Listen to the Commander
As Guide turned the cup in his hand, careful not to spill a drop of water inside, the light reflected from his carefully lacquered talons, a dark green counterpoint against light gold. A simple wooden cup, carved from a single piece, the grain whorled in chocolate abandon against the burnt decoration of leaves, and he set it back on the table with a final click, recognising a displacement technique for mild irritation.
“Jennifer,” he began, deceptively calm, “you place yourself in too vulnerable a position. Please -” and he spread his hands, palm up in a show of politeness – “do not travel into the lower decks of the hive.”
Across from him, Jennifer Keller had a mulish expression on her face, though she accepted the cup as he eased it in her direction. “I’m perfectly safe, Guide.”
Exasperated, Guide huffed, and drummed his fingers on the table surface. “You are not, despite what you believe. Neither I nor Bonewhite were there to oversee -”
“That’s the trouble,” she said, and clenched her fingers around the cup as she took a sip. “You’re always there to oversee everything I do, and I want to understand more about your society, and the households each of you have...” Her mouth thinned, and she gave a little snort. “How can I when you or the Hive Master are prowling around with me.”
“Prowling?” Despite his promise to himself that he would be patient with the Fair One, and bear in mind the promise he’d made to Steelflower at all times, Guide’s temper grew noticeably more fragile. “Prowling,” he repeated, a dangerous edge in his voice.
Biting her lip, Jennifer ducked her head, and then stared him in the eye, bold, defiant. “Yes, you prowl. Like… like that damn cat of McKay’s, except you don’t trust me.”
Having run across Newton a couple of times while he’d been on Atlantis, Guide wasn’t entirely delighted by the comparison, and narrowed his eyes while he wrestled with exasperation. “Jennifer, my dear, it simply is not safe for you, because not all the crew are happy to have a human wandering around the halls freely.”
“They know I’m here,” she pointed out, “and they know why.” Placing the cup back on the table between them, she shuffled forward and leaned towards him, her face earnest. “You and Alabaster wanted me here, and I…” she dropped her head forward, silent. Guide tilted his head, and wondered what she might say? When she looked back up, her tone had altered. “It’s just… I need more than the work, Guide. And it isn’t as if there's anything I could do apart from explore.”
On his forearm her fingers rested in a plea, and he glanced down before covering them with his own. Shaking his head, Guide sighed, and considered. “Little one, I understand, but until the council has come to a decision about where you might be allowed to go, I have to ask you to remain in the laboratory, or on the habitation level where your quarters are located.”
She closed her eyes, and Guide could see the strain in her face, her lashes dark fringes against pale skin, as she fought her emotions. He could sense them running like liquid through her mind while she battled for composure. A large part of him held more than a small amount of sympathy, and understood all too well how difficult to adapt it must be. Aggravation fell away, in abeyance once more. Perhaps there was something he could offer, some way to help? “We need to arrange supplies, and will also be visiting a planet in our territory to take on Worshippers. I could take you with me to the village, if you wish?”
“More people for the trial?” she asked, hand quite still under his.
Jennifer gave the suggestion her attention, and nodded. “I think I would like that.”
Curling his fingers around hers, he gave her a thin smile. “Then you will also consider your safety, Jennifer? You are too big a temptation for some, and they would feed on you just to find out whether what they have heard is true.”
Extracting her hand, she hunched her shoulders and shivered a little. “Yeah, that would be bad. Sustained feeding isn’t likely to do me any good.”
“No,” he agreed, and rested his palms on his thighs. “We will make planet fall shortly, but before then, you should rest.” He cocked his head to the side in contemplation, and came to a decision. “There is an area that you might find interesting. Will you allow me to escort you there, and then to your rooms?”
“What is it?” A confused expression flashed over her face.
All sign of irritation fled, and Guide chuckled at her obvious discomfort. Rising to his feet, he offered her his arm, and smiled at her when she reluctantly took it. “I believe you will like this, and -” he patted her fingers, his enjoyment of the moment increasing – “also find it an addition worthy of note for your social studies.”
“I don’t mean to make it sound as if I’m treating this like a big experiment,” she muttered, a rose flush creeping the length of her neck and into her cheeks. Eyes downcast she avoided his gaze, but when he snorted, she glanced up, and offered a weak smile. “Okay, I know, it really is a huge experiment.”
“Without a doubt,” he purred, and opened the door. “On both sides.” They walked in companionable silence a short way, and then Guide added, “Let us hope it will be one we can both learn from, hmm?”
“Do you think so?” There was doubt in her voice, and she followed the lines of the corridor, scanning the smooth walls, the darker recesses as they went. “It involves so much change on both sides, that I wonder if we will ever come to an agreement.”
Thoughtful, Guide mulled the change that needed to take place, recognising in himself a wish for something better for his people, but accepting humans as equals, that might be the one thing to prevent the peace he and others hoped for. For too long Wraith and human had been enemies, denied their relationship to each other in order for one species to survive. Yes, they were people, and the lovely young thing holding his arm could only be regarded as a woman. True, she was no Wraith Queen, but there was no doubt in his mind that Jennifer Keller, notwithstanding how humans reckoned such, was a queen in her own way, and he honoured her for that. Bravery, and spirit beyond mere bravado defined this young woman. Few humans would have dared this, to be so far from friends and all one holds dear.
Bending his head to her, he said, “If there are more on both sides to follow your example, then such a worthy ambition might yet be achievable.”
The colour in her cheeks increased, and she ducked her head again. “Umm…”
“You think I flatter you?”
Pointedly, she did not lift her head to return his gaze. “Don’t you?”
“Come now, Jennifer,” he admonished, gently teasing, “surely you know me somewhat better than that?”
“Sometimes,” she admitted. A smile curved the corner of her lips. “Though I think very few are allowed to truly know who you are.”
The comment deserved no reply, and Guide ignored it. “Ah, we are here.”
They came to a halt before an opening which held a narrow set of steps that curled upwards into the rear apartments of the hive. Jennifer peered up the dark recess as they began the climb, holding the rail with her free hand, reluctant to let go of Guide’s arm. He could see her interest was piqued, and allowed himself a small triumph. If she could be persuaded to spend time here instead of wandering, then he would consider it a worthwhile diversion from the duties the hive demanded.
Blue-white light filtered down the stairwell, illuminating the treads. Dusted with silver, Jennifer’s fair hair gleamed when she looked up at him, a halo around the soft outline of her face. She seemed almost ethereal as they climbed, a creature of long lost myth wreathed in shadows from the past.
“What’s up here?” she asked, her eyes dark, round with wonder. She placed her free hand on the wall, and ran her fingertips along it. “There’s writing... and… other things.”
“Yes,” Guide agreed, and stopped long enough for her to examine the symbols, and other shapes unfolding beneath her fingers. “We do not live without beauty, Jennifer.”
“I never thought you did, Guide.”
He shot her a quick look, and gave a sombre nod. “No, perhaps you did not, my dear. I do not doubt though, that among your people there were, and are, those who do not believe we are capable of more than killing.”
Falling silent, Jennifer carried on upwards, occasionally holding them back when her hand encountered a new, strange object. Ghostly outlines appeared as they went higher, lit by the gleam coming from ahead, until they finally stepped out into a room dominated by a vast window set high in the hull of the hive. Through it, flickering streams of purple, blue and white sped past as they moved through hyperspace to their next destination, dancing shadows that brought the surroundings into stark relief. Dark-leaved plants, rich crimson and deep purple laced with silver veins, stretched their tendrils upwards, climbing the surface of walls inlaid with idealised depictions of Iratus and inscriptions, each an enamelled jewel, with bright flashes of copper or silver, in counterpoint to velvet darkness.
Overhead, leaves formed a canopy, and along the stems tiny white flowers, or palest green, unfurled miniature petals to reveal a froth of golden stamens. Smaller plants scattered amongst the taller and, foliage dark as a fir tree, draped languid fronds across yet others, a riot of blues and lavenders splashed on daisy-like faces that turned towards the shifting light. All about the fragrance of moist, rich earth, and a gentle mist swept across the floor, piquant with the scent of cinnamon. Here and there, small creatures stirred, a buzzing insect with diaphanous wings of opalescent perfection, a scarlet lizard; its golden eyes unblinking as it followed its visitors movements from a trunk.
Jennifer's hand dropped to her side, and she turned slowly, painted in the colours of hyperspace. “Why have we never seen these places before, Guide?”
“They are not so common as they were once.” Regret coloured his voice, and she frowned, waiting for a reason. “We have been at war with each other, my dear, and before that, we hibernated until you woke us.”
“It's so beautiful,” she said, and lifted her hand, palm up, to let a brilliant gem of a small insect alight on her fingers. She watched, rapt, as it unfurled a long proboscis, and tasted her skin before taking flight again. “Why do you have it?”
A smile lifted his mouth. “My clevermen have been diligent in acquiring what they thought would please their Queen.”
“Teyla?” she guessed, and bent to take in the fragrance of a bloom.
“Indeed.” Reaching out, he plucked a small blossom, and twirled it by the stem. “Now, they have Alabaster, and Waterlight to court with all their youth, their vigour and beauty.” Sadness surged through him as he remembered Snow, and he closed his eyes to lock away the hollow pain of grief. A soft touch on his arm came a second later, but he could not meet the sympathy he knew would be there in her regard. “And it is rightly so, little one.” Turning her hand, he pressed the flower into her palm, closed her fingers around it. “There is a time for all things.”
“'A time to every purpose...'” she murmured, and stroked the petals of the flower.
“Yes,” Guide agreed, and considered her again, this pale human woman with dark eyes, her sweet smile. “As I've already said in answer to your question, Wraith appreciate beauty, and strive to emulate it. Humans are not alone in their desire to create.”
“It's just... well, so unexpected on a warship. No one has seen this before, unless Teyla knew?” When he shook his head, Jennifer shrugged. “You didn't bother to share it with her?”
“There was little point, and little time, Jennifer, and warships, as you think of them, are our homes, and to give something of beauty to our Queen is what most men strive for.” Guide breathed in deeply of the humid air, allowing the sweet scents to fill his sensory pits and roll against his tongue. In this place, reminiscences came too easily, and there were so few he desired to recall. Perhaps it was past time to make new memories, to live for an uncertain, dangerous future?
“They need you still,” Jennifer said, and walked a little way into the arboretum. “You have a purpose. I need you to help me understand.”
“Perhaps,” he said, and joined her to gaze up through the portal, “we can help each other understand?”
“I hope so.”
“Provided you do not wander the halls alone, I think we shall manage to find a purpose together. One for both Wraith and Kine.” As he spoke, he turned a sharp smile on her, and received a shy curve of the mouth in answer. He waved his hand at their surroundings. “Will this suffice to give you somewhere other to go if Bonewhite, Alabaster or I cannot be spared?”
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said, and lifted the bloom in her hand to sniff appreciatively at it. A stain coloured her cheeks for a moment, and she added, as if she realised how ungrateful she sounded, and how prim. “Thank you. It is lovely here.”
“I will also assign a young cleverman to you, Sprint, who I trust you will allow to escort you?”
This time she gave a nod, and sighed. “Oh Guide, I hope we can find a way for both our peoples.”
“As do I,” he said, and bending, took her fingers to his lips to kiss their tips.