Sweat and grit matted the back of Rodney's neck as he stepped outside on his break. Rain pelted the ground, splattering the cobblestone streets as Rodney swayed under the bakery's awning. The wind and water felt good after the heat of the bakery, and the rich scent of fresh bread covered the worst smells off the street. Pulling the small blue bottle of tiny pills out of his pocket, he turned his face into the wind, bathing in the fresh air. He was supposed to take a dose when he got up this morning, but he'd put it off; the pills made him feel disconnected and sick to his stomach. They slowed his brain down and made him clumsy, but at the same time, he didn't worry about anything at all. The pills wrapped him up inside himself, giving him a thick cozy blanket that buffered him against the world. The camp witch doctor said to use them as needed, but Rodney wondered if he needed them anymore.
With no past and no future, he didn't have a lot to worry about as he ambled from job to job. He just had to survive.
As if to remind him why he was taking them, when he put the bottle back in his pocket, his skin prickled, like an electrical charge running under his skin. The itch crawled up his spine, and down into his hands, making them shake and clench. When the fit passed, he pulled the pills back out, opened the bottle, and dropped one on his tongue. As it dissolved in his mouth, he watched the street, deep breaths steadying him as the shakes came under control. Traffic moved slowly, teams of black-and-tan horses plodded along between their minders, pulling supply and personnel wagons. He must have ridden in one, but he had no memory of it; he had few reminders of what his life was like before he was taken to the camp.
The drugs smoothed out the edges, softening the world for him while the electrical sensation passed. Distantly, as if through a long tunnel, Rodney heard the thud of soldiers marching, and turned away before they arrived, the door closing solidly behind him. Washing his hands and wiping them dry on his apron, Rodney breathed a sigh of relief as the itching subsided, his body finally back under his own control.
"Go clean the tables, and take the new orders," the baker barked at him from the ovens. "We got a second rush today. Big news from the capitol, and everyone has to jaw about it."
He said, "Shhh" back at her, his all purpose sound. He used it for yes, no, I heard you, I didn't hear you, calm down, and I'm not calm. He wondered sometimes when he hadn't taken the pills, if he'd been a big talker, before. Picking up the tub they used for the dirty dishes, he carried it out into the lunch room. There were only ten tables, all of them dirty or occupied, and a few people standing near the door. There was a buzz and nervous energy to the room that made him wonder what had happened, but it was an abstract thought, nothing that affected him. He moved through the tables, cleaning and bussing the dirty dishes, and seating the next group in line, once the table was clean.
It was mechanical, automatic. He smiled and nodded, not really listening to what anyone said. Yet everyone wanted to talk, quick, furtive voices that meant secrets and lies. They talked to their companions, they talked to the baker, and they talked to Rodney:
"The minister of reeducation is dead," one of the tea women whispered to her partner as Rodney passed. "My husband told me last night."
"Really," gasped the woman who ordered the cheese pastry, as Rodney refilled her water glass. "That's insane. It would have been in the paper."
"They don't want it to get out," insisted the salesman to his client as Rodney handed him his soup. "Blood all over the walls, very nasty."
"The Prime Minister is threatening martial law," said the shopgirl who wanted a half-salad with dressing on the side. She reached for Rodney, to ask him something probably, but he twisted neatly away from her grip. "That's why the soldiers are out. The assassin is still on the loose. The streets just aren't safe."
Rodney moved on before he heard the boyfriend's reply, occasionally "shhing" at customers to get them out of his way.
"Rodney." There was a pause. "Rodney. McKay!"
Looking up from his paper-covered desk, Rodney saw a man in black leaning against the doorway. "What is it?" he growled, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He never talked at the bakery. Since reeducation, he never talked at all. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"Doing what?" the man said, gesturing at the suddenly empty desk. "Look, as soon as you can, meet me in the gateroom." He straightened up, and waved at the hallway behind him. "I've gotta move, can't stay in any place too long, but I need to know that you'll follow."
"The gateroom?" Rodney said cautiously.
"Rodney," he said, sounding affectionate, but exasperated. "You know--where the big ring is. You can make it, right?"
Rodney swallowed. "Just as soon as I can."
Twisting in bed, Rodney clutched the scratchy blanket to his chest. The last vestiges of his dreams washed over him, the city and its people vibrant and alive, so different from the dull, hard life he lived right now. A swirl of brilliant colors lingered in his mind, as he opened his eyes to the dark grey stone that defined his room in the bakery's cellar. Dim, filtered light shimmied through an arrow-slot window, bringing with it a wisp of cool air and the sound of rain still falling. It felt like the sun hadn't been out in days, weeks maybe, but he couldn't trust his memory. He burrowed deeper under the blanket, watching as an occasional raindrop splattered against the glass, leaving a wet streak glimmering through the dirt. He wished he didn't have to get up.
The pills dulled his senses, but not the aching loneliness within him. He had lost his whole life to the reeducation camp; now he was one of the vanished, mind-wiped and set out on the streets again.
Rolling upright, he placed his bare feet on the cold stone floor, and grabbed the bottle of pills before he could think too much about it. After dry swallowing a dose, he went to the kitchen and lit the fire, both to warm the room and heat the ovens, so he could proof the yeast. He pumped water into a pot and carried it to the stove, sitting the cast iron on the warmest section and adding some salt, starting breakfast. While the water heated, he scooped out pale, flaked grain from a barrel and set out some nuts for roasting once the ovens were warm enough. When the water boiled, he poured the grain in and stirred it to eliminate the lumps, then awakened the baker.
She smiled when he woke her, though the brightness was quickly lost, and their day began in earnest. Rodney spent the early morning hours doing as she directed, helping her with the food that would be sold in the café that day. She was easy with him, gentle, like he was fragile and could not understand anything complex, and she called him Talia, childling, even though he didn't think he was young. Rodney knew there was something odd about it all, but he let her voice wash over him; it was good to move and not have to think. Sitting made him nervous, like the soldiers made him nervous; Rodney preferred the security of a list of things to do, and the feeling of accomplishment he received from getting things done.
As she worked, the baker kept looking out at the sky. "Bad weather again," she muttered while Rodney looped around the counter, filling the salt and black spice jars. She talked to Rodney a lot, as it was just the two of them. The soldiers had taken her husband several months ago, and she hadn't seen him since. The government said he was re-educated, like Rodney was, and that was the last she'd heard from them, before Rodney had arrived.
"There's talk of closing the camps, you know." She punched her fists into the bread dough, the cords of her muscles standing out as she kneaded and shaped it. "A scandal of some sort, involving some people who came through the ring. The government's in a tizzy over it."
Her husband had been a dissident, and as far as Rodney knew, he was never coming back. Still, he nodded amiably, her words passing over him as he thought. He liked it here, liked the baker. He liked how he could eat any of the leftovers he wanted at the end of the day. But last night's dream left him restless, almost an itch like the one that the pills prevented. His dream meant something, he was sure of that, something that might be connected to his life before reeducation. He avoided thinking about the past or looking for any clues related to what he was doing before the camp, but maybe it was time to move on.
The ring was several days walk from here, outside of the capital city. He'd go there like his dream directed, and see what he could find.
The baker didn't want him to go. "The streets aren't safe, not even for the soldiers, Talia. Every man in barracks 12 at the Ershar reeducation center was killed yesterday. And the head of the governor's private guard was killed in a brawl two days ago, five of his men with him." She leaned in close, grabbing at his hands to stop him from packing, but Rodney shook her off. He needed to go, to get out of here.
"You could be killed," she yelled, desperation making her voice shake. "Don't you understand? Does the fact that you can't talk mean you're an idiot?" She snagged Rodney's hand, pulled him in close. "There's a madman out there, killing people. You could be next."
"Shhhh," he said, rubbing her back, trying to stop her shaking. "Shhhh." He felt at a loss for what to do. She obviously cared for him, but he couldn't let that stop him. The more resistance he got, the more he needed to run away.
She ground her face into his neck, leaving tears on his collar. "He's looking for something, and he's not going to rest until he finds it."
Rodney knew how the guy felt. He was feeling that way about finding the ring himself.
Night fell before Rodney reached a house or farm, so he tucked himself up against the side of a culvert, away from the road and out of reach of the wind. He guessed that it was a two-days walk to the next town, and the weather was turning rough. He pulled his coat in tight around him, enjoying the warmth. The baker had given it to him when the first storm hit, the one that lasted for three days, and it had lasted him through several other squalls. Setting his knapsack down on the ground, Rodney pulled out one of the sandwiches she'd given him, enjoying the rich, nutty taste.
The bread was thick and dark, with a sweet tang, and it was gone before he realized how close he was to finishing it. Food was going to get tight before he reached the capitol, and he needed to pace himself, maybe pick up an odd job once he got to the city. He had a few ellero, tips from the café, hopefully enough to last him until he got there.
He had to be careful, though, and stay away from the soldiers and police. They made him nervous enough, without his dreams and the stories that the baker had mentioned.
Gathering some dried moss and leaves, he started a fire and made himself a cup of tea. Picking up his bottle of pills, Rodney hefted it in his hands, feeling the weight of it. Then he deliberately threw the bottle as hard as he could, watching it fly into the sky, turning away before he saw where it would land. Ignoring the panicked feeling he had at the enormity of what he had done, he tucked his knapsack under his head to get some sleep. Even though he was tired, he looked up at the sky for a long time, his heart settling down into a more normal pace. After the bakery, it felt odd to be able to see the stars so clearly. He couldn't escape the feeling that this was what he should have done weeks ago, left the bakery and headed to the ring. It should only be another couple of days.
Finally, he relaxed enough that he slept, and dreams filled his mind again. This time it was the capitol, or what he imagined the capitol to be like, with its statues and multi-story buildings. This time, he walked through the streets with purpose, staring at the people around him. The man in black was here somewhere, he knew it, but he didn't have a name or address or any way to get a hold of him. He wandered for awhile--the capitol was so huge!--until at last he came to a café near Government Square.
More food and more people gathered at one spot than would have ever been allowed at the bakery. In the far corner, Rodney spotted the dark-haired man and his heart raced; he'd found the guy at last! He tried to call out, to wave and get his attention, but the man brushed by, going out into the streets again. He paused at the doorway, looking back over his shoulder. His face was serious, passionate, as he spoke. "I can't stay, they're on my tail. If anything happens, find the Stargate. Don't worry about me. I'll find you."
Rodney awakened with dew upon his forehead and eyelashes, and disappointment filling him. It was just dawn--late for him at the bakery, but early enough for a day on the road. He needed to get going if he was to make the city by night.
Bad weather rolled into the capitol at the same time that Rodney did. He ended up at a transient shelter, waiting for it to pass and trying to remember not to scratch. At least the storm distracted him from the withdrawal. The fierce wind scrabbled and clawed at the shelter's walls, making the door shudder. No one could remember storm season ever being this bad.
"They brought in a specialist through the ring," the shelter's director said. "He was supposed to get the old machines working, but I guess something happened. It all seems worse."
By the next day, no one much cared why it happened. Everyone just wanted it to stop.
Curving around himself, pressed against the walls, Rodney heard when the roof was lost. The wind ripped it away with a howl that made Rodney clutch his arms around himself, crumpling inward. A woman whimpered beside him, the sobs of one of her children echoing in the room as the wind briefly ebbed.
Light flashed through a window, momentarily outlining someone else in the shelter. When the light flashed again, he caught sight of the uniform, and scrambled backward as far as he could. He covered his own mouth to keep from screaming as he recognized one of the Minister's personal guards.
Only it can't be, he reminded himself. No one had come into the shelter since the storm started. This had to be a hallucination.
"Fix the shield," the minister said, light flashing behind him. The guard held the man in black, and Rodney could see he'd been beaten.
"Fix the shield," the minister said again. "Your friend lives if you do as I say."
Rodney pressed his lips tight together, as he watched the man in black being struck. He couldn't do anything about this hallucination, except watch. If he'd kept his pills, maybe they would have helped, but there was nothing he could do now. If he opened his mouth; he wasn't sure what would come out. Maybe a howl like the wind, or maybe a long drawn-out scream.
The storm crested with another flash of light, and Rodney jerked backward, shoving his pack behind him in case he needed to run. The low rumble of thunder made it feel like the building was shaking apart. Another flash of light, and Rodney saw empty space where the Minster had been, another flash, and the guard was gone as well. The only people around him were the others taking shelter from the storm.
He took one ragged breath after another, his hand pressed hard against his chest as he waited for the wind to die down. His pack spilled open, so he shoved what he could into it, and curled around it on his side. Hugging his arms around himself, he made his body a tight, protective ball, and forced himself to breath slow and steady. No other memories popped up, nothing else came to him as he lay there and waited for the storm to end. The light flashed, followed by another rumble of thunder, and Rodney burrowed his head into the welcoming dark.
"Hey, Rodney?" A fuzzy black and white screen showed the man in black hunched in a tunnel, water spilling and rising around him. "Can you hurry it up? I'm not sure how long I can last."
"Working on it," Rodney yelled, his fingers flying over a tablet of some sort. "Won't be long," he said, glancing over his arm at where the minister stood, his two guards with him. "I just need you to reconnect the fitting, and then we can try powering it up."
"Cool," the other man said, twisting sideways. "I just need--shit."
Water surged through the pipe, and the image of the man in black was lost under the cascade as the image on the screen whited out.
Light filtered through the clouds, and a thin mist coated everything damply. Rodney didn't care; he knew he wasn't staying. As soon as he could get some more food, he would find his way to the ring. He had to know if his friend had made it there.
The shelter's cook slid in next to him and looked out at the streets around them. Shattered glass lay everywhere, along with bits of roofing tile, branches, bricks, and sparking power lines. The shelter door was missing and the window was shattered.
She sighed heavily, shaking her head. She had done that a lot when they were making dinner together before the storm. "Do you think this is some sort of retribution?"
Rodney could only stare at her like she was ten kinds of idiot.
"Oh, I'm sorry; I forgot you can't--."
He looked down, feeling angry and ashamed in equal measure.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of." She looked away quickly, as if she knew what Rodney was thinking. "There was an announcement before you arrived, right before the storm hit: a government apologized for a case of mistaken identity. They sent the wrong man for reeducation." She stared outside, her eyes unfocused. "Makes you wonder how many others there are, doesn't it?"
Rodney stomped away, anger urging him to just go and leave these people behind. "Shhh, shhh, shhh," he muttered, expressing his disgust with the government, the storms, and the whole world in general.
Snapping back to herself, the cook grabbed his hand and guided him to the shelter's kitchen.
"Take some food and move on," she said quietly. "Soldiers will come here soon, asking me if I have seen you." She pressed her lips hard together, and plucked a piece of paper out of her pocket. Rodney snagged it and looked it over. Even though he couldn't read it, he thought it was a wanted poster; both he and his friend were prominently displayed.
"This is the man that killed the minister," she said, pointing at the man in black. "This one is the mistake." This time she tapped Rodney's picture. "Do you understand?"
A bone-dead chill settled through him. He'd watched the man die. It couldn't be true, could it? Trembling he reached out to take the paper, then let his hand fall. He looked at the cook, at a loss for what to do, and his confusion must have been apparent from the compassion he saw in her warm dark eyes.
"He escaped reeducation. You did not. You both came through the ring." She gestured at him, at his blue eyes and square shoulders. He looked different from most of the other people he's seen. "I don't know where you came from, but the city's not a good place for you." She took a deep breath and went to the cupboard, pulling out bread and salted meat. "You'll have good luck at the farms around here, and no one asks a farmer to report his hired hands. Go quickly, and don't let the soldiers find you."
Rodney nodded his understanding, took the food and got his pack. The cook was right, he needed to go, but not because the soldiers were looking for him. He needed to find his friend, and for that, he needed to get to the ring.
At least after the storm, the soldiers and the police wouldn't be able to look for him right away, not with all the damage. They would need to establish order, or so he hoped. He'd be able to travel more quickly if he didn't have to avoid them.
With a mental thank you, Rodney headed out into the street. Weaving through the refuse, Rodney picked his path carefully, until it was safe to run.
Rodney didn't stop at any of the farms once he left the capitol; his head finally felt clear, and he needed to push himself, needed to get to the ring and meet his friend. He walked at night, rolling over the ground like he was born to it, rather than letting the aches and pains of sore feet and legs get to him.
Snagging a stray newspaper as he passed a mail stop, his attention was caught by the front page: The former minister of reeducation had been buried with full pomp and circumstance, and there were pictures all over the paper. Rodney's hands shook as he looked at them, rage filling him. The paper was singing the praises of a man who brainwashed dissidents, who felt he was justified in kidnapping and torturing people.
Rodney threw the paper aside, and walked on. He was going to make it to the ring if he had to walk all night.
Leaves crackled under his feet as Rodney threaded his way through the trees, looking for a safe place to hide. Several of the larger ones had lost their battle with the winds and rain, and were lying on their sides with their huge root systems providing good cover. Rodney choose a spot where he could see the ring without drawing attention to himself. Soldiers gathered by the DHD, but no one else was in sight. Rodney wasn't sure how long he would have to wait, but it might be a long time. What was important was that he was here, by the ring. He had made it at last.
He made himself a bed using one of the fallen trees as a wind break and set up a lean-to, then settled down for the night. He awakened to sunlight, and someone nearby. Rolling to his side, he peered out his shelter, and stared into the face of another man.
"Shhh!" he said, startled. He pushed himself away from the opening, then realized that it was the man from the wanted poster, the one that had been in his dream. The man backed away, leaving enough room for Rodney to crawl out of his shelter. Standing, Rodney noted that the other man looked rough; dirty, bruises on his face and hands, clothing torn. He might even have been shot at some point, from the makeshift bandage tied around his upper arm. Despite his appearance and the rumors he'd heard, Rodney wasn't afraid of him. "Shhh," he said, curiously.
The man smiled at him, his eyes warm, hungry even. "Rodney," he said, his voice a low growl.
Rodney smiled at him and said, "Shhh," back.
"God, Rodney." His face was warm and open as he propelled himself forward, grabbing Rodney and holding him tight.
Memories rolled over Rodney as he was wrapped up in the other man's arms: the two of them playing chess together, video games together, walking together, and running for their lives. Laughing and joking with each other at times, yelling and growling at others. Vivid sense-memories of the two of them curled around each other, naked and sweat slick, on a bed that should never have held two. A host of emotions and thoughts poured through Rodney as Pandora's box was unlocked.
He pulled John into a tight embrace, his head on John's shoulder. His muscles relaxed, and a long sigh escaped his lips, a quiet stillness descending on him as he stood in John's arms. "Shh--Sheppard," he said. "John."
"Yes," John said, and drew him into a kiss.