Flying with a Broken Wing – Part 1 of 2
The Air Force Academy didn't work out the way John had hoped it would. Few things in his life ever did. There was a time, back when he'd first been accepted into the program, that he thought things might be looking up. They weren't. And his predicament had put a whole new spin on the term 'getting his wings.'
John had pretty much suspected that 'the incident' would be the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with his father. But Patrick's refusal to even look at him hurt anyway. John could tell from the set of the man's jaw that beneath the studied civility Patrick presented when he was summoned to the Academy, he was beyond livid. John had been down this road often enough before to know. He'd screwed up more times than he could remember. The only difference this time was that he stood to lose the one thing that had mattered to him since his mother and Dave were killed — becoming a pilot. Not that his father would take that into account. There was nothing that would convince the man John hadn't deliberately trashed the opportunity.
The meeting with two senior officers and a physician droned on for well over an hour in a room that reeked of furniture polish and old leather. It made John's head ache worse than it already did. He heard papers being passed back and forth, the crinkling set against a background of low murmurs among the men. John attended to very little of the conversation and contributed even less. The medication he'd been given for the occasion left him disinclined to do anything — which, John figured, was the purpose of it. Hell, he could barely even work up the energy to stop his head from lolling to the side and saliva from running out of his mouth. A chemical straitjacket. They'd likely have used a real one on him except it wouldn't have fit over the wings.
That thought made a bubble of wry amusement swell in John's chest. He tried to suppress it, but it broke free as a strangled hiccup. The sharp intake of air let the pungent scent of the room wash across his tongue until he could taste the acrid fumes. The spasm ended on a sort of a gag.
The room fell silent and John squirmed as all eyes turn to him. He could have done without feeling more conspicuous than he already did. While everyone else occupied the low, overstuffed furniture, John slouched on a hard, straight-backed utility chair, struggling not to succumb to the pull of the sedatives and slide to the floor. His wings wouldn't fit into an armchair. Or a cockpit either.
"Sorry," John mumbled — or tried to. It came out something like 'Sshh'ry.' He swiped the back of a shaky hand across his mouth and lowered his head, his face hot with embarrassment. It was a blessing, really, that the medication didn't let him sustain the intensity of the feeling for more than a few seconds before he was cocooned in a blanket of lethargy again.
Around him, the droning resumed.
John's gaze slid towards the door. His duffel bag had already been packed for him and deposited there, his departure a foregone conclusion. It wasn't unexpected, but still… A lump formed in his throat, making him feel as if he were choking.
The rhythm of the meeting shifted. Phone calls were being made by the officer behind the desk. John couldn't seem to home in on the words, but he recognized the 'delicate situation' tone of the exchanges. John didn't figure on warranting much consideration himself, so the efforts were probably being made due to who his father was. Money and political clout tended to have that effect.
John stifled a yawn and scrubbed his hands over his face in an effort to just stay awake. The rough day-old stubble on his jaw was itchy and unfamiliar. The staff at the base hospital had no time to allow him his supervised shave this morning. So many things that he'd taken for granted were now a privilege to be earned by someone less than human.
Maybe John zoned out for a few minutes after that because time seemed to skip forward. He heard the words 'medical discharge.' Then the scene changed once again and the men were standing, shaking hands with Patrick, and the meeting was over.
John looked at his father, but Patrick turned away, his face still a mask of silent fury. The man jerked his head to the side once in lieu of telling John to get up off his ass and move it. He hadn't said a single word to his son since he'd arrived — not directly, although John had no doubt that one of the few remarks he'd caught in the meeting, about someone being a disgrace and all, was intended for him.
With muscles that didn't seem to get the concept of working as a team, John pushed up from the chair and lurched to his feet. He hoped he wouldn't run into any of his classmates in this state — correction, former classmates. It wasn't so much the wings as the drunken gait. That and the clothes. He'd been given a thin, oversized scrub shirt to wear. To accommodate the wings, the back had been hacked out with scissors, making the garment little more than a giant bib with sleeves. The glaring prison-orange fabric he'd had to wear for the last week flapped away from his stomach as he stood and John shivered despite the warmth of the day. It hadn't gone over well with the psychiatrist that John was more perturbed about the escaped-convict look than about the wings. At least he'd won the fight to wear his navy sweatpants instead of the matching scrub bottoms.
He needn't have worried about being seen though. The hallway outside the office was as empty as it had been earlier when he was escorted from the medical center. While John cringed at the thought of everyone gawking at him, he hated being treated like an outcast. He'd been whisked into isolation as soon as he'd been returned to the Academy. He hadn't expected that things would go smoothly when a cadet, missing for over two weeks, turned up in the middle of the night sporting wings. But he'd been made to feel like a criminal — and a mentally unbalanced one at that. Confined and studied and heavily medicated. John had a couple of hazy, drug-addled recollections of making an attempt to leave. The fragmented images in his mind could easily have been dreams, but the handprint bruises on his arms said otherwise.
John's feet stuttered down the hall to the lobby. The morning's cocktail had made him unsure of where his feet were in relation to his body. Funny it didn't have the same effect on the wings. John could practically sense every single feather. In fact, for the last couple of days, the wings had seemed more an integral part of him than his arms and legs. And since John was far from stupid, he'd clued in and refrained from mentioning that to the psychiatrist.
The foyer door was made of tinted glass, as were the floor-to-ceiling panels that flanked it. John twisted around after exiting the building, trying to catch a reflected glimpse of the wings. Mirrors and other breakables fell into the category of 'sharps' and had also been on the long list of item to which he no longer was given access. The steel mirror in the bathroom adjoining his room had been too small and dull for more than a blurred view of the top of his wings. John wanted to see his entire wingspan from the back. He wanted to see how they attached to his shoulders and spine. He wanted—
What he wanted wasn't up for consideration. Before he knew it, John was being herded along the pavement on the outdoor walkway to the parking lot — also devoid of spectators.
Crossing the lot with his father was like walking through a minefield. John braced for an explosion with every step. But there really was no way to prepare for being cuffed across the back of the head. Dazed, John stumbled forward beside his father's car, dropping his duffel bag and slamming one knee onto the asphalt.
"What a goddamn waste of a good mind," Patrick spat. "No one knows how the hell you pulled this stunt off, but as of now, no one gives a shit either because you're not worth the time of day. I'll never understand why the good Lord saw fit to take your brother instead of you."
A blaze of anger burned through John's mental fog. Using the car for support, he dragged himself up, breathing heavily and blinking away sparks of light from his vision. Once he was on his feet, John clenched his fists at his side, not sure yet if that was going to be an act of self-restraint or a prelude to throwing a punch. His thought processes were running with the same slowness and hesitation as his limbs.
John's mother used to implore him not to fight back when his father was in a dark mood, afraid that would only make the situation worse, and afraid he would turn out to be like his father if he did. His mother. God, what would she think if she could see him now? A wave of sadness and shame washed over John. Between that and the drugs, the fire inside was doused and his hands unfurled to hang lax at his sides once again.
Patrick unlocked the car and opened one of the rear doors. He snatched John's duffel bag from the ground and stuffed it inside. Turning back, he reached out to grip John's shoulder, his fingers digging in like talons as he shoved him into the back seat of the car with the baggage. Then he slammed the door without waiting for John to pull both wings all the way into the vehicle.
John howled then bit his lip, choking off the sound into a frantic whimper as he scrambled to grasp the handle and release his trapped wing.
Yanking the door open again, Patrick thrust his head in the car. "Don't play me for a fool. I'm not buying this crap for one minute."
With trembling arms, John grabbed for his wing and retracted it, folding it in front of him and cradling the injured tip across his abdomen. Then he ducked his head, determined not to let his father see that his eyes were watering with pain.
John's father drove most of the day, pausing only for a couple of brief bathroom breaks at out-of-the-way rest stops — places where they wouldn't be seen, John surmised, and Patrick wouldn't be embarrassed by his mutant son.
Near dinner time, Patrick pulled into the far corner of the lot for a fast food restaurant and directed John to stay in the car. "Can't even risk the friggin' drive-through with you looking like that," he said.
John had no objection. He was just grateful for a moment's respite from the motion of the car. His head still ached from being hit and from the side effects of the medication. Each passing mile in the car had made him feel queasier than the last. His damaged wingtip throbbed and even the slightest movement made it worse. A jagged bolt of fire had shot up to his shoulder and across his back every time the car hit a bump in the road. John let a moan slip out now that he was alone. God, it hurt.
"D'you have any aspirin?" John ventured to ask when his father returned and thrust a bag of take-out food and a drink into his hands.
"Aspirin?" Patrick gave a mirthless laugh. "All the aspirin in the world isn't going to fix what's ailing you." He dropped into the driver's seat and took off without giving John anything to ease the pain.
John cursed himself for his moment of weakness, for admitting to needing something. He could have predicted his father would turn it against him. He always did.
Placing the paper bag on the floor, John toed it into a corner, as far away as possible from where he sat. The greasy odor emanating from the dinner was making his stomach flip. But he took the cold pop and alternated holding it against his injured wing and his pounding head until the waxy paper cup was as overheated as he felt now, and the little comfort it had offered was drained. He'd be damned, though, if he was going to ask his father to crank on the air conditioning.
"Did you take your medication?" Patrick barked.
John startled, causing the pain behind his eyes to spike. "No."
"Why the hell not?"
"The wings are real. I don't need an antipsychotic," John said, even though he knew his father wasn't seeking an explanation. "Doctor Mackenzie's an ass," he added under his breath, relieved that his tongue seemed to be more cooperative than it had been this morning. The relief evaporated when he had to swallow against a surge of nausea that left his stomach cramping and bile clawing its way up the back of his throat.
"What about the story you concocted to go with those… those… abominations?" Patrick shook his head. "Sucked through a bridge to an alternate universe! Did you expect anyone would buy that garbage? And a mad scientist conducting experiments with ten-thousand-year-old gadgets? It's like something out of a comic book for God's sake. Take the damn pills."
Feeling too lousy to argue, John leaned to the side and rummaged in his bag for the medication, suppressing a cry of pain when the motion jostled his feathered appendage. He shook out a couple of pills from the first container and tried to dry-swallow the drugs, but they stuck in his esophagus, forcing him to reach for the pop, which had been abandoned in the car's cup holder, and take a swig of the now-hot, syrupy drink. The liquid washed the pills down, but otherwise did nothing for John. No way was he going to be able to attempt the other two, or was it three, prescriptions. With one wing still braced against his body, he hunched over, trying to breathe through the churning in his gut.
"Did you eat?" Patrick demanded. "The doctor said the medication works better if it's taken with food."
John swallowed again. "Not hungry." It wasn't as if a couple of little pills and a hamburger were going to do something about the wings anyway.
"You'll do as you're told." Patrick's voice reverberated inside the car. "You've caused enough grief as it is."
"I'm not feelin' so good," John muttered. "Don't think it'll stay down." He might not have even admitted to that weakness either, but goading his father with the threat of throwing up inside the car gave John a small measure of satisfaction.
"For Chrissakes!" Patrick gripped the steering wheel harder and gunned the engine.
A sanitarium. That's what it said on the discreet little sign affixed to the wrought iron fencing. Gateways Sanitarium and Convalescent Home. It didn't exactly surprise John. It wasn't far off the reform school his father used to threaten John with. He'd figured out early on in the trip that he wasn't being taken home, but he hadn't asked where he was going. He wasn't going to let his father think for a minute that it mattered to him. John was used to having to adapt to living in new places anyway. Grandparents, aunts, boarding schools — they all ran together in his mind. He'd worn out his welcome at every one of them — not intentionally, but no one ever seemed to think his intentions were relevant. He could add the Academy to the list now. Shit.
While being admitted to a sanitarium was no big surprise to John, what did surprise him were the grounds. After a brief exchange at the gatehouse, Patrick swung the car onto a long, tree-canopied driveway which opened out to acres of well-manicured lawn, dotted with flower beds. In the center, sat a pleasant terracotta brick building that might have been a large home at one time. It was made even larger by a more recent-looking extension, protruding from one side. The most notable feature, though, was the pond. It curved its way around the house, making it appear almost as if the facility sat in the middle of a moat.
Patrick drew into a parking spot near the house and surveyed the sanitarium. "Wouldn't have been my choice," he said before John could even form the question in his mind. "You don't deserve a place as nice as this, but I was told to bring you here." He shrugged. "It's no skin off my nose because Uncle Sam's picking up the tab."
Climbing out of the car, John gulped in the fresh air as the wind caressed his feathers. If only he could try it — just once even. He might have given flying a shot right there and then if it weren't for his crushed wingtip. His heart clenched. He'd never be a pilot now, but if he could spread his wings and—
John staggered when his father planted the side of his briefcase against the small of his back and pushed him onward.
"You look foolish enough as it is without standing there gaping. Pick up your feet. I haven't got all night." Patrick marched off towards the house clutching the black attaché.
John trailed behind with his duffel bag. Heedless of the discomfort any extra motion would cause, he stretched out his good wing along the way, letting it catch the breeze. Someday…
An orderly, whose name tag identified him as 'Chuck,' greeted John and his father at the reception desk. John saw Chuck glance at the wings with interest for a second or two, but the man was curiously unfazed by the arrival of a birdman on the doorstep. Chuck ushered them through a second door into a hallway. John heard the faint snick of the lock on the door behind them. He wasn't claustrophobic, but the idea of being locked in made a tendril of anxiety snake across his chest and tighten.
"Have a seat." The orderly gestured to a set of light gray vinyl chairs placed against the wall outside an office. "Our director, Mr. Woolsey, will be with you shortly."
Patrick sat, his back as rigid as if the cardboard packaging had been left in his shirt, his eyes fixed on the opposite side of the hall.
John fidgeted for a minute or two in his chair before letting his head hang forward. "I'm sorry," he whispered, not really sure what he was apologizing for, but feeling guilty anyway.
"I don't want to hear it," Patrick snapped.
The pen shook in John's hand as he held it over the triplicate admission form. He steadied his arm against the desktop and hoped the tremor wasn't noticeable. Damn drugs. John stared at the letters swimming on the page and tried to make sense of what he was signing — as if his actual agreement meant something. Patrick had given him a choice. Either he sign himself in for treatment, or his lack of consent to treatment would be taken as evidence of his inability to make appropriate decisions for himself and he'd be admitted involuntarily. Some choice.
Mr. Woolsey laced his fingers together and placed them on the desk. "Is there a problem?" he inquired.
Out of the corner of his eye John saw his father withdraw a pen from his breast pocket and lean forward. "No. No problem," John said and scrawled a hasty signature on the line, well aware that making the choice for himself was a pyrrhic victory at best.
Woolsey nodded in approval and added his own signature to the forms. "Well, then…" He set the papers aside and rose from behind his desk.
John and his father followed suit and stood up.
"I can allow you few minutes of privacy to say goodbye if you wish," Woolsey offered.
Patrick clicked his briefcase shut. "That won't be necessary." Then he turned and strode out the office without as much as a backwards glance.
John walked into the hallway and watched his father leave, staring after him until he was long gone. He suspected it would be the last time he'd ever see the man. John thought he should feel something, but all he could conjure up was the residual emptiness of having lost someone many years ago. He was still standing on the same spot ten minutes later when Chuck returned to show him to his new quarters.
John's accommodation was an airy room with a good view of the grounds, and a bed that John thought looked about five inches too short for him. He tried to focus on what Chuck was saying about the daily routine, meal times, the call button, and various bits of minutiae, but his headache had upped the ante again and his wing still hurt like hell. All he wanted was a drink of water and a chance to sleep. John swayed and sat down abruptly on the bed when his knees buckled.
"Are you alright?" Chuck asked.
John waved him off. "Fine. I'm fine." He twisted his mouth. "Fine for somebody who's suddenly sprouted wings, I guess." It was the truth. John figured feeling crappy wasn't unexpected under the circumstance.
"The adjustment to these anomalies can be difficult at first," Chuck said, sounding sympathetic.
John squinted up at Chuck. Anomalies. Woolsey had used the same word in reference to the wings. And, like Chuck, he hadn't seemed to give a second thought to having a part-man, part-animal patient. "You've seen others like this?" John lifted his good wing a fraction.
"You'll meet the other residents in the morning," Chuck said, effectively sidestepping the question. He was saved from further explanation when a young, blond woman tapped at the open door.
"Hello. I'm Doctor Jennifer Keller." The woman smiled. "You can call me Jennifer. May I come in?"
John doubted he had a say in that matter either. He'd spent the last couple of weeks under a microscope. The medical staff had poked at him, drawn samples, and ordered medication. The psychiatrist had fired questions at him. But no one had listened to him. Not really. He seemed to have lost the right to have a say about anything when he acquired the wings.
John must have hesitated for too long because a small wrinkle creased the doctor's forehead. But she didn't cross the threshold to his room.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
Jennifer tipped her head, looking doubtful about John's assertion. "I'll be giving you a complete physical examination in the morning but I'd like to do a quick check now…" The statement sounded more like a question, and still she stood, waiting for his consent.
Careful not to further aggravate his head, John gave a minute nod.
The woman smiled again and crossed the room. She knelt down beside John and reached out to take his wrist — the one splinting the crushed primaries of his wingtip.
John gasped and jerked away, pulling his arm protectively across his wing again.
"Are you hurt?" Jennifer asked, abandoning taking John's pulse for the moment, and bobbing her head around, trying to get a better look at the wing without moving her new patient.
"Didn't get my wing out of the way of a car door fast enough."
Jennifer flinched. "Ouch."
John licked his dry lips. There was something wrong about having a conversation like this — about his injured wing. It all seemed so surreal. Maybe it was the medication. Maybe his mind was actually as messed up as Mackenzie had implied. John started to laugh. He knew that wasn't going to go over so well, but once he'd started, it was kind of hard to stop. He wrapped his good wing around himself, liking the way it felt — as if it might help hold him together. The laughter turned into a dry cough which didn't let up until Chuck brought a glass of water and Jennifer guided John into lying down on the bed. He was asleep before they'd even left his room.
John tried not to gulp the water that had been left by his bedside. He'd woken up with his mouth feeling drier than the worst hangover he'd ever had. But his head felt better marginally better than it had yesterday and his stomach had settled enough that he was hungry. He couldn't remember what time Chuck had said breakfast was served, but a glance at the bedside clock and at the schedule posted on the wall by the door said he had only about fifteen minutes left to find the dining room and eat breakfast. He'd have to scramble. He didn't have time to change his pants and, apart from the scrub top, he had no shirts that would fit over his wings anyway. The clothes he'd slept in were going to have to do.
John glanced at the map mounted beside the schedule, then left his room and made his way to the main staircase. Any concern he had about his unkempt appearance being seen by others was overridden by his need to leave his room and go somewhere — even if it was only to a scheduled breakfast at a sanitarium.
The stairs were tricky with the weight of the wings and John had to grip the handrail to keep his balance. Someone had splinted and bandaged his wing while he'd slept, though, so it wasn't jostled quite as much with each step as it had been on the way up last night.
A nurse greeted John at the bottom of the stairs and offered to escort him to the dining room. He declined because he'd had more than his share of being supervised. Besides, the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and the clink of metal cutlery against plates told John he was heading in the right direction. Cutlery. So he was going to be allowed to have real cutlery again. It was another one of those little things that he could no longer take for granted. The most he'd been allowed in the infirmary was a rubbery sort of safety spoon. He didn't know if the doctors there had thought that acquiring wings made him a danger to himself or a danger to others.
John was halfway down the corridor when he caught his first glimpse of the dining room. It halted him in his tracks. There didn't appear to be many patients in the sanitarium —maybe a dozen or so, and none of them had wings specifically, but every one of them had undergone some sort of physical transformation. None of them had wings specifically, but it looked as if the place had been populated with creatures straight from the pages of a mythology book.
Despite John's suspicion the previous night that there were others at Gateways with 'anomalies,' it was still a shock to see the other residents. A shock and a relief. He wasn't the only one. He wasn't the only half-human freak. The sense of relief was so strong that his legs wobbled and he had to lean against the wall for support. He didn't know why, but seeing the others made him feel like less of a screw-up. The relief didn't last long. It turned into guilt — guilt over feeling better because others had suffered the same fate.
Most of the residents were in poor health, the mutations wrecking havoc with their physiology. A woman with gills had died on John's second day at Gateways. Among the handful of healthier residents was Carson Beckett. Carson looked normal at first glance — if he was wearing a long-sleeved high-necked shirt. But when he wasn't, thick white fleece could be seen covering his arms and chest. Carson had been a veterinarian, so his presence was a stroke of good fortune for the Gateways residents if not for Carson himself. It was Carson who tended to John's broken wing.
"You have to hold still for a mite," Carson said as he unwound John's bandages.
John tried not to shift position yet again. The night of his admission to Gateways had been the last time he was medicated. With the drugs now mostly cleared from his system, the need to do something or go somewhere was like a constant itch. "I really have to get outside for a while," John said. "The nurses keep telling me to rest. Well, I'm done with resting."
"You have to keep the wing immobilized and that means curtailing activity. The bandaging can only do so much. It'll be all for naught if you reinjure it."
John let out a huff of frustration. "I just need to move around. I'd be better off moving around outside where there's more space and less chance I'd bump my wing against something."
Carson was silent as he started to examine the wing.
"How long before I can at least go outside?" John prompted, feeling the walls closing in on him a little more, just as they'd done every day since he'd arrived.
Carson sighed. "Ach, lad, it's not my decision to make."
"Then whose decision is it?" John demanded. "'Cause while I'm at it I'd like to know how long I have to stay here and what I have to do to get out of this place." John sucked in a sharp breath as Carson manipulated the good wing, gently extending and releasing it.
Carson paused and peered at John. "Did that hurt?"
John shook his head. "It's fine."
"Aye, I can see how 'fine' you are by the way you've turned whiter than my dear mum's linen tablecloths," Carson countered, but his voice was gentle.
"Just get on with it," John snapped, irritability getting the better of him.
Carson regarded John with a look of compassion.
John didn't know what to do with that and had to turn away. "Sorry. I… I need to get out." He drummed his fingers on the table. "Doesn't look like they're big on security here. I think I could probably just—" John clamped his mouth shut and stole a glance at Carson.
"Don't even think about trying to make a run for it. The security is tougher than it looks. Bloody expensive high tech overkill of a system if you ask me." Carson bent his head to better examine John's wing. "None of the residents have any inclination to leave. It's as nice a sanitarium as they come and most of us have no place else to go. Not now. Not since…" He stuck out his arm for a second, revealing the fleece.
No place to go. The phrase made something twist inside John's chest. He'd tried not to ponder the future, because he really couldn't picture a future for himself anymore. Where the hell was he going to go? He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes for a minute and then forced his attention back to more immediate questions. "Okay, so the residents don't have many options. But why would it matter if any of them left?"
"You tell me honestly how you're feeling and I'll tell you what I know."
"That- that's like blackmail," John spluttered.
"I suppose it is." Carson looked unrepentant.
John scowled. "Fine," he said. "My wing is healing. It's my shoulders and back that hurt."
"On a scale of one to ten?" Carson pressed.
"How did you manage when your patients were animals and didn't say a damn thing?" John asked, feeling another swell of agitation at being cooped up wash over him.
"I'll have none of your lip," Carson reprimanded. "At least my previous patients didn't give me any of that. Now, on a scale of one to ten?"
Carson arched his eyebrows.
"…and a half."
Carson pursed his lips with displeasure.
"A five. It's a five, alright?"
Carson studied John for a moment. "So… a seven then," he said
"Seven." John grumbled.
"Take your shirt off and let's have a look."
"And my previous patients didn't argue with me either. Off with the shirt."
John unbuttoned the new garment that had been specially made at Gateways to accommodate his wings — a real shirt this time. But the movement required to take it off had him biting his lip against the pain.
"Here, let me help with that." Carson reached out to ease the shirt off John's shoulders.
John tensed and opened his mouth to protest, but thought the better of it. His cover was going to be blown anyway when it took ten minutes to remove the thing. He relaxed his shoulders and forced himself to let his arms hang loose.
Carson unsnapped the back panels from around John's wings and slid the sleeves down his arms. Seeming satisfied that his patient was cooperating, Carson began filling in some of the blanks. "The people who oversee the running of this facility, the IOA, they're not the charitable hospice organization they pretend to be. They work for the government – or, more rightly, governments. They have ties to several countries. They're keeping us here to cover up the attacks. They don't want word of the abductions to get out, because they haven't got a clue what to do about them. They want to avoid mass panic. Can you imagine the chaos out there if word about what happened to us gets out?"
John grunted when pain shot across his shoulder blades as Carson palpated the muscles. "So you think someone actually believes our alternate universe story?" John asked. It was one thing to be able to compare alternate universe abduction experiences with other residents over the lunchtime soup and sandwich; it was quite another to know that someone else out there actually accepted the story.
"You haven't been given any more of the anti-psychotic medication since you got here, have you?"
"I didn't think so. None of us have. That's about as close as you get around here to acknowledgment of the truth." Carson took hold of one of John's arms and inched it upward.
"Shit!" John yelped when the movement sent a white-hot spear lancing down his spine.
"Sorry. Sorry," Carson murmured.
"Just…go on," John ground out, wanting something to distract himself with.
Carson lowered his voice to a mock conspiratorial whisper. "There's a wee rumor in here about the long coats and jackets President Kinsey favors. Some say they conceal the tail of a donkey."
John almost smiled — almost.
"In any case," Carson continued, "keeping us content here is easier and is costing the governments much less than what'd happen if this bit of news leaked out."
"Well, I'm not content with shuffling around indoors with nothing to do except watch television, and assemble the same jigsaw puzzles over and over." John hated the way that came out, making him sound like a petulant child. But even if he didn't have mental health issues before he arrived at Gateways, he was going to go stir crazy if he stayed much longer.
"If there are any other materials you want, you should just ask. They're quite accommodating here."
"What I want is to go outside."
Carson frowned as he helped John put the shirt back on.
"Your particular anomaly poses the greatest risk for attracting unwanted attention, son. The rest of us stroll around the garden. But in time, I daresay you'll fly if you can."
"I can't stay in here for the rest of my life!" John's heart sped up as desperation set in.
John made two bids for freedom. But Carson had been right about the security being tougher than it looked. John didn't even make it out of the building on the first attempt. Some guy named Bates appeared out of nowhere with a couple of goons. With one shoulder bandaged to help stabilize his wing, John wasn't in a position to argue with them. The second time around, John made it as far as the fencing before finding out the hard way that the rustic brick and wrought iron architecture packed one hell of a punch. What kind of technology the IOA were using, John didn't know. All he knew was that after being zapped, he'd woken up in the infirmary with a raging headache, and pins and needles coursing from head to toe.
Okay, then. He'd have to bide his time until his wing healed. If he got out of the building once, he could do it again. Maybe he could fly. Maybe he'd be able to fly over the fence…
He tried not to think about the fact that he had nowhere to go.
Waiting wasn't one of John's better skills. With the adrenaline rush of desperation now siphoned off, his waking hours were an endless stream of restlessness, boredom and unrelenting pain in his upper back. He prowled the recreation room, the library and the front parlor, looking for something to do. Anything. Finally, at the back of a cupboard full of games and puzzles, he spied a few model kits gathering dust. He took a pass on the box with the picture of a Buick that looked just like the one his father drove, and he nixed the ten piece snap-together replica of the Empire State Building. But behind that, he hit pay dirt. John found a decent Pave Hawk kit.
The assembly was slow going. The wings pulled on John's back, tore at the muscles across his shoulders and upper arms, and bowed his spine. Some days it hurt just to sit in a chair let alone sustain movement in his arms and hands for extended periods of time. John needed neither a physician nor a veterinarian to explain why. It wasn't the presence of the wings themselves — it was the lack of use. The wings were a part of him, fused into his muscles, his bones, and his nervous system. He needed exercise to strengthen his body. He needed to fly.
After John's third and unsuccessful attempt to fix the Pave Hawk's tail rotor in place, he smashed the model. Then he wrapped the shattered remnants in a hand towel from his bathroom and gave them a burial in the trash can.
John grimaced and clasped one hand around the back of his neck. The simple act of stepping off the scale in Jennifer's office had jolted his spine and caused the muscles in his neck to spasm.
The doctor's eyebrows knitted in concern as she recorded John's weight in his chart. "You've lost just over another pound. Is the pain medication still bothering your stomach?"
"It might help if you try to eat a little more when you take the pills."
"It might help if the pills didn't make the meals come back up again," John shot back. He scuffed over to the examination table, placed his hands on it, and leaned over, trying to take some of the strain off his back. "Sorry. I didn't mean…"
"It's alright," Jennifer soothed.
John was thankful that she didn't take his mood personally. He'd tried to shake it off, but it stuck with him like a burr, always there, constantly aggravating. He hunched over the table a little more as his arms started to tremble.
"I'm going to give you a different medication for the pain and I'd like to start you on some nutritional supplements." Jennifer turned and headed towards her locked cabinet.
"Yeah, fine," John said, not really feeling agreeable, but trying to tamp down on another flare of irritation over…over… John didn't even know what had irritated him this time.
"Your wing isn't healing as fast as it was, and I'm concerned about the increasing strain on the muscles and ligaments of your upper back and shoulders," Jennifer continued as she pulled out a bottle of pills. She paused and took out a second medication. "Maybe a muscle relaxant would—"
"I don't need a goddamn muscle relaxant!" John shouted. "I…" He pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand and took a few deep breaths before trying to force a more reasonable tone into his voice. "I need to be able to fly."
Jennifer hung her head. "I know…"
Sitting around wasn't one of John's things either. But the strain on his back took its toll. About the only thing he could manage each day was to sit huddled at one end of a large window seat in the parlor, pressing his wings gently against the wall in an attempt to lessen the strain on his back. Hour after hour, he sat with his head resting sideways upon his knees, looking out at the sky, his chest aching with the desire to fly. The longing hurt almost as much as his back. John thought maybe he agreed with his father after all. There was something wrong with him. Most people would be wishing the wings away, not wishing they could fly.
His plan to escape by soaring over the fence wasn't looking so feasible anymore. But as much as John wanted to be free of Gateways, he couldn't seem to find the energy or motivation to come up with another idea. The more the wings atrophied, the more of himself he seemed to lose.
John couldn't remember anyone ever having gone to bat for him before. But Jennifer convinced Woolsey to request an audience with the IOA regarding the restrictions that had been placed on John.
It was three months before the IOA reached a decision and gave permission for John to be allowed outside for brief periods — to sit on a bench — tethered at the ankles. But by then, John couldn't have flown if he'd wanted to. He couldn't even spread his wings.
It was past three in the afternoon and the concrete garden bench was cold and uncomfortable. John shivered. There was no sun, no warmth to alleviate the aching chill in his body today.
"Hey," Jennifer greeted in a soft voice as she approached. "Mind if I sit down?"
The chains of the tethers rattled as John made room, sliding along the seat without a word. He didn't speak much anymore. There wasn't anything to talk about. He still didn't eat much either and his clothes puddled on his already lean frame. The wings drooped, lifeless over the support harness Carson had fashioned.
John stared at his knees and Jennifer had to dip her head to try and see his face.
"How are you?" she asked.
"Tired." The word came out quiet and gravelly. He didn't know why he was so tired. How could he be tired after sleeping in until noon almost every day and then spending the afternoon doing nothing?
"Yeah…" Jennifer occupied herself with staring at the flower beds for a while and then she looked at the chains. "I'm so sorry. I wish—"
"It's okay. Not your fault," John said.
"It's not okay!" Jennifer blurted, raising her voice.
There was a long silence before Jennifer spoke. "I…um… I have to tell you something." Her voice had an edge to it and John pulled his head up to meet her gaze. The look on her face was as grey and grim as the weather. She bit her lower lip, but not before John had seen it quiver. "The IOA is sending a consulting physician here in a couple of weeks. They wanted Carson or me to do it but…" She shook her head. "They're… they're going to clip your flight feathers."
John felt as if the air had been sucked from his lungs. The world faded around him. He started to slide sideways, but Jennifer caught him.
"Put your head down," she instructed. "Deep breaths." Jennifer guided him into leaning over with his head between his knees.
"M-maybe it won't be so bad," Jennifer carefully rubbed his back in the space between the wings. "You might not have to have the uh…the tethers. You'll be able to walk around more."
"I can't stay here," John whispered. Inside him, the answer echoed back. You have nowhere to go.
The news shook John out of his lethargy. No way were they touching his wings. He forced himself to eat his meals and to move his wings as much as he could, building up his strength. But he knew that wasn't going to be enough. Not in two weeks. He needed another plan.
The newspaper said a circus had set up in the nearest town. It featured a freak show with all kinds of human and animal oddities. "Twenty of the strangest creatures ever seen," the advertisement said. That's when John got the idea to join the circus. No one cared how or why the sideshow acts had ended up as they did. No one would ask questions there. John figured getting hired would be easy. Getting away from the sanitarium was going to be a whole different issue.
John paced the floor of his room with the ad for the circus clutched in his hand when a knock at his door had him stashing the clipping under his pillow. John opened the door to find Lorne, standing at attention. No one was really sure what the man's first name was. He was just Lorne. Lorne didn't have an anomaly — at least not one that anyone ever saw. The rumor was that he was ex-military and had come from an alternate, alternate universe, but was mistakenly spat out in this one. John could believe the man was ex-military. When Lorne walked around a room, he looked as though he were patrolling a perimeter. Any sudden noise had him fumbling for a non-existent sidearm. And he had a disconcerting tendency to salute John and call him 'sir.' When he first saw John, Lorne had paled, looking as though he'd seen a ghost. Lorne refused to say more about it though. Carson said Lorne was afraid he was being tricked into giving away information.
"I'd like to speak with you, privately, sir," Lorne stated.
"Come on in," John invited, now used to Lorne's unshakable habit of treating him as though he were a senior officer.
"This," Lorne said without preamble, "is a map of Gateways' grounds and the surrounding area." He unrolled a piece of paper with a detailed sketch on it and pointed to an area marked in red pencil. "The security system will be deactivated in that area tomorrow. The forest beyond that point is your best bet for escape. The cover is thick, but not impenetrable and the route will eventually take you to the site of the circus. There will be a diversion at fourteen hundred hours when you are in the garden." He reached into one of his pockets, pulled out a key and handed it to John. "For the tethers," Lorne explained.
"H-how did you… Why are you doing this?" John stammered, stunned by the unexpected assistance.
"It's my job," Lorne replied. "I've got your back, sir. In any universe. Good luck."
It was only a matter of hours before men in suits caught up with John. But by then he'd been hired and the circus owner was more than happy with his new acquisition — no questions asked. If the IOA wanted to avoid attention, then dragging John away in broad daylight wasn't the way to go. John had counted on that.
He knew they could consider a more subtle 'recovery', but that still might have leave an irate sideshow owner and a curious reporter or two on the trail of the circus' missing birdman. As John hoped, the IOA settled for the 'hide in plain sight' strategy. They didn't like it, but they could live with John being in a circus — as long as he kept his mouth shut about alternate universes and restricted his flying to show times, because even if he did fly, people would pretty much think his circus act was an illusion done with invisible wires. Besides, the IOA also came to the conclusion that no one was going the take the ramblings of the "half bird, half man" freak act seriously.
After that, a man in a suit showed up at the circus every so often. It didn't seem to matter where the circus went. The IOA knew where to find John. It wasn't always the same man, but it was always the same agenda. He'd remind John that the penalty for talking or for flying outside the designated show times would be a return to Gateways with no outside privileges. Or perhaps the rest home in the Antarctic…
The circus wasn't bad — at least not at first. John was the newest featured attraction in the sideshow. The job was temporary while he built up enough strength to fly around the big top. It wasn't an act of goodwill from the circus owner. John was already attracting crowds of paying customers. "Is this creature a throwback to our avian ancestry?" the display card read. It didn't matter that humans didn't have avian ancestry as long as the customers were entertained, amazed and even horrified by the aberration. Sure, John hated being on display, and he loathed when customers tried to reach out and touch him. But he was earning his keep and he enjoyed the various jobs they had him do for the circus outside of show times. John made friends with the other performers, too. Performers — not freaks. He played Scrabble with the legless man, and he tutored the teenaged ape-boy who had an aptitude for mathematics. John got rid of the fat lady's ex-spouse when the guy turned up drunk and demanded money.
Unfortunately, the men in suits hadn't been far wrong about the act done with invisible wires. Like many of the larger species of birds, John needed either a really long run to get started or a good headwind. Neither was possible inside the tent. Instead, he was hooked to a cable over the trapeze platform and swung in wide circles until there was enough airflow over his wings. Then he pulled the cord that detached him from the rig and glided in a downward spiral. The first time he broke free, it stole his breath away. There was nothing in the world to compare to the sensation of flying under his own power. The residual ache in the wing that had been broken was inconsequential. He was flying.
The flight only lasted a minute or so because there were no air currents or thermals on which to soar, nothing to keep him aloft.
After that, once a day during the week, and twice a day on Saturdays, for a few minutes, John circled the three-ringed event. It was far more than his weeks and months of despair at Gateways had ever led him to expect, and yet, it wasn't nearly enough. But it was all John was going to get. He knew now how easily even small pleasures could be snatched away and he vowed to make the best of what he had. For the first time since his mother had died, John was happy — or as close to happy as he was going to get. At the very least, he wasn't unhappy.
But that was daytime. The nights were tougher. When John lay awake at night, unable to sleep while the caravan bumped over rutted roads on its way to another town, he struggled under the weight of the certainty that what little he had wouldn't last.
It didn't. The circus changed ownership a few times. John watched as one performer after another, one friend after another, was replaced by some shiny, new wonder because freak shows were no longer politically correct. John was only allowed to fly when they needed a replacement act. During the rest of the showtimes, they put him on display around in the back in a cage because, politically correct or not, there were always a few people willing to shell out extra money to see some sort of peculiarity — more than enough of them to offset the meager cost of his existence. Two pairs of faded blue jeans was all the clothing he required. The newest owner said the customers preferred when John was shirtless and shoeless. The truth probably was that the greaseball himself liked to leer at John that way. John's food rations were cut back, too. "Keeping down the overhead costs" turned out to be a euphemism for half-starving the performers. John found a frayed piece of rope and used that in his belt loops to keep his pants on his hips.
John had hoped the circus would head further south when the leaves began to change color. It was damned cold without a shirt on the blustery days of fall. A fever only served to worsen the chills that already ran through his body. He hunched in the corner of his display cage with his wings wrapped around himself for warmth, his head aching from yet another virus that he'd picked up from a coughing customer or sneezing child.
The feeding hatch on his cage clanged open and one of the trainers shoved in a bowl of water and another one of stew. Today's offering looked pretty much like the same crap they fed the animals. If he'd had the energy to spare, John might've told the man what to do with the dinner. Instead, he focused on dragging himself over to the tray. He wasn't hungry — far from it. But his feathers had started falling out in patches and showed no sign of growing back. He needed what little nutrition he could get to do something about the ragged appearance.
It was probably the poor state of his wings that had been responsible for the bad landing last month. John shuddered, recalling the resounding crack when his ankle had given way. He'd used sticks and torn up rags to set and bind the bone himself. The swelling had eventually gone down, but it still throbbed all the time.
By the time John reached the bowl, he was worn out and he curled up on the prickly straw, sucking air into a chest that was painfully tight and wheezy. It was fifteen minutes before he was able to pull himself up enough to eat and drink, and another half hour before he managed to finish ingesting a modest amount of water and what passed for food.
For a while, the illusion that he was free had kept John tied to the circus. He'd shoved aside thoughts of flying, unbound by yards of the patched and weather-beaten fabric of the tent. Freedom was a rare treasure, not to be squandered on a rash impulse. But it was clear now that the IOA's presence had kept him just as much a prisoner at the circus as he'd been at Gateways. If only he'd seen that before he'd become too ill to do anything about it. Besides, even if he hadn't been sick, there was nothing else out there for him. Exhausted, he lay down and fell asleep again.
Since the bedraggled creature he'd become was bringing in less revenue, the circus continued to feed John the same garbage. Some days it was just enough to keep him alive. Other days, the food made his stomach cramp in knots so bad that he puked until his throat was too raw to even whimper.
Today had been one of the bad days and eventually a trainer had thrown a tarpaulin over John's display cage to keep the customers from seeing the hideous mess of a creature. Curling up in a ball on the floor, John pressed his arms into his aching gut as tightly as his weakened body allowed. Tremors shook his frame while he alternated between panting through the pain and chewing his lip until it bled, wishing he could just pass out. Pass out or die.
That was when a customer pulled aside a corner of the tarp.
"Hey! That's off limits!"
John recognized the shout as coming from one of the circus' security men. Or man, actually. One man. Cutbacks had hit everywhere.
"I paid good money," was the indignant answer. "I intend to see everything there is to see, even though I doubt what you have to offer will come anywhere near the price I've paid if the lousy show inside is any indication."
"Out!" bellowed the guard.
"Look," said the customer, "as much as it pains me to part with it, here's twenty dollars. I'm one of those people who never gets paid what they're worth so I'm not going any higher with my offer and you could probably use the money because it's not as if you're a rocket scientist or anything, though these days they hardly pay them any better."
There was a grunt from the guard followed by the snap of a bill. A few seconds after that, the customer pulled back a corner of the tarp again. John could feel a draft of cold air flow in. He tried to lift his head, tried to beg the customer to leave him alone, but he couldn't make his body obey his commands anymore. The effort caused his chest to spasm, triggering a round of coughing that crackled in his airways like broken glass. Then the coughing turned to gagging and another agonizing round of dry heaving.
In the background, John could hear the customer exclaiming, "Oh, crap. This is not good. This is so not good." The man scurried around the cage and pulled back the flap of material covering the bars nearest John. John felt a hand on his back. He'd have pulled away, but he didn't have the energy for that. The hand was tentative at first, but stronger and surer as its weight and warmth seemed to quell the rebellion in his body.
"I'm not good at this. I'm really not. You know that I'm not. Well, no, you don't know that, but another version of you does… did. He did. He… ummm. I couldn't…" There was a long silence. "Oh, God, what did I do to you? I don't understand how I — or not me — another me — could have done this. I can't imagine a circumstance under which my mind would have—"
John was seized with another fit of coughing.
"Here." The man reached through the bars and placed a three-quarter full bottle of water in John's hands. "You can have this. You can pay me back later. Don't worry about the germs. I'm probably the most germ-free person in two galaxies. Or seven continents. I should have said continents, although you already know about alternate universes so it doesn't matter so much what I say. You're not going to start puking again or anything are you? I wish Teyla was here. She's better with…" The man snapped his fingers. "That's it! Look, here's the plan. I- I have to go somewhere to get help, but it's really far away — actually a whole universe away. I should have brought them with me in the first place, but this was sort of my own secret little project. You have to promise me you'll hang on until I get back because I couldn't stand it if… Can you do that? Can you hang on for a day? Wait a minute. I've got something that might help."
The man shifted around to where John could see him just a little bit better. He pulled a pouch out of the pocket of his pants and opened it. "I've got medication here for just about every ailment you can imagine and then some. When you travel as much as I do, you have to be prepared." He picked out a small assortment of pills and placed them in John's hand. "Of course they keep the really good stuff in the infirmary. But these should help until I get back. Okay, scratch the one day estimate because you really look like crap. I think I can override a few protocols and make it back here in ten hours. Ten hours and I promise I'll get you out of here. You can manage to hang on that long, right?"
John might have wondered if the rambling customer was in need of a stay in a sanitarium himself if it hadn't been for the absolute clarity in his bright blue eyes. So John gave a small nod of assent. He heard a rustle of fabric and then a jacket landed across his back, letting the man's warmth seep into him.
"Ummm… I don't know how you can wear this with the wings and all, but…ah…well, here you go. It's actually yours anyway. His. It was his. He loaned it to me one night and I never gave it back. I should have given it back to him because you never know when it'll be too late."
John felt the man finger the gray-green wings for a minute. Apart from the doctors, the customer was the only person he'd ever allowed to touch them.
"It figures that the wings would be the color of a puddle jumper. I guess you were always meant to fly in one way or another."
The man's words triggered something inside. John sniffed and shuddered, feeling tears start to flow, and try as he might, he couldn't stop them.
"Please don't do that." The customer's voice sounded tight and panicked. "I'm not good at handling illness and I'm even less good at- at this. Sheppard never would have… I mean, I know you're not him, but this isn't right. Not in any universe."
John kept his head buried in the crook of his arm.
The customer tried again. "Look, I know more about you than you probably want me to. Actually, I know more about a lot of people than they'd want to have me know — genius and all with computers for one, but I guess that's beside the point. I've seen the database on over a hundred versions of John Sheppard…" The man paused and his voice was softer when he continued. "I knew one of them really, really well — about as well as any of the John Sheppards ever let anyone know them. And I know one thing for certain; Sheppard was a survivor. He'd fight the worst odds imaginable. Even in the end…" His voice broke and it was a minute before he started again. "The thing is, genetically you're pretty much the same. Whatever shit has happened to you, you still have it in you to fight — be a superhero and all. You just have to believe that you're the one worth fighting for this time. So…" The man cleared his throat. "I hope that all came out sounding pretty good. If it didn't, blame Heightmeyer for that last idea about fighting for yourself. I hacked into her old records before I came here. Anyway, I have to go now, but I promise I'm going to fix this somehow. Just…just hold on. Use whatever you've got to do it, but hold on. I won't leave you behind. Not again…"
And then the man was gone. John was left with a thin thread of hope. He didn't dare trust it and he couldn't afford not to.
Continued in Part 2