's spines as blood runs icy cold. John can hear a few, stifled cries about him, see the slight glint of fresh, unshed tears in eyes as everyone comes to the same gut-wrenching conclusion at the same time. The SGC is gone. Meaning Earth... their home, their planet, is gone, fallen to the Wraith.
Sheppard's blood, however, boils in his veins. His fists knot to tight balls, digging fingernails into his palms. Earth fell while they were there, in Pegasus, exploring and living the great adventure. All those people. They have to be gone and dead if the Wraith have infiltrated the seemingly impenetrable mountain stronghold that is Cheyenne Mountain and the SGC. His friends. His brother. His ex-wife, Nancy. Everyone with the Stargate program who were not fortunate enough to be offworld at the time. And, with a sudden lump in his throat, John realizes that Rodney is also among the dead and doomed of that world.
The Wraith speaks, calling out to them. "Atlantis. This is Todd. I know you are listening. Respond."
Before Woosley can make any decisions on how to handle the matter, Sheppard takes the matter into his own hands and stabs at the consoles, immediately putting through an open channel directly to the Wraith and demanding in a venomous tone, "What do you want, Todd?"
"Ah." The Wraith dips its head ever so slightly in acknowledgment. "John Sheppard. I merely wish to speak with you. I have a proposal to make."
"Looking at the way things are, I'm not exactly inclined to listen to any proposal right now," Sheppard snarls back.
The Wraith inclines its head at a strange and predatory angle, a devilish glint to those unnatural eyes of its. "I have a deal to make."
"Why would I want to make a deal with a Wraith?"
The Wraith, Todd, curls its lips into a macabre smirk. "Come through the gate and find out."
"It's a trap," Woosley hisses under his breath.
John remains as stoic and emotionless as can be, stating rather matter-of-factly, "You'll just hand me over to a Queen as soon as you get the chance."
There is a flicker of something to the monster's eyes, somewhere blurring the line between sadness and, perhaps, regret. The creature pauses, saying not a word and moving not a muscle, maintaining his outward composure. It is a subtle thing, lasting perhaps no more than a second, just long enough for Sheppard to see it. The colonel takes noticed of the almost ashen quality of the Wraith's skin, the thinness of the skin and the places were its eyes seem too sunken. Todd has the same, sad appearance as he did starving in Koyla's captivity, giving him a downright ancient and grizzled look.
Finally, the Wraith speaks slowly, tasting its words with an obvious care and delicately pronouncing each and every syllable. "Regrettably, I am no longer in the favor of my kind." He smiles as much as a Wraith can, for their kind never truly smiles. "Even more regrettably, our time grows short. Come. We have much to discuss and very little time to do so."
"So, speak," Sheppard orders sternly.
The Wraith gives a faint laugh. "Always to the point." He sighs, a human action that seems just wrong on his angular face. "I am in exile, John Sheppard. I wish nothing more than to see those who put me here suffer as I have suffered without my kin."
"Sorry, not interested in your petty vengeance."
Todd blinks but once, almost disbelievingly, before brandishing his trump card. "I know where Rodney McKay is."
The Wraith looks down, shaking his head with a chuckle that does not seem right coming from his kind. "I assure you, I am not." He taps at the computer before him awkwardly, as though completely unused to the English alphabet and still clumsily learning to master the American technology that runs the base. "He is alive."
Rodney's voice is piped through the gate to Atlantis, distant and calm in a way that no one has ever heard from the physicist, profession, a sort of weathering. "This is McKay calling the Gap. Gap, come in?" There is a short pause, little more than a breath. "Gap, respond if you are there." There spans a long pause in which only a hissing static dwells before the man speaks once more. "This is Foothold broadcasting on all AM frequencies. Third of November, 2011. Gap not responding to radio contact, likely culled. If there are any survivors out there, good luck." The man sounds like a tired stranger compared to the person who was once their friend. "Foothold, out."
"I recorded that broadcast yesterday from one of your... satellites. It is highly unlikely I was the only one to hear it." The Wraith pauses to let it set in, clearly gloating. "Someone may have already chanced upon the signal as well. He is a tempting prize to the Queens, as you are surely aware," The Wraith announces, knowing just how it sounds before adding sadistically, "I could, of course, turn him over to any of the Queens to buy their favor once more."
Sheppard looks to Ronon at his side. The colonel already knows what he wants, more than anything else. He wants to fight. To find McKay and save him. To kill. To crush the Wraith. To make them pay for what they have done, for all the lives they have cut short and for the world he knows without a shadow of a doubt that they have raped for all it is worth. He knows Ronon felt this way once. The warrior is grim and set. He casts a dark gaze in Sheppard's direction with a slow nod of approval.
The Wraith glances to his side, cocking his head to some noise only he can hear before what little color is in the creature's skin fades to a deathly pallor even for his kind. "The power source is failing. If you are coming, come now."
There is no hesitation, no question in Sheppard's mind. He moves without thought, without fear as the gate shuts down, instantly redialing the SGC. Sheppard bolts, throwing himself down the stairs. Dimly, in the distance, he can hear Woosley screaming after him, but the words make no sense. He hears only the beat of his own heart, the drumming of Ronon's heavy footsteps close behind him, and the crackle of the wormhole destabilizing. He doesn't know why he does it, but Sheppard hurls his body through the event horizon and into space, rocketing back to Earth. The wormhole collapses behind them, but Sheppard cannot hear it.
They land hard on the Earth side of the wormhole on a familiar, metal grating ramp. The event horizon instantly vanishes behind him with a glittering shimmer before darkness swallowed him. Ronon tumbles out beside him, already up and aiming into the dark. Sheppard scrambles to his feet, pulling his sidearm and training it into the darkness in sweeping motions, cursing himself for leaping without any prior thought. His impulsive nature has not been curtailed in the slightest over the last three years, and this act alone could cost him dearly. They have no weapons save their ever present side arms and their wits. No food. No survival gear. And, worst of all, no intel.
The Wraith is waiting, as it has been for some time now. "Good of you to join me."
Author's Notes : This story has kind of been eating my brains and life for the last month when I haven't been struggling to get out another chapter for Feast of the Samhain. I took a trip to Buffalo, NY, by car (from basically NYC) in late October and was truly taken by the beautiful and rugged desolation I saw on the eight hour drive. It was after the leaves changed, but it was still so absolutely gorgeous on the drive up. If you can bring yourself to go into the mountains after the leaves change, you might be pleasantly surprised by the beauty of it.
I hope you enjoy this the first chapter.