Qui Habitat: Three

by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte

"Sergeant Byrd, how did you make it past Lance Corporal?" Cam asked plaintively as he watched the young man try to extricate himself from the grasp of a thorny bush he'd attempted to walk through. Cam turned to Jonas, who was standing next to Becanek and Horton, all three watching with thinly-veiled amusement. "This is why the SGC used airmen instead of marines."

Becanek and Horton both bridled a little, but it was hard to look properly offended when their compatriot was currently shredding his uniform trying to get free.

"Oh, come on," Cam told them with a sigh. He was becoming very fond of his marines, something that had been a surprise to him, but it was the sort of fondness that went with owning very stupid, very happy puppies. You dreamed that they'd get some smarts once they grew out of their awkward phase, but you didn't hold out too much hope. "Let's get him out of there."

Byrd didn't have the gene -- they'd tested him three times, apparently -- but he could find technology on a planet like iron to a lodestone. ("Got good hearing, sir," he'd told Cam after the first time they'd followed him three kilometers over rough ground to find an undocumented site.) The problem was that once Byrd was on the trail, he was prone to ignoring every particular but directness to get to his quarry. Jonas has called it "path independence", but Cam had a whole long list of less oblique terms for Byrd's willingness to take the most uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous routes to get where he wanted them to go. They were not crows, they did not fly, and Byrd's Kentucky-fried argot didn't make it any less baffling that he could so conveniently forget that.

"Nice navigating, Coondog," Becanek told Byrd as he pulled out his ka-bar. Byrd had gotten himself pretty tangled up and had to go limp before Cam and Becanek could cut him loose.

"Right." Cam looked around. Thankfully, the village on this planet was a fair distance from the stargate and nobody had seen them. "Now, can we get to where we're going without any more detours into briar patches?"

They didn't visit any more briar patches, but they did detour on the way to the village to satisfy Byrd's insistence that "something's here, sir" and, of course, there was something. What the something was, however, was not readily known by either Horton or Jonas, both of whom circled around the device -- which looked like the unhappy progeny of a crock-pot and a tree stump -- and made notes and observations to each other that might as well have been in Swahili for all that Cam could understand them.

The cluelessness was a little comforting in its familiarity; he'd spent more than two years listening to Sam or Daniel (or, on occasion, both) prattle on like a Pentecostal when they'd found something shiny. But it also left Cam feeling a little left out. He'd re-formed SG-1 knowing that he was the rookie, the new guy to a team that had been together through hell and beyond for almost a decade and had the matching scars to prove it. But by the time they'd split up for a mission that they hadn't realized would be their last as members of SG-1, Cam had known that they'd accepted him -- not as the warm body filling in for Jack O'Neill, but on his own terms. He'd been an equal. Here, he could never be an equal and the lack of camaraderie was bothering him more than he'd thought it would when he'd agreed to take a marine fire team.

By virtue of not being an officer, Jonas already had a better chance to get something from the marines beyond the usual five replies ("yes, sir", "no, sir", "aye aye, sir", "I'll find out, sir", and "can we shoot it, sir?"). But then he could also talk technology with Horton and had a shared experience with Becanek (who, despite the Czech-looking last name, was Kosovar) and that left Cam with Byrd as 'his' marine and... yeah. Needing a leash.

Cam supposed he could talk to Lorne, see how he handled an identical situation, but he didn't want to say anything to anyone that might sound like whining. There was so much they had to do without, so much loss of both life and livelihood, so many changes in the last months and he really couldn't complain that he actually had to go back to acting like a commander and not a compadre.

"Well?" Cam asked after Horton and Jonas had slowed down a little. "Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

Jonas looked up at him from where he was crouching at the base of the whateveritwas. "Mineral," he replied with an almost perfect straight face. "But what it's supposed to do... It's producing an awful lot of energy, but without taking it apart, I'm not sure we'll be able to figure out either to what purpose or how it's being powered."

"Think there'll be something in the Ancient database?" Cam guessed not, but the question had to be asked. He had a new understanding for why Daniel had liked the Ancients so much -- they, too, said an awful lot without saying anything useful.

"It's not Ancient, sir," Horton said, standing up. He looked as perplexed as Cam felt.

"What do you mean it's not Ancient?" Cam walked over to where Jonas was still poking around and squatted next to him. Not that he could tell genuine from artificial Ancient -- the differences between diamonds and cubic zirconium threw him, too -- but what other options did they have? "Is it Wraith?"

Jonas shook his head. "I don't think so," he replied. "I haven't spent a whole lot of time with the Wraith devices, but this doesn't look like one of theirs."

"What does it look like, then?" Cam stood up because his knees were starting to protest. The closer he got to forty, the more he regretted high school football. He wondered sometimes if he was the last generation that would have such concerns, if the Ori would let them play sports at all -- according to Vala, there hadn't been a whole lot of frivolity on the Ori worlds. Took them away from their prostrations and devotions.

Jonas made a face. "Honestly? It looks like Ori technology."

Cam coughed in surprise. Behind him, Becanek and Byrd shifted nervously. "Ori as in we'd better double-time it back to the gate to warn of a foothold or...." he trailed off as Jonas shook his head.

"It doesn't look like any of the Ori tech we encountered once they came to our galaxy," Jonas answered slowly. He'd been the acknowledged master of Ori tech even before they'd started losing scientists by the handful. "But it definitely has an Ori feel to it in terms of design and functionality."

"I thought you said that you didn't know what it did," Cam pointed out, trying to ignore the cold lump of dread in his stomach.

"I don't," Jonas agreed, gesturing to where they'd taken off part of the cover. "But the way the parts are designed, the way they move together -- it's like a prototype of an Ori design. Remember, the Ori started out in this galaxy -- it's completely possible that this dates back to then."

"Ancient and Ori technology aren't completely different, sir," Horton offered. "They used to be the same people and it shows in their design theory."

Cam pointed at the thing. "Does this look like it's twelve thousand years old -- or however old it could be? The Ori and the Ancients split up a long time ago."

They were all versed in the limited amount of knowledge that they had about the joint history of the Ancients and Ori; most of it came from the Ori, which meant that they had to take it with heaping chunks of salt, but some of it had been corroborated by Ancient sources. Not much had come from the database, unsurprisingly.

"Yes, sir," Horton said with a nod. "We can't do anything too thorough without shutting it down and disassembling it, but the parts are showing signs of wear. Considering what some of the devices in Atlantis look like, the ones that were running the entire time the Ancients were away, I'd say that this could be that old."

That was a little bit of a relief, but not enough to put his mind at ease. Nevertheless, he nodded. "Okay, so take all the pictures you want, figure out what you can, and then we try to find someone who can explain to us what this is. And when we get home, we can ask why neither Colonel Sheppard nor Major Lorne seemed to have found any other Ori tech in this galaxy."

That was the real source of his unnerve: the timing. He'd have had no trouble reading about one of the Atlantis teams finding old Ori tech -- back when he'd been sitting in the conference room outside Landry's office, reading over reports with SG-1 while waiting for a meeting to start. Jonas wasn't wrong; the Ori had once been Ancients, too, and they'd frolicked around Pegasus before the big schism had them flouncing off to wherever they'd flounced off to. But Sheppard and McKay had spent three years tracking down any advanced technology they could get their hands on and McKay would never have passed over something like this just because it didn't look classically Ancient.

They were back underway in about twenty minutes, both Horton and Jonas taking a couple dozen photos each and then Becanek re-orienting them because they'd all gotten turned around chasing after Byrd.

The village, when they got to it, looked like it fell into the category Sheppard had warned him about before they'd been turned loose for their first mission. ("There are two sorts of planets in this galaxy," Sheppard had said, "those who live in fear of the Wraith and those who live in spite of the Wraith. Most of them are the former, so you should always be a little worried when you come across the latter. They tend to have nasty surprises.") It was clean and bright and had cottages with whitewashed stone walls and pretty flowerbeds and well-fed and -groomed citizens and, in pretty much every respect, looked like the kind of village that SG-1 always wandered into with disappointment because the likelihood of anything interesting going on was probably nil.

But this was Pegasus and the kind of prosperity that came with plump locals was either unbelievable good luck (the Wraith didn't know their address) or some sort of deal with the damned. And so Cam slapped on his best Sunday Church smile when they were greeted by the community leader, Consolis, and explained that they were there in hopes of maybe establishing trade relations with this prosperous place.

Consolis was pleased -- maintaining trade was very hard with the Wraith so active -- and invited them to break bread at his table. It was here that Cam could maybe appreciate better that his new team wasn't a downgrade. Having to sit through a meal before conducting business had often been a necessary evil with SG-1 -- and viewed as such. Cam had always liked eating on other planets -- well, most of the time. But both Sam and Daniel, tired of so many such meals, would have been perfectly happy to skip the food (and the pleasantries) entirely and just get down to the business that had brought them to wherever they were and Teal'c... not to speak ill of the dead, but Teal'c had made people nervous whether they'd known of the Jaffa or not. He'd never been intentionally rude, far from it, but his formality (along with his size and strength and stillness) tended to freak the hell out the average simple villager.

Cam's current team, however, looked positively thrilled at the prospect of food. Any food. You'd think they were running short of chow back in Atlantis or something. (They weren't and Cam knew that Becanek had probably a pound of dried fruit in his gear. The guy was barely big enough to be a marine and ate more than the other two combined.)

The marines were always polite at table -- except when they were among themselves -- and Jonas could easily break the ice with eager questions about local produce, so Cam was able to listen and eat, considering what he heard as he chewed. The food was good -- there was meat and it wasn't near-deer, plus various spicy dishes --and Cam wasn't lying when he complimented the chef, Consolis's wife Daran.

Jonas quizzed the couple about local crops, what they traded for and what they might be willing to trade and Cam asked the occasional follow-up, but he mostly left the discussion in Jonas's hands since he could do the whole 'innocent question' thing better. (Mostly because Jonas was genuinely curious; his delight in learning new things was apparent to anyone who looked.) Some cultures considered discussing business over meals to be a great faux-pas and Cam always figured it was better to err on the side of caution there.

Consolis didn't seem to mind, though, and as the main meal disappeared and fruits and cheeses were brought out, talk turned to commerce.

The Gauhani had a pretty impressive array of local crops -- they had been practicing crop rotation for generations and had no temperature extremes -- and what sounded like cows and pigs, although they called them different things. Cam took a deep breath before beginning the bound-to-make-the-marines-giggle discussion of animal husbandry; Atlantis was building its own herds (off-world, although cows in the back of puddle jumpers to the mainland was always an entertaining thought), but it was slow going and everyone was sick of near-deer and tofu burgers while they waited.

Cam tried really hard not to think about how he'd worked so hard to fly jets, go into space, and travel across galaxies.... to find himself setting up hot dates for some cows.

Eventually -- thankfully -- they got away from bovine mating practices and on to happier news. Like the Wraith.

"We have not been plagued by the Wraith for three generations," Consolis told them. "The Ancestors have blessed us and we remember our gratitude daily."

Cam and Jonas exchanged looks. Three generations -- again with the odd timing. Why three? Either it should have been something from back when the Ancients were running around or something far more recent if it were the Ori being sneaky.

"Did something happen back then?" Cam asked carefully. "Way we learned it, the Wraith were kind of constant until a few years ago."

"So it has been our experience with other worlds," Daran said as she refilled their glasses; they'd been drinking some sort of wine cut with water. "They are most persistent now; without the gift of the Ancestors, we would have been destroyed many times over."

Cam coughed; some of the watered wine had gone down the wrong pipe. "The Wraith come here?" he gasped out once he could breathe.

"Indeed," Consolis agreed, looking more chagrined than smug. "The shield of the Ancestors protects us, but it seems the Wraith don't remember from one visit to the next."

The Wraith had stopped talking to each other; they wouldn't either warn each other or band together to try to take it out.

"You have a shield that protects you from the Wraith." Jonas didn't make it a question. "Yet we had no trouble coming here from the stargate. How is that possible?"

"It only repels the Wraith," Daran said, sitting down next to her husband. "We have not yet learned the 'how' of it all yet. After only three generations, we have only barely mastered the 'what'."

Cam wasn't sure if he felt elated or terrified. Part of him wanted to run home and get McKay out here so that he and his geek squad could reverse engineer this shield so that they could protect the galaxy from the Wraith and starve them into submission. The rest of him, however, was waiting for the other shoe to fall. Sheppard hadn't been wrong: there were always nasty surprises.

"What is the 'what'?" Jonas asked, leaning forward. "May we even ask? We don't want to ask questions that you're not comfortable answering to strangers."

Yes they did, but they also knew their manners.

Consolis gave them a grim smile. "Our gift came with the obligation to teach what we have learned about it," he replied. Cam tried not to think about how that was pretty much Ori Belief 101. "But, as Daran has said, what we have learned is not very much and to speak only of its benefits without being able to share them is merely bragging of the worst sort."

"Would you tell us anyway, please?" Jonas asked, earnestness shining like a beacon. "I believe we may be able to help you learn more about the shield in return."

It was Daran and Consolis's turn to exchange looks. Consolis spoke first.

"It allows rain, but not the fire from the Wraith's flying ships," he said. "It allows man and insect to pass through, but not the Wraith soldiers who come to kill us. It is our salvation, but even as we are charged to understand its workings, we dare not investigate it too thoroughly lest our curiosity outstrip our knowledge and we take it apart in such a fashion that we cannot put it back together."

Jonas sat up a little. "That's a very sophisticated shield," he said.

"Because it can tell the difference between a man and a Wraith?" Cam asked. That didn't seem too different from everything in Atlantis that required the Ancient gene. Which didn't make it unsophisticated, but still.

"Because it can tell the difference between a wagon and a raindrop, sir," Horton said, perhaps the first time the marines had said anything that hadn't been related to their meal. "It's got to be at least two-tiered. It sounds like maybe the sides are one kind of shield and the top is another. We'd have to run tests to see what sort of thresholds it has in terms of object size and composition to know for sure, of course, but if it was all the same shield? Then it's something we've never even come close to seeing before."

Daran and Consolis watched Horton and Jonas with surprised, eager eyes. Horton and Jonas, in turn, looked ready to set up camp and study the thing for a couple of weeks.

Cam cleared his throat. Before he could let any of this progress too far, he had to find out what the catch was -- a friendly people with good food, a trade surplus, and a nifty shield that could singlehandedly save entire worlds from the Wraith was a little more good luck than he thought he'd earned. "You said something had happened three generations ago to get you on the road to peace and prosperity," he began. "Do you mind telling us what that was? 'Cause peace and prosperity are certainly traits we'd love to emulate."

Daran smiled. "The Ancestors came to us," she replied and Cam fought his instinctive reaction -- which was to maybe hurl. He'd seen that kind of beatific look before. Once upon a time, it used to remind him of Aunt Emma's neighbor Hortense, a woman who'd claimed she'd seen Jesus reflected in her garage window. Now, however, it made him think of only one thing.

"The Ancestors came to you," Cam repeated slowly. "Glowy light people? A little flighty and not too much with the straight talking?"

Consolis shook his head. "No, no. He was most certainly ethereal, but he was very real and he spoke openly -- if not plainly."

"You saw him?" Jonas didn't sputter, but Cam was maybe a little pleased that this was throwing him, too. It would make it easier to advise caution once they got back to Atlantis.

"I was but a small child," Consolis admitted, gesturing to his white hair. Consolis and Daran were old by Earth standards, let alone Pegasus ones. "But I remember him. He showed my father how to activate the shield and said that we needed safety in order to grow and growth in order to flourish."

"And when we have come into our own," Daran finished, "The Ancestors would return to us."

"Not that you would join the Ancestors?" Cam asked. "Could you have misheard?"

This wasn't too far off from previous visits by Ancients -- a little help, a vague hint, and an even vaguer promise of Ascension if you could hack it. Teaching them how to activate the shield instead of activating it themselves would get around the whole 'direct involvement' bit, then setting up something that was essentially like the sanctuary Sheppard had found himself in the other year. Except not really, since that was cut off from the world. But, hey, variety is the spice of life and maybe the Gauhani had met up with one of the rebel Ancients -- another Oma -- or one of the Ancients who hadn't quite given up their worldly concerns, like Daniel or like Sheppard's Chaya.

Consolis shook his head and Cam belatedly realized that he'd been rude for questioning Consolis's truthfulness.

"The Ancestor's words were written down by those who heard them," Consolis said, apparently unoffended. "When we have learned enough to understand how ignorant we truly are, then we shall be ready to receive the teachings of the Ancestors. Through them we shall achieve enlightenment, for that is the only true path."

Boys and girls, we have a winner.

"The man didn't happen to leave you a book, did he?" Jonas asked and Cam grimaced. "A text you were supposed to learn from?"

"He did," Consolis confirmed, "but it is written in a language that none of us have ever seen before. We have chosen to believe that when we have the knowledge to read from that book, then the Ancestors will come back to us."

Cam looked over at Jonas. That was a little weird. The Book of Origin had thus far managed to get translated into every local language on every world they'd gotten to. It wasn't the Ori way to play hard-to-get.

"Maybe it's not that book?" Jonas asked him, apparently thinking the same thing.

"Would it be possible for us to see this book?" Cam asked Consolis. "Mister Quinn here has spent time learning the language of the Ancestors and maybe he can tell you what it says."

Daran looked wary.

"I understand that this is a task you have to work toward," Jonas said quickly, holding up his hands as if to placate -- or surrender, "but I promise you, this wouldn't be a shortcut. The Ancestors approve of knowledge, however acquired."

Which wasn't precisely true -- neither the Ori nor the Ancients were too happy with anyone figuring out any truth that didn't make them look like winners. But Cam figured that if it was Ori stuff, then they'd be doing the Gauhani a favor.

"Why don't we stick to the shield for now," Cam suggested when neither Consolis nor Daran looked any less hesitant. "This is an awful lot for a first meeting and we don't want to be overstaying out welcome. You've given us the finest meal we've had in a long while and it's rude to repay such generosity with too many questions."

Both of their hosts looked visibly relieved. "Please excuse us," Consolis said. "We are perhaps a little... stunned to encounter a people who might understand our shield and who speak the language of the Ancestors. We do not mean to appear unwilling pupils, but you have made offers that must be brought before our people. I may guide our community along our path, but I cannot lead where they will not follow."

"We understand," Jonas assured. Cam wasn't so sure -- and judging from the pole-axed looks on the marines' faces, they weren't, either.

They had pretty much finished eating and Consolis took them on a tour of the village. The locals seemed curious but not afraid, peering out of windows and doorways. It was mid-afternoon here and, Consolis explained, the able-bodied were at work and the children were still in school. The marines mostly looked around, although Becanek asked a few questions about the windmill in the distance and the whether the Gauhani kept their buildings to two stories out of choice or necessity.

Cam was half-listening to Consolis explain the peculiarities of Gauhani civil engineering when they turned the corner and he stepped on Jonas's heels because Jonas was standing struck-stupid right there.

"What's got--" Cam cut himself off. "Oh."

He turned to Consolis, who was looking proudly in the same direction as where Jonas was staring. "Let me guess," he said. "Your house of worship?"

The symbols were engraved and worn with age, but Cam knew fire signs when he saw them.

"Our place of prostration, yes," Consolis confirmed. "Do you recognize it as similar to your own?"

Cam wished he didn't hear the eager hope in Consolis's voice.

"Not exactly," he replied. In front of him, Jonas hadn't moved. "It's a little more complicated than that."

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16 March, 2007