The sudden jolt of terror went through Guide like an electric shock. He had been drifting again, the words of a famous death-verse straggling through his head. He had been subtly aware that the lines were out of their proper order, and was irritated by it at the same time as knowing he had no power to change this.
When I had no supper my eyes dined.
When I had no lover, I courted my sleep.
Except that I cannot see, thought Guide, and sleep has become a wasteland filled with monsters.
When I had no eyes, I listened.
When I had no ears, I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
Listened, standing in the noisome straw of the outbuilding. Thought of the past in the musty underground cell, thought and remembered and waited till it sent him mad. Waited in the glare and grit of the deserted city on the sand. Waited and waited, without thought, without hope, and knew himself lost, utterly changed, broken in ways that he could not even begin to name.
When I have no means, fortune is my means.
Luck, Guide mused: luck, the last counsel of the desperate. But the satire felt hollow; his luck had run out long ago.
When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof.
When I had no enemy, I opposed my body.
He had tried - tried so hard – mind and body hardened by millennia of enduring pain in battle – but this battle he had lost. More, he had lost himself, lost everything that made him who he was. Consort to a dead Queen, a Commander with no men to command, a Hivemaster with no Hive to nurture, a Guide, a navigator buried in the suffocating dark underground for so long, he had forgotten the simplest things. A human's thin voice chimed in to corroborate his own bitter memory, the man's mental touch acid-sharp with realisation: "You have no idea where the Stargate is, do you?"
He had been in agony from unhealed bullet wounds in his side, bleeding internally, one lung partially collapsed. He had struggled this far fuelled by the crazy hope that this strange human had inspired, but now shame drained away the last of his energy, and he sank to the ground, panting, unable to meet the man's gaze. Unable, even now, to admit his fault to an inferior in so many words. "It was many years ago."
"Way to go, John! Listening to a Wraith!" The vehement sarcasm of the human's self-abnegation surprised a hiss of laughter from Guide. He swallowed the sound, struggling for breath.
"It was not my intention to deceive you, Sheppard." Such a strange feeling, as if it truly mattered that this prey believed him.
Need is my tactic, detachment is my strategy.
Need. He had used it before - used hunger, pain - to give himself a necessary edge, the reckless desperation in battle or personal combat that marked the quick from the dead. He had courted it secure in the knowledge that afterwards, he could feed, heal, quench the burning in his blood.
Not this time. Need, hunger, pain... these were the tools that Kolya had used to unmake him.
When I have nothing, death will be my fortune.
Guide had not been that fortunate. He had come close... so close to death, more times than he could count, longing for its release, only to be dragged back over the threshold of existence because his master still had a use for him.
Ash's terror set his heart hammering. The suddenness of it after hours of absence startled Guide into trying to sit up in the shallow pool; the thin cords that secured his arms and legs brought him up short and he flopped back with a cry that turned into a gurgle as warm, salty water slopped into his mouth. He struggled and choked, gasping for air, his own fear amplified by the human's panic.
Just as suddenly, it was gone. Guide coughed the last of the water out of his burning throat and steadied his breathing with an effort. He quested out after the faint traces of the cleverman's presence, and located him finally in a dark, damp-smelling cave close to the surface. The human's thoughts were hazy at this distance, but his fear – and its source – were clear.
Guide withdrew with some care. He could not afford to alienate the human further, especially after his clumsy attempt to feed on it had failed. If teleportation was common on this world, it was clear why Wraith had never Culled here; as a protective adaptation, it was difficult to fault. The sensation in his feeding hand as the human dematerialised had been most unpleasant.
Guide forced himself to relax, limb by limb, and allow the warm liquid to support his weight again. Bringing logical thought into focus was a struggle. He was in a flotation tank. His right leg felt strange and did not respond when he tried to move it, so perhaps he had been injured. He could not have fed, or the leg would have healed, but the familiar burn of hunger was noticeably fainter.
There was a cannula in the back of his off hand; if he moved his wrist inside its encircling restraint, he could feel the stiff shape of the needle under the skin and wondered, belatedly, what drugs had been used on him. His head and neck ached with a dull persistence that eroded concentration. To drift was so much easier.
He remembered the ruined city, empty as a bleached skeleton at the edge of the sea, white stones half buried in white sand, great colonnades of crumbling pillars in the cliffs. He remembered lying on his belly on warm rock with the sun hot on his back, remembered a rock-pool, and the sting of salt water in his handmouth.
The hermit crab. Guide shuddered at the memory of its spiderlike limbs squirming in his palm as he tried to feed on it. There had been other things since that he had assumed were simply part of his nightmares – tiny, many-limbed, swarming over him. He groped through the scraps of memory and knowledge he had gleaned from his contact with Ash. Not nightmares: sentient tools, organic, nearly indestructible. Servants. Fetchers. As if in response to the thought, he felt a twitch of the cord securing his left arm, and one of the things stepped on to the back of his off hand. He jerked at the cord with an exclamation of disgust, trying to flip it off, but it ignored his movements and pattered imperturbably to the cannula. A tingling cold sensation spread from the spot.
The Fetcher had injected a drug into his bloodstream. So death will be my fortune after all. Guide barely had time to formulate the thought before blankness overtook him.
Author's note: the Wraith death-verse is extracted from the poem 'Samurai Song' by Rob Pinsky; I've always felt that Samurai and Wraith would have an instinctive understanding of one another.