Face to face
by Eildon Rhymer
"Ever spent the night in a haunted house, McKay?"
"That isn't funny, Colonel."
It was strange how different everything looked in a darkness illuminated only by the thin beam of light from a P90. McKay's skin was bleached white, with deep shadows carved across his face. He looked like someone Sheppard had never seen before. Further away, Teyla and Ronon were faint smears, bleeding away into the darkness. When Teyla moved, she disappeared completely, as if she was a ghost herself.
Talk to me, guys.
He shifted, sucking in a breath at the pain in his leg. As he settled, the light in his lap sliced across Ronon's face, showing the glittering ice of his eyes.
Sheppard wondered whether to say anything; bit the words back several times before finding himself speaking them, after all. "And now we're spending the night in a haunted ruin, held at bay by ghosts."
"It's not haunted." Light and shadow was jagged on McKay's face. "There's no such thing as ghosts." He was surrounded by an array of devices pulled from his pockets, and was picking them up one at a time, hunching over them and jabbing at them with increasing desperation. "There's bound to be a scientific explanation for this. If only I can… I just need…"
Sheppard moved again, biting his lip against a moan of pain. Something had hurled them across the room. Something had extinguished the lights. Something had barred the doors. He decided to say it out loud. When things were said out loud, they were brought into the light. Most things deserved to stay safely in the darkness, but not everything. "Something did this."
McKay's fingers were thinner in the narrow light, like bones. Something brushed against the side of Sheppard's cheek, up into his hair. Instinct had been quelled by now. The first time it had happened, he had brought his hand up to bat it away, and had found nothing there, even as the touch continued.
"Did you?" McKay was clutching the device with both hands. "The haunted house thing, I mean."
Sheppard focused on his face; focused on the pain in his leg; focused on the living ghosts that were Teyla and Ronon. He focused, too, on the past, but the touch on his face did not go away. "Once," he said. "I was twelve, I think. It was a dare – one of those 'pass the test and we won't beat the crap out of you every day just for being the new kid' things. I got as far as midnight, then my Dad hauled me out and…" No. No need to say that. "And, no, before you ask, I didn't see any ghosts."
But he still dreamt about it, even so. Alone in the dark, starting at every sound, gasping at every movement. Twigs like claws on the window, and the wind wailing like a thing forlorn. Desperate to endure, to be accepted… Even in the face of all the horrors the Pegasus Galaxy could throw at him, it was still a recurring dream, though not, as it turned out, the worst dream of all.
"That's because ghosts don't exist." McKay returned to his device, his face shuttered with darkness.
The touch reached his throat, and tugged at his collar. He felt a breath on the side at his face, as if something was trying to whisper words, cold with death and decay. He was very aware of his own taut breathing, and his hands were sliding on his P90, icy with sweat.
"No," he said. He lived in a world where machines could read his mind, where mutated insects sucked life away through their hands, where places existed where you could live for months in the blinking of an eye. He lived in a world beyond the stars, where you could walk in another man's dreams, but he had to believe that life had an end.
"You'll find an explanation for it, Rodney," he said quietly, then shifted again, trying to tell himself that the sound beneath him was only the soft crunching of tiny stones. "Soon would be good."
McKay was all eyes and bone-like fingers, but he nodded.
"How long?" Ronon asked, when waiting became intolerable.
"Seventy-three minutes," McKay answered, without checking his wrist.
Ronon stood up. "What are you doing?" Teyla asked.
He scraped his hand across his cheek, wiping away the last of the congealed blood, and raised his weapon with the other hand. His shoulder hurt, but pain only fuelled the urge to fight. He strode forward to the sealed door, and once again the enemy was there, as firm as two fists in the middle of his chest. This time Ronon was ready, braced for the impact, and did not fall. Clawing at his belt, he brought up a knife, plunging it into the air in front of him. Then he shot, one shot, two, three, four…
Someone was protesting, their voice shrill. The pink energy from his weapon impacted against the door, and flowed across its surface like lapping water, then faded away, leaving the door unharmed.
"You can't shoot a ghost."
Ronon whirled round, his finger still on the trigger, and sent another blast into the wall far beyond the hunched figure of McKay. The stonework crumbled, dust and shards cascading to the ground.
"Not that it is a ghost, of course," McKay added. Ronon looked away from his face, tinged green with the after-image of the pink light. "That's just what Colonel Spooky here says. And why did you do that? You could have shot me."
"Only if I'd wanted to."
Ronon clutched his knife, feeling the muscles bunch all the way up to his injured shoulder. He started forward again, and again that invisible presence was there, solid on the middle of his chest, preventing him from moving any further. When he thrust forward with his knife, his hand moved as far forward as the limits of his reach, but when he tried to walk forward, it stopped him. It was no longer violent, but almost gentle in its insuperable finality.
With a roar, he hurled his knife at the door. As bottomless as a pool, the black surface swallowed the knife. Ronon willed himself forward, striking with his fist, shooting, kicking. Something impacted on his jaw, driving him backwards, and he staggered, struggling to keep his feet beneath him. He countered with a blow, but cold air surrounded him like a net. Something struck him on the temple, and he saw dust like a blade in the thin beam of light, then fell beneath it, hunched over the pain in his chest.
"Stop," Sheppard said. He was the one holding the light. It was angled away from him, so he was just a voice in the darkness. "Like McKay says, you can't fight a…" He didn't say the word; Ronon heard the shrug and the awkward smile that covered the gap.
But I have to fight, Ronon thought, but he stayed on the ground, recovering his breath, and didn't try to stand again, not yet. He had fought all his life. Even as he had run from the Wraith, he had fought, taking the battle back to them and fighting his fate. There was nothing in his life that could not be countered with violence and a fight.
Except for betrayal.
Except for death.
"Ronon." Teyla touched his arm, and only the greatest effort kept him from lashing out at her. "You are bleeding. Let me…"
"No," he growled. Pain was the anvil that kept him honed. He would fight this, and he would win; he had to. The alternative was… No, he wouldn't think of the alternative. He wouldn't think of the masses of dead who lay in his past, clinging to the places where he had killed them, clinging to the places where they had died. Death was the end, and he carried on, and one day, long afterward, he lived again.
He would not be defeated by something that could not exist.
Rodney held the scanner like a talisman at his chest. Like a magic ring, a clove of garlic, a silver cross. And that was the worst thing of all. He knew full well what he was doing. Not for him the beautiful ease of denial, not any more. For two hours, he had struggled, but he could struggle no more.
"I can't explain it." There, he had said it out loud.
For two hours, he had tried every device he had, tried them again, shaken them, prodded them, tried them again, closed his eyes and opened them, and tried them again. He had stared at those four scant life signs, as if he could make them more just by willing them. He had turned dials, and thought with every ounce of Ancient gene that he possessed, but he had not been able to find any strange energy reading, or any explanation at all.
He had known the truth within minutes. This was something that he could not explain away with science. There was nothing he could do to solve this. There would be no desperate struggles in the face of impending doom, no nagging and inane questions from Sheppard, no choice insults deployed in an attempt to show them that he held their lives in his hands.
There was nothing he could do to save them.
"I can't explain it," he said again. Had his own throat swallowed it the first time; turned it into a whisper?
"Then try harder." There was an edge to Sheppard's voice. The light swung into Rodney's eyes, and then he couldn't see anything at all.
He felt it, though. He heard it. He had felt the blow, like a slap, that had driven him away from the door, his ankle turning painfully beneath him. All the while he had worked, he had heard a soft sound, like distant water. Now he felt a light touch on his back, and cold radiated from it, although the touch was gentle, and spoke to him almost of sympathy. The light was still on him; the others could see every nuance of reaction on his face. "Is that you?"
He heard Sheppard clear his throat, too far away for touching. Ronon and Teyla were even further away, and he had not heard them move. None of them asked the obvious question. Then the light left him, and he let out a breath, but the touch remained.
I don't believe in ghosts, he thought to himself. Not the white sheet ones from Halloween stories, anyway. I'd think it was a hallucination, but hallucinations can't hurt. An Ascended Ancient, perhaps. Some residual energy bound up with a person's life…
Everything had answers. Everything could be solved with science. He was always ten paces ahead of everyone else, supplying them with answers even as they floundered. Disaster threatened, but he got them out with the power of his brain.
But not Elizabeth. Not Carson. He chewed his lip in the darkness, pressing the scanner to his chest so hard that he knew he would have a rectangular bruise there in the morning. Not Ford. And even Ronon almost left, and I couldn't find the words…
"Rodney?" This time Sheppard left him in darkness. The beam of light showed only the innocence of the ceiling.
He had no words. The flow of rudeness that normally sustained him had dried up. Words meant that he was still in control. Words meant that, no matter how dreadful things appeared, and no matter how terrified he was, there was a thread of hope that he could do something about it.
I don't believe in ghosts.
He relaxed his grip on the scanner, forcing his cramped fingers to move it so he could see the screen. Perhaps the beautiful ease of denial was for him, after all.
"Yes, yes," he said, shaking his head with forced impatience. "I'm working on it."
"Stop," Teyla cried. "Stop it."
She was not sure if she was talking to Ronon or to the… spirits who were stopping him. Ronon slid down the wall, crumpling breathlessly to the floor. He was bloodied from too many attempts to get to the door. John, too, was hurt, his words growing more taut and less frequent as the minutes passed. He was careful to keep the light away from himself, but Teyla was accustomed to seeing in the dark, and suspected that his leg was paining him badly. As for Rodney, the glimpses she had caught of his face concerned her. In his eyes, she had seen a fear that was far deeper than the all-too-familiar frenetic panic.
The violence only occurred when they tried to get through the door that was ahead of them. As long as she remained still, the touches were feather-light and gently insistent.
"I don't believe in ghosts," Rodney had said. John had spoken of haunted houses, his voice either artificially bright, or hesitating into silence when he spoke of ghosts. Ronon bristled defiance, refusing to accept that there was any foe that could not yield to brute force.
Then it is for me to face this presence face to face, she thought, and stare at it without flinching.
She crossed her legs, and straightened her spine, easing out the bruised muscles of her upper back and shoulders. The light was far from her, pooling on the opposite side of the chamber, but she closed her eyes even so, and concentrated on her breathing.
Are you there? she thought.
The touch was gentle, like rain on the side of her face. Something whispered over her skin, like a sharp inhalation.
Spirits, she thought. She liked to believe that the dead lived on beyond the Ring of the Ancestors. Her people sang songs to guide the dead on their way. There was comfort in imagining the dead far away and happy, never again to be troubled by the Wraith or by any other evils of the mortal world. But some, perhaps, lingered, tied to world because they had died without making peace with their death. Those perhaps could be helped by one who could see them for what they were, and be not afraid.
I am listening, she thought, and the presence beside her sighed, and touched her living lips.
Nothing else existed. The others were as far away as a dream, and when she opened her eyes, the beam of light was nothing. The hand that touched her glowed faintly, like moonlight seen through fog. Through the spirit's body, she saw Ronon, as flat and unmoving as a painting on a wall.
She raised her eyes to the spirit's face, but she already knew what she would see. Her own lips curved in a sorrowful smile, as the spirit withdrew slowly, drifting backwards to the midnight door. Languorous, she turned her head, to see John's spirit leaving him, ruffling his hair with a rueful grin; only the faintest stiffening of John's neck showed that he was aware of the touch. The spirit at Rodney's back rose up, its mouth moving silently, speaking words that would never be heard. Ronon's spirit had been guarding the door, strong and obdurate, but it stepped back now, joining the others on the threshold.
"You want us to promise," she said, not realising that she was speaking out loud. The questioning words from her team-mates were as faint as a distant memory. The spirits had eyes like shards of midnight sky, speckled with stars. "Not to go through that door. To go away, never to return. Never."
They nodded, four moving as one.
Never. Their eyes released her. She turned to the others, and tried to speak through sudden tears. "I think they were trying to save us. They kept us here until we understood, until we knew we could never return."
"But the readings…" Rodney protested. "There could be a ZPM through there."
"Never," she said, as behind her she heard the sound of the door opening. The door beyond remained black and sealed.
But she could not answer them, not yet. The black faded, and became the mist that led to places beyond the sunset. One by one, the spirits raised their hands. Rodney's spirit nodded, though half of his face was gone. Ronon's spirit stood tall, a gaping hole in the middle of his chest. A chasm of darkness slashed across the middle of John's ghost, but still he smiled. And, all the while, her own ghost - that pale reflection of what she saw daily in the mirror - looked into her soul with the one eye that remained to it.
Then, as she wept openly, the four spirits flowed into one, and moved together through the door, and were gone.
Unable to watch, unable to look away, she closed her eyes. "No," she whispered, when she heard the others moving behind her. "Do not. You must not."
But when she opened her eyes, they were gathered around the door behind her, that led back to safety and to sunlight and to home.