As it turned out, finding Lorne was yet another thing that should have been complicated, yet turned out to be absurdly simple. It should have had something to do with the fact that the huge fortress was actually not so huge after all. But in reality, or as close as it could get, all he had to do was follow the arrows, and read the sign that said "this way" on the wall, signs that it seemed only he could see. He just knew where to go, which way to turn. He was led to a large set of wooden doors held up by a mystery of engineering, because there was no way the scant walls could support something that looked so heavy.
John had a wild hair, and knocked on the door. "Lorne!"
"Colonel Sheppard? That you?"
John glanced over his shoulder at Rodney. The voice was hesitant, and oddly . . .odd. "You sure that's him in there?" Rodney whispered.
"It better be." John tried the door knob, knowing it wouldn't open. "You okay in there?"
"Yeah. I wandered in and the door locked behind me. Other than that, sure."
"Could be a tra-ap," Rodney muttered in a sing-song fashion.
John exhaled sharply as he thought. "Lorne, what's the capital of New Hampshire?"
There was a pause. "Are you serious?"
"And you know this, how?"
"I grew up there, dude! What is this?"
Rodney was examining the door, and found a small metal plate with a hole in it. He looked up at John in apprehension at the word, 'dude', and quickly rummaged in his vest until he found a small metal tool, then inserted it into the lock.
John leaned over him as he worked. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"When you've been locked into as many places as I have," Rodney muttered, "you learn tricks." He scowled at the stubborn lock, and gave it another go. There was a satisfying click, and the handle turned. John had his hand on the doorknob almost before Rodney could stand.
He entered, and stopped instantly, jerking Rodney back to him. "Whoa, wait!" He caught his breath. "This could be a problem." The trees in the room were lush, full of leaves that were as green as the emerald isle. They were also growing from the ceiling, downwards to the cloud-dotted sky.
Rodney swallowed heavily and looked down, expecting to see the toes of his shoes stretched out over oblivion. He rocked forward slightly, cautiously, and realized that there was actually a solid substance there.
"Finally. Beginning to wonder if anyone would get me outta here." Lorne was walking to them, on the sky.
Rodney swallowed again.
Lorne caught the pale expression, and managed a smile. "It's a painting." He flung out his arms and gave a single spin. "All of it. Very realistic, isn't it? Scared the crap out of me when I ran in here, I thought I was falling up."
"This place is seriously freaking me out. Why have this?" John asked. He was torn between studying the odd room and making certain his soldier was in one piece. To be honest, the odd room was winning out.
"No clue. Didn't ask. Don't care." Lorne pushed past them and glanced up and down the hall.
"Where's the rest of your team?" Rodney asked, once he could tear his sight away from the room. He focused his attention on the man who was studying the halls as though looking for a treasure. Or a bomb.
"Don't know. Last I remember I was strapped to a table, then I remember something setting me free and telling me to run for it."
"Some – thing?"
Lorne's eyes darted up and down the hall. Figuratively, of course. "Yeah. Looked like a rubber suit with legs, man. Never want to see it again."
"When you were on the table," Rodney asked cautiously, not liking the odd cadence of Lorne's speech, "did they inject you with anything, a drug? You know, like 'surfer-dude-amine'?"
Lorne turned wild eyes to him. "No. Why?"
John sighed and took him by the arm. "You were probably out for the count."
"No! Really! They put me through these test. Really weird ones, seeing how I reacted to extreme heat and cold and darkness and light. One time they even put a weight on my chest to see how my skeleton would react to extreme gravitational p-pressure." His hands were shaking, his eyes roamed over the halls and his companions and never stayed still.
"Okay, look. Focus." John snapped him around. "Can you find your way back?"
"I don't know."
"Try." He gave the poor soldier a shove and rolled his eyes at Rodney. "Piece of cake, huh?"
Rodney merely raised his chin defiantly.
Rodney's haughty demeanor faded. "Oh please, don't ask. Because if I try to think right now, my brain will explode."
John made a face and walked on.
And that was when the alarm sounded.
It didn't really sound so much as basically alert in a subtle, polite way. All three men suddenly felt as though the very walls has eyes, and were whispering to each other, passing a message down to where whoever was waiting for them, was waiting. The men actually huddled together, walking quickly in a lump down the main corridor as the walls watched and reported on their progress.
"This is very surreal," Rodney complained. He tripped over Lorne's boot and braced himself against the wall to keep from falling.
"Watch it," a voice said, and he screamed out.
John snatched Rodney back to the middle of the hallway, squinting at the wall in disbelief. There was no way it had eyes. No, it was a shadow. But there was nothing in the hall to throw shadows, other than themselves, and they weren't throwing any . . .aw hell.
"Did-did you just say something?" Rodney practically squeaked.
"I said, watch it! Greasy human hands." The wall sulked.
Rodney just panted in confusion. "I've got to get out of here."
"No, wait." John stepped forward, leaning toward the surface. "There's a faint sheen here. This wall is a monitor." He glanced around. "They all are."
"Oh thank god." Rodney clutched his chest in relief.
"Not really. We're still being watched."
"Indeed," the wall said, then spat out violently, "Corridor 69 heading to the east rim! I repeat, corridor . . ."
They took to their heels.
The funniest thing was, there was no one to stop them. No bodies hurling themselves in their path, no trap doors, nothing to prevent them from going anywhere. Well, nothing except that they couldn't seem to find an exit.
"Wait!" John yelled, pulling the other two men to a halt. "What are we doing? We still have to find your team." He looked pointedly at Lorne.
"I said leave them!"
"Are you insane?"
"You're seriously asking that?" Rodney questioned, looking at the man's wild eyes.
John paused for a moment, staring Lorne down. And he suddenly understood, and his features softened.
Rodney saw the change. "What? What is it . . .oh." His features fell slack with understanding.
"They can't be rescued, can they?" John asked quietly.
"The gravitational pressure. They . . ."
"I get it."
"They were crushed."
"I said I get it."
"They . . ."
"Lorne!" John grabbed the man by the shoulders and gave him a hard shake. "Let it go. Let's get out of here, okay?"
It was cruel, telling someone to just let go, to forget watching his teammates die a slow, agonizing death. "Suffocated," Lorne muttered, his head down. He started down the hall, slowly.
John and Rodney looked at each other. "I thought they did something to him," Rodney said.
"They did. The bastards measured his capacity for grief." John's face was stone, and he followed the soldier.
It was inevitable that they would take a wrong turn. By avoiding the seeing walls, they played right into their . . .structure. The room they entered was small, with one door leading out. At least it would have, were it not locked. And of course the door they entered through had locked behind them.
Rodney paced the small room, no better than nine by nine feet. A closet. No way out, no windows, precious little air . . ."Wide open fields, wide open fields . . ."
"Not helpful, Rodney." John was pressing at the door.
"So you say! Wide open fields. . ."
"Can I help it if a repetitive litany is the only thing keeping these walls from closing in?"
"Rodney . . ." John was looking up and around. He backed away from the door.
"Well, can I?"
"The walls . . ."
Rodney picked up on his panic, and saw Lorne's eyes widen. "No. Oh no. These walls are NOT closing in!" He pointed a commanding finger at the threat. "YOU WILL NOT CLOSE IN!"
They continued to close in.
"Rodney, do something!"
"Like what?" he shrieked.
"Open the damn door!"
"PICK THE DAMN LOCK!"
"Right." Rodney hurried over to the door, only to have the rapidly closing wall push him sideways out of the way. They were closing in, fast.
"We're supposed to have time to get out, damn it!" John yelled angrily at no one, bracing the walls ineffectually with his hands. His elbows buckled.
"WIDE OPEN FIELDS!" Rodney screamed at the top of his lungs.
And the bottom fell out.
They landed with a collective thump. Dust rose around them in billows.
"Oh," Rodney said, and rolled over in relief as the ceiling closed above them.
John coughed, trying to breathe deeply. He checked on Rodney by merely putting his hand on the man's back in a reassuring way. Rodney lifted a hand in reply, not saying anything. John pushed up onto his elbows, and froze. "Uh, Lorne?"
Lorne was struggling to sit up. "Ah, god! Yeah?"
"Remember when you said that something set you free?"
"Would that be it over there?"
Lorne rolled to his elbows and craned his head to look. "Huh. Yeah. That's it."
"What is, holycrap." Rodney redefined the fine art of ass-scooting as he scrambled to the opposite wall away from the creature.
The creature was formless. Truly. It changed constantly from something to something else, never pausing long enough for anyone to establish that there was anything there in the first place. Disconcerting wasn't the word for it. Dizzying was closer.
Nauseating was probably the best description.
John's stomach turned as he tried to look at the creature. It was like riding a rollercoaster backwards through a reverse tunnel opposite the theory of relativity. Or like a plummeting elevator. "What are you?" he asked, forcing the words out over stomach bile.
"I am that I am," the creature said.
Rodney panted against his own sickness. "Now I know why I never went to church. No way I could read enough text to prepare myself for this."
John waved the comment down. "What species?"
"I exist. Therefore I am."
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Descartes. I'll be damned. The Buddhists had it right after all!"
"Will you stop? This thing is NOT the reincarnation of Descartes."
John stared at him, incredulous, and turned back to the . . .thing.
It merely congealed, then rearranged itself.
He decided to take another approach. "What do you want with us?"
"I want to know that you are, what you are."
"This is getting us nowhere," Rodney hissed.
John waved him silent. "Are you the reason we're all here? Do you . . .oversee the experiments?"
"All is being, and all being is overseen."
"Okay, that doesn't make sense." John finally conceded.
"Apparently when it re-booted itself it forgot the brain."
"Can it, McKay."
Lorne cocked his head thoughtfully, and walked up to the creature before John could pull him back. "You came for me."
"I did not wish to see you perish."
"But you let my friends die."
"It serves us well."
"Excuse me?" Rodney exclaimed.
"Your trial here is complete. I have learned much. You may return, unfortunately you are not worth fooling with."
John gaped. "Not worth . . .fooling with? This from 'I am that I am?'"
"You have not understood. You are inferior and will neither advance our cause, nor will you prove valuable in the way of trade. You may go."
John stared in disbelief. No way this all came down to . . .this. "You killed three of my men!"
"You may go."
John jabbed a finger toward Rodney. "You experimented on my team mate!"
"Come on, do as the nice ball of snot says," Rodney groused, as the form turned milky white with rage.
"YOU. MAY. GO."
"Going." John grabbed Lorne by his collar and pulled him out of the door that suddenly appeared.
And they found themselves outside.
Alistar was waiting for them in the pub below their rooms. He waved the barkeep over. Three wooden mugs were slammed onto the table as John, Rodney and Lorne joined him.
Rodney said nothing. He upended the brew and retired to a corner to choke.
John just sat and stared at Alistar
Alistar squirmed under the stare, and hid in his brew.
"What war?" John asked angrily.
"You said Lorne and his men were being held for possible inclusion in a war. What war?"
Alistar sniffed and nodded in the direction of the hill. "Theirs."
"They live on what basically amounts to a gas giant. Very little solid substance. Still, it is being taken over, and they need recruits. But it is hard to find those who can survive the environment, even after the transformation."
"They have to find creatures that are adaptable enough to survive the transformation process. Your species was heard of, the evolutionary process you went through is legendary." He took a long swig of his brew and belched. "From primordial ooze to what you are now. No reason you couldn't revert, but unfortunately you are not compatible, which isn't saying much."
"That's impossible," Rodney sulked as he took a seat on the stool beside John. He thought back through the bizzarre events, and shook his head. "What the hell am I talking about?"
"So these experiments are for finding soldiers?" John asked.
"They are for finding the ultimate soldier. The one life form that can withstand the conditions of the gas giant and operate in a proficient manner."
"This place gives me a headache," Rodney muttered acidly.
"And," John glance at his friend and jerked a thumb at him, "they tested Rodney for this?"
"Apparently you were too thin."
Rodney snorted into his mug.
Alistar grinned. "You were the seller. YOU told the guard at the gate that he was worth something, that he had special knowledge. Unfortunately when scanned, this knowledge turned out to be useless to them."
"I see. Wait a minute," John frown and stood slowly, "how do you know so much?"
Alistar smiled, and turned into the batting creature.
John backed away, feeling Rodney right at his back, and knew that Lorne was at Rodney's. "I see," he said again, this time very slowly.
"We have agents all over the planet," said not-Alistar. "We recruit from all corners."
Not-Alistar would have raised his eyebrows in amusement if he had any.
"Well," John clapped his hands together, "you don't need us, we sure as hell don't need you, we should be on our way then."
Not-Alistar gave a nearly acceptable nod.
"Fine. Rodney, make sure there's nothing left upstairs and square us away, huh? It's time we left this place."
"About damn time," Rodney sighed, and trudged up the stairs.
John gave a nod. "Well, good luck with your war. I think."
"We will be successful," Alistar said.
"I'm sure you will be." The comment wasn't quite cold. Rodney came back down, talked briefly to the owner, and rejoined them.
John nodded. "We should be able to just walk out of here, right?"
"I can guarantee it." Alistar raised his mug with an appendage.
The jumper was where they left it, and if possible, covered with even more sand. Lorne was doing his best to scoop and scrape the front of the craft free as Rodney worked on it from the inside. "Sand in the joints, in cracks, and in places sand should never logically be able to travel. And the jumper isn't so hot either." Rodney grunted and looked up at John from his position on the floor. "You okay?"
There was a pause. "It's about Lorne's men, isn't it?"
"Can you honestly think of a more worthless way to die?"
Rodney didn't have an answer to that. He continued his work. "Some rescue mission."
"I don't know. It worked."
"All we said was, we needed to rescue Lorne. Not his team. We said we needed to find them."
Rodney paused. "Maybe we should be more careful what we say in the future."
"Cause no telling what may happen, especially on a cocked-up world like this one."
Lorne came in, covered head to toe with grit. "I'm ready when you are."
John nodded and swiveled in his seat. "Let's blow this joint."
"Not enough weapon capability," Rodney said.
"Rodney . . ."