A/N: As always, many thanks to my betas, Saclateri, Laryn and Jacqueline. They provided much needed encouragement, and offered some interesting insight into this story.
The title of the story is taken from the song by Sugarland.
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When I first came to Atlantis I didn't think I would stay any longer than it took me to heal and get back on my feet. With the tracker removed I thought it might be safe for me to finally return to Sateda, to see what remained and to help rebuild. And then I was shown the pictures of the destroyed city.
So there was nothing for me to go back to; none of my people to seek out and rejoin. When Sheppard offered me a place here it took me awhile to decide what I wanted. More than ever I wanted to kill Wraith, but would joining the people living in Atlantis be the best way to do that?
I have lived here in Atlantis for almost a half-year now. From the beginning Dr. Beckett and Dr. Heightmeyer have asked me to write about my time as a runner, both of them asking for as many details as I could remember. I have put off doing it. That is the past, and I have lived in the present for a long time.
I know why Beckett wants this. He is still curious about why the Wraith didn't feed on me and thinks that I might help uncover the reason if I write about my experiences. I'm still not so sure why Heightmeyer wants this information.
I've mentioned the request to different people. McKay says she is a 'nosy parker' – whatever that is – and suggested that he or Sheppard should look at what I write before I turn it over to the psychologist. Sheppard just shrugged and said I didn't have to do it if I didn't want to, but that if I did I should be careful about how I expressed my feelings. Teyla and Dr. Weir both said that 'Kate' just wanted to help me. They said that by writing down my experiences and my feelings about them, it will help me 'resolve my issues.'
These people – the ones from Earth – constantly amaze me. They are so soft; worried about peoples feelings, afraid of offending – even their enemies. I am still surprised that they were able to fight off the Wraith attack on Atlantis.
But I have found that, for many, their soft ways hide a steel core. Sheppard, for all his apparent laziness, is a warrior at heart. McKay is worth keeping around for his intelligence, despite his irritating ways. Dr. Weir, Teyla, Dr. Beckett – everyone here has shown me something that makes me believe it might be possible to defeat the Wraith.
That is why I stayed in the city of the Ancestors after being shown the final proof of the death of Sateda. And that is why I will write about my time running.
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When I woke on the Wraith ship I knew I was dead. I looked at the others in the cocoons around me and knew that we were all dead, even though we still breathed. I was ready to die, but I was not going to make it easy for the damned Wraith.
I had spent my whole life learning to fear and hate them, and then training to fight them. My earliest lessons were about the history of Sateda and the Wraiths place in it. When I reached my thirteenth summer I left home to attend the academy and started my martial training in earnest. I enjoyed it, excelled at it. Others found it restrictive, but I found a freedom in the discipline and the camaraderie. I was happy.
I graduated at eighteen and immediately entered the regular military, despite my parents' protests. They had hoped I would outgrow my fascination with the military, that's why they had allowed me to attend the academy. I had tried on many occasions to explain my dedication, but they never understood. The family of Dex had been traders for generations, traveling to other worlds, negotiating deals. They took delight in a hard fought and won bargaining session, and I did not.
I had done well with the preliminary training at the academy, and earned my Specialist rank in hand-to-hand combat within a year of enlisting.
Despite all the training, all the preparation, no one expected another full culling for fifty or sixty years. And even then the government was constantly reporting on improvements in technology that would allow us to defeat the Wraith when they returned. There were new, long-range weapons. There was even talk of flying craft that could meet the Wraith ships, and battle them, in the skies.
There were minor raids by single, small Wraith craft – what the Atlantians call 'darts' – that we were able to easily bring down. We began to think we could triumph over the Wraith. And then the cruisers appeared in the skies above Sateda.
The battle seemed to go on for days, although I am sure it was only hours. When it became obvious that this was not an ordinary culling we tried to round up as many survivors as possible. But we couldn't reach the Ring of the Ancestors without being strafed by the darts; the culling beams swept up everyone who tried.
Finally, Kell, my taskmaster, formulated a plan to draw the enemy away from the Ring. The diversion had very little chance of working, but it was our last chance for survival. He would lead a team of fighters to cover the retreat of any civilians we could find, while the other teams lured the Wraith away from the Ring. If he were able to reach the Ring, he would try to hold the position while the rest of us retreated to it.
We didn't see him and his team reach their goal, we were too busy running and fighting. So much of our city was in ruins there were plenty of places to hide. There were underground shelters located to the west of the city. The last we had heard no one had made it to them, not even from the outlying farming communities, but if survivors were inside them we didn't want to risk leading the Wraith there. Finally, our communications specialist announced that Kell was reporting success and we started our retreat.
Half of my team was lost in the short time it took to reach the hill overlooking the Ring.
I gained it in time to see Kell and his men disappearing into the rippling blue light. A moment later the Ring shut down. And the Wraith closed in on us.
I don't know how long we hung in those cocoons. I could move my head if I worked at it hard enough, but I never saw any sign that the others were conscious. I think I may have slept once. But I was never hungry or thirsty; in fact, below my neck, I could not feel the rest of my body.
From my cocoon there was not much to see. There were people to either side of me, as far as I could see. When I looked up, it was the same. I was in a food storage area. There was a dry, musty odor that permeated everything. The walls I could see did not appear to be metal. They were smooth and rounded, no hard angles, and appeared almost moist. After staring at them for hours I became convinced that they were moving, almost as if they were breathing, and worried that I was going insane.
I didn't want to think of Sateda and all that was lost, afraid that it would weaken me. Instead I found it fueled my anger and helped me focus. I split my time in the cocoon trying to think of a way to escape and, once I had escaped, how to track down Kell.
After hours, or days, the wall in front of me split open and a high-caste Wraith strode in, followed by two drones. He came directly to my cocoon and leaned close, until his face was almost touching mine. He seemed to be sniffing me. I let all of my rage, all of my hatred show on my face, and I thrust my head as far forward as the cocoon would allow. A spark of fear tried to work its way in but I shoved it aside, refusing to allow it any part in my dealings with this monster.
He eventually stepped back. A small smile distorted his face as he drew his arm back. When his feeding hand slammed into my chest pain bloomed and spread through my entire body.
My voice was gone, or I would have yelled in rage. I could feel my life starting to drain away. I fought against the feeding. Dr. Beckett has asked me many times what exactly I did, but I don't know. I know I was angry, enraged, thinking that I didn't want to die this way – helpless, taking no Wraith with me. I remember locking gazes with the Wraith and refusing to look away, pouring all of my angry resolve into an unblinking glare.
And suddenly he stopped feeding. A startled expression appeared on his face; sometimes I like to think there was a touch of fear. His hand left my chest, and he gestured to the drones. The masked-face freaks reset my cocoon, and they all retreated.
I was left to my thoughts again. What had happened? Why was I still alive? I had never heard of anyone surviving a Wraith feeding, never heard of a Wraith backing away from a meal.
I wasn't left alone for long. The Wraith returned, strode straight to my cocoon and stabbed a needle into my neck. I had thought I was numb before, but now I couldn't even hold my head up. The drones ripped my cocoon open and caught my paralyzed body as it fell forward. They grabbed me by the arms and dragged me from the storeroom.
Unable to hold up my head, I looked at the deck as I was pulled through the ship. I had thought it was one of the cruisers that had come to Sateda, but as the journey took longer and longer I realized I was in one of the great hive ships. We passed dozens of other Wraith in the corridors. The drones made several turns, and we went down at least four levels before arriving at our destination.
They hauled me up until I was nearly standing. We were in a small room, empty except for a table in the middle. Several of the higher-caste males were there, including the Wraith who had tried to feed on me. I made an effort and managed to send a sneering smile in his direction. If I could have managed it I would have spit at him, at them all. But though the numbness was starting to wear off, I couldn't have stood on my own and I still had to concentrate just to keep my head up.
I heard ripping noises as my coat and shirt were removed. The next second I was face down on that table, my arms hanging off the sides and my eyes level with a row of instruments fastened to the edge. Horror surged up and I had to beat it back. I closed my eyes in case it was reflected in them. I wouldn't give the Wraith the satisfaction of knowing they had succeeded in making me fear.
The Wraith were moving around me, not talking. The frustration of not being able to move, to look around, added to my anger and helped to fuel my defiance. Then a long, claw-tipped hand appeared in my line of sight and plucked one of the instruments from its holder.
Pain, bright and hot, flared between my shoulder blades. And then it grew. A scream emerged as a strangled gargle in my numbed throat.
The Wraith made a hissing noise that sounded pleased. I tightened my jaw and vowed to never again react to anything they did to me. They would see my contempt and defiance, but I would not give them the satisfaction of knowing they had caused me pain.
I endured their torture silently until I passed out. When I woke I was being dragged through the ship again. I thought that I would be stuffed back in a cocoon, but I was not taken to the storeroom.
The drones pulled my limp body into a large, noisy chamber and dumped me at the end of a platform. I recognized the whine of darts. I lifted my head and realized that they had left me in one of the hive ship's landing bays, an immense cavern with dozens of darts flying about. I tried to gain my feet, but before I made it to my knees a dart started toward me. I watched it approach, unable to move away, and saw the culling beam flare out.
The next time I woke I was in the middle of a field of tall grass.
My whole body ached, but the most pain was between my shoulder blades. I tried, but couldn't reach the area the Wraith had been cutting at. I had no idea what they had done to me, or why. Why had they left me here? I had never heard of the Wraith acting in this way. It confused me and made me very wary.
There was a pile of clothing nearby, Wraith clothing; it even smelled like them. And in the middle of the pile was a small bowl filled with what looked like water. I suddenly realized how thirsty I was and had to fight not to pick up the bowl and drink. Before I could change my mind I grabbed the bowl and dumped the liquid on the ground. The ground felt moist, the grass and nearby trees looked healthy. I would be able to find other water.
I picked up the clothes, stuffing the bowl in a pocket, and got to my feet. I staggered and nearly fell as a wave of weakness rolled over me. Growling in frustration, I remained in a crouched position, waiting for it to pass. After a minute I tried again, standing slowly and then starting to walk toward the tree line, the clothes clutched in my arms. The sun, a single orange globe, was nearing the horizon. I wanted to find some kind of shelter before it got too dark.
Just as I was thinking I was going to have to settle for leaning against a tree for the night, I found a shallow cave. It was just big enough for me to curl up in and there didn't appear to be any animals waiting in it to eat me. I spent the time until full dark going over every inch of the clothing, both my own and what the Wraith had left with me. I was looking for something that would explain why they had left me here; why I was still alive.
There was nothing. Except for the bowl, they hadn't left me anything in the way of tools. No weapons, not even a knife. Thinking they might want to use me to find other food sources – I knew nearly a hundred addresses from traveling with my family – I even looked for some sort of tracking device, but I found nothing
I finally gave up, pulled on the clothes and curled up in the shelter, ignoring my thirst and hunger. I would look for water first thing in the morning and then find something to eat.
As it turned out I didn't have to wait for morning for something to drink. Sometime before dawn it started to rain. I became aware of it when it started collecting on the floor of my little cave and I woke up sitting in a growing puddle. I pushed the bowl out into the rain and waited for it to fill up. I let it fill and dumped the contents three times before daring to drink from it. I drank water until I started to feel nauseous. Afterward I huddled in the wet, smelly Wraith coat and waited for the sun to rise.
When it was light I left my shelter and went exploring. The sun hadn't risen very far when I found a small, slow moving river. The water was frigid, but I didn't care; I wanted to wash off the stink of the Wraith. I pulled off my boots and jumped in fully clothed. There was a large, flat rock where I spread my clothes out to dry. It came in handy when I was ready to get out myself; the sun-warmed rock felt good against my aching back.
I lay there until my stomach rumbled, reminding me I had eaten nothing since Sateda – however long ago that had been. I pulled on my pants and went looking for a quiet pool in the river, being careful not to let my shadow fall on the water. When I found a likely looking place I got down on my belly and inched forward, slowly sliding my hand and arm into the water. My grandsire used to call this 'tickling fish', and I had been good at it as a youngster. But that was when I wasn't hungry.
My hand was starting to go numb in the freezing water when an unwary fish finally slid across my palm. My fingers closed around its tail and I snatched it from the water. Before it could wriggle free and flop back into the river, I held it on the ground and hit its head with a rock.
I had nothing to clean the fish with, and no way to start a fire yet; all I could do was tear the fish apart with my hands and eat it raw. When I finished I stared down at the bloody pile of bones and entrails. That's when it finally hit me.
A few days ago – I was pretty sure it had only been a few days – I had been a member of one of the more advanced societies in this galaxy. Yes, there were the Wraith to be worried about, but that had been a threat for the future. In the present I had my family, my training and my comrades and a long life to look forward to. And then it was gone. Gone with the screams of the darts; the screams of my people.
I don't know what I did, or how long it was. But when I became aware of my surroundings again it was dark, and I was curled up on my side next to the river. My head was pounding and my throat felt raw. At some point I had vomited, the evidence a smelly mess down my front and a foul taste in my mouth. I crawled over to the water and splashed some on my face and chest, finally thrusting my whole head into the chilly river, leaving it there until I could not put off breathing.
I sat for a long time on the edge of that river. I forced my self to remember as much of my previous life as possible, dragging up each memory and examining it. I took my time, looked at each one thoroughly, let the pain burn through me.
My family gathered at the table...
Trading trips with my father...
My mother's laughter...
Wilderness vacations with my grandsire...
My friends and our 'secret' adventures...
The first girl I kissed...
And later the first time I made love...
My excitement at being accepted at academy...
The first opponent I successfully pinned to the mat...
The awarding of my Specialist rank...
And then the final day...
I looked at them all. Then I took them, shoved them in a box in my mind, and closed and locked the box. I would not look at them again. They were dead.
Now was all I had, all I would allow myself. I didn't know what planet I was on. I didn't know if there were other people here, or where the Ring of the Ancestors was. Or even if there was a Ring. This planet, so far, looked like any of a dozen that I had been on personally and several dozen more that I had heard of.
The sun had been up for a while when I finished and rose to start my new life. I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of it, but I knew I wanted to kill Wraith. Which probably meant that I would not live to old age, but I accepted that.
Making my way back to the rest of my clothes, I was thankful to find them undisturbed. I had kept my eyes open as I walked and had found a good handful of smooth round rocks, as well as a piece of flint for making fires. I tore out a section of lining from the coat, then ripped that into strips. I made a sling for hunting, something else my grandsire had taught me to use. Shoving the sling and its ammunition in one pocket, and the remaining strips and flint in another, I followed the river up stream.
I stayed near the river all day, only venturing off a couple times when I spotted an animal trail. I took a lot of practice shots, and had to find replacement rocks. But by the end of the day I had managed to snag a couple of furry, six-legged animals that liked to perch in the low branches of the trees. They apparently were not too bright, as I took them both out of the same tree within a minute of each other. I tied them together with another strip from the lining and hung them over my shoulder as I walked.
I found a couple of suitable rocks and attempted to chip them into something resembling a knife. When I finally called it a day and used it to dress the game, they weren't completely mangled. I would keep working on it.
The evening of the fourth day after the Wraith left me on that world I had to go through the ceremony of closing off my memories again. My meal of roasted tree-squatter over, I had been staring into the cooking fire, trying to make plans and deciding which planets would be best for getting the equipment and weapons I would need. The memories suddenly resurfaced, filling my mind and tearing at my heart. I found myself curled on the ground, sobbing. Angry with myself, I forced myself to go through the process – examining the memory, telling myself it was dead, and locking it away. I didn't sleep that night.
On day five I reached the river's source, a lake. It had been a quiet time. I spent some time every day exercising and training. I had hunted with varying degrees of success. The place where the Wraith had carved on my back and the feeding marks on my chest were healing, and the itching was a constant annoyance. I had seen no other people, or signs that there were any on this world.
I had walked around perhaps a third of the shoreline when I found the Ring. There was some storm damage, a lot of downed limbs, and one enormous tree lying on its side with roots that towered over my head. I rounded the tangle of roots and there it was – sitting in a clearing only a few dozen steps away. I stopped and stared at it, surprised to have just stumbled upon it.
I leaned against a tree, rubbing my back against the rough bark and scratching at my chest. Did I want to go to another world? Yes. I wasn't comfortable on this planet. I had been dumped here by the Wraith and still didn't know why.
So, where did I want to go? Sateda? My mind recoiled from that immediately.
If I was going to fight the Wraith I would need weapons. I knew several worlds where they were easy to come by, even if you had nothing to trade. But that would mean people, and I wasn't sure I was ready for that yet.
The decision was taken away from me when a Wraith stepped out of the woods on the far side of the clearing. Our eyes met and locked. I straightened from my slouched position and started forward, a low growl starting to rumble in my chest. The Wraith's eyes widened and a smile stretched across his face.
I had no weapon except my crude knife, but I was willing to meet him in combat. I had started to increase my pace when two drones emerged from the woods and took up positions on either side of the higher-caste male. I knew I would not be able to defeat all three. I accepted that I would eventually die at the hand of a Wraith, but I wanted to kill as many as I could beforehand. It ate at me to step back, my hands shook as they balled into fists, but this Wraith would have to wait to die.
I glanced toward the dialing device, then back to the Wraith. He realized my intent and his smile broadened. The race was on.
Sprinting toward the dialing device I kept an eye on the drones who were armed with stun rifles. For some reason they did not try to shoot me, simply lumbered after their leader. I had a much shorter distance to travel, but then would have to dial and get to the Ring before they caught me.
I reached the dialer, barely pausing long enough to punch out the first address that entered my mind before continuing my dash for the Ring. One of the drones made it to the Ring before me and attempted to block my access. I simply lowered my shoulders and plowed into his middle, carrying him with me into the wormhole.
We emerged on the other side in a driving rain. The drone landed on his back and started to slide across the muddy clearing. I managed to roll and get to my feet. I took several fast steps to the dialing device and hit the tile to disengage the device. The light filling the Ring disappeared before another Wraith could emerge.
I turned to the drone who was still struggling to get to his feet and pulled my stone knife. As I stalked forward he suddenly stilled. His hand came up and pressed a glowing medallion in the center of his harness. When it started blinking faster and faster I realized what it was. I turned and ran.
I was still caught in the blast shockwave, picked up and thrown across the clearing to land in some prickly ground cover. When my head stopped ringing I got up and started to look for the drone's weapon, keeping a wary eye on the Ring. I did a quick search of the clearing and bushes, but didn't find the stun rifle. He must have lost it before entering the wormhole.
I didn't want to stay here too long, in case the Wraith had seen the address. Wanting a place where I would be alone to make plans, I chose a world with easily accessible shelter and water, and where I could hunt or trap.
When I emerged from the Ring it was early morning, the first of two suns still low on the horizon. I immediately headed toward a series of caves that pockmarked the hills. This was a favorite world for my grandsire and others who liked to spend time in the wilderness. Abandoned clothing, and occasionally some equipment, could usually be found in the caves.
I was able to find a shirt and some socks that almost fit. A threadbare blanket, a waterskin with a hole near the stopper, and a short coil of frayed rope rounded out my finds. I wrapped everything up in the blanket and headed further into the hills. I didn't know why, but I felt nervous being near the Ring of the Ancestors.
I spent the next few days finishing healing. I found a cave near a good water source, and started exploring the area, setting up a few traps for the local wild life. And I tried to make plans, to decide how I was going to cause as much havoc among the Wraith as possible.
For some reason I couldn't pinpoint at the time, I never felt comfortable there. Whenever I left the cave all of my belongings came with me, rolled in the blanket and tied crosswise across my back.
On day seven the reason for my uneasiness showed up.
The morning had been spent checking my spring traps. I had braided some long grasses into rope. A large slipknot was left on the ground and the opposite end was attached to a young sapling or tree branch, which was bent toward the ground. It was held in place by a loop hooked loosely to a stake pounded into the ground. Something just needed to catch a claw or hoof on the slipknot, the loop would come off the stake, the branch would straighten out and the animal would be jerked off its feet.
I had six of these traps scattered around several different game trails. They were all set up next to bushes whose leaves were favorites of a skittish animal my people call an altrod. They were a good source of meat, I could carve the horns into a knife or other utensil, and the skin provided good quality leather. I hadn't caught anything with the traps yet, although several of them had been sprung.
I was resetting one of the traps, stake in one hand and the rock I was using as a hammer in the other, when I heard footsteps crunching through the layer of fallen leaves. I looked up, thinking one of the hunters who frequented the planet had shown up. But it wasn't a hunter; it was a Wraith.
I was on my feet and turning to run when he fired his stunner. It skimmed my arm, which went numb to the shoulder, making me drop the rock. I didn't pause, but headed deeper into the woods as fast as I could, dodging and trying to keep trees between the Wraith and me. The stunner discharged again, and I saw the energy bolt shimmer past me.
This continued for nearly an hour. I kept expecting to hear or see more Wraith, but this one seemed to be on his own. This confused me. The high caste males did not go anywhere without a least a couple drones with them. But why would they come to this world to cull? There were no human settlements here, only the occasional hunter.
I shoved the questions aside after another near miss with the stunner. The energy bolt hit a tree in front of me and sent splinters flying into my face.
I was able to draw the Wraith back toward my trap line. After slipping and rolling down a hill I got back to my feet and glanced over my shoulder. He was barely twenty paces away now. I took off, heading straight toward two large trees. I ran between the trees and immediately cut to the left, praying the Wraith would follow the same path.
My prayer was answered a few moments later. A surprised howl erupted behind me. I risked another glance over my shoulder, then slowed to a stop.
The Wraith hung upside down, struggling wildly trying to reach the rope tied around his ankle. He howled again when he saw me watching him.
"You will not win, Runner!"
I had started forward, the stake I had managed to hold onto through the entire chase coming up. But now I stopped and felt a coldness sweep over me.
He had called me 'runner.' That isn't possible was the first thought I had. Runners were legend, a tale told to scare and entertain children.
I wanted to walk toward the hanging Wraith, but my feet were frozen in place.
It made sense. The Wraith stopping feeding on me. Cutting my back. Dropping me off on that first world instead of killing me.
I was a toy to them. Something to throw out into the galaxy, give a head start, and then track down. If they caught me, would they feed on me? Or 'play' with me before sending me out to run again?
Any amusement I might have felt at the Wraith's position was long gone. Rage was burning in my chest, becoming harder and harder to resist. I tried to think calmly. But the pressure increased until it exploded out of me.
I heard myself yelling wordlessly as I ran forward, the stake held high. Then it was stabbing, again and again, into the torso of the Wraith.
I stopped finally and staggered back, gasping, my hand covered in dark blood. I was surprised to see the Wraith still alive and conscious. He stared up at me, blood dripping from his mouth, sliding down his face into the long white hair.
"You will lose in the end, Runner."
I hadn't spoken since Sateda and my voice was rusty, "That may be true, but a lot of you will go before me, Wraith."
I grabbed his head to hold it still and plunged the stake into his neck, severing the spine.
A search of his body yielded nothing but a small utility knife. I pocketed it, along with the stun-pistol that had flown out of the Wraith's hand into the underbrush. I started to leave, but turned back before I had gone a dozen paces.
I pulled out the knife and opened it as I walked back to the Wraith. Grabbing the feeding hand, I cut off the first finger. It would make a nice necklace once I cleaned it.
Then I started the long run back to the Ring.
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That is my story up to the point where I realized what the Wraith had done to me. I wrote it a month ago but I haven't shown it to anyone yet. I'm not sure I want to.
Writing this has brought a lot of things back into the light; forced me to think about things, about people, I had tried not to remember for seven years. For a long time, to be able to fight the Wraith, to be able to survive, I couldn't think about them. A lot has changed for me in the past months, but I don't know if it has changed enough to make this a smart move. I am not the Runner that Sheppard offered to help a half-year ago, but I am not the same man who had a future on Sateda either.
I guess, in the end, what is important is the fight against the Wraith. If Dr. Beckett can find something in this that explains why the Wraith didn't – or couldn't – feed on me, something that will help us defeat them, then this will have been worth it.
~~ The End ~~
Summary: Ronon writes about the start of his time as a Runner. This was my contribution to the Atlantis Back to Basics Ficathon