The Long Road Home
a thrilling drama series by Eildon Rhymer
Episode four: Up the Beanstalk
"We are not alone," the Wraith said.
Sheppard groaned. "Can we leave the dramatic pronouncements until I've opened my eyes."
"You do not possess eyelids."
"You know what I mean." In his mind, it was a very good glower. Like the rest of the full repertoire of his rich interior emotional life, it probably looked exactly like a plastic smirk. He always tried to keep emotions hidden, but this was torture. When this whole thing's over, he vowed suddenly, I'm going to show my emotions a whole lot more. You don't appreciate things until they've gone. He looked up at the sky, turning his head to the limits of its movement, searching. You hear that? I've learnt my lesson. Can we end this now?
"We are not alone," George said again.
"Yes, yes." Sheppard sat up. He was wet with dew, but at least he had a wipe-clean surface. Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess. "Birds. Bees. Butterflies. Creepy orange slugs. Bugs." He tried to grimace. He hadn't seen anything too scary yet, but the thought of bugs and spiders twice as big as his head… No, don't go there. Cross that bridge when I come to it.
"Someone is following us," George said.
Sheppard stood up. A flower had shed pollen on him while he slept, and he looked like a bride on her wedding day. "I've suspected as much." The Wraith had his attention now.
"We are being hunted," George said. "I hear him. He follows us. He watches us. He hunts us."
"Crap." Sheppard looked around, but there was no-one there. "I thought I was being paranoid. I don't suppose you could be wrong?""
The Wraith shook his head. "I know about being hunted."
"Yeah, just not on the receiving end." Sheppard thought of Ronon. "How marvellous. We're action figure Runners, and somebody else is playing the Wraith. Still…" He tried to clap his hands together, but they wouldn't reach, and he overbalanced in the attempt, and got a face full of earth. "So we stay alert. Lay traps." He stopped, hearing the sound of car doors slamming, and then an engine. Good. It was time. "Let's focus on the things we can do something about," he said. "The plan's still on, and they've just gone out."
They had waited here for the best part of a day. "They have to go out sooner or later," Sheppard had said, "and when they do, we sneak in through that conveniently us-shaped door."
"The one used by the beast with fur and teeth?" the Wraith had asked. He must have had a run-in with a cat before joining up with Sheppard. "I cannot see how we will gain from this. Much as I would like to taste the life-force of the householder and his plump children, he is not the person who made us this way."
"Reconnaissance," Sheppard had said. "Intel. The Internet told us where we need to get to, but 'where am I right now?' doesn't work as a search term. I just need to lay my hands on something – a letter with an address on, or a local paper." Just to confirm my fears, he thought, and of course he would still need to lie to George about the whole Earth thing. This alliance thing only went as far as necessity, and no further.
"Come on," he said now. Earlier, he and the Wraith had pulled off a long tendril from the climbing plant that covered the fence. Sheppard picked it up, and made for the door, wading through the unmown grass. He stopped underneath it, peering up at the surface, smeared with muddy pawprints. "It must be a giant cat with extra long legs." It was far higher above him than he could reach. "Help me," he said. "Plan A."
The Wraith moved stiffly to the edge of the flowerbed and picked up a pebble, struggling to hold it in both hands. He threw it up towards the flap, but missed. "Try again," Sheppard said. This time the pebble was smaller, and the Wraith threw it with one hand. It hit the flap, and made it open slightly inwards. At that precise moment, Sheppard threw the long leafy tendrils towards the gap, but it failed to catch. It slithered down again, and a leaf as big as Sheppard's torso knocked him from his feet, almost smothering him in green.
"Again!" he said, when he'd freed himself. This had to work! And if it didn't… Well, he'd keep going until it did, and then there was Plan B and Plan C and Plan 9 and all the rest. If he ever got back… No, when he got back he'd appreciate the little things so much more: the ability to open a door; not being almost suffocated to death when a bird crapped on you; pressing control, alt and delete at the same time; the ability to wiggle your fingers; knowing that what was beneath your pants was, well… there.
The sixth attempt worked. Sheppard tugged at the tendril, and it remained firm. "Help me up," he commanded, and George did. Sheppard grabbed at the stem, and managed to hold on. Slowly, laboriously, he started to climb. "Like climbing a bean-stalk, huh?" he gasped. "Now I know what Jack felt like. The goose that lays the golden egg would be nice, but the giant… not so much." He struggled past a protruding leaf. Below him, George said nothing. "Never mind."
And then he was at the top, hauling himself over the lip. He sat awkwardly on the shelf. If he went through now, the tendril would fall back down again, so he had to wait until the Wraith joined him. When they were side by side, he carefully opened the flap, and teased the tendril through until half of it hung down on each side, enough to balance it. Then, and only then, did he crawl through.
It was a long way down to the ground. He fell heavily, groaning at the impact. All this, he thought, just to get through a door. But there was no time to nurse his injuries. Pushing himself up, he began to head across the vastness of the kitchen floor.
"What are we looking for?" the Wraith asked.
"I'll know it when I see it."
They passed an enormous fridge, and the vastness of a bowl of dried cat food. Far above him, as far away as the moon, was the kitchen surface. So we're in, Sheppard thought. That had been the goal. What came after was… That's the sort of thing Rodney does, he thought. Sheppard got them to places, then Rodney did his sciency stuff on whatever was inside, and then Sheppard got them back to the Gate after everything went south.
Rodney… God, he missed his team. But they'll come for me, he thought, unless they're… No, he wouldn't think that. One action figure was enough. A whole team of them… No, he couldn't think like that. If only he'd thought to check the back of the prison that was the packaging, to see what other figures were available.
"Someone's coming," the Wraith hissed.
Sheppard snapped his head up. He looked round as sharply as he could with the limited range of movement possessed by his neck. "In here." He would have tried hand gestures, but feared they'd make him topple over.
He paused for the Wraith to get in first, then joined him, edging back into the darkness between the fridge and the nearest kitchen unit. He listened. The fridge was humming, vibrating slightly, but were those footsteps…? "Stay quiet," he whispered, and the Wraith, close behind him, whispered, "I know."
"Who are you?" a voice said loudly.
Sheppard cursed silently.
"Why are you hiding there? It seems… foolish."
Gun ready in his hand, Sheppard poked his head out, keeping himself low. Above him, the Wraith did the same.
"Here," said the purple elephant. It sounded very depressed. "I'm up here. Who are you?"
Sheppard's eyes would have widened had they been able to. "You're a… you're a fridge magnet."
"It is not polite to draw attention to such things," said the elephant sadly. "You are an action figure, but I do not stare."
"I'm sorry." He was apologising to a fridge magnet. The shrinks are never going to hear about this. "It's just…"
"Stuck," the elephant said. "We are all stuck. That is our lot in life. We are stuck here. No-one knows why. No-one knows what purpose we have. They stick us here because sticking us here is the thing that is done, and so they do it, but then they forget us. Sometimes children move us around with sticky fingers. Sometimes we are moved away to the beautiful freedom of two inches away, but our nature calls us back to this magnetic surface. This is our place. This is our lot."
"I got to three inches away once," squeaked a mouse. "It was like flying."
"We cannot even enjoy friendship or love," said the elephant, "because our poles repel. We just sit here. For year after year after year, we sit here. This is our prison."
"Oh." Sheppard tried to find something to say. "Are you going to kill us because you're, you know… jealous that we can move around?"
"You are an action figure," said the elephant. "'Action' is the operative word. We stick; that's what magnets do. No-one can escape their lot in life. Accept it and endure, and one day the world will move on and the magnetic poles will fade away, and then this suffering will be over."
"That's a fatalistic attitude," Sheppard said. "If you don't fight–"
"We're magnets," said the elephant. "Have you ever seen a magnet with free-will? With self-determination? I fell in love with a golden ring when I was a young, but it was not meant to be. No amount of wishing could allow me to attract her. And so I am here. And so I will always be."
"Sheppard." George tapped Sheppard's shoulder. "Someone's coming inside… but there's someone outside, too."
All thought of magnets left Sheppard's mind. He'd left the tendril there, leading up to the unsealed flap, like a ladder leading their hunter right at them. And the footsteps in the house were getting louder. One, two, three, four… and then a meow.
At times of crisis, ideas came to him in a flash. "Quick!" He darted from concealment, barely hearing the envious sighs from the fridge magnets. "The kitty biscuits," he said. "Pick them up. Rattle them." He was a dog person, really, but he'd had friends with cats, and knew that they always appeared like magic at the faintest sound of food.
The interior door was nudged open. He saw a nose, whiskers…
"You would draw the monster upon us!" George gasped.
"Not us." Sheppard threw a cat biscuit at the door. "On him. The enemy. The person hunting us." He saw the shape now at the door, loomed up – a dark shape; a terrible shape. "There, kitty," he said. "Nice kitty. Go savage the nasty man. Go now – no, not us! Over there!"
The cat looked at him. Its eyes gleamed. It was enormous, its eyes the size of Sheppard's head. "And I guess," Sheppard said, still throwing the biscuits, "that I'm tasty snack-size to you."
The was a scratching sound at the exterior door. George was cowering in fear.
"Go!" Sheppard shouted. The enormous creature made towards him, then made towards the Wraith, then looked at the biscuits by the door, then back at Sheppard. "Nice kitty," Sheppard said. "There! Over there!"
The cat turned back to the door. The flap was open a slit now, and a dark head was beginning to edge through. Very slowly, the cat began to pad towards the door.
"We've got to push it through," Sheppard cried. The children must have been busy earlier, and variuos kitchen utensils lay on the floor. Sheppard grabbed the nearest item. "Help me."
"You would have us goad the monster?"
"Yes! Goad away!" Sheppard hurried towards the door, and prodded the cat on the back leg. George joined in, swatting him on the tail. "I feel like a gladiator facing the lions," Sheppard said, as he thrust forward again, then one more time.
The cat leapt at the flap, and went through. From outside, there was a single scream of agony and fury.
Sheppard let his pointy thing fall. "That was close." Inside he was far less calm than his plastic face forced him to be. "Come on. We need to get back into hiding before the cat comes back, then find a way out. It's a death trap in here."
And then he saw it. The litter tray was resting on a dirty newspaper. "Letters to the editor," he read, "should be sent to the following address." His eyes moved on, incapable of looking away.
So now he knew the truth. "We are screwed," he said, as he crept back into the gap beside the fridge. "We are so screwed."
"I told you so," said the purple elephant.
And now for the Blooper Reel