by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Summary: People tell stories about the wonders of the Time Before. They tell stories, too, about magical creatures with long, fair hair, who emerge from the hill and can turn you to dust in an instant. But John Sheppard has never been one to believe in stories…
Note: This was written for the Gen Ficathon on LJ, in the genre of AU, for the prompt: "Clarke's Law (i.e. "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic")
Have I ever told you about the Others?
Tall, they are, with hair like spun moonlight and skin as pale as snow. If the world beneath the sky is the world of men, theirs are all the dark places of the world. The river of time flows more swiftly in their domain, and a mortal who ventures there can turn to dust in the space of a single dance. They seldom venture out beneath the stars, but when they do… Ah, when they do…
But I am jumping ahead of myself, little one. Let us start not with the Others, but with a man.
Let us start with a man called John.
His life ended and began in the ocean. It was six months since the waves had hurled him onto this foreign shore. It was six months since he had crawled from the water, leaving a thick trail of blood and sand behind him. It was six months since--
"That's enough, John," he berated himself. His voice sounded rusty, as if he hadn't used it for days. Was that true? He frowned, trying to remember. He'd spoken in the ale-house the night before, hadn't he, his pint cradled in both hands, his knuckles white on the tankard? He'd nodded his goodbyes to people in the morning. Then he'd ridden until he was breathless, his muscles burning and his face scoured by the wind, and now he was here.
He knew they wondered where he went on those days when he wasn't required to work in the fields. No-one cared enough to ask, though, and he didn't care enough to answer. They probably expected him to disappear one day and never come back, leaving without a word, just as he had arrived without a word, blown into the village by the last snow flurries of winter.
Perhaps he would. He had lived in three villages since his old life had ended in the storm-tossed ocean. The faces of his neighbours seemed less real than the faces of the men who had died beside him in the waves, the men he had been unable to save.
So where do you come when you want to forget them? he thought. A graveyard. Nice one, John.
Of course, the whole world was a graveyard, if you wanted to look at things that way. It was less obvious back home. Home? He pressed his lips together in something that might have been a grim smile. It had never seemed like home when he had lived there, which was why he had been so quick to sign up for leaving it. But now that he was away from it…
He shook his head sharply. No, John, it doesn't matter. Back… there had been a place of wide open spaces, where you could ride for miles without seeing any evidence that the world had once been different. This place was altogether smaller, the soft green landscape strewn with the ruins of deserted towns. Here, every journey you made reminded you that things hadn't always been the way they were now.
John looked up at tall ruin with its arched windows and crumbling stone crosses. The sun was sinking fast, and the shadows were long and dark, reaching across the graveyard to the overgrown streets beyond it. A straight avenue of grass marked what had once been a main street, and John walked slowly along it, heading away from the sunset.
Why had he come here? He didn't know. It wasn't the here that mattered, perhaps, but the getting here. It was those long miles of reckless speed. It was riding somewhere, anywhere, and stopping wherever he happened to end up. It was being alone. It was…
"Stupid," he muttered, as something moved in the ruins, a dark flicker behind slender trunks of silver birch.
He stopped, let out a breath, and carried on. It was probably just an animal, he told himself. Most people in these parts were afraid of the old towns, and avoided them. Wild dogs were a problem, though, and he had often seen feral cats watching him from high places.
The movement came again. Something prickled on the back of his neck – the old battle-instinct that he was being watched. Caution won out over a different kind of caution, and he drew his knife. He wished he still had his rifle, but the rifle was long gone, lost in the shipwreck and in the whole… unpleasantness that had followed it. People in these parts didn't know about rifles. They called them fire-sticks in their stories of the Time Before, and cast those who wielded them as warlocks and sorcerers.
Count that as just another secret that he had from his new friends and neighbours. Count that as one more of many. Not that it mattered. Not that any of it mattered.
A dark shape stepped out from the trees, glimpsed only in his peripheral vision. John turned towards it, but was temporarily dazzled by the low sun. "Uh… hi," he said, blinking as he struggled to see into the shadows cast by the ruined houses.
The figure started to move towards him. It was a man, he thought; of course it was a man, because what else could it be? He was tall, wearing a full-length black robe like priests wore in stories. His hair was long and white, and the poor guy had to be sick or maimed in some way, his face pale and strangely marked.
The white-haired man snarled, and hurled himself at John. "Whoa!" John brought the knife up, and dodged, old training kicking in. "I don't know what your problem is," he said, as he stood taut and ready to defend himself, "but I, uh, come in peace."
The man struck out with his fist. John lashed out with his knife, the blade scoring a line across the man's forearm, but the man didn't as much as flinch. His fist landed on John's chest, and John found himself flying backwards. He landed heavily, all the breath leaving his lungs. Gasping, his vision swimming, he rolled onto his front and pushed himself up again. His chest screamed with pain at every movement. Crap, he thought, but he managed to smile, spreading his left hand placatingly.
"This your territory?" he asked. "Okay, I'll leave. But you could have asked nicely. Didn't your mother teach you that it's polite to say please?"
His attacker snarled. He really didn't look human at all, but there was nothing else that he could be, and John didn't believe in the crazy things the old folk put in their stories. Many of them swore blind that the tall stone ruins had been built by a long-lost race of giants, and that fire-breathing monsters used to roar through the countryside on iron rails. They believed in fairies who lived beneath the hill, with pale skin and long fair hair…
"You have got to be kidding me," he gasped, as the man circled him, hand outstretched.
It wasn't real. It wasn't happening. It was a sick joke. The white-haired man's hand slammed towards John's heaving chest, but John grabbed it by the wrist, pushing it away as hard as he could. He held it barely an inch off his heart, its nails – talons, he thought, and almost laughed with the crazy wrongness of it all – scraping across his chest. The man smashed his other hand into John's jaw, but John clung onto consciousness and pushed with all his strength, driving his knife into his attacker's hand. Dark blood stained the blade as he wrenched it free.
"There," John panted. "What d'you say we call it quits?"
His attacker took a step back and smiled, showing pointed, inhuman teeth. It raised its injured hand like a trophy, and as John watched, the wound closed up and healed.
John's mind reeled. This was… This was impossible. This was contrary to everything… No. No. He shook his throbbing head; tried to clear his thoughts. Survive first; think about things afterwards. Survive. Fight.
The next time his attacker came in for the kill, John feinted upwards, then drove the knife into the creature's side. He realised his mistake the moment he did it. It left him too close, forced to linger there for an instant too long as he wrenched the knife out.
This time, when the creature's hand slammed at his chest, he couldn't stop it. He felt a stab of fierce, excruciating pain like nothing he had ever felt before, but the pain that came afterwards was worse, far worse, as if something vital was being ripped from every fibre of his being.
He screamed; he couldn't help it. He lashed out desperately with the knife, thinking go away! go away! please just go away! and the knife landed again and again, and the creature's grip on him weakened, and he pulled away, fell to the ground when his legs refused to support him, and then, sobbing, pushed himself to his feet again and started to run.
He knew he had no chance. The sun was just a strip of orange at the horizon, and the world was turning darker with every second that passed. Rooks were coming in to roost in the trees, a pall of black wings. He felt drained of strength, as if the marrow had gone from his bones. Then something struck his right arm in a ripple of blue light, and he lost all feeling in it, the knife slipping through his fingers to the ground. His knees gave way, and he fell onto his face; clawed at the grass to try to get up, but the numbness was spreading.
Then the creature was on him, flipping him bodily onto his back. Its eyes were slitted like a cat's, utterly inhuman. It grabbed him by the throat, cutting off his air supply, its talons digging into his skin. John could feel blood trickling down into his collar. He struggled for breath, but the only sound he could produce was a wheezing gasp.
Baring its teeth in a savage grin, the creature slammed its other hand onto John's chest.
The expected agony didn't come. Liquid blue fire struck the creature on the side. It reared up, roaring, but was struck again and again, but by then it was already crumpling to the ground. It landed heavily across John's body. He pushed it away, his hands feeling slippery and his arms like liquid, and dragged himself out from under it.
"Are you…?" a voice said. "You're not dead, are you? You aren't a shrivelled husk, which is saying something. Did it feed on you? It did, didn't it, but only for a second, so we're only talking a matter of months, if that. I tried to stop it earlier, but I… well, I missed, okay? I'm not a very good shot, and I'd run a very long way." The voice stopped on a heaving gasp. "The ability to run long distances is over-rated, you know? There are other things, more important things…"
John found the strength to raise his head. He breathed in and out again, then found the strength to do even more, pushing himself up into a sitting position. He located his knife in the grass, and subtly reached out for it. The newcomer didn't seem to notice as John enfolded it in his palm, the blade hidden beneath his leg.
"Not talkative, I see." The man sounded irritated. "A 'thank you' would be nice, but, oh no. Of course, there's that whole 'almost killed by a Wraith' thing. Are you sure you're not going to die on me?"
He looked like a perfectly ordinary man, although his clothes were more finely-woven than any fabric John had ever seen, held together with incredible metal fastenings. He was holding some sort of a weapon in his right hand, but it looked almost like something grown, not made, with no visible screws or joins. John moistened his lips. "You…" His voice sounded bruised when he tried to speak. He swallowed, and nodded at the fallen creature. "You did that?"
"Wraith stunner." The man raised the weapon, then let it fall again. "I found out how to alter them so they work as well on Wraith as on humans. Felled by their own weapons… Ironic, huh?"
John swayed beneath a sudden wave of weakness. He brought his hand to his throat, feeling the blood there. Blue fire, he thought. The man had felled his attacker with blue fire, like a warlock or sorcerer in the stories. No, no, the weapon had produced blue fire. This was another thing like a rifle, that the common people misunderstood. Magic didn't exist. He didn't believe in magic.
"You know this guy?" he managed to ask. "This… Wraith?"
"Not this one personally." The man shook his head. "Others like him, yes."
John pressed his hand against his chest; it, too, was bleeding. "What was it going to do to me?"
"Steal away your life, year by year," the man said. "Make you old and shrivelled, and then you'd die."
And if one of the Others takes you by the hand… He remembered words told by an open fire, as he had sat by the window and looked up at the stars. If it takes you by the hand and leads you into its domain, a lifetime passes in the space of single hour, and as soon as your foot touches mortal soil again, you fade to dust and ashes.
Oh crap, he thought, and he scraped his hand across his face, and saw that it was trembling. Then, because he couldn't just sit here, couldn't just do nothing, he crawled over to the Wraith's body, and parted the rents in its clothing. The skin beneath each one of them was unmarred. Crap, he thought again, and then he found himself laughing, really laughing, at how inadequate, how stupid his response was.
"Are you all right?" the man asked. "Because you're, uh, bleeding, and feeding hurts like a bitch, even at the best of times – not that I know first-hand, of course, but I've seen it, and…" He broke off, biting his lip, then started to rummage in the pockets of his impossible clothes. "First aid kit. Bandages. Pain-killers." He held out two small white discs that looked like gaming tokens. John just stared at them. "You're supposed to swallow them?" the man said, looking at him as if he was an idiot. "For the pain?"
And if you eat their bread or drink their wine, you will be trapped in their world for ever more.
John shook his head. "I'm good."
The man snorted in disbelief, but didn't fight. John looked at him more closely, assessing him for the first time as a man, and not as a possible threat. He looked exhausted, John thought, his eyes rimmed with red as if he had been crying. His breathing was fast and his hands were trembling as if he was barely keeping himself from full-blown panic.
It was that, if nothing else, that gave John the strength to stand. Yes, crazy, impossible things had happened, but sometimes you had to push these things away and focus on more immediate things, like… He sucked in a breath at the sudden stab of pain. Pressing his hand to his chest, he felt the racing of his own heart.
Darkness deepened around them, the blue of the sky turning darker, then fading to grey. The rooks had settled in their trees, and were shouting raucously at each other out of sight.
"You're leaving?" the man said, and John realised that he had taken a few steps away from the man, back towards a world in which crazy things like this didn't happen. "It's just…" The man flapped his hand. "You're the first person I've found. Everything's ruined. How did that happen? I…" He raked his hand across his face. "Why's everything in ruins?"
John's shoulders stiffened. "It's just the way things are."
A bat flittered out of the ruins and circled above them. He watched it, just as he watched all flying things.
"We went on vacation when I was a kid," the other man said. "London, Oxford, Stonehenge, the usual…" His voice came from the twilight, behind John's back. "What planet is this?"
John looked at sky. It was too early for stars, but a planet shone silver above the tower on the hill. "What planet?" he asked. "What sort of a crazy question is that?"
"Humour me." The man's voice was rising higher with every word. "What planet are we on?"
"Earth," John said, and the man let out a shuddering breath. John turned towards him. Somewhere, far away, a dog howled in the darkness
"What year is it?" the man asked. The approaching night took all nuances of expression from his face, turning it into the sort of mask that players wore.
"A hundred and forty-seven years since the first of the years with no summer," John answered, "which is, in the old way of counting…" He had to calculate it mentally, counting back to a dimly-understood millennium. "Two thousand and six," he said.
"God!" The man brought his hand to his face. "Two thousand and six on Earth, and it looks like this. I am screwed. I am so screwed. And what were the years with no summer? No, you don't have to tell me. It's obvious, isn't it? An asteroid strike or a super-volcano, either of them enough to precipitate a nuclear winter, and Earth sent back to the Dark Ages, and I've stumbled on a stupid illiterate peasant who doubtless thinks that the Earth's flat and that the stars are painted on by angels every day…"
They blind you with words, the Others do. If you let yourself listen to them too deeply or too long…
He didn't believe in such things – he couldn't believe in such things – but he began to walk away, his body dragging with the pain of every breath. When he reached his horse, he untied it with trembling fingers, muttering nonsense to it, pressing his hand to the warmth of its flank. It took him three attempts to clamber into the saddle, but then he was riding, the air fresh and cold in his face, fast, fast…
He didn't look back.
Rodney stumbled back towards the hill. A Wraith… But he'd known there was a Wraith already, hadn't he? The desiccated bodies of the rest of his team had been the clue there. It must have come through the same way that he had come, and been trapped here, no going back, no going back at all.
"But the Wraith isn't really the issue here, is it?" he told himself. No, that would be the fact that he was trapped in some hellish alternate version of Earth, where civilisation had apparently fallen apart in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the human race almost going the way of the dinosaurs. And the Stargate was apparently in England, in Glastonbury, for crying out loud, which was so totally New Age and happy-clappy mystic that he would have laughed, if he hadn't been so busy freaking out, because, hello, trapped? No way home?
Things moved around him in the darkness. Was it…? No, the idiot peasant had long since gone home, back to his turnips and his fat peasant wife, so that meant… Gasping, Rodney brought up the Wraith stunner and shot the heaving shape in the undergrowth; muttered an apology when he saw that it was a fox, and then shouted at it for making him mistake it for a Wraith.
The stars came out one by one above him, and they were the stars of Earth, the stars of home, unmistakeable and real.
"I'm screwed," he gasped. "I am so screwed." He reached the lower slopes of the hill and climbed up to the first terrace. The entrance was a clawed-out tunnel through the earth, leading to the ornate metal doors that were now jammed permanently in the 'open to allow every bad guy in the country to come in and slaughter me in my sleep' position.
Rodney hadn't seen what had happened, but he had pieced it together afterwards. When they had emerged from the wormhole, he had stayed in the gate ship to run important tests, and because, well, you couldn't be too careful, and important tests! The others had left the ship and ventured out to explore the rest of the underground complex. For a short while, it had been flooded with light. Sergeant Behr had possessed the Ancient Descendants' Gene, and the complex had responded to him, waking up wherever he walked.
The doors had responded, too. Rodney clearly remembered the last transmission. "Hey, doc, we've found the way out," Behr had said, and Rodney had snapped at him, telling him not to interrupt, and not to go opening strange doors until he'd ascertained that…
Then the trickling sound of soil falling in, a roar, the sound of gunfire, and screaming, just screaming.
Their shrivelled bodies still lay just inside the metal doors, already half buried under piled earth. Three of them. Three of them killed. "But there weren't any life-signs," he had protested into the silence that had followed their deaths. But a hibernating Wraith didn't show up on a life-signs detector. A Wraith who had been trapped here perhaps for centuries, unable to get out because of lack of the gene… A Wraith who was starving, burning up with hunger, who began to stir as the facility had woken up around him, and then had waited until somebody had opened the door…
Rodney couldn't look at the bodies. He heaved at the doors until his hands were raw and bleeding, but they wouldn't shut. Perhaps he could bury the doorway again, covering it over again with earth and grass, as it must have remained for thousands of years. But then he would be buried alive. He started to shiver, then couldn't stop shivering.
Trapped. It was all Sergeant Behr's fault, of course. For two years, they'd been stranded in the Pegasus Galaxy with no contact with Earth. When Rodney and the latest team he'd been assigned to – a team as idiotic and disagreeable as all the rest – had come across a Gate capable of dialling home, they should have reported back to Atlantis, of course they should have reported back to Atlantis, but Behr had freaked, powering up the gate ship and dialling the glyphs. Rodney had protested, of course, had tried to stop him, but the whole thing had taken only seconds, and now here he was: back on Earth, yes, but back on the right Earth…? That would be a very definite no.
And there was no way of getting back. Paranoid and controlling as they were, the Ancients had designed the facility to respond only to people with the gene. Without the gene, the facility was dead. Without the gene, the Stargate was dead.
Without the gene, Rodney was dead.
They were singing in the ale-house when John returned. He slowed to a trot and then to a walk, passing between the houses until he came to the stable. His legs buckled as he dismounted, and he grabbed at the saddle bow, and stood there, his face pressed against the animal's heaving neck.
"Are you sick, John?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, tightened his grip on the saddle, and then stepped away and began to busy himself with removing the tack. Things wanted to slip out of his hands, slithering in clumsy fingers. "I'm good," he said.
When he bent to stow the saddle, he saw the girl standing in a flickering pool of candlelight. Her name was… He struggled to remember it; even his brain seemed sluggish. Charlotte, he thought. Young and pretty and seventeen, and dazzled by the mystery of the stranger who had ridden in from places unknown.
"Are you sure, John?" She moved closer to him. "There's blood on your shirt, John."
"An unfortunate encounter with a thorn bush." He wiped down the horse's flanks, then went to get it food and water. All the while she followed him. "It's nothing," he said. "I rode too far, that's all. Nothing a good night's sleep can't fix."
She wasn't yet old enough or confident enough to try to follow him all the way home. Outside was cold, with not enough buildings to stop the wind blowing from far away. Light and sound was bleeding from the windows of the ale-house, and he found himself stepping carefully, keeping to the shadows. He was fairly sure that she was still watching him.
Home for now was a loft above a communal barn, surrounded by the smell of old hay. The winter stores had almost been used up, and it would still be several months before the new year's crops became edible. Late spring was the cruellest season, harsher even than winter.
The ladder felt slippery, hard to grasp. He dragged himself up it, but almost fell several times. Once he was in the loft, he lay down stiffly on his back, staring up at the darkness above him. Dust fell on his face, and he wiped it away, tasting old blood from the heel of his hand.
A door clattered open, bringing a faint scent of wood-smoke and a burst of song. They were singing of the Others who lived beneath the hill, who enchanted young men and refused to let them go.
And pleasant is the fairy land
For those that in it dwell,
But at the end of seven years
They pay a tithe to hell;
And I'm so fair and full of flesh
I fear 'twill be myself.
John laughed harshly, bitterly. It wasn't true. It couldn't be true.
"So denial's the name of the game then, John?" His voice sounded too loud in the watching darkness. Because it had happened; every painful, exhausted step reminded him that it had happened. But it wasn't what it seemed to be. It had a simple explanation; of course it did.
And it wasn't for him to think about it. If you thought too much about the things that happened to you…
Waves crashed over his head. He remembered laying down another lifeless crew-mate on the shore, and standing up to see…
No, he thought. This, too, would fade. Life was just about living, about getting from one day to the next. Life was about finding a way to carry on. He had tried to change the world, and this is what resulted. Just waves on the sand. Just dust and ashes in a pitch-black barn.
end of chapter one
John was a man with secrets. He came from the sea, and the sea clung to him always. Where we saw green hills, he saw the crashing waves of the ocean. Where we shared songs by the firelight, he sat alone, seeing secrets in the mirrored surface of his drink.
When the Other first approached John, he told not a soul. When the Other first approached John, he turned his back and tried to forget it, but the damage was done.
"Will you dance?" the Other had asked him, and John had said no, but he had looked into eyes that no mortal was meant to see, and his doom was set.
Although he did not know it, he was not long for this world.
Two days afterwards, the dying started.
John was following the plough, gripping its handles with blistered hands, walking in endless straight lines. The oxen churned up the mud ahead of him, and a harsh drizzle was falling, turning his clothes into a sodden mass. Mud clung to his boots. It pulled his feet down, making each step heavy, as if his body wanted to stay rooted to the ground.
Other labourers sang to their oxen, chanting doggerel under their breath. Sometimes several voices joined together in a brief chorus, singing about spring and lost love, about knights and battles and the pleasures of drink. John preferred to keep silent. His oxen kept their heads down, trudging through the rain.
Work stopped at noon for bread and cheese, sliced off in segments with a knife. John remembered the Wraith's dark blood on the blade, paused for a moment, then started to eat. Weak ale from a leather bottle washed it down. They squatted on stones, backs against the wall, and for a while there was nothing but silence.
John still felt tired and heavy, aching with something that he couldn't identify. The red mark on his chest refused to heal properly, weeping small trickles of blood beneath his shirt.
"Pa! Pa!" A child came scampering up, bringing ale to a father who had forgotten it. "They found another one, pa," she said. "Quite dead, she was, all shrivelled away. There was a necklace of daisies around her neck, like a truelove would give. He's probably looking for her, looking and looking for her…"
"That's enough," her father snapped. "Little ears shouldn't flap when the elders are talking about such things."
"I haven't got little ears." The child tweaked her ears, making them stand out from her mass of dirty curls. "Look, pa."
Her father flapped his hand. "Away with you."
The quality of the silence changed after she had gone. The nearest ox shifted from hoof to hoof, its breathing moist and steaming. John stuffed the rest of his bread back into his pouch. He turned the knife round and round in his hand, looking at the dull reflections in the blade, at his own face distorted and inhuman.
"Another one?" He hadn't realised that he had meant to speak until he heard himself utter the words. The knife stilled.
"Aye," said the father; John thought his name was William. "If you'd come to the ale-house for the last two nights, John, you would know."
They used his name far too often; strange that it should make him feel so uneasy, as if they were trying to strip something away from him, to see into places he didn't want them to see. Stupid, he thought, as he scraped rain off his face, his hand painting a mask on his face. "Hey, you know what they say about the demon drink."
"The first one was found yesterday, John," said a red-faced man called Thomas. "It was over Glaston way. Hugh the drover brought the news."
"What could have caused it?" he found himself asking. His knuckles were as white as the handle of the knife.
"Why, isn't it obvious, John?" William said. "We always knew that one day they would come out of the hill again, to walk beneath the stars and steal mortals for their dance." His voice was rhythmical, quoting stories.
"The Others," Thomas said with a shudder. He took a long swig of his drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and drank again.
William swirled his full bottle in his hand. "There is nothing we can do when the Others approach us but stop our ears and close our eyes, refuse their food and refuse to join their dance. We cannot be brought to ruin unless we consent to our doom."
John felt something stir within him. The wound on his chest was throbbing sharply. "So you're saying it's their own fault they're dead?"
"It isn't quite like that." Thomas spread a placating hand. "The Others are tricksy, masters of words. They entice people with cunning words and blind them with their glamour."
John's chest hurt like a knife twisting in it. "Can't you guys use your own words?" he said harshly. "This isn't a story. People are dead."
"And you're not from round here, John," William said stiffly, "so you'll never understand." He shifted slightly, subtly consigning John to the outside of their circle.
After a few minutes, John got up and resumed his work. The plough had to be pushed down heavily into the thick soil, and soon the muscles of his back and shoulders were burning, and fresh blood mingled with rain at his chest. Life was about carrying on, he thought; about walking again and again that straight course behind the plough. It certainly wasn't--
He stopped; lost himself in the rhythms of his work. The rain gradually stopped. The ground started to steam with the first touch of weak sunshine. The other workers were singing songs about the burning of the cities. A child ran along the strip of uncultivated land at the edge of the field, perhaps bearing news. After that, the songs were louder, with a note of desperation about them.
The sun retreated, and the rain started again. Darkness came early on such a day, and John straightened up from another length to see Gaffer Hawkin watching him. "You've done enough, John." Hawkin was leaning heavily on a stick. His broken leg had healed wrong, and John was taking his place in the field, driving the oxen that were his darlings.
"No," John found himself saying, shaking his head.
Songs faded away behind him. Hawkin crooned the oxen's names, patting their shoulders, stroking their noses. "Enough for today," Hawkin said.
"No." John shook his head again. He could barely stand, his back bent from the plough, and when he turned his cramped hands over, he saw that the palms were streaked with the blood of burst blisters.
The other labourers trooped past him, deliberately silent.
"I haven't," John said, and he knew what he had decided, up there in the darkness of his loft, and he knew, too, that it was meaningless; that he could never be the sort of person who turned his back when people were at risk. He had seen the Wraith. He should have warned them. He should…
"John?" Hawkin said, his eyes bright in his seamed face.
"I saw it," John told him, "the thing that's killing these people." His hand rose to his chest. "It tried to kill me, but I got away."
Hawkin took a step back, his hand coming up in a warding gesture that John had never seen before. "You escaped from one of the Others when it had chosen you?"
John shook his head. "No, no. It wasn't like that - not like the stories. I saw it, but--"
"Don't say it." Hawkin grabbed him by the arm. "If you were any other stranger, John, I would walk away; walk away and leave you to the mercy of the Other that has placed its mark on you. But you've helped me with the ploughing when I couldn't do it myself, and I reckon that means I owe you a favour. Stay quiet, John. Tell no-one. They'll kill you if they think you've been enthralled."
John pulled his arm away, his hand rising instinctively to the wound on his chest. "But we can beat it. If we all go together--"
"No," Hawkin said, and his face turned cold. "Because I owe you a favour, I told you to keep this to yourself. But because these people here are mine, I ask you this, John: can you continue to live here when your presence might be the death of us all?"
John thought of bodies in the ocean, bodies on the shore. He curled his fingers into the flesh around his wound. "That's crazy," he said. "It isn't like that."
Hawkin shivered, tugging his coat tighter around his shoulders. "But can you take the risk, John? Can you be sure that you haven't brought death to us?"
Every day that passed only served to confirm just how comprehensively screwed he was. Rodney slumped down on the floor of the gate ship, blinking up at trailing wires and exposed crystals. His eyes were gritty from too little sleep, and he still hadn't found a way to get himself home.
"Of course I haven't," he said. "What part of 'impossible' am I failing to comprehend here?" The greatest minds on Earth had tried for years to find a way to bypass the need for the Ancient Descendants' Gene, and it just couldn't be done. Certain things required the gene; it was as simple as that. And because the Ancients in this godforsaken hellhole of an alternate Earth had apparently been even more secretive and paranoid than the regular kind, those 'certain things' included… oh yes, everything that Rodney needed to survive.
He ripped open another pack of military rations, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He still had enough for a week, or perhaps two, and then…
"Why haven't you come to rescue me?" he shouted, slamming his fist into the wall behind him. "Is it too much to ask?" He cradled his throbbing fist with his other hand. "After all, I've saved Atlantis at least a dozen times. You need me. Genius? Brightest mind in two galaxies? You'll be lost without me."
Not that they'll miss me for any other reason, a small and stupid part of him whispered. He had been passed from team to team like a hot potato that nobody wanted to keep hold of, and now his latest team had gone and gotten themselves killed, and it wasn't his fault, it wasn't his fault at all, but...
He stood up and walked to front of the craft, slumping down in the pilot's seat. His watch claimed that it was just after midday, but that was measuring the time back on an Atlantis in another universe. Outside the gate ship, all was dark, and inside was little better, lit only by the faint blue glow of exposed crystals. He groped for the P90 he had removed from Sergeant Behr's body and switched on the thin beam of light, but then the gate ship was the only thing illuminated in the entire dark complex, and anyone out there could see him, and he wouldn't be able to see them. It was like a beacon saying kill me! eat me!
He switched the light off, and sat hunched around himself in the darkness. His stomach felt hollow, even though he still had plenty of food. His chest hurt and his throat ached, and was that light-headedness the first signs of suffocation? Had he caught some vile plague from his trip outside? He scraped his hand across his brow. Was he too hot? Was his hand too cold?
Something struck the side of the gate ship. Rodney's head snapped up. "God!" he gasped "Is that--?"
The sound came again. In the faint light of the exposed crystals, Rodney saw a face at the window, ghostly white, with long pale hair. A hand smashed against the glass, then scraped its way down, nails screaming.
Rodney cradled the gun. "It's reinforced glass," he reminded himself, "and the hatch is locked. It can't get in. It can't get in. Go eat someone else." But perhaps it didn't want to eat him, just recognised his technological superiority and thought he knew the way home.
"But I don't know how to get home!" he screamed. "It's impossible, okay? It can't be done! I can't do it! I can't do it!"
The Wraith struck the glass with its fist, and then came a series of thuds as if it was kicking the gate ship in fury. The entire craft trembled. Rodney retreated backwards and sat in the rear hatch, knees pulled up to his chest.
Half an hour later, when he dared to peer out again, the Wraith was still there, its forehead pressed against the glass.
It was still there in his dreams.
Can you take the risk, John?
The rain stopped during the evening. John clambered down the ladder and went out into the moonlight. The ploughed earth smelled damp and cold. The ghostly shape of a barn owl swooped down from behind him, then went ahead of him, as if heralding his way.
He could hear them talking in the ale-house. He could go right in, he thought, and tell them what he had seen. He could muster them and lead them out, forcing them to lay aside the certainties of their stories and to take a stand.
But how could he do that when everything he had ever believed had already died? How could he do that it there was a risk, any risk at all, that he would be leading them to their deaths?
The barn owl disappeared into the night. A cat ran past him, screeching. "Oh, it's you, John," he heard someone say. The man's face was less clear than the scythe that was thrust out in front of him. "Can't be too careful," the man said. "Dangerous things are abroad."
"Like wolves." John tipped his head in the direction of a distant howling.
"They say the wolves had been driven back before the years of dying," the man said, but then he shook his head, raising the scythe. "I'm talking about the Others, of course. Cold iron helps. Do you have cold iron, John?"
John nodded a lie. Moonlight was silver, and he thought of people hunted down by the Wraith, dying in agony from its hand on their chest. The dead woman had a true-love, the girl had said, who was probably looking for her, looking and looking for her.
John stopped walking, his hand on a withered tree. Six months ago, the waves had claimed him. Perhaps, perhaps, it was time to break free.
The Wraith was gone by morning. "But has it really gone," Rodney wondered out loud, "or is it just hiding, trying to draw me out into its trap?"
One hour passed, then two, then three.
The air grew thicker and thicker. He pressed his hand to his chest, and felt the racing of his heart. He was suffocating! He was going to--
He grabbed the gun and the Wraith stunner and held them ready, one in each hand, although the gun was too big to hold one-handed and kept wanting to slip out of his grip. He opened the hatch, then recoiled backwards, bringing the weapons up, but nothing happened. No-one roared or tried to slaughter him hideously, which was a definite plus.
He edged forward. He still hadn't buried his dead, and they lay dry and twisted on either side of the half-buried doorway. He looked straight ahead as he walked past them, his weapons shaking in his hands. His latest team, the latest of four. But it wasn't his fault that everyone was too stupid to tolerate his genius. It wasn't his fault that they couldn't play well with someone who didn't match their narrow ideas of how people should behave.
It must have rained during his days of incarceration in the gate ship, because the earth was wet and sticky, and streams of it had flowed over the threshold. There were… He frowned, peering sharply downwards. Yes! Wraith footprints, heading in, then heading out again.
"Thank God!" Rodney felt his shoulders slumping with relief. He squelched through the short tunnel and emerged on the hillside. The sun was shining, struggling through dark-edged clouds, and he turned his face to the light and inhaled great gasps of cool fresh air.
He didn't notice the hunters approach. When he saw them, he whirled round, firing off a blast of the Wraith stunner, but it was already too late. They wrestled him to the ground, and then something struck him hard on the back of his head, and then--
He should have left before dawn, but he was slow to awaken. Thoughts had kept him awake until late into the night, but his body felt the need for sleep. Ever since he had been attacked by the Wraith, he had felt sluggish and exhausted, as if the creature had drained something essential away from him. But his knife blade and puddled water showed that his appearance was unchanged, except for darker shadows beneath his eyes.
The place felt different when he emerged from the barn. It's because I've decided to leave it, he thought. Everything always seemed different after you had decided to leave a place, the buildings and the people once again slipping into the role of strangers.
His horse was gone from the stables when he went for it.
Charlotte had followed him in, twirling a spindle in her hand. "They rode out, John," she said. "Took your horse."
He opened and closed his fists at his side. "Where did they go?"
"I don't know, John." She was close behind him, bringing the scent of tallow and wood-smoke. "They were planning it in the ale-house last night. Womenfolk weren't allowed. Weren't you there, John? I could have… If you were lonely, John, I could have…"
"Dammit." He walked past her, seeing her turn her face to follow him with her eyes. Outside, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the light winking out. The fields were almost empty, just a small group of older children removing stones. A woman looked out of a window, peering into the west with a worried frown. When a small child ran out from her door, she called him back, then dragged him in and shut the door.
"It's something about the Others, John," Charlotte said.
John nodded distractedly, and started to walk, leaving the village. She trotted behind him, spindle flying. "It's not the day of rest. Are you leaving us, John?"
Shapes crested the far horizon: at least a dozen men on horseback. John held up his hand, angled backwards, palm towards the girl. "Go back," he said. "Go somewhere safe, just in case." She hesitated, and he snapped it firmly. "Go back."
The horsemen drew closer, and John moved into the shadow of a tree to watch them. He was surprised by how quickly he was able to recognise them just by their outline and the way they sat, as if some dormant, tactical part of him had been noticing more about his current neighbours than he had ever realised. Hawkin had taken John's own horse. William and Thomas were there, and almost all the adult men folk of a village of barely sixty souls.
As they drew closer, John could hear the sound of quiet singing - someone humming a broken tune under their breath. He stepped forward, and the song stopped. Hawkin stopped, but the others carried on for a few more paces, until they ringed him in a semi-circle. "Pa's back!" a child cried from far behind, but was silenced with a hiss.
"Don't look like that, John," Hawkin said, although John hadn't been aware of his face showing anything at all. "I borrowed your lovely, that's all. She'll be all yours again in a minute."
"Where did you go?" He had no right to sound accusing, he knew, but he couldn't stop it from coming out that way.
"It was as you said, John." Hawkin's mouth smiled, although his eyes were wary. "You said we could confront the Other if we all went together."
"It is always the solitary ones who are taken," William said. "Nowhere in any of the stories do the Others come for someone who is not alone."
"Alone and wandering on green hills beneath the stars," said Thomas, "and lost in dreams."
"And the stories also tell of iron." Robert the smith raised a fist specked with scars from blazing embers. "Cold, hard iron makes them powerless."
"We were afraid," Hawkin said, "and we would have let our fear rule us, if you hadn't--"
"So the Wraith's dead?" John's voice sounded harsh. "Tall guy? Long white hair?"
"We went to the hill near Glaston, where the Others dwell in song." William was speaking too loudly, and John realised that he was addressing the women and children who were approaching from the village behind him, already telling stories. "We found the creature emerging from the hill itself. It tried to strike us with its magic, but we bound it with iron."
"Where is it, pa?" the little girl asked, reaching up to her father's knee.
"Foolish child." William stooped to ruffle her hair. "We couldn't bring it here in case that drew the eyes of its vengeful kin. We hid our faces…" He pulled up a knotted scarf from around his neck, dragging it over his face, covering everything except for thin slits for eyes and nose. The others did the same. Some of them had painted grotesque faces on their masks. The little girl screamed, snatching her hand back. "Nothing to be afraid of, little one." William's voice was muffled and less human than it had been. "It's so the Other wouldn't recognise us or know us or know how to find you all, dear hearts."
"And so we wouldn't be enchanted by its wiles," said Hawkin. His mask was the most hideous in a ring of creatures without human faces.
"So you killed it," John said, remembering how its wounds had healed. "Are you sure?"
"Oh no, John." Still masked, Hawkin shook his head. "You cannot kill one of the Others. Only weather and sunlight and time can do that."
"And cold, hard iron," said the smith.
The mask twisted into a grotesque smile. "And cold, hard iron."
"But it didn't look like the Others are supposed to look." Thomas pulled his mask down, and grimaced at the first few heavy drops of rain. "It had short hair and it wasn't beautiful. But it attacked us with magic - cold, blue flame. We found it by chance as it emerged from the hill, and struck it down before it could see us." He wiped rain from his face. "I need a drink. We all need a drink. We took on one of the Others, lads! Oh, there'll be songs about this in time."
"In time?" said another man, hidden by his mask. "I'll compose it by tonight and set it to a good old tune."
"And a chorus!" Thomas shouted, still the only one looking human. "We need a chorus!"
Hawkin dismounted and passed the reins to John. Their fingers touched for a moment, but Hawkin's eyes were just slits in the mask, and there was no message there.
John mounted without a word. He didn't even have to think about it at all; he just knew. He'd been lost for too many months, and this…? This was the right thing to do.
Charlotte, he thought, was the only one who watched him as he rode away.
Rodney woke up to pain. His head was throbbing and his vision swam, and he screwed his eyes shut with a groan, but when he tried to raise his hand to shield his eyes from the light, nothing happened. He tried again, and nothing… No, no, not nothing; something far worse than nothing. What happened was that metal pulled hard and painfully at his wrists. What happened was that he heard the rattle of chains. What happened was that the muscles of his arms were screaming. What happened was…
"Oh," he rasped. "Oh, God, please no." He tugged again, pulling, pulling as hard as he could, but all that happened was agony at his wrists, as he tried to drag his hands through metal bands that were far too small for them. Muscles strained in his arms, shooting out lines of burning pain.
He looked around, head darting from side to side, his skull throbbing sickeningly, his stomach lurching. He was sitting on a stone slab in the middle of a large ruin, his legs stretched out in front of him. There was something hard against his back, and when he peered behind him, he saw that it was a stone pillar. Whenever he moved his screaming arms, he heard chains scraping against stone. His hands… Oh, God, his arms were stretched out behind him, one on either side, his wrists held tightly by a length of taut chain that passed behind the pillar. He couldn't move. Oh, God, he couldn't move. He couldn't…
Green fields, he thought. Calm. Stay calm. But his head was throbbing in time with his racing heart. He'd been screwed anyway, and now this. He had no memory of what had happened, except for a quick flash of a circle of creatures with dark slits for eyes.
"Help!" he screamed. "Help! Can anyone hear me? I need help!"
It left his throat feeling dry and scraped. Nobody came. A large black carrion bird landed on a headless statue nearby, eyeing him hungrily. "Go away," he told it, and he tried to flap his hand, earning a fresh stab of pain in his shoulder. "Shoo!" he pleaded "I'm not dead yet, and I… I have no intention of dying any time soon, so go. Go away. Shoo."
It flew away, wings flapping noisily. Tangled undergrowth quivered in the rain. Maybe they'd chained him up here as a sacrifice. Maybe hideous creatures were watching him, preparing to pounce. Maybe the Wraith… "Oh, please no," he gasped, "please, please, no," as red clouds of terror pulsed across his vision, and the rain seeped through his clothing, and he started to shiver, unable to stop, each tremor driving a spike of agony through his skull.
"Help!" he screamed again, when he had the strength to. "Let me go!" he demanded, a little while after that. "I demand it!" The sky grew darker, though the rain eased. "Why have you done this?" he shouted. "I haven't done anything. All I want to do is get home. Is that a crime now?"
Nothing. Nothing. He had been chained up and left to die.
end of chapter two
The Others fear only one thing, and that is the touch of cold iron. When bound by iron, an Other is as weak as a child on a sick bed. The Others cannot die, not as men can die, but if forced to spend too long beneath the open skies, they fade as the autumn leaves do fade, and return to the earth a broken shadow, never again to leave it.
But you know that. Every child knows that.
But it is easy to forget, when fear is driving you. John, a stranger, reminded us, in that long-ago spring-time. John, a stranger, told us to take action, and not to lose ourselves in stories and in grief.
But John was wrong.
John had never meant to be a wanderer.
As a child, he had loved his family fiercely, and had declared with child-like confidence that he would never let anything happen to them. Back them, he had thought that he would spend his whole life in those few square miles that were home. But then he had grown. His journeys had become longer and longer, and he had started to watch the path of migrating birds, and to wonder where they went. "Why don't you follow them, then?" his father had screamed, the winter after everything had changed.
And so John had, starting the long course of years that had led to him getting onto a ship. That ship had offered a tantalising hints of a new kind of home, but then it had gone down in a nightmare of stormy water.
Since then he had wandered, putting down no roots, interacting with people as seldom as possible. Two months he had lived in the most recent village, and he still didn't know its name. He left it without the tiniest shred of regret. It didn't mean anything to him.
It should mean something, he thought. Life wasn't supposed to be like this. Once upon a time, life hadn't been like this. Once upon a time, he hadn't been like this.
"Once upon a time…" he said aloud. "You're as bad as they are, John."
It wasn't a story. Immortal Others didn't emerge from below ground to entice mortals to join their dance. But a man with a marvellous weapon had saved John's life, and now, if John interpreted the situation correctly, was at risk of losing his own. John had always been quick to act when people were in danger; how had he lost that? You know that very well, John, he thought. But two wrongs didn't make a right. He'd failed to save lives in the shipwreck, but by turning his back, by shutting himself off from the world…
He stopped that thought; rode on steadily through the rain, conscious of the miles that his horse had already ridden that morning, but conscious, too, that delay could be fatal. Certain things still hurt, but perhaps, in a very small way, this could feel like an awakening. The old John Sheppard was dead, never to return, but perhaps, if he saved this man's life…
"Stupid, John," he berated himself. This wasn't a story, where revelations came quickly, and one good deed could wipe out everything bad in your past. Nothing had changed. He was leaving because he was losing another piece of himself with every day that he stayed. He was leaving because…
That thought, too, he halted, letting himself drift in the rhythm of the hooves. He came down from the hills, down into the marshy plain. Marks in the mud showed that a large party had been this way before him, travelling first in one direction and then the other. The lone hill with its single tower rose ahead of him, visible for miles around.
He saw the guards before he came upon them, of course; the bleak hillside offered little protection. They stood beneath a solitary thorn tree, looking cold and wet and miserable. It was too late, of course, to slip away unnoticed. John decided to brazen it out. "Hi," he said, raising his hand.
They were still wearing their masks, their eyes invisible behind narrow slits. As John approached, he mentally kicked himself. He'd noticed all along that the party returning to the village had consisted of most of the able-bodied men, but it hadn't occurred to him to wonder where the others were. Just six months ago, he thought, it would have been very different.
What have I lost? he thought, but then that thought became irrelevant, because no thoughts except those of the here and now could be allowed to matter.
Focus changed. He saw the way they stood, slow and heavy, like men not trained for combat. He saw their blunt eating knives at their belts, and the way that one was nervously opening and closing his hand at his side. He saw their iron chains and their iron talismans. He saw how one of them favoured his left leg, and he marked the terrain between them as he closed the gap, to stop a dozen paces from them.
"John," one of them said, his voice muffled; John didn't know his name. "Have you been sent to relieve us, John?"
The other one shook his head. "They wouldn't. Not a stranger."
John rubbed his neck, wiping away rain. "I… Uh, here's the thing. I heard what had happened, and I, uh, wanted to see the… Other for myself. I didn't tell you guys, but it nearly killed me the other day. I want to see it safely bound in iron." Their masked faces were blank, staring at him. "So if you could, uh… point the way…" He gave them a quick encouraging grin.
The first man shook his head. "We can't do that, John." His voice sounded apologetic, but his hand went to his knife.
The other one took up the tale. "We knew about the Others from songs and stories," he said, "but they haven't been seen in these parts since before the years of darkness. But now this one comes just two turnings of the moon since you arrived, John."
"It's not that we don't trust you, John," the first man said, "but… well, you are a stranger."
A stranger, always a stranger, John thought, because you could live in a place for fifty years without them forgetting that you weren't born there, and the doors of his birthplace had long since been closed to him.
He moved swiftly, closing the gap between them, grabbing the second man with an arm around the neck, bringing up his knife to his throat. "Tell me where you left him," he hissed. "Bound in iron, was it? Where?"
"In the ruins of Glaston, John," the man forced out through lips that hardly moved. John could feel the man's heart racing in his throat.
"Anyone watching him?" John demanded.
"No. No." It was the other man who spoke, his own knife trembling uselessly in his hand. "We're watching in case the Other's kin emerge from the door down yonder, but there's no-one there, John, no-one there at all."
"Good." John tightened his grip on the man. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "I have a past, you see. This whole mysterious stranger thing I had going… It wasn't a lie. I know how to hurt you. I don't want to, but I strongly advise you not to follow me and not to try to stop me."
He let the man go. The man fell to his knees and gasped for breath, ripping the mask from his face. He was little more than a boy, barely twenty. John was fairly sure that his name was Sam.
What have I become? he thought, but he couldn't let it show on his face. Edging backwards, knife in hand, he walked away from them, until he had made two dozen paces, when he turned his back to walk away.
He heard them bearing down on him, of course; prepared to defend himself, but he had no desire to hurt them for real. They had no such qualms. John's foot slipped in trampled mud, and that gave them the opening they needed. Two on one gave him little chance, not when he couldn't use his knife freely. "You've got it wrong," he said - stupid, stupid words. A knife gouged across his upper arm. A foot found his side, kicking again and again, and he gave a ragged howl of pain as they struck the marks left the Wraith on his chest.
He tore himself free in the end, his hand ripping up a handful of grass, his fingers sinking into the mud. He slid down the hill, then gravity took him, carrying him further than he intended, rolling him over and over, depositing him on a terrace in front of a dark tunnel into the hill itself.
Two items lay in the grass. Panting, gasping for breath, he laid his hand on one of them, rain slithering against his palm. Two faces, one masked and one uncovered, looked down from above, clearly reluctant to approach the opening.
John pulled himself to his feet, and it was all he could do to remain upright, not to curl in on himself with pain. He felt blood on his upper arm, oozing from the jagged line of liquid fire. "Call it quits, guys?" he rasped, and then he ran.
The rain grew heavier, the visibility becoming more and more limited - or maybe that was just his own fading vision, because, hello, injured man here? Rodney had struggled until he was panting and exhausted, but there was nothing he could do to free himself. Best brain in two galaxies, he thought, and he couldn't undo a piece of technology straight out of the Middle Ages.
His head sagged. The throbbing grew worse and worse, his vision blurring. His stomach churned, and he swallowed and swallowed, trying to keep himself from throwing up. "Because, oh, yes, I seem to have a concussion," he said, "on top of everything else. Isn't that enough to make this the perfect day?"
Nothing he could do. Nothing he could do. A bird of prey circled overhead, screeching. Rodney looked up, and rain fell in his eyes. He screwed them shut, blinking, and instinctively tried to bring his hand up to rub at his eyes. The sharp pain in his wrist made him moan aloud.
When he opened his eyes again, a dark figure was approaching on horseback from the trees, stooping low to avoid the overhanging branches. Rodney's mouth went very dry. He saw the long shape of a gun across the man's lap, and saw the easy way he controlled the horse, holding the reins one-handed. It made him think of Westerns, and then he almost laughed – it was either that, or cry – because it struck him suddenly how unfair it was in real life that you couldn't tell by the music whether someone was a hero or a villain. This man looked as if he could be either.
The man dismounted, turning his back on Rodney as he tied his horse to a tree. He's come to kill me, Rodney thought. I am so screwed.
The horse snorted. The man pressed his hand to the creature's neck for a moment, then turned round, his face impassive. "Oh," Rodney gasped, recognising the peasant he had saved from the Wraith. "It's you. I saved your life, you know. It really wouldn't be fair if you paid me back by killing me, you know."
The man said nothing at all, merely paced closer. He stopped a few feet away, and Rodney had to peer upwards to see his face. It hurt his neck, the stone pillar pressing against the back of his head.
Rodney swallowed. "Or you've just come to do the silent gloating thing. I get that. Not content with--"
"That," the man interrupted, indicating Rodney's situation with a jerk of the chin, "wasn't me."
"Oh. Well." Rodney moistened his lips. "Then what about, oh, I don't know, setting me free?"
The man remained standing. It suddenly occurred to Rodney that he should probably have tried lashing out at him with his feet, but then he saw that whether by accident or design, the man had positioned himself just out of reach.
"People have been dying," the man said at last, "all shrivelled and old. That the Wraith guy's doing?"
"Of course it is." Rodney could feel his heart racing in his chest, sending prickles of pain up and down his cramped arms. "And this is relevant how?"
The man crouched down. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, as if they were somewhere else entirely, somewhere where they had all the time in the world. "They tell stories in these parts," he said, then gave a quick smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Scratch that. They tell stories everywhere, but it's worse round here. These guys really believe them."
"Stories?" Rodney sneered. "Forgive me for forgetting that I'm in kindergarten and this is story time."
"Stories," the man said. A thick drop of rain rolled down his cheek like a tear. He wiped it away, catching it low on his chin. "About… creatures who live under the hill. They call them Others, but I've heard other folks call them fairies. They like to invite mortals home with them, but time passes differently down there, so--"
"And this is relevant how?" Rodney demanded again. "Are you going to rescue me, or are just planning on boring me to death?"
The man looked at him mildly. "You came out of the hill, you see…"
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Rodney cried. "You think I'm a fairy? Oh, please don't let Zelenka ever get to hear of this."
The man stood up again. There was a look in his eyes that didn't match his peasant clothes. "See, I don't believe in the Others," he said, and then he turned away, heading back towards his horse. "But then," he said, the words carrying clear over his shoulder despite the pounding of the rain, "until a few days ago, I would have sworn blind that nothing like a Wraith could ever exist."
Come back! Rodney thought, then wondered why he was thinking such a thing. A dangerous-looking stranger going away and leaving you was a very good thing to happen, really.
But the man didn't mount the horse. When he turned back, he was holding the Wraith stunner in one hand and had the heavy P90 resting across the other arm. "You attacked the Wraith with blue fire," the man said, as he raised the stunner and pointed it at Rodney's chest. Am I right in assuming that I can get the same effect if I press this--"
"No," Rodney gasped, as pain erupted in his shoulders and his wrists, and metal scraped as he struggled. "I mean, yes. Yes, you're right, but don't… you don't understand. I've got a head injury, probably a concussion for sure. I don't know what'll happen if I get stunned on top of a concussion, but I'm willing to bet it's not good. It might kill me. So don't, please. Please, just… don't."
The man lowered the stunner a few inches, and stalked forward again. His eyes raked Rodney over from head to toe. "Where do you come from?" he asked.
"A very long way away," Rodney said, "somewhere you've never heard of, and I'm trying to get back, but I can't, okay? I can't." His voice cracked on a stab of pain.
The man lowered the stunner even further. Something flickered across his face, before all the muscles tightened. Then a dog barked not too far away. The man glanced round and the horse raised its head. The horse was the first of the two to relax. The man was breathing fast, Rodney noticed, and there was fresh blood on his arm, and wet smears of it on the back of his hand.
"They're going to come," the man said simply, his voice showing none of that. "Neither of us want to be there when they do."
"Oh, d'you think?" Rodney said, and the man smiled – a quick flash of a smile that almost looked genuine. "So how's about getting me out of these things?" Rodney demanded.
The man walked round Rodney in a wide circle. When Rodney twisted his neck, he could still see him, but only just; a dark figure kneeling on the ground, his head bent, his mouth set in an intent line. Rodney moaned when the man touched the bands at his wrist. Then pain flared in his head, and he had to close his eyes; had to face forward again and swallow hard to keep himself from throwing up.
The dog barked again, nearer this time. "Well?" Rodney demanded, when he could.
The man's voice gave nothing away. "It needs a key."
Rodney breathed in and out again. "And oh, yes, I've got the key right here, but I thought I'd sit on it rather than use it to get out." He felt the man's fingers brush the back of his hand, the touch wet with blood or rain. He swallowed again. "We haven't got a key," he said.
The dog was nearer. Was that someone shouting? The horse stopped eating, and looked up warily, tugging at its rope. Screwed, Rodney thought. Screwed. He wasn't going to…
No. No. Focus. Think. Try to push away the hammer-blows of pain. Try to clear his fading vision. Try to forget the fact that he was probably dying from bleeding inside his skull. Try to forget…
"You'll have to shoot the chain," he said. His voice sounded high, shrill. "Not with the stunner but the other one. It's… Have you ever fired a gun before? I… Listen, I don't know anything about guns, okay – don't know the proper words for things. This one fires out lots and lots of bullets. Practise on something that isn't me first, because I don't feel like being the victim of friendly fire, and…"
Rodney's words ran out. The man said nothing, nothing to show that he had heard, nothing to show that his idiot peasant mind had even understood. But Rodney sensed rather than saw him stand up.
When the gunfire started, Rodney jumped, his head impacting against the pillar. Pain surged in a wave, and he tried to cling on, he really did, but the wave swept him away.
John kept going through the rain, through a day that was getting darker and darker. The man he had freed was lying face down across the horse's shoulders, his head pressed against John's knee. It was an awkward position to ride in, but John had done it before; remembered riding one-handed, the other pressed to the savage teeth-marks on his brother's flank.
It had been raining then, too.
"Stupid, John," he berated himself, then gave a harsh bark of laughter at how often he had called himself that - more than ever in the last few months. The past was still relevant, but others things mattered more. Like the fact that he had no idea where to go. Like the fact that the villagers were probably already hunting them, and the Wraith…
No, he thought, focus on the first of the problems. When he twisted in the saddle, steadying the man with a hand on his shoulder, he couldn't see anyone following them. Low cloud and driving rain had taken most of the countryside, but there was no movement in any part of it that he could see. Even the birds had retreated, turning the land into empty, dead space.
Where to go? All he knew was that west lay the sea. He'd come from there, and had lived in two other villages before the latest one, but they wouldn't want him back. Or maybe they would, he thought, remembering the watchful attention of certain girls, but he had no desire to go back to them and risk putting them in danger.
The man stirred, groaning, then settled down again. A few inches of chain trailed from each wrist, and his hands were smeared dark with blood. John had parted the man's hair and looked at the wound there; had gently wiped away the blood with a corner of his coat, and had known that there was nothing he could do but get the man to safety as soon as possible, and then…
Rain drove into his face. A tree took shape from the rain like a ship coming out of the mist. "And then…?" he said aloud, but he had no answers.
He shook his head briskly. "Cross that bridge when you come to it, John. First things first. Concentrate on the here and now." Truisms that his mother had said before she had stopped smiling. Lessons that his commanding officers had taught him in his days in the militia, when focusing on the wrong problem could bring about your death.
He reached a line of trees, too straight to be accidental. Once, long ago, humans had planted these here. John considered it just for a moment, then headed into the trees. The rain eased when he was underneath them, but there weren't enough leaves to keep the rain off entirely, and heavy drops fell from the branches.
The ground started to slope downwards, and John suddenly realised that he had been here before. But then the leaves had just started to turn brown, and he had been sick and barely aware of his surroundings, injured in more ways than one.
"Stupid," he told himself again, and he smiled again, because he had to. None of that mattered. What mattered was that this was a good place to bring this… what was he? Prisoner? Travelling companion? He didn't know. He had no idea what was going to happen as a result of freeing him.
But he knew one thing, and that was that if he had left the man to die there in the ruins, it would have meant that he was no longer John Sheppard, but something dead inside, not deserving to live.
Rodney heard himself groan before he had fully processed the fact that he was awake. He brought his hand up to his throbbing head, but it felt heavier than normal, as if…
His eyes snapped open. He remembered everything. "Is a bit of amnesia too much to ask for," he demanded, "so I can at least pretend that everything's okay?"
No-one answered him. Rodney had a dim memory of half awakening to find himself slung over a saddle, but he now he appeared to be lying on the ground, and, "oh, how nice," he sneered, because someone seemed to have covered him up with a sodden, filthy coat, doubtless riddled with germs. He pushed it down his body, and managed to sit up.
The man who had freed him was dragging branches around, like a boy scout struggling to make some sort of shelter. "You okay?" he asked, when he saw Rodney moving.
"No, I am very much not okay," Rodney snapped.
"I'm trapped in some post-apocalyptic nightmare, I can't get home, I've
got chains on my wrist, and I'm probably dying of a head injury. You?"
"Me? I was nearly killed by a creature who can't exist, and got myself cut up by a kid with a butter knife," the man said, with a smile, "but I'm good."
Some sort of structure rose up behind Rodney, and he pushed himself backwards until he could lean against it. His head was pounding. He pulled the coat over his legs. "Oh," he said belatedly. "That's, er… good."
They appeared to be in a thickly wooded area, which kept the worst of the rain off. Rodney swallowed hard, and looked at his hands. The metal bands were still on, but his fingers were a healthy colour, better than he'd feared they would be. There was much less blood than he had thought there would be, or perhaps the rain had washed it away.
"Head injuries can be nasty," the man said, laying down the heavy branch he had been hauling, "but there's nothing that can be done except for rest. I think we're safe here. I've covered our tracks."
Oh, Rodney thought. Nothing that could be done. Again nothing that could be done. But a small and stupid part of him wanted to close his eyes and just let things happen. At least he wasn't by himself any more. This man looked competent enough, and…
"What's your name?" he asked. "And can we answer once and for all the question of whether you're trying to kill me? I mean, you freed me, but…"
"John Sheppard," the man said, "and I have no intention of killing you." His expression was suddenly sharp. "Do you intend to kill me?"
"With what?" Rodney snapped. "A twig?" Then it occurred to him that a few inches of chain attached to each wrist could make quite a deadly weapon, if he chose to wield them. He closed his hands around the chains, and said nothing, his eyes flickering innocently around the woodland.
The man smiled, as if he'd seen exactly what Rodney had done, and was amused by it. "And you are…?"
"Rodney McKay," Rodney said. "Doctor Rodney McKay." He moistened his lips, frowning. "Why did you bring me here? What…?" The construction behind him was metal, he realised - old, rusting metal. He twisted round, his head throbbing with the movement. "It's a steam train," he gasped. Its wheels were gone, and its body was almost rusted away, but the iron rails were still there, still visible in places, where animals had dug up the soil and let the metal shine through.
"Iron," the man called Sheppard said, with a sheepish smile that suddenly made him look a lot younger than Rodney had imagined him to be. "Can't be too careful. These superstitions have a way of catching hold of you." His smile faded, and he was the stern Western hero again, expressionless and aloof. "Makes sense, too. Folks round here are afraid of the iron rails, so won't want to follow us here. They think they were built by giants and that fiery monsters raced up and down the country--" His words snapped off, and his face changed again. "You know the truth of it?" he asked, crouching down, his expression burning. "You called it a steam train. You know that they're wrong?"
Rodney scraped his heavy hand across his face. "Of course they're wrong," he said, and he closed his eyes; rested his head against the decaying wreckage that proved quite how lost this world was, and how incapable of sending him home.
The man was called McKay, and he was as human as John was. He bled, and he felt pain. He was afraid. He was tetchy and acerbic… and that, more than anything else, was what convinced John of what, really, he should have known all along.
McKay was sleeping now, huddled beneath John's coat. John had built as much of a shelter as he could, but it served for little more than to keep off the worst of the rain and the wind. As for John, he was shivering. He had bound the wound on his arm, but it was still bleeding, blood slowly seeping through the strips of torn-off cotton. His whole left arm felt heavy, as if the fingers were swollen to more than their normal size, although they looked normal enough when he flexed them.
What happens now? he thought. He crept to the edge of the woodland, remembering old lessons about moving silently. Where do we go? He had no idea. He…
He stopped, his hand pressed against the coarse bark of a tree. "Where do we go?" he murmured aloud, and it seemed like a far bigger question than the issue of where to set out in the morning. Thoughts swirled in his mind, but he couldn't pin them down to anything approaching a decision; couldn't even complete each thought.
The day was ending. Light was fading, but the rain was easing, the visibility briefly becoming better than it had been all day. Ruins were visible in the deserted landscape, reminding anyone who saw them that they lived in a fallen world.
And then something moved against a distant ruin. John edged back into the shadow of the trees, and stopped breathing.
It was the Wraith. The Wraith was stalking, looking for prey.
What happens now? John had wondered. And now, he thought, pressing his lips together grimly, he knew.
end of chapter three
The Others cannot lead a man to do something entirely against his will. Oh, they can trick you with their words and dazzle you with their glamour, but the final choice is your own. They cannot destroy you unless there comes a time when you say, "yes." As you crumble to dust, you know that you alone were the author of your own doom.
"Will you dance?" the Other had asked, and John had said no. "Will you dance?" the Other asked a second time, and this time… This time John said yes.
From that point on, every single thing that John said or did was just a step in the dance written for him by the Other. He would have denied it, but we know the truth, don't we, little one?
From that point on, the Other owned him heart and soul.
Rodney dreamed of Atlantis. He dreamed of its towers, and of the view of the ocean from his window. He dreamed of the smell of coffee late at night in his lab, when he was working on solving whatever new crisis somebody else's carelessness had unleashed. He dreamed of the chocolate cake they served in the mess hall on particularly good days…
He dreamed of its people, and he woke up missing them.
"Ow," he said, feeling sharp things digging into his side. People weren't supposed to sleep on the cold, hard ground; it wasn't natural. He was cold and wet, and his head was aching, and he also… He sat up carefully, grimacing at the painful stiffness in his arms and shoulders. Yes, how marvellous. He also appeared to be completely alone, abandoned by his mysterious rescuer or captor or whatever he was. Which is a good thing, right? he reminded himself. It's good.
The dream lingered. He pushed himself to his feet, supporting himself with one hand against the rusty engine when his head throbbed dully. Atlantis, he thought. What sort of a person would voluntarily take a one-way ticket to another galaxy? Freaks and misfits with nothing to lose back home, that's who. And even in a such a group of people, Rodney was the outsider. He was passed from team to team, never settling in any one. It was because they didn't have the wit to appreciate him, of course, but… Well, they still did it, and… and Rodney didn't care, of course, but…
But nothing, he thought, because he had other priorities right now, like… like, for starters, the fact that the mysterious man - Sheppard. His name is Sheppard - hadn't vanished after all, but, oh look, was stalking towards him from the trees.
Rodney sat down again, his head throbbing. "There's food," Sheppard said, nodding towards an unappetising something, impaled on a stick over an extinguished fire. "It's more smoked than cooked, because the wood was wet, but it'll do. Better than starving." He gave a quick grin, but it didn't reach his eyes.
"You spent the night cooking?"
Sheppard smiled again. "That and other things." He didn't look tired, though, or at least no more than he had looked the day before.
Rodney crawled towards the fire, reaching gingerly for the blacked lump of something. The smell was acceptable, if you liked things smelling of smoke.
Sheppard was watching him when Rodney turned round, the something still held in his hand. "Rabbit," Sheppard said. "Go ahead. I've already eaten one and it hasn't killed me yet."
"Then I'll wait a few more hours," Rodney said, "and see if you drop down dead from food poisoning."
"I appreciate your concern for my welfare," Sheppard said, his face giving nothing away. Then, in the same tone, he said, "The Wraith passed by last night. I hadn't taken the… what do you call it? The stunner?" He carried on without waiting for Rodney to reply. Rodney was busy wiping meat juices from his fingers. "By the time I'd come back for it, it was getting dark and I'd lost the trail, and there was you to consider, too. I had to let him go."
"Oh." Rodney's fingers still smelled of smoked meat. When he went to scrape the grime of the night from his face, he could taste it, too. He looked at the hunk of meat again. Sheppard, he saw, was still watching him. He had appropriated the stunner, attaching it firmly to his belt. "I see you're taking steps to prevent that happening again," Rodney said. "It is mine, you know."
"And you said you weren't good at using it."
"I said that?" Rodney swallowed. "I say a lot of things. You don't have to pay attention to most of them; most people don't. I…" He looked up at Sheppard's impassive face. "You remember me saying that? Do you remember everything? Silent people often do. It's not fair of them, you know, to be so silent, so you think--"
"I remember things when they might make a difference to my situation," Sheppard said, "and when a stranger who might end up proving to be an enemy admits that he isn't a good shot, then it's something worth remembering."
"Oh," Rodney said. Maybe he would try a little of the meat, he thought. A small amount couldn't kill him, and starvation wasn't pretty, and, well, hypoglycaemia. He ripped off a piece. Sheppard watched him. "What are you going to do with me?" Rodney found himself asking.
"Not going to do anything to you," Sheppard said.
"Good," Rodney said. "That's good." The meat tasted of smoke more than anything else. It was tough, but not entirely unpleasant. "Because I need to get back to the… I need to get back." He swallowed the lump, feeling it travel down towards his stomach.
"Back to the hill, you mean?" Sheppard knelt down beside the fire. He picked up a charred stick, not really looking at it. "They'll be guarding it, of course."
"Guarding?" Rodney echoed, his mouth full.
Sheppard looked sharply at him. "They think you're a murderer, and they think I helped you escape so you can murder some more. They're not going to let this one drop."
"Oh," Rodney said. He remembered those inhuman faces with their black slits for eyes. Masks, he realised now. He swallowed another piece of meat. "Can't you, uh…?"
Sheppard jabbed the end of the stick into the ashes. "I plan on hunting down the Wraith."
"What?" Rodney cried. "Deliberately trying to find a Wraith…? I travel to a different universe, and oh, look, I'm still surrounded by crazy people who want to get themselves killed."
"You knocked it out," Sheppard said. "We could have killed it. We didn't. That makes it our responsibility." He jabbed the stick in the ground again, then started to move it, tracing jagged patterns in the ashes. "Why didn't you kill it?"
"Because I wasn't thinking things through, okay?" Rodney shouted. "Because… because you don't. You use a stunner because it take them out of the picture and stops them from trying to kill you, and if you use normal bullets they keep on healing and you have to hit them lots of times, which isn't easy for me because, okay, yes, bad shot, I admit it, there. So normally we just stun them, and then we just get the hell out of there, and…"
"And then they wake up after you've gone, but I guess that's someone else's problem." The stick snapped in Sheppard's hand, the charred end falling to the ground. "I don't see it that way," he said.
Rodney chewed slower and slower. He thought of planets they had left, running like hell for the Gate, throwing themselves through, leaving a dozen stunned Wraith behind them. He thought of Sergeant Behr and the others, lying dead. His entire team had died and he hadn't even thought about them since waking up, not until now. The whole time he had cowered in the gate ship, it had never occurred to him to wonder who the Wraith was feeding on in the world outside. Rodney wasn't well liked on Atlantis. Perhaps they didn't like him with good reason.
Or maybe that was just the head injury talking, and the fact that he was cold and wet and trapped a very long way from home.
"I'm going to find the Wraith and kill it," Sheppard said, standing up. He turned his back, as if he meant to go there and then.
"Stop," Rodney rasped. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and cleared his throat. It was crazy to voluntarily seek out a Wraith, of course, but now that he had remembered Behr and the others, it was hard to forget. "I want to come with you," he blurted out, "as long as it doesn't take more than a day or two, because, well…" His voice trailed off.
Sheppard turned, and he said nothing at all, but he smiled.
McKay was grumbling about the horse, complaining about aching legs, about his stiff back, about the fact that the animal kept bending its head to drink, "and there's nothing I can do to stop it," he said, "because pulling doesn't work, and if we'd been meant to ride on horses, we'd have evolved bendy legs, and there it goes again, the stupid animal. Stop it!"
John smiled. "Just wait till she rolls over."
"It'll do that?" McKay's mouth dropped open, and his eyes were wide. "It'll roll right over and try to crush me?"
John took a few steps forward, and pressed his hand against the animal's neck until it raised its head and carried on. "You can always walk," he said, "and let me take a turn in the saddle."
"I'm injured," McKay said stiffly.
"So quit complaining, then," John said, and smiled again.
It was strangely relaxing to travel with McKay. McKay didn't demand anything that John wasn't willing to give. He kept up a constant stream of shallow talk, and all John had to do was respond in kind. John had questions – of course he had – but he shied away from asking them, because questions would breed questions. If he asked, he had to be prepared to answer, and he wasn't, not yet.
"Can't we stop for lunch?" McKay asked. "My head hurts. I need to close my eyes. It's not as if we're likely to catch the Wraith, not wandering blind like this. I haven't even got the life-signs' detector, which is back in the… back there, though it isn't any use to us, anyway, on account of the fact that the only person with a functional Ancient gene got killed by a Wraith. Looking for the Wraith is like looking for a needle in a haystack."
John pointed silently at the single line of footprints in the moist ground ahead of them.
"Oh." McKay pressed his lips together for a moment. "And that helps how? Hundreds of happy peasants have probably walked across these hills and--" He broke off. "No, don't say it." He sounded almost angry. "Post-apocalyptic scenario. Most of the population dead. High chance that the only other living thing out here is the one who's trying to eat us."
"Folks round here wear nails in their boots," John explained, "for grip."
McKay subsided. They carried on, walking through an expanse of primroses where crushed flowers showed where the Wraith had gone before. John's knife-wound was throbbing, the skin feeling red and tight. His body still felt drained of strength, but McKay's head injury and his constant complaining cast John in the role of the strong one, and that was how he had always liked it to be. He walked, and let McKay ride.
They walked past a small cluster of buildings arranged around a courtyard. The roofs had fallen in and the walls were crumbling. Stairs to the door were covered with grass, only a faint undulating pattern showing that there had ever been stairs there at all. Trees grew out of the windows, but a wolf's head was carved quite clearly in stone above the door.
"How…?" McKay cleared his throat, his voice sounding dry. "How many people are left? How many died?"
"How the hell should I know?" John had lived with such places all his life, but that didn't mean he had to like them. There were so many more of them on this side of the sea; so many more ruins. "It was a long time ago," he said, when they were clear of it.
"Yes, but--" McKay started, but John held up his hand sharply, smelling smoke. The next rise showed a small cottage on the edge of a patch of trees, smoke rising from its chimney.
John's hand went to the stunner at his belt; the other gun, the large one, was strapped to the saddle. The ground was drier here, and it was harder to tell if the Wraith had come this way. The patches of mud showed other footprints, older footprints, some of them studded with nails.
"You should stay back," John told McKay.
"What?" McKay frowned. "Because you think the Wraith's there?"
"Even if the Wraith hasn't reached here," John said. Stories could travel faster than seemed possible. Even someone living entirely alone in the middle of nowhere might have heard of the short-haired Other and the stranger who had saved his life. "You should…"
His words trailed away. The body was visible, slumped in the dirty yard outside. John approached it cautiously, stunner in hand, then crouched down, not quite touching it. A noise came from inside the cottage, and he edged inside, but it was only a cow moving at the far end of the single room, behind the low partition.
"He kept his livestock inside?" McKay had dismounted and stood in the door, one hand pressed to his lower back. "That's--"
"A lot of people do," John said, suddenly not wanting to hear any more. His voice sounded dull.
"And… God!" McKay touched the wooden dresser, where a box lay open, its contents spilling out. "That's gold," McKay breathed. "Jewels. A fortune in it."
"A fortune?" John shouted, rounding on him, his fist clenched at his side. Gold meant nothing. The old coins could be scavenged in bucket-loads from the ruined cities and the fallen great halls. "He's dead."
McKay opened his mouth; closed it again.
"Dead," John said, and pushed past McKay to stand outside, looking up at the sky.
Rodney was worried by the fire. The flames were fiercely bright in the darkness, and when he wandered away to do… what he needed to do, the smell of smoke followed him.
"Are you sure that's safe?" he asked, when he returned to it. The warmth was good, though. He sat as close to it as he dared, his body angled away from stray sparks. "I seem to have survived the day without dying from bleeding in my brain, which is a definite plus, but I don't want to get murdered in my sleep by wild beasts, peasants waving pitchforks, or Wraith."
"You can't see it from outside the trees." Sheppard had his back to Rodney. He was almost invisible, sitting just on the edge of the circle of light cast by the fire. He appeared to be doing something to his upper left arm, perhaps wrapping bandages around it. "It's better--" His voice hitched slightly. "--than being too cold. Have you tried sleeping outside without any source of warmth?"
"I have, actually," Rodney said stiffly, racking his brains for a memory that would make his statement true. "I…" Then he frowned as he played back Sheppard's words, noticing something that he should have noticed days ago. "You're American." He hadn't meant it as anything other than an unthinking observation, but Sheppard stiffened slightly. Rodney's frown deepened. "And this is England, right? A post-apocalyptic medieval England which I doubt very much runs flights across the Atlantic."
Sheppard moved even further out of the circle of firelight, only faint glimpses of him visible as he finished whatever he was doing to his arm. "How do you know about it?" he asked at last.
"About America?" Rodney began, but Sheppard interrupted what he had been about to say.
"Stupid, huh?" Sheppard said. His voice was flat, his face turned away. "Ask a question like that to a man who has weapons like this." Fat dripped from the rabbit over the fire. The fire crackled, spitting out sparks.
"How did you get here?" Rodney found himself asking.
Sheppard moved over to the fire, and removed the stick from its supporting framework. He prodded the meat with the tip of his knife. "A bit charred in places," he said, "but edible. Wait for it to cool, though." He jammed the end of the stick into the ground, snatching his hand away quickly from the juices that ran down it.
Rodney almost repeated the question, but decided not to. Never let it be said that I don't know the meaning of tact, he thought. But then Sheppard sat down on the far side of the fire, bringing up one leg, wrapping his arm loosely around it. "We found a ship," he said. "Until recently, everyone was concentrating just on staying alive, but some of us… we started to think about bigger things. We found a ship, and learnt how to rebuild it and sail it. We wondered…" He brought his other leg up. "We wondered if things weren't so bad in the rest of the world. We knew there were lands across the eastern ocean, and we wondered if they'd managed to keep things going the way they used to be."
"And they hadn't?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard shook his head. "Worse, if anything, if these parts are anything to go by. Of course, it might be different somewhere else."
Rodney watched the patterns of light and dark in the flames. "What happened to the world?" he asked. "What went wrong?"
Sheppard's face didn't look quite human in the fierce light of the flame. "It was a long time ago," he said. "Darkness covered the sun. The crops failed. Animals died. People didn't have enough to eat. The few people who survived didn't want to talk about it. Some of them were very young, not much more than children, and they couldn't remember how the world had worked before." He straightened his leg again. "But, like I said, it was a long time ago. Nobody really knows how it went. All we know is what we've got now."
"Which is…?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard said nothing for a while, looking at the flames. "A broken world," he said at last, "but we hoped… I hoped…" He closed his eyes; opened them again. "I hoped to change it."
They were nearing the sea. John's arm was throbbing with the rhythm of each step. It wasn't a deep cut, just a jagged gouge with a blunt knife, but it wasn't sealing properly. His saddlebags held willow bark, which helped with the pain and could bring down fever, but the flesh around the wound was puffy, the redness spreading.
"Are you sure this is the right way?" McKay asked.
John shook his head. He had lost the trail, but the way ahead called to him. It felt like a natural way to go, west towards the setting sun. He hoped that the Wraith, too, had heard the call of the land that sloped down to the sea. If they lost the trail completely, he doubted they would ever find it again.
"Then how long…?" McKay said, then stopped. "My head still hurts, you know." There was a note almost of irritation in his voice.
Not long after noon, the sun broke free from the clouds. Although the underlying air was still cold, it was warm in the sun, and soon John was sweating, burning in the heat. When they stopped for a short break on the banks of a narrow river, he squelched through its reedy banks until he found a flat rock to crouch on, then scooped up handfuls of cold, fresh water to pour over his face and scrape through his hair. Then he walked a few dozen paces upstream, enjoying the dappled cool.
The man was sitting with his back to a willow tree, a rod and line in his hand. John held a sharp breath and let it out slowly, cursing himself for not having seen him, for lowering his guard sufficiently that he hadn't even looked for him. "Hello, John," the man said, without looking up from the water.
John had no memory of having seen the man before. He gave the man a cautious, neutral smile, aware all the time of the knife and stunner at his belt.
"At least, I presume you are John," the man said. "They came from Glaston way with news of a man enchanted, who had released a murderous Other from cold, hard iron. Is that you, John? Is that noisy man you travel with really an Other from beneath the hill? I don't like him. His talking scares the little fishes."
"It… isn't like they say it is," John said. Water trickled down the side of his neck, bitingly cold.
"Things seldom are." The man shook his head. "To tell you the truth, I don't place much store in stories, John. I prefer the little fishes. The waters were the last places touched by the years of darkness – did you know that, John? These rivers are like the seams of gold that the old world based its dreams on."
"Is that so?" John said.
A white bird landed on the water, leaving a long trail of splashes behind it. The man frowned in irritation. "Never mind, my pretties," he murmured. "The splashing will pass. It always passes." He looked at John, his eyes glittering sharply. "I don't hold with the stories," he said, "but the other folk do. They are prepared for you. They are waiting. Avoid them, John, unless you want to be like one of my little fishes, captured on a hook."
He tugged at the rod. John turned away before he could see the hook emerging.
McKay was pacing anxiously, his hands pressed together. "Is there someone there?" he said, in a whisper that was louder than a shout.
"Yes," John said, "and we need to leave." Water trickled down his back, and he felt cold, suddenly, as cold as the river had been, despite the heat of the sun.
They reached the sea as dusk fell. When Rodney stood on the shore, he couldn't see a single light anywhere along the coast, anywhere inland or out to sea. It made him wonder suddenly how Canada had fared in this apocalypse, and how…
He stopped breathing suddenly, wondering if there was another Rodney McKay out there somewhere. Stupid, he berated himself, because he hadn't thought about the consequences beforehand; had gone running off with Sheppard without ever thinking about the risks he was running. Two versions of the same person couldn't co-exist for long in the same reality, so if there was another version of himself out there, Rodney didn't have long to live. His head was hurting; was that the start of it? But if it wasn't, that meant that this world's Rodney McKay was dead, or else had never been born, his ancestors wiped out in the calamity.
I want to go home, he thought. Water lapping against the shore made him think of Atlantis, and Canada was out there somewhere beyond the sea. Which one was home? He had signed up to join a one-way expedition to Atlantis, but for two years, most of his energies had been expended in trying to find a way for them all to go back to Earth. Home was always somewhere else, he thought.
"I need to go back," he said. "We're on a wild goose chase. We've lost the trail. There's nothing we can do. I need to get back, to get back home. Apart from anything else, my life might depend on it."
Sheppard was tending to the horse, removing saddle and bridle. "Where's home?" he asked without looking up.
Rodney had expected the question throughout their days together, but suddenly had no idea how to answer. Where's home? He let out a breath, shaking his head. No, no, Sheppard didn't mean it like that. It was an obvious question for him to ask. "I come from somewhere a long way away," Rodney said at last. "I didn't mean to come. I came through a… a… it's like a… a sort of tunnel, but not a normal one – nothing that you'd understand. And I can't get back because I haven't got the gene… uh, the key. I tried to get back, but I can't. But if I try again, I might… Or they might come for me. I need to wait for them, or at least leave a note."
"What's it like," Sheppard asked, "where you come from?"
How to describe Atlantis? "It's a city by the sea," Rodney said. "It's warm and it's bright, and you get proper medical attention there, and proper beds, and… and I'm an important person there, and I need to get back."
Sheppard was still apparently concentrating on the horse. "Does everyone wear clothes like yours where you come from? Have they all got weapons like yours? And the Wraith…?"
"The Wraith are our enemies," Rodney said. "This one must have come through the same… tunnel at some point in the past, before we did."
"We?" Sheppard's hands stilled on the saddle.
Rodney looked away. "The others died. The Wraith killed them."
Sheppard said nothing for a while. "This tunnel of yours…" he said. "I'm thinking the stories aren't far off true. We're not talking a tunnel that just leads to the other side of the hill, are we? You came out of the hill. You started somewhere else entirely."
"Yes," Rodney said, then shook his head. "No. I mean, no. It's not magic. I'm not a fairy." It felt less ridiculous to say it than it had felt just days before.
"The way I see it," Sheppard said slowly, "magic's just another word for things folk don't understand any more. It's obvious that things used to be different. There's ruins everywhere, and you can dig up things that obviously used to do something, we just don't know any more what it was. Most people don't want to know, but some of us…" He paused, raking his hand through his hair. "I used to have a rifle," he said, "and it wasn't magic, it wasn't magic at all, but if the people in these parts saw me with it, they'd call me a warlock."
"It's hardly the same…" Rodney began, meaning to point out that equating the technology that had taken him between universes with early nineteenth century steam engines was hardly a good comparison, but perhaps it was best not to say that bit. "That's a good point," he said instead.
Sheppard smiled, perhaps understanding what Rodney didn't say. "See, maybe I'm making a fool of myself. Maybe the stories are true. Maybe there weren't Wraith before the years with no summer, and maybe people in the Time Before would have been as amazed by this stunner of yours as anyone alive now would be, but…"
He stopped speaking. A light appeared on the water, drifting slowly from left to right. Drawing the stunner from his belt, Sheppard hurried forward. Rodney followed, twisting his hands in front of him nervously.
The light was a lantern, a candle dying in a cube of panelled glass. It sat in a small wooden boat that moved without sails or oars, and of course without an engine. Rodney heard Sheppard suck in a breath, then let it out stiffly. "Probably scavengers," he said quietly. "I saw them at work when I first got here. They take things from the dead cities. Gold's no use, but there are other things, useful things…"
They were quite dead, of course, the faint light from the lantern showing their wizened faces and the screaming holes that were their eyes and mouth. Sheppard splashed into the water, as if he meant to wade out to the boat and drag it in. "Don't," Rodney breathed, the word coming out as a rasping gasp.
Sheppard stopped. The boat drifted on. Of course, Rodney remembered, the sea to the west of Glastonbury was actually the mouth of a large estuary, a river flowing from the right when the tide was going out.
It was a long time until the light was out of sight. Rodney thought that they both watched it until it was gone, and even then there was no way of knowing if the candle had failed, or if the boat itself had been swallowed by the waves.
They followed the coast throughout another day. Occasionally they saw fishing boats out on the water, but for the most part, the coast told the familiar story of ruin and desertion.
It was evening by the time they reached the edge of the city, with its densely-packed ruins covered in a mass of trees. "Do people live here?" McKay breathed, his eyes flicking from side to side in nervousness.
John shook his head, but his vision was beginning to swim. His arm throbbed from fingertips to shoulder, and he felt as if all the strength he had ever possessed was flowing out of his veins, as if the Wraith was taking it for a second time. "Cities aren't… good places," he said. "It's harder to grow food in them. There's too much of the past, too many reminders that once…" He pressed his lips together, suddenly aware that, all unguarded, he had been about to say more than he was prepared to say. "Good places to hide, though," he said, "if you don't want people to find you."
"Which we don't," McKay said, looking over his shoulder. "I mean… I do, of course, but only the right people, and they have ways of finding me. I don't…" He still had a few inches of chains hanging from each wrist, and he rubbed one iron band absently with his thumb. He hadn't said anything more about wanting to go home, though, not since they had seen the two bodies in the boat.
In places, the buildings still rose high. A large ship made entirely out of metal was rusting in the dock, but still afloat. John walked with the stunner held in his right hand, because a city offered a thousand hiding places for a Wraith. Movement stirred the trees and bushes. A feral cat ran past, and he saw a dark-haired child scurry away down a tunnel made of evergreen leaves.
"Some people live here," he corrected. Perhaps hundreds of them, perhaps more. It made sense, he thought, that people would run away, would be chased away, would sometimes go to ground rather than face whatever their fellows wanted them to face.
They passed a huge building, as large as a giant's palace, collapsed to red brick ruins, half covered with earth and grass. "What happened?" McKay asked, still speaking far more quietly than he normally did.
"It was worst in the cities," John said, as everything swayed, and he thought he saw flames and screaming, people running screaming. "People fought each other over food. They wanted light, so the cities burned. My grandmother wouldn't even speak the word 'city'. She thought they were cursed. She--"
He missed his next step. He lunged for support, his left hand finding the horse's neck. He had to bite his lip not to cry out at the pain of it. As he struggled to regain his balance, somehow McKay's hand fumbled against his arm. "God, you're burning up," McKay gasped. "Are you sick?"
"Yeah," John agreed, blinking into the fading light. "I guess I am." The stunner slipped from his hand. He knelt to pick it up, but everything lurched again, and he had to close his eyes, pressing his hand against his head.
And it was there, just as he opened his eyes, that the patrol found them.
end of chapter four
What was the world like in the Time Before?
We will never know for sure, little one, but many are the voices that claim that the world before the time of darkness was shaped by the hand of man. They claim that the marvels that have come down to us in stories were crafted by man, and that one day, one day long hence, we will make such things again.
But we know the truth, don't we, little one? Magic reigned in the Time Before, and the Others are the relics of that age. Giants, gods and fiery beasts, all are gone. Warlocks and magicians we sometimes see, with their fire-sticks and their things far worse, but the Others are the only beings that retain their former power.
Did they cause the time of darkness? We do not know. Do they prey on us in this world that came after? Yes, yes, and thrice yes.
But what of John, you ask me, little one. Ah, yes, what of John?
He followed the Other into the ruins of the Time Before.
He followed the Other, and judgement found him.
Rodney raised one hand, the chain links dangling. "I haven't done anything wrong." The men stepped forward, tightening the circle. "I'm not a threat," Rodney said. "Look! I've got my hands up. Hand, anyway. I can't raise the other one because I'll fall off the horse." They edged moved another step, six of them in a circle. Rodney swallowed. "Sheppard's not doing so good. You need to help him."
"Don't tell me what I need to do," said one of the men, his face stern and cold, marked on the cheek with a fairly recent scar. He was holding a gun, a proper gun, although admittedly something that would be more at home in a museum.
"But you're making a horrible mistake," Rodney protested. Chains dragged his hand down. His eyes flickered sideways, to where Sheppard was kneeling with his arms heavy at his sides, his shoulders slumped, but his face turned slightly upwards, looking up at the man who had spoken.
"No I'm not," the man said. He nodded briskly to the others. "Restrain them."
Sheppard would fight, Rodney thought. Sheppard was sick, yes, but adrenaline could do wonderful things, couldn't it? Although he was dressed like a medieval peasant, he obviously had skills, and he'd already shown himself willing to save Rodney's life. He'd get them out of this, of course he would.
Sheppard stiffened when the men approached him, but that was all. As they pulled his hands behind his back, he lowered his head, and he closed his eyes as they tied his hands together with rope. One of his captors squeezed his shoulder. "I think he's sick," the man said.
The leader gave no sign of hearing it, unless the tightening of his lips was answer enough. It looked almost like a smile, if such a stern face could ever be known to smile.
"Sheppard!" Rodney hissed. His mouth was dry. His head started to throb all over again.
The leader walked towards Rodney, taking hold of the horse's bridle. "Are you going to get off the horse," he asked, "or do we have to drag you off it?"
Rodney shook his head desperately from side to side. "I didn't do anything. Neither of us did anything."
"You have chains on your wrists," the man said. "A prisoner. A criminal. It's only to be expected. Criminals flock together, after all."
"It's not like that," Rodney protested. He looked desperately at Sheppard, willing him to do something, anything, to get them out of this. It was a bluff, a feint. He was feigning defeat. He was… The man grabbed the reins, tugging them out of Rodney's hand. "Ow!" Rodney complained, as the leather scraped against his palm. A gun clicked. "Getting off," he said. "Getting off."
Rodney slid from the saddle, landing awkwardly. They grabbed his arms as soon as he had landed, twisting them behind his back, tying them with ropes. Not again! he thought. Not again! It was a stupid thought, childish and irrational. He probably should have fought, but what could he do? And if Sheppard wasn't fighting…
"It's nothing to do with him." Sheppard spoke up at last, looking at the leader of the group. "He's nobody, just someone I've been travelling with for a day or two. Leave him out of this," he said, and it was stupid, stupid, that Rodney should feel a tiny twist of hurt at the fact that even Sheppard was quick to pass him on, to deny all ties to him.
"Not true," the man declared. "Reports have come in. Rumours are spreading. A stranger called John freed a condemned murderer and went on the run with him. Of course," he said, flapping his hand dismissively, "it came with superstitious nonsense about fairies or Others or some such, but strip that way, and the truth remains. We have a murderer, and we have another murderer teaming up with one of his own."
"It wasn't like that," Rodney tried to tell him, but no-one was paying him the slightest bit of attention.
"I knew it was you," the man said to Sheppard, "as soon as I heard the story."
"You know each other," Rodney gasped, suddenly realising what had probably been obvious all along, but, well, hello? Kind of distracted by the being-tied-up thing, here?
"John Sheppard," said the leader of the men who had captured them, " is guilty of many things. He killed a lot of people."
His horror felt almost like a physical thing. Sheppard was a murderer? He'd been travelling with a-- No, no. I don't believe it, he thought, because Sheppard had freed him, and he'd been so determined to kill the Wraith, and so obviously disturbed by its kills. But he'd also wasted no time in appropriating Rodney's weapons, and there had been moments when he'd seemed almost scary.
But despite all this, Rodney found himself shaking his head, not saying anything, just denying it. He looked at Sheppard; saw Sheppard looking back at him. "It wasn't like that," Sheppard said quietly, but Rodney didn't have to be a genius at reading people to see how defeated his body language was, as if his body itself was admitting, Yes, yes it was.
John was dragged to his feet, a hand digging into his upper arm. "Can you walk?" they asked, as he was nudged forward, a gun jabbing at his back.
When he stumbled, a hand appeared at his elbow, steadying him. McKay shouted something. There was an answering snap of command, and the hand slowly withdrew. The next time John felt himself falling, he instinctively tried to catch himself with his bound hands, but hit the ground heavily, rolling onto his side.
Darkness deepened. They hauled him up again, and dimly John heard McKay shouting that he was sick, that this was barbaric, but what could he expect from--
The words were cut off abruptly. "McKay didn't do anything," John managed to say. They were in a place where the trees and the ruins were so thick that he could hardly see a thing, and his vision was swirling, dark shapes moving against the dark. McKay's face was like a smear of pale smoke. John didn't think he was hurt. "He just wants to go home," John said. "Let him go."
No-one answered him. They passed through a doorway. Inside was an open place that smelled of old stone and fresh wood. A fire was burning in a stone hearth. Shapes moved in front of it. Some of the outlines were familiar.
They were led through an inner door and into an even darker place. John was pushed down to his knees. McKay was protesting loudly, words that made no sense to John. More and more, he heard nothing but the roaring of the sea.
The door was closed. The lock was fastened with a sound of leather straps and padlocks. McKay hurled himself at it, striking it with his shoulder, screaming, "Let me out! Let me out!" John heard footsteps walk away. Light flickered in a thin line at the base of the door.
John found cold stone at his back, but leaning against it hurt his bound hands. He turned sideways, pressing his shoulder and his brow against it. It was as cold as ice, but he was fire, throbbing and burning. He knew that he was sick. Even the smallest wounds could turn bad, but he'd hoped the symptoms would go away. How was that for optimism? Even after everything that's happened, John, you still catch yourself hoping that everything will be okay.
McKay slumped down beside him. The silence that stretched between them was uncomfortable, full of unasked questions. John heard the pounding of his heart, like waves crashing on a distant shore.
"What did you do?" McKay asked at last.
John closed his eyes, although the room was dark and closing his eyes hid nothing. "We came by ship," he said. "I told you that. It sank. Everyone died, except for me and those guys out there."
"And that's it?" McKay said. "Just that?"
John remembered crawling onto the shore, and finding that the man he thought he had saved had died, after all. He remembered looking up to see Captain Sumner walking towards him, his eyes blazing with grief and fury. 'You did this, Sheppard', Sumner had spat. 'I hold you to account for every loss.'
"Captain Sumner blamed me," he said, "because…" He remembered the dead on the sand. He remembered reaching for a man as he was pulled under by tangled lines, remembered diving again and again in an attempt to drag him free, remembered the moment when the man had gone limp. "He blamed me," he said, and left it at that.
McKay asked further questions, but John didn't hear them. He was back there, back on the sand, drowning in the roaring of the sea.
It felt as if half the night had passed before Rodney and Sheppard were dragged out of their cell. They were shoved to their knees on the cold floor of a ruined warehouse. A fire was blazing, but it was too far away for Rodney to feel its warmth. Two men stood over Sheppard with lanterns, angling them so that every nuance of his facial expressions was shown in the unforgiving light.
The leader of their captors stood with his back to the fire, a featureless black shape. "Last time I saw you, Sheppard," he said, "I told you to get out of my sight. Every day since then I've wished that I'd brought you to justice instead."
"Justice?" Rodney cried, seeing the ring of men, the guns, the knives. "This isn't justice."
Sheppard made a quiet sound, enough to stop Rodney from saying more. The muscles on Sheppard's face had tightened, but nothing else has changed. The lanterns made him look alarmingly sick, with shadows under his eyes and deep lines etched around his mouth.
"Your poison spread," the man said, taking a slow step forward. "I lost three in the first month because they defended you. Just last month, I lost two more because they questioned me. It's your fault, Sheppard. It's all your fault." He surged forward and struck Sheppard hard in the side of the face.
Sheppard's head snapped sideways. His expression was changed when he turned back. Blood dripped slowly from his lip. "I can't be blamed for that, Captain Sumner," he said quietly, enunciating each word. The trail of blood reached his chin. He couldn't wipe it off, of course, not with his hands tied behind him.
"Of course you can." Sumner took a step back. He cupped his fist in his other hand. "Everything that happened was your fault. Everything."
"Everything?" Rodney echoed. He swallowed, pressed his lips together, and carried on. "I mean, everything's a rather sweeping claim. So your ship sank. Did Sheppard go down and drill holes in it, because if he didn't, then I don't see how you can blame him." He didn't think anyone was listening, though. Both lanterns showed Sheppard, and Rodney was left in the darkness. Sumner stalked Sheppard like a predator to whom nothing existed but his prey. Even the other men were barely visible, fading into the darkness of the rest of the warehouse.
"You opposed me right from the start, Sheppard." Sumner started to pace around Sheppard, passing right behind him. Sheppard's shoulder stiffened, but he didn't turn round. "Right from the start," Sumner said, "you were a trouble-maker."
Sheppard turned his head slightly, looking towards the place where Sumner currently was. "Only when I had to be." He spoke slowly this time, as if he was learning each word. As Sumner returned to the front, Sheppard looked at him, his head higher than it had been. "Only when there were things--"
"Be quiet!" Sumner screamed. "You opposed me." He jabbed a finger at Sheppard's chest. "You were selfish, playing your own game of aggrandizement, instead of buckling down and putting the ship's needs first. Then there was that nonsense with that man – what was his name...?"
"Holland." Sheppard was looking Sumner full in the face now. "Going back for him was--"
"It was the wrong thing to do!" Sumner jabbed harder. Sheppard swayed and almost fell. Blood from his lip fell in splashes on the floor. "You wanted to play the hero. You always wanted to play the hero. Opposing me." He jabbed again. "On the night of the storm, you forced me to discipline you. On the night when everyone had to pull together, you distracted us all. You had to make that grand speech. The lookouts were listening to you instead of doing their job. It was your fault, Sheppard. Everything was your fault."
Sheppard's heart was beating fast and visibly at his throat. "You know what?" he said quietly, and perhaps he even smiled. "I think I've believed that. For the last six months, I…" He trailed off, and seemed to be fighting to stay on his knees.
"You ruined everything!" Sumner screamed.
Sheppard shook his head. "I couldn't save them. I should have fought harder over Holland. I should have stopped you. That night, when all you wanted to do was scream at me, when there was a goddamn storm outside…" His sharp exhalation was noisy, scraping in his throat. "I have to live with that," he said, "but it wasn't how you said it was."
Sumner ripped a knife out violently from its sheath. "No, captain!" one of the other men gasped, starting forward. A lantern slipped from the hand that held it, crashing to the floor.
Rodney's mouth was dry. Sumner was quite insane, he realised, perhaps driven so by whatever hideous things had happened to him. "Does the word 'scapegoat' mean anything to you?" Rodney demanded. "I'm an impartial witness – the closest you've got to a jury – and it seems to me that you took an irrational dislike to Sheppard and blamed him for everything, even things that were your own fault." Sumner rounded on him, the knife quivering in his hand. "Or not." Rodney swallowed again. "Like I said, I wasn't there. What do I know?"
"All this," Sumner said, moving his hand in a jagged arc, "is your fault, Sheppard. You need to pay for it. And this other man, this McKay… He's a wanted murderer. It stands to reason you'd take up with someone like him. Justice demands that I kill both of you."
"No!" Rodney shouted, straining at the ropes, feeling them scrape against the metal bands that he still wore. "Don't, please. Please, don't… I didn't do anything. Sheppard didn't… He didn't…"
A man stepped forward; said something quiet to Sumner. Sumner listened, then let out a taut breath. "That's true," he said. "It needs to be justice, not murder, or then we'd be no better than you." He sheathed his knife, then rubbed his hands together briskly, as if wiping away a taint. "Tomorrow," he said, "with witnesses. A hanging." His expression was cold, possibly a smile, but possibly something else. "Two hangings." He flapped his hand. "Take them away."
"No!" Rodney shouted, "no!" but they hauled him to his feet, a pair of hands under each arm, and dragged him away. "You oafs!" he gasped. "I'm trying to…" But they threw him through the inner door, then threw Sheppard in behind him. The door was locked, and once more they were in darkness, with no escape.
Sometimes you just needed to hear something said out loud to realise how wrong it was. Things seemed different when they echoed in your mind in the middle of the night. When you lay awake in the darkness and thought about the dead, it was impossible not to blame yourself. But when you heard it said by someone else, by someone so consumed with their hatred of you that they were going to hang an innocent man just because he knew you…
"I'm so screwed," McKay said, slumping down against the wall beside him. "I was screwed anyway, but this is a whole new level of being screwed."
I'll get you out of this, John wanted to say, but how could he? He'd said that to others in the past, but they'd still died. Sumner hated John so intensely that the more John tried to extricate McKay from the whole mess, the more likely Sumner would be to kill him.
"He's crazy," McKay said, "this Sumner guy. Crazy."
John nodded. "Yeah." He heard McKay turning towards him. "He wasn't like that at first."
"What happened?" McKay asked. "Not that I'm interested in the all the sordid details about the dramatis personae of this hellhole of a universe, of course, but there's nothing else to do while we wait to get brutally murdered. And maybe if I understood him, I could… you know, get under his skin. Say the right things. Subtly manipulate him into letting me go."
John said nothing. The stone wall felt like ice against his burning flesh. Even in the darkness, he was aware of his vision pulsing and swaying.
"Or not," McKay said quietly. "I get it. You don't want to talk to me."
To hell with it, John thought. He'd spent far too much of his life not talking, and what had it gained him? What, really, had it gained him?
"It was hard for us all," he said, concentrating on that ice-cold stone to keep him from drifting away. "We were used to wide open spaces, where you can ride for days without meeting another person. Then we all crammed onto that ship. There were sixty of us, living and sleeping virtually on top of each other, and no guarantee that we'd ever reach land again. Some of us found it harder than others. And Captain Sumner… He was a good captain on dry land, stern but fair. We didn't much like each other, but I respected him, but then…"
He trailed off, almost losing himself in a wave of pain. Memories surrounded him. He thought he could feel the lurching sway of the ship beneath him; could feel the heat of working on the deck; could smell the stench of too many people sleeping too close together.
"Sumner began to show signs of strain," John said, forcing his voice to remain steady. "Some of his orders were… flawed. They showed a… disregard for the well-being of his crew. I questioned him. He didn't like it. And then…"
Preparing the ship had taken longer than they had expected, and it had been late summer before they had departed. They'd taken her on test runs, but they had no experience of dealing with storms or high seas. The summer had ended early, in a crash of wind and angry dark skies, and still with no land visible in the east.
"Other people started noticing things," John said, "but because I'd been the first, he blamed me whenever they said anything – said I'd put them up to it." He shrugged. "I let him carry on thinking it. I thought it was better having it all focused on me than on all of them – better for the ship as a whole. Then we found land." Behind his back, he dug his fingers into his palm, clenching his fist tight. "Sumner wanted just one person to investigate – less loss that way if things went wrong. I said it was crazy – that we needed to send a team – but he was the captain. Holland went by himself, and he didn't come back." Pain lanced through his body, closing like a fist around his throat. "He didn't come back."
John heard McKay take in a breath, as if he was about to say something, then let it out again. Was he even listening? John almost found himself hoping that he wasn't.
"He didn't come back," he said again. "Sumner said this proved that it was too dangerous to land, that we should carry on. I said we should go back for him. I nearly went, anyway, but Sumner holed the boat, the only boat we had left. After that… It'd been bad before, but nothing like this. We reached more land, and he wouldn't let us land there. And then there was a storm. He was shouting at me in his cabin rather than taking command above deck. I should have…"
He stopped. It was all too close. Blood surged in his head, throbbing with the rhythms of the storm. The fever dragged him back through the months, back to the hell of those final hours. "I should have pushed it," he said. "I should have taken things in hand. I should have led a mutiny. I think enough of them would have followed me. I should have…"
Nothing. He trailed away to nothing. Dimly he heard McKay clear his throat, as if he wanted to say something but had no idea what to say. John gathered the last scattered pieces of his self-control. "At a loss for words, McKay? Is that a first?"
"No," McKay said. "I'm just wondering what to say. Tactful response, and all? I mean, it's all very heart-wrenching, but shall we go back to the afore-mentioned 'he's crazy', and what about adding the 'what the hell shall we do to get out this mess' issue to the equation? After all, that's more useful than an angst-ridden show and tell."
"Yeah." John let out a breath. He even managed a smile. He was injured, he was probably going to die in the morning, and he knew that this thinking was warped by fever, but he actually found himself happier than he had been for months. It wasn't my fault, he thought. It wasn't my fault. Yes, there were many things he could have done differently, but nothing could have stopped the storm. They'd been an inexperienced crew sailing a ship none of them had sailed before, and chances were it would have been wrecked no matter what.
"So?" McKay said. "Avoiding certain death in the morning? Ideas?"
It was too dark to see him clearly, but John looked in his direction. "I'll get you out of this," he said. "Not just out of here, but all the way home." And perhaps it was just the fever talking, making the impossible seem possible, but he really meant it.
Hours passed, and Sheppard showed no sign of spiriting them out of this hellhole. He didn't appear to have a knife hidden in his shoe or a file hidden in his belt, or anything useful like that. After a while, he stopped speaking altogether, responding to Rodney's increasingly-urgent questions with a quiet grunt or a moan.
"Sheppard?" Rodney said. "Sheppard?"
Nothing. Still nothing. But after a while, despite his fluttering panic, Rodney slept.
He woke up to voices. Sheppard was whispering something urgently, but Rodney heard only the last few words, not enough to piece together what he had been talking about. "What?" Rodney asked, his voice sounding loud in the darkness.
"Quiet, McKay," Sheppard whispered.
Rodney pressed his lips together to stifle words. He heard the sound of rattling keys, and the door opened, letting in the faint light of the distant fire. A man was standing in the doorway, with the outline of something sharp in his hand. "Oh God," Rodney breathed. They'd come to slit their throats in the middle of the night. He squirmed from side to side, desperately trying to drag his hands free from the ropes. The pain was sharp and burning. He felt the hard impact of the wall against his shoulder.
The man crouched down beside Sheppard, and Rodney could hear the sound of the knife cutting through… God, please don't let it be flesh! Sheppard moved, the shape of his outline changing. He brought up one hand, massaging his other wrist.
"Sumner's asleep," the man whispered. He moved towards Rodney, and Rodney stiffened, his breathing tight and shallow, but the man was not ungentle as he grabbed Rodney's arms. The knife dug into the ropes at his wrists, tugging them to and fro against the tender skin. "The guys on watch, they agree with me," the man said quietly, still speaking to Sheppard although his face was only inches from Rodney's ear. "None of it was your fault. The captain… He doesn't see things clearly where you're concerned."
The knife nicked Rodney's hand. "Ow!" he protested, but then he was free. Just as Sheppard had done, his first instinct was to massage his wrists. His fingers tingled, aching with inactivity.
"He'll never see reason, sir," the man said. "We've tried, but anyone who says too much… He casts them loose, orders them away. He wants you dead. He'll never take you back, so the best we can hope for is saving your life by getting you as far away from here as possible."
Sheppard stood up, supporting himself heavily against the wall with his right hand. His left arm was limp at his side, and his head sagged. Rodney bit back the response he had been about to make, thought for a moment, and moved to Sheppard's side. "He's sick," he hissed at their rescuer. "He can't--"
"I can," said Sheppard, pushing himself away from the wall. After a moment's hesitation, Rodney steadied him, offering an arm for Sheppard to lean on.
They moved slowly through the warehouse, their steps terrifyingly loud. People were snoring, wrapped in blankets around the fire. Others were sitting up, and two stood with their backs to the wall. Several nodded at Sheppard. One saluted, his hand rising almost to his head, then down again. One looked at his feet as if ashamed. The light was too faint to see any of their faces.
"There'll be hell to pay when he discovers what you've done," Sheppard said when they were safely outside.
"We'll take the blame, all of us." The man looked at Sheppard. "We should have done it long ago. If it's all of us, he can't punish us. He can't risk that."
Then he led them on, even further into the night, to where two horses were waiting for them. Another man stood at their heads, the stunner and the P90 held in his arms. Sheppard gripped his horse's saddle and hung there as if it was the only thing keeping him up. Still holding uselessly onto his elbow, Rodney could feel him shaking, but when Sheppard spoke, his voice was steady enough. "Why don't you come…?"
"I've thought about that, sir," the man said. "We all have. But the captain… There's lots of old ships here, lots of ship-building equipment. He wants to sail us home."
"Home?" Sheppard said. "But we came here to…"
"Change the world?" the man said. "I know that was your hope. But there's nothing here. It's worse than home, and the people don't want to listen. And I miss the folks back home. Stupid, huh?"
"Not stupid." Sheppard shook his head slowly. Rodney was still touching him, and he pulled away awkwardly, not knowing if Sheppard needed help, and not knowing how to give it.
"It's the only way for us to get there," the man said. "It wasn't meant to be like this."
There wasn't much light outside – just a thin sliver of a crescent moon, half obscured by clouds – but maybe Rodney's eyes had just grown accustomed to the darkness, or maybe the man turned in just the right direction, because suddenly Rodney recognised him. "Ford!" he gasped. "Have you come to rescue--?" The man – Ford – turned to look at him, his expression suddenly wary. "No, of course you haven't," Rodney said. "You aren't him. Different universe, remember?" Disappointment was heavy, almost crushing him under its weight. For a fierce, irrational moment, he had thought that a team from Atlantis had come for him.
"How do you know my name?" Ford asked.
Rodney opened his mouth on an incoherent sound, but Sheppard interrupted him. "Because I told him everything," Sheppard said, "and described people. It's no big deal." He tried to pull himself into the saddle; failed, and tried again, barely making it.
"You should go, sir." Ford pressed his hand against the horse's flank. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Sheppard said.
Rodney dragged himself into the saddle of the unfamiliar beast. The other man passed up the P90. Sheppard's animal moved forward, prancing a few steps. Sheppard was holding the reins one-handed, gripping them tight.
"Maybe if we all talk to him," Ford said, "he might change his mind over time. Maybe when we're ready to sail, you can…"
"That won't be happening," Sheppard said quietly. His horse walked forward; after a pause, Rodney followed him. "We all know that, don't we?" But he smiled – a strange smile like nothing Rodney had ever seen on him before. "But thank you, Lieutenant. I mean that, really."
Ford raised his hand, perhaps in a farewell and perhaps in a salute. The next time Rodney looked back, Ford had gone, swallowed by the darkness. He was surprised at how much it hurt. He wasn't the real Ford, of course he wasn't, but he was a reminder of Atlantis, and now that he was gone, home felt even further away. And not just for himself, he thought, looking at Sheppard's face as he rode away from his last contact with home.
But Sheppard turned to him, saw him looking, and smiled.
He was still smiling when the screaming started.
end of chapter five
The Others are charming deceivers. With words, the Others can entice a weak-willed man to join their dance. With words, the Others can tempt even a strong-willed man to turn his back on everyone he has ever loved.
Does living with the Others grant a mortal a little piece of their charm? Does time in the Others' domain make even a mortal's tongue like honey? Does an echo of the beauty of that fairy otherworld remain in their eyes and their lips, or shine like stars upon their brow?
It must be so. John was a quiet man when he walked among us, and although the girls found his face pleasing, there was no honey in his tongue. And yet, when captured, John was able to charm a dozen men into letting him ride away. He was able to charm a dozen men into risking their master's wrath by freeing him.
The magic of the Others resided within him, and imbued his simple words with the potency of a magic spell.
It is the only possible reason, is it not, little one? Magic resided in him.
But magic destroys.
When people started screaming, the sensible thing to do, the only thing to do, was to get as far away as possible. Other people were good at the whole fighting thing. Rodney's job was to cower and keep out of the way while they went off and did what they were paid for. He'd said as much to all his teams, warning them that he'd do his job, that he expected them to do theirs, and that there would be no overlap, thank you very much.
Sheppard clearly hadn't gotten that memo. "What're you doing?" Rodney hissed, when Sheppard tugged his horse around, heading directly for the screaming. "You're hurt. They let us go. There's over a dozen of them – strong, strapping soldier types. There's nothing you can do." His voice grew louder, but he might as well have been shouting to the empty air. "Sumner's bound to have woken up!" Rodney shouted. "He wants to hang us!"
Nothing. Sheppard had gone. The screaming turned guttural, then faded. People were shouting. A gun went off, once, then twice.
"He wants to hang us," Rodney shouted, twisting the reins in his fingers. "We've just escaped, for crying out loud!"
The gun sounded again. Someone shrieked. Rodney thought of the bodies of his team, twisted and grey, half buried by scattered earth.
"Go get yourself killed then," Rodney grumbled, "but I have no intention of walking to my doom." But already he was pulling the horse around, heading back the way he had come.
There wasn't enough light. Still clutching the P90, Rodney slithered out of the saddle, landing heavily. He fumbled for the light, producing a narrow beam that cut the scene like a knife. The body was lying just outside the door, drained to a husk and very dead. Ford? he thought, but then he saw Ford, racing out from the warehouse with a rifle in one hand. Rodney couldn't see the Wraith. He swung the light from side to side, seeing hands, faces, the legs of his horse. He couldn't see the Wraith. He couldn't see Sheppard.
"What's happening here?" Rodney heard Sumner demanding. The man was standing in the doorway. Light swelled behind him as a man approached with a torch.
Natives, Rodney thought, filled with a sudden, ridiculous urge to laugh. Natives with flaming torches. All we need now are the pitch-forks. But there was a Wraith out there – the withered corpse was the proof of that, wasn't it? There was a Wraith, and Sheppard was…
Someone screamed. Rodney whirled the gun around, the light-beam wavering. "Sheppard?" he tried to shout, but he was too aware of Sumner, and his voice was too quiet. He looked at the torch, and it dazzled him, so he couldn't see anything else, not clearly.
"What is it?" Sumner shouted. "Stop him! It's Sheppard! It's got to be Sheppard! Stop him!"
"It's a Wraith!" Rodney found himself screaming. "Don't you realise how stupid you sound, blaming Sheppard for everything? It's a Wraith, and it's going to kill us all unless--"
A Wraith stunner flared blue. Beyond the blue light, Rodney saw Sheppard's face set with concentration, unearthly and deadly. Sheppard shot again. The man with the torch edged forward, and Rodney saw the Wraith lying in the pool of light, its hair spread around its head like a grotesque crown.
"Shoot it," Sheppard commanded, his voice coming out of the darkness.
Ford was the first to do so, raising his rifle and shooting the Wraith in the side. "It healed," he said as he reloaded. "Two bullets we got into it, and it just healed."
Rodney remembered his team, dead so far from home. He remembered the man they'd found on the threshold of his own hovel, where he'd lived with his livestock, despite having a pile of gold. His finger found the trigger of the P90.
He wasn't really aware of anything for a while, just the deafening rattle of gunfire and the jolting of the gun in his hands. The Wraith's body jerked again and again, dust and stones flying up from the ground around it. He didn't notice Sheppard approaching him, not until someone touched his arm. "Stop," Sheppard said quietly. "I think you've killed him ten times over."
Rodney's finger was stiff. He eased it off the trigger, and the sudden silence was disorientating. "Oh." He swallowed. "Did I do that? I haven't…" He swallowed again. "Haven't killed anything before, except by accident, and that doesn't count. I…" His mouth was dry. "Did I…?"
Ford crouched down beside the Wraith, and touched its throat with hands that didn't tremble anything like as much as they should have been trembling. "I think it's dead, sir." He looked not at Sumner, but at Sheppard. "What is it?"
Sheppard shook his head. "It's dead now, and that's all that matters." Rodney lowered the gun slowly, easing his stiff hands. Sheppard looked exhausted, he realised all over again, and barely on his feet.
"Sheppard!" Sumner shouted. "You did this."
"That's not true." Sheppard shook his head again, no less weary. "It's never been true. This--" He gestured towards the dead Wraith "--is what's been doing the murders that folks round here have pinned on McKay. You were going to hang an innocent man, just because you hate me."
"Two innocent men," Rodney offered. The words fell unnoticed in the charged air.
"Shoot him!" Sumner commanded, but nobody moved. The torch blazed brightly, showing how Sumner was standing astride a dead man, barely appearing to notice him.
"No, sir," Ford said, standing up. "This has gone far enough. Let him go, or let him come back with us. He saved my life just now – saved all our lives."
"Don't tell me what to do!" Sumner screamed.
Sheppard swayed, lurching sideways. Rodney chewed his lip, wondering whether to offer him support, or whether that would undermine this alpha male thing he had going with Sumner. To hell with it, he thought. He took Sheppard's arm, feeling the blazing heat of him. He'd never held up a wounded man before, never killed anything, never fought at someone else's side, never run willingly towards physical harm. "Thanks," Sheppard murmured, and it felt good, pathetically good, to hear it.
"Shall we, uh, go?" Rodney whispered. "You know, get away from the psychotic madman who wants to kill us?"
"Sounds like a plan." Sheppard smiled.
"Stop him!" Sumner commanded, but nobody moved. The light showed them standing immobile in a circle.
"I'm afraid we can't do that, sir," Ford said quietly, and the others moved at last, ranking themselves behind him. Someone came out of the darkness, leading the horse Rodney had been riding. Sheppard's came in response to his low whistle.
Rodney's hands fluttered uselessly as he tried to work out how to help Sheppard into the saddle, but Sheppard didn't need him in the end. Rodney's own attempt to mount was somewhat less elegant. We've killed the Wraith, he thought. That meant the end of their crazy and uncomfortable journey. That meant that he could go back to the Gate to wait and wait and wait some more. That meant that Sheppard would have no reason to want to travel with him any more. That meant… "Where now?" he asked.
Sheppard shook his head, but what on earth that meant, Rodney had no idea.
They started riding, departing for a second time. When the shouting started, Rodney twisted in the saddle just in time to see Sumner snatch Ford's rifle. "No!" Rodney gasped, as Ford and the others grabbed Sumner, wrestling the gun from his hands, pulling his arms behind his back, restraining him. Then the torch was dropped, and he couldn't see anything properly, just feet.
Spooked by the noise, his horse started to move faster. Rodney gripped the reins as tightly as he could. "It's dark," he said. "He couldn't see us properly, could he? Why did he…?" He stopped. Sheppard said nothing. "Are you going back to them?" Rodney asked him. "I want to go home."
"I said I'd get you home." Sheppard's voice was floating, unanchored in the darkness.
But if Sumner was safely deposed, that meant that Sheppard could go back to his friends, who called him 'sir' and were building a boat to take them all back to America. It was strange, Rodney thought, because he didn't often find himself wondering what would make other people happy, but surely that was what Sheppard wanted?
"It's over," Sheppard said. "The Wraith's dead. There's nothing to…" He didn't finish it, though. Things moved around them in the darkness – the wind in the trees, and animals in the ruins.
"No, really," Rodney said. The night felt very cold. "You should stay with them. I'll go on alone."
"No." He heard, rather than saw, Sheppard shake his head. The small sound of his denial was little more than a breath.
But Sheppard was sick. He probably wasn't thinking straight. And what could he do to help Rodney get home? Nothing, that's what. There was no point in having Sheppard here. It was better for everyone if he left.
But he couldn't bring himself to ask a second time. And when Sheppard repeated, "I said I'd get you home," saying it quietly, Rodney couldn't bring himself to say anything at all.
Dawn broke, their surroundings slowly taking shape out of the darkness. They paused on a hilltop and couldn't see a single human alive in the countryside around them.
"Can we stop now?" McKay demanded. John dimly remembered him asking before, and remembered telling him no, that they had to wait until light, to see if anyone was following them. It wasn't a clear memory, though, and more like a dream.
John moistened his lips. "Yeah." He slid from the saddle, but then his knees folded. The ground was soft, cool with dew. He knelt there, swaying, then thought he would lie down on his back, to look up at the morning. His horse nudged his shoulder, then walked away.
"Oh no!" McKay said, standing over him with anxious hands fluttering. "You're…"
"Just need a minute," John murmured. "It's cool here. Nice."
The day was shaping up to be a beautiful one, with the sky one entire expanse of watery blue. The air was rich with the scent of morning flowers and pollen. They'd killed the Wraith; righted that wrong. Sumner had taken all the things that had haunted John for months, had put them into words, and by doing so had revealed how false they were. Ford and the others had made it clear that they considered John blameless, and he hadn't realised until then quite how haunted he had been by the belief that they had agreed with Sumner.
It was over. Sure, he had regrets, and sure, there were many things he could have done differently, but he could still carry on with his life. He had stepped out from under a long shadow. He could breathe again, could see the light.
"And you're burning up," McKay said, the fluttering hand almost touching John's brow, then dancing away again, chain links dangling. "You're delirious. Nice? I can think of many things that are nice, and this sure as hell isn't one of them."
"Yeah," John agreed ruefully, because the injury was serious; that awareness ran like a cold current through all the meandering streams of his thoughts and impressions. "But, still…" He smiled, struggling for words for it, but knowing that he wouldn't be able to find them. "Nice," he said again.
McKay touched his uninjured arm. "I don't know what to do." His fingers were quivering. "I'm not good with sick people."
John rolled onto his side, watching the sun rise over the distant horizon, painting the hilltops with gold. Dew was cold on his cheek. McKay was kneeling next to him, a dark shape against the light. John blinked; curled his fingers into the grass. "How d'you know Ford?" he found himself asking.
McKay froze. His mouth opened, then closed again.
John rolled onto his back again. Not the most dignified position for an interrogation, John, he thought, but… No, that didn't matter any more. "You knew him," John said. "I'd be wondering if this was a set-up, except that he plainly didn't know you. I covered it up - didn't think that was the time to ask the necessary questions – but…" He saw a bird of prey circling far above. Not dead yet, he thought, then had to struggle to remember what he had been talking about. McKay was still silent. "Ford…" He turned his head to look at McKay. "How do you know him?"
"You won't believe me." McKay clutched a handful of blades of grass, closing his fingers around them.
John thought of the Wraith and the stunner, and the ruins that littered the world, speaking of a distant time when things had been very different. The rising sun showed lumps of crumbling stone, almost lost in the trees. "Try me," he said.
"I come from another universe," McKay said. John heard the tearing sound as the grass in his hand snapped off. "It's… I don't know how to explain it. I've never been good at explaining things to lesser minds, but… God! I don't know. It's… It's… Everything that's in this universe is in that one, too: England, America… another version of Ford, probably another version of you out there somewhere… But in my universe, the apocalypse never happened. There were no years with no summer. We carried on developing, inventing things, discovering things… We learned how to fly, to reach the moon, to go even further…"
It was like a dream. It was crazy talk. Delirious, John thought, but he didn't say it. The bird of prey was still circling above. "You can fly?" he asked.
"Not just fly," McKay said. "Just wait till you see…" His voice trailed away. He shifted position, wrapping his arms around his knees. "But it's all academic, isn't it? I came here by accident, and I'm not going home, not unless a miracle happens and I develop the Ancient gene overnight, or the others get off their asses and come after me."
Too many words were racing around John's head, like leaves on a swift river. "Another universe," he said. The sun crept down the hillside almost to where he was lying. "A world like this where none of the bad stuff happened."
"Oh, we've got our own share of bad stuff there, too," McKay said, but John barely heard him. He thought of all the ruins repaired and full of people. He thought of hundreds of ships criss-crossing the shining ocean. He thought of people flying like birds in the sky.
"I guess they were right all along," he said. "You're an Other, from another world, a world of magic."
McKay snapped another blade of grass. "It's not magic. It's all got a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation."
The sun reached him, warm on his face. "What's the difference?" John asked. "It's all the same. It's all equally lost to us."
McKay stood up; took a few swift steps away, back to the places not reached by the sun. "It isn't lost," he said. "They'll come for me, or I'll find a way. I've never come across anything I can't do."
John managed to sit up; managed not to fall again, despite the swirling of his vision. "Who're you waiting for?" he asked.
"People from home." McKay clenched his fist at his side, chains quivering. "People from Atlantis."
John let out a shuddering breath, but he was strangely unsurprised, almost as if he had been expecting this. Sunlight moved across the back of his neck like a soft finger. "The ship I was on…" he said. "The ship that sank… She was called Atlantis, too."
Throughout the morning, Sheppard drooped lower and lower on his horse. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, he fell off entirely.
"Oh!" Rodney gasped. "Oh, no. Oh no no no!" He pulled at the reins. "Stop! Whoa! Stop, you horrible animal." The horse stopped. Rodney almost got his foot caught in the stirrup as he dismounted, and he ran lurchingly back to Sheppard's side. Sheppard was stirring, his head moving weakly from side to side, as if searching for something he couldn't find. Even without touching him, Rodney thought he could feel the heat of him.
"How did this happen?" Rodney demanded. "Sheppard, how did this happen?" But he knew, of course. Small injuries could become life threatening when infection set in. Hadn't Rodney always known that? Hadn't Rodney always told everyone that? And this just shows how wrong Carson is when I go to him with a splinter and he sends me away. I could have died after any one of them! He shook his head, his hand brushing over Sheppard's shoulder. There was no time for thinking things like that. Sheppard was… What? Dying? This hideous post-apocalyptic world was probably teeming with infections, and that meant…
"The gate ship," Rodney said. "We've got to get back to the gate ship." A little piece of Atlantis so far away from home. A place with a door that locked. A safe place to wait for the others to find him. A place with medical supplies.
Of course, he thought, I could just leave him here. I don't owe him anything, after all. Sure, Sheppard had saved Rodney's life, but Rodney had saved him first. They were quits. They could go their separate ways without…
"Sheppard!" Rodney tugged at his arm. His voice was hoarse, almost harsh. "Pull yourself together. You need to get back on that horse. We've got…" How far was it? He had no idea. At least a day, he thought, and that was only if he didn't get lost. "A few more hours to go yet." It sounded unconvincing. He'd never been a good liar. He'd never really tried to lie before.
"Where?" Sheppard asked. "Where we going?"
"Just get up," Rodney begged him. The sun was hot on the back of his neck. "I can't carry you. Get up. Please."
Sheppard raised his head, set his jaw, and stood up. "Good," Rodney said. "That's good." But Rodney had to almost lift Sheppard into the saddle, standing below him and heaving him up, and his back would take weeks to recover from that, if it would ever recover at all. Sheppard swayed, then straightened his shoulders, although his eyes weren't really focused right. "You're going to stay on?" Rodney asked, his hands dancing around in the air beside Sheppard, in case the man fell off again.
"Yeah." Sheppard gave a faint smile. His head shook from side to side in vague contradiction of what he'd just said. "Don't know," he said. "I'll try."
"Well, trying…" Rodney cleared his throat. "Trying is good enough, I guess. Just… try hard, will you?"
But he kept his own horse close to Sheppard, so they were riding almost knee to knee. It was uncomfortable, but what else could he do?
John was lying on the bed of coals in the darkness, while things rustled overhead.
"…and I don't know how to make a fire." He didn't recognise the voice at first, then chased down his scattered thoughts enough to remember McKay. "I've never skinned a rabbit. I don't know how to keep someone alive."
"Water." John struggled to produce sound. "Need water. Willow bark. In my pack. Clean the wound again."
"Willow bark?" McKay sneered. "Primitive remedies. It… Well, willow bark works, actually, doesn't it? Salicylic acid. Aspirin. Yes. Though it plainly hasn't worked here, because, well, delirious? Do I have to touch the bandages? They're disgusting. Isn't it better to, uh, leave it all safely covered up?"
John couldn't remember where he was going. Too many memories fizzed in his mind, and he couldn't remember which ones were recent and which ones were far away. He remembered falling from his horse a second time… Yes, yes, that one was recent, wasn't it? He remembered falling towards McKay, and McKay grabbing him, and the two of them falling down together, McKay grumbling and shrieking, and then patting John's face, tugging at his shoulders, begging him to speak, to say that he hadn't gone and died on him.
"I haven't…" John murmured.
"What?" McKay was a disembodied voice in the darkness.
"Died on you," John said, with barely a sound to it, just a movement of his lips. Then he thought that he was perhaps several hours too late in answering the question. His memory of falling was a memory of twilight, and now it was fully dark.
"Good," McKay said. "That's good, because…" His words were swallowed in the clearing of his throat, almost as if he was embarrassed about something. "Chew your willow bark like a good boy," McKay said, "and maybe you'll be better by morning."
John still couldn't remember where he was going. The cloud he had lived under had lifted; that much he remembered. But the ship had still sunk. The world was unchanged. They had crossed the ocean for nothing, no hope to bring back to their people… To my people? he thought, because his father was the only one left, and his father never wanted to see him ever again.
"We've travelled faster," McKay said, "than we did in the other direction, when you were on foot. We might be there by tomorrow afternoon, maybe even earlier."
"Where?" John asked, but then he remembered a story, a tale of a world that had grown unstunted. "We're going to your Atlantis?" he asked. "Going to where the world has a happy ending?"
McKay didn't answer, but John drifted to sleep dreaming of it.
Morning was thick with mist. It filled the plain below them like a white lake that lapped around the shore of the higher ground.
Sheppard was still alive. Rodney had spent the night huddled in on himself for warmth, listening to Sheppard's rasping breathing. He was cold right through, "and I just know that I've caught something hideous," he said, rambling on as he had rambled on for minutes, hoping to goad Sheppard into reacting. Sheppard just moved his head, his eyelids fluttering, but said nothing.
"We have to go," Rodney said desperately. He hadn't noticed it the night before, but the distinctive shape of Glastonbury Tor was already visible, rising like an island from the lake of fog. "We'll be there in a few hours."
"'lantis?" Sheppard's lips shaped, though only a fragile thread of sound came out.
Rodney had no idea how he did it, but he managed to lift Sheppard up, and drag him towards his placid horse. Then he had to move them both again, to a place where a fallen tree provided a step to stand on. Sheppard helped just a little, hauling himself up, allowing Rodney to manhandle him into the saddle. "It looks easy in the movies," Rodney panted. His back and shoulders were screaming with exertion. "Hero sweeps heroine up in front of him on the horse…"
Rodney had to leave his own horse behind, but that didn't bother him much, because he had never really seen the point of horses; entrusting your life to something that didn't respond instantly to your commands at the press of a button seemed foolhardy in the extreme. "I'm using yours," he told Sheppard, "in case you're attached to it. See? I can do considerate. Although you don't seem to have named it, so maybe you aren't attached to it. People normally name horses, don't they? Why didn't you name it?"
It was quite hideously uncomfortable going two to a horse. The saddle wasn't big enough, and sticky-out bits of it were driving into sensitive parts of Rodney's anatomy. Sheppard slumped forward, and Rodney had to steady him, one hand on his back, and he could feel the heat of him, feel the racing of his heart, and it was quite horrible, because what would he do if the heartbeat stopped? Sometimes Sheppard struggled to sit up, his fingers tangling in the horse's mane, blocking Rodney's view of the path in front of them. But then they were down in the mist, and he couldn't see anything anyway, just grey fog and the vague shapes of trees and dead ruins.
How far do we have to do? he thought. They trudged on, and he thought he had never been more miserable in his life. "Just get to the gate ship," he urged himself, as if the gate ship was the answer to everything, and God help him, but it really seemed that way, even as he knew full well that it wasn't anything of the sort.
He didn't even know if he was going in the right direction. The sun was a faint smear of light behind the clouds. South, he thought, remembering the way they had travelled just days before. Need to go south. South across the plain, down from the hills, splashing through wet marshes. He followed that smear of sun. South across roads reclaimed by the soil. South past ruins. And the mist slowly cleared, but not enough. A dog howled, and Sheppard raised his head, his hand groping out behind him, brushing Rodney's leg and dismissing it, and only stopping when he found the Wraith stunner strapped to the saddle.
"Which is a nice gesture," Rodney said, "but you couldn't kill a fly right now, could you?" The dog howled again, closer this time. Rodney's stomach rumbled, and he thought that his back would break in two if he didn't get chance to rest it soon, but he couldn't, not with Sheppard like this. He couldn't.
The light grew brighter. Rodney saw the tall ruins of Glastonbury Abbey take shape out of the fog. "We're almost there." He shook Sheppard's shoulder. "Sheppard, we're almost there."
He didn't dare trot. Half an hour, he thought, until they were in the gate ship? But what happened then? He pressed his lips together, his hand tightening on Sheppard's back. What happens then?
They passed the abbey. The Tor was ahead, rising from a pool of lingering fog. Rodney moved through the green avenues that had once been thriving streets, and soon reached the lower slopes. They rose out of the last of the fog into a world of glorious sunshine. It felt too hot, sweat trickling down Rodney's face and into his clothes at his neck.
The entrance to the hill was guarded. Of course it is, Rodney thought. The heat intensified. He wanted to babble, to plead, to weep. Instead, he reached for the stunner, struggling one-handed to remove it from its straps. Sheppard gripped it tightly, resisting him. "You can't," Rodney told him quietly. "Delirious, remember? Let me." Sheppard yielded. He hadn't opened his eyes throughout, that tightening of his grip the only clue that he was still conscious.
The two men stood up. "It's the Other," one said.
"Still with cold, hard iron on its wrists." The second man tugged his mask into place.
"And John unconscious in its power, to be carried away to its domain."
"I'm not an Other," Rodney said. He barely recognised his voice; it sounded weary and scoured. "I just want to get home. I advise you not to try to stop me, because…" Sheppard stirred slightly. "Not that I'm threatening you," he said, "it's just that you don't understand what's happening here. You should run along home."
The man raised scythes and clubs. Not just harmless primitives, Rodney thought, but people who could actually kill him.
"I've had a very bad day," Rodney said. "A bad series of days, actually, and if I have to stun you--"
The gunshot came from behind him, smashing into the side of the hill. Rodney turned round, and it felt as if someone had turned the sun off, so quickly did he go from too hot to icy cold. The man – Sumner, it had to be Sumner – was loading his rifle for a second shot, intent on it, not noticing the other figure creeping up behind him.
"A Wraith!" Rodney breathed. "But we killed it. We killed it."
Sheppard's head snapped up at the word 'Wraith.' He clawed with one hand at the horse's neck and managed to sit up, swaying drunkenly. The horse pranced a few nervous steps down the slope. The stunner slithered in Rodney's grip, but he tried to aim it, really he did. The blue beam shot out and went wide. Behind him, forgotten, the villagers wailed.
"Sumner!" Sheppard shouted, but he was too sick, too weak to muster any real sound. "Behind you!"
It was too late. The Wraith grabbed Sumner, slamming its hand into the centre of his chest. Sumner screamed, the rifle falling from his hands. He fell to his knees, the Wraith holding him up, one hand at his throat, one at his chest.
"No," Sheppard pleaded, his voice cracking. "No." He urged the horse forward, taking them down the slope. "Try again!" he said, and Rodney said, "I am trying," but the next shot went wide and so did the third, but the horse was taking them closer and closer, close enough to see Sumner shrivelling, ageing, dying before his eyes.
The fourth shot hit. Rodney managed to dismount, but his legs crumpled as he landed, muscles screaming. He dropped the stunner. The Wraith fell sideways; rolled a little way down the slope. Sumner lay where he fell, brittle and emaciated.
And then Sheppard was standing in front of Rodney, slowly walking forward, his steps slow and careful, the P90 held in both hands. He pulled the trigger, shooting the Wraith again and again, until there was nothing left to shoot with, but even then he carried on trying. Rodney's ears were ringing. He crawled forward, always one step behind Sheppard. When he reached Sumner's side, he knew that the man was dead. He felt sick, his eyes stinging with memory.
"Sheppard." Rodney didn't even know why he said it. He didn't know what he wanted Sheppard to do. Barely a minute, he thought, if that. Just two minutes before, he'd thought they were home and dry.
Sheppard turned round slowly. He was pale and he looked dazed, barely there at all, but his eyes were glittering. They scared Rodney suddenly. No, it wasn't the eyes that scared him, but the fact that Sheppard had been so unresponsive for so long, and had found the strength to stand on his own two feet only when he had to kill something.
No, only when he had to try to save someone, he thought, and his shoulders sagged, and he thought suddenly that he might cry.
He didn't, of course, because Sheppard swayed, almost falling again. Rodney struggled to his feet, scooping up the fallen stunner as he did so. "Sumner's dead," he said. "He must have followed us." Something cold tightened its grip on him. He hadn't once looked back over his shoulder all morning. If Sumner had been a few minutes closer to them, he could have shot them in the back at any point.
"Dead." Sheppard moistened his lips. "There must've been two Wraith all along."
Rodney's head swayed with weariness, the old headache returning with a vengeance. Even the smell of this place was suddenly hideous, the moist earth reminding him of his team lying dead so close to here. He turned his head and saw the two villagers still there, tremulous in their masks. "Go home." Rodney flapped his hand. "So you got front row seats. That's the thing that was killing people, okay? It wasn't me. Got that? Now let us pass, or I'll have to use the stunner again." He waved it, and they recoiled – pathetic, pitiful… quite sad, really. "So run along." Sheppard swayed. Rodney caught his arm. "Please?" he begged them.
They didn't go, but they backed away, a cautious honour guard lining the way to the entrance to the facility. Sheppard managed to walk it, but Rodney suspected that he had no idea where he was going, lost again in dreams and close to collapse.
"Of course…" Rodney said, then he thought about it for a moment, then shifted his position, so he was almost completely supporting Sheppard, his arm around his middle. "Even if we do get there without some native trying to hack us to pieces from behind, there isn't…"
He started at a movement, but it was just a bird flapping up from the hillside above the entrance. Rodney tried to steady his breathing. The entrance gaped in the hillside, a black hole. There was no anxious rescue party. There was no sign of a team from Atlantis restoring the facility into bright and shining order.
"I'm still stuck here," Rodney said, because now that he was almost back at the gate ship, he realised what a false refuge it had been. It had medical supplies, yes, but it was still far from home, still a prison. Without that damned gene…
They entered the tunnel of earth. The bodies were still there, dull in the fading sunlight, but beyond them, the whole place was dark. "There might be another Wraith," Sheppard said, but his next step took him over the threshold, and the whole facility started to light up like a store at Christmas, stirring, no blazing into life around him.
end of chapter six
The Others are not united. Like man, they are divided, and they wage wars against their sundered kin. These wars were hidden from the eyes of man, but two there were on that long-distant spring morning who saw the truth.
An Other with hair like pale moonlight took a man, a stranger, to the dance, turning him to dust in the twinkling of an eye. An Other of a different hue opposed him, destroying him with blue fire. A war from the places below the ground spilled over into the land beneath the sun, and that dawn saw death on the side of the hill.
Two there were who saw the truth, did I say? No, little one, there were three, because John was there. John, who was so changed by the touch of the Other that he used a fire-stick himself. John, who drooped pale and weak afterwards, life and strength leaving him.
But after the silver-haired Other had fallen, John went with the Other who still lived. He turned his back on the land beneath the sun, and he walked away from the ken of mortal man. The land below the hill glowed golden in radiant light, and John was gone.
John was gone.
John had fallen asleep in the sun again. His limbs were sluggish and his body was wrapped in warmth. The ground was soft, and he could smell flowers and strange, exotic things. Birds were singing nearby… No, not birds. It wasn't a sound at all, but something else. It was sunlight on his face. It was his mother's scent. It was a soft touch on his face. It was memory and hope. It was safety. It was…
He moved his head. Fabric rustled. He felt a dull pain in his arm, but the rest of his body felt as if it had melted away. Something beeped beside him. The light coming through his closed eyelids was not sunlight, but neither was it the flickering light of candles or a fire.
The beeping grew faster. He heard footsteps, and opened his eyes at last to see a stranger looking down at him. "Hush, lad," the stranger said. "You're safe here. You're going to be fine, as right as rain."
John tried to say something, but no sound came out. He dimly recognised that he ought to be more anxious than he was. Safe, whispered the thing that was neither sound nor touch, that wasn't scent or memory or anything that he could see.
"Aye," said the man, wincing in sympathy at John's struggles to speak. "It strikes you hard at first. You've been very sick, but it's nothing that a good old dose of antibiotics can't fix. You'll be back on your feet in no time."
Where am I? John tried to say, but faint memory told him. It was distant as a dream, and he would have dismissed it as such, except that his eyes showed him marvels. He remembered light blazing around him, and McKay shouting at him to touch the gate, that big ring over there, just activate it now, you fool, now. He remembered a gleaming vessel that had responded to him, edging forward into a circle of shining blue when he touched the things McKay told him to touch. 'Thank God!' McKay had gasped when they were through, but John had looked upwards and had known beyond doubt that the sky, too, was within his reach. There was nothing after that, though - nothing until this.
His eyes slid closed. Safe, this world whispered around him.
Woolsey was shuffling papers on his desk. "This is most irregular," he said. "What possessed you to bring back this…" He peered down at the paper. It was quite ridiculously theatrical, Rodney thought; any sensible person used electronic records, and pen and paper were practically medieval. "Sheppard," Woolsey read out. "John Sheppard. A man from an entirely different universe. What possessed you to bring him here?"
"He was sick," Rodney explained for at least the fourth time – why didn't anybody listen? "He needed proper medical attention, and his own world sure as hell wasn't going to provide him with any." Woolsey opened his mouth as if to object. Rodney spoke over him. "Are you saying that I should have left him behind to die?"
He'd said the same to Carson, when Carson had… not questioned his decision, not as such, just asked him his reasons in an idly wondering fashion, as if he had expected Rodney to have done just that.
Woolsey shook his head, but he shuffled his papers again in a way that radiated disapproval.
Rodney shifted in his seat, struggling to find a comfortable way to sit. "I didn't even know we'd get back to the right universe, of course," he said. "It was a leap of faith, really, but anything was better than staying there. All I could do was dial the planet we started on, and hope that whatever had happened in one direction also happened on the way back. And it did. But you know that, of course, because, well, here I am."
"Here you are," Woolsey said dryly. He cleared his throat. "That means, of course, that there was all the more reason not to risk a civilian."
Rodney leant forward, elbows on the table. "I needed him, okay? Valuable gate ship left behind? Sheppard the only one of us who could bring it back?"
Woolsey pursed his lips together, and wrote something on a blank sheet of paper.
"He's got the gene!" Rodney shouted. "We're desperate for people with the gene. We've lost, what, twelve of them since we came here? Thirteen, now that Behr's gone. And unless you've magically found a way back to Earth – the proper Earth – and placed an order for a fresh supply, we're running on half strength, and we didn't have enough in the first place." He realised what he was saying; reined himself in. "Of course, a gene is no substitute for actual brains or scientific training, but… well, gene carriers have their uses, and Sheppard's got to be the strongest we've ever seen. Behr made the facility light up, but nothing like that."
Woolsey wrote another note, carefully replacing the cap of his pen when he had finished. "That is indeed true. Doctor Beckett has confirmed it."
"Then why the interrogation?" Rodney waved an impatient hand. "Why aren't you putting out balloons and holding a parade? I brought you a gene carrier. You need a gene carrier. It's a match made in heaven. End of story."
"You can't just steal people from other universes," Woolsey said stiffly. "Quite apart from the fact that he physically can't exist here for very long--"
"Only if there's another version of him around somewhere," Rodney said, "and there might not be. If we're lucky, this universe's John Sheppard might be dead."
"Lucky?" Woolsey looked at him frostily.
Rodney waved his hand, dismissing the word as a figure of speech. "Or maybe it doesn't happen if your double's a whole galaxy away. That's a possibility that hasn't been studied, and it should be, really – services to scientific knowledge, you know? There's no point anticipating problems until they manifest themselves."
"Quite apart from that," Woolsey said, emphasising each word, "it's unethical. Besides, our work here is classified. We have to be very careful who we allow into the city."
"But--" Rodney protested.
Woolsey cut him off with a final, decisive sorting of his papers. "You've had a stressful ordeal, Doctor McKay. Take a few more days off duty. Rest. Recover." But don't try to interfere with the running of the base, his tone said.
"I've got nothing to recover from," Rodney said, but his wrists were still reddened from the iron bands, his head still throbbed whenever he was tired, and the memories of those last days on the other Earth were more vivid than the memories of the thirty-six hours since he had come back from it.
"People aren't prizes you can win for Atlantis," Woolsey said. "I know you want the credit for finding him, but--"
"It's not like that," Rodney protested, but what was it like?
He did not know.
The man taking care of him was called Doctor Beckett, and his face inspired trust. The second time he awoke, John had only the faintest memory of the first time. The third time he awoke, his thoughts were clearer. The fourth time, he asked if he could leave the bed, and Beckett gently refused.
The fifth time he awoke, Beckett told him that he could walk to the balcony and back, "but well wrapped up, mind, and I'll be watching like a hawk in case you fall."
Every step was a wonder. The floor was as smooth as polished marble in the mansions of the Time Before. Light blazed from no apparent source. A voice came from the air, asking to speak to Beckett, and John pressed his hand against his chest, as if that could slow the wild beating of his heart. Magic, thought the part of him that had been reared on stories. No, he thought, not magic, just a world that moved on the way it was supposed to.
The air on the balcony was cool and fresh. The light dazzled him at first, and he screwed his eyes up, shielding his face with one hand.
He lowered it to see a place more beautiful than anything he had ever dreamed of. "Not magic?" he murmured, when he had the power to speak, to move, to breathe again. Not magic, but a world of wonder, even so. He saw shining towers on a silver sea, and the sky so vast above it. Each tower was whole and intact, gleaming with light and life. Nothing was ruined, nothing was decayed, nothing was empty, nothing was dead. It was the world as it should have been, and it reached into him, nestled down, and stayed.
His hand found the railing, and he sagged there, barely able to stand.
"You gonna faint?" a voice said. John tore his eyes away from the view, blinked, and realised that he wasn't alone.
"Don't think so." John shook his head.
The other man was leaning on the far end of the balcony. He didn't look like any of the other inhabitants of this Atlantis that John had seen. His clothes were made of coarse, thick cloth, his hair was long, and wouldn't have looked out of place in John's own world.
The man had already turned away, asking no further questions, but sunlight sparkled on the water, and everything about this place reached out to John and spoke of safety. It was enough to make him open his mouth and speak, when long habit would have urged silence. "It's just… overwhelming, you know? I've never seen anything like this place before."
The other man was slow to answer. "The City of the Ancestors," he said. "Thought it was just stories, but now I'm here." He looked at John, sparing him a brief glance. "You're not from here?"
John shook his head. "This is my first sight of it. They wouldn't let me out of bed before now."
"You, too? They let me when I hit two of them. Gave me my clothes back, too." The man eyes ran up and down John's body, clearly disapproving of the loose white suit he had been dressed in "You should try it."
"I might do that, buddy." John smiled. It was a less cautious smile than it might have been. Light gleamed on the tall, unbroken towers. "Where're you from?" he asked. Then he held out his hand, remembering long-forgotten social niceties. "Sorry. John Sheppard."
The other man was slow to respond. "Ronon Dex," he said eventually. There was another long pause. Someone walked past behind them, talking quietly. "Sateda," the man called Ronon said. "The Wraith made me into a Runner. A few days ago, I bumped into a party from Atlantis. Didn't mean to, but I was sick. Still saved their lives, though. They said they could help me and brought me here. Took out the tracker and healed me up."
John wondered whether to admit that he had no idea what a Runner was, and had never heard of Sateda. "According to McKay, I come from another universe," he told the man. "I got sick, too. I… can't remember much about coming here. I know about the Wraith, though. I killed two of them."
Ronon smiled, showing his teeth. "I killed a hundred and thirty-three on the run. Lost count of the ones I killed before."
"That's, uh, very impressive." John tightened his grip on the railing.
Ronon did the same. "I won't rest until I've killed every Wraith alive. I'll avenge Sateda."
So Ronon's home was gone. John thought of ruins and empty spaces, and had no idea what to say. Then a brief shadow passed in front of the sun, and he looked up to see small, shining vessel heading up into the sky. It gleamed like a star, and he knew that there were people inside it, that people were making it fly.
He had sat in one himself, and been so close to that, so close to the sky.
"Are you going to stay here?" he said, perhaps speaking to Ronon, and perhaps to himself.
"Why should I?" Ronon said. "What's there to stay for?"
"You know, a rescue would have been nice," Rodney said, when they had worked for several hours.
"Is as I said." Zelenka raked his hand through his hair. "We didn't know where you had gone. We had to be cautious."
Rodney focused his attention on yet another screen full of tests and readings. "Cautious," he said. He reached blindly for his coffee, his hand closing round the hot sides of the mug.
"Something was weird with that Gate," Zelenka said. "We--"
"Weird." This time Rodney found the mug's handle. "Radek Zelenka, great scientific mind, has spoken. Something was weird. The fact that when you dial Earth you get a wormhole leading to the wrong Earth is the clue there, eh? And you had nearly a week to analyse the readings and the best you can do is 'something was weird'? Where did they hire you from? Kindergarten?"
"We were slow to discover where you'd gone." Zelenka's voice had an edge to it. "You failed to check in before you attempted to reach Earth. The Gate left no trace of last addresses dialled. The readings were… strange. We didn't want to risk dialling until…"
"Until you'd written a book about it," Rodney said. "Yes, yes, I understand. It's more important to be cautious than to rescue your own people. For all you knew, I was dying over there – too long spent in an alternate universe, and all. But, no, you had to wait. After all, we can't risk losing any more gene carriers in a rescue attempt, can we?"
"Is not fair, McKay." Zelenka took his glasses off and rubbed them with the bottom of his shirt. "We didn't realise it was a different universe at first. We were about to venture through, but we had to be cautious. You yourself--"
"What?" Rodney demanded. He held his coffee in both hands. Thick red bands surrounded his wrists, and sleep was still hard to come by. They would have risked it for anyone else, he thought. Coffee shivered in the mug.
Zelenka looked at him, his eyes like a stranger's without the glasses. "Taught us to be cautious," he said. "When Corporal Jenkins was missing, you were the one who--"
"Stop it." Rodney slammed the mug down, splashing coffee on the table. "Go away."
Zelenka raised one hand, finger upraised. "But, Rodney…"
"Or stay," Rodney said. "Put your pitiful intellect towards solving the problem. Or, better yet, get me some more coffee. This isn't strong enough."
Zelenka put his glasses on. "I don't know why we tried to bring you back," he said, then muttered harsh words in Czech.
Rodney turned his back on him, concentrating on the computer screen. Instead of figures, though, his eyes showed him the bodies of his team, and the darkness of an empty facility, and Sheppard slumped in front of him on the horse.
He didn't notice Zelenka leaving; only noticed a long time later that he had gone.
Once, a long time ago, it had been in John's nature to take the lead in talking. For his whole adult life he had been cautious about what he showed of himself, but shallow words, surface words, had come easily to him.
No matter what happened, you never really forgot.
"How's about we make a break for it?" he said, pausing at the entrance to the balcony. "See if we can get down there." He nodded with his chin towards the sea. Go exploring, he thought, remembering long-ago days with his brother.
Ronon didn't turn round. "I was thinking it was time to leave. I'm fixed up now."
"I'm not," John said. Beckett had made himself very clear on that point. "Got a few more days here yet." He managed a shrug, a smile. "We're in the same boat here, both new to the place, and so..." He let it hang there, hoping that Ronon would fill in the blanks without him having to say it.
"They won't let us," Ronon said. "I heard them talking when they thought I was asleep. They don't like strangers discovering their secrets."
John pretended to consider it. "I guess hitting them won't work this time. It doesn't inspire trust, as a rule. So we play good. We let them give us an escort, if that's what they want to do, but we get out of here. I've been in a bed for far too long."
Ronon turned round slowly, one hand still on the railing. He didn't say yes, didn't even smile, but a few minutes later John found himself walking with Ronon out of the infirmary, out into pristine corridors and shining halls. A soldier went ahead of them, his face as blank as a statue's, and Beckett's admonitions were ringing in John's ears.
"Freedom," John said, because he suddenly felt that he had to say something. It was hard not to grin inanely. He felt as if everything that he had ever known about himself was falling away from him, leaving him with something new. He should be scared, traumatised, overwhelmed by what he was seeing, but the only thing it felt was right. He had always known that the world had once been different, and this was the world with that missing piece restored.
Or maybe, John, he thought, it's just that you've fallen in love with those gate ship things, and the rest of it's just your imagination.
The soldier led them to a tiny room and gestured to them curtly to get in. Ronon stopped, folding his arms in a way that clearly meant refusal. John swallowed, and had to admit that he was nervous, after all. Not magic, he reminded himself. Not a happy ever after. You couldn't slot effortlessly into new places; things didn't work like that.
The soldier just looked at them. He sees idiots, John realised, remembering his own thoughts about the superstitious villagers who'd thought that rifles were magic. "Come on, buddy," John said, goaded into making a decision. "These guys wouldn't have fixed us up if they wanted to hurt us. Let's go in."
Ronon followed him slowly, his eyes promising revenge if anything happened to him. Sighing impatiently, the soldier touched something, and light flared brightly. "What have you done to us?" Ronon demanded, but John reached out a hand, not quite touching him, but almost. The light sent echoes through his mind. We moved, he thought, as the door opened on a shining hallway, bright in the evening sunlight.
John was the first to leave. He could already see their destination. A door set with glass panels opened out into a flat expanse of floor, and beyond that was the ocean and the endless sky. "Huh," he said, because his thoughts threatened to become too vast, too overpowering, and he had to rein them in with light words. "I didn't expect it to be that quick. We're down at sea level already."
Magic, his mind said, and this time he didn't bother to dispute it. It didn't really matter, he thought. Magic or not magic, it was all equally lost to them; he had said that once. But now he had found it. Whether it was magic or not magic, it was here.
Outside, the ocean smelled just like any ocean he had known. John walked towards the edge, but it was further than it looked, or else he was less healed than he had thought. His legs grew weaker, his steps slower.
"You gonna faint?" Ronon asked.
John shook his head. Ronon said nothing, but moved closer, as if he was readying to catch John if he fell. John concentrated on walking; reminded himself that fanciful nonsense was all very well, but reality was more important. Things had changed, but he was still the same person. Maybe these really were Others, after all. Maybe this was enchantment. Maybe he had been enthralled and was walking willingly to his doom.
"I guess I need to sit down," he admitted at last.
They sat on the edge, feet overhanging the sea. John tried to focus on the real things. Ronon wasn't part of this. He was like John, exploring this place with a stranger's eyes.
"Why do you want to leave?" John asked. The soldier stood away from them, too far away to hear. The wind whipped around them, and the waves crashed not far below.
"No reason to stay," Ronon said. "Sateda's gone, but there's other places. I've been on the run for eight years, and can do it again, but this time I'll be the one doing the hunting."
"Wraith?" John asked. He wondered what to say, and decided on honesty. "I never heard of a Wraith until last week." He remembered the man who had died on his own threshold, and Sumner ageing and dying before his eyes. "I hate the guys, though."
Ronon said nothing. His fist tightened at his side.
"I'd have thought," John said carefully, "that fighting the Wraith would be easier when there's more than one of you."
Once again, Ronon was slow to answer. "Depends on the people you're with. These ones are soft. I don't trust them, and they don't trust me. They wouldn't let me stay even if I wanted to. I'm not one of them. They think they're better than me."
John turned around slowly; saw the soldier staring impassively straight ahead. The towers behind him were beautiful, but the air was cold.
At least Caldwell hid behind a computer screen rather than old-fashioned hand-written papers. "Your report is troubling," he said, "and leaves many questions unanswered."
"Questions which I was working on solving," Rodney pointed out, "until you interrupted my work by calling me here. Not that I see why it's any concern of yours."
Caldwell looked up from the screen, his eyes cold. "Three of my men are dead, Doctor McKay, their bodies not yet recovered: that makes it my concern. You brought this Sheppard to Atlantis, potentially compromising security: that makes it my concern. There are Wraith on Earth: that makes it my concern."
"Not on the real Earth," Rodney pointed out.
"You got there because you dialled the glyphs for Earth." Caldwell closed his laptop with a snap. "How did the Wraith get there? The same way? If so, how did they know the address?"
Rodney shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "It could be many things," he said, "hence the important work. Maybe something about that Earth's Gate takes precedence over other addresses dialled. Maybe they were Wraith from that other universe. That universe probably has its own Wraith. I see no reason why it wouldn't, when it even had its own version of Ford."
"Indeed." Caldwell opened the laptop again. "That part is… interesting. Were you aware…?" He cleared his throat, looking briefly almost uncomfortable. "A Colonel Sumner was considered for the role of military commander of the expedition."
"He almost got your job?" Rodney let out a breath. "I guess we had a lucky escape."
"Indeed." Caldwell's smile held little humour. "I'm flattered you consider me the lesser of two evils. I trust you'll remember this moment the next time you feel inspired to subject me to one of your rants?"
Rodney's mind was already moving on to the next thing, putting connections together, leaving Caldwell and his petty attempt to score a point way behind. "So we had Sumner and Ford and a ship called the Atlantis…" He hadn't recognised any other faces, but he hadn't really looked, had he? And most of them had died in the shipwreck, of course. Did that include people like Bates and Lorne? Had Rodney's double drowned in the wreck? No, of course not, because then Sheppard would have recognised him, but…
"Have you ever come across a John Sheppard?" he asked Caldwell.
"I don't know." Caldwell shook his head. "Contrary to your expectations, I don't know the names of every man in the United States military. But about your John Sheppard… I hear you expected us to welcome him with open arms and let him stay."
Rodney shifted again. "He's not my John Sheppard, but now that you mention it… I mean, he's been here for several days now, and isn't showing any signs of effects of temporal distortion, and…"
"He can't, of course," Caldwell said, his mouse clicking as he opened another file, Rodney's case dismissed. "As soon as you find a reliable way to do so, we're sending him straight back home." He waved his hand, dismissing Rodney not even with words, just a curt gesture.
A woman was waiting for them back in the infirmary. John was being supported by Ronon by then, his steps feeling as heavy as if he was dragging weights on each foot, but, "No," he gasped, when Ronon tried to steer him to his bed. He wanted the balcony, for more sunshine and that view. Ronon huffed disapprovingly, but took him there. John slid down, leaning against the back wall, sitting with his legs out in front of him, his face turned up to the sun.
The woman followed them. "I am Teyla Emmagen," she introduced herself. The sun was behind her, and John couldn't see her face clearly. "You must be Ronon Dex, and you are John Sheppard."
"That's me," John said wearily. The woman moved, so he could see her without being dazzled by the light. She was very beautiful. Like Ronon, she was wearing clothes that made her look different from anyone else John had seen in the city.
"I am from Athos," Teyla said. She addressed it to Ronon, as if she knew that John had no idea where such a place was. "My father leads my people."
"I thought Athos was culled," Ronon said.
"It was." Teyla inclined her head. "But a few of us survived, and continue to survive." She smiled. "We always do."
"Yeah." Ronon turned away from them, leaning his arms on the railing. "People always do."
Teyla looked after him for a long moment, then turned back to John. "They asked me here to speak to you both. They call me their 'native liaison.' Her voice changed, becoming harder, "They believe that we have something in common. After all, one 'native' is the same as any other."
John didn't understand it, but her bitterness was unmistakeable. The people of Atlantis, he realised, were grouping the three of them together because they were strangers, who came from places that didn't have such tall and gleaming towers.
"You don't like these guys, then?" he asked.
"They have provided much help to my people." Teyla sounded as if she was choosing her words carefully. "They have undoubtedly saved many lives. But they think they are better than us, because they are capable of doing so many things that we cannot do. Sometimes…" She stopped, as if she was thinking better of saying it, then carried on. "Sometimes, I believe, they forget that there are things that we know, that they do not."
Ronon said nothing. Teyla's hair stirred in the breeze, and she pushed a strand of it behind her ear. John saw muscles in her arm, and the unmistakeable look of someone who knew how to fight. Did the people of Atlantis know about this, he wondered suddenly, or did they just see a beautiful woman whose clothes were made of coarser fabric than their own?
"But they are here in the City of the Ancestors," Teyla said, "and the city has given them its blessing."
Her caution was still evident. It made John feel happier, all of a sudden. Both Teyla and Ronon were unimpressed with this place and its people. If the people of Atlantis really were Others with the power to enchant, then surely Ronon and Teyla would be smiling and besotted, wanting nothing else other than to stay here.
"You don't live here?" he asked Teyla, because in none of the stories did the Others let people come and go freely.
"I live on Athos," Teyla said, "although I come here occasionally, when they have a 'native issue' they require a 'native opinion' on." It was clear by her tone of voice that she was quoting them, but then her hard expression dissolved in a smile. "It is indeed beautiful, though, is it not? When I was a girl, I never thought I would be standing in the City of the Ancestors. We have such stories about this place."
And the domain of the Others, John remembered, appears more beautiful than a dream, so mortals will be enticed to enter it and thus be entrapped to their doom.
"My folks do, too," John said. "Here's hoping mine are just that, just stories."
end of chapter seven
What is the domain of the Others like? It is beautiful, of course, because the Others have great power and magic, and would not choose to live in a fallen world like ours. Is it like our world was in the Time Before? Is it more beautiful than our world ever was?
Or is it just a shadow and a dream? Is all its beauty an illusion, designed to draw mortals to their doom? Strip away the magic, and what would we find? Just cold earth and worms and dank, decaying things?
We do not know. Did John find the truth when he went with the Other into the hill? Did he marvel at the beauty of that fairy world, or did he scream in horror of what lay therein?
We do not know. For once he crossed the threshold into the hill, John was lost to the words and memory, lost to the world.
Rodney was a frequent visitor to the infirmary. Certain people called him a hypochondriac, but Rodney didn't see what was wrong with trying to take care of your health. You could never be too careful. Take Sheppard, for example. The man had almost died because he'd done that stoical soldier thing of not getting a minor wound checked out. Not that there'd been anyone there to check it out, of course, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Rodney came here often, that he knew it well.
Why, then, did it suddenly seem to strange to him? It's because I've never come here to visit someone else, he realised. He'd never done the bedside vigil thing. Sometimes people he worked with got injured, went away for a while, and then came back, and it had never crossed his mind that he might want to visit them at any point during the process.
And Carson, he remembered, had expected him to leave Sheppard behind in his own universe to die.
Thoughts circled in his mind, and he didn't want to pin them down enough to put them into words. "Where's Sheppard?" he demanded instead, snapping his fingers to attract Carson's attention.
"What is it this time?" Carson asked wearily. "Another splinter?"
"Didn't you hear me?" Rodney demanded. "I'm right here in front of you, speaking words. Where's Sheppard?"
"I let him go," Carson said.
"What?" It struck Rodney hard, and he didn't really know why. "He's gone? But he can't be. I've not finished my work on the Gate. It isn't reliable. Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Not that sort of gone." Carson glanced over his shoulder at a sudden noise around a distant bed, swore softly under his breath, and started to hurry away. "I think they were planning on going to the mess hall," he said as he went.
"The mess hall." Rodney nodded. "Right."
He made his way there, not really sure why he was trying to find Sheppard. It wasn't as if Sheppard could offer any useful insights into why any attempt to connect a wormhole between those two particular Gates somehow managed to bridge the universes. Watching him for signs of the physical effects of temporal distortion was a useful project, of course, but not the one that Rodney was engaged in. Sheppard wasn't in any way his responsibility. He was an ignorant peasant from a post-apocalyptic universe, and, yes, he just happened to possess the strongest manifestation of the Ancient Descendants' Gene that anyone had ever encountered, but that didn't mean that he had anything to say that could be useful to Rodney and his work.
Sheppard wasn't alone when Rodney reached the mess hall. A large barbarian type was sitting opposite him, and there was also that native woman who visited sometimes to brief Woolsey on native politics and customs. An impassive-faced soldier was standing away to the side, evidently watching them in case they did anything threatening.
As Rodney approached, the woman said something quietly, and Sheppard laughed. Then Sheppard said something back, and the barbarian smiled.
Rodney stopped walking, cleared his throat, and started again. "Sheppard," he said. Sheppard looked up. "There you are. Are you, uh…" He cleared his throat again, suddenly at a loss for what to say. Sheppard was wearing scrubs, with an Atlantis jacket over the top of them. That's because he was sick, Rodney reminded himself. What did people say when they visited sick people? "Are you, uh, well?"
"I'm good," Sheppard said blandly. He looked different from how he had looked back on Earth, or perhaps that was just the different lighting. The soldier continued to watch impassively, but the woman – what was her name? – moved fractionally closer to Sheppard. The barbarian's expression was not friendly.
Rodney pulled out the empty chair and sat on it, forearms resting on the table. He eyed the untouched chocolate cake on Sheppard's plate. "Are you eating that, because… important work, you know? Busy trying to save advance scientific knowledge, no time to stop and eat, etcetera etcetera?"
"Was planning to," Sheppard said. He smiled, but when he turned towards Rodney, his smile faded. "I've never tasted food like this, but none of this is anything special to you, is it? I didn't want to eat it at first. Stupid, huh?"
"Why ever not?" Rodney asked, but the others seemed to understand. Rodney had no idea who the barbarian was – perhaps a friend of the woman's? None of them were part of the Atlantis expedition, that much was plain. In the heart of his own city, Rodney suddenly felt like the one who didn't belong. He remembered the incident in the infirmary when Carson had heard what he had expected to hear, not listening to Rodney's words at all.
"Are you…?" Rodney shifted in his chair, its legs scraping against the floor. He should probably ask Sheppard if he was experiencing any symptoms of temporal distortion. He should ask him how he was feeling. No, no, he'd done that already. God, why was he feeling so awkward? He'd carried Sheppard on horseback for hours; had killed two Wraith with him, for crying out loud. They'd saved each other's lives.
"This is Rodney McKay," Sheppard said, clearly concluding that Rodney wasn't going to finish his question. "He's the one who brought me here."
"Well, technically you're the one who brought us both here, on account of the whole gene thing." Rodney's voice trailed away. He looked at his hands. "Has anyone shown you what you can do?"
Sheppard shook his head. There was a wariness about all three of them, Rodney thought, as if Sheppard had decided to align himself with these two strangers, rather than with Rodney and his people.
"Well, they should," Rodney said, making up his mind suddenly. "Come with me." Sheppard didn't move. Rodney stood up, snapping his fingers. "Come on. I've got something to show you. Your little friends can come too, if they want, and I guess the guard-dog comes as part of the deal." Sheppard still sat there. Rodney sighed, passing his hand across his face, remembering things that Sheppard had told him. "You said you wanted to change the world. This is your chance. Do you want to find out what you're capable of, or do you want to hide from it and spend your whole life in ignorance?"
Sheppard blinked, closing his eyes for a moment, and then stood up. He left the chocolate cake behind. Rodney almost went back for it, but thought it would spoil the moment.
John had never believed in magic or fairies. Stories about Others were just stories, made up by people who didn't understand the relics of the Time Before.
But that was before he had come to a place where every tiny thing around him was a marvel. Safe, whispered the city, speaking with a voice that didn't reach him through any of his regular senses. Home. And part of him wanted to listen, but part of him pointed out that the Others could enchant their victims so they went willingly to the deaths, desiring nothing else.
The more beautiful the city seemed, the more he loved it. The more beautiful the city seemed, the more he feared it.
Ronon and Teyla weren't part of it, of course, and that was a comfort. McKay, too… McKay was a difficult one, because he was the one who had brought John here, the one who had reeled him in. But it was hard to imagine anything unearthly about Rodney McKay. For four days, John had listened to the man whining and grumbling and prattling, saying whatever was on his mind. Almost from the start, John had been certain that McKay was entirely human. His flaws and his irritating habits were comforting and reassuring. If McKay had been more perfect, John might have walked away days ago, and wouldn't be here now.
So it was all a cunning trick, he thought, played in the way it needed to be played in order to catch me. But the thought carried little conviction. It didn't feel right, not with McKay.
And so John followed him. Do you want to find out what you're capable of? Of course he did. He couldn't walk away, not from a question like that. And if this was a trap…John stopped. Ronon turned towards him. McKay carried on walking, failing to notice. If this is a trap, John thought, then I'm willingly walking into it. He'd left his home to see what was in the world beyond it. He'd stepped onto a ship because he wanted to know. You could live quietly, scraping a living from the soil, or you could take a chance.
"You coming?" McKay said, noticing at last.
John nodded. Ronon and Teyla flanked him closely as he started to walk again. "It's all right," he told them quietly. "It's just McKay."
Safe, the city told him, but John closed his heart to it. McKay's impatience, his awkward inability to say the right thing, spoke more loudly than any magic.
They carried on, walking through gloomy hallways, squeezing into those tiny rooms that transported them instantly to other places. No-one said anything for a while, but soon John found his steps slowing, his arm beginning to throb. He found Teyla looking at him in concern, and managed a smile for her.
"You need to stop, sir," the soldier said at last. "You can't take non mission personnel in there."
"I can do whatever I like," McKay told him. "You called me 'sir.' That means you admit that I outrank you."
John listened to them arguing, words going to and fro between them. That, too, was strangely comforting – another human thing, with nothing magical about it. He leant against the wall, feeling it cool against his back. It was vibrating slightly, humming with power, or maybe that was just the fluttering of his own heart.
"Come on, then." McKay snapped his fingers in front of John's face, as if he had been trying to communicate with him for some time. He opened the door, and John followed him in. The room held nothing but a large metal chair, decorated with patterns. "Sit on it, then," McKay said impatiently, as if this action was completely obvious, and John had been neglecting his duty by standing there.
"You're going to let him…?" Ronon growled, and John remembered a story he had heard long ago, about a thief who had sat down on an empty throne, only to be pinned there forever by chains and roots that shot out around his arms and legs.
McKay sighed in irritation. "It's quite safe. Look." He sat on it himself, then jumped up again. "It just doesn't work for me, just like the gate ship didn't. It doesn't work for anyone. Carson and the others, they can make it do the lighting up thing, but they can't actually do anything useful with it. You need more than pretty sparkly things to protect a city."
John edged forward. Ronon came with him, and Teyla a few steps behind. Do you want to find out what you're capable of, John? he thought. Life was a string of chances, and he had been dead inside when living from day to day in the months after the shipwreck, only feeling a spark of life when he was riding fast across the hills.
He sat down, and the chair embraced him, welcoming him home.
"Good." Rodney brought both hands to his face, exhaling into them. "That's good. Got to test it. What can I can ask you to do now?"
Sheppard was reclining in the chair, his eyes closed, his hands instinctively resting in the right places. The blue light made him look different. More powerful, Rodney thought, but that was a stupid thought; of course it was. Just because Sheppard had that ridiculous magic gene, it didn't mean that he was anything special.
The barbarian was pacing up and down in a primitive fashion. "Does it hurt?" he asked Sheppard.
Sheppard opened his eyes with evident difficulty. "I… No. No. Doesn't hurt. Feels good. Scary. Good."
To hell with it, Rodney thought. He'd go straight for the big one. "As far as we can tell," he said, "the chair's linked in to the city's defence systems. There's a bay full of drones that we've never been able to use. I want you to fire one."
A small furrow appeared between Sheppard's eyes. "Drones?" His voice cracked, as if speaking was an effort.
Rodney scraped his hand across his face. What to say? What to say? "Yes! I've got it. Pretend we're being attacked. There's a ship full of Wraith in the sky to the south. They're going to kill everyone here unless you do something. Can you imagine them? Can you see them? Take them out. Go on, Sheppard, we're depending on you."
Sheppard let out a soft breath. His eyes slid shut again.
Rodney frowned. "Did it work? A little feedback would be nice. Sheppard, what happened?"
His radio crackled into life. "Doctor McKay?" Caldwell spoke in his ear. "Sergeant Collins tells me that you've taken our visitors to the Chair Room."
"Yes, yes, so sue me." Rodney looked at Sheppard again, his eyes closed on the chair. "And?" he prompted.
"And a drone has just been fired, as well you know," Caldwell said stiffly, sounding as if he hated having to say the words.
"Yes!" Rodney punched the air with his fist. He removed the ear piece, barely hearing Caldwell's tinny voice berating him. "You hear that, Sheppard? You did it. No-one else alive can do that. No-one else alive and here, anyway. But that doesn't matter. The point is, I was right. I knew you'd be useful to us."
Sheppard gave no answer. The barbarian touched his throat, feeling his pulse. "Think he's asleep," he said.
"Doctor Beckett said he was to be careful not to over-exert himself," the woman said. Her glance in Rodney's direction was sharp.
Rodney swallowed. The blue light no longer made Sheppard look powerful, but sick. It drained him of colour, and showed just how still he really was. So apparently Carson as well as Caldwell would be baying for Rodney's blood. Not that it mattered, of course. The important thing was that he had proved his point. The important thing was that he was right.
But he decided to stick around while Sheppard slept, waiting with the others until Carson and Caldwell came to take Sheppard away.
John woke in the evening to find himself in the infirmary again. He sat up, pushing himself up against the pillows, and remembered the feeling of power flowing through his entire body. The magic of the chair had consumed him… no, it hadn't consumed him, because he'd been in control. It had drained his strength, but only because he had let it. It would have released him at any point.
He heard the sound of footsteps, and turned his head to see Ronon approaching the bed. "I thought you might have gone by now," he found himself saying.
Ronon stood behind an empty chair, gripping its back with both hands. Why was it there, John wondered. Had someone sat beside him while he slept? "Thought I'd stay for a bit longer," Ronon said.
"Ah." John nodded. "That's, uh… good, buddy. It's good to have someone else around who's in the same boat."
Ronon looked away, then back again. "Thought I'd go when you go, and you're not ready yet. And the food's good. You don't always get much food on the run. Only a fool turns down good shelter when it's offered."
They will tempt you with sweet music and sweet food, John remembered, but if you take a bite of their food, then you are lost forever. Too late for that, of course. Beckett said they'd fed him through tubes when he was going through the worst of it, and when John had first woken up, he'd been too starving and too feverish to say no.
"Yeah," John said, leaning into the soft pillows. "Only a fool."
Ronon pulled the chair out, twisted it round, and sat on it backwards, his legs striding the seat. "They say you fired some sort of explosive into the sea." He gave a quick, fierce smile. "That'll take out the Wraith."
John nodded. It would take out more than the Wraith. He had released the weapon and aimed it at an imaginary Wraith target, but in that moment, he had known that he could direct it on the city itself, if he wanted to. It wasn't protected; that much he knew beyond doubt.
"That Caldwell guy…" Ronon said. "He doesn't like that you did it. So hurry up and get well." He clapped John on the shoulder. "This place isn't for the likes of us."
And what's the likes of us? John thought, and suddenly realised that he had no idea at all. He'd thought that he didn't understand this marvellous city; maybe, though, he just didn't understand himself.
It was over twenty-four hours since the incident with the chair, so it was high time that Caldwell and Woolsey got over their petty little grudge.
"It's stupid that you won't even consider it," Rodney said, pacing up and down in the conference room. "Atlantis is meant to be defended by that chair, and Sheppard's the only person we've got who can use it." He rounded on Caldwell. "Protecting the city's supposed to be your job. You're supposed to be protecting us civilians, but you want to send Sheppard away and leave us unprotected?"
"He is from another universe." Caldwell spat out each word like stones, each one clear and distinct.
Rodney flapped his hand dismissively. "So you keep on saying. But he's been here, what, five days now, with no ill-effects. Either the John Sheppard from our universe is dead, or he's too far away for it to matter."
Woolsey leant forward, his elbows on the table. "You seem to be taking this quite personally, Doctor McKay. Why do you want him to stay?"
Rodney frowned, shaking his head. "Oh, I don't know, could it be because he might be able to save all our lives one day? Listen…" His hands were clenched at his side. "We might find a ZPM one day, and we might find a way back to Earth, but it's not happening right now. We've been two years without it happening. And people keep on dying. How long can we carry on losing people without replenishing them? And we can't replenish from Earth, from our Earth, and so--"
"The Atlantis expedition," Woolsey said, "is an Earth expedition, with every participant properly vetted and selected through appropriate channels."
"Then there isn't going to be an Atlantis expedition in five years," Rodney shouted. "I can't believe how stupid you all are."
"McKay!" Caldwell was on his feet, chair slamming back against the wall. "If you carry on like this, I will have to assume that you were compromised during your time away."
"Compromised?" Rodney echoed. "Compromised? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Can't you military types--"
"Doctor McKay," Woolsey said firmly. "Your opinion is noted. Now I suggest that you turn your attention to the job you are currently supposed to be working on, and leave the security of Atlantis to those whose job it is to consider such things."
"The job of sending Sheppard home, you mean?" Rodney snapped.
"Of sending Sheppard home." Woolsey's voice was quiet. "You said it yourself, Doctor McKay. His home."
"But that doesn't mean anything." Rodney shook his head. "We all call Earth 'home,' but that doesn't mean that we don't…" He stopped, pressing his lips together; left the room, wishing that the doors were the type you could slam.
Night fell on a perfect field of stars. It was the first time John had seen them, and he didn't recognise a single one.
He took in a breath, and held it there for a long time, before slowly letting it out again.
"We aren't on Earth, are we?" he said.
Beneath those alien stars, Teyla shook her head. "The Atlantis expedition, as they call themselves, are from a place called Earth." She was silent for a while, looking at him. "Where do you come from, John?"
"From Earth," John said, remembering how McKay had asked what planet they were on – a nonsensical question, or so he had thought. "A different Earth from the one these guys come from. According to McKay…" He clenched his fist at his side, and carried on. "According to McKay, this is a different universe. Things went wrong on my Earth. Most people died. We're scraping a living, struggling to survive. We don't have anything like this."
Teyla nodded slowly. "I have heard of other existences beyond the veil. The Ancestors knew how to cross over, but for us it is just a story."
John managed a smile. "It seems like the time for living in stories."
He wondered whether to ask the rest of it. He had gone through a door in a hill, and from there he had gone through another door. He deliberately hadn't thought about it too much, but perhaps he had told himself that he was on the far side of the world, in a place where the years of darkness hadn't happened.
Teyla answered him, though, before he had found the courage to ask the question. "I once asked Doctor Zelenka where Earth is." She raised her hand, pointing up at the sky. "Do you see that row of stars just there? There is a blurry smear of light to the right of them, that you can only see on the darkest of nights. They call that the Milky Way. Your sun is one of its millions of stars."
So far away, he thought. So impossibly far away. Beings who travelled through the stars. Creatures who were made of starlight.
"And Athos?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
"We orbit that star there," Teyla said, with a smile in her voice, but John couldn't see which one she was indicating.
"What's it like?" he asked, because it was easier than thinking about the vastness of the sky.
"Beautiful," she said, "but broken, broken by the Wraith. I would like to help my people more than I do. My father does what he can, but…" She turned towards John, and sat down, sitting beside him on the balcony. "I offered my services to the Atlantis expedition because I felt that they had the potential to do much good, but the potential to do much evil, too, if they interfered in things they did not understand. I want to help them understand, but Mister Woolsey and Colonel Caldwell…" She sighed, shaking her head. "They think they know best. They listen to the facts I give them, but not to my judgements. I fear that one day they are going to make a terrible mistake."
John nodded, but there was nothing he could say. The smear of light drew his eyes. Another universe, he thought, and far across the stars. Even if the people who lived here were ordinary humans, prone to making mistakes, there was magic in the very fact of their existence.
"They are not like us," Teyla said. "They were brought up in a world without the Wraith, and their technology is far greater than ours. It makes them arrogant." She let out a breath, looking up at the stars. "But I apologise, John. I should not talk about such things."
John said nothing, unable to muster words.
Teyla touched his arm. "When are you going home, John?"
Woolsey and Caldwell were waiting for them when they returned through the Gate.
"It still needs weeks, if not months, of study," Rodney said as he came through, pre-empting the questions. "We're no closer to understanding why it works. Yes," he said sharply, sensing that Zelenka was about to interrupt, "we know how it works, but not why. When you dial Atlantis from the planet, it works normally, presumably because the Atlantis Gate is a strong one and takes precedence…"
"Which is unexpected," Zelenka volunteered, raising his hand. "We had not known that some Gates were stronger than others."
"Yes, yes." Rodney flapped at him, dismissing him. "As I was saying before I was interrupted, dial Atlantis, and it works normally. Dial anywhere else, and the wormhole reconnects and takes you to the other version of Earth."
"Is enormous expenditure of power," Zelenka said. "Is a device we have never encountered before, housed in with the dialling mechanism, and smaller devices in the Gate itself. Is not possible to bring it here."
Rodney stepped in front of him. "Like I said, months of work required."
"But is it stable?" Caldwell asked. His arms were folded, and he was standing on the bottom step as if he owned the place. "Doctor Zelenka?"
Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose, and nodded. "It is stable," he said. "We have dialled a dozen times, and each time we get through to that other Earth. We have sent remote recording devices through to test it."
"Good." Caldwell nodded, as if Zelenka had given the decisive answer that finally put paid to a difficult debate.
And he had, of course. Now that Zelenka had spoken, they would send Sheppard home.
end of chapter eight
The Others are creatures of fickle fancy. They entice mortals to their domain, but they soon lose their desire to hold onto them. Then the mortal is returned to the land beneath the sun, alive but cursed. Time flows differently in that fairy land below the ground, and when the returning mortal stands once again upon the ground of his home, he crumbles to dust before he can enjoy the most fleeting touch of the sun.
Did it happen to John?
Of course it did, little one. From the moment John first looked the Other in the eye, this fate was preordained for him.
Just dust on the wind. Just dust.
What was home?
Once, home had been a house and a family, and a few miles of land around it. For a while, home had been a horse and the things he could carry on it. It had been the small group of people he fought beside in the militia. It had been a ship. After the shipwreck, it had been the memory of a place beyond the ocean. Now, apparently, it was a whole universe.
He was to go back today.
"Why aren't you fighting it?" McKay asked. "Woolsey seems to think he's doing you a favour. He said it was unethical to keep you here. But I know how to handle Woolsey. If you asked to stay, he might let you, no matter what Caldwell says. My little demonstration with the chair was quite powerful, if I do say so myself."
John said nothing. He didn't have anything to pack, so he straightened the blanket on his bed. They'd given him his old clothes back, washed and mended, smelling of strange, alien scents. Even his skin smelled different, washed in pungent soap.
"You said you wanted to change the world," McKay said. "Oh, do stop doing that. They're going to wash all the bedclothes, anyway. Listen, Sheppard, you can't change your old world; it's too far gone. But this one… Don't you understand the implications of what happened in the chair? You can make a difference here."
"It might be too far gone, but it's still mine." John ran his hand across the pillow. "Don't use my own words against me."
"Against you?" McKay spread his hands, clearly not understanding. "All I'm saying--"
"Is that you can't comprehend how anyone might not consider this the best place in the world." John gave a wry smile. "In any world."
He said the words; made the correct facial expressions and gestures. He felt as if part of himself was carefully walled away. He was going back. Home, he corrected himself. He had gone to the world of the Others, and now they were letting him go again.
It was for the best, of course. The only people he had felt any connection with were Ronon and Teyla, and that was because they were outsiders, too. They had stuck together, united merely by what they were not. McKay was different again, of course, but he didn't understand. Both Ronon and Teyla had made it very clear. These people were arrogant, dismissive of anyone who didn't have their advantages. There was no reason at all why John should want to stay.
In the stories, the Others were as cold as ice beneath their smiles.
"Why would you say that?" McKay said now. "We spend most of our time trying to get back to Earth, to our Earth. None of us would be stuck here if we had a choice."
"Then what would happen," John asked, "if I stayed here, and you found your way home, and all left?"
McKay was silent. Home, the city whispered all around him, still with its faint, enchanting voice. But decisions couldn't be made on the basis of enchantment, but only on hard fact. Yeah, like you were acting on reason when you got onto that ship, John.
No, he thought, he'd signed up for the voyage because he thought that the world could be improved. You didn't improve a world by walking away from it.
Footsteps sounded behind him; already John had learnt how to recognise Ronon and Teyla just by the sound of them. "So they're sending you away?" Ronon said.
John nodded. "Yeah. It was nice knowing you, buddy. And you, too, Teyla." Ronon had a pack slung over his shoulder, he saw. "You off, too?"
Ronon nodded. "After you've gone." He looked at McKay, his gaze suddenly challenging. "Thought I'd take a look at Sheppard's world before I go. There's a way back here afterwards?" McKay nodded, his mouth opening and closing without a word. "Then I'll go through with you, Sheppard." He clapped John on the shoulder.
"And I will go, too," Teyla said, standing beside him, the three outsiders standing together in an alien city.
"I'm going, too, of course." McKay said it loudly, almost angrily. "There are important tests to be done on the other side. We're taking a gate ship through. We've got bodies to recover, and… and there might be more Wraith, of course."
"Quite the escort," John said, and it sounded harsher than it should have been.
The gate ship emerged into the dark facility, and Rodney shivered with an unexpected surge of memory. He'd spent terrible nights here, alone with a Wraith, so close to the Gate that he couldn't operate. This was the sort of nightmare you never wanted to revisit ever again, yet somehow here he was, voluntarily coming back to it.
Sheppard was silent in the back of the ship, his new best friends gathered around them. Why on earth had they come? A native and a barbarian… Well, he guessed it made sense for the three of them to bond over their shared ignorance, but you needed more than that for a proper friendship. You needed more than just a few days, too. It was as ridiculous as saying that Rodney and Sheppard were friends just because they'd travelled together for a few days, just because they'd faced death together, just because they'd saved each other's lives, just because Sheppard had listened to Rodney, letting him talk, apparently not remotely angered by Rodney's manner.
"Why did you come?" he couldn't help but ask the woman as he went to pass her.
She looked at him, her gaze steady. "It is better to say farewell to somebody on friendly ground, and to know that they have a home to go to."
Rodney was barely listening. He knew her name. It was on the tip of his tongue… "Teyla!" he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "That's it."
"Indeed," Sheppard said dryly. It was the first thing he had said for a long time, at least in Rodney's hearing. "And he's Ronon. You could have asked before."
"And you could have told me."
Rodney hurried out, and pressed his hands against his face for a moment, remembering the awfulness of his days in this prison. The lights were already on, responding to Sheppard and Major Lorne. It looked more bleak in the light than in the dark, built by Ancients more cold and paranoid even than the ones in Rodney's own universe.
Lorne and the other soldiers were already out of the gate ship, loading bodies into body bags. Rodney saw a set of dog tags in Lorne's hand, and then the bag was zipped up. He couldn't tell whose body it had been; only the dog tags could tell that now.
"The doors are wide enough for the ship to get through." His voice sounded too loud in the echoing silence. "But the whole place was covered with earth. The Wraith dug their way out, but we'll need to widen the tunnel to get a gate ship through it."
No-one answered. He heard Sheppard come up behind him and look down at the dead. My team, Rodney thought, but he felt nothing, only guilt, as if he had failed them. It was supposed to create an unbreakable bond when you went into danger together, wasn't it? Rodney had never felt that. He was passed from team to team, and Carson thought he was the sort of person who would leave someone behind to die.
I don't want to be that person, he thought miserably.
Sheppard stood close to him. "Your team?"
Rodney could only nod, finally understand why he was so keen for Sheppard to stay in Atlantis. Sheppard had accepted him, had voluntarily travelled with him. Rodney had been brave. He'd fought a Wraith and saved Sheppard's life. He'd carried him on horseback for miles. He'd ridden towards danger, following Sheppard's lead.
Stupid, he thought, because the presence of someone else couldn't change you. Only you could do that.
But it made it easier, of course, if they accepted you, without two years of preconceived notions. It was easier to start anew with people who were even newer to a place than you were.
Not that it was worth thinking about, of course, because Sheppard was back on his own world, and Rodney was returning to Atlantis, and everything would be the same as it had always been.
The gate ship flew above the land. "It is beautiful," Teyla breathed. John leant forward, trying to see as much of it as he could. Beautiful, he thought, but even from above, all he could see were ruins.
Two mounds of earth lay on the hillside, doubtless holding the bodies of Sumner and the Wraith. The ship had flown over the village that John had lived in for the last two months, and he had seen the tiny shapes of people working in the fields. Spring was more advanced than when he had last seen it, but no more than was to be expected, given that he had been away from the village for almost two weeks. Time moved in its normal course. He was back in his own world, and he hadn't withered to dust.
Of course you haven't, John, he thought. The last vestiges of story faded. They were returning him willingly to a world no different from the world he had left.
"You sure they can't see us?" he asked, his voice more steady than he had ever expected it to be.
Major Lorne shook his head. "We're cloaked. Invisible." Another act of magic, but this time John accepted it. He had seen so many marvels that they were losing their power to amaze.
They were looking for Wraith. Words and patterns were written in lights in the air in front of Lorne, and John understood that it was some sort of navigational instrument. Different lights apparently marked the presence of a living thing, with each dot indicating a person. "A Wraith would be a different colour," Lorne explained, "but we aren't seeing any."
Sometimes they flew for minutes at a time without seeing a single dot of any colour at all, going over the ruins of towns that had once been full of people. You could see more from up above than you could on the ground, and John saw the straight lines of iron railings cutting across the land, and old roads that were now so overgrown that they were invisible when you stood on them.
They flew over the coast, circled, and came back to land. The city contained scattered dots, and a cluster together by the docks. "Ford and the others," John said.
Beside him, John saw, Ronon was staring fiercely out of the window. "What is it?" John asked. The view from the window both fascinated and saddened him, and it was good to look away for a moment.
"I went back to Sateda once," Ronon said quietly. "I hadn't gone earlier; didn't want to bring the Wraith there. But I met people, more and more people, who said it had gone. I went back, and it was like this, all ruins."
Teyla touched Ronon's hand. Ronon didn't pull away. "We have ruins on Athos," she said, "but we have never built in stone. I have never been to Sateda, but I have heard tell of its buildings."
It seemed as if all worlds were ruined. But Ronon's world had fallen to ruin only recently, at the hands of the Wraith. The Wraith were still destroying worlds, making them into worlds like this one, with just a handful of humans struggling to live among the wreckage of the past.
They went across the coast again, across the broad river that led to the ocean. "Can I fly?" John found himself asking. Lorne shook his head doubtfully, but John asked again. "Please. You can show me what to do, and take the controls back if I do anything wrong."
Lorne studied him for a while, then slowly nodded. "I don't see how it'll do any harm."
As John studied his every move, Lorne flew them down the coast, explaining what he was doing. "It has a mental component, too, of course," he said. "To a certain extent, it's instinctive, but you need to know the controls, too – this, and this…"
They were almost at the western tip when John was allowed to slide into Lorne's chair. The ship responded instantly, flooding him with light. This was standing on the deck with the wind in his hair. It was standing on a mountain, looking out at the world below. It was leaning into the wind, riding fast on his horse. The air flowed past him and through him, and the whole sky was there above him, and there was no limit to where he could go, no limit at all. There was no part of him that wasn't flying. There was no part of him that the ship didn't reach.
"Which is all very impressive," he faintly heard McKay saying, "but where are you taking us?"
West, his heart said. He left the land behind.
"You can't fly all the way to America," McKay protested.
John shook his head. "Not going to America." They had sailed for weeks across the ocean, and then they had found land. "I told you," John said, and it was hard to talk at first, above the joyful sense of flight, but it became easier with every word. "Sumner sent Holland ashore, and when he didn't come back, we sailed on." He raised his voice, suddenly knowing that Ronon would understand, and that perhaps Lorne and the others would, too. "We were in the militia together for five years. He was under my command. But he didn't come back, and my captain wouldn't let me go back for him. I… argued, but I didn't push things, not the way I should have."
No-one said anything.
"I just need to find out, you know?" John said, as land appeared below him, green and empty. He didn't say the rest of it; couldn't say it out loud. I just need find out if I killed him.
Rodney was breathless and scratched and miserable, trailing behind the others as they pushed their way through tangled undergrowth. But I'm not complaining, he wanted to say to the others. Look how very much not complaining I am. It turned out that he could do tactful and sensitive, too, despite what other people might say. It was obvious that Sheppard wanted to be here, and even Lorne seemed to understand his reasons. "Although we have been away from Atlantis for six hours now," Rodney volunteered quietly. "We're going to be late getting back, and Caldwell won't like that. Just saying."
Sheppard had remembered the appearance of the coast-line perfectly, or so he had claimed. No dots showed on the life-signs detector for a whole area fifty miles square. Sheppard's shoulders had sagged ever so slightly, then stiffened again, as he had looked straight ahead, focusing on flying, or pretending to. Looking for a body would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, and Rodney had almost said so, but had decided not to.
On the third low pass of the coastline, the barbarian, Ronon, had seen something at the base of a cliff.
Rodney was the last to emerge from the undergrowth now, the last to see it. Sheppard was already on his knees by the skeleton, holding a piece of tattered, decaying clothing between his fingers. "I think it's him." His voice was so quiet that Rodney could hardly hear him. His own panting was filling his ears, drowning sound.
Ronon stood over Sheppard, squeezing his shoulder. "The head's bashed in," he said. "There's no sign of a struggle, no sign of a wounded man trying to keep himself alive." He nodded up at the top of the cliff, where the sheered-off rock showed in a paler colour than the rest of the cliff. The skeleton lay on a mound of tumbled stone and earth, half covered by it. "Looks like he walked too near the edge of the cliff, and fell when it gave way." He tightened his grip on Sheppard's shoulder. "It would've been quick."
"And nothing that could have been done for him, even if we had gone back." Sheppard's voice was curiously harsh, as if something had scraped it raw. "Thanks for saying it, buddy."
"Not just saying it," Ronon said. "It's true."
After a long moment, Sheppard stood up and started back for the gate ship without a word.
Lorne flew them back east. John gripped the back of the chair in front of him, staring straight ahead. I didn't kill him, he thought. I didn't.
He hadn't realised how large a part of him had been left behind on that bit of coast, gone with Holland, not coming back.
"We need to get back," Lorne said, the first thing anyone had said for a long time.
John nodded, because he had known it already, of course. This was the right place for him to be. This was his home, his world, even if it was broken. And, because it was broken, he couldn't consider leaving it, because no-one else was able to escape. He had signed up for Sumner's voyage precisely because he had hoped to change the world. It had been a stupid dream, of course. No one person could change the world, not when the world was as broken and fragmented as it was.
Lorne set the ship down on the edge of the dock, in the shadow of a large building. "Well, uh…" John said. "Goodbye, I guess."
No-one said anything. Ronon stood up, and then Teyla. Clearing his throat and flustering with his hands, McKay pushed himself to his feet.
"Nice meeting you," John said. He walked towards the open door at the back. It was already almost evening, and the air outside was cold.
The others came with him, forming up on either side of him, two on one side and one on the other. "Just to say, you know, a proper goodbye." McKay sounded awkward.
"And to make sure that these people have a place for you," Teyla said, but Ronon was quiet, looking up at ruins that he had already said reminded him of his own devastated home.
"Thanks, guys, I guess." John smiled. "I mean it, really. Thanks."
It was surprising how much it helped, having them there with him. But that in itself was a surprise, because he hadn't realised that this was something that he would find difficult. All he was doing was returning home. Atlantis wasn't for him – Ronon and Teyla had said as much. Everyone had to stay where they belonged.
Ford was the first to see them coming. He made a sharp gesture with his arm, and three more men appeared, rifles held warily in their hands. John raised his hand in greeting, and Ford visibly relaxed, signalling to the man to stand down.
"The captain left, sir," he said, when John was within earshot. "We couldn't stop him. He went after you. We've been worried sick that--"
"He's dead," John had to tell him. "He was killed by another Wraith – a creature like the one we fought that night. I tried to stop it, but…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry."
Ford bowed his head for a moment. His voice was thick when he spoke again; no matter what anyone's personal opinion of Sumner had been, he was one of them, one of the dwindling group of people who had set out from the west with such high hopes. "Are you coming back now, sir? We're working on the ship. It might even be seaworthy by early summer."
"Sumner said he'd sent people away because they disagreed with him," John said. "You should track them down, give them a chance to go home, too."
"We will, sir." Ford nodded earnestly. "Are your friends coming, too?"
John shook his head. "They've got their own homes to go to."
Someone shouted something, but John couldn't make out what it was. The wind changed direction, gusting towards him with the smell of food. It smelled of home and childhood, and was subtly different from the food John had eaten for the last six months.
Where was home, John thought. The place you were born to, or the place you had made for yourself? His birth-place had closed its doors to him. At the start of the voyage, he had felt purpose, but that purpose was now revealed to be meaningless. They were packing up their things and sailing back across the ocean again, to a place where life would carry on no differently from how it had always been.
For those few days when he had been hunting the Wraith with McKay, his life had possessed purpose. Sitting in the chair and flying the gate ship, he had felt a spark of purpose, too, fierce and bright. And Ronon's home was in ruins because the Wraith were destroying worlds, not in the far distant past, but now.
"Are you coming, sir?" Ford asked again.
John shook his head, smiling a rueful smile. "No, Ford. No, I'm not." Beside him, McKay gasped, his head snapping up. "I just thought I'd drop in to say goodbye."
"But…" Rodney swallowed, attempting to get his words under control. "But, Sheppard… Where are you going to go?"
His feet crunched on the crumbled stones of old buildings. Ford was still watching them go. Lorne and the others were sitting in the gate ship not far ahead, and Sheppard was supposed to have gone. They were all expecting him to go.
"Atlantis," Sheppard said with a smile. "Why, McKay, don't you want me there any more?"
"No," Rodney said, shaking his head. "I mean, yes. I mean, why change your mind? This is sudden."
Sheppard stopped walking and looked at him seriously. "Not really," he said.
There was, of course, hell to pay when they got back to Atlantis, as McKay had confidently predicted. "But I thought you knew how to handle Woolsey," John said, his face deliberately expressionless, just to watch McKay splutter in outrage.
Woolsey, of course, said it was completely out of the question. John's place was in another universe. What sort of a person, he implied, would want to walk away from his entire world and throw in his lot with strangers?
"With respect, sir," Lorne said, "every single person on Atlantis is here because we signed up for something that took us away from our world. We all knew there was a strong possibility that we would never go back. I don't see why this is so different. Sir," he added belatedly. He stood taller under Caldwell's furious scrutiny. "He's a natural pilot, sir," he said, "and we haven't got enough of those."
"But he isn't…" Woolsey started, then broke off.
"Isn't one of us?" John finished for him. "Is that what you were going to say? Because I'm not like you, and neither are Ronon and Teyla, or any of the people who live in any of the worlds they've told me about, but you still hold their fates in the palm of your hands, just like the Others do. Perhaps it's time you let them have a say in things."
Woolsey frowned. "What nonsense is this?"
McKay was frowning, as if he was desperately struggling to catch up. "No, no, it's true." He waved his hand, thumb and forefinger rubbing together as if he was trying to pin down an idea. "Like I was saying the other day, we haven't found a way back to Earth, and it's looking increasingly unlikely that we'll ever find a way back, but we're persisting in thinking about the expedition is being purely an Earth-based concern. If the expedition is going to survive… and it needs to, I think. I mean, we're… we're doing things here, important things that go way beyond the limits of Atlantis. But to survive, we need to let other people in."
"Sheppard, you mean," Caldwell said dryly.
"Well, yes, of course. I mean, hello? Strongest gene carrier we know? Only person who can operate the chair?"
"Not just me," John said. "Teyla could be an enormous help to you, if you listened to her more. Ronon… I doubt he'll want to stay, but I bet could teach your soldiers a thing or two about fighting the Wraith."
"So not content with disobeying orders," Caldwell said, "the two of you want to rewrite the underlying mission statement of the Atlantis expedition?"
They weren't mysterious Others, John thought; of course they weren't. They were just humans with technological advantages, who were capable of making mistakes.
"Yeah. It seemed like a nice, modest goal." John shrugged, grinning. "So, McKay, what d'you feel like doing tomorrow?"
Rodney found them eventually on the east pier, sitting outside beneath the setting sun. As he approached, Sheppard threw back his head and laughed at something that Ronon had said.
Rodney's steps slowed, then stopped entirely. Then he clenched his fists at his sides, and carried on. "Despite the inappropriate timing of your sudden discovery that you actually have a sense of humour," he said, "you might be pleased to hear that they've decided to let you stay. On probation, that is, and on the proviso that you don't start, well, dying on account of there being another one of you out there somewhere."
"That's good." Sheppard patted the ground beside him. "You gonna join us?"
Rodney sat down gingerly, grimacing at how cold the ground was even in the early hours of evening. "We were quite eloquent between us," he said. "Of course, it probably helped that we were right. We can't go on the way we've been going. Even Caldwell had to admit that. We need new blood. It's just a wrench for them to realise that it has to come from others places other than Earth. Other than our Earth, I mean."
Sheppard looked at him, his expression suddenly cautious. "So Ronon and Teyla…"
"Can stay," Rodney said, "if they want to. Or go. If… if that's what they prefer." He felt almost nervous around them. No, jealous, he realised, as if they'd come along and stolen Rodney's own personal discovery.
And that's what a lot of it had been about, he realised; it was just as Woolsey had said. Rodney wanted the credit for discovering Sheppard. He wanted somebody who owed their presence in Atlantis to Rodney's intervention. He wanted someone who'd feel grateful to him, someone who'd look up to him… someone who would like him.
But of course Sheppard wasn't Rodney's personal property. Sheppard was here by his own choice, and by his choice alone.
"Why did you change your mind?" Rodney asked him now.
Sheppard let out a breath. "Lots of reasons, and… none, really. I can feel the city here." He pressed his hand briefly to his chest, and then to his brow. "I thought it was enchantment, trying to trick me, but maybe… maybe I want to be tricked. I want to make a difference, and I can't, not back there. But here… You got me to sit in that chair, and that's something I can do. I can save lives here, perhaps."
"But not the lives of your own people." Rodney wondered why he was protesting; why he wasn't just nodding and accepting it, when he had fought so hard for it.
"What does that really mean?" Sheppard said quietly. "The way I see it now: home is where you make it. I spent the last two months living with people who, according to your Woolsey, are 'my people' on account of us coming from the same universe. By that definition, you aren't one of my people, but I saved your life. When it was them against you, I saved you."
"I saved your life, too," Rodney pointed out.
Sheppard smiled. "Didn't say you didn't." His smile faded, then came back again. "And, thanks."
"Uh…" Rodney cleared his throat. "Thanks, too, I guess."
Sheppard looked up at the sky, at the setting sun. "There was also the issue of me realising that I'd been listening too much to superstitious native nonsense." He leant back, his hands resting on the ground behind him. "Most of all, though, I think I just wanted the chance to fly a gate ship again. Those ships are cool."
Rodney didn't know if he was joking, or not, and thought it best not to ask. "So what do you hope to do now?"
"Fly," Sheppard said. "Kill Wraith. Be a good boy and get Caldwell and Woolsey to like me. Fly. I was thinking… A group of us flying missions in a gate ship, especially if we had local knowledge and someone who knew how to track down Wraith…"
It sounded casual enough, but suddenly the air felt charged. Sheppard wasn't looking at any of them, but Ronon spoke up suddenly. "Two can kill Wraith better than one."
"And three can do it better than two," Teyla said firmly.
Their smiles were faltering, almost nervous. The breeze blew in from the ocean, wrapping cold around Rodney's body.
"Do you mean what I think you mean?" Rodney said. "They won't let you. There's no way they'd let you go off in a valuable gate ship all by yourself."
"So we'd better have someone from Atlantis with us." His mouth smiled, but his eyes were deadly serious. "Someone gifted at magic, perhaps?"
"It isn't magic," Rodney protested.
"It still feels like magic to me," Sheppard said quietly, but then he smiled. "Science, then. We need someone gifted with science to go with us and help us find the Wraith, and help us understand the mysterious fairy artefacts that we find along the way."
Warmth rushed through him; Rodney could feel it on his cheeks. He covered it in a bluster and a cough. "For the last time, fairies don't exist, but, yes, if you mean me, then, yes, I'll go with you – just once, just to make sure that you don't get yourself killed. Not that Woolsey will ever let you have a gate ship, so there's no point even dreaming."
"I thought you knew how to handle Woolsey." Sheppard's eyes were sparkling. "Come on, McKay – you're the Atlantean around here, and we're just natives. Are you going to take us to dinner?"
"In a minute," Rodney said, watching the sun sink down until it touched the ocean. Atlantis sparkled around him, just as he had dreamed of it when trapped on that other Earth, and how he had yearned for it when he had looked out over that desolate sea. Home was Earth, of course, which was why he had spent two years trying to get back to it. Home is where you make it, Sheppard had said, and here he was, having voluntarily left his own universe to live with strangers.
On the alternate Earth, the only home Rodney had dreamed of was Atlantis. And now, as he headed inside with Sheppard and Ronon and Teyla, for an evening of food and drink and cautious attempts at chat and laughter, he thought that perhaps it was true.
Perhaps, one day soon, home could be Atlantis.
The stars slowly appeared outside the window, sparkling in a black sky.
Home, whispered the city. Safe.
John paused with his drink almost at his lips. No, he told it. Be quiet.
He wasn't here because of enchantment or magic. You couldn't decide to settle in a place just because a mysterious sense told you that it was good. That sense had been there all along, and he had still decided to leave. He had changed his mind for other reasons: because he had purpose here; because he had hope; because perhaps, one day soon, he would have friends.
He had no idea what would happen, he thought, as he looked up at the stars, but this…
This was a beginning.
end of chapter nine
Have I ever told you about a man called John?
He went with an Other into a hill, and he was never seen again. It was a long time ago, when I was no more than a child. The world has changed since then. There are more people than there were, and some of the ruins have been rebuilt. News comes of rebirth in the cities, and of discoveries that echo those of the Time Before.
And some there are who say that the old stories are just lies and superstition, who doubt that the Others exist. But I know they exist, because I saw them. I saw the door that John walked through, and although I passed it by for many a year afterwards, it never opened again. Earth and grass now cover it once more, as is right.
I once knew a man called John, and he went with the Others, and now he is gone.
But I am old now, and it is harder to hate. I hope he was happy as he danced their dance. I hope he was happy before he faded to dust.
And sometimes… Sometimes I think that he was.
Note: The title comes from the traditional ballad The Demon Lover (also called The House Carpenter, or John Herries.) After a seven years' absence, a woman's ex-lover returns home with a fleet of ships, and persuades her to leave her husband and son and run away with him. "I'll show you where the white lilies grow on the banks of Italy," he says. However, once out in the middle of the sea on his ship, she starts to regret what she's done. He is furious, and magically calls up a storm. "I'll show you where the white lilies grow on the bottom of the sea," he says, and sinks the ship, taking her with him to Hell.
Thank you for reading!
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