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Never Strangers

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He found Dr Schreber in an open space pretending to be a park near the centre of the city. It didn't have enough in the way of actual greenery to manage it, but at least it wasn't as cramped as everything around it. Schreber was sitting on a bench in the middle of the space, eyes closed, hands limp in his lap, his head tipped back to enjoy the sun. He smiled like a man who'd never felt its warmth on his face before.

Mostly, John thought, because he never had.

He didn't approach the doctor immediately, content to stand in the shade of an awning and watch him for a little while. There was no need to rush. Every other encounter he'd ever had with the man had been rushed. Forced and desperate, full of rage, full of fear, full of the need to know what was going on. In the waking world, at least, though the memories hadn't been all that much better. John didn't have to do that anymore. He could take a little time, now, and allow his thoughts to settle before confronting the doctor once again.

If 'confront' was the right word. He wasn't sure it was. He had mixed emotions about the doctor these days. Time and comfort and safety had ensured that. Time to think, time to come to conclusions that weren't driven by pure instinct and the need to stay alive. He had ... some very complicated feelings about Schreber now.

He stood there, taking in the sight of the man, and let them filter up. The thoughts, the memories, the emotions. He looked at the man, and for a moment it was like looking at three separate men, layered over each other. The man now, limp and grateful and at peace. The man in his memories, strong and smiling and full of encouragement, unyielding determination. And the man from that endless night, the man that belonged to the Strangers, wounded and desperate and grasping. The man in the sunshine, the man in the syringe, the man in the cage. All so very different, and all exactly the same.

Because men showed different faces with different circumstances, showed different behaviour with different memories, but in the end, at the base ... there was still a core. Still something immutable. There had to be. None of them would have survived if there wasn't.

He'd thought a lot about those memories since that night. The ones Schreber had given him, the ones that had set him and everyone else free. He'd picked them over, held them up to the light, examined them over and over again. They were false. Manufactured. A lifetime in a syringe. They'd said it themselves. Schreber. Schreber had said it. It was a strange thing, to hold your memories in your head and know that each and every one of them was a lie.

It was stranger, maybe, to have the memories themselves admit that. To have them be ... an addition, not an overwrite. To have them announce themselves as false, so that he could think and feel and know himself around them. They'd been there to grant him knowledge, nothing more. The man who'd stood up from that table had still been John Murdoch, at least as much as anyone was John Murdoch, he'd just been John Murdoch with a lifetime of skill and training behind him. A lifetime of knowledge, a lifetime of preparation. All of it given by this man, sitting in the sunshine in front of him.

It was the preparation that had gotten to John eventually. A lifetime, a lifetime in a syringe, and not John's lifetime. Not his knowledge, not his need, not his years and years of scrounging and preparation. He'd realised that eventually. The lifetime in that syringe hadn't been his. It had been Schreber's.

How long had that night lasted? Just how long, from the moment he'd been reborn mutilated and memoryless beneath their thumb, had Schreber been silently preparing to fight them? The plans to the machine. The study of their tuning. The skills to insert himself into a lifetime of memories, to impart all his knowledge to someone who could use it with just one press of a plunger. He'd had it all prepared. He'd been waiting, all this time, for a chance to use it. He'd been waiting for a weapon, for however long that night had been.

John wasn't sure yet how he felt about having been that weapon. About having been forced to it, implanted with it. About having been hunted and hounded and used. About having fought for a man too weak to fight for himself. A man who'd committed horrors from that weakness.

But then, he hadn't done them willingly. He hadn't done anything willingly. Not for ... had it been years? Had he counted? Had he been able to tell? The Strangers had tortured him into compliance. He hadn't done their bidding willingly, hadn't taken part in their experiment for his own amusement. No more than John had, no more than anyone in this city had. He'd been forced to it. And he'd been waiting, the entire time, for a chance to force them back.

He'd given John everything he had, because John had been able to fight. For whatever reason, whatever immutable scrap of a thing lay at the base of him, John had been able to fight where no one else could. So Schreber had given him everything, announcing his culpability all the while. He'd given him everything, and he hadn't overwritten him to do it.

You're getting the hang of it, John. Maybe one day I'll be working for you.

Maybe one day I'll be working for you. That voice in his memory, warm and unscarred. Had Schreber thought of it like that? Trading one set of masters for another, this one hopefully better? It had been a joke in the memory, without context, the kind of thing a kid might want to hear from someone who worked for his family. In the memory it had been innocent. But no memory in this city was ever really that. Not when you knew. Not when you remembered what lay outside of them, what lay behind them. There was no such thing as an innocent memory anymore. And Schreber had known that better than any of them.

He'd given John power. All the power of the Strangers, all the power to destroy the Strangers. Some of it had been John's own, the base of it had been John's, but Schreber had given him the means to use it. All the knowledge and the power he could ever need, with the press of a plunger and at the risk of every last little thing Schreber had left.

When you've given a man everything, all the power you still possess, what else can that man be but your master?

The thought turned John's stomach. All of it, all of it turned his stomach. The whole city. He had the power now. He was the god in the machine. There was nothing he couldn't do anymore, to it or anyone within it. If he wanted them to, they belonged to him. Maybe even if he didn't. And Schreber knew that. Alone of all of them, he knew it.

But he ... he sat in the sunshine. Here, now. He sat on a bench in John's city, and tipped his face to John's sun, and smiled at it like a man who'd never seen it before. He smiled like a man freed from a nightmare. Like a man finally at peace.

Because he'd won. He'd fought and he'd won. The Strangers themselves had given his weapons to him, the Strangers and John, and he'd played them all to the hilt. The only person in this city with knowledge, the only person in this city with even partial memory. All he'd needed was power, and John had given him that. Schreber had spent an endless, torturous night waiting for a chance to strike at them, and John had finally contrived to give it to him.

And in the end, John thought, when he did think about it, when he had time to let it settle ... in the end, he felt oddly proud of that. Or not proud, exactly, but satisfied. Whatever he might think of the man himself, however confused his memories and his emotions might be, the knowledge of Schreber's victory brought nothing but satisfaction. As much as his own, and for much the same reasons.

Because it meant that some people, when you took everything away from them, would still fight. When you took their memories, their selves, their freedom, their power, everything they had, they'd still somehow find a way to fight. No matter what. Some people despaired, some people went mad, and some people fought.

The Strangers had been wrong. They'd gone looking in the wrong place. Memory was only a tool. A valuable one, yes, but it wasn't the thing that fought. It wasn't the thing that decided to. Something deeper decided that.

Some fixed, immutable thing, somewhere inside the human soul, that no Stranger could ever take.

And Schreber knew that too. More than anyone else in this city. Schreber knew it too.

They were all there. All three of them. The man in the sunshine, the man in the cage, the man in the syringe. They were all different, and they were all there. Because all of them had fought. Even the man before them, the man Schreber couldn't remember anymore, that man had fought too. They'd had to tear him apart before he gave in, and even then not all the way. They'd taken his freedom, taken his memory of what had come before, but they hadn't taken the part that would destroy them for it. They hadn't been able to.

And neither could John, no matter powerful he might be these days. He could kill every last man, woman and child in this city if he wanted to, but he couldn't take that. Not now, not ever.

There was no god in any machine that could take that.

Maybe that was part of why Schreber was smiling. Maybe that was why John was more than content to smile along with him. The man in the sunshine and the god in the machine. Two men with no memory of who they'd once been, and no need for memory either. Two survivors of an endless night, who'd managed to make the sun rise again.

Maybe, in the end, it didn't matter what John Murdoch thought of Daniel Schreber. Maybe, in the end, it only mattered that they both existed. Maybe it only mattered that they'd won.

John stood out from the awning and strolled gently towards him anyway. He stood to one side, out of the man's sunshine, and waited patiently until Schreber blinked his eyes open and looked at him. There was fear in the man's face for a second. There was pride too, and a sort of bright, defiant satisfaction. And there was warmth. For a nightmare ended, and a sun made to rise.

"John," the man said breathlessly, shuffling sideways and patting the seat beside him. "I didn't--expect to see you. Will you join me?"

John considered that for a second. Pointedly, at a little bit of length. But then he smiled, and he nodded, and he sat down beside the man.

"I think I will," he said lightly. "Thanks."

Schreber didn't answer him. He only smiled, faintly, after the first momentary flinch of wariness, and leaned back to rest his shoulder carefully against John's. John leaned into him easily. He closed his eyes, smiling himself, and tipped his head back to enjoy their hard-won sunshine.

Because, after all, whatever else they might be, they weren't strangers.

After everything they'd been through, they could never be that.