A/N: Salutations. Many thanks to those who were kind enough to leave a review of the opening chapter. As always, I am very appreciative of feedback, so if you're following the story, do me a favor and leave me some criticism, praise, or questions in the form of a review. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy this installment.
It wasn't the first time he'd lost track of Rodney. God willing, it wouldn't be the last.
This felt different, though. There was something more dangerous about this place and these people than the Wraith or their hives. Maybe it was because they drew their words from a lexicon only half-familiar to him. Or maybe it was just the disturbed gleam that he'd seen in the scientist's eyes. He just didn't know.
They hurried through the halls, searching for someone – anyone – who'd give them news of their missing friend. But the corridors were empty and quiet, the doors all shut and locked, and the only things they saw were false apparitions formed by crooked shadows, which though disproved as plain seemed still to possess the grim specter of death.
He tried intermittently to contact McKay, but received nothing in reply, not even static.
Their fear was peaking when they turned 'round a corner and came face to face with Giroux, who recoiled in alarm.
"Colonel!" he started. "Why do you forsake sleep to roam these halls?"
Sheppard was in no mood to be diplomatic.
"Where's Dr. McKay?" he demanded.
"Dr. McKay. Where is he?"
Giroux frowned cryptically, and his denial was too long in coming.
"I've no knowledge of your friend's location. Why haven't you any?"
"Because he's not answering his radio," Keller interjected, her voice calmer than Sheppard's, though it was with great difficulty. "And he's not in the habit of ignoring us if he can answer."
The clergyman smiled placatingly.
"Perhaps he's simply laid down to rest. As we requested of all of you at this late hour."
Sheppard swallowed a sharp rejoinder as if it were bile, taking clear note of the unhelpful man's accusatory tone. It wouldn't do to lose his temper, though. He let out a calm breath.
"You're not listening to us. He's not in his room and he's not asleep. He's missing. And I'd suggest you help us look for him, before we start to get the impression you have something to hide. Where is Sister Cauldry?"
Giroux's innocent eyes turned callous, the man's every crevice seeming to deepen as he looked upon the soldier.
"Sister Cauldry has left on a mission. And you should take great care in your charges and inferences, Colonel. Our partnership is still a fluid thing. We might take offense."
The words, callow and threatening, made concrete the Lanteans' suspicions. To Sheppard's surprise, it was Keller who responded, bluntly and with venom.
"We don't really care about offending you, if you haven't noticed. Now, you can help us or not, but you'll be a lot happier with what happens afterward if you do."
Sheppard fought back a satisfied smile. She sounded so much like McKay when she said that, that he might have laughed another time. As it was now, though, he did his best to back her up, looking on Giroux with resolve.
The portly man glanced between them, the gears turning behind his eyes.
Finally, he relented, turning back toward where he'd come from, the Lanteans trailing after him.
It became clear after a time that Giroux was leading them in circles. Every cleric they spoke to was unhelpful and vague, and they comported themselves so querulently that Keller was certain they were seeking to distract her and Sheppard.
McKay's brazen judgments about their faith at dinner came blowing across her mind like dry air with an eye for fire, and her heart was engorged with blood when in her brain was formed a terrifying supposition: they believed the scientist a heretic. And if they believed him a heretic, then…
Sheppard halted beside her, turning inquisitively.
"His blood," she said with terror.
"His blood? What are you talking about?"
"Autotransfusions!" she exclaimed, turning her eyes accusingly on Giroux, who stared back coldly. "You're going to 'bless' his blood. You're already doing it. You're leading us on a snipe hunt while your crazy preachers are tearing him apart!"
Sheppard stared stunned at Keller for a moment, before his eyes looked with threatening intensity at the cleric.
"Wait a minute, you drain their blood?!" Before the man could be allowed a reply, Sheppard grabbed him by the shoulders, and in an abrupt burst of rage, he pushed him back until he slammed into the far wall. The soldier held his forearm against the man's chest, his face mere inches from the startled Giroux, as he spat, "You better tell me what the hell is going on right this second, or so help me God, I will – "
"We've not done anything with him!" Giroux's quivering voice shouted helplessly. "I don't know where he is! I've endured your baseless accusations and helped you search for him. What more do you ask of me? What more?!"
Keller stepped up behind Sheppard, trying not to betray how startled she was by the violent turn of events, glancing over her friend's shoulder at the prone priest.
"Where do you do your blood-blessings?" she asked calmly, her eyes like ice.
"Our practices are not the business of our guests."
Sheppard raised his forearm several inches, so that it was closer to the man's throat. Giroux took in a sharp breath, then coughed.
"Answer the question," the Colonel growled.
When Giroux didn't comply, Sheppard lifted the forearm higher, firmly pressing it against his windpipe. Again the preacher gasped and coughed, and this time finally relented.
"All right!" he wheezed. "Release me. Release me, and I shall lead you there."
Sheppard pulled his arm away and took a step back, watching carefully as Giroux grabbed at his throat and took a few greedy breaths that appeared to be inspired half by genuine discomfort and half by theatrics. Even now, the man practiced deception.
"Show us," Sheppard demanded.
The sleep you sleep when you're knocked unconscious is emptier and more like death than that which is slept by the willing sleeper, who though sharing with all a resolve to wake, needn't suffer the confusion of the one whose sleep is slept against his will.
Dreams aren't real in either case, and neither sleeper knows it when the things are actually dreamt, but the one who chose to dream has a sense it will be all right, and the one who didn't doesn't even know if he's alive, or if he does, what the difference is between what's dreamt and what's not.
Both usually wake, and some of both never do.
It was strange to see Giroux moving so quickly after watching his deliberate, painfully slow gait at length in their earlier meetings. But he seemed suitably spooked by Sheppard's threats, and men made haste when spooked.
At the end of the corridor, in front of large wooden double doors whose large knobs were sculpted to resemble angelic women, Giroux came to a stop, awkwardly lifting his eyes to meet Sheppard's.
"It is here," the priest said, "but I implore you not to venture within, and can but swear once more on the Father that your friend does not dwell there."
Sheppard stepped closer to him, the darkest kind of impatience flashing in his eyes.
"Open the door."
"It will be done, but know that if it is, any chance for our people to reach an agreement shall pass into ruin."
Keller stiffened at the declaration. If there were no alliance, then they'd not receive any of the planet's roots, roots which carried within them the hope that disease might one day end. Regardless of these people's deplorable practices and regardless of what they may have done with Rodney, was it not worth the fraying of her moral compass so that those roots might one day save the lives of many?
Whether it was or it wasn't, though, she knew it didn't matter. They were going to find McKay, and that's all there was to it.
"Open the door," she said. "Just open the door."
Giroux looked between her and Sheppard with unhidden contempt, but after a moment, he reached within the folds of his cloak and pulled out a small key, which he slid inside the lock and turned.
As soon as he withdrew it, Sheppard impatiently pushed past him and gripped one of the knobs with both hands, leaning back and pulling open one of the heavy doors as speedily as he was able.
Once there was space to enter, Keller slid past him and rushed inside, Sheppard on her heels.
On the far side of the room, which was sparsely adorned and hard and cold and suited to what went on there, three cloaked figures stood over an unconscious man who was strapped down to a table, and beside the table was a machine hooked up to tubes attached to the man's body, tubes through which his blood was hastily flowing.
"What is the meaning of this?!" the presiding priest shouted. "Who dares to disturb the Blessing?!"
Before Giroux could explain the matter and assert his innocence, Sheppard charged across the room, shoving one of the priests out of the way so he could look down upon the victim of the Blessing.
His heart seized up when he saw the man's slack features, which didn't resemble in the slightest those of the Lantean scientist.
The sinewy captor looked down on him with a kind of demonic glee, his scarred face and derisive eyes hinting at a long, disturbing narrative that he intended to weave McKay into. He brushed back some dirty hair from his eyes.
"You're finally awake," he said, his voice straddling the thin line between playful and sinister. "I was beginning to think my fun was already over."
McKay looked up at him from the ground, wincing when a drop of blood from the cut on his forehead dripped down into his eye. He tried not to look frightened, but he assumed the effort failed.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The captor shook his head with mock sheepishness.
"Oh, of course. How rude of me. How rude indeed."
He smiled eerily, using the butt of his knife to scratch an itch above his brow.
"I'm not anything anyone knows, really, so I suppose you could call me the Nothing Man. It has a sort of gravitas to it, don't you think, Doc-tooor?"
The way he drew out the last syllable made McKay's skin crawl.
"What do you want?" the genius repeated with irritation.
"It's rather simple, and in its own way enlightened." He paused, taking an indulgent breath, his eyes turning glassy for a moment before he glanced back down at his captive. "You see, I'm the law of nature correcting itself. I'm the negative charge where there's none."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Doc-tooor, you're not paying attention. I'm telling you all you need to know, if you'd listen. I want…" He nodded, though at what McKay didn't know. "I want everything that others don't. For everything that someone wants, I want the opposite. And, you know, you'd be surprised just how much wanting people do."
McKay fought a wave of dizziness, closing his eyes as a terrified shudder ran through him.
"I'm not worth anything. No one's going to give you any money. I'm nobody."
"A ransom? You think I'm doing this for money? I'm insulted."
"Then what do you want me for?" McKay snapped. "I'm, I'm, I'm not going to let you use me for anything. I'll never help you, whatever it is you want."
"Oh, so brave you are," the Nothing Man mocked. "But I'm afraid participation in my game isn't voluntary, Doc-tooor. See, you and I are gonna set the world on fire."
McKay shook his head, nearly vomiting.
"Weeell…" The captor shrugged. "You've got me there."
Then he let loose a loud, demented cackle that could by sheer will have haunted the dreams of any who heard it.
McKay thought he might cry. He really might.