The university labs were nearly deserted this time of night, just the way Rodney liked them – free of idiots taking up space at his terminals. Malcom Tunney claimed he worked better in the scurry and bustle that overtook the labs in the afternoons, but Tunney was a moron, deep down.
No, this was better. All that processing power, freed up for his use. No lines at the coffee machine. Nobody moving his notes, or asking stupid questions.
It'd been surprisingly easy to convince his professors to give him a key to the labs. But then, surely they recognized his genius and were willing to make allowances (a very small part of him argued that maybe they were just tired of the other doctoral students' complaints about him, but that was probably just his hunger talking).
He arched back over his chair and stretched his arms wide, glancing at the windows over his shoulder. The soft glow of the city over the hill acted as a sort of false dawn, but he had hours yet. He glanced at his watch to make sure – wouldn't be the first time he'd lost track of time in the labs.
Something moved beyond the glass as he turned away, the merest flicker of something pale and winged. He looked again, squinting, but there was nothing there.
Rodney rubbed at this eyes and reached for his coffee – or rather for the dregs in the bottom of his cup.
He sighed and checked his pockets for change, brightening when he found a few stray quarters. His chair squeaked as he pushed away from it. The sound was strangely loud in the empty lab.
The lights were bright and endless outside the lab, fluorescent panels stretching along the drop ceiling in both directions. The coffee machine hulked alone in the hall, a huge old fashioned thing. He walked up to it on automatic, put his old cup on the tray and pushed the button. Then remembered to drop in a couple of quarters, and pushed the button again.
The ancient machine burbled and grumbled and buzzed – it sounded more like some skittering creature than usual tonight, like something laughing through too many teeth. Rodney leaned back a little – he'd been sprayed by a malfunctioning coffee drip before, and didn't need any more burns, thank you. But it was, rather anti-climatically, the usual sedate stream of coffee slowly filling his cup, and Rodney dismissed the noise as unimportant. Certainly not as important as the result – hot, bitter coffee for him.
He was reaching for his cup when a hand smaller than his own darted in and whisked it away.
He gaped at the empty spot for a split-second before spinning around to glare at his sister. Her eyes laughed at him over the curve of his cup. She should burst into flame from the force of his rage, any minute now, if there was any justice in the world.
"Jeannie, what the hell?" he barked, when it seemed obvious the world was, and always would be, an unjust place. "That's not fair!"
"Thanks, Mer, I needed that," she said, unperturbed, and moved past him down the hall, still holding his stolen coffee, headed for his lab.
"Oh, no, oh no no no." He set his chin and stood in her way, finger sharply pointed at her face. "What are you even doing here? Undergrads aren't even allowed in this building after hours."
"What are you talking about? I come here all the time."
"What? NO. You aren't here, ever. I'd have noticed you getting underfoot."
Something sparked in her eyes, and she took another long, vindictive drag of his coffee. "You obviously don't notice me around, Meredith. Which means I don't get underfoot. And excuse me, but I'm really very busy, and you're in my way."
She slipped around him with a toothy smile, and he found himself gawking after her as she slipped into his lab. He really needed that coffee, damn it, his brain was slowing down. He scowled. His little sister was ruining his best productive time. Rodney stalked after her, and caught the door as it swung shut. The slap of it against his palm echoed in the empty hall.
* * *
As the door slammed shut, the lights dimmed, two by two from each side of the hall, until only the light from the vending machine remained. Even that seemed to flicker, as though the wings of some large creature had passed in front of it.
* * *
The argument reached shrieking levels in short order – they'd always brought out the worst in each other, Jeannie and he. But he wasn't really furious until Jeannie's swinging hand knocked the cup on its side.
Coffee splashed perilously near his computer consul, momentarily interrupting the fight as both of them jumped to stop the spreading liquid. But Jeannie was closest – she grabbed the first thing at hand, and Rodney, seeing what it was only after it was half soaked, saw red.
"You ruin everything, you've always ruined everything, I can't believe you," he snarled, shaking his ruined notes in Jeannie's face. She was backing to the door, eyes wide, but he kept pressing. She'd apologize if he let up, and he wasn't in the mood for it. He'd worked all night on this project, and she, she . . .
"You're a curse! Just here to haul me down into the intellectual swamp you muddle through, and I won't let you." He knew, even as he choked out the words, that he'd gone too far, but he didn't care. He felt like something was burning under his ribs, something dark and angry and spiteful. Jeannie's eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to throw him a much deserved retort, but he'd gotten her to the door by now. He shoved her through before she could say it, and slammed it shut in her face. The lock turned with a satisfying clunk .
"I wish somebody would keep you away from me," he growled, and turned his back on the door.
The lights went out. The whirring of computer towers dropped off, the screens blinked dark.
And Jeannie . . . Jeannie was quiet. He couldn't hear her shouting out in the hall, couldn't hear her rattling the latch. Jeannie didn't do silent, Jeannie was fury and noise. She was a lot like him that way. But the lights had gone out, and the lab was eery, lit only by the pale glow of the city through the windows. And his sister wasn't saying anything at all.
"Jeannie?" he asked, still staring into the darkened lab. "Jeannie?"
He turned and opened the door slowly, expecting a punch to the face – maybe he'd really made his sister angry enough for that.
But the hall was as dark as the lab, and Jeannie wasn't there.
Something brushed past his leg as he stood there staring, something with too many legs. And as if that had opened some sort of floodgate, the whole place went mad. There were faces reflected in the computer screens, grinning faces full of teeth, and voices swarming all around him – growling, serrated voices that seemed engaged in a dozen different conversations, all of them full of threat and a terrible sort of glee.
He'd obviously had some sort of mental breakdown. Doubtless caused by too much shitty coffee and the stress of his argument with Jeannie. This was obviously not happening.
He gave himself a slap, and the lab went quiet.
"There, see? Nothing." he said aloud. And if his voice was shaking, there was no one around to hear.
He had just about convinced himself that he'd imagined the whole incident when there was a furious beating at the windows. He looked over so quickly his neck twinged, and saw a huge white bird buffeting the glass with wings the color of bone. Its talons scored the window with a screech that hurt his ears, and the latch, finally, broke.
He backed frantically towards the door – the owl was obviously rabid – but it wasn't an owl that entered the lab.
Dark haired and dark eyed, dressed all in black, the man seemed to step out of the shadows themselves.
The man in black rested his hip against the computer desk, carefully avoiding the coffee spill, and smiled at him. More of a smirk, really.
"Nothing?" the man asked, and there was a dark edge to his amusement. "I come to do your bidding, and you call me Nothing?"
Rodney's mouth worked. It took a moment to find his voice, and when he did, it was uncomfortably close to a squeak.
"Who are you? How did you get in here?" And he flushed a little at his own question, because he'd seen the owl that wasn't an owl, and he was a theoretical astrophysicist, damn it. Impossible happenings were just things he hadn't studied yet.
The man crossed his arms over his chest. "Is that really what you want to ask me?"
Wait. Wait. "My bidding ?" And Jeannie's disappearance was suddenly that much more urgent. "What the hell did you do to my sister?"
The man was so much closer now, and Rodney hadn't even seen him move. He stood barely a hand's breadth from Rodney, so close he could feel his breath on his cheek. Rodney froze.
He bent his head to whisper in Rodney's ear – his voice was soothing, insistent, dark as a dream pulling him under. "Forget about her. You are extraordinary, without her weight dragging you down."
For a moment, Rodney could feel it all ebbing away – the recent fear and confusion the first to go, and then even the lingering resentment, the years of fighting for his parents' grudging attention. Almost, almost, it was gone.
But faintly, like light dancing on a spider's web, he saw Jeannie smiling, twelve years old, holding tight to his arm as he showed her the stars. He shook his head and stepped away from the man, willing the dream away. "No," he said, and then again, more firmly. "No, it doesn't work like that. I can't just forget my sister."
Strangely, he thought the expression that flicked across the man's face might have been hope.
"Would you challenge me for her?" he asked, voice mocking now, and dryer than dust. "Would you risk that much?"
"I don't know what the hell is going on," Rodney growled, finally finding his temper. "Or who the hell you think you are, but Jeannie's my sister. And you have no right to kidnap her. Or. . . . " he swallowed, momentarily floundering. "Or whatever it is you've done." He straightened his shoulders. "Give her back."
The man in black stepped back, spreading his arms wide, as if to showcase the broken glass behind him. Rodney stared – where there should have been scrubby fall leaves and the city glow, there was an ocean, impossibly blue, and rising from the water a towering city of metal and glass.
"I've only taken what you gave me," the man said. "But if you really want her back . . ."
Rodney tore his eyes away from that impossible vista to glare at him. "I said I did."
The man smiled, a crooked thing that Rodney thought looked more genuine that the smirk he'd been wearing until then. He reached over and took Rodney's wrist before he could jerk away. "You have thirteen hours to get to the control room," he said, adjusting the alarm on Rodney's watch. "If you really want her back, step through."
And he was gone, in a swirl of wings and shadow.
* * *
He didn't take the ocean with him. The lights in the lab didn't come back on. If he was dreaming, the dream wasn't over. "That . . ." Rodney shook his head. Better, he thought, to be angry. "That was entirely unhelpful! What the hell did that mean?" He stepped gingerly over the broken glass to stare out the window. He could smell the salt of the water. The breeze that brushed through his hair felt wet. "What the hell is going on?"
Step through, the man in black had said. Surely he didn't mean the window. He looked again, and away as quickly – the water was at least fifty feet below.
But. He touched the window's twisted frame with fingers that shook only a little.
When he did, the windows disappeared – he stumbled at the change, and found himself standing on a platform of gray stone, flat and solid and impossible under his feet. He shot a glance over his shoulder, but as he suspected, the lab was gone. There was only blue water and blue sky, as far as he could see.
"Of course," he said, clutching at his elbows. "Why not."
On the edge of the platform there was a ring – huge and gray, dotted with what might be constellations picked out in blue light. As he stepped reluctantly towards it, the air seemed to pulse, pushing him back as the ring filled with a rippling field of energy.
"You've got to be kidding me," he breathed out. "I'm supposed to step through that ?"
On the horizon, the city gleamed silver and gold under the sun. It was beautiful, and very far away.
He thought, for just a moment, that he could hear Jeannie's voice under the sound of the waves.
"Fine. Fine!" he said, and holding his nose, stepped through the ring.
* * *
Deep in the city, the man in black hooked a leg over the arm of his chair. All around him holographic screens flickered blue and green, casting light over the shadowed, twisted forms that played about his feet.
"Huh," he said, watching one screen in particular. "He actually did it."
* * *
"Yeaugh," Rodney managed, braced head down against his knees. He felt like he'd been shaken apart and thrown back together by ruthlessly efficient hands.
"First time through the gate?" someone asked very close to him. He startled so badly he lost his feet, and heard the voice tsk regretfully.
"Sorry, sorry, there you go, " it said, and hands grabbed his arm and hauled him up. He flailed away, spinning until he could see someone standing at his side. He was decidedly ordinary looking – fluffy hair over a youngish face, eyes huge behind thick glasses. "Easy, I didn't mean to scare you."
Rodney tugged at his shirt. "You didn't scare me," he insisted. "I just didn't know you were there."
"Hmm, yes, most people don't know that I'm here. It's better that way."
He watched Rodney put himself back together, nodded sharply, and walked away.
"Wait! Hold on a minute. Who are you? What is this place? How do I get to the control room?" Rodney jogged after him. He wasn't letting the only other person around walk off without some sort of explanation.
But the guy with the glasses threw him an unreadable look and went a little faster. "Stop following me. I'm not going anywhere you want to go."
Rodney huffed an irritated breath. He didn't like running. "How do you know?" he asked. " I don't know where I'm going. Come on, Glasses Guy, help me out here."
Glasses Guy threw up his hands and stopped, turning to point a finger at Rodney. "First of all, my name is Radek. And second, you are going to the control room, yes? I am most definitely not going to the control room. So I can not help you."
"Well, it's not like I want to go there either," Rodney bit out, ignoring the little voice inside of him that insisted that yes, he really did want to go there and see what it was. "I have to go there. I have to rescue my sister. Come on, Radcliff. I need a guide."
" Radek. And not a . . . your sister?" His eyes looked suddenly very intent. "You're here for your sister? You are Rodney!"
"Yes, I'm . . . wait a minute. How did you . . ."
Radek muttered to himself, something Rodney didn't catch, as he took off his glasses and polished them on his shirt. It sounded like he was arguing with himself. Rodney made himself wait. He didn't do patient very well, but he wasn't stupid. He didn't know where to go. Radek did.
Finally, Radek's voice rose enough for him to hear it. "All right, all right! No need to yell."
"I . . .wasn't yelling?" Rodney thought perhaps his guide was not as reliable as he could hope.
"Not you. Fine. I'll take you to the control room."
* * *
Rodney followed Radek through twisting, dimly lit corridors – the soaring architecture he'd glimpsed from the platform was hidden here, aside from a certain grace in the lines of the walls and the occasional intricately etched floor tiles. He tried to mark his passage by scuffing his sneakers on the floor, but the tile didn't take a mark. Radek raised an eyebrow at him, but he refused to apologize.
"For all I know, you'll leave me somewhere and I'll never find my way out," he said, holding his chin high.
"For all you know, I might," Radek said, sounding entirely too enthused by this.
"Are you sure you know where you're going? I'm positive I've seen this corridor before." They were back in a dim, narrow hallway, lined on both sides with doors, all closed. The strange greenish light in the walls bubbled in a very familiar pattern.
"Of course I do. I am just leading you in circles to waste time."
Rodney glanced suspiciously over, but Radek just shook his head. "Why would I waste my own time doing that?" he huffed, and walked a little faster.
Rodney glanced down at his wrist and squawked. "We've been walking for two hours! Come on, Rambo, there's got to be a quicker way."
"It's Radek , you infuriating . . . " Radek shoved his glasses up with his index finger. "You want a short cut? Fine." He reached over and slapped a panel on the wall. One of the doors slid open with a faint, pneumatic hiss. The other side was dark.
"What?" Rodney looked again. It was dark enough that he couldn't tell whether this was a room, another corridor, or a closet where Radek could lock him up to starve. "You're kidding."
"Not at all," Radek said cheerfully, and he gave Rodney a shove through the door. It slid shut behind him.
"I knew it!" Rodney howled, trying to find some sort of latch in the dark. "You really were going to lock me in to starve!"
But the door slid open again almost immediately – he drew in a breath to berate Radek for scaring him, but lost it in a gasp instead.
The door didn't open to the same dim corridor. And Radek wasn't there.
* * *
"Oh, come on," the man in black said, rolling his eyes. "I can't actually have him wondering around unsupervised."
The shadows swarmed around his legs as he stood up, until a large barn owl swept them away with a beat of his pale wings, and left the room empty.
* * *
This place was bright and airy, a broad balcony open to the sea and sky. Rodney peered cautiously over the railing – the waves looked very small indeed from here. The city spread out below him in every direction.
"Okay, that's . . . a really long way down," he said, and eased away from the railing. "Now what?"
He looked around, meaning to try the mysterious closet again – but the door was gone.
"You're kidding," he muttered, running a hand through his hair.
But no matter how hard he stared at the wall where the door had been, it didn't reappear. "Well, of course," he said. "That would make sense, and we can't have that. I'll just . . . go this way."
There were two other doors leading off the balcony, both closed. There were panels at their sides, much like the one Radek had used to open the . . . transporter. Yeah, why not.
"If I just . . . had a . . . screwdriver ," he panted, prying one open with his fingernails. It finally swung open, and he grimaced, clutching his bent-back thumb nail in his fist. It throbbed dully as he studied the interior of the panel.
Three crystal plates sat inside – whatever they were supposed to be doing, they obviously weren't doing it.
"In the absence of any sort of manual," he told himself. "Just . . . try it all." The plates were most likely completed some sort of circuit, though he couldn't see any wires. Obviously, this particular configuration wasn't working, which meant he needed to bypass . . . something.
There were only three of the crystal plates. "There's just not that many possible combinations."
* * *
It only took an hour to get the door to open. He tried not to glance at his watch when it finally worked – it wasn't like that would make things any better. But he couldn't help it. He still had almost ten hours – surely he could find the control room by then. He just wouldn't think about how big this city looked, sprawled out below the balcony.
Because it always helped to keep your eyes closed. He scowled at himself. He was a scientist . This was ridiculous.
Not that he really had any better idea right now, beyond finding Radek and punching him in the nose.
He studied the corridor on the other side of the door – it was much brighter than the dim passages Radek had led him through. The ceiling was higher, and there were windows, some huge plates of glass, others stained with delicate colors. It was, however, just as unhelpfully vague.
"Didn't anybody ever draw up a 'You Are Here' map for this place?" Rodney asked. He held his breath, almost expecting Radek to pop up behind him again with sarcasm and suspicious motives. He was a little disappointed when that didn't happen.
"One way is as good as another, I guess," he finally decided, and followed the hallway left.
* * *
"Sheppard!" Radek held a hand to his throat as the outburst escaped him. "Major, I mean. I'm sorry, I lost him. But he'll never be able to find his way down to the control room, never on his own."
The man in black reached down to pick up Radek's glasses, which he'd dropped when he'd stepped out of the shadows in front of him. He dangled them casually from one hand. Radek tracked them, swinging from his fingers.
"You're quite sure about that? He's pretty stubborn." Sheppard sounded almost . . . admiring. Radek looked up sharply at the unexpected tone. Was this . . .
But the chittering shadows thickened around the Major's feet, and when he held out a package and said, "Give him this," the admiration was gone from his voice, leaving only the expressionless purpose Radek had gotten used to.
"Find him," the Major said, "and give him this. We can not take chances." When Radek took the package with a trembling hand, he gently set Radek's glasses back on his face, and was gone again.
Radek felt a chill that nothing to do with the darkened corridor. On the floor by his feet, a single feather drifted to rest.
* * *
Rodney froze – someone was yelling, just around the corner. Somebody furious. His first instinct was to turn around and go the other way, but. . . he looked at his watch. Eight hours left. And maybe, whoever that was, they'd know the way to the control room.
If they didn't attack him first.
He inched his way around the corner, ready to run.
The corridor opened up to what looked like a cafeteria. Tables were pushed to the sides of the room, and in the center, strung up upside down from a pipe on the ceiling, was a man. His hands were tied, but he didn't look helpless. No one that angry could look anything but dangerous.
He was roaring at three strange creatures – tall and thin and covered in matte black feathers, they laughed as they spun the upside down man in a circle, taunting him.
Rodney swallowed. That toothy laugh, full of jagged edges – it was the same sound that had washed over him in the lab, just before the man in black came through the window. But then, he'd seen only shadows, and the reflection of eyes and teeth. Here they were solid. Presumably, so were their teeth.
He should just go. He didn't have any way to fend off something like that. No way to help the guy they were tormenting.
He was just backing away when the stranger looked his way. Dark, bitter eyes met his, and widened. For a moment, something fiercely hopeful burned in them.
But the man just blinked, and looked away. Like he didn't expect help. Not from Rodney.
He was bleeding.
And Rodney, despite himself, got angry. Who was this guy, who'd gotten himself trapped and strung up like a side of beef, to discount his help? To dismiss him as if he wasn't capable of getting him out of there?
That was . . . that was just unacceptable, Rodney told himself, ignoring the screaming voice in his head that was saying yes, yes, that's absolutely right, let's just get out of here before they see us . That voice could just shut the hell up.
Of course, that didn't mean he should just run out into the open. He'd be strung up beside the other guy before he did any sort of good.
But if this was some sort of cafeteria, then near by must be a kitchen. And if there was a kitchen, there'd be something he could use.
He backtracked – the next door down was probably the one he wanted. He ignored the urge to keep going. He wasn't a coward, damn it.
But when the door opened and a hand reached out to grab his collar and pull him through, he couldn't help the high pitched shriek.
* * *
"Shhh, shhh," Radek said, frantically clapping a hand over his mouth. "They will hear you, you idiot!"
Rodney slapped his hand away and hissed, "You've got a lot of nerve! I should kick your ass." He was, surprisingly, very glad to see him, but he suppressed the leap of relief.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you are very tough. They will still hear you, and then we will both be doomed. Come with me, we must get out of here."
Rodney set his feet. "I'm not going."
Radek paused, one hand on the door. "What?"
"I'm not going . I'm going to rescue him."
"The runner? Rodney, no, they have him now. You can not help."
"Why not? Because I'm a scientist? Because I'm not some musclebound lunkhead?"
"No!" Radek seemed to surprise even himself with his outburst, and turned to look around in case something had heard him. He lowered his voice to a vehement hiss. "Because you are unarmed, and they are goblins ."
Rodney frowned. "I'm sorry, I thought you said 'goblins.'"
Radek blew his hair out his face with an irritated puff of air. "I did. Is that such a hard concept?"
"Goblins! They weren't always goblins, but they are goblins now, and they are very, very dangerous. And you have a sister to rescue! You can not risk it."
"What do you mean, they weren't always. . . "
"Forget it, it is unimportant. Go, now!"
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "What happens to that guy if I don't rescue him?"
Radek stared at him. He blinked, twice. "They will make him a goblin too."
"How . . . never mind. I don't even care. This place is impossible anyway." Rodney shook his head and stalked over to the side of the room, where there were pots and pans hung on the wall and drawers to rummage through.
"I'm going to help him. You can leave if you want."
Radek let loose a string of quiet curses in some language Rodney didn't understand, and wiped a hand down his face.
"Fine. Fine. You are going to get us both killed."
* * *
Rodney had to choke back an entirely inappropriate giggle as they snuck back around the corner. Radek had a pot on his head, for god's sake, and he had . . . well, no doubt the pair of kitchen shears were dangerous enough, but the only thing resembling armor he could find had been several layers of aprons and some sheet pans tied to their bodies. And the pot on his own head.
Still. It was better than nothing. And having Radek at his side made him feel strangely braver.
"On three?" he whispered, eying the creatures still poking at the upside runner.
"On three," Radek said.
"One, two . . ."
"Wait!" Radek grabbed at his arm and pulled him closer, hissing in his ear – "Do not let them bite you. I can not help you if they bite you."
"What does that . . . argh! Okay, no biting. One, two, three!"
They charged into the room sounding like a small army, between Radek screaming in several different languages and Rodney just screaming wordlessly, with the ungodly clatter of the sheet pans as they ran.
The goblins moved almost like smoke – fluidly, like they had too many bones, or too few. They dove on Radek and Rodney with a shriek that buzzed through their makeshift armor. Rodney could feel it in his bones.
As they turned away the runner snaked a hand out and grabbed one goblin by the neck – it gibbered and tore at his skin with its claws but couldn't turn it's head enough to bite.
Radek swung his skillet at another's matte black head – teeth clanged against it, and held it tight. Radek gave a shocked shout and flung it away from him, skillet and all.
Rodney swung blindly at the third with his kitchen shears – he could feel them tearing into something, but there was no blood – just tendrils of smoke, rising from the cuts.
"Cut me down!" he heard over all the noise – the stranger's voice, rough with desperation. "Cut me loose!"
He grit his teeth and pushed forward. The goblin hissed and chewed at the aprons wrapped around his arm, still bleeding shadow – it couldn't bite through them, not at once. But it wouldn't take long for it to chew through.
He was close enough now for the stranger to grab the goblin and tear it off his arm – he flung it away with all the force he could muster hanging upside down. Rodney reached up and sawed at the rope with his shears.
It took longer than he'd like, and he could hear Radek's curses getting shriller, but eventually enough strands parted for the stranger to snap the rest – he landed hard, and pushed himself sideways without bothering to get to his feet. He reached behind one of the scattered tables and came out with an actual sword – a long blade that glowed red along the edge as he thumbed a button in the hilt.
The stranger lurched to his feet and swung the blade like a chainsaw – it passed through Radek's goblin as if it were really only shadow, but the goblin squealed and dissipated. The other two, still regrouping, changed direction and skittered away.
Everything went silent.
Oh, Rodney could hear the rattle of pots and pans as he and Radek gasped for breath, the snap-hiss of the stranger's blade as the red edge went dark. But after the screaming and the . . . screaming, the relative quiet sank in deepest.
Finally, he could breathe well enough to stand straight, and he turned to look at the stranger – the runner, whatever that meant.
He was spectacularly tall, really, now that he was standing on solid ground, and looked younger than Rodney'd thought. He was looking down at Radek with what might be recognition in his dark eyes.
"So," Rodney said, because that had been enough quiet, "you're welcome."
The stranger turned to look at him, and slid the sword into a holster over his shoulder. "Yeah," he said, in a deep voice. "All right."
And he left.
* * *
Major Sheppard rested his chin on his arms and looked through the observation window. In the room below, Jeannie paced a dozen steps each way, and trailed her hand along the wall. She looked a lot like her brother, he thought. With that stubborn tilt to her chin, and those blue, blue eyes.
The goblins scurried closer, disturbed by the direction of his thoughts. "I know," he said. "I get it."
Seven hours left.
* * *
"He just . . . I can't believe he. . . that ungrateful . . . " As Rodney sputtered, Radek nodded, urging him along.
"He is a runner, what did you expect? Still, it was a brave thing. A stupid thing, but very brave." His voice was soothing, but his eyes were a little too wide, and he kept fiddling with something in his pocket.
Rodney huffed. "Whatever. Can we go now?"
"To the gate?" Radek offered, suddenly hopeful. "You have had a very long day, and it is very dangerous here. I understand. I'll lead you there right away."
"No. No! Raymond, to the control room!"
The hope bled away, leaving Radek's face resigned. "Of course. I'd forgotten."
Rodney rolled his eyes, and came to a stop with a clang and a clatter. They still wore their kitchen armor.
"Look, I don't know what the hell is going on in this place. Something happened, obviously. A city this size doesn't just . . . empty out, with no sign of damage. And you said, 'they weren't always goblins,' which means at some point they were something else, and I have a feeling they were people before they were . . . not. And you're obviously hiding something, which, fine, it's none of my business except when you shove me in a closet that sends me halfway across the city . But I have to get my sister back, so, if nothing else, could you tell me one thing straight? Do. You know. The way. To the control room."
Radek had leaned back from Rodney's tirade until his shoulders hit the wall – he blinked up at Rodney now and sighed, standing straight and putting his cookie sheets to rights.
"It is . . . not a safe road, you understand. I am . . . reluctant to lead you there."
Rodney let go of his anger, a bit. "But you do know where it is."
"Yes. I know."
"So let's go!"
* * *
There was a bridge, a graceful feat of engineering hung between two towers, lined with glass and filigree.
They could see it through the window of the room they were in. Radek was watching it suspiciously.
"What," Rodney asked, looking up from his watch. Six hours left. "Is it guarded?"
"There's something else out here?"
"Many things." He reached into his pocket for the cloth he used to polish his glasses. When he pulled it out, something fell to the floor.
Rodney picked it up – it was a feather, pale as a cloud, its edges strangely soft. An owl's. He looked up to find Radek staring down at it, barely breathing.
"Where did you get this?" he asked. He hadn't seen a bird the whole time he'd been here, but something about an owl – something about pale wings in the dark – teased at his memory.
"It was . . ." Radek's face twisted, and he turned away. "It was a gift. A reminder."
It was, obviously, a painful memory. "I'm sorry," Rodney said, and held the feather out to him. Radek's fingers trembled slightly when he took it.
"We should rest here," he said suddenly, voice too loud and too bright. "Before we get to the bridge."
Rodney frowned. "There's not really all that much time left," he said.
"There's time enough for this. Aren't you hungry?"
Rodney's stomach growled.
"Of course I am," he snapped, embarrassed. "But I didn't have a chance to pack a lunch." He looked away, feeling his cheeks flush. "It's lucky I haven't gone into hypoglycemic shock."
"Here," Radek said, and tossed him something.
Rodney caught it on reflex. "A power bar?"
Radek was looking out the window again, watching the bridge. "It's peanut butter," he said.
He loved peanut butter. "Thanks, Radek." Rodney smiled happily. "Thanks a lot."
The first bite was rich and satisfying, and Rodney quickly tore off a second. By the time he noticed the miserable droop to Radek's shoulders, it was too late – his vision was already darkening. He felt his shoulders hit the wall and slide downwards as his knees gave out.
"Radek?" he managed, "what have you . . ."
"I'm sorry," he thought he heard, but the world was swimming around him, and he couldn't be sure. "I'm sorry."
* * *
The goblins skipped around Sheppard in celebration, but the Major himself was still on his chair, watching the screen with a blank face. "So it's over then," he murmured, and closed his eyes.
* * *
The city was aflame with light, brilliant under the spreading stars, reflected from the waves. Rodney walked through streets full of people. They smiled at him, and moved aside, leaving him alone. But someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to meet the man in black.
He took Rodney's hand and smiled, tugging gently, until Rodney followed him along the empty street. He didn't feel at all nervous or apprehensive, but serene. This was where he should be, here at the man in black's side. His hand was warm, holding his, and Rodney could feel its tug on his heart.
They reached a pier, and at its end was a ring, a gate, glowing blue and powerful. Its light washed through the man in black's eyes, and Rodney found himself transfixed.
He let himself be pulled closer, wanting to be closer still – close enough to feel his heartbeat, close enough to catch that fleeting sorrow in his eyes.
"Come with me," the man murmured, "Come see the stars. I can give you everything you ever wanted." And is in proof, he held out a sheaf of papers – Rodney's dissertation notes, completed. Full of equations he hadn't even finished yet.
And Rodney wanted to say yes. Started to say yes, to take the papers and clutch them tight.
But before he could form the word, make the gesture, something intruded – a regular pulse of high pitched sound. The pier shivered, all the lights of the city flickered, and the man in black looked startled and concerned. The sound clarified – it was a beeping timer, an alarm.
Rodney tugged away, frowning. That was his watch. The alarm on his watch. Why was . . .
"Jeannie," he breathed, and remembered.
He turned away from the man in black and turned to run, but the way was blocked by goblins, by sharp teeth and shadowed claws, and the man in black still held his hand, in a grip Rodney couldn't break.
The alarm kept beeping, louder and louder. The man in black stood still as the goblins surged toward them. Rodney met his eyes, and something . . . something changed.
He felt himself pushed back, away from the man in black. Felt himself falling through the gate at his back. Felt himself pulled apart.
And put back together, by a ruthlessly efficient hand.
* * *
The goblins were in an uproar, shadows roiling. Major Sheppard stood surrounded. "Or not over," he breathed, eyes intent on the screen in front of him, fists clenched at his sides. "Not yet."
* * *
Rodney came awake with a jerk and a gasp, scrambling to his feet, wanting to run. His heart was beating so hard he swayed with it.
"Easy," he heard a voice too deep to be Radek's say. "Sit down before you fall down."
His vision was still spinning, lights still sparking at the edges, but he could see the runner, sitting calmly with his back to the wall, eating an apple.
"Where is. . . what are . . . " He barely recognized his own voice.
"Sit," the runner said again. "It'll wear off quickly, since you managed to break free at all."
He sat, more because his legs folded under him than from any conscious decision. But he was pushing himself up again at a thought.
"Jeannie! I'm out of time, the alarm . . . " He stared in horror at his watch. But there was still . . . "Two hours," he said, blankly. "I still have two hours."
"So that's what he meant," the runner said. "Huh."
"The other one, with the glasses. He said to tell you, if you woke up, that he reset your alarm."
"Why would . . . If I woke up? He poisoned me!"
"Looks like it."
Rodney rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. He wanted to scream. He didn't understand any of this. Not Radek, not the man in black, none of it.
"And why are you here?" he asked, eyes still covered. "Why'd you come back?"
"I was watching," the runner said, as if it should be obvious. "I owe you."
Speechless, Rodney lowered his hands. The runner took another bite of his apple, supremely unconcerned.
"I don't even know your name," he said, as if that mattered.
The runner took one last bite and stood, setting the apple core on the ground. "It's Ronon," he said, and held out a hand.
"Rodney," he said, still feeling dazed, as he took the hand and pulled himself up.
"So I heard," Ronon said. "We should go."
* * *
The bridge was, in fact, guarded, and not by goblins. Rodney couldn't help but stare.
It was a fox – or not really. A woman, no taller than his shoulders, dressed in armor much more professional than his kitchen ware, with a pair of smooth wooden sticks at her side and bright red fox ears flicking up through her hair. A long red fox tail wrapped demurely around her ankles, which meant the sight of her bargaining with Ronon for their right to pass her bridge was particularly surreal.
"It is my duty to keep trespassers off this bridge," she said, politely, but with an iron firmness in her face. "As you do not have permission to pass here, I am afraid you must go around."
"This is the only way across, and you know it," Ronon growled, looming. The fox woman didn't seem impressed.
"There are other ways, if you are strong enough to take them," the smile that crossed her lips was very nearly a sneer.
"We have a time limit," Ronon said, biting off his words.
Rodney looked at his watch again. One hour, forty-five minutes. "Look," he said, trying not to sound desperate. "Who do we go to for permission?"
The woman didn't her take eyes off Ronon. "To Teyla Emmagan, of the Athosians."
"And who is that?" Rodney asked, losing that struggle with his voice.
Perhaps it was that hint of despair that made her turn to look at him. Her eyes were honest, and surprisingly kind. "That is me," she said.
Ronon growled, angry, but Rodney was tired, and still not sure he wasn't dreaming. "May we have permission to pass?" he asked.
The smile that crossed Teyla's face was as brilliant as daylight and as warm as the sun. "You may," she said, and stepped aside.
Her eyes, however, sharpened as they reached her. "I would suggest you hurry," she said, drawing the wooden rods from her belt. "I do not think these are your friends."
Ronon and Rodney looked around – there was a shadow swarming up the side of the tower, dark and vicious, full of snarls. Ronon pulled his sword free, but Teyla shook her head. "Go," she said. "This is my duty."
Ronon looked at her, no anger now in his face, and nodded. He pushed Rodney along with one big hand between his shoulder blades, and didn't look back.
"But she . . ."
"She knows what she's doing," he said. "Run now."
He was getting tired of running in his silly, clattering armor, but Rodney was grateful for even that meager protection. The bridge was long, and he could hear the goblins swarming closer and closer.
Teyla's clear voice rang out in challenge, and was answered with a wordless growl from many throats. The thud of her weapons hitting shadow was louder still.
"Faster," Ronon said, looking back. He thumbed his sword to life.
There was a crash that shook the bridge, and a lull in the goblin's voices. Then Teyla was beside him, tugging at his right hand, as Ronon took the left. "Come," she said, ears flicking back to listen as they ran. "That will not hold them, and this bridge will fall."
"Fall?" he squeaked, remembering the height of the span, but Teyla only turned her head and grinned. Her teeth were sharper than he'd thought they'd be.
They were nearly dragging him when they reached the other side, and he could hear the goblins' triumphant howls right behind them. As they crossed the threshold, he could feel the bridge shudder, hear supports buckling, and the howls turned disbelieving.
Teyla jumped, hauling him with her, and Ronon gave them both a boost from behind. They lay prone on the floor of the tower, watching the bridge fall.
Teyla watched it longest. "I suppose I will travel with you," she said eventually. "Now that I have no bridge to guard."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Good. That's good." He let his head hit the floor with a thunk, and stared blankly at the ceiling.
* * *
"The control room is under the central tower," Teyla said, as she led them through a series of halls lined with elegant statues. "It is too far to reach on foot in less than two hours."
"But that's not fair!" he protested, and winced at the childish plea inherent to that protest. He was tired, that was all.
But the look Teyla gave him was sympathetic, not disdainful, and Ronon didn't seem bothered at all. "There is a shortcut," she assured him, "though it will be guarded."
"For such an empty city," he muttered, "there sure are a lot of guards."
"It wasn't always empty," Ronon said.
Rodney thought of his strange dream. "No. I suppose it wasn't."
Teyla flicked her tail. "There are ways to travel from place to place in this city in an instant – hidden doors and secret passages."
Rodney grunted. "I think I've used one," he said. "Unintentionally."
Teyla nodded. "That is the most common way they are discovered. But there are four that lead to the areas near the control room, and they have all been found. The one I intend to take you to opens right at the control room doors – it will be heavily guarded, but considering your time limit, I believe it is your best chance."
He rubbed at his eyes. They'd been stinging lately, he was so tired. "Sure. Let's take that one. Get this over with." How bad could being a goblin be, after all? Maybe Jeannie wouldn't mind.
It wasn't until Teyla and Ronon exchanged a glance over his head that he realized he'd said that last part out loud. He sighed, and forced a smile. "I'm kidding," he said, and they let it go, though they didn't look convinced.
* * *
"Half an hour left," he said, not taking his eyes off the door. They hid on a balcony across the room, studying the goblins that lounged below them.
The floor wasn't exactly black with them, but it was a near thing. "All of them for one door?" he asked, hearing the exhausted laugh in the back of his throat.
"For the entrance to the control room," Ronon said grimly. He'd been fingering his sword since they crouched here. Rodney couldn't decide if he looked eager, or afraid.
Teyla definitely looked eager.
"Ronon and I will open the way," she said. "We will hold them off long enough for you to reach the transporter. When you reach it, hit the panel just inside the door, on your right as you enter. The door will lock behind you."
"What about . . . "
"There will be no time for us to join you," she said gently. "Once you reach that point . . ."
"I'll be on my own."
She nodded. "Do not worry. The challenge was for you to reach the control room – Major Sheppard will not break faith with his own rules."
Ronon answered, voice dark with something like loss. "The goblin king."
"You mean the man in black? You know him?"
Teyla glanced at Ronon, and back to him. "He was a good man," she said.
"A friend." If Ronon could destroy the goblins with his glare he would.
Rodney just shook his head. "This is. . . fine, you know what, I'm not even surprised." He stood, bracing his hands on his knees. "Let's get this over with."
"Us first," Teyla said.
* * *
Teyla hit the goblins like a . . . well, like a fox in a hen house, graceful and deadly, almost playful. They swarmed around her, but Ronon was there, sword burning red.
They made a path for him, forcing the goblins to the sides, until there was just one, huge and solid, right in front of the door.
Rodney took a deep breath, and settled his kitchen shears more firmly in his hands. "Fifteen minutes," he muttered.
He took off straight for the goblin in the doorway, screaming his head off. Vaguely, he knew Teyla was ripping a goblin off her shoulders, knew Ronon was roaring as one dug too many claws into his leg. But his goblin just settled lower, waiting for him, and smiled, all teeth and obscenely mobile tongue.
"Jeannie!" he yelled, willing her to hear him, as impossible as that was. If he didn't make it to her in time, he wanted her to know he'd tried. That he'd gotten this close.
But before he could reach the goblin, someone else stepped in front of him, someone swinging a cast iron skillet with both hands, knocking the goblin to the side just as Rodney reached them.
"Radek!" he cried, astonished.
"Just go," the other yelled, eyes grim behind his glasses. He pushed him, once again he pushed him back into the transporter, and Rodney slapped the panel on reflex, still stunned.
The door flashed shut, and the sound of battle was cut short – it was absurdly quiet, and he was tempted, so very tempted, to open the door without hitting the controls that Teyla had shown him, without leaving his friends.
But. "Ten minutes," he told himself, still staring at the door. He shook himself and turned to study the control layout, searching . . .
There. He touched the symbol Teyla had sketched on the floor, and the door opened someplace new.
* * *
It was a cavernous room, obviously not even in the same tower as the hall he'd just left. Shadows, goblins, ebbed and scurried around him, but they made no move toward him.
There were holograms, glowing with the colors of the sea outside, green and blue and indigo – they showed mostly empty rooms, here and there throughout the city.
There, lit up in a sea foam green, were the ruins left of Teyla's bridge, still smoking on the shattered street, far below its mooring.
There, the ransacked kitchen where he and Radek had armed themselves. There, beside it, a pier he'd seen in his dream.
He shuddered, looking at it. Something, grief perhaps, or indignation, made him turn away from that screen. And there, behind him, was the battle, in brilliant shades of blue. Teyla, Ronon, and Radek too, all back to back in the middle of a swarm of shadows.
He reached for them, instinctively, but his hand, of course, passed through.
"Should I stop them?" asked the man in black. Asked Major Sheppard, the goblin king.
Rodney could see him now, a long legged form slouched on the chair in the center of the room. Almost a throne, it looked a part of the city itself, and not just any piece of furniture.
"Should I stop them, and keep them safe?" Sheppard asked again. Standing, he brushed the holograms aside – all but that one, showing his friends' last stand.
"Ask me, and I will."
Rodney's throat worked. "For what price?" he finally managed. "What would it cost me?"
Sheppard was standing very close to him now. "Nothing you haven't already offered. Just Jeannie."
"I can't give you that," he said. He was searching for the anger that had carried him this far, through impossible doorways and over impossible vistas, across an ocean that couldn't exist. He couldn't find it.
He was so tired. And Sheppard's eyes, intent on his, looked, almost, as desperate as he knew his own to be.
"I can't give you my sister," he said again. "She doesn't belong to me."
"What does that matter?" Sheppard asked, turning away. "Your friends there don't belong to me. But I could take them. Or I could give them to you, and send you all away from here."
"Why?" He hadn't meant to ask that, but Sheppard was looking at him again, and he kept going, so that he wouldn't fall silent.
"Why have done all this? Teyla said you were a good man. Ronon said you were a friend. What made you . . . this?" He waved his hands around the room, at the goblins lurking everywhere. "Why did you take Jeannie?"
"You wished for it," Sheppard was suddenly right behind him, his voice cold and harsh in his ear. "You wished, and in that moment you meant it. I only accommodated your request."
But there, deeply hidden and very small, Rodney found his temper. "That's ridiculous," he growled. "That's not an answer. Why did you take my sister? What possible reason could you have?"
And Sheppard pushed him away, responding to the note of real anger in his voice. "Because she was your sister!" he exclaimed. All around them, the goblins went still. They seemed to shrink away, but this only concentrated their shadow, until the very walls were hidden in darkness, and it seemed to Rodney that he and Sheppard stood alone, surrounded only by predatory eyes.
"Why should that matter?" he yelled. If his voice trembled he didn't notice, didn't care. He latched onto the flicker of hope in Sheppard's eyes and pressed. "What do I matter?"
Sheppard was pacing, round and round, in ever tighter circles with Rodney at the center. "I've been watching you," he answered. "I know you. You question," he said, "You dream. You build bridges out of ideas and moor them on fantasy and then you turn them into equations and you make them real." He was close now, close enough to grab Rodney by the shoulder and draw him tight against his chest.
Rodney's heart stuttered, but as the goblins rose in a hungry mass around them, he heard Sheppard's voice, barely more than a whisper – "You can help us," he said as he shoved him away, and Rodney didn't think he meant the goblins.
* * *
Rodney stumbled, and the floor disappeared. He yelped, falling, but Sheppard had a hold of his arm. He swung him up beside him, and he fell to his knees on a gray stone platform, far out on the ocean. To one side, there was was a ring of stone, empty now of that field of energy.
His makeshift armor was falling off – Rodney helped it along in a fit of bewildered irritation, pitching sheet pans over the side to sink. The apron padding was more stubborn, and he left it half undone, trailing apron strings like fringes.
"You can help us," Sheppard said, and his voice now was quiet, pleading.
"But you . . . you're. . . Damn it all, you're the goblin king. What the hell are you doing?"
"I wasn't always!" Sheppard yelled, with the voice of someone who'd been holding himself together by his fingernails for far too long. "I didn't choose this!"
He scrubbed his hands through his dark hair, leaving it standing on end. He looked much younger like that, out here under the vast expanse of sky. "I can't hold them off for much longer," he said. "They'll swallow me whole. And I won't have any choice at all after that."
Rodney stared. "You kidnapped my sister," he said, "and threatened my friends. So that I'd come and rescue you? What is wrong with you?!"
"I'm being eaten by goblins!" Sheppard cried. "And if they finish me off they'll have the whole city, and no one will be able to pry them out."
He dropped to his knees beside Rodney, catching his eyes. "Please," he said. "Please help me."
And Rodney remembered the warmth of his hand in the dream. Remembered the light in his eyes.
"Come see the stars," he whispered, and Sheppard stopped breathing.
Maybe it was the exhaustion, robbing him of his wits. Maybe it was the lingering remnants of the poison Radek had slipped him, on this man's orders. Or maybe it was the way Sheppard looked at him with such hope in his eyes – stripped bare, exposed. Maybe it was just the warmth of his hand.
Whatever prompted it, Rodney leaned forward, and kissed him.
* * *
The whole sea shuddered.
Rodney could feel the stone platform swaying. In the distance, over Sheppard's shoulder, he could see the city rock in its moorings – and a living shadow rising over it, looming like a thundercloud.
But then Sheppard was kissing him back, frantic, his arms wrapping around his shoulders for balance, and the cloud was dissipating. It was gone.
And Sheppard was pulling away from him, eyes wide, face blank.
Rodney felt his heart sink, and stood to cover it up.
"So! Did it work?" he asked, too brightly. He couldn't look at Sheppard.
"Yeah," he said, vaguely. Not even looking at the city. "They're gone."
"Great!" Rodney winced at the false note in his voice, but Sheppard didn't mention it. "My sister? My friends?"
"They're safe," Sheppard said. He stood up beside him, still staring at Rodney. He could tell, he could see him out of the corner of his eye.
"I'll just take my sister and go home then, right?" And that part wasn't even an act – he fiercely, desperately wanted to go home, to go back to the lab, with his half-finished projects and the shitty fifty-cent coffee. With his sister. Who he really needed to apologize to.
"Okay." Sheppard still seemed vague – he hoped he wasn't damaged somehow.
The air gave that strange pulse again, and Rodney fell forward, right into Sheppard. Who held him up, hands strangely tentative, and kissed him on the forehead.
"Thank you," he said, and pushed him off.
Rodney had one brief moment to think that he was really getting sick of people pushing him this way and that, when he hit the gate, and was gone.
* * *
The lab was bright, almost blindingly so. The computers buzzed quietly, and he could hear the morning's first grad students stumbling through the hall. Rodney stood facing the wall of unbroken windows, looking out at the grounds.
There was a squirrel sitting in the nearest tree. He stared at it – it seemed so absurdly ordinary.
"Mer? Meredith?" he heard, and spun around so fast he had to grab his sister's arm to keep from falling.
"Jeannie! You're okay!" He could feel the smile stretched across his face – knew he must look deranged.
"Yeah . . . Mer, are you? You seem a little . . . punch drunk. How long have you been working?"
Jeannie gave him an odd look. "On your dissertation? I came in last night and you were so wrapped up you barely noticed me. Did you get any sleep at all?"
He gaped at her. Then shook himself. So it had been a dream. That made sense.
"Sleep is for undergrads," he said.
* * *
He made it back to the dorm with only a few more odd looks from his sister, and sat down on the bed. He clutched his coffee stained notes in his hand.
It was so quiet. He'd never noticed that about the dorms before.
He sighed, straightening the rumpled notes.
The last page wasn't his. He stared at it – instead of equations, there were sketches. Penciled Radek, eyes hidden behind opaque glasses, pointed urgently to the side, where Teyla, fox ears held high, looked over her shoulder, and Ronon, slouched against the margin line, followed her gaze.
Behind them, drawn with his back to them all, was Sheppard. He had one hand on the curved sign of a massive stone ring. It was empty.
But as he stared, the gate filled with a smudge of graphite, and Rodney dropped the paper with a shout.
He shot to his feet, looking around his perfectly ordinary dorm room. Perfectly ordinary, but for the bird swooping in to scrabble at his window sill.
The bird was far too big to land there – it was a barn owl, snowy wings wider than the window itself, golden eyes huge in its flat face.
It looked at him, beating its wings to stay in place, and then flew off. Rodney felt an inexplicable sense of loss, but when he looked out after it, he saw it winging away over a vast expanse of ocean blue.
He set his notes down on his desk, and folded the last page small, slid it in his pocket.
He touched the window with a trembling hand, and stepped out onto a stone platform. He could hear the waves, far below. On the horizon, there was a towering city, built of metal and glass, and shining in the sun.