by Eildon Rhymer
Four people awake separately in the darkness with no memory of who they are, and there is something in the darkness, and it wants them.
He opened his eyes to a dirty stone floor and a pale hand, streaked with blood. Is that mine? he thought. The fingers twitched when he told them to, tendons moving on the back of the hand. Then he shut his eyes, and felt as if he was floating deep under the ocean, or maybe flying, floating far above the clouds, surrounded by blue. There was nothing to ground him. He couldn't feel his own body, couldn't hear, couldn't smell…
"This is not right." That at least he managed to say out loud. He opened his eyes, and rolled onto his back, where he saw a dark ceiling with tendrils of leaves trailing down from between the stonework. He sat up. Something inside him seemed to want to keep his awareness of his own body muted, but he set his jaw, and resisted it. That is my foot, he thought, staring fiercely at the black boot, stained with dark mud and glistening with water. That is my leg. The knees were scuffed, as if he had fallen.
He brought his hands to his head - one wearing a watch, one wearing a wristband, and both mine - and touched his brow. Concentrate. Fingertips curving inwards. Fight it. He was still floating, just a little. He threw all the strength of his will at the blueness - time to land now - and managed to stand.
It was not so bad. His body hurt as if he had been running for a long time. His hands were grazed, and his knees and shoulders hurt, as if he had fallen over more than once, or crashed into walls in his haste. He found no other injuries. When he padded his body, he found that he was wearing a stiff vest that appeared to be almost like armour. It had pockets, and he wondered what was in them, but patting them gave no clues.
He managed a step; managed another step. I don't know how I got here. Another step, then a fourth, then a fifth.
I don't know who I am.
He rested his hand on the wall, and felt his heartbeat speeding up, fluttering at his throat. I don't know who I am.
It felt vast. Then, a moment later, he told himself that perhaps the first thing was even bigger. I don't know how I got here. He was somewhere unpleasant, and he had been running away. Was anyone else around? He stopped, listening for noises. Walking silently, he headed for the crumbling doorway and looked out into a gloomy hallway. As he leant out into the hallway, a pale white glow appeared from the top of the walls, but when he withdrew back into the room, he saw it fading. Creepy, he thought. It was like a dungeon from the games he might have played as a kid, where a place like this usually means monsters. He thought it grimly, imagining monsters that were all too human. The rest could come later. Focus on the immediate problem. Survive first, then work out who you are afterwards.
His heart was still beating fast, though, and his hand was trembling.
He woke up with a start, lashing out at the enemies who were attacking him. For a moment, he saw creatures with pale faces and long white hair. When he struck them, though, his hand went right through them. When he struck them again, they were gone.
He leapt to his feet. "Come back!" he commanded. "Come back and fight me."
There was nothing, only silence. His head snapped from one side to the other. Nothing. Still nothing.
He let out a breath. Only a dream, or maybe a memory…
No, there was something there - something that disappeared like a shadow when he tried to confront it. The enemy was real. Why else was he here? He must have stalked an enemy here, or been stalked by it. It had done something to him and made him forget. Sweat was still drying on his body, so he knew he had run fast and far, and not long ago. The knife…! He crouched down; snatched it up. There was still a faint warmth about the blade, so he knew he had been holding it until recently.
Somebody had done something to him. He had no idea what his name was, and no idea how he had come here. The enemy had stripped that from him. The enemy wanted him to give in to fear and confusion. The enemy wanted him to break.
It wouldn't work. The enemy had left him too much. He had his knife, and there were other blades on his body, too, as his hands discovered, going to their hiding places without a moment's hesitation. The enemy could remove memories from his mind, but couldn't remove them from his body.
He could still stalk his enemy silently, and could still kill.
"I don't know who I am." He said it out loud, as if… "as if somebody else will hear it and will answer me and say, 'You're --'" He stopped, tilting his head to one side, his finger raised. After a few seconds of silence, he let out a breath. "It was worth a try. Subconscious, filling things in." He moistened his lips. Perhaps he'd try it again. "My name is…. My name is…" He closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and charged up against it with a rush, hoping to take it by surprise. "My name is…"
Nothing. It mattered, knowing your name. Of course, other things mattered, too, "like working out where on Earth I am, in this horrible ruined… castle thing, that's probably riddled with germs, and why I appear to have gone for a long jog in the not too distant past, and why I'm dressed as some sort of commando."
He was pacing, almost to the door, then back again. He tried sitting down, and his legs were quite content to do so, but his hands seemed to want something else to do. Pale and dirty, they flapped around in a way that made him think of twitching sun-starved animals. "Which, seriously, is not a nice image, and why did that spring into my mind, and why…?"
His voice trailed away. He didn't know who he was. Focus, he thought. Focus. Names were important. He wanted to be able to stand up and say, "My name is…" and have people look at him with respect. If you didn't have your name, you had nothing.
But aren't there more important things to think about right now?
"Yes. Yes. I guess so. Yes." Like the fact that he had apparently decided to lose his memory not in the safe comfort of his own home, but in somewhere out of a bad horror movie.
"Oh! That's it!" He snapped his fingers. There was the commando gear, after all, and the fact that he apparently had a gun at his side. He was some sort of hero, and something terrible had happened - so terrible that he had blocked it out. Everyone would be going crazy looking for him. All he had to do was sit and wait and somebody would find him.
Just sit and wait. But he drew his legs up to his chest, and carefully took the gun from its holster. His breathing was fast and tight, and he didn't really feel much like a hero. That's because I went through something terrible, he told himself. Even people like -- His mind almost supplied a name, then snatched it away from him. -- are allowed to crack under the strain every now and then. Once I'm safe, I'll remember everything that matters.
But he kept his hand on the gun as he waited.
She had no memory of who she was or how she had come to this place. That part worried her. She was indoors, surrounded by dank stone, in a place lit only by a faint beam of sunlight from far above. As she walked towards it, everything felt wrong. She touched her body, and felt nothing remotely familiar about the clothes she was wearing. She had things that she knew were weapons, but which she also knew were not her weapons. She did not know how she knew this, but she did not doubt her certainty.
She headed instinctively to the place where the light was faintest, knowing that enemies would be least likely to find her there. Facing towards the darkness, she blinked as she slowly gained her night vision. All the while, she explored herself, feeling weary muscles, feeling the signs of someone who had been running not long before. From the dirt on her clothes and the tenderness of her arm and shoulder, she had fallen. She had slept for a little while, and then awoken to this.
The clothes felt awkward on her, almost chafing her skin. She felt as if these clothes had robbed her of her identity - not just stolen her name, but tried to replace it with another. She wondered if someone - cold face, burning eyes - had torn her clothes from her body and replaced them with… "No." She spat it out firmly. She could feel no evidence of violence, just of hard running in a darkness littered with hazards.
Her hands knew how to unfasten the unfamiliar clothing, though. Beneath the solid dark jerkin, there was a jacket, but the blouse beneath that felt familiar to her fingers. The fabric covering her legs made her think of… No, the memory faded before she could grasp it, but the sense of strangeness remained. These clothes were not hers. They did not belong to her people.
Still, she had to admit that the dark jerkin seemed practical, made of a fabric that could likely deflect knives. She put it on again, then turned the jacket inside-out, and put it on as well, on top of the jerkin. It was only a gesture, but it made her feel better, as if she had struck her first blow in the battle to remember who she was.
Then, clothed in her defiance, she closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, and sought herself.
He decided to sit and consider the situation for a while. No use going off half-cocked. He started by emptying out his pockets. "You never know," he muttered out loud. "I might have kept a diary."
There was no diary. There was a small first aid kit, which he hoped he wouldn't need, and some spare ammunition. There was a water bottle, which he took a small sip from, and a couple of cereal bars, which he decided to save, in case he was in for the long haul. There were also a few items which he couldn't identify, which worried him. "As if you didn't know you were screwed already," he muttered, "what with not knowing your name. Not knowing what this is…" He shook his head. "Not such a big deal, all things considered."
He had a radio, though. He noted it, marking it for later thought. Then he packed everything back again, remembering where everything was, even the mysterious objects, in case he needed them again. Nothing was immediately useful, but taken together, they were enough to tell him that he was some sort of soldier. "Yeah. Really clever. Like the gun wasn't a clue." He knew what a gun was, at least.
That left two options, then. One: he was behind enemy lines, and had to find his way back home by himself, which was kind of tough, given that he didn't know where home was. Two: he was behind enemy lines… No, maybe not two options, then. The question was whether anyone he met was likely to be a friend or an enemy. You don't leave people behind, that much he knew. There were probably people looking for him. Maybe people trying to kill him, too, though.
"No," he said, after a moment's thought. There was no need to be unduly negative. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best - that's what he always said. At least, that's what he said now; he had no idea if he'd ever said it before, but it felt right.
Prepare for the worst, though. The room he found himself in only had one door, so at least it was defensible. "Or a trap," he said, a moment later, not liking to think of himself backed in there with nowhere to run. Then there was the issue of the white glow that probably shone like a beacon saying, 'Here he is!' He edged out into the hallway again, and the light followed him. He crossed the hallway into another room, and the light appeared there, too. "Which really is too bad," he said. "Way to ruin the element of surprise."
Still, he was stuck with it. It didn't mean he couldn't make his room defensible. Set up traps, watch the door, listen, wait…
He let out a sharp breath. Who was he kidding? "I don't know who I am," he said, "but I know I'm not one to sit and wait." No, if there were enemies out there, he'd go find them. If there were friends looking for him, he'd make the job easier for them. Sitting wasn't good.
When you sat still, it was impossible to forget that you didn't know who you were.
He discovered a communication device at his belt. Its design felt alien, and he knew beyond doubt that it had been fashioned by his enemies, and put there to track him. He tore it lose, and threw it as far away as he could. It landed heavily, and a small light came on. Tearing his gun free, he shot it, enveloping it in red light.
Then, smiling grimly, he started hunting.
To Hell with it, he thought, eyeing the radio. Guess I've got nothing to lose.
As he pressed the button that he was fairly sure was 'on', he could almost hear someone impatiently telling him that this sort of attitude was going to get them all killed. "Got a better idea?" he demanded. He refused to be the sort of person who staggered around like an idiot for days, never daring to try the radio that could have called for help right at the start.
"Come in," he said into the device. "This is --" His voice cut off abruptly. It was as if the part of him that spoke out loud hadn't caught on to the fact that he had no idea who he was. "Me," he finished, with a shrug. "If you're receiving this, I guess you know who 'me' is, in which case it'd be good if you… uh… tell me, because…" His hand rose to his ear. "Here's the thing. I've… uh… forgotten. But if you're the enemy, then forget I said that."
There was no answer.
"A little help would be good," he said. "Just to know that you're coming to get me. In either sense," he added, after a pause. "Because I'm feeling some abandonment issues right now." He could feel his heartbeat, still faster than it should be, and the dampness of his palms. "I'm not having the best time of it here."
Nothing. There wasn't even static. Despite the light that came on, the radio seemed dead. Maybe there were secrets to using it that he'd forgotten about, or maybe there was no-one to hear him. Or this place is shielded, he thought, with vague memories of science fiction shows in which communications always failed at the worst possible time.
He switched the radio off, but put it carefully away. He'd try again later. Don't you ever give up? he imagined someone saying, and he pressed his lips together and decided that, no, he didn't. Like the battery bunny, I just keep going.
He stopped; pressed himself against the wall. Somebody was coming!
He kept his gun ready, remembering the charred mess it had made it the radio. In his other hand, he held a knife. He still had no idea who he was, but that couldn't matter right now. All that mattered was slowing his breathing. He had to become the wall - to watch, to wait, never moving, never making a sound…
The enemy was heralded with light. While he, the hunter, moved in darkness, the enemy was preceded with a pale white glow. It was enough to prove to the hunter that this was his domain. He controlled the light, and strolled through with no thought of concealment. Perhaps he thought to find the hunter still unconscious on the floor, or overcome with the terror of not knowing who he was.
He thought wrongly.
Safe in the darkness, the hunter peered round the edge of the doorway. The enemy was not strolling, after all, but proceeding cautiously and quietly, a gun held in front of him. Despite the light that heralded his coming, he was clearly trying to keep as much as possible to the shadows. He was human - and the hunter paused for a moment to wonder why he had ever expected otherwise - but his clothes were entirely different from the hunter's clothes.
Not a friend, then. The hunter paused for a moment, wondering why he would ever have wondered if he was. He had no friends, not any more. He hunted alone. He didn't know how he knew this, but it felt right. He was alone, and this creature was his enemy.
He sighted along the barrel of his gun. But although he knew that he had been completely silent, and although he knew that the darkness still hid him, something caught the attention of the enemy. His head snapped round. He seemed to see the hunter, and something twisted inside the hunter's heart.
"No!" The scream tore itself from his throat. He pulled the trigger, saw the red fire strike his enemy, and watched him fall.
No-one came. Waiting didn't feel right, either. He felt twitchy, and his hands kept on moving, as if they were desperate for something to do. "Of course," he said, "I am a military hero, doubtless with lots of medals. Sitting still doesn't come easily to us."
He stood up, but stopped walking after only a few steps, each one slower than the previous one. It was dark outside his little room, and there had been sounds… There could be all sorts of enemies out there, desperate to kill him. He had images of monsters with reaching hands, that ate the very essence of your life. I'll grind your bones to make my bread. He thought of stories about gingerbread houses and big bad wolves in the dark forest… and how crazy it was, how stupid, "that I can remember these things, but can't remember who read the stories to me, or who I am…"
His voice trailed away. "I shouldn't speak aloud," he said. "People might hear…" He trailed off, biting his lip. Don't speak aloud. Sit. Wait. Barricade this place, because there might be enemies outside, and even though I'm some big military hero, I can't…
He felt afraid. He told himself that he shouldn't be, what with being a heroic action man, then raised his head and raised his finger. "I didn't get to where I am now without knowing when it was time to be cautious. Discretion is the better part of valour, after all. Call it a tactical… uh… tactical something."
He sat down again, but his hands were still twitchy. "Pockets!" he said, clicking his fingers as he had his sudden brainwave. "There might be clues." He rummaged through the various pockets on his unfamiliar military vest. The second one contained food. "Strawberries and oats," he read, as he tore the bar open and ate it in a few quick bites. He might have been on the run for hours, and he needed this nourishment.
In the next pocket, he found a first aid kit and a paper notepad, depressingly blank. "You'd think I could have written my name," he said in disgust. "This is the very secret diary of…" He waited for a moment, then let out a disgusted breath. "That was your cue, subconscious. You know: fill in the blank…?" He tilted his head. Still nothing.
"I'm not impressed." He shifted position, stretching his legs uncomfortably. The darkness outside the door was so very dark, and there were… there were… He swallowed, struggling with a suddenly dry mouth. He didn't know who he was! He didn't know who he was! And here he was, all alone…
His hands were still busy, though, working through the pockets. In the fifth one, they found a blocky item that lit up when he pulled it out. He examined it for obvious 'on' switches, and found none. "That's creepy," he said. The item had a screen that showed nothing at all, but seemed to be impatient with potential. He jabbed at it. "What am I supposed to do?" He jabbed again. "What's the point of this?"
A dot appeared on the screen. He jabbed again, and the dot moved slowly, growing smaller. Zooming out, he thought. Widening the field of view. He tried again, and found more dots.
He stared at it for a while. "Why would a military hero like me bring a computer game with him on a mission?" He turned the object round, and back again. "A boring computer game."
He moistened his lips. The dots moved slightly.
"Unless it's useful." He dragged his lower lip in between his teeth, then released it again. "Top-secret military technology. Something that tells you where your enemies are. Life-signs detector, like in cheesy science fiction movies."
It felt right. It was ridiculous, but it felt right.
"Then where am I?" He clutched the item, glaring at it as if he could extract the truth from it through the sheer force of wanting it. "Which one's the 'you are here' dot? What's the scale? How close are the other dots to me?"
There were six dots, one of which was presumably himself. One was completely still, and two were almost on top of each other, quivering with circling movements. The other two were moving steadily. Pacing, he thought. Circling.
It was not a pleasant thought. He sat down, pulled his knees to his chest, and started to watch.
He saw the big man fire, saw the red flame, threw himself desperately sideways, but it was not nearly fast enough. He didn't really register it as pain at first, just an enormous fist of numbness on his side. He landed hard, tried to roll, but his body betrayed him. He lay there, hand reaching, gripping his gun, but was unable to move.
It was all the opening the big man needed. The pain started to make itself known, but he clawed at the ground, managing to turn onto his back, but the big man was already on him, one hand at his throat while the other one found the gun and ripped it effortlessly from his hand. "Who are you?" the man demanded. "What have you done to me?"
"Uh…" He struggled to speak. His side was still numb - and that worried him; worried him with a worry close to panic, because it was as if his side wasn't there any more, the flesh torn off by that red fire - but the pain was showing itself in other ways. It was claws in his throat. It was an ache even to his fingertips.
"I will kill you," the big man growled.
The man's fingers dug into his flesh. "Then I… won't be… able to… answer you," he forced out.
The big man showed his teeth as if he didn't particularly care about that little detail. "I will rip the answer from your flesh."
His side… God, no, please no. Don't think about that right now. Just the eyes of his enemy, on looking for openings, on getting free. "Funny," he rasped. "Was gonna… ask you… the same… thing. Less… ripping, though."
The big man's fingers tightened. There was ice in his side, now, but tendrils of fire were creeping through his body. He knew suddenly that he didn't have long, and something implacable took over inside him, pushing the pain away, telling it that it was unimportant right now, that other things mattered more.
"Talk," the big man demanded, and there, lying beneath him, he let himself relax, let his eyes begin to flutter closed. As he did so, he twisted his body, brought up his knee, and smashed upwards with his hand. The grip on his throat eased, and he pulled, twisted, clawed at the man's arm and shoulder, planted his foot somewhere soft, and kicked… And his body was a flame of agony with ice at its core, and he lost all conscious thought, but his body knew, his body remembered. Arms, legs, feet all struck flesh. A blow landed on his cheek, but he set his jaw and refused to stop. Got to live! Got to live! He tore himself free, his feet scrabbling against the ground. Got to live!
He saw his attacker's face in the bleached white glow of the automatic lights. Blood was welling up over the man's eye, and his hand... The big man snarled, his gun rising, ready to fire; this he saw only in the briefest flash. He screamed, and lashed out with his feet, and twisted his body, felt stone slam into the back of his head, saw red fire impact only inches from his face. It half blinded him, and fragments of stone struck his cheek. "You're crazy," he said, and he laughed ridiculously, wildly. "Do you always attack strangers?"
As he said it, his hand, groping desperately, managed to find his discarded gun. He brought it up, held it in front of him with both hands. The big man froze. "Why do you want to kill me?" He tried not to let any of his pain seep into his voice. "I'll shoot."
"So will I." The big man showed his teeth. He was still holding his own weapon.
"Then we'll both be dead. How nice."
"You're half dead already." God, the man was smiling. "I'll get my shot off first."
"Wanna test it?"
This was it, he told himself. There was nothing in the world but his enemy's eyes and his finger on the trigger. His enemy, he knew, was doing exactly the same. Their eyes met. Their fingers were still.
He knew he should shoot. Enemy, he told himself. He shot me without warning. Tried to kill me. People who try to kill me don't get classed as friends, as a rule.
Those steady, implacable eyes. That glimpse of a smile, white teeth flashing in a fierce face.
What have you done to me? the man had demanded. Enemy? he wondered. He moistened his lips. What about potential ally? Potential friend? He'd lost his memory, and had no idea who he was. That didn't mean that everyone he met was his enemy, just that he might fail to recognise those who weren't.
"Shall we call it a draw?" he said. "Sit down. Talk about it. Maybe find… maybe find this was all a misunderstanding."
"Be quiet!" The big man's voice sounded pained.
"A moment ago, you wanted me to talk."
But his hand was beginning to tremble. He felt weakness flowing down his arm, and the pain could not be pushed away forever. The dam was about to break. His body was reaching the end. Not yet! he thought desperately. Not yet!
He could shoot, and to hell with it. He could give up now - No. Not an option. Or he could risk everything on a desperate chance, on something that felt right, although he had no idea why - and perhaps it was the pain talking; perhaps it was the fact that he was hurt so badly that pain had robbed him of all sanity and sense.
"I'll walk away," he said, then felt his mouth twist into a smile, despite himself. "Okay, maybe I'll crawl. I don't want to kill you. Let's live and let live, okay, big guy?"
He pushed himself to his feet. The big man's weapon followed him, but did not fire. He lurched, but caught himself with his left hand; his right hand was still holding the gun. "Easy," he said. "Easy."
The big man said nothing at all.
He took a shaky breath. Pain was a wave that had crested and was about to come crashing down and sweep everything before it. "Walking away," he managed to say. "Walking away." He had meant to edge away backwards, ready to shoot, but he knew now that there was no way he could do that. To hell with it, he thought. If the big man was the sort of person to shoot a departing enemy in the back… well, then he was dead already. He was not in a fit state to fight for his life.
He turned his back; took his first step. Nothing struck him. He took another step. Still alive, he thought. Imagine that. A third step, and a fourth. If only those white lights would go off! He felt as if he was pinned in a spotlight, a giant target painted on his back. He managed a fifth step, though, and a sixth. By the seventh, he thought he might really have gotten away with it.
By the eighth, and strangely, he half expected the big man to call him back.
Nine. Ten. Still nothing. But the eleventh step he almost missed, and by the twelfth he suddenly doubted that he could manage a dozen more.
He knew he should shoot. He grasped the gun, and sighted on the middle of his retreating enemy's back. Kill him, or maybe stun him, and truss him up for questioning.
His hand started to tremble. He stilled it fiercely with force of will.
His enemy was barely managing to remain upright. It's a trick, the hunter thought, but the thought held little force. He'd seen the injury and seen the growing pallor of the man's face. He wasn't faking this. He was walking away, turning his back on someone who was holding a weapon on him, managing to stay upright even though he was badly hurt…
He stopped that thought, too. Enemies could be worthy of respect. It didn't mean that they were any less your enemy. The ones you respected were the most dangerous ones.
Should shoot him, he thought. His finger tightened on the trigger.
His enemy stumbled and nearly fell, catching himself with a hand on the wall. Light shone on him from above, and he looked small beneath the high stone ceilings. The hunter found himself starting forward. They were still only twenty paces apart. He could cover that distance in an instant, and…
He bit down on a silent snarl, and forced himself to remain still. Something was hurting inside him, twisting painfully at his enemy's every struggling step. He kept his gun steady, though. He was still standing there when the enemy turned a corner and vanished from sight.
He watched the two dots separate, no longer almost on top of each other, but moving apart. One remained still. The other started to move. It was slow progress. Sometimes it stopped for a while, and once it was completely still for over ten minutes, but after those breaks, it always continued moving.
"I should be doing something more useful," he said. "Watching dots? What use is that. I should be… digging traps. Using my commando skills. Taming wild animals and getting them to carry an SOS in their clever little paws, or maybe their teeth." He sat still. His stomach rumbled. "Doing something, anyway." He turned his right hand over, looking at the palm. There weren't many calluses there, not as many as he would have expected if he was a manly man on a daring manly mission behind enemy lines. So maybe he was an officer, then - clever mastermind of dazzling plans that the brainless manly men then carried out.
Back to his dots. He'd worked out which one was him, by the simple expedient of rotating the device and seeing which one didn't move. That slowly travelling dot was on the move again, "and, yes, once again it's heading straight for me."
Perhaps it was one of his own men coming to rescue him. He tore open another cereal bar from his vest, and started to eat it one-handed, while watching the progress of that slow dot. He'd have to come clean, of course - couldn't bluff his way through it and pretend that he knew the adoring minion who found him here. He'd admit that he had lost his memory, they would fix it, and that was that.
Unless the dot was an enemy, of course. He swallowed, almost choking on grains of cereal. It was just as likely, of course. Enemy; rescue party. Fifty fifty chance. No, those were stupid odds. Far more likely to be an enemy, what with my luck. He froze, tilting his head to one side, wondering if that was a flash of genuine memory, but nothing else followed it.
"Look on the bright side," he said. Maybe the dot would change its mind and decide to go off in some other direction. If not… Well, at least he knew that it was coming. He'd be ready for it.
The first time he fell over, he forced himself up again, in case the big man was playing games with him, and had only pretended to let him walk away.
The second time, he thought he might have fainted for a while. He opened his eyes to see faint white light, and a crumbling ceiling marked with fading carvings. For a moment, he had no idea where he was. Then he remembered, and it didn't make him feel any better.
The third time, the fall was almost deliberate, or so he tried to tell himself as he landed in a barely-controlled heap. He managed to raise himself so he was half sitting, his head and shoulders against the stone wall. "Time to see what the damage is," he said out loud, his voice faint and rasping. It felt almost as if by saying it out loud, it wouldn't be so scary.
His hands were shaking, though, and his throat was dry with fluttering fear as he finally dared look at the wound. He let out a tight breath when he saw that he was still intact, no huge segments of his body torn away and gone. Part of his vest had almost disappeared, held together only with charred filaments, ragged edges showing the ceramic plates that had failed to protect him. The flesh beneath it… He braced himself to look. It looked like a deep burn, though the pain that suffused the rest of his body told him that it was something worse.
With one hand, he pulled out the first aid kit from his vest - thankfully in one of the undamaged pockets - and started to work. There wasn't much that he could do - or perhaps there was, and he just didn't remember how - but he swallowed a couple of pills that were probably pain-killers, then pulled out some kind of dressing. Covering the wound… He swore out loud, then had to bite his lip to keep himself from screaming. At the first touch of the dressing, his hands recoiled, instinctively protecting him from pain. He had to force them inch by inch to return, to cover the injury…
Vision sheeted red. He came back to himself, panting, hand slumped at his side. There was little blood, at least. Can't…he thought. Got to… Want to… He forced his eyes to open properly, forced himself to sit up a little straighter. He knew nothing about who he was, but he knew he wasn't the sort of person to lie still and wait to die. He'd done what he had to do. Time to carry on.
Maybe the vest had protected him, he thought, as he struggled to his feet again. He remembered throwing himself sideways. Perhaps he'd taken a glancing blow, and the vest had protected him from the worst of it. And if this is a glancing blow, I'd hate to see what would've happened if it had hit me full on.
Probably dead, he decided, after he had shambled a few more steps.
The pills didn't seem to be making much difference, and he didn't know where he was or who he was, and he didn't know where he was going. "Might be walking directly at another big guy more pissed than the last one." Or some enemy or… or just… someone. Monsters - white hair, white faces, pain like fire and ice - or… or… He brought his hand to his face as if to swat away visions. Don't know… why I'm still… walking if the thing…in the next room is… worse than… the last.
But his feet kept moving, until at last he fell for the fourth time, and was still.
There was something in the darkness.
She sat utterly still, her breathing slow and steady. She had tried to empty her mind. If there were no other distractions, then perhaps the truth would rush in and fill the emptiness. She would know who she was and why she was here. She would know her own name.
In and out, she breathed. In, and out. In. Out.
It was not easy to push away the outside world. The ground beneath her was cold and uncomfortable... No, that was not something that mattered. Water was dripping not far away. No, forget that. Push it away, so you no longer heard it. No, sink into it instead. Breathe in time with the drips. Shape the emptiness around that rhythm. In, and out.
I am afraid.
That, too, she had to forget. Calm. Nothingness. Emptiness. And then the truth...
There is something in the darkness.
Her eyes snapped open, but the darkness remained. She was alone in the darkness, drowning in it, utterly lost. She had no idea who she was. She had nothing; there was nothing, just an everlasting void, and a thing lived at the heart of it.
And it wanted her.
She scrambled to her feet, scraping her hands across her face - anything, anything to prove that she was real, that the ground was solid beneath her, that beams of light still shone through from far above. Her body was bruised. Her clothes were uncomfortable and unfamiliar, chafing her skin. Her legs ached from sitting still for so long, and she was cold.
The emptiness hovered just out of reach, like a beast stalking a hunter, ready to pounce at one misstep. She had to keep moving, she thought. She had to keep her mind full. And she had to find other people, whether friend or foe or stranger. She could not do this alone.
The dot was still. He eyed it, chewing on his lip. It hadn't moved for at least fifteen minutes. The other dots had wandered off the field of view, even when he prodded at the device in order to see as much as he could. "That just leaves you, my friend," he said, jabbing a finger at the stationary dot, "and me."
Another minute went past, and still the dot didn't move. "If you're coming to rescue me," he said, "you're not doing it very well. If you're coming to kill me…"
It was probably a trap. He had seen cats set up camp outside a mouse hole and wait patiently for hours… Oh! That was a thought. Did this thing show animal life, or only human? The dot could be a mouse, a fox, a rabbit… He looked at the dot again. "Wouldn't animals have smaller dots? Stupid sort of military technology if it can't tell animals from humans. You'd spend hours setting up a clever defence against squirrels."
He wondered why he was talking out loud quite so much, when he knew for a fact that he had told himself not to, not just once but many times. Silence was bad, though. Silence was something that had to be filled, and if he didn't fill it himself, other things did - fears, and the knowledge that he had no idea who he was or where he was, and… and all sorts of things that felt that little bit better when he was talking about them in proper words, not just brooding in silence.
"Which is not really the point," he told himself. "The dot's the point. What am I going to do about it?"
It was almost certainly a trap. He crept slowly to the doorway and peered out. The walls outside immediately started to glow white, which made him recoil. "Oh," he said, with a nervous laugh. "Movement-sensitive lights. That's not so strange." He headed out again, and walked towards the dot. Though why I'm doing this, he thought, managing not to speak the words actually out loud, when I'm sure it's a trap, I really don't know.
Memorising the position of the dot, he jammed the device back into his pocket, and held his gun with both hands. I'm ready for you, he thought. His steps sounded very loud, though he was trying to keep them quiet, really he was. You won't get the drop on me.
He was close now, really close. The corridor took a sharp turn to the right, and the glow was brighter here, as if… as if it isn't just being activated by me, but by someone else who's just round that corner.
He licked his lips; swallowed. I'm a crack shot, he thought. A trained commando. He pressed himself to the wall just short of the corner. Then, holding the gun as steady as he could, he swung it round the corner. A second later, he dared peer out himself, his finger twitching and ready to shoot.
A man was lying on the floor. He looked dead. Playing dead, he thought. Trying to trick me.
"I… I'm not fooled," he said aloud, as he edged forward. "I've got you covered." The man was lying on his front, his head turned away. "I… I'm not afraid to shoot."
The man didn't move. He edged forward until he was only a pace away. "I --"
The man lashed out. He had no idea how it happened, but suddenly he didn't have a gun any more. The man did, though. He was sitting up, holding the gun in both hands, his eyes glittering scarily in his pale face. "I've already been shot once today," the man said. "That's once too often."
"I wasn't going to shoot you," he protested.
"'I'm not afraid to shoot,'" the man quoted.
"Oh. That." His hands felt horribly empty without a gun. "It was just… But I was right, wasn't I? It was a trap. I was right."
"And you're congratulating yourself on that?" the man said. "You knew it was a trap, but you still walked straight into it?"
"Yes. Well." He spread his hands, trying to show his enemy that he was no threat. "Seriously," he said, "you don't look too good."
"Good enough to shoot you," the man said, "so don't even think of --" His voice cracked for a moment, but he covered it well, continuing as if he hadn't stopped. "-- trying to take advantage."
"You're one of the enemies, then," he said. He was dimly aware that he should be terrified. No, he thought. Military hero, remember? Not terrified. Cool and focused and decisive, but he didn't feel that, either. "If I'm behind enemy lines and you're not greeting me as a long lost hero, you must be the enemy."
The man just looked at him. He really looked quite horribly sick, but the gun was barely quivering. It had trembled more in his own hands.
"Well, there's no point killing me," he said, showing the man his empty hands. "I don't know anything. Quite literally, in fact. I've lost my memory. So don't try to torture me for information. Just point me in the direction of my people and I'll toddle away as good as gold."
"Lost your memory." At least the gun started to waver. The man's eyes closed, and he wrenched them open with a visible effort. "That's funny."
"Funny, is it? Funny? You think it's funny to wake up here and not have the slightest idea where you are or who are you and who's trying to kill you?" His voice rose shrilly. Gunman, he thought. Crazy gunman pointing gun at me. Be quiet. "Funny?" he demanded.
"Because I've lost my memory, too."
"Oh. Oh. Now you're trying to trick me. Make me think we've got something in common so I lower my guard and trust you."
"Our vests are the same issue," the man said. "Our weapons, too. Uniform… Different, but similar enough. I'd say we're on the same side."
"Then put that gun down." He told himself it was a trick. It had to be a trick.
"Okay," the man said, slurring the words. He put the gun down, and followed it, slumping sideways, and lying still.
She kept her steps as silent as she could, although the irregular ground meant that sometimes small sounds issued from her footfalls. There were places where the ceiling had fallen, showing other chambers above her, and far above them, patches of sky, but she avoided those pools of faint light, and kept to the darkness, hugging the wall.
There were places where the ground was damp, and in other places, it was covered with a thin layer of dirt. When the light was sufficient, she crouched and examined these places, and found evidence of several people passing. None of the tracks were recent, though. She was careful not to walk through those patches, to leave tracks for someone else to follow.
There is something...
She silenced that thought, and concentrated on the feel of the wall beneath her fingers, and the scent of damp stone that she inhaled with every breath. The emptiness was like a physical thing, but she refused to let it in. It was a natural reaction to fear, she told herself. She had no idea who she was, and there were no memories to form landmarks in her mind. It was very much like being lost in the featureless darkness - lost in the darkness, crying for her people, for her father. If she found other people, then slowly the featureless waste would be filled up and populated. If they were friends, then she would learn her name. If they were enemies... Well, she might still get answers from them, but she was ready for them, too.
She reached a crossroads, and took the left hand path, deciding that at random, or perhaps working on some instinct that she did not consciously understand. It was the darkest of the four choices, and the ground was rough and uneven. About fifty paces away, the corridor turned sharply to the left, and faint sunlight showed from around the turn. It was enough to show the large arched doorway that led off to the right just short of the bend.
She was just a few paces short of that door when she heard a faint sound from around the corner. She might not have recognised it, had she not so often heard the same sound issue from her own feet. It was the sound of someone who was trying to walk silently, but who had made a mistake.
She made her decision in an instant. Her breathing shallow and tight, she made for the arched door and stepped through it. Inside was absolute darkness. Her first few steps were anxious, as she wondered if she had been quick enough, if the person had heard her, if he had seen her. For the next few steps, she felt herself relax with relief, knowing that she was hidden. The step after that...
She froze. The step after that....
She was surrounded by darkness. There was nothing ahead of her, underneath her or around her but the dark. The ground does not exist! The fear struck her like a fist, and she was certain that if she took that next step, she would fall through, and keep on falling for ever more. Panic prickled down her spine. She clenched her fist just to remind herself that she was still real.
Turn, she told herself. Turn. She took a step back; forced herself to turn round. Darkness pressed against her back, but ahead of her, almost close enough to touch, she could see the arch of the doorway, and the light that issued from the bend in the corridor. She edged forward, just a little. The sound came again, unmistakable. Somebody was approaching, but not a thing, not a monster from the void, but someone of flesh and blood, with real footsteps that made real sound.
She hefted her weapon, and prepared to act.
He had no idea what he was supposed to do. He touched the man's throat, and found that his heart was still beating. "Stupid to touch him, though," he berated himself, as he withdrew. "He could have been playing dead to try to lure me in." He was fairly sure he wasn't, though, and that meant that this man had just fallen unconscious in front of him, and there was no-one else around but him. He was supposed to do something about it.
What, though? "I'm not a doctor." Though, really, he supposed he could be. He could be a prize-winning doctor with his wall plastered with certificates, but it didn't mean a thing, because he had forgotten everything. This man could die in front of him because he couldn't remember how to treat him.
"If only I could remember!" He stood up, and pressed his brow into his hand, digging the fingers into his temples. "Think! Think! Think!"
There was no change. The man remained still.
He touched the man's throat again, and found his heart still beating. It felt normal enough, similar to his own. Did that mean he was going to be okay? Yes, yes, of course it meant that; he decided that firmly. No use panicking over nothing. No use worrying. If he waited, then the man would get over his faint and then…
"Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "Check his story while he's out." The man's vest certainly did look identical to his own. He tried one of the pockets, and found a cereal bar with the same brand name as his own - blueberry, though, which was promising - and in the next pocket he found a small first aid kit, exactly the same as he had found in his own vest. Several pockets were hidden by the man's arm, so he pushed it gingerly out of the way.
What he saw made him gasp. On the man's side, the vest was scorched and almost destroyed. A bandage showed through, stained yellow and red and quite disgustingly unpleasant-looking. I've already been shot once, the man had said. "What with?" he demanded. "A blow torch?"
He had no idea what to do. Remove the bandage? What if that made it worse? What if, instead of being a highly skilled medical man, he was someone famed for the ineptitude at looking after people? What if he was famous for blundering, and killing people with a touch?
"But I should at least carry him to safety." He looked over his shoulder, back the way he'd come. It looked very dark, and there were all those other dots out there, still prowling. Nowhere was safe. His little room had felt horribly dangerous at first, and it was only familiarity that made it seem suddenly safer than this corridor.
He tugged the man's arm even so, then bent down to get a grip on his shoulders. Straining, he managed to drag the man about six inches, but the injured man's head lolled in a way that looked really uncomfortable, and his blood-stained hand was trailing on the ground.
Letting out a breath, he lowered the man back to the floor. "Plan B," he said. He paced, up and down, up and down, then sat down stiffly on the floor, pulling the gun to him.
Plan B appeared to involve sitting and waiting in the middle of an exposed corridor, with a wounded man who was probably an enemy all along, who had put on this vest to fool him, like a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"Stupid," he told himself. "Really stupid. Why don't you just leave him here?"
He had no answer to that, but still he stayed.
The hunter kept himself to the inside of the bend, knowing that he had the disadvantage in terms of light. He rounded it quickly, weapon ready, but there was no-one there. There never was. Although he had found the trails of several people, none of the tracks were fresh. Apart from the enemy he had wounded - the enemy you let go - he hadn't found anybody. Hadn't found a way out, either. Still had no idea who he was.
An arched doorway led into darkness on his left. He surveyed it cautiously. Good hiding place, he thought. Keeping his weapon raised, he stepped towards it.
"I have a weapon trained between your eyes," a woman's voice said.
His snapped his own gun around, pointing it at the place where the voice had come from. "So have I."
But she must have already started moving the instant she had spoken. There a blur of movement in the darkness, but his eyes were not yet adapted enough to see it until it was too late. Something smashed into his arm, something twisted around his leg, and he fired, red light smashing into stone, but then the weapon was torn from his hand. He looked up, blinking, to see a woman with a familiar-looking weapon pointing at his throat. "I suggest you stay very still," she said.
He let his head fall back, and obeyed her.
He drifted in darkness. It was like floating in the blackest night, without even stars to show him the way. He dimly remembered feeling pain - a burning pain in his side - but now even that was gone. There was nothing at all. But beyond the nothingness, creeping slowly forwards, surveying him, watching him, was a presence.
It wanted him.
He opened his eyes with a gasp. Someone cried out. "Careful, careful," a voice said. He reached desperate for his gun, then remembered. The stranger. The man he had decided was a friend. The man he had let himself faint in front of.
He shifted position. His side hurt like a tongue of flame that drove away the darkness. Grimacing, he sat up. The pain remained, but didn't increase. The pills must have kicked in properly while he was asleep.
"Now you're awake, can we go somewhere," the other man said. "Somewhere less exposed to anyone who wants to kill us and eat us. At least, that's… that's my assessment of the situation, from a military point of view. Secure a… a base. Defend it."
"Sounds like a plan," he said.
The other man looked briefly surprised. "Really? Huh. I am good."
"Better than me." He pushed himself painfully to his feet, as the other man hovered and occasionally offered a hand. "I woke up, went exploring, walked straight into an ambush and got myself shot, then turned my back on my attacker. Then I fainted and you found me. I don't think --" He grimaced, suppressing a groan. "-- tactics or… survival are my strong suits. You're the boss."
"Really?" He wasn't sure if the man looked nervous or gratified.
"Although, of course, you walked straight into my own trap. We can't forget that."
"I didn't walk into it," the man protested. "I was… testing it. Drawing you out."
They set off. It was easier now he was standing. The pain was worse, but he felt more alert. Lying down, unconsciousness kept trying to claim him. It was more than the physical injury and the pain, he thought suddenly, chewing his lip. It was as if the unconsciousness was a real, living thing - the darkness, and the thing beyond the darkness - that wanted him…
"So what shall I call you?" he said brightly, desperately.
The man shrugged. "Memory loss, remember?"
"How about…?" He stopped. He knew the words for most of the things around him, and he knew how the world worked, but there were no specific names in his mind. It was as if everything that related to people, either to himself or to anyone he had known, had been ripped out of his memory, leaving only the names for dull objects.
"Precisely," the man said. "I'll call you Jet."
"Hey! I called first choice." He frowned. "Jet?"
"Because you're wearing black. What's with that, anyway? Do you think girls like the mysterious look?"
"I'll call you Hero," he said, "because of that whole long-lost hero thing you talked about." He had meant to say it in a mocking fashion, but the mockery was hard to maintain. This man had saved his life. He had found him, and he had stayed with him, and it was just so good not to be by himself any more. There was every indication that they were on the same side, and had probably known each other before they had lost their memories. Not just that, he thought, but friends. He had put the gun down and let himself fall into unconsciousness, and he wouldn't have done that in front of just anybody. Some things could never be forgotten. With this man, he felt safe.
He said some of that, too. "I'm glad we're together. Thanks… thanks for looking after me. I feel… I feel as if we've got more of a chance now there's two of us, now I'm with you."
The other man looked uncomfortable. "Yes. Well. Gratifying." He cleared his throat. "Do you have to say things like that?"
He thought about it just for a moment. "Yes. It's just… We don't know anything. All memories gone. Even our names. We don't know… And there's nothing." And something beyond the darkness, watching and waiting. "Everything we think and feel… It's something real. We should say them. They're like… like markers, populating an empty map. They're all we have."
"Then I'm glad you're here, too," the man mumbled, "especially now it looks as if you're not going to die on me."
"Still hurts like a bitch, though," he said. "I don't… I'll do what I can, but don't count on me in a fight. The guy who did this is still out there, and he's bigger than both of us."
"There's at least three more, too," the other man said. "I saw them." He appeared to think for a moment, then decide to say more. "I've got this… device. It shows me people as little dots on a screen. That's how I found you."
"Three more?" His foot almost slipped on a loose piece of stone, and he lurched sideways, pain spearing through his body. The other man was there, supporting him, then withdrawing with an awkward pat on the shoulder.
"Yes," said the man, "which is why I want to hi-- to get us to a… a strategic location where we can take on all comers. Of course --" His hand flapped. "-- they could be friends."
"Could be," he said, as the darkness watched him and followed him, waiting for him to give it a way in. "I'm not doing so good," he admitted. "Can I lean on you?"
The man cleared his throat awkwardly, but nodded, offering his hand. This was someone who knew him, he reminded himself. This was a comrade, perhaps a friend - a link with the past, and something concrete to stave off the thing in the darkness.
"Who are you?" the woman demanded.
She kept herself just out of sight, but he listened to the small sounds that indicated her location. If he darted just there, twisted just there, perhaps he would get his gun back. If he moved fast enough, perhaps she would miss him, even if she fired.
"Who are you?" She spat out each word separately.
He looked at the ceiling, lit faintly by distant daylight. There was nothing in his memory but fighting. He had been born into this awareness raging against phantom enemies. He had shot a man, perhaps killing him, and he had prowled ceaselessly through the corridors, searching for others he could fight. He was tired of it; tired.
"I don't know." He tasted dirt and sweat. "Can't remember."
He had expected her to scoff, thinking it a pathetic attempt to evade answering, but he heard her step falter. "You cannot remember?"
"No." This was the first time he had been still, the first time he had rested. So it was over; he had been defeated. At least he didn't have to fight any more.
"I, too, have lost my memory."
He turned his head. She was standing very still. Her weapon was the same as the one the other man had carried, he realised. She lowered it ever so slowly, and he knew that if there was ever going to be a chance for him to regain the upper hand, this was it.
"I have no desire to hurt you," she said. "If I discover that you are lying…" Her eyes were bright in her dimly-lit face, and he saw the threat there. "But…" She looked at him searchingly. "I would like to believe that you are not."
She lowered the gun completely. It was now or never, he thought. He could snatch up his weapon, stun her, or worse, and… and then back to the same - creeping alone through the darkness, expecting enemies at every turn.
Instead, he sat up, keeping his right hand visible and open to show that he was unarmed. "It's true," he said. "I woke up here - that's all I remember. Before that… I think I was fighting somebody." White faces; white hair. "I thought somebody had done this to me." He touched his brow.
"I think perhaps they did," she said, "now that we know there are two of us."
There was more. He wondered how much to tell her, but he had gone too far already to be able to back away. "I met somebody else. He wasn't dressed like me, but his gun…" He gestured at her weapon. "The same as yours. I thought he was an enemy. I shot him, but he…" He frowned. He had so few memories, so each one should have been shining and clear, but it was fuzzy, as if he was beginning to lose even that, though the memory of the shooting itself was as vivid as ever. "He said things. I think… I don't know. I think he might have lost his memory, too." And then the man had walked away, and he had let him - just stood there and watched him, and let him.
"Then we should find him again," the woman said firmly.
"I shot him."
"Then you can apologise."
She picked up his weapon, and after only the slightest hesitation, handed it back to him. He took it, his hand slowly wrapping around it. He could still turn on her, he thought, but the thought carried little strength. An enemy would not look like this, he thought - so small, so beautiful, so female. That, at least, was the rationalisation. Part of him just no longer wanted to fight any more.
"I can retrace my steps," he said, "and can probably track him from where I met him. He wasn't moving carefully."
"Good." She spat it out, almost angry, but then she softened. "It is good to have company," she said, as he stood up. "When I was alone, I was…" She stopped, pressed her lips together, and started again. "Have you sensed a… presence in the darkness?"
He shook his head. He had come awake to an impression of fighting, but that, he was sure, was a vestige of memory. It had influenced how he had acted ever since, though. He might have carried on like that, too, if he hadn't met this woman.
"Yeah," he agreed. "It's good to have company."
He was armed again, and he would fight when necessary, but the urgent need to hunt had faded. Lying on the ground, defeated and disarmed, he had felt almost at peace.
He helped the man back to his little room, then helped him sit down, leaning against the wall. "Thanks," the man said, clearly attempting a smile, but he looked more than half dead.
"You're not going to die on me, after all?" he asked.
The man shook his head, but closed his eyes. Sitting down next to the injured man, he pulled out the life signs detector. Their own two dots were visible next to each other, but two other dots had joined forces, too. "Oh, that's not good," he said.
The other man nothing. His breathing was taut and slightly shaky.
"And - wonderful! - they're coming straight at us."
The other man gave no sign of hearing him.
"Hey. You." He touched his shoulder. "What did I call you? Jet."
The man started awake with a hoarse cry. "I wasn't… There was…" His eyes were wild and staring. "There's something… Have you felt something… something in the darkness? When I close my eyes, it… comes out."
"You're crazy." He sounded harsh. Perhaps that wasn't how you should talk to someone who might be dying. "You're probably fevered. It's just your imagination. But I've lost my memory, too. Maybe it's serious brain damage. Maybe I'm going to lose my mind, too." He stopped himself. This man was hurt, and worse affected than him. "It's nothing," he said. "Just a dream."
"I feel…" The man scraped his hand across his face. "Forget it. You're right. It's nothing"
"There's a more pressing problem," he told the man. "Look." He passed him the life signs detector. "Those two dots are people and they're heading right at us."
The man thought for a moment. "We need to find out how to turn the light off."
"It's automatic, triggered by movement."
"The big guy who shot me was standing in the dark." The man looked up at the source of the faint glow. "Automatic lights that are impossible to switch off… Kind of stupid sort of design feature." He struggled to sit up. "Help me up."
"No." He stood up himself, his muscles protesting at hard labour that he could no longer remember. "You're hurt."
"It's best to stay moving." The man's gaze was almost unnerving. There was an honesty there that he did not want to see. "When I stop, that's when I feel as if I'm losing the small amount I've got. I feel… less myself every time." It didn't make sense, but he didn't question it, just watched the man struggle towards the door. "Where do light switches normally go?"
"Inside the door," he said, "though it doesn't make sense that I know that when I don't remember anything else. What could have happened to make both of us lose our memories?"
"There's a more pressing problem." The man was feeling around with his hand, pressing it against the wall just inside the door.
All the while he did it, the dots came closer. "You won't --" he began to say, but suddenly the faint light went out, leaving them in complete darkness. The only lights that remained were the tiny dots of the approaching enemies on the screen in his hand.
"I won't what?" the man said. His voice sounded amused.
"Nothing." He blinked, and gradually was able to see faint outlines. "They're getting closer. I think we should…" Hide, he almost said, but he was no longer alone. You had to keep up appearances in front of people who depended on you. "Implement a strategic withdrawal."
The man said nothing. There was just enough light to show that he was still standing there, upright and still.
"They'll probably walk right past us in the dark," he said, "and even if they don't… Well, we'll be sitting here nice and quiet, and we'll know where they are."
"What if they've got one of those neat little devices?" the man said.
"Then we'll…" He stopped, and let out a sharp breath. Military hero, remember? he told himself. He hadn't felt much like a hero, but he'd gone out and confronted the lone dot, and that had turned out okay. You're the boss, the man had said, depending on him, looking up to him. It was different when there was someone else there. "Then we'll intercept them," he said. "Put ourselves in a position where we can… can jump out on them."
"I won't be doing much jumping."
"Confront them, anyway. Gain the upper hand." He swallowed. "If they come here, that is. They might go somewhere else."
"They might," the man agreed.
"We can…" He frowned, trying to remember the layout of the hallway outside. There was another room on the far side of the corridor, around a dozen paces towards the approaching dots. "You hide over there," he said. "Stay quiet. After they've walked past, step out behind them with your gun drawn. I'll confront them from here. They'll be surrounded."
"Sounds good," the man said.
They parted and took up their positions, as the two dots grew closer and closer.
"He fell over here," the big man said, touching the ground with his fingertips. "Lay there for a while. Then someone else found him." He looked up. "They went that way together."
"Then that's where we're going."
There was enough light to show her that he was about to say something, but in the end he stood up and followed her without a word. She felt dwarfed by him, but he knew how to move quietly, and he let her take the lead in making decisions.
As for her, she walked forward with a growing impatience. She heard a sharp edge to her voice whenever she spoke to him in whispers. There was something in the darkness, but if she kept moving, it could not touch her. If she kept her mind busy, and if she was no longer alone, the emptiness could not take her.
She moved her head sharply, pouncing on every sound and every movement. She had one companion now. Every new person was a beam of light to counter the enemy who lurked in the darkness. She needed new faces to fill the emptiness of her mind. Even enemies… Ah, yes, she would guard against the risk that they were enemies, but even enemies were better than being alone.
The hallway grew darker. There was no sound at all from ahead, but their own feet made the inevitable soft sounds. He touched her softly on the shoulder, and he almost cried out with the surprise of it. "Slower," she heard him breathe.
No, she thought. Faster. Run. Move towards people, towards light. She hissed under her breath, trying to tell him all that without words.
"Stay where you are," a voice said from behind them. "I've got you covered."
"And so have I." The second voice came from ahead. There was just enough light to see the glimmer of a gun.
She heard the big man raise his weapon, then heard him inhale sharply. "Don't!" commanded the voice from behind, closer now. "Doesn't feel so good when you're on this end of the barrel of the gun, now, does it?"
"Is that the one who shot you?" the other voice said. She turned, slowly raising her gun, but the man saw her. "Stop where you are!" he demanded. "I've got you covered, and I will shoot."
"I do not believe that we are your enemies," the smaller figure said, her voice revealing her to be a woman. "Neither of us can remember who we are."
"Then you could be our enemies without realising it," said his new friend, the one he had half-mockingly called Hero. "What if we lower our guns and make friends and are in the middle of a nice group hug, when you conveniently remember that you've got your heart set on disembowelling us?"
"He has a point." He managed to keep his gun steady, pointing at the big man's back. "You did shoot me."
"Yeah," the big man said. "Let you go again, though. Didn't follow you."
"He is sorry," the woman said, firmly, sharply.
"Sorry?" Hero echoed shrilly. "Have you seen his side? It's like someone went to it in a demented fashion with a blow-torch. He's started babbling, too. It's only a matter of hours before--"
"That enough!" he found himself saying. The presence in the darkness watched him. He concentrated fiercely on his gun and refused to let it any further in.
"Thought you were the one who did this to me," the big man said. "The one who brought me here and made me forget."
"So you shoot first and ask questions later?" Hero demanded.
"He did let me go," he had to admit, "and I came close to shooting him first."
"Oh, so that's okay, then. You're going to die of delirium caused by having a side that looks like it's been grilled on a barbecue, but it's okay, because you almost shot first."
"Have you lost your memories, too?" the woman cut in, sounding impatient.
"What makes you think that?" Hero asked.
"Yes." He decided to go for honesty. He had so little left, and had to make sure that all it was truth. "Neither of us can remember anything."
"Her gun's the same as yours," the big man said.
"Then we're probably friends." He kept the gun trained on the big man's back, though.
"Sorry for shooting you," the big man mumbled. "I really am."
"Oh, so that's okay, then," Hero said again. He appeared to think about the situation for a moment. "Okay, we'll trust you, but if you dare to try to double-cross us, we'll… Well, you'll be sorry." He lowered his gun, though.
Taking his cue from Hero, he did the same. The slow release of tension caused the strength to flow out of his body, and he felt himself swaying sideways. He caught himself with a hand against the wall, feeling it cold against his skin. I am here, the darkness said. I will strip away everything, and then you will come to me.
"Are you --?" someone said.
"Fine." When he knew he was steady again, he groped for the raised patch of stone that passed for a light switch round here. Faint white light surrounded them, enough to show him the concerned faces of all three of his companions - strangers? friends? - who had turned towards him. The light made them look very pale, with dark shadows underneath their eyes. "Just thought… we should see… who we'd allied with," he managed to say.
"You do not look well," the woman said.
Hero jabbed his hand accusingly at her. "That would be your barbarian friend's fault."
"Hurts like a bitch," he said. There was nothing to be gained from lying. "But it's…" He still had his hand pressed against the wall. The coldness was an anchor, in a way. "Perhaps it's the pills. I feel… fuzzy. Floating. I'm losing things." Falling into fragments. His memory had gone, and now everything else… One by one, piece by piece, until he had nothing…
Until you have no choice but to come to me.
He found himself on the floor, but he had no memory of falling. His shoulders and head were being held up awkwardly by the big man, as if he had caught him and helped lower his down. "You killed him," Hero was protesting. "You and that big gun of yours. You and your little brain, shooting first and asking questions later."
"I'm sorry." The big man's voice was almost gentle. "When I woke up, I was furious. Terrified. I couldn't remember anything except fighting for my life. I shouldn't have shot you, not without asking questions first."
"Channel your guilt into looking after him, then," Hero said. Over the big man's shoulder, he could see the other man pacing, his hands constantly moving. Then he saw him stop, and straighten his spine, pushing back his shoulders. "We can't stay here. Let's get back to base and plan what we do next."
He started to answer, then felt a stab of pure panic when he couldn't remember how to shape words. Three faces were turned towards him: contrite, unreadable, resolute. The words were released again. "You're the boss," he said.
She sat down next to the injured man. "Are you…?"
"No," he said. "I'm not doing so good, but I'll live, I think."
She saw the big man watching them. His weapons were all sheathed, and he seemed to be unsure what to do with his hands. For all his size, she had seen him move with stealth and grace, but now he just looked awkward.
"Hey, I said it," the injured man said, following the direction of her glance. "No hard feelings."
The big man looked unconvinced. If he had ever seriously injured somebody before, he had no memory of it. In a very real sense, this was his first time. Perhaps he was a gentle man, despite appearances. They had no memories to go by, and could not judge by appearances. But if they did not judge by appearances, what else did they have to judge by? They had nothing else. The four of them in this room together could be mortal enemies, thrown together by false assumptions.
She turned back to the injured man. His eyes were closed, and his head was slumping sideways. She touched his hand very gently, and his eyes snapped open. "God!" he swore. "I can't… can't stay awake. It's not supposed to be like this."
"This hurts like hell." He gestured weakly at his side. "I shouldn't be able to fall asleep. Perhaps I'm passing out from the pain, but it didn't feel like that. It feels as if…"
He stopped. They were all watching him. The big man's face was twisted with guilt. The shorter man had pulled some device out of his pocket and was jabbing at it, but he tilted his head to listen.
"As if there's something out there that's making me sleep," the injured man said quietly. "And every time I do…" He stopped again, lips pressed together firmly, head thrown back with pain.
She touched him again. "There is something in the darkness."
"Yes." He leapt on her words like a starving man offered food. "I didn't see it at first, but then when I passed out… I saw it. I thought it was a dream, but…" He clenched his fist, the knuckles white and trembling. "It's taking a bit more each time. I'm losing myself. I can hardly remember waking up. Just a few hours of memories, and I'm already losing them. And when there's nothing left…"
"It wants you," she said quietly.
The shorter man dropped his device, and scrambled for his gun. "You're in league --"
"No," she snapped. "I'm not." Then she let out a breath. "I sensed the presence, too. When I awakened, I… I deliberately emptied my mind, hoping it would help me remember. Instead, I became aware of it."
"You gave it an opening," the injured man said, pointing at his wound, "like this did."
"But not any more." She stood up. She could not allow herself to be inactive for long. She had to fill every moment with thought or talk or movement. She had to keep it out.
He gave a wan smile. "At least you've got the choice."
"So there's a bogeyman in the darkness." The shorter man stooped to regain his device. "How wonderful. Although I think you're just imagining it. I've not sensed anything."
"Neither have I," said the big man.
"Besides," the shorter man said, "there are more pressing concerns right now. More dots." He brandished the device.
"Dots mean people," the injured man explained.
"Two, to be precise, and - why does this not surprise me? - they're coming straight at us."
More people. More people meant more sounds and more sights to keep the thing at bay. It was distraction. It was the bright light of new memories. "They could be more friends," she said.
"How many of us are there?" Frowning at his device, the shorter man bit his lip. "Four so far. Probably six. Of course, they could be enemies, but the last two encounters have turned out okay."
"Act as if they're friends," the big man said. She was not sure he was doing it consciously, but he was keeping his hands well away from his gun.
"We could stay here." The shorter man jabbed pointedly with the device. "He's not fit for much fighting. We could… uh… defend him. Defensive perimeter. Or…"
He was the one they were all looking at to make the decision, she realised. The big man seemed to have lost all fight since he had seen the human cost of his earlier actions. As for her, she just wanted to be doing something, and did not much care what it was.
"We'll go out again," decreed the man with the device. "Meet them, etcetera etcetera. Be ready to fight if we have to, but chances are they're get more recruits to our happy band."
She turned back towards the injured man. His eyes had slid shut, and she wondered if he was even conscious. No! She wanted to grab him, to physically drag him awake. You cannot have him! But before she had started to move, he opened his eyes. "Sounds like a plan," he said, and, "I'm going with you."
He spoke through the shorter man's interruption. "If I have to stay here, inactive and alone... Believe me, I'll be safer there with you, no matter who these dots of yours turn out to be."
This was the third time, he thought - the third time he had ventured out of the safety of his little room, chasing dots. He wasn't quite sure what had come over him. Go towards the prowling monsters, why don't you? Yeah. Really good idea.
Of course, they were probably friends, and the last two encounters had turned out okay. "Third time lucky," he said out loud.
"I think that only applies if the first two occasions have been unlucky," Jet said with a quick smile, only his lips.
He looked at the life signs detector in his hand, then at his little band. A giant barbarian, a woman - and why was she wearing her clothes inside-out, for God's sake? - and an injured man already well on the way to losing his mind. He wondered if they really were friends. Jet at least could conceivably be a soldier alongside him, though his trick with the lights suggested that his skills lay more with technology than with tactics or fighting, but the other two didn't fit the part.
"If all this wears off," he blurted out, "and we suddenly remember that we're mortal enemies, we'll count to a hundred before trying to blow each other's brains out, won't we? Everyone agreed?"
The barbarian nodded. Jet sucked in a sharp breath of pain. The woman looked at him impatiently, and he realised that he had stopped walking while he had been talking, and that he had fallen behind.
"It only seems fair," he said, hurrying to catch them up. He was the one with the life sign detector, after all. You're the boss, Jet had said to him. Jet was going crazy, and the other two didn't look like officers. It all came down to him.
"Where are they now?" the woman asked. She was gripping her gun tightly.
He looked at the detector again. "Not far." He gestured vaguely with his hand.
"Where?" Jet asked. "One o'clock or three o'clock, or somewhere in between?"
He frowned. "Oh. Two o'clock." He pointed again, more accurately this time. "Of course, these passageways don't go direct. It's not far, though. We'll be on them in a few minutes."
"Best be quiet, then."
They walked on. Jet touched the wall, and the light dwindled to almost nothing, then went out entirely. Light of a different quality came from somewhere ahead. "Daylight?" he breathed.
"From above." The woman's voice was closer than he had expected, but he managed not to jump.
"It's almost evening," the barbarian said. "It'll be dark soon."
That made him want to shiver. Biting his lip, he looked at his dots. Soon there would be six of them, and then… then they could turn their attention to getting out. He couldn't remember anything except for this place, but the world outside existed, wide and vast and full of people and memories.
"You okay?" he heard the barbarian say. He almost answered, then realised that the barbarian wasn't talking to him.
"Not really," Jet answered, "but it's better when I'm up and moving."
"No." The injured man's voice was firm. "No hard feelings."
"I won't risk it happening again." The quality of the barbarian's voice changed, as if he had turned to address them all - or perhaps just him, the leader. "These people… We talk first."
"Yes, yes. I'm good at talking. At least, I appear to be." He swallowed. It was hard to juggle his gun and the life signs' detector, and to keep them both steady. Struggling, he dropped the detector completely; the noise in the hallway was harsh and horribly loud. When he picked it up again, the dots seemed a lot closer, as if they had jumped while he had been looking away. Or maybe I just remembered their location wrong. He almost said that out loud, but didn't. He was the leader. If he acted the leader often enough, soon he would start to feel like one.
"But for now," he said, "we're quiet." There was just enough light to see by, now his eyes were adapted. After himself, the woman was their best bet if things turned nasty, he thought, since her stance was tense and impatient for action. Jet was hurt and couldn't be relied on, and the barbarian seemed to be indulging in a guilt-fuelled fit of pacifism. "We'll do the same trick we did on you," he told her. "You take up a position in…" He frowned into the gloom, seeing the darkness of one of the ubiquitous doorways. "There," he said. "Take your big friend with you. Jet and I will hide over here. We'll get them surrounded, but leave the talking to me."
She nodded, and moved forward, her steps silent and swift. The barbarian followed, but more slowly. As he did so, Jet's hand came out slowly to rest on the wall. The barbarian looked back, and Jet nodded once.
What was that about? No, it didn't matter. "Let's get this show on the road."
"I thought we weren't talking."
"No. Of course." They withdrew into the room, into utter darkness. As they did so, his shoulder brushed against the side of the doorway, and it was all he could do not to gasp. The next step was almost impossible to make. There's nothing inside! he thought. Nothing! There's only darkness, and… His breathing was audible, almost a moan. "Jet?"
"I'm here." Ahead of him. Alive. Talking. Inside the darkness.
He moved towards his voice, feeling solid floor beneath his feet, hearing the other man's breathing. Already, the darkness was fading, its sharp edges reduced by faint light from outside. He raised the device, and saw the two dots. "They're moving faster!" he hissed. "They're going to be on us…"
He could hear their feet. Friends, he thought. Two more to add to his growing army. Two more people to make him turn into a leader, confident and never afraid. Two more voices to fill the silences of his memory. People to talk to. People who would listen.
He stepped into the doorway, hand on his gun. "We're not your enemies," he said, and heard the footsteps falter. "Have you lost your memories, too, because, well… here's a funny thing. We have, too."
For a moment there was only silence, and then all hell broke lose.
"We have, too," he heard the shorter man say, and then there was nothing but screaming.
He reached instinctively for his weapon, but its touch brought vivid memories - burnt flesh; a man struggling to stand for the pain; fear in that same man's eyes, as he talked about something dragging him into the darkness.
"No!" he heard the smaller man shout. "Don't! You've got it wrong!" Then the sound of scuffling, and a cry of pain, and, through it all, that screaming, barely human.
The woman pushed past him. He edged forward, and there was just enough light to see the outline of the shapes, but everyone was moving so fast, and he didn't know their silhouettes well enough to recognise them.
He touched his weapon again, and this time his hand closed round it. His thumb found a switch on the side, but he had no idea what it did, and no idea if it was safe to touch.
The screaming continued. A body impacted against the wall, crumpled to the floor, and sprang up again, pushing itself up with its hands. Something struck the wall near his head, and he heard splintering wood. Someone howled in pain, but he didn't know who it was.
Burnt flesh. Pain-filled eyes. He had done wrong. He had done something so terribly, utterly, completely wrong. And he hadn't known; he hadn't known at first.
"We don't want to hurt you," he said, moving forward, holding his left hand up, palm outwards. "You're scared, but so are we. We don't want to hurt you. Don't make us do this."
He saw a face, a flat grey mask in the faint light. Its mouth was a gaping hole. It howled and came towards him, and he reacted, his body moving despite himself. He struck his attacker's wrist away, then twisted to avoid the splintered rod that was coming down on his shoulder. Not enough, though. It struck hard, sending pain all the way down to his fingers.
He raised his gun; lowered it again. He didn't know what to do.
"Stop them!" someone was screaming, but he didn't know these people well enough to recognise their voices in the extremity of panic or anger. "Somebody stop--" It ended in a yelp of pain.
He tried to move towards the voice, but the man attacking him wrenched the stick upwards again, and whirled it straight down towards his head. He ducked, dodged, and dragged the man's foot away from underneath him, hooking it with his own leg. Simultaneously, someone else smashed the man across the shoulder with the barrel of a gun. The man fell, and he went down with him. "I don't want to hurt you," he said, but he was kneeling on top of the man, pinning him with his knees, and a shadow behind him told him that the woman was there, too.
It was too dark to see the man's eyes. The smell of him was bad, like rotten, decaying things that never saw the light of day. The man's mouth opened, and sound spewed out, but there were no words in it, just noise.
"Surrender," he said. He showed the man his weapon. "Talk. Please. I don't want to hurt you."
The woman ended it, smashing the man across the temple with the side of her gun. The man lay still, his head lolling to one side.
He turned towards her. "You shouldn't --"
"There's no time!" She sounded almost gleeful as she darted away. He didn't follow her, but remained kneeling over the fallen man for a short moment. There was blood on his fingertips.
The other attacker was still screaming. Someone fired a gun, light flashing in the twilight of the tunnel, and the high wordless screaming turned into a torrent of sound. He heard snapped words - "Don't!" and "Stop!" - and as the attacker paused for breath, he heard a faint whimper of pain.
He pushed himself to his feet, just as the shorter man fired his gun again, giving a flashed image of his face, lips pressed together, cheek specked with blood. In the darkness that followed he was almost blind, but he could hear the sound of bodies tussling, and breathing, surely louder than breathing could ever be.
Then stillness. He blinked; saw a second body on the floor; crouched beside it, but the shape of it was already enough to tell him that it was their second attacker, even before the foul smell hit him.
"Is he dead?" His hand found the man's neck, and felt one faint stuttering pulse, and then nothing. He touched the man's lips, but they were still. "He's dead," he said.
"You shot him." He recognised the voice of the man he had injured.
"He attacked me!" the shorter man protested. "I'm bleeding! Besides, he was going after you. I was protecting you."
"Yeah." The injured man took a step backwards, struck the wall, and slid down it in a way that looked close to collapse. "But I saved your life first."
"No, you didn't," the other man protested. "I had it under control."
"Well, okay, maybe you helped. But you're in no condition to fight."
"Tell that to the crazy people who threw themselves on top of us, despite your 'we mean you no harm' talk." The injured man seemed to lose the energy for it half way through, until the final few words were barely audible at all.
Removing his hand from the dead man, he stood up. "You shouldn't have killed him."
"I didn't have a choice!" the shorter man protested. The woman was standing beside him now, her stance showing that she sided with him. "He was trying to kill us."
"That one's still alive." He gestured with his thumb at the man the woman had knocked out. "We should tie him up. When he wakes up, we can talk to him."
"Yes, because they really showed themselves ready and willing to talk." The man let out a breath. "Okay, okay, we talk. Explain the misunderstanding, or do the 'take us to your leader' thing if he's an enemy." He gasped, and bent down to snatch up his device, clearly dropped in the struggle. "Still works," he said with relief. "No more dots. That's something, at least."
Unable to stop himself, he took a step towards the shorter man. His gun talked to him of the human cost - of a moment's loss of control, and the regret that followed it. He wanted this man to feel the same as he did. He felt a spark of fury, almost of hatred, at this man for standing here so casually, as if it was nothing at all. "You just killed somebody," he snarled.
"I'm a soldier; we do it all the time," the man said. He paused; cleared his throat. "I didn't have a choice."
He saw the other man glance down at the place where the injured man sat slumped against the wall, hands at his side, looking barely conscious. His breathing was audible, hitching with pain. I was protecting you, the shorter man had said. Everything had been too chaotic and too dark, with glimpses of struggling bodies, but nothing more. He'd heard the soft cries of pain, though. Perhaps it was true. He had fired a rash shot without thinking and had injured someone who might have been a friend, but perhaps this man was a better man than he was. Perhaps this man had shot only because it was necessary, to save a companion.
"But I'd rather you didn't kill the other one," he said to this man, their leader, and their leader nodded, and said, "Okay," his voice suddenly quiet.
He'd killed a man.
His attacker had been screaming, screaming so loudly and so constantly, and he just would not be quiet, and it was dark, and the man had hit him, for God's sake - gouged him across the face with his long nails, then come at him with an honest-to-god stone axe, or something like that - and he hadn't wanted to kill him, just get him to go away, because it was dark - so dark in that side room, so dark - and everyone was looking to him as their leader, and he'd gotten them into this mess by wanting to talk to these people, and everything had gone to hell in a handbasket, and now he was fighting for his life, being clawed in the face - and who knew what germs were there, under the nails? and the stench of the man…
He'd remembered his own fear upon waking and how awful it felt not to know who you were, and he had tried to talk to them - honest, he'd tried to talk - but they'd thrown his words right back at him. Well, answered him with screams, to be more accurate, and the small matter of a stone axe that had almost hit him between the eyes, except that Jet had intercepted it, and had drawn the attacker off, and had dragged the axe from the man's hand and reversed it - this he had seen only in flashes - but then had been struck on the injured side, and grabbed around the chest, and…
Go away! He had just wanted to get rid of the creature. Go away! Be quiet! I can't hear myself think! And Jet's quiet moans of pain, and his fractured breathing… Don't hurt him! Don't hurt him!
He hadn't meant to kill the man. He'd raised his gun in terror, sure that Jet was going to die, but it shouldn't have been like that. He should have felt icy certainty. He should have raised the gun, taken aim, and killed because he had to kill. He was a leader, for God's sake - an officer. He must have killed people before. Not that that made a difference right now, did it, because this was the first one he remembered, so it felt like the first one.
He couldn't let it really be like the first one, though. He was the leader of this small group of people, and they depended on him. He had to act as if this was nothing. It had to become nothing. People like him did what was necessary, and didn't look back. At least not until their people were all safely back home, and they could fall apart the quiet of their own little room.
"Who…" He swallowed. "Any clues about who they are?" Were, his mind added, because he'd killed one, and the darkness in the side room looked at him, and he had to look away, to turn his back on it, to focus on saying what had to be said.
"They smell different from us," the big man said. He'd removed some pendant thing from around his neck, and was using the cord to tie the unconscious man's hands behind his back.
"They smell like the darkness," the woman said.
"What about their clothes?" He remembered how Jet had operated the lights, and walked towards the side door - come, whispered the darkness - and groped around until he found a raised section. The familiar white light appeared at the top of the wall, but the darkness in the side room only looked all the more deep.
He turned his back on that, but that only showed him the blood. God, there was so much blood. He turned away from that the only way he could, and saw Jet looking at him, his eyes slightly glazed, and his breathing very visible.
Enough, he told himself. A leader didn't go to pieces. A leader didn't show fear. Pull yourself together. He concentrated on studying their attackers. The corpse was dressed a little like the big man, though the clothes were much dirtier and looked as if he had been wearing them underground for weeks. The other man was wearing clothes that looked as if they had once been very fancy, all dark red and gold, but if anything they were even more soiled and torn than the dead man's.
"They have been living here for a long time," the woman said, standing over the unconscious man. Despite her small size, she looked quite threatening. "I do not think they were ever our friends."
"He's waking up," the big man said sharply.
He wanted to shy away, but he clenched his fists tightly, and walked forward. Their prisoner was safely bound, lying on his side with his hands tied behind his back, and the big man was holding his ankles.
He went down on one knee a pace away from the prisoner's face. His heart was beating audibly in his ears. "Who are you?" he asked, careful to articulate every word. "Why did you attack us?"
The man's eyes darted from side to side. They landed on him, but only for the briefest of moments before they were flickering away again, the pupils huge.
His face was throbbing, and he could feel blood trickling sluggishly down his cheek. He fought the urge to wipe it away. "We won't hurt you," he said. "You attacked us first. Who are you? Why did you attack us? We don't mean any harm."
The man made a low sound in the back of his throat.
"Did he just growl at us?" He looked at Jet. Jet's faint smile was like a grimace, but perhaps there was a rebuke in there, too, for looking away from the interrogation. He turned back to his prisoner. "Do you live here? Did you think we were invading your home? We weren't. We… uh… don't remember why we came here. We'd get out if we could find the way. So be a nice savage native and show us the way out, won't you? Then we'll just run along, and no hard feelings."
The man bared his teeth, and hissed like a cat.
"Or you can just do the feral thing." He pressed his lips together, then tried again. "Do you have a leader we can talk to? Believe me, we don't want to be here, and… well, I'm not one to make personal comments, but maybe you might want to consider a change of scene yourself."
The man opened his mouth and sound poured out, high and shrill and jagged. There were recognisable vowels and consonants, and sometimes half-echoes of words that could have been English, but the whole thing made no sense.
It was just a foreign language, he told himself, but his mind knew that it was not. This was sound with no sense. This was sound with no brain behind it.
"Dark," the man said, the word as loud as a sudden blare of trumpets in the garbled sounds that surrounded it.
His head snapped up. "Did you…?"
The man's voice rose higher and higher, the individual sounds dissolving into a scream.
He turned to the others. "Did you hear…?"
"We have to get out of here." Jet's face was as pale as the lights on the wall, his brow beaded with sweat. "We have to get out of here now."
His side felt as if it had dissolved into liquid fire, and the flames had already spread throughout his body, but with every breath he fought not fire but darkness. His head wanted to loll, and his hand wanted to relax. His body wanted to sleep. No, his body wanted to stay awake, and was fighting tooth and nail to stay awake, but something else was trying to drag him into the darkness.
He saw things in flashes. "They smell different," the big man had said, and then there had been a period of nothing. He had had emerged from that to find Hero looking at him. "Did he just growl at us?" He had no knowledge of what had come before, but, startled, he had tried to smile. Then the prisoner had started babbling, incoherent sound mixed with screaming.
Before that, he remembered hiding in a dark room. He remembered fighting. He remembered hauling at a man's arms, dragging his weapon away from Hero's face. He remembered pain, and the smell of darkness, and some time before that - hours, days, weeks? - a flash of red from a strange weapon, and the ground swift and hard beneath him.
"Dark." The word stepped forward from a faceless crowd. He listened for it again, but heard only the sound of madness.
Someone else said something. He heard the sounds - "did you hear" - but for a moment, he could not begin to put meaning to them.
"We have to get out of here." His own words, at least, still came easily. "We have to get out of here now."
Hero moved towards him, but it was a woman's voice that he heard, appearing to issue from Hero's mouth, as if everyone was a shell of pretence, stuffed with lies and madness. "We are trying," Hero said, in that woman's voice. Then he moved his head, and saw that the woman, too, had taken up position by his side, and that she was the one who had spoken.
I should have known that, he thought.
"No." He snagged at her arm. "We need to go now. Forget anything else. Go now."
"Why?" This time it was Hero who spoke, although Jet was looking at the woman. Even voices told lies. "I mean, yes, of course, this isn't the most desirable of places, but…"
"They've…" The next word didn't want to come. He dug his nails into his palms, and plundered the darkness for it. "They've been here longer than we have. Look at them. Listen."
The screaming had fallen to a low babbling, full of anguish and despair. It made him want to scream himself.
"I don't understand," the man said. He had a name, didn't he? No, not a real name; a pretend name. Meant as a joke, but perhaps not so silly after all. He'd remember it in a minute.
"They smell like the darkness," he managed to say. "They've lost their language. They…"
Someone was touching his shoulder. He saw their faces crowded around him, all three of them, now. The prisoner was almost silent, whispering madness under his breath. He didn't need them to tell him that he had lost time again.
He looked up at the lights; saw the corona of darkness there. "What if they were once like us? What if that's how we'll become?"
The shorter man frowned. "That's a pretty big assumption."
"Yeah." He tried to laugh it off, he really did, but the doorway glowered above their hunched heads, overflowing with darkness. "But what if it's true?" he said. "We'll turn into them - crazed brainless… killers - and I… I don't think I've got very long. I think… I think it's happening already."
He met the prisoner's dark-drenched eyes. It was like looking into a mirror.
"Please," he whispered. "Help me get out."
Their prisoner raved on the floor behind them. "Help me get out," the injured man whispered.
"Yes, yes," said the man who seemed to have become their leader, "we're trying, but no obvious way presents itself right now."
She knelt down beside the injured man. "Can you stand?"
"Yes. I think so. I…" He seemed to lose his train of thought, and she saw blind panic in his eyes for a moment, but then he gathered his strength. "Of course. Anything to get us out of here."
She reached out to touch him, meaning to help him up. The darkness will spread, she thought suddenly. He has been touched first. He will infect you. She snatched her hand back, but any sound she made was lost in the screaming of the prisoner. "Help him," she snapped to the big man.
"I can do it by myself." The injured man pushed himself upright, and stood, supporting himself with one hand. She could see how his jaw was set, and see the tension in his shoulders.
The reek of darkness issued from the prisoners. I am still here, it whispered. You will come to me.
"We need to go," she said, almost shouting it.
"Yes, but as I said, where do we go?" their leader said, waving his precious device around. "This doesn't mark exits."
"But the place must have them," the big man said. "We got in here somehow."
"We fell." The injured man looked up at the ceiling. "We were up there, where the sky is. We fell." He looked down again. "It would explain the cuts and bruises and the… the fact that I felt as if someone had beaten the crap out of me." The faltering in the middle was barely there at all, but she saw how rigidly he was keeping himself upright, and how tense his hand was on the wall. Everyone had their own way to keep the darkness at bay, it seemed.
"Hmm." Their leader looked upwards, too. There were no glimpses of the outside world from here, but fading daylight showed from around the corner. They must all have seen the holes that showed other chambers above them, and the sky above that. "It makes sense, I guess."
"An underground complex," said the injured man, "but abandoned a long time ago, and then something happened, something terrible…"
"What?" their leader snapped.
The injured man swallowed. "I don't know. But we need to find some way to climb up."
"But…" Their leader's hands were clenching and unclenching at his side. "There must be a door or a tunnel. What sort of a person builds an underground facility without a proper way in, so visitors have to arrive by falling through the ceiling. And what about these two?" The prisoner was now muttering quietly, in a sound that rose and fell but still contained no words. "We can't just --"
"We leave them," she said. "One's dead, and the other's not going to tell us anything. We need to get out." She could smell the darkness pouring from them, and could feel it seeping in through her lungs and her pores. "We have to go now, for Jet's sake."
And for the sake of us all, she thought, as she strode away, and trusted them to follow. And for me.
There were no new dots. The device was slithery in his hand, and his fingers were aching - fingers that had killed a man. He saw their four dots, and the dot of the prisoner they were abandoning. There were no others. As long as there were no others, they were safe.
But the darkness doesn't have physical form. The darkness doesn't need…
He walked faster, pushing past the woman. I am the leader, after all. Lead from the front. Take the bullets meant for the others. He swallowed, but kept the words inside. Then he turned, blinking into the gloom at those who followed him. "You." He snapped the fingers of his free hand. "Big man. Look after…" What had he called him? "Jet." The big man was already doing so, but it was always a good thing to assert your authority. If you didn't, then… He pressed his lips together. If you didn't, then… Then you lose it, and you lose everything, and there is nothing left but…
He gripped the device tighter. Still no dots. The woman was craning her neck upwards, looking ferociously for a way out. He wondered if she really was a friend. She seemed almost heartless at times, charging off without making sure that Jet was fit to follow, and urging them to leave the prisoner behind. He was the one who had killed the man, though.
He glanced back. The others were further behind than they had been. "Go slower," he ordered her.
"We have to get out." She almost spat it.
"I know, but…" No. No new dots. They were still alone. "You can't. Jet's injured. It's bad, really bad." And he was hurt himself, too, with blood trickling down his face and neck. Not that he would say anything about that. A leader did not complain about his own physical well-being. He put others first, and…
But I don't want to be a leader. I'm afraid. I don't know who I am, and I killed a man, and there's something…
"There's no use finding a way out if it kills him," he told her.
"If we do not find a way out, we will all be worse than dead."
Oh. Oh. He swallowed. "You know that? Or are you just guessing? Are you being… hysterical?" He tried to make his voice soothing, wondering if he had to do this often to terrified new soldiers under his command. "It's hard, isn't it, when the darkness is all around you, but there's nothing worse than that. There's just a few crazy guys. Everything else is just your imagination." He patted her awkwardly on the arm. "Monsters under the bed. The shadow on the wall that was the tree branch all along."
The darkness laughed. The woman snatched her arm away.
No dots. Still no dots. One less dot than there had been, because he had… No, no, he had to. There had been no choice.
God, I want to get out.
"It is real," the woman said. "Perhaps we can climb up here."
He looked up. I can't! I can't! It's too high! "I don't think Jet can make it."
"I've seen lower places," the big man said from far behind. God! Had they been speaking that loudly? What about the dots…? No. Still nothing. Their prisoner's dot had vanished. Died? Escaped? No, they had probably just walked out of range. But he didn't know… He didn't know…
"We mustn't talk," he commanded. "The --" He stopped. The dots might hear us, he had been going to say, but then the others might think he was losing his mind. "The enemy might hear," he said.
The woman looked at him sharply, and moved on. He clenched his hand once, unclenched it again, and followed her. Jet and the big man had gained on them while they had stopped; he could hear their footsteps close behind, even hear their breathing. What if…? God! What if Jet was right? What if he really was going to turn into a babbling screaming savage who wanted to claw out the eyes of his friends and companions? What if his mind was breaking into fragments even now? What if his hands were already curling into fists, ready to fall on him from behind and…?
He fought the urge to run - to push past the woman and get as far away from Jet as possible, to abandon him like they had abandoned the prisoner. No, he told himself, looking at the dots, Jet's looking no different from his own. Leave no-one behind. The thought had resonance to it, as if it had once been his mantra. Leave no-one behind, even if he was about to turn into a blood-thirsty monster and start tearing you to pieces. Leave no-one behind, even if you didn't actually know if he was one of yours, anyway, and he might be an enemy.
"Leave no-one behind." He said it aloud. No-one gave any sign of hearing him. Perhaps it was time for a pep talk. "We'll get out," he told them. "No-one's chasing us. If we stick together and… and act decisively… If everyone does what I say…" Still no dots. "We need to stay quiet so they don't find us…"
His voice trailed away. Quiet, the darkness whispered. You've only kept me out thus far because your mind has been too full of words to let me in.
"Or make a noise," he found himself saying. "Keep on talking. It will help Jet stay conscious. It'll stop us… brooding. Things don't seem so bad when you're having a nice chat with friends. We could sing a song?"
Nobody said anything. The darkness liked that.
His weapon felt like fire at his side. The injured man - the man he had injured - stumbled at his side. "No," the man murmured, when he tried to support him. "Got to do it myself. It… helps." But he could hear the small sounds of pain that the man was making, and the way the air hitched in his throat with every breath.
He had shot him. With every step, that memory grew stronger, as every other one of his few memories faded and seemed less real. He had shot him - red fire, and a man falling. He could have killed him.
There was just that and the darkness. Twenty steps ago seemed hardly real. Red fire, and a man falling. Why had he done it? Vague memories of fighting, of creatures with long white hair. They weren't real. Nothing was real, just this.
"I can't…" the injured man whispered. "I can't…" The man stumbled again, crashing into his shoulder, so the soft sounds of his effort and agony were loud in his ear.
"What?" he rasped.
"Help me." It was a faint wisp of breath.
"Don't let it get me."
"How do I stop it?"
Red fire, and a man falling. Darkness billowing all around.
"It's… taking…" The man's hand closed on his wrist. "Can't. Can't… remember…"
"None of us can." His voice was hoarse.
"Hold on to me," the man rasped, but when he tried to support him, the man pulled away with a cry, as if he meant something different from the obvious. "My thoughts… My mind… Flying away. Dissolving… in… fragments. Hold on." The man's hand closed tightly on the empty air, then his fist rose to his brow, knuckling digging in. "Don't let…" His bit his lip. "Can't remember… can't remember the word."
He looked up desperately, useless, unable to touch. It was so easy to kill! It was so easy to make that tiny movement of the finger that reduced a man to this, but how did you make things better again afterwards?
If he stopped walking, he was lost. If he let himself lean too heavily on someone else, he was lost. The darkness…
Thoughts dissolved. There was just an eternity of darkness, a great void… nothing. He was nothing before it - nothing.
It was an eternity later before he felt something shaking him. "You fell," a voice said.
He made an inarticulate sound, incapable of anything else. There was something hard beneath his body; something moist and rotten against his lips. He saw a dirty hand, pale grey in the dark grey all around him. Its fingers curled, and that stirred a faint memory, but then that, too, was gone.
"Can you get up?"
He tried, but his blood was fiery molten darkness, like lava. He cried out. His side hurt the worst of all. Why? Had somebody hurt him? Memory was red and black: fiery eyes in the darkness.
"Stop. We have to stop. He can't go on."
"Then carry him."
He whimpered when something touched him. He knew there was meaning in the sounds he had just heard, but could not remember what it was; he knew, though, that it meant something that couldn't be allowed to happen. He tried to tell them so. "Don't… No. Darkness. Help."
"Oh, God, now he's babbling, too. Why's he making those noises?"
"I'm not making noises," he said. Terror was more fierce than the pain in his side. "I'm trying… I'm… Why can't you understand me?"
"What's he saying?"
"His pulse is racing."
Something was pounding in his ears, and the pain at his side was pulsing faster and faster, merging into one continuous blaze. Shadowy things bent over him, with two dark patches in them that he knew were called eyes, and a darker slit that had another name that he could not remember. Sounds issued from that slit. Some had meaning, but more and more did not.
"We have to get out now."
"Get…" he echoed. "Out…"
"I think I can reach. Help me up."
"So you'd get out, but what about us? Leave no-one behind. It's important."
Yes. Yes. It was important. He didn't want them to… He had fallen into a never-ending river and was clinging to the bank with one finger. He needed a hand to grab on to. He needed to be hauled out to the sun.
The shapes moved. The large one stood up, stooped, and lifted. A smaller shape groped with reaching arms, far above him, blanking out the faint light, and somebody said something, but he had no idea what the words meant.
"She did it."
"There is another level above this one."
"Lift me... No, we need to get him out of here. Can you pass him up to her? Or is there anything you can lower down?"
"I can see a ledge. If I climb to the surface, I might be able to get help, or find something to lower down."
Out of all the meaningless sounds, he understood only one. Surface. The surface was a place where sunlight fell on your face and the sky was clear and empty. Yearning twisted at him. "Got to…" he tried to say. "Got to go…"
"He's getting worse."
"Yes." The other voice grew louder. "No, don't go. Not now! Come back! We need to stay together."
The sounds meant nothing. The darkness stood over him and stared at him, and it made perfect sense. Come to me, it said. Lay everything else aside, even the pain. Stop fighting. But the meaningless sounds that issued from the dark slits of the shapes continued, distracting him from giving in. The darkness had teeth and its smile was sly.
He lashed his head to one side. He reached out and managed to close on something. "Please," he tried to say, and his body burned furiously at the effort it took to shape even that sound. "Get me out of here. Please. Get me out. I need --" Stars. Sunlight. The air on my face. "-- out. Get me out."
"What's he saying? It makes no sense."
"Oh God, oh God, it's happened. He's lost his mind. Get him to stop touching you. What if he tries to kill you? What if it's catching?"
"Then I deserve it."
"That's ridiculous. That's stupid. Pull yourself together - everyone; all of you. This is what we'll do… Oh, crap!"
"Dots. They're --"
Then there were fresh shapes, and the darkness filled with bellowing and screaming. Something dropped down from above. Someone shouted a few quick meaningless sounds, and then there was nothing but screaming, and after that, there was nothing at all but the darkness both outside and within him; both himself, and the world outside.
They had come out of nowhere. The dots had betrayed them. No, he thought, a moment later. He had betrayed them. He had stopped looking for dots. He had relaxed his vigilance. There had been those wild and crazy minutes of Jet babbling nonsense, of the woman disappearing through the hole in the ceiling and abandoning them, of the desperate knowledge that he should be taking control, but what on earth could he do, because he didn't know who he was, and he didn't know anything, and even if everything did suddenly come flooding back, he was a soldier, and soldiers didn't know how to stop a man's mind from falling into fragments, because you couldn't repair a thing like that with a gun or a compass or a fancy vest full of fancy… stuff, and…
"I'm sorry," he said. It felt so inadequate.
The big man said nothing. His wrist still caught in Jet's grip, he had been grabbed from behind, disarmed and tied up. He had raged, but only to try to stop them from hurting Jet. Now his arms were tied behind his back, and he walked between two of their captors with his head down.
"I should have seen them coming."
The woman said nothing. One of their attackers must have found a way to the upper level, and had grabbed her there and dragged her down. She was walking with a heavy limp, but her face was a mask of cold fury.
He at least had tried to fight. The side of his fist throbbed from impacting against something, and there was a stab of pain down his lower back. There had just been too many of them. One had grabbed his arm, twisting it back. Hands had clawed at his gun, removing it. Like the others, he was bound and tethered, being led to his doom along a corridor that went downwards, to the darkness. To me.
This was it. This was the end. There was bound to be some horrid sacrifice. They had been captured by a dozen savages, none of them with any conception of personal hygiene and none, apparently, with the ability to speak in anything other than grunts and screams.
"I'd try 'take me to your leader,'" he said, "but I think they're already doing that."
Of course, said the darkness, as he stumbled.
The big man raised his head, showing haunted eyes. "Was he dead when we left him?"
'He' meant Jet, of course. Jet had been lying so still when they had been dragged away from him. The savages had kicked him a few times in the side, grunted, and walked away. He had looked back as often as he could, but there had never been any movement. The life signs detector lay discarded on the ground; he had no idea if Jet's dot had faded away to nothing.
"No," he said, with ghastly brightness. "He was fine. We're going to be fine, too. This is just a… misunderstanding."
Because you had to lie about things when you were a leader. But you were supposed to protect your people, too, and he had failed at that, as well.
It was growing harder and harder to keep control of her own mind. Hands held her, and every step took her closer to the thing that wanted to devour her.
So the injured man was probably dead. She could not allow herself to care. Emotion let the darkness in. Softness let the darkness in. She had to build walls, and she had to focus on keeping them there. Nothing else mattered.
"Perhaps if we work together," their leader said, "we might be able to…" He gestured with his chin, then gasped as his captors dragged his arms even further back. "Escape," he rasped.
"There are too many of them." Her voice sounded cold in her own ears, but her words were true. There were a dozen of them. Physically, they had no choice but to go with them. The only battle that truly mattered now lay in the mind.
There were worse things, she thought, than dying.
"You were going to leave us," their leader said accusingly.
"To get help." But her voice was still cold. She had climbed through the hole in the ceiling to find another level above them, but there had been ledges and the stumps of broken arches, and she had known that she could easily climb to the hole that led to outside and the light. She had wanted it so badly. To be away from here…! To be free…! To run…! Then hands had grabbed her as she had stood yearning up at it, and now she was here, all chance of escape gone.
"So you say," their leader said, "but maybe you weren't going to come back. We don't know for sure that we're all on the same side. What if you're lying about having lost your memory?"
"They think we're on the same side." The big man spoke up, jerking his chin at their captors.
"True." She saw him swallow. "But that's… They're not…" He visibly tried to collect himself. "We can't fall out. We have to co… co… I can't remember the word. God, it's happening --" He swallowed again. "We've got to coordinate our defence." She opened her mouth to say something, but he forestalled her. "No, don't say it. These guys can't… can't under… stand --" He faltered over the word, like the injured man had started doing not long before the end. "--what we say. It's safe to make p-plans."
"But I can," said his captor, staring straight ahead. "I can see through their eyes and hear through their ears. They are empty vessels filled with me, as you will be."
"No!" the leader cried, struggling desperately at the hands that held him, and, "No!" she begged, as her walls crumbled. She had emptied her mind. She had let the darkness in, and now it was going to claim them all.
He barely felt the hands that held him. All he could see was red light, and a man falling; red light, and a man falling.
"They are empty vessels filled with me," a voice said, "as you will be."
He knew it. The frozen image of the shocking wrong he had done had driven out everything else. He had nothing left. He was an empty vessel already, filled with only one thing. And Jet was dead. Jet had been consumed by the darkness already, because he had been shot and weakened so much that he had no defences. He had done this.
He heard the others protesting, but he went meekly. The places he walked through were as faint as if they were written on smoke and water, barely visible over the image of the red fire. Down, they went. Down. Left. Right. Through a door that creaked. Down. Water around their ankles. The ceiling grew lower, pressing on the top of his head, until he had to stoop. It grew narrower, too, and his captors pressed against him, and the air grew thick and moist.
Red light, and a man falling.
"Oh God," he heard someone crying. "God, no!"
The ceiling opened up again. Something else shone faintly silver through the red. Water splashed around his shins, then up to his waist as he was driven down to his knees. The silver glowed deeply, each sparkle like claws in his brain.
And beyond the silver lay the heart of darkness.
He saw only in flashes, from some distant part of his brain: a large flooded chamber; a hole in the ceiling far above, with moonlight slanting through to fall silver on the water; dozens of savages ringing it; the woman and the big man being driven to their knees…
… and there, at the middle of it all, a large rock covered in faceted crystal. "You're kidding me." He forced out each word, but something took them and warped them and they didn't come out the way he wanted them to. "A rock."
They forced him to his knees, then dragged him forward; tried to haul his hand out from behind his back; tried to force his hand onto the rock's surface. Just a rock, he tried to tell himself. Just a rock. There's nothing… nothing sinister here. These crazy idiots worship a lump of rock, that's all.
He heard the other two screaming inarticulate sounds. He saw the woman dragged forward, saw her hand touch the crystal surface. Her hand seemed to sink into the darkness, to be consumed up to the wrist.
Leader, he thought. I'm the leader. Should have… offered myself… first.
His captors were too strong. Water surged around his legs, and his throat was hoarse from screaming - what had he been screaming? - and then his hand touched, too, and then there was nothing at all.
For a long time, there was just the darkness and the fire. The other thing was tiny at first, like the faintest glimmer of a distant star. It was only when it grew large enough for him to notice it that he realised that it had been growing for such a long time, perhaps even from the start.
It was silver. It was moonlight on his face from a hole in the sky. It was brightness. It was light. It was outside, and it was being free, and it was the breeze on his face and air in his lungs. It was freedom, and it was hope, and it was nothing that he could remember, and it was everything that mattered.
It told him that he had a body, and he sought it, and managed to find it. The fire surged hugely when he tried to move, but the darkness withdrew just a little. The silver told him that he had hands and that he had feet, and he used his hands to push himself upright, and used his feet to walk one step, then another.
The silver left him then, but he saw it again ahead of him, slanting in from another hole. Before walking to it, though, he turned, and saw something lying on the very edge of his own circle of silver. He stooped for it, and found that it was a small device that lit up when he touched it. He had absolutely no idea what it did, but it was something that didn't come from the darkness, and so he gripped it tightly.
He started to walk. The silver showed tracks in the muddy floor. It lanced through the emptiness that was his mind, and told him that these belonged to his friends. They had been trying to help him, but somebody had taken them away. "Help me," he had whispered; he remembered that much. Now they were the ones who needed his help.
That thought reinforced the silver. It kept him upright through a patch of almost complete darkness. It made him reach for his belt to find a thing that he believed could hurt the people who were trying to hurt his friends. Its name eluded him, but you didn't need to know names in order to help somebody. You didn't need to be able to utter words in order to kill.
The path went down, down into the darkness. The silver left him, but still he walked on. His shoulders bumped into walls. He fell once and he fell twice, then he fell again, but couldn't remember what number came after two, and then couldn't remember why it mattered. He choked on mud. Water, when he fell in it, felt unbearably cold, but perhaps he was just growing hotter. The cold worked like the silver, though. The knowledge that the others were near worked even more.
He had no idea how much time had passed. His mind supplied the words "hours" and "minutes", but he had no idea how long each one was, or even if they referred to time. The thing in his hand had answers for him, though. It showed him dots, and a memory stirred in him of a man talking about dots and telling him that they represented people, both enemies and friends. He concentrated on them, and raised the black device that could hurt people.
Silver showed ahead of him again, and water splashed around his ankles. The dots were closer, closer…
The fire was huge in his side, but the darkness was more huge - close enough to touch; close enough to fight. He saw his friends on their knees around a black rock. Silver played on its surface, shattering into multiple shards, as if to say, "It is here. This is the one."
His finger tightened on the black device of death. Something screamed, and it felt as if he was being torn apart, but he tightened that finger. The darkness unleashed its entire weight on him, but he responded with fire and silver of his own, and again and again and again.
He came awake to find himself on his hands and knees in water. Something was screaming in his head, trying to hold onto him, gripping, fighting… He heard an explosion of sound, then another and another and another. Something small and sharp struck his shoulder. He turned and saw a stranger with fire in his hand. The stranger shouted something - what, he did not know - and…
No, not a stranger, but - red light and a man falling - the man he had hurt. With every explosion, the grip on his mind lessened. Things crept in to fill the gap. Fight alongside him. Support him. Help him.
The fire flared one last time, then was still. He heard an empty click.
Red fire. The thing in his mind tried to snatch the thought away, but he held onto it. Red fire brought death. He had shot this man, and that meant that he was bound to him. He had shot this man, and…
He saw another stranger nearby, cowering in the water, hands pressed to his brow. There was something at his belt, just above the surface of the water…
Mine, he thought. Stolen from me. Mine.
He plunged through the water and grabbed it. His finger went where it had to be, and red fire surged, and this time it was good.
He was face down in water, breathing it in, drowning in it. He pushed himself up, gasping, and saw a black rock blazing with red fire.
Got to… He grasped at the words like straws in the wind. Got to help… He was the leader. He had to…
He wrenched his arm free from the man holding it; grabbed the gun from his belt. Standing tall, he emptied it into the black rock, knowing nothing at all in life except that this was the right thing to do.
Silver danced on the water, and she was alone in the gaping emptiness of her own mind, wandering solitary through its empty chambers.
"It's… gone." She saw a gun fall into the water from slack fingers.
She saw a circle of strangers on their knees, some clutching their heads, some staring ahead with eyes that had had the consciousness ripped away from them. Most were human in ragged clothes, but some had pale faces and long white hair.
"Is it… dead?"
"You can't kill a rock. Stupid… thing to… say."
Slowly, ever so slowly, those empty chambers started filling up. It was just one or two things at first. These were the people she had teamed up with and journeyed with. The sounds they made were words, and made sense. The walls in her mind had been shattered, but there was no need to build them again, because the thing on the other side was gone.
She moved slowly. "Are you…?"
"We still need to get out."
"What was it?"
They gathered, all four of them together, and she still did not know who she was and who they are, but they drew together even so.
"Cry-- crystalline entity."
"What about them - the other people?"
"We need to get out."
She heard a rumbling far above them, and something fell into the water with an enormous splash. One of their captors screamed.
"We need to get out!" she shouted.
Another piece of masonry fell, and then another. Beneath them, the ground started to tremble.
The water churned, slapping against his ankles in waves. Something fell into the water, and he snapped his head upwards, and dust and grit fell into his eyes. "We need to get out," the woman said again.
Yes, he thought. Yes, we do. He was their leader, wasn't he? But at the same time he felt as if he was newly awakened. There was a gap in his memory, full of nothing but darkness. What had happened in that time? What had happened?
Who was he?
He dropped his gun, then cried out, grabbing it from the water. Did that mean it was ruined? He wiped it dry, then shrank down, making himself small by pulling his head down into his shoulders. Grit hit the back of his neck. "It shouldn't be falling," he said. "There's no reason why it should be falling. It doesn't make sense."
"It doesn't matter why. It's happening; that's what matters." That was the injured man speaking. He'd been half dead when they'd left him. Before that, he had been babbling, unable to form words.
He wandered over to him. "Are you…?"
"Yes." The man nodded, then shook his head. "No. It hurts like hell. I don't know how much longer I can keep going, but up here…" His blood-stained fingers rose to his brow. "It's better here." One side of his mouth turned upwards in a smile. "Not much use when we're dead, huh?"
Dead? Oh. Yes. The expanse of darkness seemed to have driven away all the panic that he really ought to be feeling. He felt it coming back now. "We have to get out."
"Yeah." The injured man frowned. "What about these guys?"
The four of them were the only ones standing, he saw. The others were still on their knees. He gingerly snapped his fingers in front of the eyes of the nearest one, and there was no response at all. "Why…?" He swallowed, wincing at another rock fell. "Why are they…?"
"Empty vessels," the injured man said quietly. "Emptied too far." Then he grabbed his arm, suddenly urgent. "Come on. We have to go."
he said, and moistened his lips. "But where?"
Silver, he thought. Silver had guided him. He saw it in shattered specks on the choppy water. Go towards the silver.
Memory was a faint and fragile thing. He remembered collapsing, but after that was just a chaotic mix of darkness and silver. He had faint flashes of images of his own feet being put one in front of the other, of his own hand trembling on a gun. Then he had awakened in the wreckage of his own mind, to find that he still had hardly anything at all.
But enough, perhaps.
"What are you doing?" shouted the man whose arm he had grabbed. "That's not the way out."
"We never knew the way out." He had not meant to say it out loud.
"We have to go. God!" It was loud, almost like a scream. "We're going to die here! Come on! We've got to go!"
Perhaps the silver really was guiding him. Perhaps the darkness had left something in his mind - a little sliver of knowledge that it had not wanted to impart, but which somehow remained. Perhaps he knew other things, too: what it felt like to drain a man of everything, relishing the delicious taste of memories and reason; what it felt like to feed on the terror of the truly empty, slithering through the void that remained in their mind; what it felt like to boil with bitterness because you were far from home. "Here," he said, but quietly.
"He's gone crazy," someone said. "Quick. Help me. He's -"
"No. There." He raised his hand, dark against silver. A door. A stair. A way out that was so near, yet so impossible to reach.
"But --" An enormous crash. "Stop him!"
"No, he's right." Another shape pushed past him. "There's a way out."
He stopped with his foot on the bottom of the winding stair. "Are you able to…?"
"We'll see." The injured man looked terrible, his face pallid in the moonlight, with dark shadows under his eyes.
I did that. It still made something twist like a knife inside him, but the intense image of the man falling was gone, replaced by a normal memory.
"No. I'll manage." The man flashed a strained smile. "Too narrow. Single file."
He let the man go first, so he could catch him if he fell. The stair twisted up in a spiral, each step hewn from stone. After a few steps, they were in total darkness, and he had to feel for each step with his toes, and feel his way with his hand on the wall to his left. It trembled beneath his touch.
"What if it all falls?" said the man who had wanted to be their leader, panting after only two dozen steps. "This place is falling - and why on earth is that happening? - and these steps… are just held up… by this central… pillar… so if it…"
"We all go tumbling down," the injured man said from in front of him. His steps were far from steady, but little of that came through in his voice.
"Oh. Very comforting. Is that supposed… to make me… feel better, because…. by then… we'll be dead."
"Then climb faster."
"You're the one… in front. You're the one… setting the pace."
"Then go in front of me. You can…" The man broke off, and he heard the sound of a body striking stone, of a foot sliding off the narrow point of the step. He caught the man; steadied him. The others, back behind half a curve of spiral, probably did not notice. "Go ahead," the injured man continued, as if he had not been interrupted. "Hurry upstairs like a fleet gazelle and find your way outside."
He heard the other man panting behind him, almost speaking, then stopping himself. "I'll stay here," the man said at last. "Don't want to… get ahead… of you… and leave you… behind."
The pillar trembled. Behind them, something rumbled and crashed. "That was the stairs," the man behind him said. "The bottom steps. We can't go back. What if this just… ends? Can't go forward, can't go back. We'll just… have to… cling here… until we… fall."
How high was the surface? They were encased in a dark tube, and although the ground was far below them, it was a little like being buried. It made his fist tighten angrily. It made him want his gun.
They must have climbed a hundred steps by now. Behind them came the sound of the lower levels falling; she felt the trembling through her feet.
"We're going to die," said the man in front of her.
"All we can do is try."
She felt the urgency of every step, but inside she felt softer. The darkness was gone. Ever so slowly, ever so gently, she lowered those walls in her mind, and nothing pressed back, nothing surged in to fill the gap.
"We're going to…"
She touched the man firmly on the middle of the back, feeling his heaving breathing and his trembling. If he had been about to say something else, he stopped it. After a while, she withdrew her hand.
"Light," he gasped, after forty more steps. "Is that light?"
She blinked, and saw the faint outline of the man ahead of her. After two more steps, she saw a slant of light coming from above. Two more, and she saw the big man's shoulder, disappearing round the turn. Two more, and she heard him say something sharply. Two more, and the injured man was down on his knees on a flat stone threshold, his head sagging, and his arm held out behind him, as if to tell the others to stay away.
She stood beside him, and looked up at the sky, and despite everything, she could not keep herself from smiling at the silver moonlight and the breeze on her face.
"You can't," the injured man gasped, "stay here."
No. She shook her head, not speaking it aloud. The grass around the threshold was quivering, and she felt as if she was standing on a thin crust above nothing.
"What do you mean 'you'?" The smaller man had his hand pressed to his chest, and his breath was heaving. "You're just…"
"Go!" The injured man tried to stand up, but just lurched sideways, his hand outstretched, flapping urgently.
"Over my dead body." They all spoke at once, all making similar statements of denial, but it was the shorter man who spoke the loudest, using those words. "Help him up."
But the big man was already doing so. "I can walk," the injured man protested, though his body gave lie to his words. "No," he moaned urgently. "No. Split up. Spread the weight."
They obeyed him, just a little, moving a few paces away from him; it hurt to go any further. "Go where?" the smaller man gasped, his head darting from side to side, fear etched on his face by the moonlight.
"To the trees."
They had only just reached them when the crust of the world behind them crumbled, falling into the enormous hole beneath.
The hole was immense. Despite the agony that filled his whole body now, he dragged himself to the brim - "no, don't!" shouted the man called Hero. "You'll fall in!" - but the moonlight was not bright enough to show him the bottom.
"All those people," the woman said quietly, from behind him.
"Savages," Hero said harshly. "They tried to kill us. They…" His voice faded. The harshness had faded before that.
"People just like us," he found himself saying, knowing it was true, "who didn't get out in time." Vessels that had been drained of everything that they had once had, so there was nothing left when the darkness moved away from them. "People just like us," he said, remembering how it had felt to have lost his words.
"And dead now." The big man was clutching his gun, and he turned away sharply, hiding his face.
"So what do we do now?" Hero said, after a while.
"Move away from the hole, at least."
It was harder and harder to stay conscious. The big man supported him, and he concentrated on keeping his legs beneath him, and concentrated on stopping the trees from doubling and trebling, and stopping the silver from flowing into a sea of white that consumed everything.
People spoke. When he heard them, he understood what they were saying, but he knew that there were whole periods of time when he heard nothing. "I don't think he can last much longer." That was something that he did hear. He mumbled that he was still walking, that he wasn't going to give up just yet, but he saw the concerned looks that passed between the three of them.
When they emerged from the trees, though, he was the first to see it. At first he thought it was made of solid moonlight, but then he saw that its silver was much darker, and that its glow came from muted reflected light. He said something - what, he did not know - and then the others saw it, too, so he knew that it was not a dream.
"What is it?"
"Some sort of… vessel?"
"No. Ours." But, Mine was what his heart believed. His hand moved despite himself, groping into a pocket, pulling out one of the things he had studied right at the start of all this, and had dismissed as inexplicable. He pressed a button, and the back of the silver vessel opened.
"Are you sure it's safe?"
He did not bother answering. Pulling himself free from the big man's arms, he headed inside, supporting himself on sleek silver. The big man took his shoulders, tried to steer him onto one of the benches, but he wrenched himself free a second time. He stumbled, went down onto one knee, and pulled himself up again. The second time he fell, he was able to pull himself up with a hand on the back of the chair at the front; he was able to turn it round, to lower himself into it, to close his eyes.
"What…?" The others were stiff behind him, questioning.
He smiled at them, and reached out his hand - it was steady now, no longer trembling - and touched the controls. Silver flowed through his veins. Light blossomed in his mind. The vessel shivered like an animal stirring from sleep, and slowly rose into the air.
"Yes," he said, and he had to smile, because the alternative was tears. They rose towards the moonlight, and then into the black, but if this darkness wanted him, then being wanted by it was nothing short of wonderful. Silver flowed through him, and he still had no idea who he was, but it no longer mattered. His body blazed with pain and his skin burned with fever, but the silver inside him was a balm, and not even the pains of his body could hurt him quite so much any more.
"But where are we going?" Hero had sat down in the seat beside him.
He shook his head. "No idea."
He removed his hand from the controls, so they were floating quietly in the black.
"What if…?" Hero was clenching and unclenching his hand. "I'm feeling really sleepy. What if we fall asleep, and when we wake up, we remember everything? What if we find out that we're mortal enemies? You're not all going to try to kill me, are you? We can have a truce?"
"We can have a truce," the woman said gently.
He looked out at distant stars. Nearer reality was fading, blurring at the edges. The people beside him were turning into ghosts.
"I… I don't want to find out that you're all my enemies," Hero said.
"Then we will not be," said the woman. "Whoever we are, whatever we were before this, we are friends now."
"Huh." Hero grunted nervously. "We might be leaders on opposing sides. This might end a war that's raged for generations."
He saw the big man's head lolling forward. The woman was clearly struggling to keep her eyes open. Of course we're not enemies, he tried to say, but his tongue could not shape the words.
"It's been…" Hero's head fell forward, then he snatched it up again. "I can't think of an adjective. Wild. Crazy. Quite horrible, really, but…" He pressed his lips together; opened them again, but said nothing. A few moments later, his head fell forward onto the controls, and did not rise.
Through heavy eyelids, he looked at the three of them: strangers, companions, friends. He still had no idea what their names were, but their sleeping faces felt suddenly familiar, with a familiarity that almost hurt.
At least we came out of it together, he thought, and that was the last thing before he slept.
He drifted back to awareness slowly. "Rodney?" he heard. "Doctor McKay?"
"Go away," he mumbled, without opening his eyes. "I'm thinking."
He breathed in and out again. On the third breath, he realised the full significance of what had just happened. He knew his name. He knew his name! He opened his eyes, sitting bolt upright in bed. "I'm Rodney McKay. Doctor McKay, with a capital K and two PhDs." It had seemed so natural to know his name that he had not stopped to realise how marvellous it really was. It was the sort of thing you normally took for granted, but once you knew what it was like to forget it, you would never…
A man in black, falling to the ground, asking them to leave him.
"What happened?" he asked. "How did we get back here?" The true question died on his lips. His thoughts skirted around it, lost in worry.
"You were hours overdue," Doctor Keller told him. "Colonel Carter sent a team to search for you, and found you in a jumper right next to the Gate. You were all fast asleep, but I can't see any evidence of drugs or foreign substances. You're the first one to wake up. Were you experiencing any --?"
"Yes, of course we were," he snapped, throwing off the covers. "We all lost our memories, and we almost had our brains eaten by a killer rock."
She blinked a few times. "If we were at home, I'd be suspecting you of delusional --"
"Yes, yes. Pegasus Galaxy. Get used to it." He stood up, and pushed past her, her hands moving ineffectually to stop him. She was so stupid. How could she babble like this, when she still hadn't told him the most important thing? "How's Sheppard?" He saw her face change; saw it go from confused little girl in a galaxy far far away, to the face of a doctor delivering news. "Oh God. Oh no. He's dead." He grabbed at the bed, feeling suddenly weak. It must have been hours, or even longer, and all he'd eaten was one small… He snapped that thought off. "Or he's as good as dead. I knew it. He --"
"No. No. He's still with us." She took his arm, stilling it, and he realised that he had been flailing it around. "He's… not well, but I have every hope that --"
"Every hope. Yes, yes." He had heard it before - the weasel words of a doctor who was stumbling in the dark, guessing at predictions and trying to disguise them as science. It was better not to remember anything. At least when you remembered nothing, you could live in your stupid little world of ignorance, and hope that everything would turn out for the best. When you had memories, you knew that they never did. Only fools and people with amnesia could afford to be optimistic in this world.
He remembered those hours in the dark tunnels, watching the rapid deterioration of the man he had called Jet, naming him with less thought than he would give to the naming of an animal. He had worried about him then, of course, but it had meant nothing - just a chance stranger who might have been an enemy all along. If only he'd known that it was Sheppard. Could he have said something differently? Could he have done something differently?
Could Sheppard have done anything differently? The man was as indestructible as Ronon – he had to be, what with that death wish of his – and, really, Sheppard's fondness for blowing himself up with nuclear bombs was something Rodney could quite happily commit to the domain of unremembered things, alongside his catastrophic attempt to make Sarah Morgan his girlfriend when he was nine, and that time when he had been standing up in front of class, reading a masterfully-written piece of work, and everyone had started laughing because he had forgotten to…
He stopped; cleared his throat; pressed his hands to his face. Sheppard hadn't known that he was Sheppard. Perhaps he had forgotten that he was supposed to survive. Perhaps…
He stopped that thought, too, but no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible to forget things just because he wanted to. "I need to see him," he said.
Ronon came up behind McKay, his steps so quiet as to be almost silent. "I shot him."
"Yes," McKay said harshly, not turning round.
Ronon had shot so many people in his time. He had killed Wraith, and those who served Wraith. He had killed anyone who had played their part in the destruction of his home and his people. He had even killed people who had once been his friends, and although he regretted being forced to do so, he did not regret doing so. For years, he had lived his life down the barrel of a gun.
"I didn't know who he was," he said faintly.
Of course you didn't." McKay said it as if that somehow made it worse.
Sheppard was still unconscious, tubes bringing him oxygen and liquid. The doctors said there was although there was serious damage to his side, no internal organs were damaged. But they also said that he had a high and rising fever, due to dirt in an open wound, and from too much exertion afterwards. Their voices were hopeful, but their eyes told a different story. In this life of too much memory, an unguarded expression, once glimpsed, could not be forgotten.
"It's my fault," he said. He had so seldom thought 'fault' when it came to killing. He took no joy in it, but it was something that had to be done. One by one by one, he would wipe the Wraith from the worlds, and all those who followed or served them, and all those who betrayed their kind to the Wraith. Living the way he had, he had had to learn to respond to the slightest movement. Any hesitation before shooting could leave him dead. He could not have survived all those years without becoming that way. If he had not become that way, he would not be here now.
But perhaps those years on the run had broken something inside him that should not have been broken. Perhaps it had turned him into something that could do nothing but kill.
"Of course it's your fault," McKay said coldly, still not turning round.
"No." He had not heard Teyla approach. She slipped in beside him, close enough to touch, although she did not. "Colonel Sheppard himself said that there were no hard feelings. If he could say that when he thought you were a stranger, perhaps even an enemy, he will say that all the more now he knows that you are a friend."
He remembered a flash of red, and a man falling. No, not just a man falling, but Sheppard. That memory did not have the overwhelming force that it had had in the darkness, but it had a different force, perhaps a more overpowering one. It was less intense, but it was more real. If Sheppard died…
"Colonel Sheppard shot you once," Teyla said, and this time she did touch him, gentle on the arm. "He shot you, too, Rodney. He was not in his right mind. You blamed the Wraith device then, not him."
McKay snorted bitterly. "So that makes it okay, does it? Two wrongs make a right? This Neanderthal shot Sheppard and now he's lying here -- "
"He is called Ronon," Teyla said. "He has a name. We know each other now. We remember. We spent all that time not knowing who we were, and not knowing each other. Now that we know that, we have to --"
"But it didn't stop you from trying to leave us," McKay interrupted. He still hadn't turned around. He was unusually still, too, hands clenched at his side. "You abandoned us. You didn't even care. Now, if you'll excuse me…" He stood up, chair scraping on the floor, and pushed past them.
Ronon barely glanced at him as he left. His eyes were on Sheppard, so still, because of him.
"I did try to leave to you," Teyla confessed at Sheppard's bedside in the middle of the night. "I could feel the darkness in my mind, desperate to get in. I could see in you what would happen to me if I let it. I just wanted to get out."
Sheppard was still sleeping; when she touched his hand, it was shockingly hot.
"I thought you were dead," she confessed, "and I felt nothing." This was worse, she thought, than when the Wraith Queen had been in her mind. She had blamed herself for being weak enough to let the Queen in, but after that, everything her body had done had been the Queen's doing. This time, everything she had done down in the tunnels had been out of choice. She had deliberately made herself heartless to protect herself from the darkness. No external being had been behind that choice, just herself alone.
Oh, she could lie to herself. She could say that the creature in the darkness had stolen away her true personality bit by bit by bit, and in part that was true, but at the heart of it, she had been herself. That was something she had done, so contrary to what she liked to think of as her true nature. She had become the leader of her people not just because of her father, but because she truly cared for them, and had been prepared to put their needs ahead of her own. In the tunnels, under pressure, all of that had slipped away. Rodney had pushed aside his own fears and taken the lead, Ronon had hated the thought of hurting people, and John had been more open, even as he had carried on until he was unable to stand. But as for Teyla…
"I am so sorry, John," she said, although he could not hear her. It had been so easy to tell Ronon that none of this was his fault; it was so hard to believe it of herself. The person who had acted that way in the tunnels was part of her. When everything was stripped away, perhaps a person showed their true nature, and her true nature was something hard and cold and unpleasant.
Sheppard grew worse. When Rodney visited him, he felt as if he was seeing both the stranger he had encountered in the tunnels, and the man who had grown to become his… well, not his friend, not as such… No, what was he talking about? His friend; Jet wouldn't have been scared of saying as much. A friend who could well be dying, whose last conscious memory was of being with people he thought were strangers.
You saw someone differently, he thought, when you interacted with them as a stranger, without all the weight and preconceptions of years of memory. Almost from the start, he had wanted to protect the stranger he had called Jet. That was not an emotion that came easily to his mind when he thought of Sheppard. Sheppard had always been the strong one, the one who would stop all the nasties of the Pegasus Galaxy from eating Rodney up while he did the work that only he could do with his brain.
Who was he really? Who were any of them?
When he was not at Sheppard's side, he drifted, going from infirmary to room to lab, and back again on and endless round. In his lab, he caught people exchanging looks when he shouted at them. Some of them argued with him, questioning his judgement.
"They looked up at me, back in the tunnels," he said, but only when he was alone. "I was the leader." They had all looked to him to make decisions. Sheppard had decided that he lacked tactical skill, and had told Rodney that he was the boss. Ronon had been wallowing in a fit of guilt and pacifism – as well he ought, because he had shot Sheppard, for crying out loud! Teyla had been fierce and restless, but even she had looked up to Rodney.
Not that any of them should have. "I thought I was a hero," he said to his own mirror. "I told them I was, that's why they let me be the leader – because I told them I could do it." He had looked at the military accessories and thought he was some big hero, and he had tried to play the part. He had tried to play the leader, but it had all fallen apart. "I tried to talk to savages who just wanted to tear us apart. I stopped checking the LSD and we got caught. We would have ended up like those savages if Sheppard hadn't managed to drag himself down there - half dead, and he still ends up taking the hero's role; I don't know how he does it - and started to shoot that thing. Take away all the knowledge in my brain - and, really, I do have a lot; quite a staggering amount, actually - and there's nothing left."
It was all Ronon's fault – of course it was Ronon's fault, because he'd shot Sheppard. No, it was Teyla's fault for becoming impatient. It was Sheppard's, for forgetting that he was supposed to take the lead and that he was supposed to be indestructible.
No, it was Rodney's fault. Of course it was Rodney's fault. He had taken the leader's part, but even when he had no memory of all the awful things that could happen in the Pegasus Galaxy, he had dithered with terror. Even as a blank slate, he couldn't be a leader, and his team had nearly had their brains eaten, and Sheppard was going to die.
Ronon stood with his gun in hand, eyeing the target at the shooting range.
He had shot Sheppard. This hand, this gun, had shot the man who had given him a second chance at life and hope and fellowship. The doctors looked grim all the time now. Their voices and their eyes told the same tale, now: Sheppard was in real danger of dying.
It wasn't your fault, Teyla had told him, and he understood that much, really he did. He didn't blame Sheppard for the time Sheppard had shot him, and Sheppard hadn't blamed him in the tunnels. It was more than that, though. He tightened his grip on his gun, but still refrained from raising it.
He had lived for years down the barrel of a gun. For seven years, he had been a Runner, and fighting had been as much part of his life as breathing. Before that, he had been a soldier, fighting for the preservation of everything he held dear.
Before that, though… Before that, he had liked music and painting. He had liked to listen to stories, and his mind had flown on wings of song. Then he had grown tall, taller than all his friends, and his teachers had found that he had quick reflexes and an aptitude for fighting. They had begun to make him what he was, and the Wraith had fashioned the rest.
In the tunnels, he had wanted to talk rather than fight. He had argued for a peaceful response, while McKay had resorted to violence. Without his memory, Ronon had been a shameful shadow of himself, scared to fight.
Without his memory, perhaps Ronon had been the person he could have been, had the Wraith not forced him to become what he was. Perhaps he had been the person he should have been. His first kill had been a Wraith who had been about to feed on one of his own, and the memory of that Wraith and of many others had shaped what he had become. If his first kill had been a friend, perhaps his life would have gone in a direction he was incapable of recognising.
And now his memory had returned, where did that leave him?
Teyla sat by John's bedside and watched the machines keep him alive. She touched his limp hand, and her heart twisted painfully inside her, both at the knowledge of how close he was to dying, and at the knowledge that only days before, she had not cared.
Loyalty to her people had always been central to everything for her. As leader of the Athosians, she had put their well-being before her own, and she had left the warmth of their fellowship to live with the cold strangeness that had been the Atlantis expedition in those early days, before she had known them. Her team-mates, too, had become people she would die for. Her hatred of the Wraith and her determination to learn to fight well had all come from a desire to keep her people safe.
And in the end, when stripped of everything else, she had abandoned them.
Did part of her, deep down, resent the sacrifices she had made for others? Did part of her secretly yearn for a life of selfish heartlessness? Everything that she thought she was cried out that this was not true, but the evidence was there. She had no idea how to go forward in this world that came after the tunnels. She needed to see her people, but was scared to face them. She needed John to wake up.
They visited him alone, the three of them, perhaps deliberately and perhaps subconsciously avoiding each other. As she sat at John's bedside, she was the only one there. There was no-one to talk to about any of this.
She remembered those last minutes in the jumper, when none of them had known who they were, and they had been afraid that they would prove to be enemies. She had felt more close to them then, as strangers, than she felt now, with memory returned.
The first thing he was aware of was that nothing hurt, but that it should do. The second thing was that he only had the vaguest idea of where he was, but that even this was somehow an improvement on what had gone before.
He opened his eyes. Atlantis. Infirmary. Home. His throat was raw and his lips were dry, and as he struggled to shape words, a doctor came hurrying to his side, and said something about how pleased they were to see him awake. He tried to say that he was pleased, too, but the numbness stole his words.
He remembered who he was, though. It was amazing how comforting that felt, as if all you needed in life was to know who you were and your place in the world, and that nothing else really mattered that much, after that.
The second time he awoke, he realised what an absolute staggering lie that was.
They came to him separately: Teyla, Ronon, McKay. They said little, and their faces were clouded.
The pain was worse then, since whatever drugs they had been giving him were wearing off, but he tried to smile. "Hey, guys. We're still alive. That counts as a win." There was more, too. Thinking about it when alone, he realised how miraculous it was that the four of them had drawn together even though they had no idea who they were. Despite everything, they had stayed together, they had defeated their enemy together, they had escaped together, and together they had found home.
Apparently that counted for nothing.
"I shot you," Ronon said miserably, the next morning.
"Yes." Sheppard nodded, wincing at the pain of even that small movement. "It has come to my attention."
"I nearly killed--"
"But you didn't," he said firmly. "I'm not planning on dying any time soon. And you also shot that rock thing, and saved us all." Ronon did not look convinced. Brooding did not suit him. "And, hey, I shot you first, that time when I… uh… shot… uh… everyone."
Ronon was looking down at his hands. "I shouldn't have--"
"These things happen. Don't beat yourself up about it. If anything, it was the rock's fault."
"But you nearly…" Ronon twisted his hands, and by the hands alone, looked almost like McKay. Sheppard remembered what Ronon had been like in the tunnels, incessantly apologising, almost afraid to use his gun. It was as if the memory loss had killed something essential that made him who he was. "I didn't used to be like this," he mumbled.
Sheppard almost asked him what he meant, then thought he understood. He had never meant to be like this, either. He had joined the Air Force because he had longed to fly; he had never thought to become the sort of man who could kill sixty men with a single flick of a switch, or someone whose job it was to order men to their death. After the first few deaths, he had hated himself, but he had come to realise that it fell to some people to do these things, so that millions of civilians didn't have to.
"The world didn't used to be like this," he said, and pain and the memory of the tunnels made him more serious than he would normally have been. "We become what we have to be." Ronon looked up slightly. "Hey, it would be great to wake up and find that the Wraith have gone, and the Replicators, and all the other bad guys who want to rip our hearts out, but until they have…" He shrugged, not wanting to say more. They became what they had to become; they bore that burden. It wasn't easy, but it had to be done.
Ronon's gaze was unreadable. Sheppard had never seen him look as lost as this. Ronon had refused to break under the weight of seven years of terrible memories, but looked close to breaking after one day without them.
"You're on my team," Sheppard said. "Hell, we kick Wraith ass. It's not an ideal world, but it's the world we're landed with, and I sure as hell feel safer knowing you're there guarding my back, not afraid to shoot when you need to." Ronon still said nothing, so he said, "No-one wants this sorry world, but…" Then he died away, not quite able to bring himself to complete it. He was telling a man much younger than himself that it was better to kill than to pursue peace.
But however warped the message, it seemed to reach Ronon. Sheppard watched his hand clench into a fist, but all Ronon said was, "Still sorry I shot you, though."
"I don't hold grudges, not for honest mistakes." Sheppard settled down into the pillows. "Hell, I've made enough of my own. Would be hypocritical to start blaming…" The pain stole the end of the words away. He tried again. "And if I don't blame you when I'm the one who, to quote McKay, looks like he's been attacked by a demented blowtorch, don't you go blaming yourself. And don't let Rodney blame you, either. You know what he's like - blames others when he thinks he's at fault himself. Tell him I said so. No, don't. Not that."
Rodney paced up and down, to the door and back. "Spit it out, McKay," he heard Sheppard say.
He stopped, frozen between one step and the next. "What?"
"I've already had Ronon --" Sheppard's voice cut off. "What's troubling you?"
"What, you're a shrink now?"
He didn't meant to say anything, he really didn't. He twisted his hands, then slumped down heavily on the chair. "I made… false assumptions," he said. "I misread the evidence and decided I was some military hero. I as good as told you I was your commanding officer--" He saw Sheppard flinch ever so slightly at that. "-- and I made you elect me as leader."
Sheppard nodded, but said nothing.
"Then…" He twisted his hands. "I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. I nearly got us all killed."
"We're still here."
"That's not the point!" He felt suddenly, irrationally furious with Sheppard. We're still here. That was the attitude of someone who still had amnesia. It was the attitude of someone who saw only now, not the awfulness that had led to it. Life wasn't like that. Life was full of worry and pain and agonising over all those things that might have gone wrong, and had managed to be plucked from the jaws of disaster by some miracle, but would probably go twice as wrong next time.
By the time he gathered himself for words, Sheppard was looking at him steadily. "You did well, Rodney."
How dare the man contradict him? How could he…? Oh. He pressed his lips together.
"The way I remember it," Sheppard said, "you took control."
"But I was terrified. I never knew what to do. I kept on having to tell myself that I… that I was supposed to know, but I didn't. I was…"
"And you think everyone else isn't?" Sheppard said harshly. When Rodney looked at him, he was painfully easing himself back into the pillow. "Welcome to the great secret of military leadership: playing a part," Sheppard said, with half a smile. "Everyone who looks as if he's in control is anxious underneath, just trying not to show it to the people under his command. When he shouts that order, he's praying that this guess is the right one."
"Really?" Rodney's hand opened and closed again. "Even you?"
"Well," Sheppard said, after too short a silence, "not me, of course. Everyone else." His smile faded. "You did well, McKay; I mean it. I know I'm not one to… well, to say these things, but…"
"Then don't!" Rodney blurted out. As Jet, Sheppard had looked up to him, and asked him to lead him. Things had changed between them, but that was then. Now they were back homr, he needed things to be the same again.
"You did well," Sheppard said firmly. "You took control. Things happened that would normally have made you run around in panic, but you didn't. Because you thought you were the leader, you acted like one."
"Huh," he said, at a loss for anything else to say. Was Sheppard saying…? He swallowed. Yes, yes, it was true. He'd assumed he was the leader, and he'd made sure that he acted like one. There had been a few times when he had pushed his fear aside and managed to speak firmly and calmly to his terrified troops – to Sheppard, anyway. Perhaps… And that was the big one. He swallowed again. Perhaps he could do this again. Perhaps he had cast himself in the narrow role of the terrified scientist, and the emotions followed on, doing what he expected them to. Perhaps all he needed to do was…
"Huh," he said again. "A moral lesson, coming from you?"
Sheppard shrugged. "You've caught me on an off day. Morphine. Won't happen again."
"What?" Ronon demanded, opening the door
McKay was shifting from foot to foot, but he made a visible effort to stop. "I want…" His hand clenched at his side. "You were teaching me fighting last year…"
Ronon gripped the edge of the door, but said nothing.
"We stopped because I… Well, I…" McKay straightened his shoulders, and looked straight at Ronon. "I said it was your fault that Sheppard was hurt, and… well, it was in a way, because, you know: smoking gun? But the way I see it now, none of us were really ourselves in there. It was the rock's fault – yes, let's blame the rock. But at the same time…" The hand clenched and unclenched again. "We stopped the lessons because… well, with a brain like mine…" He let out a breath. "I want to start them again."
He clutched the door tighter. "You think I'm good for nothing but fighting?"
"Of course not," McKay protested. "You're… you can be funny. You're… probably lots of things, but there's no denying the fact that you're good at fighting, just like there's no denying the fact that I'm – hello? Genius! So I just thought…"
He trailed off. Ronon knew his expression was forbidding, but he could not bring himself to soften it, not yet. He remembered what Sheppard had said; he had thought about it all day. Perhaps fighting wasn't all he was, but it was the main thing he could contribute to the situation that they found themselves in. People took on different roles in war-time than in peace. It was not perhaps the role they would have chosen for themselves, but given the situation they found themselves in, it was the best role. Ronon was good at fighting, and through fighting he could save lives, so it was nothing to be ashamed of. And even as he fought, he found time for laughter and friendship and fellowship – more, perhaps, after this experience than he had looked for before.
"On one condition," he said, pushing himself off from the door. "You teach me science."
"That's good," McKay said, then his eyebrows shot up. "What? I can't 'teach you science.'" He said it the words with great emphasis. "It took years of study to get me where I am… and that's only with a huge amount of native genius to start with, and… science! It's huge. I can't teach you 'science.'"
Ronon grinned. "Teach me some of it, then, and I'll teach you how to avoid getting eaten by a rock."
"Crystalline entity," McKay said stiffly, "and it almost ate you, too."
Ronon laughed, slapped him on the shoulder, and led the way to the gym.
"What, you mean now? We're starting now?" McKay said, trailing behind him.
"You think I should retrain as a shrink?" John said.
Teyla smiled weakly. "Ronon and Rodney do seem happier."
"And you?" John asked.
Teyla's breathing hitched. She let out the breath, and touched his arm. "What about you?"
His answer came almost too easily. "Nothing to worry about. My brain was almost eaten by a rock, then I spent four days asleep, and here I am."
Could it really be that easy for him? She remembered, and surely he must remember too, that he had pleaded for help. Jet, the wounded man in the tunnels, had been far more open than John Sheppard ever had been. He had ceded command to Rodney, and he had shown weakness in a way that was shocking to anyone who knew him.
If he had still been Jet, perhaps she could have asked him. If he had been the John Sheppard of a few days ago, half-asleep with pain and morphine, she could have said something, but now she bit her lip, and said nothing.
"You're beating yourself up about something," John said.
It was not something she wanted to say. Her people had always been so important to her, but there were only a few that she would go to when she was troubled. Her team-mates helped her in so many ways, but their relationship was not founded on the open discussion of emotions. They knew each other, perhaps, even more closely than that.
"I… did not like the person I became when I had no memories," she said carefully.
John shrugged, as if that meant nothing.
"I was willing to leave you in the darkness," she confessed. "When we thought you were dead, I cared little --"
"You didn't know us," John said, as if that explained it all.
There were times when she knew that her team-mates would never fully understand her. They were all very different people, and they saw things differently. Not that it mattered, of course. Not that it normally mattered at all. Sometimes you could be closer to people different from you than to people who were the same.
"The darkness was taking things from us," she said. "It would be easy to blame the darkness --"
"The killer rock." John's grin was child-like.
Despite herself, she smiled. "The killer rock. However, while I know that it… took things from me, I have to accept that I have the potential to act the way I acted then." She pressed her hand to her chest. "That is what is at the heart of me, when everything is stripped away."
"Bullshit," John swore. Teyla snapped her head up. "Bullshit," John said again. "The way I see it…" He shifted in the bed, whether from pain or from his usual reluctance to talk about matters of the heart. "Everyone has the potential to do bad things, but it's who we are that matters – who we are, shaped by everything we've done and everything we remember." He stopped, and he could tell that he was about to add a flippant remark, but perhaps something in her face stopped him. "It doesn't matter what we could have been. What matters is how we act, now, every day, knowing what we know."
Perhaps it was true. She had been like a new-born child in the tunnels, robbed of all the usual things that made her herself, and which informed her decisions on how to act.
John shrugged again. "There's bad in all of us." He said it like a flippant comment, but she saw how his expression turned suddenly serious.
"And what matters," she said slowly, "is how we act every day." She had the potential to be that impatient, cold and heartless person, who pushed everyone else aside, but she was not. When she had been robbed of the memory of everyone dear to her, she had acted a certain way, but the real Teyla Emmagen, with full knowledge and memories, would never act that way. What she had done in the tunnels did not reflect on who she was, but perhaps, she thought, perhaps it would become something to remember and guard against – a glimpse into a mirror that could not be allowed to become true.
"And if there is bad in all of us," she said, "it only makes us all the more remarkable when we overcome it."
"Oh, and a team went back," Rodney informed him, "and found all those savages dead. The place was clearly some Ancient facility once upon a time, though we knew that already, because of the lights. They took a sample of the rock - the crystalline entity, I mean. It isn't native, but that's as far as the bumbling idiots have gotten with their investigations. Might even be man-made, for all they know. It seems quite dead, though – that much they're sure of. Ronon's phaser-blaster thing took care of that. Seriously, is there anything that thing can't kill?"
"Can't kill me," Sheppard said, then wondered if it was too soon to joke about such things.
"That's because nothing can kill you," Rodney said, as if this fact caused him mild irritation.
"Which is just as well when you're on my team," he retorted, "Doctor Blow Up Five Sixths of a Solar System."
"And we're on to that again." Rodney threw up his hands. "A killer rock tries to eat us from the inside out, and what does he choose to talk about: a little mistake of mine that's two years in the past. Bugs!" he said pugnaciously. "You turned into a bug."
Ronon stepped in at this point, and then Teyla. Sheppard tried to listen, but sleep was already claiming him. "We're good?" he murmured, when there was a lull in the talk.
They did not answer immediately. "I believe so," Teyla said. Rodney grunted in a vaguely embarrassed fashion. Ronon gently punched Sheppard on the shoulder.
"Good," he said. He had had a lot of time to think, and he still didn't really understand why he was less disturbed by what had happened than the others had been. Yes, he had begged the others to help him, and had looked up to McKay as a leader, but he'd been hurt, and he'd lost his memory. He's always known that he had the potential to be afraid – no, more than just the potential. When the iratus bug was attached to him… When Kolya's Wraith had been feeding on him… He flinched inwardly, shying from the memory. Yes, he'd been terrified then, though years of practice had allowed him to push it away and show little of it on his face.
As Jet, in the darkness, those years of practice had disappeared, and he had given in to something that Sheppard had always known existed. But that didn't matter. What mattered was how John Sheppard acted every day of his life, not how a made-up man called Jet acted when he had no memories to pin his behaviour on. If someone under his command had seen him that way, it might have been different, but this was his team, and they knew him through and through, even those things that he still shied away from telling them.
He said none of that, though, but he did decide to say that thing that had felt so miraculous a few days before. "We teamed up. Even though we didn't remember anything…"
"Made for each other," Rodney quoted, sneering. "Please don't start talking about fate."
"Wasn't going to," he said, closing his eyes.
Perhaps he even slept for a while, because when he opened his eyes, they were still at his bedside, but in different positions, and they were talking quietly, apparently unaware that he was awake.
He almost said something more, then decided not to. The man called Jet would have said it, he thought. Jet had remembered so little, that he believed in being open about the little that he had. Jet had been a creation of the darkness, with nothing admirable about him. Jet had been…
No, he thought. Perhaps he could learn a lesson from Jet, after all. "It's not fate," he said, and watched them turn to face him, each with their own infinitely-familiar expression on their face. "It's choice. That's better."
Teyla smiled. Ronon's eyes went distant. Rodney cleared his throat. "And you called me Hero," he said. "Hero. Let's not forget that."
"Yes." Sheppard settled into the pillows. "That was irony."
"Insight," Rodney said. "Out of the mouths of babes and… and colonels with no memory. I'm a hero. I, my friends, am a hero. He said it."
Sheppard lacked the will to argue, because although he would never say as much, he knew that it was true. Not just Rodney, but all of them. He slept, though, before he had to find a way to avoid saying it.
They were still there when he woke up, bickering gently, with laughter and silence and smiles.
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