John followed the ghosts to the unexplored sectors, walked empty corridors, cold silver floors. Sometimes the lights at the tops of the copper paneled walls blinked on for him, or the green liquid bubbled in the pillars, but most of the time it was dark and silent. A Genii stepped out in front of him, a young man with his face streaked with blood. Nice try, John thought, and walked right through him, barely able to tell the spectral cold from the damp chill of the air.
Maybe last year, the dead Genii would have bothered him, but not anymore. He knew what they were now, their other face, and he was glad they were here, wandering the empty corridors alone, surrounded by things they couldn't understand. He hoped it was their version of hell.
He followed the scent of the sea to a door wedged half-open, where cold wind poured through a broken window. It cut through the thin cotton of the scrubs he was wearing, freezing the sweat on his skin.
An Ancient stepped past him in the doorway, close enough that her arm brushed his, the fine fabric of her white dress whispering against his body. She gave him a distracted but friendly nod and vanished just outside the door.
Inside the room, the floor was wet with rainwater, like ice under his bare feet. John picked his way through shattered crystal to the windows. The sea and sky were gray, both storm-tossed, the clouds heavy and almost low enough to touch. He could see the edge of the pier, a few hundred feet down, waves breaking against the metal railings of the observation bridges. A new storm or an old one, John thought, and rubbed at his forearm, the itchy bleeding spot where he had ripped out the IV. He had read somewhere that some materials absorbed the energy of events, reflected it back as images. It was like the whole city was stuck in a loop, repeating everything that had ever happened.
Or maybe that's just me, John thought. "I never see any Wraith here," he said, turning around. "Why is that?"
"No souls." The captain of the Aurora was standing in the doorway. He looked tired and preoccupied, his eyes on the cloudy sky. "The city won't take them in."
Good answer. John had always liked that guy.
John picked his way out and went down the corridor. He had his bearings now, and he knew he needed to go down to the base of the tower.
At the corridor intersection, John heard a faint scuffle. He froze. That was real. He stood still, head cocked, listening, trying to decide where it had come from. They might be setting a trap.
After a moment he heard footsteps moving away.
John hesitated, but that was the way he had to go, toward the stairwell in the center shaft of the tower. It would take too long to backtrack and find another way. Crap. He shook his head, frustrated, and decided to risk it.
He moved down the corridor, his bare feet silent, wary of Wraith stunners, tasers, possibly a net. He stopped again at the archway, biting his lip, uncertain. The foyer area was round, with a solid copper railing around the stairwell, and there could be someone crouched behind it, or hiding just up one of the other corridors. John really didn't want to get caught.
Dr. Abrams stepped out of the archway across the well, and motioned for John to come out. Okay then, John thought, eyeing him worriedly. If Abrams had been any good at this kind of thing, he might not have gotten eaten. You better be right this time.
He stepped out, but nobody jumped him. He started around the railing to the head of the stairs, still cautious, but it looked like Abrams was right and the area was clear. He reached the head of the stairs and stopped.
There was something on the top step, a dark bundle. John took a step nearer and realized it was his jacket, the good leather one, and his boots. "Huh," he said aloud. He nudged the jacket with his foot, unrolling it, but there was nothing concealed underneath.
He picked it up and pulled it on, the warmth a relief. Then he sat down and put on his boots.
He went down the stairs as far as he could, then across to the next stairwell, and the next. Finally he reached the broad passage that led out to the structures just above the pier's deck. And stopped.
He put his hands on his hips, thinking it over, looking up and down the passage. "This is wrong," he said to Colonel Sumner.
Sumner shrugged, turning toward the big doors that opened onto the observation bridge. "There's nothing here. Must be further down."
"Yeah." John let out his breath and retraced his steps. He was running out of time here.
He finally found the right stairs, the ones that twisted down into darkness, below the city's waterline. The copper walls were spotted with mold, and the opaque white crystals that were emergency lights flickered uncertainly, trying to react to his presence. The sea had breached the city twice here, once when they had first arrived, when the power had started to fail, and again during the storm. Storms, John thought again. Yeah, he was running out of time.
At the bottom he stopped again. The light was dim, eight corridors led off from this foyer, the air was heavy with brine and rot, and he had gotten turned around. Something drifted by, a giant jellyfish-like creature, elegant and gently glowing with blue light, but that was no damn help. It would be easier if he knew where he was going.
Then he heard footsteps on the stairs above him. Charin stepped out of the darkness, still dressed in the Athosian funeral robes, and pointed urgently to a corridor. John ran.
They had a life signs detector and he didn't, and it was no fucking fair, but nothing ever was. He paused in a lab, one dim light flickering painfully, the consoles broken loose by the flood and washed up against the far wall, a useless pile of twisted metal and broken crystal. He could hear voices and footsteps, way too close. Then someone touched his sleeve, and Dr. Dumais stepped to his side, showing him the glowing screen of a life signs detector. She shouldn't have one -- she didn't have the gene and the ATA hadn't worked on her, it was why she had died -- but she was a ghost, he figured she could have anything she wanted.
John studied the screen, marked the three blips that were heading toward him, and whispered, "Thanks." She nodded and stepped away, dissolving into the shadows before he was out of the lab.
He worked his way through the next three corridors, until he reached the big open doorway, set into a wall crusted with weird coral-like growths, all dead. It opened into a big dark chamber, where a wide platform led onto a bridge, broken halfway across and arching off into nothing. The sea had come here to stay, filling the bottom half of the chamber.
John walked out to the end of the broken bridge, standing above the still blackness of the water. At least he knew what he was here for now.
Behind him, he heard them running down the corridor, sliding to a halt at the doorway. "No, wait, don't jump!" Rodney shouted frantically.
John winced in annoyance. "Rodney, shut up and come here for a minute."
John glanced back. Rodney had taken a few steps out onto the platform. Teyla and Ronon flanked him, all three of them staring at John like something was wrong. John said impatiently, "Will you come on? We're running out of time."
Rodney stepped back to have a whispered conversation with Teyla and Ronon. There was a lot of pointing and gesturing, and wary looks in his direction. "Yeah, that's subtle," John muttered to Markham, who was sitting on the broken section of the catwalk lower down.
"They think you're going to kill yourself, sir," Markham said, sounding offended. "What's that about?"
John shrugged and rolled his eyes. He had no idea.
"Okay, Colonel," Rodney called out, edging out onto the bridge. "I'm coming out there, just hold on. You are aware that you're under the influence of an alien plant toxin, and you really should be in the infirmary, and while I was onboard with this idea that if we used restraints or let the Marines tackle you, it would cause irreparable damage to your already irreparably damaged psyche--"
Back on the platform, Ronon looked annoyed and Teyla hissed, "Rodney!"
Rodney stopped to glare at her. "What? It's not like he doesn't know he's been tortured half a dozen times. All right, fine!" He continued on, telling John, "As I was saying, obviously Carson was wrong when he predicted you'd pass out in half an hour and we could bring you back, and you did put the things on we left for you so you wouldn't get pneumonia so you aren't completely crazy but--"
"Will you just come on?" John waited impatiently, until Rodney reached the end of the bridge and made an awkward grab for him. John grabbed him instead, yanking him forward in front of him and turning him to face the water. "Will you just look? Right there, where I'm pointing."
"Colonel! What the hell are-- Wait, wait, that doesn't look like--" Rodney stopped struggling and fumbled a flashlight out of his jacket pocket, flashing it on the far wall. He swore, felt all his pockets, swore again. He turned around and grabbed John's arms, backing him up a couple of paces along the bridge. Ronon was suddenly standing there, and Rodney shoved John into his arms. "Here, hold onto him. Teyla, get the scanner out of my pack." He keyed his radio and said, "Elizabeth, we need the shields up now. We have a breach occurring in an unstable outer wall, in a chamber with a disabled water seal. Yes, exactly!"
Teyla leaned around Ronon to hand Rodney the scanner, asking John incredulously, "That is what you came down here for?"
"Sure." John leaned against Ronon, because he was kind of tired.
Ronon shifted, wrapping an arm around John's waist to keep him upright. His chest rumbled as he said, "How did you know?"
"People told me. Lots of people," John said, and then he passed out.
John woke up in the infirmary, buried under blankets in a warm bed. He had an IV again, but other than that he felt pretty good. He squinted up at the people standing over him. All of them were alive, or at least he really hoped so. "Did you get the...thing?"
"The wall breach?" Rodney said. "Yes. We raised the shields before the storm hit and there's a repair team working on it now. How did you--"
Teyla interrupted, "If you had not led us to it, there would be a massive flood in the lower sections." She gave Rodney a significant look. "Correct?"
Rodney folded his arms uncomfortably. "Right. Sorry about that quack comment, Carson."
"I accept your apology, Rodney," Carson said, giving him a look.
"But how did you know?" Rodney persisted, eyeing John. "You said 'people told you.' What people? Aliens, Ascendants, what? Yes, the toxin was making you hallucinate, but your hallucinations were astonishingly precise."
"Uh..." John was just beginning to process what had happened, and he wanted to have his freakout in private. "I don't remember."
"Let's let the Colonel rest," Carson said firmly, took Rodney's arm, and dragged him away. Ronon gave John a smile and followed, but Teyla stayed.
They looked at each other for a long moment. John remembered that she had been standing behind him, when they had walked into the field with the poisonous plants. He had staggered backward and fallen on her, and she had pulled him out. If she had been exposed to the toxin too... He said, "You saw Charin."
She nodded, her brow furrowed. "At the bottom of the stairwell." She hesitated, as if not sure she really wanted to know. "There were many of them?"
"Hundreds." He took a deep breath. "Maybe it was them, maybe it was something the city was doing, is doing. We just can't see it, normally."
Teyla shook her head, her smile a little sad, and a little wry. "We live in a strange place, John."
"Yeah," John told her. "But at least it's on our side."