Dave scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand and managed an inarticulate gurgle into his phone.
Heaving himself up in bed, Dave clutched his phone and tried to kick-start his brain.
“You fuck. Did you know?”
“Who the hell…” and then enlightenment dawned like a crash of cymbals. “Is this John?”
“Of course it is,” snapped John.
“Obviously,” agreed Dave, slumping back against the headboard and wearily running a hand through his hair. “Obviously it’s you. I mean who else would be calling to bitch me out at,” he glanced at the dimly illuminated clock, “good god, four-thirty in the morning after five years radio silence. It couldn’t be anybody but you.”
“So did you know?” demanded John, still stuck on his one incomprehensible track, because it was John.
“Did I know what?” Dave asked, voice rising in frustration. Beside him Natalie shifted, her face a wary question. He waved her back to sleep. Putting his hand over the phone speaker, “It’s okay, it’s only John.” Instead of going back to sleep as he’d hoped, her eyes widened and she leaned out of bed grabbing for her robe.
On the other end of the phone John’s wordless growl grew to howl, “What the fuck do you think?”
“John, you haven’t spoken to me in five years. That’s a lot of missed conversations. Make some sense goddamnit.”
“Dave? You really don’t know?”
“No,” Dave yelled back, beyond exasperated. In truth he had no idea if he knew or not, because he had no idea what John was talking about.
Dave still had no idea what was going on, and was suddenly scared.
“John, where are you? Are you somewhere safe? Is someone you know with you?”
“What the fuck? No. Jesus, David. No, I’m not crazy. I guess you really don’t know.”
“Or have a clue what you’re talking about. You’ve always been cryptic and close-mouthed but this is getting ridiculous.”
“You really don’t know.”
All the air punched out Dave’s lungs. “What? No. No you do not get to do this.”
“I saw him this evening Davey.”
“John,” said Dave gently.
“No, not a half glimpse. This was the full on experience. He threatened to shoot me.”
Dave choked. He was maybe a little convinced. That sounded like their baby brother.
“Yeah go on, laugh it up.” John’s tone soured. “They brought him in to extract information from me.”
That was – Dave couldn’t keep with his own mood, “Did he?” he checked, because even as wildly competitive as John and Mark could be, he couldn’t believe –
“No,” said John. “He got us out of there. But he hated me Davey.”
“And I will be extremely sorry about that sometime after I get over the idea he might be alive.”
“Yeah,” said John, “I guess I don’t care about it that much either. Comparatively. Not if – Alive,” he repeated reverently.
“And about that. Is there anyone there I can talk to. Because – ”
“Fair enough. I’m not sure I’d believe you, except you’re the steady one. Here, talk to Rodney.”
There was a small scuffle and then from a distance John said,
“Rodney, just talk to the man.”
“Fine, fine,” somebody muttered, and then an angry voice said, “What the hell Sheppard Senior, I don’t have time to talk to you. I’m busy here trying to track down Junior before the idiot gets himself shot in the back of the head. What is it about the Sheppard gene pool that turns out morons with the self-preservation instincts of a morbidly depressed lemming.”
“What?” Dave asked, too stunned to really object. Over the phone he heard a bunch of people yelling, “Rodney!” and John said, “McKay!” and there was a solid thump.
“Hey,” said Rodney, “you wanted me to be comforting? You’re the idiots here. Now can I get back to work. The Trust have put a million dollar bounty on Arthur and his boyfriend’s heads. And they don’t particularly care if they’re still attached.”
“What. The. Hell.” demanded Dave. “Somebody better tell me what is happening right now or I am going to call Dad and have you all arrested. Or maybe shot. I haven’t decided that part yet.”
“Mr Sheppard,” the phone had obviously been handed off to a woman, the sort who managed people for a living. Dave did not care to be managed just then.
“Listen lady. You will explain to me what is going on with my brothers, and I’ll consider talking Dad down when he finds out.”
“Mr Sheppard, I understand things are very stressful at the moment, but if you give me a few minutes of your time…”
Dave stopped listening to flannel and checked in with Natalie. She pointed at the phone and tilted her head. He made a yap-yap-yap gesture and rolled his eyes.
Natalie nodded and said quietly, “I’ll go wake the kids.”
Dave raised his eyebrows at her.
“Something’s going down,” she said just as quietly, “We’re not staying here. We’re going to your father’s compound in Nevada.”
After half a second’s thought, he nodded his head. The house in Los Angeles was a good place to live but impossible to lock down. He wanted all the family he could get his hands on in as safe a place as possible. Natalie slipped away.
The managing lady finally ran down on the flannel, “Mr Sheppard, are you still there?”
Dave intended to say something viciously sarcastic enough for both his younger brothers but what came out was, “Is he really alive?”
“Yes,” she said easily. “Arthur is definitely alive. As of earlier this evening.”
Dave did not like the qualification. He decided to address the less fraught part of the statement first.
“Oh right. John said his name was Mark. He goes by Arthur now from what I could tell. Darling Arthur.”
“Darling Arthur? Are you sure you met Mark?” Neither of Dave’s brothers, or any of his family really, were darling anything.
“Well his boyfriend seemed to think so.”
“Uh, well, that was just an assumption my part, what with the darling and the shooting people parts. Also the explosions.”
“Ah,” said Dave. “Explosions sound more like Mark.” Reassured, he turned to less important matters. “So please explain to me who exactly The Trust are? And why they interested in John? And Mark?” he took a breath, “that is Arthur.”
“I’m sorry Mr Sheppard but that’s a matter of National Security.”
“If you say so,” said Dave very pleasantly. “But I’m more interested in the fact that it appears to be a matter of my brother’s security. Both my brothers. So you can tell me now, or I can call my father and we can do this the hard way.”
“Mr Sheppard, I don’t think you understand – ”
Dave wasn’t in the mood for any more flannel. “Tell John we’re coming.” And then he hung up the phone. He looked the fading light of the display for a long moment, then dropped it on the bed.
Turning towards the door, he saw Natalie standing there silhouetted by the hall light, red hair gleaming like fire.
“We’re ready,” she said.
Elizabeth stared at the phone. “He hung up on me.” She pretended not to see the spark of humor in John’s eyes and the way Teyla pressed her lips together that meant she was holding back a smile.
“I am sorry Elizabeth,” said Teyla. “That must be most disconcerting for you.”
What was more disconcerting was the feeling that Teyla spent most of her time on Atlantis deliberately not laughing at the weird aliens. Elizabeth decided it would be best if she kept on ignoring that feeling for now.
“He also said to tell John they were coming.”
“Oh cool,” said John. “I was getting bored of hanging around here anyway.”
“John, they’re not just going to let your brother onto a top secret base.”
John stretched luxuriously and flopped back on his bed, hands tucked behind his head.
“You don’t know Dave,” he said, “And if he calls Dad, well…” He shrugged with his whole body, closed his eyes appeared to fall straight into sleep.
“More Sheppards,” said Rodney. “Just what we need.”
“Yes I think so,” said Teyla. Elizabeth had the unnerving feeling she wasn’t being sarcastic. She wondered if she should alert somebody, then decided, fuck it, the bastards had dragged them back from Atlantis and stranded them here.
More importantly the bastards had sent her to Atlantis with John in the first place. And sure they’d all be dead without John, but still John. Let some other poor soul deal with the Sheppard chaos-generating field for once. Elizabeth was more than happy to sit back and watch (and maybe point and laugh, she had to get her kicks somehow).
Patrick Sheppard woke up at the quick double-tap on his door.
“What?” he demanded as he sat up.
“Sir,” said his aide, Norris, when it should Ackerman on duty, which meant the job of waking him had been kicked up the chain, which meant it must be bad news. “Sir, your coffee,” and he carefully handed Patrick the mug handle first. Patrick corrected to, very bad news, and took a sip,
“What is going on?” he asked with deliberate calm.
“Uh,” Norris squirmed in place. “Your son is on the phone, he demanded we wake you immediately.” For a brief half second Patrick had the hope that it might be John. Then Norris continued, “He asked that we give you coffee first.”
Not John then. John would never have the consideration, or tactical approach, to supply coffee to help break bad news. John was all full steam ahead damn the torpedoes we’ll carry the day by main force, it was Dave who considered the angles. The two approaches had been combined for maximum impact in his never to be thought of youngest son because thinking of – it was too much to be born. Especially now when he cleared needed to alert and on point to deal with Dave’s crisis. At least he knew it wasn’t injury or illness in his family, because then it would have been his Security Chief who’d woken him.
“And you have given me coffee, now give me my phone.”
Norris, still looking like he’d rather retire to the safety of a nuclear bunker, gingerly handed over the phone.
“Did you know?” Dave demanded.
“Did I know what? Where are you?” It sounded as if Dave was outside. He could hear the high voices of his grandchildren in the background, and Natalie’s soft voice soothing.
“Natalie and the children are going to the ranch. I told them to double down on security. They might end up referring that to you.”
“And I will tell them to take a running jump. My son tells them to increase security, they increase security.”
“Alright,” Dave sounded mollified. “And you didn’t know, did you? I’m not sure I can handle it if you knew.”
That was disturbing. Dave was the son who handled things.
“Davey, I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I like to think if it was that important, I would have told you.”
“Yeah, yeah, obviously you’d have told me, us. It’s John being all John-like. He’s got me paranoid too. Of course you’d have told us.”
“John?” Patrick demanded, feeling suddenly woozy. If John was back in contact… Patrick grabbed Norris’s sleeve to get his attention, and put his thumb over the speaker, “I want full scale emergency procedures in place. I want all but the relief team security called in. I want the on-call lawyers and PR in the office within the hour and at least three diversionary scenarios prepped and ready to go by eight.”
Norris was definitely thinking of retiring to a nuclear bunker, but he nodded and retreated from the room without ever turning his back on Patrick. Patrick snorted, he still had it, then turned his attention back to his son,
“Davey? John? truly?” Because even if things had to be dire for John to get back in contact, John had got back in contact.
“It’s worse than that. Or better. I don’t know anymore.”
“David, tell me what’s going on.” He paused, “Is that the helicopter?” Dave despised flying by helicopter. Patrick had never worked out if that was because John flew them, or if John flew them because Dave despised them.
“Yes. I want to get the kids out to the ranch before anyone realizes what’s going on.”
“What is going on?”
“Dad. Damn I wish I could tell you in person. Dad, Mark’s alive.”
Eames looked at Arthur with great caution. He wasn’t sure if the man was about to fly apart, or collapse in on himself into nothing.
“You should go,” said Arthur. “Go to Africa. You can hide there. You’ll be safe there.”
Eames genuinely did not understand Arthur sometimes.
“You should,” Arthur repeated.
“Did you hit your head or something, darling?”
Arthur smiled, his prim little, I’m amused but I shouldn’t be, smile. “You’re crazy.”
“Sure,” said Eames, “you think I’m going to walk away and leave you to deal with a furious, well-connected client and your thrice-damned family, and I’m the crazy one.”
“Definitely,” said Arthur, his smile had softened into the one that was Eames’ alone.
Eames patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. Arthur’d had a hard evening. It wasn’t fair to expect him to be firing on all cylinders.
“So first step,” he said, “Let’s find out more about this Trust and just what they want with your brother. How ever will manage that?”
“Hmm, sounds like it could be difficult,” said Arthur, all po-faced and mock-earnest, “If only we had the information that was on those computers.”
Eames laughed at the ridiculously grave expression on Arthur’s face, and took the zip drive out of his pocket to wave under his nose. Arthur grinned back at him,
“Well get to work, Mr Eames.”
Dave pushed the back of his hand against his forehead and tried to breathe. He’d made all the immediate calls he needed to, so now he had a moment to let his brain catch up with events. Which was not good. Without the focus of a job to do, his mind was spiraling into chaos.
An elbow jabbed him in his side,
“MJ’s looking anxious,” said Natalie. She was already held the baby and MJ had been looking for reassurance since his sister had been born. “Pick him up.”
Dave automatically did as he was told, crouching down beside his son,
“Hey little buddy, you okay?”
MJ, all dark imploring eyes, lifted his hands up in silent plea.
“Alright, come here.” Dave scooped him up. MJ flung his little arms around Dave’s neck and the world resteadied around him. “Hey,” he said, “looks like you and Risa might to get meet your Uncles after all.” Because the one thing he’d wanted to give his children and hadn’t been able to, no matter how much money the company made, was the support of their uncles, his brothers.
He looked across at Natalie,
“Can I fit a breakdown into our schedule?”
She laughed at him. “Take a plane straight to Houston to meet your father, that will give you peace and quiet. The children and I can make our own way to the ranch.”
Dave stiffened in instinctive dislike of not seeing them all the way to safety.
“My love, you need some time to yourself before you shiver to pieces. We’ll be fine. I’ve called Frank and he’s on his way.”
Frank was his wife’s gay best friend. Dave had met gay best friends before Natalie. They were all slinky-hipped and smirky (he had the disturbing thought that for a certain sort of women – one who appreciated lethal competence in everything except everyday life – John would make an excellent gay best friend). Frank was not a very good gay best friend, on the short side and built like a stevedore with massive shoulders and arms, he had a pugnacious face and building contractor’s hands. Frank adored Natalie, was endlessly gentle with the children, and a better shot than anyone on the security teams. Dave approved of him enormously.
“He’ll go with you?”
“Alright then.” Dave trusted the security teams but he felt better having someone along who was there because they were worried about his family and not just because of a paycheck.
“And that way,” Natalie smiled mischievously, “you don’t have to ride in the helicopter.”
“Thank god.” Because Dave really wasn’t sure he could deal with the noise and vibration now, on top of everything else. “I suppose it’s not John’s fault he’s a lunatic, those stupid whirly-birds of his have rattled all his good sense lose.”
“He had good sense in the first place? Oh my love, don’t glare at me so. I promise if he’s suitably contrite, I’ll forgive him one day.”
Dave had no idea why his wife disliked John so much. She’d never even met him. He didn’t like it, but the subject rarely came up, and now that she was actually going to meet John he was confident John would soon win her over. He was the charming one of the family.
“I should make arrangements for the plane,” he said, although he didn’t want to leave.
“Already done,” said Natalie. “They’re organizing it now. Take a minute to relax. I’m here, I’ve got you covered.”
Dave shifted MJ so he could press himself to Natalie’s back and rest his head against hers. He breathed in the perfume of her hair and concentrated on the good. His family might be crazy but he had Natalie and the children. Things would be okay.
Elizabeth had kicked off her high heels and settled herself on one of the beds tucked into the corner wall so she could stay sitting up even as she dozed off. In background she could hear Rodney grumbling at his computer and the occasional snark from John, who was apparently still awake despite doing an excellent job of appearing asleep. Teyla was tucked into her own corner, cross-legged and meditating.
It didn’t occur to Elizabeth how defensive Teyla’s position was until they heard the clatter of feet in the corridor and the door swung open. Blocked from view of the intruders by the door, Teyla coiled into a crouch, Bantos rod clutched in one hand.
John remained ‘asleep’, but Elizabeth could see the sudden tension twist through him. She wouldn’t like to bet on who could engage first out of him and Teyla.
“Sir,” announced the Sergeant holding open the door, and General O’Neill walked in.
“O’Neill,” said Rodney loudly, and Elizabeth realized he was telling Teyla and John, who couldn’t see, who was in the room. She wasn’t sure when they’d all become so tactically-minded. “Why are you bothering us now? The Major needs his beauty sleep.”
John definitely twitched but he didn’t open his eyes. Teyla eased out from behind the door. She somehow managed to hold the Bantos rod as if it actually was a religious item and not a weapon with which she was ready to strike.
“Aww come on,” said O’Neill. “We’re all on the same side here.”
John’s eyes flew open and he shot up, legs swinging around so he was on his feet all in one move.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure we are. That’s why we got kidnapped and you’re treating us like we’re the bad guys.”
“Sheppard, I know you think you’re being sneaky but it’s terribly obvious you know more than you’re telling.”
John tilted his head and smiled.
Elizabeth stared, good god, no wonder John had such an impossible service jacket. How had his Commanding Officers stood him? At that moment he was like a walking billboard of insubordination. At the same time, she abruptly realized that John, for all he was difficult, had in no way been that difficult with her. A woozy nightmare of what Atlantis might have been if John had truly used his talent for being obnoxious danced before her eyes.
O’Neill squinted at him. “What are you up to Sheppard?”
“Me,” John shrugged, all helpless hands and devious eyes, “I’m not up to anything.”
O’Neill was blatantly unconvinced. He was too smart a man not to realize something fundamental had changed in John. Elizabeth would like to say he seemed more settled after finding his lost brother, but actually John seemed wilder and a half-step from flying away entirely. The problem was she thought Rodney and Teyla would follow him. And it wasn’t as if Elizabeth was going to leave them.
Behind John, she caught O’Neill’s eye and made a patting, calm it down motion. She didn’t want to finish her hectic day by fighting their way out of the SGC.
O’Neill nodded slowly. “Alright,” he said, “let’s go with that.” He turned to John, “Sheppard calm the fuck down and tell me why you’re looking for a fight.”
“Why would I be looking for a fight?” John bounced on his toes.
Elizabeth was just bracing herself to try and take charge – she should have done so before and got John some time to run off his reaction to finding out his brother was alive. She had a bad tendency to forget that just because John liked to pretend he was a robot didn’t mean he actually was one – when Rodney said,
“Major, I don’t know if you want to punch something, or if you want to be punched, but either way I’m sure Teyla would oblige. You, General-person, stop antagonizing Sheppard and tell us why you’re here.”
O’Neill pulled his, I am utterly confused by everything despite being an air force general, face. Elizabeth sighed,
“Why are you here General O’Neill? We are still recovering from being kidnapped. My Military Commander needs some down time and preferably the chance to visit the gym and work off his adrenaline.”
“And some zats,” muttered John. Teyla slipped across the room and elbowed him into silence.
“Okay,” said O’Neill. “I’m going to work on the basis you have a handle on whatever this is. Sheppard can you be a grown-up for like five minutes.”
“Of course he can,” said Teyla, after jabbing John to keep him quiet.
“Sheppard?” insisted O’Neill.
“Oh wait,” said John, snapping so sharply into all-business that Elizabeth had to blink and take an instinctive step back. “Did my dad call you?”
“How did you know that?”
“I called my brother to let him know I was back in the country. I told him I wasn’t free to visit,” he had done no such thing but Elizabeth figured the implication had been there, “but my dad doesn’t always listen so well.”
“Uh huh,” said O’Neill. “Well your father woke up the Energy Secretary, who woke up the Defense Secretary, who woke up the Director of Homeworld Security, who woke up my boss, who woke me. That’s lot of unhappy people.”
John actually looked apologetic, “Sorry sir.”
“What’s interesting is you have never used your father’s position as leverage, even back when you were speaking to each other.”
“That would be wrong,” said John.
“Which wouldn’t bother you in the slightest. You just never wanted anything bad enough before. So what is it you want now? Is it Atlantis? They won’t give you lead of the expedition you know. Not unless you father really splashes the cash.”
“I, what, no,” stammered John, turning brilliant red. “Elizabeth,” he dragged her forward until she was placed defensively in front of him.
“Not actually an issue,” said Elizabeth, trying not to show how amused she was.
O’Neill wasn’t amused, “So if it’s not that, what is it?”
Elizabeth turned slightly so she could see John. He hunched in on himself miserably,
“I, maybe when the Wraith were coming I thought it would be nice to say goodbye to my family.”
Elizabeth flinched because she had the horrible thought that was probably true.
“I mean I wasn’t going to send them a death video because I’m not a total dick, but yeah,” his voice faded away. Elizabeth imagined what it must have been like, a family of Johns dealing with the loss of their youngest. She was kind of amazed any of them ever said anything again. Talking to each other was clearly an impossibility.
“Right,” said O’Neill, “in the interest of not having anyone else woken up, I have agreed with your father that you will go and see him. I thought I might have to make that an order, but apparently not?” He tilted his head in enquiry.
John bobbed his head, “I’ll be good.”
“Excellent,” O’Neill clapped his hands in front of him. “Let’s get you on your way.”
John stepped forward, then baulked, “They come too.” He gestured towards Rodney and Teyla. Elizabeth wasn’t sure if he intended to include her or not so she shifted to make it clear she would be one of the group. These were her people, she wasn’t letting them leave her behind. Besides she would go mad with curiosity if she didn’t know what was going on.
O’Neill folded his arms, “McKay has a lot of research to go through.”
“Oh please,” said Rodney. “These bozos need a good week to catch up with all the advances we’ve made. Talking to them now won’t do any good, I’ll have to spend my whole time telling them what idiots they are.”
“And that would be such a hardship,” said John.
Rodney snorted, “A lot of hard work goes into telling people they’re morons I’ll have you know.”
O’Neill rubbed his forehead like he could rub away a headache, “Okay, McKay goes with you. And Lizzie, because someone in this mess needs to have some sense. But Ms Emmagan will need to – ”
“Fuck no,” said John. “We’re not leaving Teyla here.”
“No. Not happening.”
“We’ll look after her. The worst she’ll face is losing her voice. Daniel’s desperate to talk to her.”
“Ms Emmagan,” O’Neill appealed to Teyla.
“No,” said Teyla. “I am the representative of the free people of Athos. I will not permit you to imprison me.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake. Daniel! Come do your talking thing.”
“Jack,” scolded Daniel as he wriggled his way past the soldiers into the room. “Ms Emmagan, Teyla, I assure you we just want to talk to you, to help us understand each other’s cultures.”
“Yeah, so you say,” said John. “And then when the Trust do something stupid?”
“The Trust are under control,” said O’Neill. Elizabeth would like to take issue with that.
“Sur-re. And I can trust the people who are calling her ‘Miss Saigon’ to protect her from them.”
Fury blazed through Elizabeth, “They are what?”
“That’s one of the nicer ones,” said John helpfully. “You hadn’t noticed?”
“Of course I hadn’t noticed,” Elizabeth yelled, because if she had she would have – and then realized she should have noticed, she should have known, she should have done something. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told you we needed to keep Teyla with us.”
“Yes, because of the Trust, not because of our – ” and Elizabeth stalled out because what was she supposed to call the SGC now.
“I hadn’t heard that one,” said Teyla. “What does it mean?”
John shrugged helplessly, started to speak, and then Rodney jumped in,
“Shut up Sheppard. You’re forbidden from explaining things to the aliens, remember, since you accidentally convinced them time travel was a real thing.”
“Hey we time-travelled.”
“Not in one of your ridiculous American penis-substitutes.”
“A DeLorean is a classic.”
Teyla sighed loudly, “John. Rodney.”
“You don’t really want to know,” said John.
“Ignorance is never okay,” said Rodney. “The reason you probably haven’t heard it, Teyla, is that it’s also a jab at Sheppard. Miss Saigon is a play, the idea was totally stolen from Madam Butterfly by the way,”
“Rodney,” said John
“Teyla would like Madam Butterfly more.”
“No she wouldn’t. Like you just said, it’s the same stupid story.”
“But Madam Butterfly has beautiful music. You don’t listen to opera for the plot.”
“Rodney, John,” Elizabeth scolded. Personally she was amazed they ever managed to successfully communicate with alien worlds at all.
“Alright fine,” Rodney grumbled. “Miss Saigon is a stupid musical about a stupid war and a stupid girl who’s a, well they don’t come right out and call her a whore,”
“Oh,” said Teyla. “That insult I have heard.”
“Oh Teyla,” Elizabeth felt sad and sorry and powerless to do anything all at once.
“John told me it was extremely offensive,” said Teyla. “But I do not see why. I am sorry for American men, that they are so bad at having sex they must buy a partner. Fortunately those on the expedition are not so unsatisfactory, I have heard only excellent reports of their performance. I intended to tell the people here that John’s skills are undoubtedly far superior to theirs so they need not concern themselves with him having to bribe his partners – but John told me he didn’t think that would help.”
“No probably not,” Elizabeth desperately tried to keep a straight face. O’Neill was coughing violently into his hand and Daniel had given up altogether turning away to hide his laughter. The two guards at the door had flushed red with sheepish embarrassment, and Elizabeth was furious all over again.
“So Miss Saigon, not a whore because she somehow survives on fairy dust, lives in a country the Americans invade because blowing people up is a sure fire way to make them like you. She falls in love with an American soldier who falls in love with her without doing anything actually useful. They get separated, she has a son, he gets married to somebody else, she kills herself so the American and his new wife can take the child back to America.”
“I think the Vietnam War was a little more complicated than that Rodney,” said John.
“Yes but we want Teyla to keep liking us.”
“I think we lost all chance of that after Locklear told her the history of the Native Americans.”
“You told him to.”
“I wanted her to be ready when they came.”
Elizabeth winced and could see O’Neill did too. Daniel turned back to them, somber and biting his lip.
“So this American,” said Teyla, “he abandoned the mother of his child and married another, then returned to steal the child.”
“Err, more or less,” said Elizabeth. She didn’t want to get into a deep exploration of Miss Saigon. Not with Teyla.
“And they named me for the woman?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth wished this whole conversation was over. It was hard to meet Teyla’s clear-eyed gaze.
“This is outrageous,” Teyla’s body locked up with frozen anger. “To imply that John would ever do such a thing. These people are supposed to be his support.”
“Ah Teyla it’s okay. Nobody here thinks much of me. It’s fine.”
“It is not fine. John, nobody should say such things of you. You would never behave so callously. You would never leave anyone behind.”
“She’s right,” said Rodney. “You know you wouldn’t.”
O’Neill covered his face briefly with one hand, he was probably momentarily overcome, like Elizabeth was, at what exactly John might do under similar circumstances, because no, he wouldn’t be leaving anyone behind.
“So moving on,” O’Neill attempted joviality. It was clearly an effort. “Unfortunately Ms Emmagan here is an actual alien, so she’ll need to stay here at the SGC. But Daniel will stay with her and make sure everyone behaves themselves.”
“No,” said John. “Dr Jackson I have nothing against you but you’re not even in the chain of command. And if there’s an emergency of some sort you’ll be right in the thick of it. Exactly how hard would Trust agents find it to manufacture such an emergency?”
O’Neill looked like he was repenting all of his life choices, “Sheppard you need to cool it with the paranoia or the docs are never going to let you go.”
“Exactly,” said John, “Think how easy it would be for them to provoke Teyla into defending herself, call it aggression, and have her locked up as a danger to herself? I hear they even got Dr Jackson locked up once. Perhaps they’d be nice enough to chain them up together.”
“You don’t trust us at all, do you?”
“You just forced us out the safety of the Mountain, to a restaurant you chose, and we were kidnapped less than three hours later. Why exactly am I supposed to trust you?”
“Do you honestly think I set you up?”
John sighed, “No, not you personally. Not Dr Jackson or the rest of your team either. But you’re five people out of how many? I’m not risking Teyla, not when one of her better options is dissection.”
“What?” demanded Elizabeth, startled.
“Well at least with dissection you have to be dead first.”
“And on that cheery note,” said Daniel, “you should start getting packed. Come on Jack, let’s go organize them some transport.”
“Oh fine,” O’Neill threw his hands up in the air. “It’s not like I’m in charge or anything.”
“Exactly,” said Daniel.
Eames pressed the warm mug against Arthur’s hand until his fist automatically unclenched and his fingers curled around the handle.
“There you go,” Eames murmured.
Arthur didn’t say anything. After a moment his hand automatically lifted the mug and he sipped at the hot drink – then he choked and splurted Ovaltine all over his computer screen
“What the hell?” he yelped, jumping back in his seat as he finally looked up from his work. “That is not coffee.”
“Very true,” said Eames.
“What is it? Why is not coffee?” Arthur glared down at the mug in his hands as if it had personally betrayed him.
“It’s Ovaltine. It’s not coffee because that’s full of caffeine which will keep you awake. Instead it’s lovely warm malted milk full of whatever it is that helps you sleep.”
“Tryptophan,” said Arthur. “And that’s an old wives tale.”
“And of course you’ve hear of it,” he nudged Arthur gently, “Now drink up all your lovely tryptophan, darling, those old wives knew what they were talking about.”
“But I still have things to do.”
“Not when you’re this tired. We made that a rule, remember. Not unless it’s an emergency.”
“Eames, my brother.”
Eames wanted to say a number of very impolite things about Arthur’s brother and family and exactly how uninterested they’d been when it was he and Arthur looking for help. He didn’t because he’d do pretty much anything to make sure Arthur wasn’t reminded of that time.
“We’re going to help your brother, Arthur. But we need to be at least semi-conscious to do any good. Now John’s warned isn’t he? He knows this mysterious group are after him.”
“I think they call themselves the Trust.”
“And that doesn’t sound ominous at all. Did they pick it from the evil overlord’s handbook?”
“Maybe,” Arthur’s lips twitched into an almost smile. Eames restrained the urge to celebrate at the crack in Arthur’s I’m a robot and nothing could ever possibly hurt me façade.
“Definitely. I’m disappointed there was no laser beam to blow up the world.”
“They’re working on that.”
“Of course they are.”
“So,” Arthur reached back for his laptop.
“No. You’ve done enough for now. I, brilliant person that I am, have an excellent plan to get hold of the Chairman of the Stark Consortium – ”
“Already? How did you manage that?”
“I told you darling,” said Eames reproachfully, “I’m brilliant.”
“That you are.” Arthur put the mug of Ovaltine down and wrapped both arms around Eames’ waist to pull him closer. Eames scooped Arthur up, sat down on the chair, then plunked Arthur down in his lap. Arthur didn’t complain or even scowl so he must be beyond exhausted.
“It will be okay. We’re going to get this figured out.”
“But John. He wasn’t always that popular with his Commanding Officers. They might not – ”
“Stop fretting, love. They might not think much of your brother but they won’t want him spouting secrets left and right either. They’ll keep him safe, at least for the moment. We’ll figure out this Trust situation and bang some heads together. It will be okay.”
“But if John has something they want, he must have been on a special project, like us. Might still be involved in a special project given his service record has him in Antarctica when he’s clearly not.”
Eames winced because Project Somnacin was not a fond memory for either of them. “Arthur we’ll get it figured out. If he’s trapped on some sort of project, well we broke out of a special project didn’t we? It can’t be any harder to break into one.”
“Yes, you’re right.”
“And he was okay, wasn’t he? when we saw him. Bit thin but I reckon that’s cause he’s got the same set of skinny genes as you. He wasn’t too thin.” Eames clutched Arthur a little tighter trying to forget the memory of Arthur run down to nothing, so thin his skin stretched yellow like old parchment over his bones.
“Right, you’re right. And he wasn’t, I mean he was coherent and everything. Not like you when,” Arthur broke off.
Eames didn’t actually remember much from when they over-dosed him on somnacin and it surged through his veins obliterating any division between dream and reality. Funnily enough he could only recall it in his nightmares when he dreamed for real. Reality and the constructed dream reality of PASIV were both too coherent for the madness to slide inside.
The only real thing had been Arthur, who was always the same whether they were dreaming or not. Arthur had managed to keep his scrambled brain together until the somnacin faded from his body. They lost the other three men in that experiment. Heaney flung himself out the window before anyone could stop him, McCullough bashed his skull against the wall of the lab until he managed to crack his skull, and Lenardon was left in permanent psychosis. Eames put a bullet in his brain when he and Arthur left. He figured it was the kindest thing they could do.
“Yes,” said Eames. “Your brother was firing on all cylinders.”
“And his ridiculous hair. They wouldn’t have let him have that in the lab.”
“I thought it was cute,” said Eames because he seriously couldn’t take talking about the lab anymore.
“You did?” Arthur somehow managed to pull off pissed and hurt at the same time as he scowled and shrank in on himself.
“Yeah, it’s like yours when you’re all relaxed and sprawled out half asleep. Cute.”
“I could,” Arthur reached up to his hair, still neatly slicked back despite the late hour.
“Nah, it’s cuter when it means something. And so much better when I can do it myself.” With infinite care Eames drew his fingers through Arthur’s hair, softening the severe style until the black hair flopped freely around that dear face. Eames kissed him then, a warm dry press of lips.
“Come on darling, let’s go to bed.”
Arthur just blinked at him, so Eames gently stripped him down and rolled him into bed. Then he quickly yanked off his own clothes as Arthur made plaintive noises and struggled against the cold sheets.
“Hush,” Eames told him as he slid in beside him. Arthur said, “Eames,” and cuddled into his side, all the tension in his wiry body fading into sleep. Eames kissed his dark hair and followed him.
Dave didn’t have much time to recover his equilibrium before Frank showed up on his motorbike. He pulled up and unloaded two bags of gear before striding over to them.
“Nat?” one large careful hand brushed briefly against Natalie’s shoulder. Frank was the only person Dave had ever met who greeted his wife before him. It used to disconcert him but now he was fiercely glad, Natalie was amazing and should be treated as such.
Natalie tweaked the collar of Frank’s leather jacket in reassurance. He rubbed his hand over the back of his head,
“Nat, I had a thought.”
“You said the Trust are after your guy’s brother?”
“Yes,” said Natalie and Dave twitched again at the reminder of the way that Rodney-guy had so casually mentioned a price on his baby brother’s head.
“And you didn’t know he was alive?”
“Yes. Dave was told his brother died in action. Of course neither he nor Patrick were going to leave it at that,” she sent Dave an affectionate smile, “They did some investigating. Found out he’d been seconded to some sort of classified military project. A lot of people died.”
“I think so. Patrick and Dave did a bit of house cleaning themselves.”
“Oh ho,” Frank winked at him.
“Hey don’t look at me like that,” said Dave. “If the Military didn’t have such antiquated sexual conduct rules they wouldn’t be so easy to fuck with.”
“I knew I liked you,” said Frank. “But here’s the thing, right, you and your brother were close? I mean you put up with me, I can’t see you turning away a brother.”
“Go on,” said Dave, not agreeing or disagreeing because he might not have spoken to John for five years, but that wasn’t all his fault.
“So your brother, the Trust are chasing him down, why didn’t he call you?”
“I don’t know,” Dave wasn’t thinking about that because it would just drive him crazier.
“I mean if you and your dad were just stuffed suits, he might be trying to protect you, but you’re not. You hide it well cause you’re a pretty nice guy, but I’ve met actual mob bosses who are less dangerous than you.”
Dave grinned at the compliment.
“So your brother, he should have called you, and he didn’t – why?”
“Did you come to some conclusion,” Natalie asked, thankfully. Dave could do without any more introspection about his family’s relationship. He knew they were fucked up, that didn’t mean he wanted to talk about it.
“Yeah I did. Tell me Nat, who exactly was in charge of Sheppard’s communications back when this was going down?”
Natalie sucked in a quick little shocked breath, then said quietly vicious things in her native tongue.
“Okay, I probably don’t want to know you just said, but I think I need to know what’s going on.” Dave tapped her lightly on the wrist to draw her attention because she didn’t like claustrophobic touches when she was that distracted.
Natalie turned to him and smiled, one of her beautiful sad smiles that hurt his soul, “Yes you do.”
She stepped towards him, then shifted awkwardly as she tried to hold Risa and reach out to him.
“Here,” said Frank, “I’ll take her.” Natalie passed him Risa and he took her easily, bouncing her once then tucking her in the crook of his arm.
Dave knelt down and settled his son on the ground, “Hey MJ, can you go and say hello to your Uncle Frank?” He gave him a light push to get him going and MJ toddled over to Frank who crouched down to field him and then scooped him up to rub their noses together.
Dave smiled at them for a moment and then refocused, “Natalie?”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I just want to know what’s going on. Stop looking so worried. My family’s inability to communicate is not your fault.”
“The thing is, I think it might be,” she confessed. “Not my fault directly, you understand but the NID.”
Dave scowled. The NID was a secretive ‘if I told you I’d have to kill you’ men in black type outfit. He probably shouldn’t hate them as much as he did, they were the reason he met Natalie after all. But since he met Natalie because they set her to spy on him, and then they turned out to have been betraying Natalie all along, Dave was okay with hating their guts.
The NID, as it turned out, had somehow allowed a terrorist cell to infiltrate and incubate inside their agency so Dave not only hated them, he also thought they were stupid as hell. They had sent Natalie undercover into Sheppard Energy not to secure their Project Zero from foreign powers, but to steal the patents for themselves.
Fortunately Dave was not as stupid as hell and when he and Dad had made the decision not to continue with Project Zero – they might be in the energy business but they had no intention of funding a second Manhattan Project – he had made sure to bury data as securely as he could and that did not mean leaving it lying around on his hard drive, or even in his collection of music cds.
He reckoned that Natalie would have eventually tracked the paperwork and external hard drives down to a box labelled ‘Mom – photo albums’ hidden at the very back of his cellar under the rest of Mom’s things, but the stupid as hell idiots in charge had pulled her out after three months because they believed she was stringing out the assignment because she was enjoying her time with Dave too much.
Two years later some brave soul managed to expose the existence of the terrorist cell that had been hiding in the NID’s protective embrace. Natalie had taken it hard. She had joined the NID to try and balance out the wrongs she had done in her previous life as a, well she had never exactly specified, but Dave had the impression it was somewhere between a master thief and an assassin. Then she found that instead of helping make the world safer, she had been tricked into working for the enemy.
She had shown up on Dave’s doorstep at three o’clock in the morning, drunk and melancholy as only a Russian could be, to apologize. Dave, who had never quite got over the woman who burst in and then out of his life like a shooting star, figured he should feel ashamed at taking advantage of her at her lowest point he didn’t let that stop him.
He waited until she passed out, installed her in his guest bedroom and convinced her she had an obligation to look over his security to make up for breaking it in the first place, which meant she had to stick around. Then he expanded her role at Sheppard Industries to teaching self-defense classes, which meant he could pay her, and he got to slowly watch some of the deadness fade from her eyes as her students gained in confidence and self-assurance.
His cunning plans were slightly disrupted by the appearance of Frank, who showed up on his doorstep just over a month later, looking even worse than Natalie, like someone had burned his soul out. Dave installed him in another guest bedroom (there are advantages to be being ridiculously wealthy, he even had a third guest room but when he asked if anyone else was likely to show up Frank had somehow turned even paler and mutely shook his head). Frank volunteered to come in and look over the security plans, apparently Natalie never paid enough attention to sniper lines of sight (“But that’s what I have you for,” said Natalie, Frank ducked his head in shy pleasure and looked a bit less like a walking corpse) and Dave found him a job too.
A year later he was confident he could ask Natalie out and she would believe him when he told her he didn’t want to say yes for any other reason than because she wanted to. Six months after that she let him convince her she didn’t need to go back to spying to help build a better world and agreed to marry him.
Dave’s pride could probably have been seen from space.
It still didn’t make him hate the NID any less.
He looked at Natalie, tipping his head so he could catch her eye, “The NID’s gross dereliction of duty and stupendous thick-headedness is not and never has been, your fault.”
Natalie’s gaze flitted to Frank, who felt even more guilt over the NID and for no better reason as far as Dave could tell, and then away.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I should have told you. The NID, they didn’t just lose interest in you after they pulled me out.”
“I had figured that one out for myself.” It had been the first thing on his to do list after Natalie told him. Security had always been a priority but Dave had never taken into account how easy it would be for the government to slip by their precautions. “I didn’t blackmail you into checking SI’s security just for the fun of it.”
“Well the NID, or rather the Trust, they had people in place in your organization.”
“Of course they did.”
“I didn’t recognize all of them, but Frank and I, we knew how their backgrounds would be constructed, so we worked with your Security to get rid of them.”
“Yes I remember, they had seven people in our nuclear program, we had to get the Department of Energy involved. I think it went all the way up to the President.”
“Right, if you were dealing with that, it might be why you didn’t notice we cleared two people out of your Communications department. They weren’t there to do damage. They were in place ready in case of an event.”
“A nuclear event?” asked Dave, curiosity over-taking the little voice inside him that said he didn’t want to know.
“Any sort of event. They were there to feed misinformation, or spin things in the Trust’s favor.”
“And?” Because he couldn’t see why that was making Natalie tense enough that she was deliberately slouching more and more casually.
“And, we checked for damage to the company. I didn’t think about what other damage they could have done. Your brother, he was declared dead. Everyone in your company knew.”
“And how difficult would it be for them to claim there was an imposter trying to latch onto the family and they should under no circumstances be put someone claiming to be your brother through to you or your father?”
Dave closed his eyes.
“Exactly. I am so, so sorry, my love.”
“It still isn’t your fault. Why would the Trust even be interested in Mark, Arthur,” he corrected himself because names are important and it was somehow easier to say Arthur. Mark still caught against his throat like broken glass.
“I didn’t know they were. It was probably a coincidence. He was involved in a Special Project where a lot of people died. That’s the sort of thing that would catch their attention. I should have realized that and I didn’t.”
“You were dealing with more than enough of your own stuff. Maybe if the timing had been different.”
“I don’t think that was a coincidence,” said Frank, making Dave flinch because he’d temporarily forgotten the other man was there.
“Not a coincidence?” said Natalie.
“No. Or at any rate the coincidence was that Patrick Sheppard’s son was on a Trust project that got liquidated. You said it yourself, Dave and his father went after the Military involved. If the Trust suddenly lost several high-level backers in the Military, all at once, that might explain how the NID, all of a sudden, managed to nail their hides to the wall.”
“Huh,” said Dave, “Sounds like Dad and I should have put more effort into it.”
“Sounds like it’s just as well you didn’t,” said Frank. “The Trust would happily take you down if you were too much of a problem.”
“Well we need to work on that, because I’m about to become way too much of a problem.”
“I should stay with you,” said Natalie abruptly.
Dave shook his head, “No, we need you with the children.”
“The Trust are dangerous – ”
“Sweetheart, I know. And honestly, I should give you an out, but I can’t.” It wouldn’t matter how much acting Dave did for the press, while he might be able to convince everyone he no longer cared for Natalie, nobody was ever going to believe he no longer cared about his children. “You’re always going to be seen as leverage by my enemies.”
“Our enemies,” Natalie corrected sharply.
Dave reached out to brush the back of his hand against hers in agreement.
“That’s why I should stay with you. I’m good at this Dave.”
“I know, I want you with me, but Natalie you’re the better fighter of the two of us.” That was Dave’s male pride speaking. Truthfully Natalie was the only fighter of the two of them. “We need you with the kids. If they get the kids neither of us are going to be – ” he paused because there seemed to be no appropriate word. Even the thought of his children being taken was making him half-crazy.
“I should be with you,” said Natalie stubbornly, but Dave could see she was wavering.
“You will be with me, or I’ll be with you. Right now we’re just running a short-term play. We need to keep everyone safe while putting out as much distraction and misinformation as possible until we can extract John from his super-secret mission, Dad’s already on that, and find Arthur. Once we’re all secure we can regroup and start planning. I have a feeling we’ve all been coming at the Trust from different angles. Once we sit down and talk it through, I think things will be a lot clearer and we can come up with a plan.”
Natalie frowned, “And I’ll be there for planning?”
“Hell yes. You’re probably our best hope. You and Arthur to be honest.”
Natalie nodded slowly. “And Frank?”
“Nat,” Frank warned.
“Of course Frank’s going to be there,” said Dave. “He’s not getting off that easy. He’s going to have to suffer through Dad and John fighting along with the rest of the family.” He glanced across at Frank for support and found the man was staring at him with wide shocked eyes. Dave rolled his own eyes.
“Buddy,” he said, “You’re here, holding my kids, at stupid o’clock in the morning, so late it’s actually early, because my lunatic brothers are having a crisis. By what definition is that not family?”
Frank ducked his head and fidgeted because he couldn’t do his back of the neck rub while hanging onto the kids. Natasha took pity on him and took Risa back again.
“We all set?” Dave checked.
“You will be careful,” said Natalie, “Because I will not be pleased if you’re hurt.”
“Alright then.” She started to walk towards the helicopter. “Come on Frank, we should get going.”
“You want me to fly the chopper?” asked Frank.
Dave was watching them walk away, when Natalie abruptly turned and ran back to him,
“Be careful,” she warned, and kissed him, before turning away just abruptly and racing off to catch up with Frank.
Dave sighed as he watched them go, then straightened his shoulders and strode off to find his own plane.
They had packed up their bags with the small supply of items they’d brought back from Atlantis. (Elizabeth needed to go shopping so very badly. Weirdly Teyla was eager to go too, she wanted to see how shopping malls measured up to John’s dream construction. “More crowds,” John had promised sourly, “And the food courts don’t serve toba root.”)
Now they were just waiting for O’Neill to arrange their transport. Rodney was tapping away at his computer, John appeared to be asleep again, and Teyla was meditating. Elizabeth, refusing to accept that she was worse at waiting than them, was trying to contain her impatience and not give herself away by humming or tapping her fingers. And Elizabeth now had a nagging desire to ask Teyla if she deliberately used meditation to disrupt people’s attempts to gain an advantage by making her wait. Elizabeth wasn’t sure how, but it vaguely seemed like cheating. She tapped her fingers against the hard plastic chair and gritted her teeth.
Finally Colonel Mitchell arrive to tell them a helicopter was ready and waiting on the helipad.
John ‘woke up’ with the same annoying ease as before,
“Come on guys, let’s hustle.”
Elizabeth was already on her feet and tried not to squirm as Teyla and Rodney got to their feet with what seemed to be deliberate slowness. As they walked through the Mountain they picked up another four Marines, who all saluted John and fell into step behind them. To Elizabeth’s shame she didn’t realize they were Atlantis Marines until Bates joined them. He and John locked eyes, Bates nodded and then he joined the rest of their little convoy.
“It is good to see you, Sergeant,” said Teyla. “They told me it would be many months before you were well again.”
“They used the cool toys on me, ma’am,” said Bates.
John made a growling sound, echoed by the other Marines.
Elizabeth didn’t know what that meant.
“And just when did they do that Sergeant,” said John.
“Three hours ago, sir,” Bates reported, and Elizabeth realized the problem. They’d used the specialized healing devices to fix Bates because they needed to him to – what? go with John, watch John, report on John.
“You shouldn’t even be out of hospital,” John grumbled, “Sanchez your job is to keep an eye on Bates, do not let him get hit understand?” he glared at the Corporal who saluted sharply, then John added, “Unless it’s his head, that’s hard enough to take any numbers of hits.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Bates dryly.
“Should we – ” Elizabeth started, not sure what she was about to say, but feeling they should be objecting to the sudden addition to their party.
“They’re not letting me out of here without sending a Military escort,” said John. “And they know I’d refuse anyone who wasn’t on Atlantis. I wasn’t expecting Bates though.” John clucked his tongue which could mean anything. Bates was almost smiling.
Elizabeth wanted to query the situation further, but Teyla started talking to the other Marines checking their injuries had also been tended, and she decided she’d check with John in private.
She shivered as they stepped out onto the roof, the air was brisk and cold, only the faint hint of a sunrise creeping up over the horizon. One of the Marines helped her scramble into the back of the helicopter and secure her seat belt. John opened the pilot’s door and just looked at the unfortunate pilot until he finally stepped out.
“That will be all thank you Captain,” said John, “I’ll take her from here.”
“I said, I’ll take her from here.”
“Causing trouble already,” said Bates, from the back of the helicopter as John swung himself into the pilot’s seat.
“I hate to disappoint. But this is the sort of thing you’re supposed to let slide, right?”
“You got it.”
“Okay then. Everyone please stow your tray tables and return your seats to an upright position.” And John segued into the preflight checks.
Elizabeth took a deep breath and settled herself in for the ride.
Eames opened his eyes after dozing for about twenty minutes. As he’d expected Arthur was still fast asleep, the poor man had worked himself into utter exhaustion. He kissed his finger and stroked it lightly over Arthur’s hair, and then carefully wriggled away from him and slid out the bed. He tucked the blankets carefully around Arthur’s shoulders to keep him warm and then padded across the room to laptop.
From a moment he wondered if this really was the right thing to do. Arthur was going to be furious. Then he looked back at Arthur, Arthur who let himself get worn to a thread for utter pillocks who never appreciated him, and decided he didn’t care. Arthur could never be ruthless with those he loved, so Eames would be ruthless for him.
For people who haven't seen inception, Dominic Cobb was the mastermind, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he did not kill his wife (mostly). Eames was played by Tom Hardy, and Arthur by Joesph Gordon-Levitt
Also I found the Strike Team Delta tag so that's cool.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Patrick caught up with his eldest son at the company’s headquarters in Houston. It was the most geographically central, and the perfect place to launch Diversion One, a hostile take-over of Houston Oil & Gas. It might come off, it might not, but it would create a lot of fuss to hide themselves under.
“Dave.” They clapped each other on the back, Dave curling in just a little as if he were small again.
“We need to talk.”
“I’ve had the second floor conference room swept for bugs.”
“Good.” Dave followed him to the stairs, “I saw on the news. About Houston Oil & Gas.”
“It will give the bottom-feeders something to concentrate on.”
“Did you see my news?”
“Guess not, you don’t read the society pages.”
“Dave?” His eldest was the calm one but right now Dave was fizzing with suppressed energy.
“Natalie left me.”
“What!” Patrick was not proud of his vicious immediate reaction. He stamped it down and recovered enough brain cells to realize he was missing something. “What’s going on?” he asked more temperately.
“Well that was delicate implication of the ‘Natalie Sheppard left the house in the early hours with her children and a bare minimum of luggage. She was met at the airport by another man. Neither Sheppard could be reached for a comment’ There was some more bullshit but that was the gist of it.”
“Oh, her friend Frank.”
“Ah. Wait, how do the papers know about this?”
“Exactly,” said Dave. “They had to be watching the house.”
“God. What were they,” Patrick froze as the implications started to hit home. “They just tried to use Mark to get information from John which naturally failed, but both those boys would take the world apart for you. My God.”
“Exactly,” said Dave. “I think we got out of there just before they grabbed us. Though I’m not sure how either of them would react – ”
“David, don’t be ridiculous. Your brothers think you hung the moon. They’d lose their goddamn minds.”
Dave still didn’t look convinced but then he laughed and said, “And you’d be an oasis of calm and good sense.”
“Comparatively yes.” Patrick had no illusions about his own violent reaction if his family was taken but his two younger sons had his ruthlessness and all the recklessness of youth. “You really think they were going to kidnap you and Natalie.”
“They leaked a picture from the airport.” Dave held out a folded screen print of a gossip website. Patrick automatically smiled the picture of his grandchildren, then frowned as caught the family vibe of the picture, Natalie with baby standing close to her friend Frank who was holding MJ. Then Patrick realized what a good shot it was, from how far away it must have been taken, and that it had been deliberately sent to the press.
“That’s definitely a surveillance sting. Why would send it to the papers?”
“If Natalie and the children vanish now, how seriously are the police going to take me?”
“But there’d be evidence of a kidnapping.”
“There wouldn’t be any evidence of a struggle if they got one of the kids first. And they wouldn’t need to fool the police forever. Just long enough to get what they want.”
Unfortunately Patrick could see it. The police would focus on the idea of Natalie running away with her lover and the children giving the kidnappers time to turn the screws. It wasn’t as if they could fully trust the police either. The conspiracy around them clearly had wide-spread roots.
Dave sighed and rubbed his hands against his thighs, “I think we were lucky. They wouldn’t have had a team at the house, just a couple of watchers. We moved immediately I received that call from John. Basically we got the jump on them. By the time they could scramble a team, we were at the airport and too visible for a stealth mission.”
“Natalie and the children are at the ranch now?”
“Yep, Frank flew them. He checked in when they landed and now they’ll be pulling up the drawbridge and battening down the hatches.”
“You’re mixing your metaphors.”
“Ask me if I care.”
“Hey,” Patrick swung his arm up and around his son’s shoulders. “We’re going to deal with this Davey. We’re not going to let anything happen to your family.”
“Things have already happened to my family,” Dave yelled. “They took my baby brother.”
“Right,” Patrick wasn’t think about that too much. He’d deal with unpacking all his unnecessary grief, and mourning all the lost time, when he had a moment to breath. “But we’re going to get him back. Look, Johnny’s already on his way.”
That diverted Dave’s thoughts onto a more productive track, “That seems suspiciously easy?”
“John’s Commanding Officer is a General Jonathon O’Neill. He lost his only child in a gun accident. The boy was about ten. General O’Neill was very receptive to reuniting a father with his son. I didn’t even have to be a bastard about it.”
Patrick was glad about that. He’d be the meanest bastard that ever lived to protect his family but he didn’t enjoy it. He hadn’t needed to bring up the boy’s death, or even ask O’Neill how he’d feel if it was his son. He did think that a man with such an obvious hot button shouldn’t be allowed to talk to fathers enquiring after their sons but he’d leave that alone while he still might need to make use of it.
“Poor guy,” said Dave, with ready but distracted sympathy. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as Patrick.
“So John’s inbound from Colorado by helicopter.”
“Colorado, are we talking NORAD? How did John get involved in that? I thought they were trying to boot him from the Service.”
“You didn’t know he called you from Colorado?”
“No Dad, I was somewhat distracted by everything else.”
“Need to keep on top of things Davey,” Patrick teased to make his son pout like a five year old. “And they were going to throw him out but I went to a few dinners and glared at a few people and they decided to sling him down to Antarctica instead. I figured that might cool him off.”
“So basically you’re saying John is responsible for melting the Antarctic ice shelf.”
Patrick snorted, “Your brother has the temper for it. Somebody in command somewhere screwed up and your brother and his team took the brunt of it. I’d have done more but they were already taking steps to quietly retire the bastard. They just didn’t appreciate John trying to break his nose.”
“Do you ever think John should be leading his own band of loyal to the death mercenaries?”
“All the time, son, all the time.”
Dave shook his head in resignation, the most rational response when it came to John. “Right, so John’s on his way. We just need Arthur here and we can start taking the fight to these bastards.”
“Arthur, why do we need him?” Patrick wasn’t having any outsiders brought into this. Not now anyway.
“What! Of we need – just a minute, I don’t think I told you that, I was so stunned by everything else. Who do you think I’m talking about?”
“I want to know who you’re talking about. And I want to know all the things you seem to have forgotten to tell me. You can’t let yourself get so distracted.”
“Oh my God Dad.”
Dave dropped his head into his hands. Sometimes he just could not deal with his father.
“Listen,” he said, “John woke me up to tell me our baby brother is still alive. I fled my house one step ahead of a kidnap squad. You should be amazed I’m still standing.”
“That wasn’t a criticism,” said Dad.
He looked up at that, because seriously.
“Okay so it was. But it was unfair criticism. We’ve only had time to react since John dropped his bombshell. We’re still reacting now, but we need to get it together and make a plan. So I need you to talk me though what you know. Because now John’s on his way, the only person who matters is Mark.”
Dave cringed internally because that was Dad on the warpath. John had explained target fixation to him once and that was Dad all over, so focused on a target, he’d crash right into it.
“Dad. Calm down. We’re not going to do him any good if we light him up to the guys hunting him.”
His dad grumped and glowered but the frantic energy sparking around him faded to bearable.
“Okay then,” Dave continued, “I forgot to tell you, because it didn’t seem immediately relevant but he’s using a different name these days,” then, realizing he hadn’t been totally clear, added, “Mark that is.” And he experienced the familiar reluctance to say his baby brother’s name, like it had somehow become taboo. Naming his son after his brothers had merely exacerbated the effect.
“Arthur,” Dad stammered. “He goes by Arthur?”
Shifting uneasily, Dave nodded. He had never seen his father look so stark and shocked.
“There’s, Davey, there’s new sort of technology. I didn’t tell you because it wasn’t,” Dad chuckled unsteadily, “it wasn’t particularly relevant.”
Dave wanted to say something about glass houses but his father’s uncharacteristic faltering had him too off balance.
“So,” he prompted. “Dad what is it?”
“The new technology. It’s rumored the Military created it, it’s some machine that lets you break into people’s minds and steal their secrets.”
“That’s,” Dave pushed down the revulsion at somebody rooting around in his mind and tried to concentrate on the practicalities. “How the hell was that ‘not relevant’? Our whole security apparatus needs to be re-evaluated. Project Zero.” Cold snaked its way up his back at the thought of that getting out.
“It’s, for a long time it was more rumor than reality. Then one of the men involved, they call themselves extractors, he contacted me through Walter.”
“Walter?” That was his father’s long-standing legal counsel. He used to come to Mom’s dinner parties and would smuggle desert up to the boys peeking through the bannister railings.
“Yes. That would have been a clue if I’d been thinking about. One of the big boys in our industry, Proclus Global was making a play for Fischer Morrow.”
“Why? Robert Fischer dissolved the entire company after his father’s death. We did very well out.. of… that…” Dave’s voice slowed down as he suddenly put it together. “Fuck,” he said feeling even sicker, “these extractors, they don’t just take stuff out your head, they can put stuff in. Mark does this.” His baby brother fucked around in people’s minds. Dave suddenly wanted Natalie very badly.
“Yes. The full details weren’t explained to me, but apparently putting ideas into people’s heads is extremely difficult, my contact wasn’t even sure they’d pull it off, but the Proclus chairman Saito was blackmailing an extractor called Dominic Cobb into doing the job of convincing Robert to break up his father’s empire. Apparently Cobb killed his wife and Saito could get him off the hook.”
“These guys are obviously all real princes,” Dave growled.
His dad shrugged his shoulders. “My contact, he worked with Cobb, was helping him with the job. He said, he said Mark saved his life in the service and he wanted to pay back the debt by helping his family. He told me that Fischer Morrow was going down regardless – I think Saito must have had a more terminal backup plan in mind – and I should keep my head down and try and grab what I could of the pieces.”
“So what did you do?”
“I kept my head down and did very nicely out of the pieces.”
That was certainly true. Their company had nearly doubled in size after gorging itself on the remnants of Fischer Morrow.
“And you didn’t ever consider it might not be true?”
“There was no harm in taking the advice.”
And the advice had come via Mark, from beyond the grave so to speak, of course his dad had listened. It was just a relief most people hadn’t figured out how easily his youngest son could be used to slide past his father’s formidable defenses. And oh, something else had suddenly become clear,
“Is this why you’re so careful not run up against Proclus Global?”
“Exactly. Saito’s clearly willing to be ruthless, which I respect. I’m not going to pick a fight until I’m sure I can win.”
“And your contact, he was Arthur?”
“and you think that was – ”
“Christ David, it’s not like you to be this stupid.”
Dave flinched. His father’s face worked, and his hands tightened into fists, as if it was Dave’s fault for reacting. There was no apology.
After a moment Dave managed to shake off his frustration, his dad only lost his temper when he was feeling particularly angry with himself. Right now they were all under a lot of stress and a shouting match wasn’t going to help anything. Somebody around here had to keep a clear head.
“It would be asking a lot of coincidence,” he said eventually. “So we knew he was on a special project and now we know what it was. A mind-fuck machine.” Dave shook his head over that. Shutting their own Project Zero down was the best thing they’d ever done. Who knew what the Military would have twisted it into. “So he left the Army with prejudice and fell into a black market of secrets extraction, became Arthur. And then when it impacted on us he called you to try and keep us out of the blast zone.”
“He was helping us before that. After it turned out Arthur wasn’t just blowing smoke I had some questions asked. Back when this technology first escaped the Military’s grasp, Arthur was there – ”
“Because he was responsible for it escaping the Military’s grasp.”
“Seems likely. Sometimes I wonder if you boys are deliberately being difficult.”
“Hey, don’t include me.” None of this was Dave’s fault.
“Dave, I love Natalie like a daughter but – ”
“Do not say one word about my wife.”
“Can I comment on the professional enforcer you’re harboring?”
It took Dave a moment to translate that into Frank, because Frank was so soft with Natalie and their family.
“Frank’s off limits too. John’s a disgraced black ops pilot who somehow levered his way into NORAD and Arthur’s apparently extended his abilities in mind-fuckery to helping invent an entire illegal industry. My family are angels in comparison.”
His dad sighed mournfully, “Just wait til your kids are older. Then you’ll see.”
“My kids are going to be geniuses.”
“Dave all my kids are goddamn geniuses,” his hand closed reassuringly around Dave’s wrist. “That’s what makes them so much trouble.”
“Alright then, tell me about Arthur.”
“He was there from beginning, and he made it clear from the beginning that Sheppard Industries was off limits. Apparently he and a colleague took out an entire extraction team that was hired to get the specs for Project Zero. They couldn’t find Lagrange. You would have been the target.”
Dave cursed viciously, “So he was there protecting us all the time and we just – ” he waved his hands helplessly through the air.
“If you’re trying to make me feel better,” his dad gritted, “it’s not working.”
Natalie looked down on the Sheppard ranch as Frank swung the helicopter around for landing. It was a big sprawling building, only one story high but dug deep into the earth for another three floors. She privately suspected Dave’s father had kitted it out as his end of the world bunker. It was isolated and hidden away in the Nevada desert. The nearest location was actually the Sheppard aeronautical facility where the planes were taken on their test flights. (Natalie had asked why an energy company had an aeronautics division but Dave’s face got that peculiarly closed of expression that meant John. It was similar to, but distinctly different from, the frozen expression that meant Mark. Sheppard Industries also owned two casinos in Vegas and ran an exclusive poker tournament.)
They landed and Natalie quickly clambered out and stretched. Frank laughed at her,
“You get more like that husband of yours all the time.”
“He does have a point.” She’d never really noticed how noisy and squashed helicopters were until Dave pointed it out. Maybe flying first class all the time now had spoiled her a bit. Just a tiny bit.
They collected the droopy and exhausted children and their gear and walked into the ranch.
“Mrs Sheppard,” said the caretaker’s wife Mrs Hughes. Mrs Hughes was usually pleasant, or pleasantish to Natalie. She adored Dave and the children so she had to be. Natalie found it tiresome but Mrs Hughes stayed on the icily polite side of things never descending into actual rudeness so she put up with it. They didn’t spend much time at the ranch after all.
Mrs Hughes was particularly frosty now as she greeted them and led them further into the house. Natalie was busy listening to the string of veiled criticisms over her care of her children, and trying not to respond to the digs at Frank. She could put up with Mrs Hughes’ disapproval of her but nobody was allowed to insult Frank.
Mrs Hughes was still talking, “I don’t know why you came to the ranch, dear. You can’t think we’re going to let you keep on taking advantage of Mr David like that. We would never let you take his children from him.”
Natalie was so busy being caught up in this domestic nonsense that she didn’t notice what was happening on until Frank yelled,
“Nat! Izmena!” And she caught the bag he threw her on instinct. “Go!”
Frank snatched MJ from Mrs Hughes excited cluckings and was just behind her as Natalie, clutching Risa in one arm, raced for the door, only now processing what she had seen before. Four extra security guards, not people she recognized, approaching behind the three locals. Four extra security guards with guns strapped to their backs and holding solid two foot stun batons.
“What are you doing, dear? This isn’t – ” Mrs Hughes querulous voice cut off sharply as a baton crashed down on her head.
“Hey! Stop!” yelled one of the locals. There was a spout of gunfire. Natalie couldn’t tell if either was aimed at them, but she hit the door with Frank on her heels, and they burst through slamming it behind them.
“Hit the emergency switch!” Natalie ordered as she threw the lock on the door. Frank’s hand crunched the switch and suddenly alarms wailed through the complex. The door rattled and shook under heavy fire but remained in place.
“Solid steel,” Natalie explained as she pelted down the stairs.
“What happened?” demanded Frank. “I mean I know what happened, izmena. But how did we get betrayed? This is you guys’ most secure location. These people have all been with the family for years.”
“Yes,” said Natalie, furious with herself for not seeing it earlier. “And I’m the interloper.”
“They sold them some rubbish about me leaving Dave, taking the kids. The need to rescue the kids by force.”
“But why would you come here?”
“Mrs Hughes has resented me for years, she wouldn’t be applying logic.”
“Of course she wouldn’t. The easiest set-up in the world, get your hooks into someone completely trusted.”
“Later,” Natalie warned because they didn’t have time to conduct a post-mortem now. “Oh Risa, honey, please don’t cry. We’ll stop soon.” Risa was too tired to do more than whine weakly. Natalie tucked her more tightly against her side as they kept running.
“I can’t help notice we’re still running down,” said Frank, “that’s not such a great plan when down means underground.”
“Have a little faith.” Natalie skidded to a halt in front of the door out the stairwell, juggling the bag and Risa to get a hand free. “Careful, the alarms have all the security doors locking in place. Only authorized users can bypass them.”
“Does that include Mrs Looney Tunes upstairs?”
“No, it’s family only. Sorry Risa,” she pressed a kiss to her fretful forehead, “just a little longer. Handprint ID,” she added to Frank as she slammed her hand down on the switch by the door, swung it open, and ran on. “Steel doors. Ten bolts. Three locks.”
“Overkill much,” Frank loped along behind her. “Is Patrick Sheppard planning for the apocalypse or what?”
“The way Dave explained it there was some bored genius who had fantasies of building an evil mastermind lair.”
“Cool. Are there crocodiles? Or bionic sharks?”
Natalie laughed. She was high on the chase and everything was suddenly impossibly precious and dear. She was glad her best friend was here. They went through another security door.
“There should be at least a few laser beams. You know I’m not very impressed with this lair of yours. Tell that husband of your to try harder.”
“Hmm, it might not have sharks or laser beams, but you know what it does have, a secret entrance, or, in our case exit.”
“For real?” Frank demanded, breathless with sudden hope. Because he must have known as well as Natalie had that they couldn’t keep running for ever. The steel doors he had mocked as overkill wouldn’t stand up to plastic explosive and they could hear the rattling roar shudder down the corridor as the first door gave way.
“Yes. Not stupid, my husband.”
“Well he did marry you.”
Natalie smiled and pushed aside a metal shelf stack on castors to get at the hidden door. “So I need you to take the kids and go.” She opened the door and found the rock tunnel that led out to the desert. It was lit by a string of blue lights from the emergency generator and she blessed her husband for his ability to think ahead. “Your handprint will open the door at the other end. It opens into a small canyon. There are supplies and maps. You’ll be able to hide out until Dave gets here.”
“No. They might leave without the kids but they’re not going to stop until they’ve got at least one of us. That’s going to be me.”
“So I need you to take my children and keep them safe. Tell Dave,” she laughed again feeling curiously light, “tell Dave that love is for children and I’m glad more than ever he convinced me to brave.”
“They won’t kill me, not immediately. Not if they don’t have the children as backup hostages. I’ll be fine.” She looked down at MJ, glaze-eyed with exhaustion, not even trying to cling to Frank’s jacket. “Be good for your uncle, MJ, I’ll see you soon.” She passed the baby to her best friend. “Here take Risa. Be good honey.” Risa’s mouth moved but no sound came out. “Now go. And remember to tell Dave.”
“I’ll be lucky if I get to say more than sorry before he kills me,” Frank said roughly.
“Don’t be silly.” Stepping forwards she kissed him chastely on the lips and whispered his real name. “Thank you,” she said quietly, then pushed him into the tunnel. “Now go.”
Quickly she shut the door, hid the latch and pulled the shelf back into place. Then she started to run again.
On her own she was quicker. Two doors on she had to stop or she was going to get dangerously close to the panic room the employees would be sheltering in. She couldn’t let the enemy break in there, so she stopped at a weapons dump and set up her last stand.
She took down the first rush but was inevitably overwhelmed. As she collapsed under the sharp surge of the stun baton, she had a moment to think how she could have escaped if she hadn’t been weighed down by her responsibilities and realized she didn’t regret it for a moment.
Dave looked as his dad. “This is going to make you feel worse. I’m not even sure I should tell you.”
Which had exactly the effect he was expecting. The lost look in his father’s eyes sharpened and his mouth pursed into fierceness.
“Don’t even try and pull that shit on me. Tell me right now.”
Dave sighed. He had never seriously intended not to tell his father, but it was going to break his heart.
“He tried to get in contact with us when he left the army.”
“Tried to get in contact with us?”
“Our communications team was compromised. Natalie remembered they cleared a couple of guys out of there when she and Frank cleaned the place up. We were concentrating on the shitstorm in the nuclear team, remember.”
“I remember. He tried to call us.”
“He did call us. Cavafy told him Mark Sheppard was dead and the family were not to be disturbed.”
“We have his calls?”
“We found three of them, there may be more, but we’re pretty sure we got the last one.”
His father held out his hand.
“You don’t have to listen.”
The hand twitched with impatience.
“Fine. Stubborn old man.” Dave handed over the digital player and a set of head phones – he had no intention of listing to his baby brother’s voice shattering again. His dad looked at the head phones for a moment, then he put them on and cued up the player. Dave got to watch as his dad broke into pieces.
The first two calls had been pretty much what Dave had expected. Cavafy being obstructionist and stone-walling. The final conversation though Mark got stubborn, a shocker that, and refused to hang up, threatened to keep calling back, threatened to call every Sheppard Industries number he knew – just let me talk to my dad – and finally Cavafy agreed. Patrick Sheppard announced himself and Mark bubbled into speech, he was okay, he missed them, of course it was him, did Dad remember that time they all nearly fell off the roof of the house because John was trying to fly, or when Dave tried to get them to make him breakfast for father’s day and one of the pancakes end up stuck to the ceiling (if anything utterly convinced Dave it was Mark it was the fact the underhanded little shit only mentioned his brothers’ misdeeds).
And then even as Mark rattled on all excited enthusiasm and frantic need for them, Patrick said flat and hard – my son is dead – and after a one frozen second Arthur said in a voice with no expression at all – I understand – and the phone clicked off.
Dave turned his head towards the window without seeing a thing outside and waited. After a very long time, his dad finally took of the headphones and handed him the digital player with hands that shook.
“Why didn’t they delete the calls?”
“The system tracks deletions. It would have made it obvious something was going on. So they just left them. It was a reasonable risk, who was going to listen after all. I called Cecilia from LA and she started going through the calls logs. After she found those I told her could stop looking.”
“Fine yes. It hardly matters now.” Dad drifted over to the window to stare at the street below. “They used my voice, Davey, they used my voice.”
Dave had no idea what to say. He wished Natalie was there. He didn’t think she’d have any better idea on how to approach things, but at least they could be lost and helpless together.
There was a knock on the door.
“Sir,” insisted the man, and Dave looked over to see the Head of Security hovering and looking anxious.
“You need me now?”
“Yes sir. It’s, sir, I’m terribly sorry but there’s been an attack on the ranch.”
Dave only realized his knees had given way when his dad grabbed him to keep him on his feet.
“Natalie?” he begged. “My children?”
“I’m sorry sir.”
Natalie came to as she threw up all over someone’s shoes and she giggled to herself feeling giddy and sick on whatever drugs they’d pumped into her.
There was cursing and swearing and she was dropped to floor. Too distant from her body for the bruises to hurt, she giggled again.
“Bitch,” said somebody. A foot kicked her in the ribs before she dragged upright again. “Bitch. You’ll get yours. Maybe the littlest Sheppard wouldn’t play ball, but his partner was shitting himself when he found out what he’d been dragged into. He’s coming here with Dominic Cobb – ”
Natalie’s brain flinched at the name. She knew that name. Something about being able to step inside your mind and steal your secrets right out of your dreams.
“ – and they are going to crawl inside your head and extract all your little secrets and then refill it with whatever we choose. Maybe we’ll make you a whore for real.”
She wasn’t afraid of much but the idea of somebody hijacking her mind, the one safe place that was solely hers was terrifying. She tried struggle but had no control over her limbs. All she managed to do was shake her head, the dizzy swirl overwhelmed her and the darkness swallowed her down.
Dave stared at the devastation of the ranch. His security team was all around him, talking to him, but the words weren’t making it through the fuzzy space between him and the rest of the world. He was aware that it was morning, that bright heat burned in the blue sky, but he was cold to the bone. All he knew was the loss of his wife and children.
In the far distance he heard the fwapp-fwapp-fwapp of an approaching helicopter as it swung dark against the sun.
izmena - betrayal
this story got longer than intended, there will be another chapter to finish off
Natalie woke up bound in a slumped huddle of arms and legs. Quickly taking stock, she found she was in a conference room with grubby walls and a worn carpet. The tables had been pushed back around the edges of the room to make space for eight lawn chairs spread out in a circle around a small central table holding a small silver suitcase. At the end of the room another dozen standard chairs stood in neat rows in front of a whiteboard and projector. The audience listening to the speaker was spilt between men in white lab coats listening intently, and men in suits, who were mostly playing on their phones. Two guards in tac vests stood at the door, they had the glazed expression of men who were mentally asleep and dreaming only of the end of their shift.
Blinking her sleep gritty eyes to clear them, Natalie studied the speaker. A slim, narrow-shouldered man, he stood upright with a focused intensity that made him appear taller than he really was. His hair was a tumbled shock of bleached blond locks that clashed with his dark eyes and brows. On his jacket was a sticker with an annoying smiley face and the name Dom Cobb written in bubble letters. Still lop-sided from the drugs, Natalie couldn’t say what it was, but something in the way he moved his hands captured and held her attention.
There was a cough, and a man she hadn’t spotted before caught the speaker’s eye and nodded towards her.
Natalie wasn’t sure how she could have missed him before, he was sitting on one of the tables from where he could survey the whole room. He must be about the same height as the speaker but much bigger and broader. She had a suspicion his suit was cut to hide the muscle beneath. He had a bright cheerful sticker too, that proclaimed him ‘Eames’.
The speaker smiled, “And our guest star is awake. Eames, would you do the honors.”
The big man boosted himself off the table and crossed the room to crouch beside her, “Hello dearie, how lovely to make your acquaintance. We’re going to have such fun together.”
Behind him he audience turned towards her, eager and hungry. Their gazes assessing her, stripping her. Some small part of her that had believed the promise that it would only ever be Dave now, and never again anyone else, wailed in misery. Her old training was coming to the fore, and she slowly tensed and relaxed each muscle group in preparation for escape and evade, but strangely she felt more like Natalie Sheppard than she ever had before. She wasn’t that other woman any more, the one who was never scared because she already knew she’d die alone in dirt and blood.
She was Natalie Sheppard. She had a husband and children who were waiting for her. She was going to survive this and she was going to go home.
The helicopter’s arrival had distracted Dave enough from his misery that he was able to refocus. His family was gone, so now he needed to go get them back. He turned towards the senior FBI agent who had greeted him and his security detail when they had landed themselves.
His brain was slowed by shock and it took him a moment to understand the words he was hearing. He’d swear he could feel the click inside his head as it fell into place.
“What the – ?” he screamed, too stunned to come up with a vile enough obscenity. “You think I arranged all of this because I didn’t want to pay alimony.”
“It’s an explanation that needs to be considered,” said Agent Asshole. “You have the resources to orchestrate such a kidnapping ‘gone wrong’.” The asshole even did the obnoxious finger quotes. Dave had ugly fantasies of snapping those fingers.
“Leave. Now,” he demanded.
“Is that your guilty conscience speaking Mr Sheppard? You know I do feel for you. So blinded by love you failed to sign a pre-nup and now your cheating scum of a wife can lay claim to half your company. Not fair is it? Greedy bitch like her, why shouldn’t you have her killed.”
“I, no,” Dave tried, but the asshole’s insinuating voice oiled on,
“She’d deserve wouldn’t she, for using you like that. And if not you, your father. He must be furious, losing control of his family company because his son didn’t have the sense to see through a pretty face to the corruption beneath.”
There were so many things Dave wanted to object to, he couldn’t scrabble together the words to start. Natalie was nothing like that, she had more integrity in her little finger than this asshole had in his whole body. And how did he know about the no pre-nup anyway. And Dad would never… In the end all he managed was a strangled,
“The evidence would suggest that they’re not yours. Your wife’s intimate friendship with the man calling himself Frank Bannon began before she met you. Was it discovering that you are not the father of your children that set these events in motion? Did you decide to get rid of your cheating wife and the evidence of her adultery?”
The very ridiculousness of the accusations made it easy to let them flow over him. But the only reason Dave hadn’t let his temper slip its leash and punched the asshole was because he recognized that rolled shoulder stance and goading tone. That was John when he was spoiling for a fight. The asshole in front of him was pushing for a punch in the face and if the only way open to Dave to get back at him was not to punch him, then that was what he would do. Or not do, to be precise – it used to make John absolutely white with rage (once Dave had learned the trick of not giving in and punching him).
The asshole tilted his head, checking on his progress.
Dave smiled back, “I would like your supervisor’s name so I can inform him of the lawsuit coming down on your heads for the delay in rescuing my family caused by your petty, gossip-ridden speculations.”
The asshole didn’t like that. “I’m not afraid of you or your money.”
“That is a very foolish position for you to take, but I’d expect it of such a small-minded incompetent.”
The asshole’s body tightened, his arm drawing back, and Dave braced himself for the blow because a punch to the face would be one more thing to add to the lawsuit. The asshole squinted at him and seemed to experience the first vague glimmerings of common sense because his fist dropped and instead of swinging, he grabbed Dave by both arms and shook him.
Dave was trying to work out how collect bruises without doing any serious damage to himself, when there was a yell of outrage and the human equivalent of a whirling Tasmanian devil pounced on the asshole and the two men went bowling away from Dave rolling over and over until the asshole was a heap on the ground and John was standing over him growling,
“Keep your filthy hands off my brother.”
The asshole half-sat up clutching his jaw, “John Sheppard.”
“Yeah,” said John, “I’m the uncivilized one. And that’s Major Sheppard to you.”
“I am going to – ”
“You maybe want to reconsider finishing that sentence? Or not, it makes no odds to me.”
The asshole stopped then and Dave could almost see his brain struggling to reformulate the plan to contain Dave himself into a plan that would contain John. If he wasn’t such an asshole Dave would have felt sorry for him, no plan on Earth was going to contain John.
“Come here,” he ordered his brother. “He wants you to hit him, you idiot.”
“I am aware,” said John. “And I’m happy to oblige. Five Marines, two civilian contractors and one UN director all just saw him hassling a grieving husband and father.”
Dave glanced around and saw a small flock of people who fitted that approximate description approaching from the helicopter that John had just landed. Then he blinked a couple of times as he remembered that John being there was unusual and not the expected result of Dave facing trouble.
“John,” he said helplessly.
“Hey Dave,” said his little brother. He was still panting slightly after his sprint from the helicopter, his dark hair was all every which way and there was a smudge of dirt down his cheek and he was grinning like thumping an asshole was all that had been needed to make his day complete.
Dave loved him so incredibly much he thought it might kill him.
“John you utter, utter dick.” And he flung his arms around his brother and tried to crush the life out of him in sheer relief. After a puzzled moment where John seemed to have forgotten what a hug was, he returned the favor with interest.
“Oh my God it’s good to see you,” said Dave when he’d recovered himself a bit and managed to take a step back. John did the head-duck, feet-shuffle thing that meant – I’m thrilled to see you too but have no way of expressing this because words are for other people.
Dave hugged him again.
“Sorry,” said John eventually with an explanatory wave of his hand that could mean anything. How had Dave forgotten how very bad his little brother was at expressing icky things like feelings?
“You will be sorry,” snarled the asshole as he staggered to his feet. “You are under – ”
“And let me stop you there,” said John, “before I have you shoved in a stockade for obstructing a security operation against domestic terrorism.”
The asshole considered that for a second, rocking from foot to foot with indecision, but he couldn’t be entirely stupid because he finally said,
“And you need to get out of here before I arrest you for interfering with a Federal Crime scene.”
“Happy to,” said John. “Come on Dave.”
“But – ” Dave stuttered as the world crashed in on him again.
“They’re not here, are they? So let’s go find them. We can feed this asshole to the lawyers later.”
Dave had forgotten the way John could cut through the bullshit and straight to the chase. It could be annoying when you had delicate maneuvers in play – business was maybe ninety percent bullshit, ten percent kill shots – but now it was fresh air that let Dave breathe properly again. John was right, what did the ranch matter? The staff had all been evacuated to town by the Sheppard Industries security teams, the FBI were welcome to the shattered mess left behind. Dave had more important things to worry about.
He started after John, but a hand grabbed at his arm, and the asshole said,
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“Are you arresting my brother?” asked John, sounding particularly psycho-happy. “Because that lawsuit is going to be fun.”
The hand dropped away.
“Get off my crime scene,” glowered the asshole. “And don’t leave the state.”
“Whatever you say,” said Dave without meaning it at all. He had every intention of leaving the state immediately and heading back to LA to begin his search. John grabbed his wrist and towed him towards the helicopter.
“Alright, everyone back on board. Guys, this is my brother Dave. Dave this is Bates, Lopez, Reyes, Mayer and Duffy; Elizabeth Weir, Rodney McKay and Teyla Emmagan.”
“Hi,” said Dave. That felt like an inadequate response but he had no idea what else to say and John must have them trained in the art of interpreting inarticulate Sheppards.
“Hello,” said Teyla, “it is wonderful to meet John’s brother. I am only sorry it is under such distressing circumstances. Let us go and find your family.” She linked her arm with Dave’s.
Dave smiled at her and bit down the urge to ask if her job as civilian contractor was to do all John’s speaking for him. But although she had more words than John, there was the same directness of purpose.
“I understand your wife and two children are missing,” Teyla continued.
“Yes Natalie, Mark-John, and Patricia,” Dave pretended not to see John stumble at MJ’s name. “And Natalie’s friend Frank, if they didn’t kill him out of hand.”
“He the one in the paper?” asked John from ahead of them.
“And we like him?”
“Yes we like him. We like him a lot. He’s Natalie’s best friend.”
“Okay then. Let’s get him back too.”
Dave wanted to be annoyed at John’s confident optimism but actually it so warmly comforting he just wanted to slump against his brother and let him make everything come right by sheer force of will.
“McKay, did you bring the thing?” John asked, utterly incomprehensibly.
“Huh,” said Dr McKay.
“The thing,” insisted John. “You’ve barely let it out your sight since we got back. Do you have it?”
“The thing? Oh, the thing, yes I have the thing.”
“Sir,” said Bates, “permission to say that I cannot believe the General let you two lunatics out of the Mountain.”
“Permission denied Sergeant,” said John cheerfully. “Dave, I’m sorry but it’s going to have to be a helicopter.”
“I don’t care about that,” said Dave exasperated and gritted his teeth against the roar of the rotor starting up. He did care a bit when John threw the helicopter into an ever widening spiral.
“John, what are you doing?” he yelled.
John mimed being unable to hear him. Dave wanted to get worked up about John wasting time to do helicopter tricks but he was too sure there was some sort of point to this. John wouldn’t let him down. Not now.
Then McKay was waving some kind of phone tablet and pointing excitedly at the ground and John was swinging the helicopter around and into a steep descent just shy of a high rise of rock.
“What are we doing?” Dave demanded, but his voice was overwhelmed by McKay suddenly screeching, “Left, left, you’re going to set it down on top of them,” and the helicopter lurching left and flopping to the ground.
The sudden quietening as the engine shut off and the rotors slowed left Dave’s ears ringing.
“Alright,” yelled John, “everyone but Dave stay in the bird. They’ve done an excellent job of evasion so far. We don’t want to have to chase them down across half of Nevada.”
McKay jabbed John in the ribs and passed him the phone tablet.
“Oh,” said John, deflating with a sharp shudder.
“What? John tell me what is going on?”
“Damn,” said John, his face went twitchy and hunted as he tried to avoid Dave’s eye.
John gave in with a sad slump of shoulders, “Only three life-signs.”
Dave hadn’t known the Military had that sort of tech. He concentrated on that thought to try and ward off his growing hope and horror. He wasn’t going to follow ‘only three’ to any sort of logical conclusion.
John scrambled out of the chopper and gave him an arm down.
“You need to call for them Dave, they’re not going to come out for me.”
“Natalie,” Dave began tentatively. “Natalie? Frank? MJ! Risa! Natalie!”
The sudden shift of ground between two trees startled him, and for a moment he thought one of trees was actually moving, before there was a cascade of branches and loose soil, and Frank stood up throwing aside the tarpaulin he had used to cover them, MJ and Risa held safely in his arms.
“Oh my God,” said Dave. Sick and shaky he dropped into a crouch, one fist against the ground to hold himself up.
“Are they okay?” John asked.
“Just sleeping,” said Frank. “They had Tylenol in with the supplies so I gave them a little to keep them dozy when I first heard the helicopter. I didn’t realize it was the fifth cavalry showing up.”
Dave tried to stand but his body was listening to his commands.
“Here,” said John, looping his arm around his chest and hauling him to his feet. Some of John’s friends had climbed out the helicopter to join them. Teyla had taken Risa, while Bates took MJ. McKay came to hover by John.
“As heart-warming as all this is, Major – ”
“Rodney, don’t make me shoot you.”
“John,” scolded Teyla. “And Rodney is right. The sun is fierce here, and the children are exhausted, we should get them to safety.”
“I was trying to make it to Sheppard Aeronautics,” said Frank. “I know it was a risk but I couldn’t find a better alternative.”
“No,” said John, “It was a good idea, the right idea. Yes the sun’s too strong for the kids to travel, but even a shaded canyon would be too hot to hide out by mid-afternoon, and then you have night exposure. You definitely couldn’t risk hanging around the ranch, that asshole agent would have shoved the kids into so-called protective custody before you could turn around. You wouldn’t have even been able to object until Dave got here. You did the right thing.”
Dave watched Frank nod through John’s reasoning and close his eyes in relief at confirmation he’d done the right thing. It would never have occurred to him that Frank would want validation of his plan. Dave knew enough to know when he didn’t have the answers. If Natalie or Frank came up with an escape plan, Dave would be utterly confident it was the right plan. As confident as if one of his brothers had come up with it. More confident actually because Arthur enjoyed the risk more than the win and John always relied on luck running in his favor (the fact that it usually did, did not make this habit any less annoying).
Then Frank looked at him,
“They took Natalie. I’m sorry.”
Dave wind-milled his hands helplessly through the air, unable to say it was okay, because it wasn’t, but at the same time he recognized Frank had saved his children and would have saved Natalie too if there had been the smallest opportunity.
“I’ll,” Frank shrugged, turned and started to walk away.
Confused, Dave asked, “Where are you going?” Then he realized what this was, they’d played this out once with John. Dave was wiser now, he wasn’t doing this again, so he yelled,
“GET BACK HERE!”
Frank’s shoulders jerked back and his spine shot ram rod straight. He turned sharply towards Dave so militarily precise that Dave was mildly surprised he didn’t actually salute.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Uh,” the squared shoulders crumpled in his confusion, “I was getting out of your sight.”
“Why? Because,” his voice died away and he collapsed in on himself. Dave wanted to shake him.
“Frank,” he said as patiently as he could manage, “You just saved my children from being kidnapped, how could you possibly imagine I’d be angry?”
“Maybe disappointed,” Frank offered, he still looked confused. “You’ve always been real nice to me, never said anything, just let me keep hanging around. I should have done better.”
Dave rubbed his hands against his suddenly aching head. He hated the way Frank was suddenly so fragile, hated that he was the one to make Frank that way. It had never occurred to him that Frank might think he was only allowed around on sufferance.
“Firstly, I do not let you keep hanging around. Natalie would cut me to ribbons if I acted like I was allowed to police her friendships,” and if he’d had the stupidity to try and get rid of Frank she’d likely divorce him, “Secondly, I consider you a friend and I’m rather alarmed you don’t consider me the same,” he waved down Frank’s attempt to speak, “Thirdly, and most importantly, you are Natalie’s best friend. I lost my best friends,” although it appeared as if he might yet get his brothers back, “I never want that for her. Do you understand?”
Frank nodded but he still looked confused.
“In fact I’m sorry to tell you but if you try and leave I’m going to get John to chase you down and drag you back in chains.”
Frank eyed John dubiously. “He could try.”
“Hey,” said John. “I command fifty Devil Dogs straight out of hell itself. Dave wants you tracked down, we’re tracking you down.”
Two of the Marines loomed grinning over John’s shoulders at the boast.
“Just say the word Major,” said one.
Dave had the horrifying realization that in the time he’d been absent John had got worse. And some moron had put him in charge of fifty Marines. What were they thinking?
“Frank,” he appealed, “you can’t abandon me to this lot.”
“No sir,” said Frank, watching the grinning Marines with commendable wariness, “I’ll stick with you, don’t worry. But I am sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Dave, he might not be able to do anything else for Natalie at the moment, but he could stop her best friend beating himself up for something that wasn’t his fault. “If they hadn’t got Natalie, they’d have never stopped coming, would they? It was her or the children, right?”
“Right,” Frank admitted miserably, “But there should have been something I could do.”
“Stop it. You’re no use to me if you’re still second-guessing yourself. You and Natalie did the best you could. The children are safe. Now let’s go get Natalie back. And make those who took her regret being born.”
“Yeah,” an almost smile lightened Frank’s face. “Yeah, I’m with you.”
Natalie braced herself as the man called Eames leaned in closer. One big hand carefully drew the tangle of her hair away from her face and mouth. Then he levered her to her feet, scooped her up in his arms, and carried her across to the lawn chairs. He settled her gently in place, then pulled a handful of cable ties from his pocket.
One cable tie was hooked through the binding around her ankles and tightened around the strut of the lawn chair. Another set of ties was looped around the binding on her wrists and fastened on a strut near her waist. It was an odd way to be tied up. There was no spreading and pinning of arms and legs. In fact if she shifted just a little she could hunch in on herself protectively – not that she would give them the satisfaction.
The hands had been odd too. They were careful. There was no grab and grope. No casual ownership. Not even an opportunistic skim of her waist or breasts. She squinted up at the big man suspiciously.
He winked back at her.
Natalie glared back, uneasily aware he was playing by a set of rules she didn’t understand. He turned away from her to face the audience still listening to the continuing mini-lecture,
“All set. Who’s going to play too?”
There was a sudden rush for the lawn chairs. Dom Cobb and Eames moved quickly around the room, unwinding long trailing plastic tubes from the silver suitcase sitting on the center table and strapping them to the wrists of the people lounging in the chairs. Natalie watched the way Cobb moved, all skinny precision and big gestures, and wondered what it was that made her think she knew him. She was certain she had never met him before under that, or any other, name.
There was some fuss over who would take the last chair, but Eames finally settled himself on the floor beside her, bemoaning the damage to his suit all the while, which made Cobb roll his eyes at him, and again left Natalie the nagging feeling she should know him.
Eames deftly strapped a cuff and with plastic cabling to her wrist, and then his own. There was still no pinch of nails or grasp of fingers. He did tap his knuckles against her hand briefly but Natalie was unable to interpret that in any way other than sympathetic. Particularly when Cobb came over to check on them with a look and the two men gently knocked their knuckles together in a reassuring countersign.
“Now then,” said Cobb, swinging his arms through the air, and Natalie abruptly realized one reason why his performance really pinged her as a performance, he was imitating the gestures of a much physically bigger man. “I’m just going to run through the safety procedures one last time, while Eames takes our guest under and gets her ready.”
He smiled at her then, quick, and sudden, and Dave. Shocked, Natalie stared, convinced for an instant that her mind had given way and betrayed her. But now that she had made the connection she could see Dave, maybe not in his looks, but in the tilt of his head and the slant of his mouth. She closed her eyes to try and hide her recognition of one of Dave’s brothers.
“Please pay attention to our warnings. While somnacin is a perfectly safe drug, use of it with the PASIV machine can lead to an increased risk of psychosis…”
“… Not that those guys need to worry about that. They’re clearly already psychotic as fuck,” said Eames.
Natalie staggered as she discovered she was now standing. Eames caught her, hands around her elbows.
“Easy there,” he cautioned, letting her go when he was sure she was steady on her feet. “It’s very disorientating the first couple of times.”
Natalie stared. The conference room had vanished. She was in a completely different building. This was a warehouse, the epitome of an abandoned warehouse, it was practically from central casting. It was huge and open, but only lit here in the center so that dark shadows prowled the edges full of rust and the drip of water, hanging chains and slowly rotting wooden pallets.
The central gleam of light fell on a woman tied to a chair. She looked up at their attention, breasts heaving under her short black dress with her pants for breath, lush red bottom lip trapped between her white teeth. The woman was her.
Natalie looked at Eames. He winced.
“Sorry. We’re trying to keep their attention, but yeah, sorry.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Come one,” he held his hand out to her. “Arthur isn’t going to be able to delay them forever.”
Wonderingly she took his hand, “But what about..?” She looked back at the trapped woman and swore in surprise. There was now a metal rack of unpleasant pliers and hooks, and standing by it another Eames. This one was smoking a cigarette and staring at them with eyes as blank as dead things.
“Come on,” said the original Eames, tugging lightly at her hand. “That always makes me want a fag like nobody’s business and Arthur will kill me if I start smoking again.”
Natalie no longer understood anything but she let Eames tow her away from simulacrums and up a set of stairs bolted to the wall of the warehouse. The dead-eyed Eames watched them go with no expression and took a long drag on his cigarette.
As Eames stopped to force a small door, Natalie looked down from the walkway and watched as lab-coated scientists and suit-wearing business men started to appear clustered around the two simulacrums. The other-Eames took another drag on his cigarette and then thoughtfully ground it into the woman’s pale shoulder, other-Natalie let out scream that throbbed with agony.
Natalie flinched and touched her own shoulder in surprise.
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“No,” said Eames. “Obviously. Arthur’s already furious with me. If I let you get hurt he’ll skin me alive.”
“So that’s, not me?” Even if it clearly was her.
“No she’s a projection of my mind, as is other me. They’re here to keep the masses occupied while Arthur deals with the goons up top.” The door he was working on gave way and held it open for her. Natalie looked at the chink of bright blue sky revealed, glanced back at the overpowering gloom of the warehouse, and crawled on through.
She came out onto a wrought-iron balcony. The balustrade was such a mass of curls and flourishes it almost looked alive. The warehouse was somehow so high there was no sight of Earth just an endless bright blue sky and clouds as soft as cotton candy.
Eames scrabbled out after her and shut the door behind them.
Natalie stretched luxuriously enjoying the heat of the sun after the cold damp warehouse. She settled herself on the balcony, letting her legs dangle over the edge. There was so much bright open space around her she could feel all the tension in her unwind.
“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
“I thought we’d been through that,” said Eames, looking wounded at the suggestion. “Being skinned alive, not as fun as one would think.” He sat himself down beside her.
Natalie blinked and resisted the urge to ask. “It’s lovely out here,” she said.
Eames smiled at her and tilted his head into the sun’s rays.
“So why is Arthur furious with you?”
“Well, you’re here. You must both have worked non-stop to get here ahead of me and be in a position to pull me out, but you managed it. It seems a very successful operation so far. So why is Arthur furious with you?”
He crumbled back into the wall, drawing his legs up so he could rest his arms on his knees, “Now I really want that cigarette.”
“Come on,” she coaxed as if he was Frank. “Tell your Aunt Natalie.”
He sighed, “Fine. The man whose name Arthur borrowed – ”
“Dominic Cobb. I’ve heard of him.”
“A lot of people have. That’s the problem.”
“It’s his real name.”
She wasn’t proud of it but Natalie definitely squawked.
“Exactly. It’s also the name of his children. The Cobb part that is, he wasn’t quite self-aggrandizing enough to give them his first name.”
All amusement fled. “Is he crazy?”
“Probably. So not content with becoming a master criminal under his own damn name, he kept said name when he gave up being a master criminal and took up being an architect again. With his children.”
That was the most unbelievably arrogant thing she had ever heard. Natalie didn’t have words. She knew her own past left her children at risk, but she’d discussed it with Dave and he’d been confident they had the security to handle it. And Natalie had, in the end, been a member of the US intelligence community still in good standing. And while she was excellent at what she did, there was nothing unique about her. Nobody was going to be after her for her ability to use new, practically experimental, technology.
“That’s more than crazy.”
“Yes, I’m not sure anyone could figure out the way his mind works. Principally because it’s only working half the time.”
“You give him too much credit,” snarled Natalie, thinking of those poor little children.
“Probably.” Eames had a cigarette in his hand. Natalie reached out and confiscated it.
“You’ll regret it if you smoke it.”
“You’re as bad as Arthur. It’s not actually unhealthy for you in here, you know.”
“No smoking on my watch,” said Natalie with decision. “So what did you do to this Cobb that has Arthur so mad? Because if you haven’t actually killed him, I think he’s got off lightly.”
Eames grinned at her tiredly, “I knew I liked you. Well we’ve been running around like headless chickens trying to keep various interested parties away from Cobb and his family. That’s why we took the first bloody job to interrogate what turned out to be Arthur’s brother for the Trust. They were closing in on Cobb, and really if you think of the balls-up he’d have made of the thing, everybody should be glad we took the job.”
“Do you not usually do interrogations?”
“The whole point of dreamshare is to be in and out with no-one even realizing you’d been there. The mark actually entrusts you with their secrets. Those thugs down there have no subtly at all and misunderstand the benefits of dreamshare so badly we figured it wouldn’t hurt to give them a demonstration.”
“I daresay you’re right.” Natalie wanted a much clearer explanation of how to use dreamshare to extract secrets, it sounded fascinating, but now was not the time. “I’m still not seeing why Arthur is furious with you.”
“You’re not so bad at interrogations yourself,” said Eames. A whole packet of cigarettes appeared in his hands and he spun them idly. “The problem is, well, if we’re going to tear these Trust bastards apart – which we are, don’t worry about that – we’re not going to have time to keep running around diverting attention from Cobb. So I called him and told him it was time to make a decision, he either went cap in hand to the US Military, or he called Saito at Proclus and agreed to be his kept expert.”
“Both those courses of action seem eminently sensible.”
“His kids are French citizens so he could have tried them,” Eames continued without apparently noticing her interruption, “but I felt that would unnecessarily complicate matters. Also Renoit is completely insane and probably wouldn’t take well to Cobb encroaching on his territory.”
“Why was this ultimatum a problem?” Natalie asked more loudly.
“Because despite Cobb treating him as nothing more than an annoying projection since he returned home – do you know he actually told Arthur not to visit the kids because he was too dangerous – despite everything, Arthur still cares about that – ” Eames broke off and started methodically destroying the cigarettes in their packet.
Natalie still hadn’t quite grasped what the issue was, “You gave him good choices. He did take one of them, right?”
“Yes, he’s crazy, but not that crazy. He called Saito and he and his kids are on a flight to Japan as we speak.”
“So – ”
“But you should have heard the way he spoke to Arthur.”
“He was furious?”
“No, you under-estimate him. He was all sadly betrayed, he couldn’t believe Arthur was doing this to him, after everything how could Arthur abandon him. It wasn’t even Arthur, it was me.”
Natalie was beginning to get suspicious about who exactly was furious with who. She decided the whole thing should be tabled until she had chance to interrogate Arthur on the subject,
“Stop messing with those cigarettes and explain how you keep magicing more of them. Is this whole thing your creation?”
“Yes, well mostly. We’re in my mind. Usually an extractor creates the structure and places it in the subjects mind, but I’m doing double duty right now. I’m holding the structure in place and filling it with my subconscious, so the projections are mine.” He pointed over the edge of the balcony, Natalie peered down and saw a troop of people were marching around a lower staircase on an endless loop.
“You can’t remove projections entirely,” Eames explained, “But you can keep them out the way of your scenario.”
“Except for our doubles?”
“Exactly. And that’s where it’s only mostly me. The thing with sharing dreams, you see, is that dreams are actually very personal. That’s why you usually manufacture very boring Earth normal, or at least Earth feasible bearing in mind people’s film watching habits, dreams. You can’t get more creative because you won’t get buy in from your subjects.”
“So if you tried to have everyone say, I don’t know, flying dragons, some people wouldn’t believe it was possible.”
“Precisely. And even if you could accept the concept of a dragon, you might reject my concept of a dragon.” Eames was suddenly holding a small lizard with wings and big, long lashed eyes. The tiny thing scrunched up, hiccupped twice, and blurted out a puff of smoke.
Natalie laughed and scratched it under the chin to appreciative coos. Then she concentrated really hard and a huge dragon suddenly roared past them, a tiny-in-comparison woman perched on its back, red hair flared out behind her like a banner in the slip-stream.
“Oh well done,” Eames shot to his feet to get a better look. “We’re going to have to get together to go dragon flying.”
“Arthur doesn’t do dragons?”
“He likes winged horses.”
“Oh dear. I don’t think dragons and winged horses would mix particularly well.”
“We’ve never actually taken it to its most grisly conclusion. And I don’t mind horses. Although he actually made me learn how to ride so I could properly understand their intricacies.”
“But couldn’t you just dream them up?”
“Not realistic enough for my Arthur. He likes winged horses because he likes real horses. That’s another reason he’s not as keen on the idea of dragons. I’m a con artist, lovely, if I don’t like the odds, I change them. Arthur’s a gambler, a professional one not a degenerate like me, he works with the odds he’s given. That’s what makes it challenge for him. He thinks just imagining up whatever you need is cheating.”
“You don’t mind?”
“No, why would I? Besides sometimes too much unreality is – ” he gestured with his hands and they turned to smoke floating away in the breeze.
Natalie was suddenly dizzy under the possibility of absolutely anything happening. She had feeling that way lay madness.
“It’s not as if I mind winged horses.” Eames stared at where his hands weren’t and suddenly bunches of tulips appeared, that swirled into tentacles before reforming into hands. He flexed them carefully as if checking they’d come back right. “I just think dragons would be fun too. And they breathe fire.”
“I can try another one.”
“No, please don’t.” The strain in his face was suddenly sharply evident. “The mind can only take so much intrusion before it revolts.” He pointed down again and Natalie could see all the projection had stopped to stare at her and hiss. “My subconscious is fairly well-behaved, but I’ve got all those thugs being repulsive inside the warehouse, so my mind’s a bit on edge and we need to keep things on an even keel for as long as possible to give Arthur time to make his move.”
“So what are those men doing?”
“I’m not actually sure. I just know my subconscious doesn’t like it. Like an infection under the skin.” It seemed an apt simile, Natalie thought he was actually getting paler as she watched.
“How can you not know?”
“Like I said, this is only mostly me. Dreaming is essentially collaborative even if I have more control as it’s my mind. I can’t dream anything you, and those sleaze bags, won’t accept, otherwise the dream breaks down.”
“Hence the familiar scenery.”
“Right. Out here was a bit of a risk, but you seemed to know the warehouse, so I figured you’d like out here just as much as Arthur and I do.”
It hadn’t struck Natalie before but the outside with the endless sky and the bright sun was the complete antitheses of being trapped in the cold and dark. Just being out here soothed her soul.
“I thought you would. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too.”
He shrugged his shoulders, “Better than the labs. Anyway, the more people you have, the more careful you have to be.”
“Makes sense. More imaginations to conflict. You have to stick closer to reality.”
He nodded wearily, “So the warehouse, the set-up, all of them recognized that. Even the scientists, if they hadn’t seen it in reality, they’d have seen it in a film. They would accept it. And having accepted it, they play the scene out how they expect it to go. I don’t actually have to do it myself, or even watch. The force of their expectations will have projection-me playing out a torture scene they can all accept without me doing anything except ignoring the itch in my mind.”
Natalie had feeling it was both more complicated and more difficult than he was making out but arguing with a man straining to hold eight people in his head was obviously going to be counter-productive.
“What do they want?” she asked instead.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you were brought in to interrogate John. Dave and I thought we would be used as leverage against him. But if they want me interrogated, they must think I know something. But what? Dave hasn’t spoken to John for at least five years.”
“Oh, I’m not completely sure what it is exactly. It’s an energy source, generator, something, you need Arthur if you want to talk physics. Its codename is Project Zero.”
Natalie stared, “Project Zero?”
“Yes. Something the Military has got its hands on. It has the Trust all worked up to the point they’re frothing at the mouths.”
“No, no, Project Zero is Dave’s. There was a scientist, I don’t even know their name, in the paperwork it’s Lagrange but I know that’s a cover, they discovered this amazing new power generating possibility. Clean power. I think Dave even had a prototype constructed. But then they worked out exactly how much explosive force it could generate and Dave had the project shut down. Said humans could learn from others’ mistakes and his legacy to the world was not going to be a way to destroy it.”
“Commendable,” said Eames, but he was distracted as he said it. A zippo lighter appeared in his hands and he absently clicked it on and off. “But I don’t think it’s his choice anymore. The Trust definitely believed John had access to the project.”
“Definitely not, Dave mothballed the whole thing. The only reason I know is because I met him when the NID sent me undercover in his company to obtain the specs for the project. They said it was to protect the knowledge but given the Trust situation – they were lying, they wanted to exploit it.”
Eames gave no sign of noticing Natalie’s deepest shame, the way she had allowed herself to be used to destroy when she thought she had been atoning. It was one of the reasons she’d been willing to walk away from that world when Dave asked her, because how could she ever be sure she wasn’t being used again.
“I think we have a marvelous coincidence in play,” said Eames. “I think the Military have independently got on the track of whatever Project Zero is. And I’ll bet John is connected to that Military project, and somebody in the Trust added Dave to equation and decided John had to know more than he was telling.”
Natalie nodded, “Right. I guess it was too much to hope Dave could bury the secret for good. If Lagrange figured it out, someone else was bound to have the same idea.” Then she grinned, “And to top it all off they went and hired Arthur to do the interrogation.”
“The extraction,” Eames corrected. “And that wasn’t really a coincidence. They were after Cobb first.”
“But you beat them to the draw and made sure they hired Arthur. Can you imagine their faces when they realized they hired John’s brother to interrogate him?”
Eames laughed softly, “Best revenge ever. Of course it wouldn’t work a second time so once Cobb was safely on his way, Arthur borrowed the name. Most useful that tosser’s ever been.”
“So what is the plan?”
“I told you. We stay down here while Arthur takes out the ones who stayed top-side,” his voice shook.
“But – ”
“I don’t like it either, but you’re safe, and I’ve taken eight of the bastards out of play.”
That decided Natalie, holding those eight men here and letting them use his brain was definitely harder than Eames was making out, there was no way he would have agreed to a plan that left him taking things easy. The best thing she could do was keep quiet, stop distracting him and let him handle his own mind.
“So do we actually need to do anything?” she checked.
“Nope just sit tight.”
“Alright then.” She glanced at him as he shivered despite the sun. The lines of his face were etched deep into his greying skin. He was watching the way his hands were trembling as if they no longer belonged to him.
Natalie let herself sway a little closer, brushing up against his shoulder. With an effort he turned his head and tried to focus on her. Clumsily he lifted one arm,
“Come here, it’s amazing you aren’t in shock already.”
She let him haul her close and hide his face in her hair. After a few shaky breaths he was steady enough to sit back up, arm still around her shoulders, head leaning against hers.
“Thank you,” he said.
She didn’t point out the gratitude was definitely going the wrong way, just knocked her knuckles against his and smiled.
Together they sat back and let the sun warm them.