Flying with a Broken Wing – Part 2 of 2
It was hard to believe that breathing could be so much work. Each inhalation tortured John's chest until he was sure his rib cage was being split wide open. His throat was parched and raw and his lips were cracked. He'd drained every drop of the water the man had left for him and he would have given almost anything for another mouthful, except for the fact his stomach was trying to mount a protest over what he'd swallowed already. John had to reassign a portion of the energy needed to breathe and put it toward the goal of keeping his nausea at bay. He needed the medication to stay put long enough for it to have a chance of doing something.
A chance. Swallowing the pills had been taking a chance. They could have been poison for all John knew, the IOA finally deciding that having him alive was too much trouble, and realizing there was no one to give a damn now if he was found dead one morning.
The roiling in his gut was fierce and John tried to curl up tighter, clenching his jaw against the urge to throw up. He was going to let the pills do whatever they were supposed to do — help him or kill him. Both options were better than what he had going for him now. If he didn't make it, his only real regret was that he'd never had a chance to fly. Not really. Not free to soar as high and as fast and as far as he wanted. John had long since locked away his hope of ever doing that. He'd thought he would be better off accepting that it was never going to happen and moving on. But there was nothing else that had come close to filling the vacuum left inside.
"I guess you were always meant to fly in one way or another." The man's words echoed in John's head. They made him ache inside almost as much as the flu, but in a different way. The longing to fly didn't make him want to close his eyes and wait for oblivion to claim him. It made him feel like he wanted to stand at the top of a mountain, stretch out his wings as far as they would go and… The next breath hitched in John's chest as he imagined the sensation of the world dropping away beneath him, the image so vivid it was visceral. It seemed like forever since he'd let himself imagine that.
The customer had been right. John was meant to fly and shoving the idea aside hadn't made it go away.
Maybe it was the man's validation that gave John strength. Maybe it was the pills kicking in. Whatever it was, the desire to fly re-ignited and blazed within him again. He couldn't give up on flying — not without so much as a single shot at it. John didn't figure he was owed much in life, but flying, well, maybe he owed that to himself. He was going to fly. He was going to fly or die trying because he'd rather die trying than die in defeat.
Certainty fueled an adrenaline rush that had John pushing himself up with trembling arms. He was dizzy, and had to fight to hold steady until the world settled, but he was sitting upright and that was one notch above flat out on the ground. It was a start.
"I'll get you out of here," the man had said. "I won't leave you behind. Not again." It had been difficult to follow some of the customer's train of thought, but the conviction behind his words had come through loud and clear and John trusted that. The man will be here. He'll come back. John recited the words in his head, over and over like a mantra, silencing doubt and willing himself to hold on. Whoever had come up with the saying 'don't put all your eggs in one basket,' had never been truly desperate.
In the background, John heard music swell. A tinny screamer erupted from the speakers, heralding the start of the second show. The second show. It was Saturday. Shit! The circus was going to move on to another town after the last Saturday show. John sucked in a rasping breath, willing himself not to panic, forcing himself to relax until the renewed throbbing in his skull died down. He couldn't ship out with the circus. He had to be here when the man came back. He had to.
A plan. He needed a plan to get out of the cage and hide until the man came back. It wasn't the first time John had entertained the idea of escaping, but it was the first time he'd thought there might be something or someone out there for him if he did get away. No, not if he got away, when he got away.
John grasped the bars of his cage when a wave of vertigo struck, reminding him just how high the odds were stacked against him. Sick, weak and locked in a cage. A winged man who couldn't fly, who couldn't even run. A man staking his life on what might very well be a fevered hallucination.
The leather jacket had slid off John's back when he'd sat up and he gathered it up now, holding it close, its physical presence proof that the man was real.
"Use whatever you've got." The man had told John to use whatever he had. But all that he had at this point was the jacket. John held it up in front of him, examining it in the dim light filtering through the tarp. The jacket seemed heavier on one side — as though there were something in the pocket. Maybe the man had forgotten his wallet. John didn't think he'd have any use for someone else's ID, or for credit cards that weren't his and maybe a few bucks. It wasn't as if he could use them anywhere — not with the wings. He stuck a hand in the pocket anyway and fished out a rectangular metal box. It was less than an inch thick and glowed with a soft blue light. Definitely not a wallet.
John's fingers fumbled with the clasp, taking a minute or so to open the odd latch. Once it was open, it was clear that what was inside the box was even more unusual than the latch. A couple of things looked like they might be screwdrivers of some sort. A few small bits and pieces seemed as if they might be used for electronic repairs, but the rest of the implements were unlike anything John had ever seen. Two of them lit up and made his fingertips tingle whenever he put his hand near them.
There was no time for John to ponder the purpose of the box or its contents; he just needed to use whatever he could as best as he could. The padlock on the cage was John's first obstacle. None of the items looked as if they'd be of any use for cutting his way out, but a couple of them held some promise as lock picks — not that he actually knew how to pick a lock. Still...
John inched his way across the floor, taking the jacket and toolkit with him. It took way longer than it should have and it left him even more breathless, pressing the heel of his hand against the sharp pain in his sternum. The floor beckoned. It would have been so easy to just lie down again. He needed to lie down. But he needed to fly even more.
John chose a tool from the kit which looked like something he'd seen used to pick locks on one of those television crime shows. The thin, hooked piece of metal caught a couple of times in the lock, and for a moment, John thought picking it might be as easy for the uninitiated as the shows made it look. It wasn't. He didn't know how long he spent fiddling with the lock, but he kept it up until his arms shook with fatigue, until the muscles in his hands spasmed and cramped and made him drop the tool. It landed between two bars at the edge of the cage floor, and then skittered off under the tarpaulin as John dove forward for it. He stuck his hand out to yank the covering up and pressed his face to the bars searching for the tool. A glint of metal quickly gave its position away. It had dropped to the ground and rolled another foot or so — well beyond an arm's reach. John let loose a string of colorful phrases that he'd picked up from a couple of the transient hired hands. Then he looked at the box and chose another tool.
A glowing implement looked like the next best choice. Once in John's hand, the tingling sensation it gave him turned into a kind of hum. It was hard to describe because it wasn't exactly an audible tone. John frowned at it for a moment, uncertain as to what it might do next. When nothing more happened, John went ahead and inserted it in the lock. The tip of the thing only slid partway in and it appeared to have even less of a chance of freeing him than the first tool. Come on. Open the lock.
John startled and almost dropped that gadget too when it moved in his hand. It twisted around, making a faint clicking noise inside the padlock before sliding all the way in. If he didn't know better, John would have sworn the thing had responded to his silent plea, but he didn't have time to give that any consideration either. Right now, his focus was on escape.
He wiggled the tool back and forth in the lock. John didn't know what the tool was made of, but the thin filament part looked like it was made of blue crystal, so he was reluctant to use much pressure, fearing the tool would break off in the lock and leave him totally screwed once again. He turned it just a little harder, though, and the lock popped open.
With his heart hammering against his ribs, John reached through the bars and removed the lock from the door. One step closer. He was one step closer to freedom. It was all John could do not to rush out the door and flee. There was more to his plan than that, though. It was a given that the circus owner would have been told to call for the men in suits if John ever took off, so he had to make sure his absence wasn't noticed right away. He needed to buy himself extra time. The music blaring from the speakers had switched from the brassy recordings used for the first few acts to a wheezy accordion rendition of "Over the Waves." The trapeze act had started. It was going to be at least ten minutes before John could put that part of his plan into action, so he reined in his impulse to make a break for it, and waited.
While he waited, John put the glowing tool away, closed the box and latched it. He tucked the kit into the jacket pocket, figuring he would be giving it back to the customer. The action was a tangible way of reassuring himself of the man's return. Later, he would try to grab the tool that had fallen to the ground, too. Granted it was small, but he wasn't going to risk leaving anything around that might look out of place.
By the time ten minutes had passed, John was sagging against the bars and the adrenaline rush was wearing off fast. With a start, he realized his eyelids had drooped shut. He forced them open and straightened up. He couldn't afford to give in to the crash or he'd never get going again. He had to be ready.
It was more like twenty minutes before the trainer showed up, but the reason for his tardiness made it worth the extra wait. John could smell the alcohol as soon as tarp was ripped off. It had been pay day yesterday — well, pay day for the human contingent at the circus, which no longer included John. The trainer must have squandered his earnings at the nearest liquor store again. It was one more thing working in John's favor tonight.
The trainer struggled to fold up the covering and ended up wadding it into a ball with the ends dragging on the ground. He tottered over to a nearby bin and stuffed it away before returning to the cage. The bastard had taken to giving the bindings a twist each night as he closed them around John's broken ankle. John suppressed his instinct to flinch as the man neared the door. He wasn't giving the guy the satisfaction this time.
"Back to the trailer, birdman," the guy slurred. "We're movin' on."
John knew the routine. He bowed his head and placed his feet by the bars, waiting for the trainer to reach in and clamp on the shackles. He made sure to place his feet directly behind the door this time, luring the trainer into position on the other side.
The trainer extended his arms and then froze mid-grab, staring at the spot where the lock had been. He blinked as though thinking his eyes were deceiving him. As he leaned forward to take a closer look, John flexed his knees and then thrust his legs forward, slamming the soles of his feet against the door. Pain radiated up from his injured ankle on impact with the cage and he didn't manage to kick it nearly as hard as he would have liked, but it did the trick. The hinged metal swung open, struck the trainer and sent him reeling backwards.
Still holding the leather jacket, John slipped down from the elevated cage floor, putting most of his weight on his good leg as he touched the ground.
The trainer was bent over, cursing and clutching at his face with one hand as blood flowed from between his fingers, but he raised the taming whip and took a blind crack at John. John had been prepared for that and he swung the jacket out to catch and snarl in the whip before another welt was added to the collection on his legs. His upper body had been spared for the most part because the circus owner wanted the damage to be limited to areas hidden by clothing.
A tug of war over the length of rawhide ensued. John yanked the whip, spinning the trainer to the side. While the guy's bleary eyes were fixed on the battle over his whip, John stretched out his good wing. Despite its poor condition, a single flap of it was enough to have the inebriated man staggering towards the nearby row of trailers. John let go of the jacket, grabbed the trainer by the back of the shirt and used the man's forward momentum to ram his head against the siding of a mobile storage unit. The man crumpled to the ground and stopped moving.
The trailers swam out of focus, forcing John to bend over and brace himself with his hands on his knees, dragging in air and willing himself not to pass out. He still had work to do and he had to do it before the grounds came alive with customers exiting the show and workers striking camp.
John pushed himself upright again. After checking to make sure he wasn't being observed, he moved back to the cage, took the lock off the cage floor, put it back on the door, and locked it — just the way the trainer usually left it at night. One way or another, John wasn't going to be seeing the cage from the inside ever again.
Grinding his teeth against another flare of pain from his ankle, John bent to pick up the lost tool. He took a couple of steps to where he'd dropped the jacket and he knelt to pull it free from the whip. He placed the tool in the pocket with the kit. Cupping one hand, he dug it into the soil, scooping up a handful of dirt — dirt and probably dung from the smell of it. He stashed the clump in the jacket's other pocket, feeling a little bad about doing it because the jacket obviously meant something to the customer, but he just didn't have much else to work with.
John twisted around and shuffled forward on his knees until he was beside the trainer. He leaned over and ripped the key ring from the guy's belt. There were a couple of dozen keys dangling from the loop and they rattled loudly in John's trembling hand. He couldn't tell from the markings which one belonged to the closest trailer and he doubted he had the time it would take to try more than a few. Maybe he'd try the light-up gadget again instead.
Before standing, John gathered up the chains the trainer had dropped because he needed them for his ruse. He grabbed the whip, too, knowing he'd have to stow it somewhere.
It took three attempts for John to get to his feet again.
Carrying his small stash of supplies, he limped over to the door of the trailer. He decided to try the door handle before fiddling with the lock just in case the day after pay day had been responsible for yet another lapse in judgment. Luck finally really was on his side, and the unlocked door swung open. John tossed in his armful of items and turned back for the trainer.
The guy hadn't moved since he'd fallen, but the rise and fall of his chest said he was breathing steadily. The trainer was a couple of inches shorter than John, but he was heavily muscled and he seemed to weigh a hell of a lot more as John strained to drag the inert body into the trailer.
Once the trainer was finally inside, John closed the door and leaned against the wall, his body threatening to drop to the floor.
These days, when he wasn't on display, John was chained in this trailer. The old metal cot in the corner of the airless space was his bed. The chain had just enough slack to allow him to use the bathroom, although, with his wings, the cramped facilities didn't have enough space for him to be able to shut the door. John was never going to be a prisoner in this room again. That thought give him the boost he needed to carry out the next part of his plan.
He hauled the trainer onto the cot, secured the chains on him and anchored the other end of the links to the bolt in the floor. There were costumes in some of the storage crates and John bunched up a few items at the man's back before grabbing the rough grey blanket from the foot of the bed and pulling it up over the trainer until it covered the tops of his ears. He arranged the other end of the blanket to reveal the man's feet, and then yanked the trainer's work boots and socks off. They feet were pale and not heavily calloused or dirt-covered like John's were from having been unclad for so long. John took the handful of soil from the jacket and smeared it over the man's feet. In the dim light, someone could easily mistake the dark-haired guy for John, tethered in place for the night, the lumps of clothing under the blanket his wings. Hopefully, he'd sleep until morning, sleep until the circus reached a new town, and sleep until the customer had come back for John.
As for the trainer himself, it wouldn't be long until his absence was noticed. But the circus might not look too far for him or look for very long because it wasn't out of the ordinary anymore for employees to go permanently AWOL, especially not after getting their cash for the week.
Bracing himself for his next move, John tugged out a handful of feathers from his wings. It didn't hurt as much as he'd thought it would. They were already falling out anyway. John placed a few on the blanket, adding to the illusion that the winged man was in place for the night.
John stowed the man's socks under the thing that was supposed to pass for a mattress and shoved his own feet into the work boots. It had been a long time since he'd worn footwear. The boots were a size too large but they'd make his escape that bit easier. He laced up the boot that was on the still-healing ankle and tied it firmly hoping that it would give the foot added support for the escape. He saved a few seconds on the other boot by just jamming the loose ends of the laces inside the boot.
Getting water was the next priority. John figured he was dangerously dehydrated because he hadn't produced more than a few beads of sweat wrestling the trainer into place. Water would help him last until the man came back. John squeezed himself into the small bathroom, rinsed the dirt from his hands, and then scooped handfuls of tepid water into his mouth. He tried not to gulp the liquid and he forced himself to stop well before he'd swallowed as much as he wanted, thinking any more would only upset his stomach again.
John scattered the remainder of the feathers he'd plucked, making a sparse trail from the door to the cot. He stashed the whip and keys out of sight at the bottom of a crate. There were other workers with keys, so the circus would manage without the ring until someone found it again. The jacket was the one thing John was keeping and he picked it up again, the feel of it reassuring in his hand.
At the door, John stumbled and hung on to the frame for support. It kept him from dropping to his knees as he poked his head out of the door. He spotted a few performers in the distance, heading to and from the big top. They'd be unlikely to see him, but he held off exiting until they had moved out of view.
The music from the speakers signaled to John that he had less than a minute or two to make it away from the circus and get out of sight before there'd be more workers on the scene making preparations to move on.
A wave of dizziness assaulted him again and John staggered sideways as he stepped down from the trailer. Any benefit he'd got from the medication had pretty much been overridden now. The distance between where he stood and the end of the clearing might as well have been miles rather than feet. Clutching the jacket like a life preserver, John hobbled across the field and headed towards the tree line, his thin body hunched and his wings dragging on the ground. His heart thudded painfully against his ribs, and it moved way faster than his legs. What little air went in and out of his chest was a chorus of wheezes and rales. He made it a few more feet before the hacking cough started back up. Another five feet and he gagged on the mucous being expelled from his congested lungs. He spat it out and took another step.
John's vision narrowed to a single wide-based tree dead ahead. One more step forward and then another, and then and he doubled over, wrapping his arm around his abdomen which had joined in his body's rebellion and started to cramp again. But he kept his head up and his sight glued to the tree. The next movement was more of a trip forward than a step. The jostling made his stomach say to hell with the water he'd just swallowed, and the liquid splattered on the ground in front of him and over the stolen work boots. John swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and took three more steps. He was fifteen feet short of his destination.
One minute he was standing and the next minute he was down, flat on the ground, tasting dirt and grass on top of the sourness in his mouth. John pushed against the ground, his arm shaking violently as he tried to get up, every muscle straining to the breaking point. But it wasn't happening. He wasn't getting to his feet again.
The circus would be looking for the trainer soon. John needed to be out of sight before even a cursory search got started. Head down now, the image of the target tree etched in his mind, John half-crawled, half-dragged himself the remaining distance. The jacket was still fisted in one hand. It made crawling more awkward, but not once did he entertain the thought of letting it go. His other hand scraped over chunks of rock and then crunched down on the remains of a broken bottle. He kept going. One inch at a time, John covered the remaining distance, muttering "He'll come back," until he passed out behind the tree, trusting the customer would at least look that far for him, believing for once that he would fly someday.
Whether it was minutes or hours later when John woke up again, he didn't know. He was lying on his stomach with his head turned to one side, his upper body layered between his wings, spread out flat behind him, and the leather jacket underneath his chest. His heart was beating a tattoo against his ribs and his lungs were taking in about as much air as he'd get sucking through a thin straw. A wicked headache throbbed inside his skull. Confused and scared, John's mind scrambled to dredge up information. The circus… Flu… An escape… And the customer who promised to come back for him. The latter memory siphoned off a little of his anxiety — at least enough to let him take stock of the situation.
Hours. Hours must have gone by since he'd broken out because the sounds of the circus were gone. They'd had time to pack up and leave. The ground beneath him was rough but firm. Its dampness had seeped into his jeans and leached warmth from his legs. He was outside. He felt like shit. Worse than shit. A sudden gust of the cold night air had him shivering hard enough to make his teeth rattle.
Then, with the wind, came voices. Distant at first, two or maybe three people, calling back and forth in the clearing where the circus had been, gradually fanning apart from one another. Searching. He heard his name being called. They were searching for him.
John wanted to open his eyes, get up, move, and hide further away until he knew for sure if the customer or the IOA had won the race. But all he managed was a twitch of one hand as he strained to hear the rest of the words over the pounding of blood in his ears.
"Crap! They've gone. He's gone. Of all the—"
The high note of panic marked the voice as belonging to the customer. The relief John felt was overwhelming.
"Where'd they go?" a second voice asked, this one deeper than the first.
"Another town. Another city. It's a travelling circus — emphasis on the 'travelling' part. Damn it! I should have thought of that. It's just that I had to go back to our universe to get the two of you and the power levels have to be increased slowly when using an alternate reality drive or… Shit! Time was what I ran out of when our Sheppard… When he…"
"Rodney—" A woman's voice. One of the three was a woman.
"Don't. Don't tell me again that something's not my fault again because I'm sick of hearing people say that."
"I was going to ask how far this circus could have travelled in a few hours and whether or not we might use that estimation to determine their new location."
"Oh. Well, of course. I can do that. I was just about to suggest that. But we don't have much time. This Sheppard doesn't have much time."
John tensed. He'd made a last ditch leap of faith to trust in the customer, but now he was going to have to extend that to the man's associates. The man had come back, just as he'd promised, so it took only a second for John to decide to take a chance on them, too. He tried to call out, but his voice was no more that a low moan that wouldn't be heard more than a few feet away. Fear that the man might move on and look elsewhere drove his heart rate up and despite his lack of motion he was back to struggling to keep up with his body's demand for oxygen.
"You're sure he went with the circus, McKay?" The man with the deeper voice and heavier footsteps was coming closer to John's location.
"I told you he was locked in a cage."
"That never would've stopped Sheppard."
"This isn't our Sheppard. He's... he's different. And not just because of the wings."
"But he knew you were comin' back for him."
"What difference does that make? Locked up is locked up."
"When you are held captive," the woman said, her words taking on a faraway tone, "knowing that others will come for you makes all the difference in the world."
There was a long pause before the first man spoke again. "He's here somewhere. Sheppard? Sheppard!" he shouted. "Where the hell are you?"
The trio stopped talking, the quick crunching of dry, frost-hardened grass telegraphing that they were stepping up the pace of their search.
"Over here!" the deep voice boomed. "Something or someone was dragged along here… Or crawled."
The footsteps of the customer and the woman pounded closer.
"John?" The woman sounded as if she might be nearing the tree line. "John, we are here to help you. We mean you no harm."
She was close. So close. John didn't need to be able to open his eyes to know it was still dark or to figure that the flickers of light that filtered through his eyelids were from flashlights. If he could just catch their attention…
"John?" the woman called again. "You do not know us yet, but we come as friends."
Friends. John had had a few friendship in his life — all of them short-lived. Either they moved on or John was sent to live somewhere else. He'd learned to manage without having friends now, so why the offer of friendship from three strangers should make his heart clench he didn't know.
Light played across his retinas again and John realized the woman must be looking his way. He took as deep a breath as he could, braced himself, and poured all his concentration into flexing his wings. Caught in the beam of a flashlight, the long wingspan would act as his emergency flare.
The muscles in John's back were stiff and unresponsive from the cold and weak from lack of use. If he hadn't been able to move his arms what the hell made him think he'd be able to move the large wings? He ground his teeth together, feeling the tendons in his neck and shoulders pop with the strain of trying to move.
John wasn't sure if he actually managed to move his wing or not, but he heard the woman gasp and then felt her drop to the ground beside him.
"Rodney! Ronon!" she cried out.
"Oh, my God!" The first man blurted as he drew near the woman. "We're too late. He's dead isn't he? This isn't happening. I- I can't do this again. I really can't."
John felt small fingers search his neck and press themselves to his pulse point. "He is not dead, Rodney."
"Oh, thank goodness!"
The woman's hand moved and rested against his aching forehead.
"He is fevered and he appears to be very ill."
"Can we move him to the jumper?" a deeper voice rumbled.
The hands continued to examine John. They were strong, but tender — not like the hands that had poked at him like a specimen or grabbed at him like a curiosity. "Yes. But we must be careful with—"
"How do you know it's okay to move him?" the first man demanded. "What if he got away from the circus by flying, and- and- and he landed in a tree or- or something, but then fell out. He could have broken his neck."
The woman's hands ghosted across John's tattered wings, the contact whisper light. She picked up one of his hands, now scraped and cut from his crawl to freedom and her voice was laced with sadness when she spoke. "I doubt very much that he got away by flying."
John felt large solid arms slip around him, winding carefully under his wings. Then he was lifted as if he were a child, while someone supported the appendages from trailing in the dirt.
They couldn't have walked for more than a minute or so before John felt himself being placed down again, turned into the recovery position, allowing his wings to rest outstretched without being crushed. There were soft blankets beneath him and the bedding had a warmth that John had thought he'd never feel again. He'd have given in to the pull of sleep, but behind his closed eyelids, light blazed and he felt his eyes scrunch up against the onslaught.
"Rodney, I do not think we need quite so much illumination."
"Don't look at me. I didn't do anything. I—"
There was a sound like a large metal door clanging shut. Soft whirrs and faint humming followed, and the floor beneath John started to vibrate.
"Crap! The whole thing's powering up. It must be his ATA gene. Give me a minute here." Someone typed on a keyboard at a furious rate and then paused. "And you there on the floor, if you're even half awake, whatever you do, do not think of flying at the moment." The clicking resumed. "Favored son of the Ancients in any universe, I guess," the man grumbled.
"I do not think he looks as though he has been favored," the woman murmured.
As he yielded to exhaustion again, John managed not to entertain thoughts of flying, because all he could think was that the customer really had come back for him.
Time no longer held any meaning for John. It passed in a haze. Day and night was undifferentiated in this place they called a "jumper." They. Three people. Rodney, Teyla and Ronon. They never left his side. Their names would be imprinted on John's mind forever.
There were conversations — snippets of exchanges John overheard when he stirred in his sleep. Fragments of their lives floated around him like a dream, but the emotions were too raw to be anything but real.
"He's going to be okay, right?" Rodney fretted.
"He requires more medical assistance than we can provide," Teyla replied.
"It's not as if we can just waltz into a hospital with our feathered friend, you know. The IOA will be looking for him and if you think they're a problem in our universe then— Ronon, would you put that thing away?"
"I need to do something. I'm gonna go look for the clowns who did this to him."
"Do you mean the circus or the IOA?" Rodney asked.
"Did you not hear me say we have to avoid attracting attention?"
"They won't see me comin'."
"Rodney," Teyla cut in, "can we not take him back to our universe? I am sure Doctor—"
"No. No, we can't."
"You didn't get permission for us to leave, did you?" Ronon accused.
"Leave, yes. Just like the medical supplies, it was a simple matter of electronic reassignment. Travel from one universe to another? Not so much. Our IOA has a bee in their collective bonnet about alternate reality drives that draw on zero point energy, and exotic particles, and wiping things out of existence."
"Zelenka was right," Ronon stated.
Rodney scowled. "I finally managed to break the encryption on the alternate universe database of the Rodney McKay who put this jumper together. He had tapped into files in other universes — government files, military files, medical files, you name it. It appears that there is yet another illustrious Doctor McKay who generated said exotic particles, proving conclusively that that they could breach their containment field and that they had the potential to obliterate at least five-sixths of a solar system. Later investigations revealed the possibility of wiping out an entire universe."
"Why has that not happened whenever you have used the alternate reality drive?" Teyla asked.
"My brilliant calculations may have circumvented that problem, and…uh… it would appear that our universe has also been… lucky in that regard." Rodney said the word 'lucky' with the same distaste he might have had for swallowing a bug.
"Lucky? You mean we risked blowin' up a universe to come here?" Ronon asked.
"Well, I'm working on modifications that would allow the alternate reality drive to draw energy from our own subspace instead and I'm hoping to put it to the test on the Hippoforalkus. But…uh…I'm not quite there yet. However, with the new containment safety protocols I've developed, I think the risk, and I believe it's an infinitesimally small risk, is limited to a planet or two at most — possibly their moons along with them. Now, I will admit that I had to override a couple of those protocols to make the trip home to get you and to bring you back here, because John was running out of time. So… the long and short of it is…um…that would technically be a 'yes' in answer to your question."
"You did not mention this before we agreed to come with you," Teyla stated, sounding not at all pleased.
"Do you have any idea how many John Sheppards have risked their lives to save entire worlds? Can you fathom how many must have died doing just that? If I'd wasted time and stopped to explain the risk before I asked you to come with me, what would your answer have been?"
"I'd still have said yes," Ronon answered without hesitation. "I'd do anything… for any one of them."
"As would I," Teyla sighed. "He is owed that much and more." She began carding her fingers through John's hair. "He is younger than our John was," she mused.
"Isn't that the kicker?" said Rodney. "Every John Sheppard I find seems to be younger than the one before."
"Rodney, I thought you had stopped searching the universes for a replacement for John." Teyla's voice was slow and patient, as though she were speaking to a child.
"I did. I have."
"Why are we here then?" Like Teyla, Ronon held no accusation in his voice.
"Why are we here. Good question. Much as I hate to admit it, that is one of the big questions science has not been able to answer."
Ronon and Teyla remained silent.
Rodney cleared his throat. "Okay, I'll admit that when we first discovered this jumper I thought we could use it to… to find… to find a replacement for Sheppard. I know now that isn't going to work. But then there was this database and I- I just… I couldn't help using it to check up on a few Sheppards. Or maybe a lot of Sheppards. I didn't count."
"For what purpose?" Teyla asked, her voice still soft.
"I wanted to make sure they were all okay. I couldn't do anything about what happened to our Sheppard, so I thought maybe if I could look out for the rest, I wouldn't feel so bad about having made the biggest goddamn screw-up of my life."
It was several minutes before anyone spoke again.
"Rodney, I understand what you are trying to do," Teyla said, "but you yourself have said that there are a near infinite number of universes. You cannot hope to check on all of them."
"I know that." Rodney's voice was small and sounded unconvinced.
Teyla must have thought so, too. "Do you?" she asked.
Rodney sighed. "What I do know is that I found this one and I think this universe broke him. It wasn't so much the alternate universe and the wings that did it. I think there was stuff before that. And then take away flying, and take away a team and a city that needs him and this… this is what's left. It's wrong and I need to fix it."
"How are you planning on fixing it?" Ronon asked.
"I haven't worked that out yet," Rodney admitted, "but I think I have an idea."
"Oh, God," John groaned as Rodney eased him back down.
"Let's not try that again any time soon," Rodney said. He pulled a bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket and liberally coated his hands.
Teyla began to change the bag on John's IV. "Rodney, we—"
"I know. I know. A doctor. I'm on it." He recapped the sanitizer, and put it away. Then he settled himself on the floor, picked up his laptop and hunched over it again.
Ronon went to work with water and cloths, cleaning up the remains of an attempt to feed John some broth that hadn't ended so well.
"I'm s-sorry," John muttered, mortified over needing all that they did for him. The three of them were barely more than strangers, and yet, far more than friends.
"Nothing to be sorry about," Ronon said, his manner matter-of-fact.
"Speaking of being 'sorry'…" Rodney kept typing as he talked. "I'm- I'm sorry for what my evil doppelganger did to you."
John's brow wrinkled, trying to sort out what Rodney meant.
Rodney glanced at John. "You know — abduction, nefarious experimentation by one of my alternate selves," he clarified.
"Wasn't you," John rasped.
"Well, I know that," Rodney replied. "An alternate me. But still, whatever part of me that exists that—"
"Woman's…name." John was barely able to get the two words to come out above a whisper.
"A woman's…" Rodney fingers stopped moving over the keyboard as he appeared to contemplate that and then he made a small harrumphing sound. "I'll have you know that Meredith is a perfectly good man's name, too."
John frowned again, trying to pull up buried snatches of memory from his days spent restrained and screaming in pain. His captors. Barely seen figures. When they did show, they were more intent on the readouts from their equipment than the man morphing before their eyes. John never allowed himself to think about it — at least not when he was awake. He couldn't do much about the nightmares, but over time they had become less frequent. Now, the terror came flooding back to him with a vengeance.
"N-nooo," someone moaned and John wasn't sure if it was his own voice or not. He remembered calling out for help more than once and knowing that there would be no one to come for him.
"John." Teyla placed a hand on his shoulder, grounding him. "You are safe. You are among friends. Think of that no more for now. You must rest."
Teyla's touch grounded him. Safe. He was safe. The present snapped back into place and John pulled in a stuttering breath. But he couldn't rest. Calling up that bit of information was the least he could do for Rodney. Maybe it would help lessen some of the guilt the man seemed to be carrying. The name… John had only heard it once or twice, and he'd been more than a little pre-occupied with feeling as though his back was being ripped open at the time. The name… John remembered thinking at the time that it was an oddly commonplace name considering the circumstance. "J-J-Jeannie," John stuttered.
"Jeannie?" Rodney questioned, his mouth gaping. "Jeannie?" he repeated.
In the short time John had known Rodney, he'd seen a myriad of emotions play across the man's expressive face, but now it looked utterly blank. Rodney mouthed the name a few times as though struggling to process the word.
John knew the moment the information finally hit home.
Rodney suddenly sat up straighter with his eyes wide. "It wasn't me!" he exclaimed. Then he exhaled, his entire body seeming to sag with relief. "Oh, thank God. All this time I… I thought… I thought a version of me had caused this, too." He waved his hand vaguely in John's direction. "The database only referred to a Doctor McKay and- and I assumed it must have been me, but it wasn't. It wasn't me." His eyes misted over and he swiped a hand across them. "Allergies are a bitch," he mumbled, turning away to stare at his screen.
John was glad the information had helped lessen some of the burden Rodney seemed to carry, and he wished he could say even more to help the man, but he'd never been good at that sort of thing and nothing came to mind.
Rodney continued to stare at his screen, his hands motionless for once. Then his head shot up again, a look of horror crossing his features. "Jeannie! No, not Jeannie. It couldn't have been. I mean, she was always nicer than me, so how could she have…? He shook his head.
Teyla squeezed John's arm gently. "'Jeannie' is Rodney's sister's name," she explained. "However, that is not the Jeannie we know."
Rodney's sister. Oh, hell. John didn't know if revealing that bit of information had made things better or worse for Rodney after all. And the whole alternate universe thing was doing nothing for his unrelenting headache, so he hesitated a minute before sharing the other bit of information he'd recalled. "She… she was working with someone. Strange guy. Pale. M- Michael."
Teyla spat out a word that John didn't recognize, but it was clearly not complimentary.
"Oh," said Rodney. "Oh. Well, now, I don't know whether to be relieved it wasn't me or offended that they didn't see fit to require my genius for their plans."
Ronon nudged Rodney with his foot. "Speaking of plans…"
"Ow!" Rodney protested. "Keep your feet to yourself. I have a plan now, okay? I just have to tweak it a little."
"Would you care to enlighten us?" Teyla asked in a way that suggested Rodney didn't have much choice.
"Soon… Soon…" Rodney muttered, seeming oblivious to Teyla's tone, fingers clicking over his keyboard with renewed speed.
Sitting up had been a bad idea. John felt weak and shaky, but he didn't feel like lying down anymore. The aches that had been muted by medication weren't quite so muted in an upright position.
John figured Ronon didn't think it was such a good idea either. Ronon had raised an eyebrow. But since John was determined to do it anyway, Ronon had simply helped him up and propped him against one of the jumper benches, taking care to arrange the wings comfortably.
Teyla had been a little more vocal in questioning the wisdom of the plan, but she'd been the one who arranged the blankets to cushion his back.
Rodney had... Well, Rodney had been what John was coming to think of as just Rodney.
"You know for someone who coulda-been-Mensa many universes over, you and all your alternates have no shortage of asinine ideas," the man had protested.
Still, Rodney had been the one who'd opened the hatch, making John feel less closed in. He'd apparently moved the jumper, too, so John didn't have to see the circus grounds again.
John's chest was tight with a wave of emotion. He didn't know what to say to thank these people for all that they had done for him. "I…" he began and then stopped.
Teyla's fingers were light on his arm. "There is nothing that needs to be said."
John nodded and swallowed. He didn't know how these three people understood him so well. He wasn't anything like his counterpart. Not if the glimpses he had of the man through the conversations in the jumper were anything to go on.
"Yes! Found it!" Rodney clutched one fist in the air in triumph.
John startled and almost toppled over. Teyla's hand gripped his arm a little firmer and Ronon inched closer to him.
"What have you found?" asked Teyla.
"I couldn't think of a place on this Earth, or on any Earth, that we could take Sheppard to. But then I thought about Atlantis and from what I have seen in the database, that's where Sheppard belongs — in any incarnation."
Rodney paused and peered at John. Then he shot a look at Ronon and Teyla. "Would the two of you make him lie down again before he passes out — or worse, the little breakfast he managed to get down this morning makes a reappearance." Rodney scrunched up his face and shuddered.
Ronon slipped one arm around John before Rodney had even finished speaking. "Had enough?" he asked.
"Y-yeah," John breathed. He'd been feeling more and more lightheaded for the past minute or so. It was only partly due to sitting up.
Teyla arranged the bedding on the floor once again. "Rodney, John is doing better, but he is still unwell. Perhaps all this information is too much at the moment."
"I- I want t' hear it." Yes, John was kind of overwhelmed by the information. But, for the first time in a very long while, there was a hint of a future for him and he was curious and more than a little scared.
"He needs to hear this," Ronon agreed.
"He always hated being left out of the loop," Rodney murmured.
Teyla checked John's pulse and temperature before nodding.
Rodney got up and began pacing as he spoke. "Our Atlantis is out unless we want to be in a shit load of trouble."
Ronon shrugged. "I say it's still an option then."
"It figures you'd say that," Rodney huffed before continuing. "There's no record as to what became of Atlantis in this universe. So I've ruled that out, too. But, I've been looking through all the versions of Atlantis in the database and I think I've found one that's just right."
Atlantis. They'd mentioned Atlantis before. As in the lost city. It had apparently been found in other universes, in another galaxy. If anyone thought John's story about sprouting wings was unbelievable…
"It's an independent colony," Rodney went on, "and Elizabeth is the governor. The Wraith are almost extinct and there are no replicators. The one thing the expedition lacks is a sufficient number of people with the ATA gene. It seems the Ancients did a little less…uh…seeding in that universe and there's no John Sheppard. Atlantis is in desperate need of a decent pilot. No gene therapy yet, so my counterpart doesn't fly the puddle jumpers. I should note that they call them gateships. Good choice. One of the few gene carriers they do have is Carson, so he can fix John up as good as new. Well, maybe not new because there's still the wings — there doesn't seem to be a fix for that — but he'll be healthy. Anyway, it's perfect. We'll take John there."
"Are you certain they will let John live there?" Teyla asked.
"It's Elizabeth and she's leading a thriving expedition. Is there any doubt that she'll say yes?"
Teyla smiled. "I find it hard to imagine that she would not."
"Well, that settles it then. I'll get to work plotting a route there. We need a universe with an accessible gate get us to Pegasus and then we have to…"
"Trip's gonna be tough." Ronon stole a worried look at John.
"Under other circumstances, it might be advisable to wait," Teyla agreed. "However, I think it would be a greater risk not to seek proper medical attention."
"Is there a back up plan if this doesn't pan out?" Ronon asked.
"No." Rodney tilted his chin up daring anyone to say anything about that.
"Perhaps Athos…" Teyla mused.
Rodney looked at Teyla and Ronon. "I…umm… I'm sorry. My alternate self didn't leave any notes about Athos or Sateda."
"It is alright," said Teyla. "I am not sure that I wish to know."
"Some things weren't meant to be known," Ronon added.
Rodney moved over to where John lay on the floor and crouched down. "So, Sheppard," he said, "how would you like to go somewhere you can fly?"
John wasn't sure he understood all of Rodney's plan but he did get the part about flying. He thought that sounded like heaven.
Rodney was pacing again. "How long do you think it should take for them to consider my request?"
"I do not know," Teyla said. She answered the question as patiently as she had answered it the first time, and the second, and—
"They haven't said 'no' yet." Ronon pointed out.
John lifted his head and turned it around to stare out the front window. Pegasus. He was in the Pegasus Galaxy. Another planet in another universe. It was hard to grasp the concept. It didn't help that the few stopovers they had made all looked pretty much like earth.
Earth. His Earth. He was never going to be able to go back there. He was maybe going to spend his life among strangers, aliens even, in a distant galaxy.
"Are you feeling alright?" Teyla asked.
"Fine," John answered before he realized he'd started to shake. He wasn't sure if it was the aftereffects of the journey on his system or the thought of leaving his entire life behind. Maybe it was both.
Teyla fetched her own sleeping bag and spread it over John. Then she raised his feet a little a propped them up on a backpack. She turned and said something to Ronon. John wasn't sure what it was because she said it quietly, but he thought she mentioned something about 'shock.'
"Are you sure they received the transmission?" Ronon called out to Rodney who was up front in the pilot's chair.
"I'm sure," said Rodney. "For the most part… I assumed their computers worked the same as our because the other McKay was able to tap into their files but maybe—"
"Gate's powering up." Ronon stood up, his hand on the odd weapon he wore at his side.
The cabin of the jumper was flooded with an eerie blue glow
"I'm receiving a transmission," Rodney announced.
The silence that followed seemed endless.
"They'll take him!" Rodney declared at last. "Elizabeth… Elizabeth said that Sheppard would be welcome."
Welcome. He was welcome. The message helped ease some of John's fear of leaving his own world behind.
His hold on consciousness was slipping, but John used the last of his reserves to fight it off. He had to ask Rodney to do one more thing for him…
The sun had just begun to rise over Atlantis. From one of the outlying tower balconies, John could see most of the city, the morning light making it glow almost as if it were on fire. Far below him, the dark water sparkled. He took a deep breath, hardly daring to believe it was real. He'd have pinched himself to make sure it wasn't a dream, but the hum of Atlantis reassured him instead.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was heavily creased from having been folded and unfolded so often, read and reread every day since he'd got it last week. Actually, it had arrived as an e-mail, but John had printed a hard copy.
Ronon, Teyla and I did as you asked and visited Gateways. Lorne has been returned to his own universe. He said to say he never doubted for a minute that you would make sure he wasn't left behind. I was compelled to point that I was the one leading the rescuing. Unfortunately, only a few of the Gateways residents are still surviving. The survivors are content to stay at Gateways. Carson has opted to stay there, too, to look after them. He's also working on a genetic research project along with Jennifer. I gave them a little nudge on that because I suspect all the residents had the ATA gene. Unfortunately my scientific contribution to that universe will probably go unrecognized, too. It concerns me that not a single Doctor Rodney McKay in the database is noted to have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
I have shut down Jeannie's matter bridge and probably fried the power source, too. I can only hope Jeannie wasn't standing too close to it when I did that. I can't say the same about Michael.
The IOA are prohibiting the use of my zero point energy alternate reality drive, but my subspace energy version is almost ready to go. Maybe I'll drop by your universe again some day.
John folded up the note and pocketed it again.
Behind him, the balcony door slid open.
"You're crazy. You know that, don't you?"
John didn't have to turn around to know it was Rodney — the one from this universe. Keeping his eyes fixed on the view in front of him, John smiled. "So I was once told." But that time seemed very far away now.
"Oh. I didn't mean... I wasn't referring to... What I meant was—"
"I know what you meant. Good morning to you, too, Rodney,"
"Yes, well..." The scientist stabbed at buttons on a data pad as he bustled over to the railing to stand beside John. "There's a million and one variables to consider such as wind speed, the angular displacement of your wings, the—"
"Rodney, it's not that kind of flight. I don't need to make calculations to fly any more than a bird does."
"Just because you're excelling at the Ancient's gateship pilot training module doesn't mean you can let your natural ability go to your head."
"Doctor Beckett gave me the 'all clear.'" Doctor Beckett. He was very much like the Carson from Gateways except he was a physician, not a veterinarian.
"Doctor Becket gave you a clean bill of health — not that an authorization based on a pseudo-science means much — and he said your ankle and your wing had healed despite your proclivity for overdoing the physiotherapy. He did not give you clearance to take a suicidal leap from the top of a tower."
"I'll be okay," John said.
"'I'll be okay,'" Rodney mimicked. "I wonder how many of your spiky-haired alternate selves said that right before they hit the ground."
"Rodney, I'm not going to—"
"We could use one of the piers as a runway. That way, when you succumb to the pull of gravity, as all mortals do, you'll only fall a few feet and I can just throw you a life preserver. You can swim with the wings, right?"
John frowned for a moment and then shrugged. "Don't know. I haven't tried it yet."
Rodney tossed his hands in the air. "Oh, great. That's just great."
John pulled his gaze away from the view and turned to Rodney, seeing the extent of the worry that clouded the blue eyes. This Rodney was different in some ways from the one who had rescued him. Life hadn't demanded that he learn to work around his anxiety quite so much. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though, because he also wasn't quite so broken by circumstance. What they did have in common was that both of them had offered John their unconditional friendship. It was that, more than anything, which put added conviction in John's words when he repeated them. "I'll be okay."
Rodney looked at John for a long minute then his jaw set with grim resolution. "Fine. Let's get started."
John put one foot on the bottom of the three steps that would take him to a platform jutting out from the far side of the railing. He and Rodney had constructed it because the easiest way for John to get the needed airflow for flight was to just drop off into the air. Rodney had dubbed their retrofit 'the gangplank.'
"The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can eat breakfast," Rodney added.
John stepped back down. "You didn't eat breakfast?"
"I was too busy rechecking the weather and flight calculations. Even a small shift in wind direction and- and... splat."
John grimaced at the description. "What about your hypoglycemia? You need to eat."
"I...um...I had a power bar...or two...or maybe three...and a coffee to stave it off," he admitted sheepishly. Then his eyes widened. "Aha!"
John crossed his arms. "What does that 'aha' mean?"
"It means," said Rodney, pointing an accusing finger, "you didn't eat breakfast because if you did, you'd have been in the mess hall to know that I wasn't there."
John scowled at Rodney. "I don't have hypoglycemia."
"But you did arrive here underweight and malnourished."
"I eat plenty now," John huffed.
"Just not today," Rodney persisted. He narrowed his eyes. "You're nervous, too, aren't you?"
"Who, me?" John gave a lopsided grin and tried to look as confident as he possibly could despite housing every butterfly in two galaxies in the pit of his stomach. "Nah."
"Liar," said Rodney.
"I can fly. It's not like I haven't flown at all before."
"Carson made you do a few small test flights. It's not the same thing. And I'd hardly call a minute or two of fluttering around a tent 'flying.'"
John's shoulders drooped and he stared at the floor. "Me neither," he mumbled.
"Ah, damn. I didn't mean to… I wasn't trying to… Look, I should probably tell you right now that I have a tendency to say the wrong thing. And I'm sorry, but if you want to be my friend, you're just going to have to put up with it."
Friend. John lifted his head again and smiled. "I think I can handle that."
Rodney beamed. "Really?"
"Yeah. So, uh…" John gestured towards the gangplank.
"T minus zero," said Rodney. His right arm flailed around for a few seconds as though he were trying to decide whether a handshake or a high five was in order. He settled on neither and went back to clutching the data pad with both hands. "Good luck."
John nodded. "Thanks." But he didn't need luck anymore. He had friends and a place that wanted him, a place that needed him.
He tilted his head up as he climbed the stairs, catching the warmth of the sun on his face. The sky before him was cloudless. John took a few slow, deep breaths as he spread his wings, feeling muscles and sinews ripple with newly gained strength. A breeze riffled through John's feathers, beckoning him as the wind picked up.
John took two long strides and leaped.
It was like the sensation of going over the top of a roller coaster, raised to the power of ten. Chaos reigned. John's wings strained against the force of the air currents. The wind pulled at his eyes, making them tear, and it roared in his ears. He dipped too low on one side and for a moment, he thought he might flip over. His attempt to correct had him pitching downward, racing towards the water, managing to level off just as his toes skimmed the ocean and sent up a stinging spray of salt water. Flight was harsh, and raw, and terrifying, and it was everything John had imagined it would be and more.
He closed his eyes, allowing the sensations to wash over him until flight was all that existed, until he'd cast off the memory of every shackle that had ever held him down, physically and mentally, until he felt free and whole. When John opened his eyes again, he was soaring, soaring with the ease of one born for flight. He swooped in a wide arc, angling himself up towards the top of the tallest spire of Atlantis, towards his future. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt no pain.