After a long time of solitude, after many steps taken
away from one's kind, toward these other kingdoms,
the hard prayer inside one's own singing
is to come back, if one can, to one's own,
a world almost lost, in the exile that deepens,
when one has lived a long time alone.
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone
John's awake when the gray dawn light forces its unwelcome way through the gap between the curtains of the motel chalet. He hasn't been sleeping much, lately. For the last couple of weeks, he hasn't been sleeping at all.
He gets up and goes to the bathroom, where he pisses in the red bucket and then scoops up cold water from the green bucket to splash on his face. He can't help catching a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror above the (now purely ornamental) sink as he turns to go. The man he sees there, shiftily trying to avoid meeting his eyes, has sallow skin and hollow cheeks which are only partially disguised by the fullness of a couple of months' worth of beard. He looks ill, which is kind of fucking funny if he thinks about it. He considers shaving, but without any real motivation to turn intent to action, even though the beard, unkempt and straggly, itches and makes him look like a bum.
It doesn't matter. No one's going to see him.
He lifts the red bucket and swirls it around, mixing piss and bleach into a noxious cocktail. Then he slips on shoes and carries the bucket along the path outside his room. The empty windows stare blankly at him as he passes.
Bill is in his usual spot, lying prone half in and half out of the shrubbery half way along the path, his Chicago Bulls baseball cap perched at a jaunty angle atop his skeletal face.
"Hey, Bill," John greets him with false joviality. "Isn't it a great morning? Look at that blue sky. You oughtta do something today, Bill. All this lying around isn't doing you any good."
Bill nods, and for a single insane second John half thinks he's actually responding. He isn't, of course; it's just that Bill's neck muscles have long since atrophied, leaving his head precariously balanced on his shoulders, so that every gust of wind turns him into the corpse version of those tacky nodding dogs people sometimes have in their cars. That people sometimes had in their cars, John corrects himself. Everything's past tense, now.
John pours the contents of the slops bucket into the storm drain at the end of the row of the chalets, then walks back to the room, calling out another cheery greeting to Bill-the-corpse on the way past.
Back in the room, he makes a desultory effort to wash in the remaining half-bucket of clean water, then immediately undoes whatever good he might have accomplished by putting on the same clothes he's been wearing for the past week. Maybe two weeks, he's lost track. He ought to eat something, but his stomach churns at the idea; he has to force himself to chew and swallow a handful of dry granola. The thought of hot coffee is more appealing, but boiling water on the camping stove feels like too much effort. Everything feels like too much fucking effort.
John had been in the Air Force for nearly twenty years; he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and he used to feel quietly proud of his ability to live in—to actually like—some of the loneliest, most inhospitable places on the planet. A year ago, he assessed his situation and decided that, while the future looked pretty bleak, at least he knew he had the kind of personality that should be able to adapt to a solitary existence in an empty world. He'd thought it wouldn't be all that different than the life he'd already been living.
He'd been wrong about that.
With breakfast out of the way, John checks his supplies. He's running low on gas for the camping stove and bottled water. He can't put it off any longer: he'll have to leave the motel to get supplies today. When he first established his base here, he made the ten mile round trip most days, but now he's barely going once a week, and he's stopped foraging for anything except the essentials.
He knows he's slowly giving up, his will to keep going rotting away to nothing in much the same way that Bill is. He knows it; he just can't make himself care anymore.
John lifts the revolver from the table next to the bed and tucks it into his belt. The days when he needed it in case he ran into gangs of looters are long gone; now, he only carries it to scare off the packs of feral dogs that roam the streets. That's not the only reason he likes to keep the gun near to hand, but it's the one he lets himself think about.
The light breeze rustles the leaves of the trees which fringe the motel parking lot; it's so quiet, John can hear his own breathing. The highway beyond the motel entrance is as empty of traffic as it has been every other morning since John took up residence; the cars in the parking lot are the same ones which were here the day he decided there was no point going any further and pulled in off the road at the next turnoff he came to. In addition to John's SUV (a top of the range model which had been brand new when he'd liberated it from the showroom, back when he was still capable of caring about things like that) there's a scattering of vehicles which must have belonged to the motel's last guests. John wonders if any of their drivers knew, when they checked in, that the Good-Nite Motel on Route 40 would be the last stop on their personal journeys.
It's going to be the last stop on John's journey, too. It's not that he couldn't leave—he could get in the car and start driving again any time he wanted to. The problem is that he no longer wants to. After a year he's finally realized there's nowhere left to go.
Well, that's not completely true. There's one place left he hasn't been yet.
The gun nestles against his hip, the barrel a cold pressure on his thigh.
He takes his usual circuitous route toward the city, avoiding the roads he knows are impassable due to pile-ups or the improvised roadblocks which had appeared in the middle stages of the plague, when the rule of law had started to break down. One of the roadblocks has a hand-painted sign reading PLAGUE KEEP OUT. John can't decide if it was meant to be a caution to stay away from an area of known infection, or a warning to the disease itself, as if the virus would read it and move on. It bothers him a lot more than it should that he'll never know for sure.
There's a strip mall right at the edge of the suburbs, with a huge WalMart and a mile-wide swath of parking lot. Other than a single exploratory excursion when he first arrived, John hasn't ventured further into the city itself. That one trip had been enough to convince him that Columbus, Ohio, was as filled with the dead as everywhere else he'd passed through. At least out here the smell of death isn't as strong. Even so, the thick miasma of decay hangs over it like an oily fog, the sickly-sweet smell of death insinuating itself into his nostrils, nauseating and impossible to ignore. A year on, John had expected it to start fading, but it's not; it's just thickening and ripening into a deep and abiding stench which will mark this and every other major center of population as the mass open graves they are for years to come.
He drives up to the WalMart and parks the SUV right outside. He grunts as he levers open the door he wedged shut to keep out rats, although the precaution has been less necessary lately. John's glad the rat population explosion is over. The furry little fuckers gorged themselves on the all-you-can-eat buffet left behind in the wake of the Creep; they'd bred in their millions and then they'd died as swiftly and universally as they'd lived, like some bizarre piece of performance art designed to satirize humanity's fate by mimicking it at high speed. Nature's last joke at homo sapiens' expense, John thinks. Ha fucking ha.
Inside the store, he takes a cart and works the aisles as quickly and efficiently as possible, shaking the cockroaches off the cans and packets he throws in the cart. The regulars are all here: Mike, lying face down by the checkout lanes, one bony hand still clutching a single can of beans in spicy tomato sauce; Pete, who's doomed to spend eternity with his head in a freezer case; and Bob, whose name John can at least be sure of, since it's printed in friendly lettering on his employee name badge ('Hi, I'm Bob and I'm here to help!'). And, of course, there's always Laverne.
Laverne disturbs John, more and more every time he comes back here. He can't avoid her, because her final resting place is in the dried and canned goods aisle, where he gets most of his supplies. He could move her, of course, but although he always means to, somehow he never does. Laverne is lying on her back, her legs straight, her arms folded across her stomach, as neat as if an undertaker had laid her out, and what gets to John is that he knows no undertaker did: Laverne arranged herself that way.
He wonders how it started for her. It might have been a numbness in her toes, a tingling in her fingers, a sudden blurring of vision, a cramp in her calf muscles—some small symptom which was trivial in itself, but signaled that the disease had abruptly passed out of its asymptomatic, infectious stage, and had begun to shut down her nervous system with devastating efficiency. For some, the disease's progress had taken weeks; others had died within hours of displaying the first symptoms. But, no matter whether the virus had claimed its victims by slow increments or at lightning speed, the end result had always been the same. By the time Laverne had realized she had the Creep, it had already been far too late.
And she'd known it, John thinks. Laverne came face to face with her mortality in the middle of buying canned vegetables, and instead of fighting, she just... accepted it. Lay down and waited to die. Gave up.
John pushes the cart around Laverne, maintaining a respectful distance, and makes his way back to the front entrance. Loading his haul into the SUV doesn't take long; the cart's hardly two-thirds full. Some distant part of his brain that still pays attention to these kinds of things tries to insist that Ramen noodles and instant coffee won't provide the nutrition his body needs, but he refuses to listen. Back when this started, he remembers he planned to grow his own vegetables; the idea seems so wildly ambitious now that he can barely believe he was ever serious about it.
He's just about to get back in the SUV and drive off when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees movement.
He turns around slowly, half-convinced he's imagining it. He's not: at the far end of the parking lot, he can see—Jesus, is that someone waving?
"Hey!" John shouts. "Hey!" he calls again, and then he's running across the parking lot, his pounding feet echoing weirdly in the silence. He's been mistaken before, of course; it happened a lot at the beginning, when he'd woken every morning certain that today would be the day he found other survivors. As weeks had become months, he'd trained himself not to jump at every door knocking against its frame or loose billboard flapping in the wind; it was too exhausting, having his hopes raised only to be dashed a dozen or more times a day. Lately, he's been trying not to hope at all. It's been increasingly easy.
He's terrified the silhouette of the waving man will vanish as he nears it, dissolving into a jigsaw of inanimate objects conspiring to imitate life. But it doesn't; it becomes more incontrovertibly person-shaped. It's another survivor; after all this time, another living human being, just leaning casually against the base of a streetlight, there and real and alive and...
...And not alive at all.
The corpse twists slowly, the toes of its graying Nikes scraping the ground. It isn't leaning against the pole, it's suspended by the rope wound tightly around its neck. A suicide, John realizes; it hadn't been uncommon, near the end. The rope must have loosened over the course of months, lowering the remains back toward the ground. In the process, one of the corpse's hands has become tangled with the trailing end of the rope, so that its arm is half-raised, swaying in a constant, mocking wave that no one is left to see.
No one except John.
John stands there for several minutes, watching the body swinging gently from side to side. He pictures Laverne, or whatever her name really was, lying down to die in the canned goods aisle at her local WalMart. He pictures this guy, cutting himself a length of rope with fingers already half-numb from the Creep, walking along the street looking for a place to hang himself and stopping right here and thinking, High enough.
Distantly, John realizes he's taken the gun from his belt and is holding it in his hands. It feels solid and cold in his grip, like it's the only real thing in the whole world. His fingers aren't numb at all; it would be easy to pull the trigger.
"My God, it works," a voice announces triumphantly behind John. "Ha. I knew it. I told them there were real-world applications; if those morons hadn't had the imaginations of retarded fruit-flies—"
Rational thought entirely fails to provide a response, and John's military training steps up to bat. He whips around, the gun coming up as he turns, his finger tightening around the trigger.
He doesn't—quite—pull it.
His aim is locked on a guy who is about the same age as John, but a few inches shorter and of stockier build. He's wearing an ugly plaid shirt. The instant he sees the gun in John's hand, the exultant grin on the guy's face disappears, replaced by wide-eyed fear.
"Um," says the guy. "Please don't kill me?"
John opens his mouth to say something, which is a great plan, because saying something is exactly what this situation requires, preferably something reassuring, contrite or, at the very least, coherent. Unfortunately, what actually comes out falls firmly into the 'none of the above' category: in a voice rusty with lack of use, John hears himself demand, "Where the fuck have you been?"
Plaid Shirt looks at the gun, then John, then back at the gun, and then very obviously decides that his best strategy is to try to answer the question, no matter how nonsensical it is. "Uh, Portland, Albany, Rochester and a number of other places and..." He trails off and swallows. Then he starts talking again, words tumbling out faster than John would have thought possible. "Hey, look, believe me when I say nothing would make me happier than to have an actual conversation with another human being, but I find that being threatened with a deadly weapon severely limits my capacity for sparkling repartee, so here's a suggestion: if you put the gun down, I'll tell you pretty much anything you want to know. How does that sound?"
John blinks, slowly trying to parse that. It takes him a second to figure out why it's so much harder than it should be, until he remembers how long it's been since he's had to understand and respond to human speech.
Very slowly, John says, "I'm putting the gun down."
Plaid Shirt nods his enthusiastic approval. "That's good, that's great, you do that."
John flicks the gun's safety back on and tucks it back into his belt. Then he holds his empty hands out from his sides, palms open. The guy nods again, but he doesn't relax at all.
"I wasn't going to shoot you," John tells him. He's not entirely certain that's true, but it feels important to say it nevertheless.
"Right, right," Plaid Shirt agrees quickly, "of course you weren't," but his eyes flick back to the gun in John's belt and John realizes he's scared. More than scared: he's terrified.
And why shouldn't he be? John is suddenly acutely aware that he doesn't present a convincing picture of calm lucidity. He looks like shit, he's barely making sense, he just almost shot someone and, if all that weren't enough, he suspects he probably doesn't smell too great.
The other guy, by comparison, is a walking advertisement for the benefits of good personal hygiene. His hair's a little uneven—probably because he's had to cut it himself—but he's clean-shaven and he doesn't look like he's been living in the same clothes for weeks. He's wearing sturdy walking boots and is carrying a backpack. He looks like a college professor on a hiking vacation.
He's holding something in his right hand, John notices. It's not a gun; in fact, it looks bizarrely like a handheld game console.
"What's that?" John asks.
The guy follows John's gaze. "This? This is how I found you. It's a life signs detector."
"Like on Star Trek?"
"Well, yes," Plaid Shirt says, "although this is superior in that it's, you know, real." He holds out his hand, offering the device for inspection with a kind of tentative hopefulness that makes John think of someone trying to distract a savage dog with a toy. It bothers him a lot that in this scenario, he's the dog. "You want to see? Here, look."
John takes the device and examines it. It is a handheld game console—at least, the casing is. The upper screen displays a grid of flickering lines, and in the dead center of it, there are two bright green dots, glowing bright and steady.
Fuck, it really is a life signs detector.
"Where'd you get this?" John asks.
"I made it," the guy says. "Rodney McKay," he adds.
John looks at him blankly. "Who?"
"My name," the guy says, in a tone of voice that's balanced exactly half-way between irritation and an acute awareness that John is armed.
Introducing yourself, John remembers, is what you do when you meet someone you don't know. "John Sheppard. Call me John."
He's pleased with the last part. It sounds almost normal.
John stops and thinks for a while, because it's been a very long time since he talked to anyone, and he wants to be absolutely sure he's understood the salient points of the conversation so far. "You invented a life signs detector, and you used it to find me."
McKay nods. "To be honest," he confesses, "I stopped checking it after the first couple of months. I'd kind of forgotten I was even carrying it until it started beeping."
John stares at the converted Nintendo DS, trying to figure out what the unfamiliar collection of thoughts and questions in his head is. Then it hits him: this is what being interested in something used to feel like.
He looks at McKay. "How does it work?"
The answer takes almost half an hour and by the end of it, John is hardly any wiser as to how McKay's gadget managed to pinpoint his location ("It's only got a fifteen hundred meter radius, although I have a few ideas about extending that.") but he has found out some things about McKay. He's learned that he's Canadian ("From Ontario, originally; I came to the U.S. to study at M.I.T. and never went back."); and that he's a genius ("I know people say that all the time, but I actually am—top point-oh-oh-one percentile by any of the generally accepted measures of IQ. Basically, I'm so far up the bell curve I'm hardly even on it."); and that he likes to talk ("Okay, I know I'm running on a little, here, but you're the first person I've seen in nearly a year, so I think I can be forgiven in this instance.")
John had already figured the last one out for himself.
"I started in Maine in June," McKay says. "I've been averaging about twenty miles a day, although I had to take a couple of long detours to avoid the cities: no point in surviving the Creep just to die from cholera or typhoid."
John looks down at McKay's feet, seeing the hiking boots in a fresh light. The boots are scuffed and creased with wear, obviously well broken in, but they don't look as if they've traveled two months and almost a thousand miles with their owner. Then again, if McKay's really come that far, he's probably on his third or fourth pair; all he has to do any time they wear out is break into an outdoors store.
"Ironically," McKay concludes, "I'm in better shape now than I have been for, well, ever. What about you?"
John stares at him, trying to figure out why McKay wants to know what kind of shape he's in. "I'm okay," he offers after a second, vague and non-committal and, yeah, lying through his teeth.
McKay tips his head to one side, and John gets the distinct impression he's mentally adjusting his assessment of John's intelligence down a couple of notches. "No, no, I meant: Have you seen anyone else?"
"No one," John says. "Not since..." He trails off, because the only way he can think to end that sentence is, 'since everyone died', which is pretty fucking obvious.
McKay's face falls, like he was hoping John would whisk him away to introduce him to an entire town's worth of survivors. "Where'd you come from?" he asks, and John sees where he's going with that: McKay's thinking that if John hasn't traveled far—or, better yet, if he's from around here—then his failure to run into any other survivors isn't statistically significant.
John hates to disappoint him again. "Washington," he says, then clarifies: "D.C."
"That's, what, four hundred miles?" McKay says. He blinks, once, and John can see him working it through. Between them, they've covered what used to be some of the most densely populated areas of the country, and each of them has come across exactly one other survivor in a year. Which means that the number of living people in North America is now so tiny it's probably not even measurable. He and McKay might well comprise the entire population of Ohio.
McKay is looking at John, his expression expectant, clearly waiting for John to fill out the details of his story. The idea makes his stomach churn with dread, for no reason he can readily identify. He tries to ignore the weird, panicky feeling and opens his mouth to speak.
"I left there." He swallows, mouth dry, heart pounding. "Headed west. Stopped here."
He can't go on. He wants to say more, but he can't. The words get stuck somewhere below his throat, and he'd swear he can actually feel them lodged there, a hard, solid mass trapped inside his ribcage; his chest is tight and it's hard to breathe and the panicky feeling is so overwhelmingly powerful that for a second it's an actual effort not to turn and flee.
With a queasy lurch in his stomach, John realizes that it shouldn't be this difficult, that something is badly out of whack here, and that there's a good chance it's him. All those months he spent grimly hanging on to his sanity and his sense of self, and it's only now, too late, that he sees something else was ebbing away without his knowledge, something almost as important, something he has no fucking idea how to get back.
McKay licks his lips nervously, and picks up the conversational threads that John has abandoned. "Where are you staying?"
Okay, that's good, John thinks: a nice, simple question with a nice, simple answer. He can handle that. "Motel outside town," he says and then, feeling more confident, he attempts humor. "The rooms... the rooms aren't great. But it's quiet. Really, really quiet."
The look on McKay's face tells him that was poorly judged.
The sun is dipping below the higher buildings nearby, layering the empty parking lot with shadows. A dog barks somewhere in the distance, and it's the unmistakable baying of a predator summoning its pack, not the friendly yap of a family pet. McKay's shoulders jerk nervously.
"I'm heading back now," John says. "You can come. If you want."
"I, uh..." McKay frowns uncertainly, clearly not rushing to accept the offer because he still has doubts about John's precise location on the sanity spectrum. John wants to reassure him but doesn't know how, so he stands there and waits for McKay to make up his mind. Then several more dogs bark, closer this time, and McKay casts a nervous glance over his shoulder. John guesses it's going to come down to whether McKay's more frightened of the night, or of him.
Then McKay says, "I guess... okay."
The hard ball of panic in John's chest shrinks until it's small enough that he can almost ignore it, and he takes the opportunity to breathe deeply while there's room in his lungs for air.
He nods, turns, and starts walking back to where he left the SUV. After a couple of seconds, he hears McKay's footsteps as he follows.
John's first thought the next morning is that he must have imagined the whole thing.
His room is as quiet as it's been since he moved in; nothing has visibly changed since yesterday. The TV still sits, dumb and dark, on the table opposite the end of the bed; the air conditioning unit is still silent. His clothes are still piled on top of the single chair, and his stores of canned food, bottled water and other essentials are as disorganized as they've been since he lost interest in anything except the most cursory planning.
He strains to listen in the silence, but he can't hear anything from the room next door, the room he remembers—or thinks he remembers—breaking open for McKay last night. Maybe McKay's still asleep. Maybe he's just really quiet. Maybe the room's empty, and yesterday's encounter was just the delusional product of John's increasingly unhinged mind.
Maybe he really is going crazy.
The only way he'll know for sure is to go and knock on the door of the next room.
He gets up and pulls on jeans and a shirt, and when he leaves his room he looks to his right, at the door next to his, and then turns and walks in the other direction. He follows the same morning routine he has for months, pouring the foul contents of the red bucket down the storm drain and filling the green bucket from the barrel he's been using to collect rainwater.
When he gets back, he stands outside his room for several long minutes, staring at the other door.
Finally, he goes up to it and knocks.
Then there's a scuffling noise from the other side of the door and it swings open. McKay pokes his head out, blinking in the sunlight. His hair is sticking up in tufts and his jaw is stubbly; he smells tangy with the sweat of the previous day and he is astonishingly, miraculously real and alive. The sense of relief that washes through John is so overwhelmingly powerful that for a second he can't do anything except stand there, silently marveling.
His voice still thick with sleep, McKay grunts something that might be a greeting. He spies the bucket of clean water in John's hand, says more clearly, "Oh, hey, thanks," and takes it.
They stare at each other from opposite sides of the threshold for a long, awkward moment, before John realizes McKay's waiting for him to say something or go. He casts about desperately for a few seconds and then blurts, "Do you want coffee?"
It must be the right thing to say, because McKay's mouth widens into a broad, slanted smile. He holds up a finger. "First thing you need to know about me: I always want coffee."
John returns to his chalet and brews coffee for both of them on the camping stove, then carries two steaming cups next door. While he's been gone, McKay's used most of the bucket of rainwater to shave and wash and is finishing buttoning up his shirt. John hands him one of the two mugs and sits down to drink his. McKay inhales the vapor rising off his drink and makes a low, appreciative noise before delving into his backpack. He produces two granola bars and spends a long time studying the labels, frowning to himself. "I'm allergic to citrus," he says when he notices John watching him. "I mean, really allergic. When I was sixteen I spent two days in intensive care because some idiot thought it would be funny to slip lemon juice in my coke. Unfortunately, citric acid is just about the most common preservative around; anything that hasn't gone off yet probably contains enough of the stuff to kill me."
John nods, although he thinks it's weird that McKay still needs to check what's in his granola bars when he must have been eating the same brand for months. He seems strangely intense about it, too; John notices that even after he's unwrapped the bars, he sets the wrappers down with their labels facing up, the simple action performed with such care that it has an odd air of ritual.
The next item McKay takes out of his backpack is a creased and dog-eared map, which he unfolds on to the floor. He finishes the last bite of his second granola bar and taps a finger in the middle of it: "We're here, right?"
John crosses the room to join him, coffee in hand. "Yeah."
"I need to get to Colorado Springs," McKay tells him.
He says it with a definitive air that makes John think it's not a randomly selected destination. "What's in Colorado Springs?"
"A military installation," McKay says after a second, his tone strangely reluctant.
John can feel his eyebrows creasing together in puzzlement. "You mean Cheyenne Mountain? NORAD?"
McKay hesitates, then says, "Yes. I used to work on a deep space telemetry project based there. Well, the project headquarters were there. I was in research, so I was in Nevada most of the time. But I spent a lot of time at the mountain. The facility was... very secure. So that's where I'm heading. There's a chance they might have survived."
John guesses he understands McKay's impulse to try to find some remaining outpost of order and government, but John doesn't think NORAD is it; Cheyenne Mountain might have been equipped to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear warhead, but John doubts its blast doors and layers of concrete were effective against the Creep. Maybe McKay's right, and whoever was there had been able to seal themselves in before the infection reached them—maybe they still had the stockpiles of supplies once intended to sustain them through a nuclear winter. But even if anyone had survived deep inside the mountain, there would have been nowhere for them to go, no way to leave without exposing themselves to the virus. All they would have done was create a cozy tomb for themselves.
"They're dead," John says. It comes out sounding harsh, even to him. "One way or another, they're dead. Everyone's dead."
"I'm not. You're not. Therefore that statement is demonstrably incorrect." Testily, McKay adds, "And, you know, I wasn't actually asking you to approve my travel plans. You wanted to know where I'm going; well, I'm going to Colorado Springs."
John watches him start to lace up his hiking boots. "Walking?"
"Yes," McKay says, his tone obdurate. It'll take him at least another couple of months, John estimates, even longer if the bad weather sets in early. McKay must be able to tell what John's thinking, because the next thing he says is, "If I could get there faster, I would."
"You don't drive?" John guesses.
McKay has moved on from his boots to replacing items in his backpack. He doesn't look up as he answers, "No. I don't." He sounds uneasy, even a little embarrassed.
John drinks the last of his coffee and watches McKay finish packing. John doesn't believe there's anything left at NORAD or Colorado Springs—he doesn't believe there's anything left anywhere—but he can see McKay does. Maybe that means McKay's not as sound of mind as he first appeared, but John is uncomfortably aware that he's skirting the borders of normal himself. McKay, at least, has managed to hang on to two things John lost a while ago: hope and a sense of purpose. Being around him makes John feel like a drowning man offered a glimpse of land; even if it's a mirage, the sight of it might be enough to keep him swimming.
Put that way, it's not a hard decision to make.
"I'll take you there." John tries to make his tone easy and light, like he's offering McKay a ride to the store. He's not sure if he manages it or not.
McKay's hands pause half-way through tying a strap. "Well, I, that is..." He stops. "It's a long way."
"My schedule's not exactly packed. And, hey, road trip. Could be fun." This time, John pitches for ironic and unconcerned. He can hear the brittle falseness in his voice, though, and he hopes it's not as obvious to McKay as it is to him.
McKay is looking at him quizzically, and for a second John's afraid he's missed helpful completely and has instead landed hugely off-target somewhere in the vicinity of deranged.
But McKay just says, "You have strange ideas about what constitutes fun." He stands up and scrutinizes John in a way that makes John feel like he's a cadet again. "Do you smoke?"
"Hum show-tunes? Crack your knuckles? Whistle in an incessant and irritating way?"
John thinks about that. "Didn't before. Pretty sure I still don't."
"Of course, the deal-breaker would be if you liked to listen to conservative talk radio shows, but the single happy outcome of the apocalypse is that they don't exist anymore." McKay nods once, decisively. "All right. I accept your offer."
Relief breaks over John like a wave.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" McKay says impatiently. "Are you going to take me to Colorado or not?"
It doesn't take long to load up the SUV; McKay's got everything he needs in his backpack, and there's nothing in the motel room John can't replace from any of the deserted stores and malls they'll pass on the journey. He makes an exception for his battered copy of War and Peace; he hasn't read a word of it for months, but somehow the idea of leaving it sitting there on his nightstand, slowly moldering away to pulp over the years to come, unread, feels wrong. He ends up going back for it right before he closes the motel room door for the last time. He doesn't lock the room. There's no point.
"So, are you going to miss this place?" McKay asks as they pull out of the parking lot.
In the SUV's rear-view mirror, the Good-Nite Motel recedes into the distance. When it vanishes completely, John feels strangely buoyant, as if he's suddenly been cut free of a heavy weight that's been holding him down for a long time. He's moving forward again; it feels good to have an objective, even if it belongs to someone else.
"No," John says. "I won't miss it at all."
John expects McKay to talk a lot. This turns out to be a gross underestimation, because McKay talks all the time.
He talks about his job as head of R&D at an aerospace contractor, for which he appears to have been extremely well paid, although not, in his opinion, well paid enough to compensate for the number of utter morons he had to put up with on a daily basis. He talks about the various theories about the plague's origins. He talks about the weather and what he can see out of the SUV window and sometimes, when he's exhausted every possible topic of conversation, John swears he can actually hear McKay murmuring what sounds like physics equations under his breath.
By the end of the first morning, John has developed the theory that part of the reason McKay talks so much is to distract himself, because he is the most nervous passenger John has ever met. He flinches every time the car bounces over a pothole, and when they hit a clear stretch of road and John eases the speed up, he becomes visibly more tense, tapping his fingers in a staccato beat against the dash and talking even faster. In the end, John takes pity on him, and resolves not to drive faster than 30mph, even when he could.
It's not a source of as much frustration to him as it might be, because opportunities for speeding are infrequent. They've planned their route to avoid all major highways, which are frequently blocked by traffic jams of cars abandoned during the exodus from the cities, or by pile-ups which will now never be towed, or military roadblocks set up in the final doomed attempt to control the spread of infection. Hitting one of these obstructions usually means backing up and retracing their route until they find a way around it; they have to do it twice on the first day, and as a result only get as far as Englewood, just north of Dayton. A whole day to travel seventy miles is an unpromising start, and John revises his estimate of the total journey time upward, from a few days to at least a couple of weeks. He's beginning to think McKay had the right idea when he started walking.
They could make up the time lost by driving into the night, but McKay's adamantly opposed to the idea. Night travel is a more hazardous proposition than it was before, back in the days of streetlamps and light pollution and the guiding taillights of other cars on the road. John would take the risk, but doesn't object—he's just the driver, after all. So, when the daylight begins to fade, they start looking for a suitable place to spend the night. "Not the houses," McKay says, and John nods his agreement: most people, in the end, died in their beds, and John has come to think of the endless streets of blank-windowed houses which fill every town, with their overgrown lawns and peeling paintwork, as suburban mausoleums. They end up camping in the gymnasium of the local high school; it's drafty but smells of dust and old sweat rather than death.
McKay cooks, volunteering in a weirdly insistent way that makes John think he's not going to take no for an answer. John, who's no chef himself, is happy to let him, and although the resulting meal (canned spaghetti and meatballs in tomato sauce heated on the gas camping stove) isn't going to earn McKay any Michelin stars, it's savory and satisfying. John surprises himself by clearing his plate; it's only afterwards that he remembers that he lost interest in cooking for himself a while back, and this is the first real meal he's eaten in maybe a couple of months. It's nice, in an uncomplicated way, to sit down to a plate of hot food made by someone else.
After dinner, John reads a couple of pages of War and Peace by flashlight while McKay wriggles into his sleeping bag, grumbling as he tries to get comfortable on the hard gymnasium floor. Maybe it's the lethargy of digestion, or tiredness from doing more in a single day than he has in months, but for the first time in a long time, John falls asleep effortlessly, drifting off right in the middle of listening to McKay complain about his back.
It couldn't be that easy, and of course it isn't. When, on the second day, things go to hell, they do so in spectacular style.
John would like to blame McKay; he's the one, after all, who raises the subject in the first place. He can't, though, because he'd known that sooner or later McKay would talk about this. What John had failed to anticipate was his own reaction when he did.
"So—against my better judgment—I agreed to go to the conference in Maine," McKay says as they negotiate a route around the outskirts of Indianapolis. "Oh, excuse me, it wasn't a conference, it was a retreat," he clarifies, making derisory air-quotes around the word. "Someone thought it'd be a terrific idea if we all spent a week in a hotel in the middle of nowhere getting in touch with our feelings about new product development. Did you ever hear anything so patently ridiculous? Anyway. There'd been a few cases of the disease in New York, but no one was really panicking at that point: the big problem was still in California. Of course, two days after we got there, they closed the airports and brought in the emergency travel restrictions, which was annoying, but I had a laptop and an expense account, so I figured I'd just sit and wait it out. Then I came down to breakfast one morning and a woman collapsed at the self-service buffet. She was hysterical, screaming she couldn't feel her legs. I thought they'd evacuate the hotel, but they didn't: the hospitals were filling up and there was nowhere to evacuate to. By that evening more people were sick and all the staff had vanished."
John feels his hands tighten on the car's steering wheel. McKay's been talking more or less continuously for two days, but up to now John's been able to let it wash over him, remote and irrelevant. He doesn't want to hear this, doesn't want to know it. He wants to tell McKay to shut up, but his mouth is dry and he can't speak.
"I decided my best plan was to stay put. I raided the kitchens for food and laid in a supply of bottled water and holed up in my hotel room for the next two weeks. Mostly I just watched the news channels. Then CNN went off the air, so I knew it really was the apocalypse." He frowns. "Actually, the worst part was when the internet started to gray out. All those 404 File Not Found errors. Like the world switching off, one server at a time." He pauses. "I woke up one morning and I couldn't feel my arm and I thought, this is it, but it turned out I'd just slept on it the wrong way. I kept expecting to get sick, but it just... didn't happen."
John had known he wouldn't get the Creep. He'd known it with the same kind of uncanny certainty he'd first experienced in Afghanistan, the irrational but unshakeable conviction that no matter how FUBAR things got, he would walk away unscathed. It wasn't borne of arrogant self-belief in his abilities as a pilot: John knew he was a good pilot, maybe an excellent one, but he also knew all the skill in the world wouldn't save you from bad luck. He simply knew his survival was guaranteed, as if the assurance had been handed down to him by some external force.
When he'd first identified the feeling, it had freaked him out, because John hadn't believed in higher powers since he'd gotten too old for Sunday School, and overconfidence in the air was the first thing that got you killed. But after a while he'd realized what he felt wasn't confidence at all; in fact, it was the opposite. His charmed life wasn't a blessing, but a curse. He lived while other people—people he cared about, people who fucking deserved life more than him—died.
It wasn't until after what happened to Holland and the others that John realized he'd always known that; had known it at some level since the day he'd stood stiffly at his mother's graveside, wanting to take his father's hand and not quite daring to. The deaths of Holland and the others had only served to crystallize the understanding.
After that, the Creep had just been a larger scale demonstration of the same principle.
"The power went off on the fifteenth day, and then I ran out of food, so I had to leave my room. I went down to the lobby and there was a guy there, just lying in the middle of the floor. He was in the last stages of it; he could barely breathe. I told him I'd get help and I went to find someone, but there were just... bodies. Bodies everywhere. I went back and sat with him, but I couldn't do anything. He died the same night. I never saw anyone die before. Right there, right in front of me..." McKay stops and puts a hand to his eyes and makes a soft gasping sound which isn't quite a sob. "I'm sorry, I just, I never..."
Holland had been badly injured, John had known that, but he'd said he could walk, and John had wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that maybe some of John's uncanny luck would rub off on someone else, for once. It had, to an extent: Holland managed maybe ten miles with John's support, and it hadn't been until John had had to listen to the medical report being read out loud at the inquest that he'd realized just what a feat of endurance that had been. He must have been in fucking agony with every step. He hadn't said anything about it, though. In the end, all he'd said was, Hey, buddy, I need to sit down for a minute.
He had died as John watched, between one heartbeat and the next.
When John comes back to himself, he's standing in the dirt strip at the side of the road, half-leaning forward, his left hand braced against the top of his thigh, head hanging down like he's just thrown up. He hasn't, thank God: that's one indignity he's been spared, at least. He has absolutely no idea how long he's been standing there, but his knees ache a little, which suggests it's been a lot longer than he can pass off as just needing to stretch his legs.
He can hear the growl of the car's engine, shockingly loud in the silence. He twists his head around and little and sees the SUV sitting in the dead center of the road, in a spot which, a year ago, would have caused a twenty-car pile-up within about ten seconds. Both its front doors are open. McKay is standing about halfway between the car and John, looking anxious. That shouldn't by itself set the alarms in his head ringing, since there's barely been a moment since John met him when McKay hasn't looked anxious, but there's a sharper edge to his nervousness now, the ever-present terror running a lot closer to the surface than it has since they set out.
John looks down and sees he's cradling the gun in his right hand, which is... not good. He's not pointing it at anything, but the fact that he can't remember taking it out of the holster scares him shitless.
"Are you okay? Travel sick? Nauseous? Do you want a drink of water?" McKay rocks on his heels a little, like all it would take would be one sudden move from John to make him turn and run.
John swallows, tastes bile. He opens his mouth, but he can't make anything come out; it's like there's a band of metal encircling his chest, squeezing his ribs, making it impossible to take anything but the shallowest breaths.
"Are you okay?" McKay asks again.
"Okay," John forces out and, Jesus, there's no fucking air left in his lungs, he's going to die of asphyxiation right here.
Eventually, the feeling subsides sufficiently that John can straighten up. He half-turns so that McKay can see him putting the gun away. It's all the reassurance he can give right now, since looking McKay in the eye is completely beyond him.
He walks back to the car and gets in, grimly aware that McKay's watching him the whole way, slowly pivoting on the spot so that his back is never to John. In the car, John locks his hands around the steering wheel and waits. A minute passes, maybe longer, and then, at last, McKay walks around to the passenger side of the SUV and gets in.
There's a second of awkward silence, and then McKay suddenly gets very interested in the SUV's CD player. "Do you, uh, do you like music? We should pick up some CDs next time we stop. I listen to classical, mostly, but if that's not your, um, thing, we could take turns to choose. Or, or something."
So they're going to ignore what just happened, John thinks with relief. Okay; he can do that.
"Sounds good," he says, and eases his foot on to the accelerator.
McKay plays CDs of classical piano solos that sound to John like elevator music, but it seems to calm his nerves a little, and sometimes he even stops talking for short intervals while he listens. John plays The Man Comes Around over and over and ignores the dismayed looks McKay gives him every time it ends and he flicks it back to the first track again. He can't think of a better soundtrack to the end of the world than Cash.
Indiana scrolls by, flat and monotonous and utterly deserted. Every town is a ghost town; between them, there are only empty roads threading between overgrown fields whose boundaries are slowly dissolving as the wilderness, held at bay for a few short centuries, reclaims its lost territories.
John keeps a running tally of the number of roadside churches they pass whose exterior billboards quote Revelations and demand repentance. His favorite is a hand-painted banner still somehow hanging intact on the side wall of a wooden-framed church that says in stark foot-high letters, HE TOLD YOU SO. At least, John thinks, the faithful got the satisfaction of dying smug.
They keep driving.
McKay sees it first: "Stop the car. What is that?"
John brakes, scanning the road ahead for threats. "Where?"
"Look," McKay says, tapping the passenger-side window. "Over there."
The message is painted in bright yellow letters on the side of a building next to the road.
John brakes. "Jesus."
"August 14," McKay says, excitement in his voice. "That's only a couple of weeks ago."
John nods, remembering all the messages he left, back at the start of his journey. Somewhere south and east of here, there are dozens of walls and buildings spray-painted with his name, the date, and the direction he'd been traveling in when he passed them. Eventually, they'll all be erased by sun and wind and rain, but until then the markers, and the growing distances between them, will serve as testament to the slow erosion of his hopes.
"Okay, Greg Zema's alive," McKay mutters, "but where the hell is he?"
They get the answer a couple of blocks later, in the form of a huge arrow painted over the top of a peeling billboard advertisement for Gap jeans. The lettering above it is sloppy in places, but legible: PARKLAND STREET.
"Initiative," McKay says approvingly. "I think I like him already."
They spend the next quarter hour in a kind of surreal scavenger hunt, following a trail of recently painted arrows through the suburbs. Parkland Street turns out to be in the heart of what had been a prosperous neighborhood; the houses are large and set well back from the road, their wide lawns running wild with weeds and expensive foreign cars slowly accumulating rust in their drives.
"No bodies," McKay says suddenly. "Do you see that? There are no bodies."
John nods, wondering for a second at the back-to-front world they inhabit where the absence of human remains is unusual enough to merit comment. There are corpses everywhere; there isn't a street in a town or city anywhere in the country that isn't littered with the remains of at least a couple of the Creep's victims. Except for Parkland Street.
Then McKay says, "Look."
The house is about halfway along the avenue, and it's instantly apparent that it's different than its neighbors. The front lawn hasn't gone to seed; instead, it's been dug over and turned into a vegetable patch, with neat lines of green sprouting between brown strips of earth. Chickens scratch around inside a wire-fenced coop on the other side of the drive, and a wind turbine—a freaking wind turbine—turns slowly in the light breeze.
As soon as John stops the SUV outside the house, McKay grabs his backpack from the back seat and starts to root around in it. A second later he pulls out his Gameboy-cum-life-signs-detector and flips it open. He studies it intently for a few seconds and then his expression clouds, but only slightly. "I'm not picking anything up," he says, "but he might just be out of range at the back of the house."
John doesn't answer. There's a truck parked next to the door of the house, but if Zema were home, the noise of the SUV pulling up at his front door should have brought him out by now. Something is pinging with sinister insistence in the back of John's head, like the inverse of McKay's life-signs detector. "Stay here," he says. "I'm going to go and take a look around."
"Ah, no," McKay says firmly. "You're not going in there by yourself. I've seen how you handle introductions."
He's wearing a stubborn expression that suggests no amount of persuasion is going to make him budge—even if John had the verbal and social skills to attempt to convince him, which John knows he hasn't. So he nods and gets out of the car; he waits for McKay to join him and then they walk up to the front door of the house together.
It isn't locked, and opens to reveal a neat tiled hallway and a flight of stairs leading to the upper floor. There's a pair of shoes next to the mat, and a bucket containing assorted gardening equipment.
"Mr. Zema?" McKay calls, before John can stop him. "Um, hello? Greg?" There's no answer. "I'm going to look upstairs. Maybe he's asleep. Or in the bathroom."
McKay starts to climb the stairs. John watches him for a second, then walks on, down the hallway. He takes the first door on the left, and finds himself in the den. He pokes around briefly, pausing to investigate the pile of books next to the sofa; the top one is a DIY manual, and when John fingers the spines of the volumes beneath it, he finds they are all similarly practical—there's a medical dictionary and a book on animal husbandry. John feels his admiration for Greg Zema growing; clearly, the guy has been thinking much more long term than John's managed to.
He makes a brief survey of the kitchen, which is similarly well organized and provisioned, and then, a little concerned by the silence from the upper floor, goes to find McKay. He feels relieved when, at the top of the stairs, he sees McKay standing with his back to John in the doorway of what looks like the main bedroom. John goes to join him.
His voice quiet and utterly desolate, McKay says, "I found him."
The body lying on top of the bedclothes is unquestionably dead, but there's no visible decomposition and barely even the smell of incipient decay in the air. John thinks of the chickens scratching around outside and wonders how long it's been since they were fed. It can't have been more than a couple of days.
A plastic pill bottle lies on its side on the bedside table, a few stray capsules scattered around its open mouth. The bottle of Jack Daniels next to it is nearly empty.
John realizes he'd been more right than he knew when he mentally congratulated Zema for thinking long term. The long term must have been exactly what Zema had been thinking of when he'd made his decision. He must have worked hard for months and months, distracting himself with his chickens and his vegetable garden and his books on vehicle maintenance. But the more he planned for his lonely future, the more he must have seen just how empty it would be, the endless years of remorseless, grinding solitude which lay ahead. And he had decided he wanted out.
"We should bury him," John says, not taking his eyes off the body.
McKay looks at him. "Six billion people died, and you want to have a funeral for one of them?"
"Are you saying he doesn't deserve it?" It comes out sounding angrier than John intends.
"No, I'm saying that if you start burying all the dead people, you'll never stop."
"We're burying him."
John hasn't given an order since he left the Air Force, but something of the tone of command must have stayed with him, because McKay blinks once in surprise and doesn't argue anymore.
It's a longer, harder task than John expects. First, they have to find shovels and a suitably soft patch of earth. In the end, they dig up the vegetable patch, uprooting small potatoes and baby carrots with every shovelful of dirt. Digging the trench—six feet long and almost as deep—takes hours of labor, and McKay keeps up a litany of complaints about the strain on his back, the heat, the dirt and the possibility of contracting tetanus the whole time until John finally loses patience and snaps, "Would you show a little fucking respect?" He soon regrets it, though, because the work feels even harder and slower when carried out in oppressive silence. It's late afternoon by the time the grave is ready; they go back into the house and wrap Greg Zema's body in the sheet it was lying on, and carry it between them out to the yard. The shadows lengthen as they pile dirt back into the grave, and the sun is dipping below the roof of the house next door when John finally steps back from the low mound of freshly churned dirt. He leans on his shovel, exhausted; they've been working without a break for most of the day.
"Do you, ah, want to say anything?" McKay asks, breaking the silence. "I would, but I've been an atheist since I was seven, and recent events haven't done a lot to persuade me of the existence of a benevolent and forgiving deity."
John does want to say something, but he doesn't know what. He opens his mouth a couple of times, but he can't force out a single word.
He stands with McKay at the grave's edge in silence until it's completely dark. Eventually, angry at himself for his failure, John turns and walks back into the house, and McKay follows him.
Too late, John realizes that his insistence on burying Zema was a mistake; it's bad enough knowing they were just days too late, and putting his corpse in the ground has only compounded the sense of failure. John can feel the hopelessness and silence of the last months tightening around him again, as close and suffocating as Zema's shroud; he feels as if he couldn't speak, even if he wanted to.
McKay, in contrast, is voluble and edgy. John isn't hungry, but pretends he is so that McKay will have an excuse to prepare food for both of them, figuring he needs something to keep him occupied. But that turns out to be a mistake, too; McKay is even fussier than normal, checking the labels of their canned dinner over and over again for traces of citrus, and his restiveness starts to rub off on John.
When John sits down at the table in Greg Zema's kitchen, there's a row of empty cans lined up down the middle of it, as if McKay is constructing a peculiar set of fortifications around himself.
McKay says nothing, even though he has to know how weird the wall of empty cans looks. He doesn't meet John's gaze as he spoons canned vegetable stew into two dishes and takes a seat at the opposite side of the table.
McKay is unusually quiet once they sit down. John pushes his stew around his plate for a while and then, mostly for something to do rather than eat, idly picks up an empty can of green beans.
"Put that back," McKay says, putting his fork down at once.
John looks at the empty can in his hand, and then at McKay.
"Put that back," McKay repeats. "I have a citrus allergy, I have to be certain—"
"You already checked the labels," John says. "They're not going to change."
"I know that," McKay says angrily. "I know it, but I have to see them, because I can't—" and then he breaks off abruptly. When he speaks again, the anger has gone, and instead his voice is strained and raw, almost pleading. "I can't eat unless I'm sure, okay? I can't eat unless I can see all the labels, so... put it back. Please."
John remembers McKay scrupulously checking the wrappers of his granola bars, the first morning after they met. His insistence on being the one to prepare their food, even though he's no cook, suddenly makes sense. He's been doing his best to hide his compulsion and, thanks to John's near total lack of perception, he's been more or less successful so far. But burying Greg Zema has been just a little too much for him, and now he's struggling to keep up the façade of near-normalcy.
Silently, John replaces the empty can in its place in the line up, turning it round so the label faces McKay's side of the table. Some of the tension slides out of McKay.
"Thanks," he says, sounding both grateful and ashamed. "It's not... it's not rational. I know that. I'm a scientist. I should be rational." There's a bitterness in his tone that's close to self-loathing. "I was fine until I left Bangor. I hadn't driven any kind of distance for months. I couldn't go anywhere during the winter, and by the time the weather improved I'd started working on the life signs detector, so it was June before I set out. I started driving. Everything was fine at first, and then, on the second day, something ran out into the road—a deer, maybe, I didn't get a good look at it—and I swerved to avoid it. Just instinct. The airbag went off, so I was fine, but it shook me up. I started thinking about what would've happened if I'd been injured: no emergency services to call, no one to come by and find me. And then... it was like the floodgates opened. I couldn't stop thinking about all the ways I could die." McKay shakes his head in self-reproach. "My big mistake was not finding another car and starting to drive again right away. I started walking instead—told myself I'd only hike for a day or two, until I got my nerve back. But it got worse, not better. Then I started checking the labels on food and... here I am," he finishes, gesturing at the line of empty cans on the table between them. "I've always had... well, let's be generous and say anxiety issues. But I wasn't... I wasn't always this way."
He looks at John cautiously as he says it, like he's expecting John to dispute that. John isn't sure how to answer, so he doesn't say anything.
After a few seconds, McKay says, "Okay, here's the thing: I don't know if you're as tired as I am of our conversations being almost entirely one-sided, but I'd really appreciate it if you at least tried to tell me what you're thinking from time to time, not least because it would reassure me that you're not going to pull a gun on me again."
John leans forward and rests his elbows on the table, his fingers on his temples and his head angled down, so he doesn't have to look at McKay as he says, "I used to be... better at this."
John can't see McKay's face, but he can picture the look of wary curiosity on it as he asks, "At what? Talking? Being around people? Not threatening strangers with firearms?"
John nods down at the table. All of the above.
It feels like a huge admission, like he's baring his soul or something, even though objectively all he's doing is confirming that he has issues of his own, which he knows is pretty fucking obvious at this point. John's aware he's never been particularly good at opening up to other people—if his father, brother or ex-wife were still alive, they'd be lining up to agree about that—but he used to have a knack for the kind of superficial, empty charm that at least allowed him to glide easily over the surface of human interaction. But isolation has destroyed his capacity for that, leaving him with nothing except this clumsy inadequacy which is, he suspects, what the superficial, empty charm was there to cover up.
When he finally lifts his head, McKay is looking at him with an expression which is weary but not unsympathetic. "Well," he says after a few moments, "that's a start, I guess."
John gets up from the table and goes to Greg Zema's refrigerator. He turns his head away as he opens the door—after all this time, it's become an instinct—but there's no smell at all, and he realizes Zema must have been using electricity from the wind turbine to power a couple of essential appliances. He spies what he was hoping to find nestling at the back: a six pack of beer. He pulls it out, detaches a couple of cans and wipes them clean before handing one to McKay.
McKay scrutinizes the label, then pops the top open and drinks.
John takes a swig and sits down again.
McKay drinks again, and then says, "I always talked a lot. It helps me think. And then, after it happened, it was so, so quiet, I didn't want to get into the habit of talking to myself but I couldn't be like some..." He gestures with his hands: "...some post-apocalyptic Trappist monk, so I started carrying a Dictaphone with me all the time, and that made it okay, somehow, because at least I could pretend I was talking to someone. I had to throw the tapes away, eventually, because there were too many to carry. So I ended up talking to myself anyway, and now it's become something of a, of a compulsion." McKay pauses for a second, his mouth twisting in distaste on the word, and then he continues, "And I'm aware that could be a little aggravating at times, so if you don't want to listen to my unfiltered stream of consciousness, you're going to have to interrupt me or ask me a question or something. You know, like now," he adds, glaring at John.
The first question that John can think of is, "You really became an atheist when you were seven?"
"I'd already logically inferred the non-existence of Santa Claus before my sixth birthday. It was a fairly elementary next step."
"I should have tried the Dictaphone thing," John says. The alcohol is making his head buzz already; he should have tried to eat more at dinner. "I started talking to the bodies instead."
"I hear you don't have to worry unless they start talking back," McKay offers.
"They kind of were," John says, thinking of Bill, grinning his skeletal grin and nodding in vacuous agreement. "I gave them names. Made up personalities. Todd was okay. Not Steve, though. Steve was a jerk."
"My God, we're both complete basket cases, aren't we?" McKay contemplates his beer. "We should form a species extinction support group."
John waves at him from his side of the table. "Hi, I'm John and I survived the apocalypse." McKay barks out a dry, humorless laugh.
They're on their third beer each when McKay says suddenly, "I may not have the world's most acute people skills, but I'm smart, and that makes up for a certain amount, so don't think I couldn't see what was going through your head this afternoon." He regards John steadily, his gaze penetrating. "You're not him, you know. You didn't give up."
You're wrong, John wants to tell McKay, but even with a couple of beers in him, he's nowhere near being able to say that.
Then, unexpectedly, McKay reaches across the table and bumps his can of beer against John's. "To Greg Zema."
John lifts his half-empty can in response. "Greg Zema," he echoes. "May he rest in peace."
It's not what he wants to say, but it's something. For now, it'll have to be enough.
After that, things get better, and worse, and better because they get worse.
They stop trying to keep up any kind of front with each other. McKay talks constantly and lines up empty cans at every meal, but he lets it pass when the effort of communicating gets to be too much for John and he has to retreat into himself for as long as it takes him to regroup and try again. McKay was right, John thinks: they are both basket cases, but at least now they're being honest about it, and there's a strange kind of freedom that comes with that, like they've given each other permission to be as fucked up as they really are.
Which is fortunate, because they are both really fucked up. The day after they bury Zema, McKay convinces himself that everything has citrus in it, and won't—can't—eat anything at all. His terror of the consequences of both eating (death by citrus) and not eating (death by starvation) is awful to watch, not least because McKay is agonizingly aware of just how irrational his fear is. But he can't switch it off, and by the time he's getting shaky with hunger, John is actively formulating a couple of different plans to make McKay eat, using force if necessary. It doesn't come to that: on the fourth day, John figures out that while McKay can't believe a citrus-free ingredients list on the side of a can, he can believe John. After that, John reads the labels on cans with him, and the independent corroboration seems to work, because McKay starts eating again, nervously at first, and then with increasing confidence.
John's freak-outs are different in nature, but no less severe. The worst one hits him out of the clear blue sky on a day when he's managed to keep consistently within a couple of standard deviations of normal since getting up and is feeling pretty pleased with himself; later, he will think that it's possible that's why it hits him as hard as it does. It happens when they take a break at a deserted gas station. John stays with the car while McKay goes to restock his candy supply from the store, and suddenly John is alone again and the world is as empty and silent as it was during all those long months.
He drums his fingers on the steering wheel and waits for McKay to come back.
A minute passes; two minutes; five.
Something's happened, John thinks. McKay's somehow been injured, or he's decided he's better off traveling alone after all, and maybe John should go and look for him, except he can't think because the silence is vast and suffocating and is swallowing him whole, and he knows with paralyzing certainty that if McKay doesn't come back, he will just sit here and not move and not move and not move until he never moves again.
And then McKay reappears, clutching a couple of candy bars in each hand. He's talking even before he's gotten back into the car: "Sorry I took so long, there were two padlocks on the door, can you believe that? I mean, in the middle of a global pandemic with a near hundred per cent mortality rate, what kind of tunnel-visioned idiot thinks preventing petty theft is important?" Then he glances at John and his expression creases into a frown. "Hey, uh, are you okay?"
John shakes his head, not trusting his voice. He's glad he's wearing sunglasses that hide his eyes. He makes a small rolling motion with his hand, trying to wordlessly convey that it's okay, really, he's just having a small breakdown and please carry on until he pulls himself together again. Unfortunately, McKay interprets the gesture as a instruction to shut up.
"If you need me to be quiet..." he begins, before apparently realizing the impossibility of his implied offer, and he trails off and sighs before continuing, "Actually, if you need me to be quiet, I probably can't be. But I can go talk to myself somewhere else if you want to be alone."
John shakes his head again, emphatically. That's the last thing he wants. "Been there," he manages finally. "Done that."
"Got the extended isolation tee-shirt," McKay agrees. He thrusts a Hershey bar into John's hands. "Check this?" he asks, in a self-conscious tone which says he knows just how ridiculous it is to have to get permission to eat from someone else, but needs it anyway.
John glances automatically at the label and nods his approval.
"Thanks," McKay says, and unwraps the candy. He's about to take a bite when he hesitates and instead breaks off a chunk and gives it to John. "Here. Can't hurt to eat something."
John obligingly accepts it and puts it in his mouth, but the half-melted, oily chocolate isn't nearly as comforting as the low hum of McKay's voice from the passenger seat next to him, already talking about something else.
They have good days and bad days.
A good day is more than a hundred miles. A good day is finding a battered Scrabble set in their motel room and playing by candlelight after their evening meal, arguing over whether 'hectuple' is a real word. A good day is discovering that they have a shared appreciation of Monty Python and Douglas Adams and spending a couple of hours quoting lines at each other.
A bad day is less than fifty miles. A bad day is McKay talking himself into a frenzy of terror over some imagined peril, trapping himself in a spiraling, claustrophobic headspace until he's caught in a mental straitjacket entirely of his own making. A bad day is John barely able to say more than yes or no, and not able to look at McKay at all.
A bad day is a child's bicycle, lying abandoned by the side of the road, rusted with disuse. A bad day is breaking into a house they thought was empty, only to find four desiccated corpses, two large and two small, curled up around each other in an unending embrace.
A good day, John starts to realize, is being able to help each other through it; a bad day is being together but still alone.
The bad days are brutal, but after a while John notices that they're coming around less frequently. He notices, too, that his good days are starting to coincide with McKay's. Or maybe it's the other way round. It's as if when one of them is coping better, it forces the other to raise his game. Being around someone else is good for both of them.
There are other advantages to having McKay around, John finds. The life signs detector wasn't a fluke: McKay might look and talk like an academic, but he has a knack for practical problem solving which is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
During a refueling stop, McKay watches John wrestle with the access hatch to the gas station's underground tank for less than a minute before announcing, "Oh, there has got to be an easier way to do that." Half an hour later, he's stripped not one but two of the gas pumps down to their constituent parts and is examining them in absorbed interest, his constant monologue dialed all the way down to a murmur. Half an hour after that, one of the two gas pumps has been rebuilt and is attached to four car batteries and is chugging as John uses it to fill the car's tank as well as a couple of extra canisters to take with them.
"The difficulty is power," McKay muses, looking at the car batteries. "I can rig up a power source to pretty much anything, but it's making the electricity in the first place that's going to be the problem in the long term. In ten or twenty years most of the liquid petroleum that's accessible will have evaporated or leaked away. Of course, the real answer would be to set up a small nuclear reactor."
John looks at him, trying to decide whether he's serious.
"Why not?" McKay asks, reading the skepticism in John's face. "Conceptually, they're pretty straightforward. The main problem before would've been getting hold of fissionable material, but since it's all just lying around waiting to be picked up—well, with the appropriate precautions, naturally—it's a very feasible idea."
The gas pump in John's hand is purring happily while the numbers on its electronic display tick upward—fifty dollars of gas, sixty, seventy, and it's so fucking normal that when the pump clicks off John finds himself feeling automatically in his back pocket for his wallet. A few feet away, McKay is talking about the relative merits of uranium and plutonium, and John suddenly realizes that he actually believes that, yes, McKay really could build a nuclear reactor from scratch if he wanted to.
His face feels strange.
McKay scowls for no discernible reason. "Oh, fine, yes, mock the genius, but you'll regret it when I have an inexhaustible source of power and you don't."
It's several hours before John figures out what McKay was reacting to, and why his cheek muscles are a little sore.
It's the first time he's smiled in months.
McKay helps John talk. McKay—being McKay—invents an entirely new type of therapy to make John talk.
"Points?" John asks dubiously.
McKay ticks off the options on his fingers. "One point for answering a question. Two points for responding to something I say with a related question of your own. Three points for expressing an opinion, four for elaborating on that opinion with evidence and a logical argument, and so on and so forth." He looks immensely pleased with himself.
"Who decides how many points I get?"
"Me, of course. Oh, and well done, that's two points already."
"Do you think this is actually going to help?"
"Another two makes four. I have no idea, I'm not a qualified psychiatrist."
"I'd never have guessed."
McKay wags a finger at him in reprimand. "I'm taking a point off you for that."
But McKay's ridiculous made-up brand of psychotherapy really does work. It appeals to John's competitive streak, and lets him set quantifiable objectives for himself, like earning fifty points in an hour, or beating the previous day's tally. He's arguing with McKay over the completely arbitrary scoring system one evening over dinner when it hits him suddenly that they've been talking for at least a couple of hours, having a normal conversation instead of the one-sided monologues and closed-off silences which characterized the first days of their acquaintance. The realization stuns him into momentary speechlessness.
"Five point penalty," McKay says at once, and John starts arguing with him again.
On the morning of their last day in Illinois, John gets rid of the beard. He's washing his face in a basin of cold water, listening to the reassuring sounds of McKay moving around in the adjoining motel room, and vaguely thinking, as he does every morning, that the beard's kind of annoying, when it hits him that he could shave it off. It's such a revolutionary idea that he actually freezes for a second, his cupped hands halfway between the basin and his face, water trickling from between his fingers.
He starts with scissors, snipping until he can see his chin again, and then lathers up and takes a razor to the remaining layer of stubble. Every scrape of the blade across his cheek feels like a small act of reclamation. When he's done, he examines his reflection critically. He's not the man he was a year ago—his hair is messily long and he's rail-thin—but the guy looking back at him from the mirror is someone he recognizes again.
When McKay opens the door of his room to John, he blinks and does a double take. He stands back to let John come in past him. "Who's your hot date?"
John smirks at him, irrationally pleased by the reaction. "Who do you think, gorgeous?"
"Well, fine," McKay says, "but I'm not easy. I'm going to want dinner and a movie, at least. And where are my flowers?"
He sounds so peevish that John laughs out loud, a strange, rasping noise that sounds weird even to his own ears, as if his laughter is the rusty hinge on a door that hasn't been opened for a long time. McKay grins broadly in response; he has an odd, uneven smile, one side of his mouth curling up further than the other. John wonders if he always smiles like that or if, like him, McKay's just out of practice.
John holds up the scissors he's brought with him. "Finish the job?"
"Thank God for that," McKay says. "I was starting to think your hair was that long as an actual style choice, which, just, no. All right, sit down over there."
He waves at the chair which is tucked under the dresser at the other side of the room. John grabs a towel from the handrail in the bathroom and drapes it around his neck. Then he pulls out the dresser chair and sits down in it, holding his back straight and his head still.
He waits for McKay to start cutting.
But McKay's in no hurry. There's a mirror above the dresser; in it, John can see McKay's reflection. He's holding the scissors in one hand and is examining the back of John's head with a thoughtful expression. Of course, John thinks: McKay doesn't do anything without thinking about it. The amusement he feels is laced liberally with something else, and it takes a second for him to identify it as a growing sense of fondness. He's not sure exactly when it happened, but apparently at some point since they set out, he's started to like McKay.
Another minute passes without McKay doing anything. John is just about to tell him to get a move on when he feels a gentle tug at the crown of his head and hears a snick-snick sound as the blades open and close.
"Tip your head forward," McKay orders, and when John does, he makes a small hmmm of approval. "That's better."
There are more snick-snick noises and, gradually, John starts to feel cool air on the back of his neck and around his ears for the first time in months. And then this new/old sensation is joined by another, as McKay's hand brushes across the nape of John's neck. A moment later the broad pads of his fingertips press briefly against John's temple, demonstrating the way he wants John to incline his head. Each touch is fleeting and feather-light, but cumulatively they distil into something so intense, so necessary, that John suddenly cannot believe how he survived this long without it—how he didn't just curl up and die, as if from thirst or hunger, months and months ago. He draws in a sharp breath and shuts his eyes, but that only makes it worse, because now there is nothing to concentrate on except each unpredictable, devastating contact. He can't decide if this is like water in the desert, or like drowning.
Then McKay pulls his hand away, clears his throat noisily and says, in an unhappy voice, "Finished."
John takes a second to pull himself together and then slowly lifts his head. In the mirror, McKay is watching him, worry written clearly on his face. John's hair sticks up at strange angles, uneven and spiky; it's far and away the worst haircut he's ever had.
"I, ah... sorry," McKay says. He sounds miserable.
"You did fine," John tells him.
"You're not... upset?"
"You're the one who has to look at me," John points out. Then, because McKay still looks unconvinced, he adds, "Don't worry. I never could do much with it."
That seems to do the trick. McKay gives a tiny shake of his head, like he's rebooting the conversation, and says in his normal tone of lofty superiority, "Well, if you've always had freakish hair, I'm not taking any responsibility for the end result."
John responds by flicking him with the towel. McKay doesn't mention the haircut again, but for the rest of the day, he keeps throwing sideways glances at John, his expression each time a mixture of surprise and fascination, like he's seeing what John really looks like for the first time.
In Fulton, Missouri, John teaches McKay how to use a gun. At first, McKay objects, protesting that he'd walked for more than two months without once needing to use the single can of pepper spray which had been the only form of self-defense he'd carried. "And, anyway," he concludes, "guns make me nervous."
"Everything makes you nervous," John points out, and hands him a Colt .45. "You'll feel safer if you're able to defend yourself."
He doesn't just intend the exercise as a way of helping McKay overcome his fear; as they've traveled west, John has noticed increasing numbers of animals roaming freely in neighborhoods which were once exclusively human—not just the packs of feral dogs which are now endemic, but coyotes grown bold and even, once, a lion, probably freed by a sentimental zookeeper and now laying claim to a new and wider territory than it had ever known before.
McKay gripes, "I'm a research scientist. I fire lab technicians, not projectile weapons." Then he sighs, says, "Okay, fine, if it makes you happy," and looks at the weapon in his hand with disdain. Behind that, though, John can see a flicker of unwilling interest in his eyes; he can't entirely suppress his natural fascination for almost any kind of technology.
Maybe, John thinks, that's the way to sell this to him. He takes the gun from McKay long enough to open it up and tip out a cartridge. He holds it up for McKay to see. "A bullet's not just a lump of metal. This is three things in one: a primer, a propellant and the actual bullet, the projectile. When you pull the trigger, it releases a hammer that ignites the primer, which sets off the propellant, which drives the bullet through the barrel. There's a spiral groove cut into the inside of the barrel that makes the bullet spin and gives it more stability in the air—so it's more accurate."
While he's been talking, McKay's expression has gradually changed, so that by the time John's finished, he's smiling, amused. "That's the most I've ever heard you say at once. Where'd you learn all that? Was it part of your job? Were you a cop?" When John hesitates, he adds, "Ten point bonus."
John glares at him. He's gotten a lot better at holding up his side of a conversation, but only when the subject is something neutral. The simplest personal questions still engender that deep sense of panicked dread that John despises in himself, but hating the reaction hasn't gone any way toward helping him overcome it. Neither have McKay's increasingly forthright efforts to make John's inability to talk about himself the focus of his points-based therapy. John appreciates what he's trying to do, mostly, even if his gratitude is tempered by the suspicion that at least some of the time, McKay's just looking for an excuse to indulge his curiosity.
Or to distract John from something McKay doesn't want to do.
So he replaces the cartridge and hands the weapon back to McKay and says sternly, "Quit with the stalling tactics. This is supposed to be your therapy session, not mine."
McKay frowns, but he grumbles his assent and holds up the gun. "Primer, propellant, projectile, groove in the barrel, check. Now, show me how to use this thing."
John demonstrates how to load the gun, how to flick the safety on and off, how not to hold it ("Jesus, McKay, not at your feet, do you want to lose toes?"), before moving on to aiming and firing. That's where the lesson starts to get derailed, because McKay's aim is terrible: the first couple of shots go wild, shattering a store window and denting a fire hydrant.
"You're leaning away from the gun when you fire," John tells him. "You need to correct your stance."
"I know," McKay says. He's scowling and his tone is irritable; John senses he really doesn't like not being immediately good at something. He tries again, and again the shot misses its target.
"Wait," John says, as McKay's raising the weapon again in another dogged but doomed attempt to fire in a straight line. When McKay pauses, John walks over to him and puts a hand between his shoulder blades, exerting a gentle pressure on McKay's broad, solid back. "Now try."
McKay starts to pull the trigger, unconsciously leaning back. This time, though, he meets the push of John's hand, and stops. He fires, and although the bullet lands off target, it's a damn sight closer than he's managed in his previous attempts. "That was... helpful," he says.
Taking this as consent to proceed, John moves in closer, so that his feet are planted right next to McKay's, their legs and torsos lined up exactly with each other. John has a couple of inches on McKay, so he's able easily to put his arm over the back of McKay's shoulder to adjust the position of the arm furthest away from him. He can sense the warmth of McKay's body through his clothing, feel the expansion and contraction of his ribcage as he breathes. John's not the philosophical type; he's never really thought about just what an amazing thing a living person was before now, but now he can't not think about it, can't disregard the thinking, feeling miracle that's standing right next to him. When he shared the world with six billion other people, John was able to ignore all of them equally, but now his entire universe has shrunk down to one person, and he can't.
"Once more," John says, his voice rough and low.
McKay pulls the trigger. This time, when he jerks back, he pushes into the curve of John's arm across his shoulders. The bottle sitting on top of the wall at the far end of the street explodes in a shower of liquid and green glass, and McKay makes a noise which is equal parts surprise and exhilaration. "Did you see that? I feel like Charles Bronson in Death Wish."
The mental image of McKay as vigilante avenger is so absurd that John laughs out loud. McKay half-turns to look at John, grinning jubilantly; his face is hardly more than an inch from John's, and it feels natural—inevitable, really—for John to bend his arm a fraction, drawing McKay closer still, so that they are in a kind of standing embrace in the middle of the empty street.
What happens next happens without John consciously willing it. He closes his eyes, leans in and lets his mouth touch McKay's cheek. He drags his lips in a quick, dry swipe over his cheek, which is a little rough with afternoon stubble. It's not a kiss, but it feels shockingly intimate nonetheless. When John inhales, he breathes in McKay's musky, slightly sweaty scent, and for half a second the only coherent thought in John's mind is that he wants more, needs more. His mouth searches out and finds McKay's; as soon as their lips meet, John hears a wordless sound of craving emerge from his own throat.
And then, abruptly and without any kind of warning, he feels himself go into a kind of mental freefall. It's like being back in the cockpit of an F-16 and losing all the instruments at once, engines still firing wildly as he spins out of control. The feeling is terrifying, and it leaves him dizzy and reeling, overwhelmed by a barrage of sensory input he no longer has the ability to process and filter. Not enough flicks instantly to become too much and suddenly John's head is swimming and his stomach is knotting with sick, fearful panic. Abort mission, he thinks crazily, and pushes himself away from McKay and staggers back, only stopping when his foot catches against the edge of the sidewalk and he trips, going down hard on his ass. He can't get up, so he just sits there, dizzy and breathing hard, hands braced against the ground in a futile attempt to steady himself.
He doesn't know how long he sits there, but when he looks up, McKay is walking toward him from the direction of the SUV, holding something in his hand which John identifies as a bottle of water when he gets closer. As McKay approaches, John feels the muscles in his legs and arms tense, ready to propel him to his feet. He tries to fight it; he really doesn't want to run, but he's not sure he's going to be able to stop himself.
But just as he's about to get too close, McKay slows down, and then stops. John's legs, which had started to flex and twitch as a prelude to bolting, go still.
McKay bends down, then puts out a hand and lowers himself on to the ground with a soft grunt, so that he's sitting cross-legged on the road, about four or five feet away from John. And he's talking, John realizes. John concentrates, and after a while the buzz of noise resolves itself into a meaningful pattern of words. McKay is talking about why Star Wars is better than Star Trek and why Doctor Who is superior to both of them; he's talking about how it's impossible to get a really good cup of coffee ever since Starbucks put the small independent coffee shops out of business; he's talking about Beethoven's piano sonatas and why they're the finest pieces of music in existence.
It should be hollow and inane, because the world McKay is talking about is gone: there's no one left to watch the TV shows or listen to the music or drink the coffee. But somehow it isn't; somehow, it's deeply, profoundly comforting. The world that died exists as long as someone is left to remember it, and so when McKay talks, John listens and allows himself to be calmed.
After a while, McKay pauses, and holds out the bottle of water. John accepts it, his fingers overlapping with McKay's for a brief second before the bottle is completely in his grasp.
John takes a drink, and then focuses on nothing more complicated than breathing for the next couple of minutes. Finally he says, "Air Force. I was... I was in the Air Force."
He's not sure what kind of reaction he's expecting from McKay; all McKay does, though, is nod. "Military was going to be my next guess."
"Do me a favor," John says. He gestures with the water bottle. "Just... keep talking."
McKay tilts his head to one side and gives that lopsided grin. He shuffles a little closer. "I think I can manage that."
Their route takes them across the top of Missouri, crossing into the south east corner of Nebraska before skewing south again into Kansas. With every passing day, the sky grows bigger, the horizon more distant, as if the land is stretching and telescoping around them. John pictures the SUV as it would appear from above, a tiny black capsule rolling doggedly along a thin strip of gray.
There's little to break the monotony beyond the car's windshield, but what they do come across takes on a weirdly surreal aspect. Once they have to turn back when the road ahead is entirely blocked by an enormous mound of shoes, with nothing to indicate where they came from or how they got there. They drive through a town where they find the decaying remains of what appears to be the ultimate end-of-the-world party, the leftovers of an orgy of excess and indulgence rotting in the streets along with the bodies of the revelers. Another time, in the middle of a stretch of road miles from anywhere, they find the body of a man in full evening wear, clutching a golf club in one hand and a diamond tiara in the other.
Consulting McKay's map becomes a shared ritual. He takes it out of his backpack every night after dinner, and together they mark their progress. Hunched over the map, knees almost touching, they plan the next day's journey, and every night John falls asleep grateful that he has a reason to wake up.
John can only really cook three things, and two of them—omelets and steak—don't work without fresh ingredients. He spends a while thinking about sizzling medium-rare fillet smothered in pepper sauce, before pushing the thought regretfully to one side and opting decisively for his third specialty, chili.
He hadn't planned on taking over the cooking detail, but McKay's otherwise occupied and John has nothing better to do for the next couple of hours. The SUV is acting up, making a weird clanking noise every time John presses the accelerator, and so they've cut short their traveling for the day, stopping in the early part of the afternoon rather than at dusk. Their base for the night is a roadside diner, which they chose on the strength of its locked entrance and the handwritten note on the door that promises a reopening which will never take place. Locked buildings generally mean no bodies waiting inside, and none of the disorder that accompanied the looting and breakdown of order that spread along with the plague.
In the diner's parking lot, McKay is poking at the SUV's engine, and every time John goes outside to see how he's doing, he complains bitterly about the humiliation of being reduced to a mere motor mechanic. But John's learned to tell when McKay's genuinely annoyed and when he's just working out his irritation, and his grumbling is definitely in the latter category. McKay likes figuring out how things work, and he likes fixing things, and while there's no reason why they couldn't simply dump the SUV and help themselves to another vehicle, John knows the truth is they've both grown just a little bit too fond of their transport to give up on it at the first hint of trouble.
The diner's kitchen is large and well-stocked, and it takes John longer to search the shelves for the ingredients he needs than it does to subsequently cook the meal. There's an industrial chiller in the back of the kitchen, but he knows better than to open it. The only ground beef available is therefore the canned variety, and a first taste convinces John he's going to have to change his standard recipe to disguise its tinny, artificial flavor. He improvises by adding a lot more spices than he usually would—the kitchen has a plentiful supply of these, preserved in airtight containers—and if the end result, bubbling away on top of the gas camping stove, is slightly more, well, piquant than John was planning on making it, then he figures at least it'll be a change from the bland vegetable stews and pasta they've been subsisting on.
"Oh my God, that smells fantastic, what is that?" McKay demands as soon as he comes in. He leans over the simmering pot on top of the camping stove and sniffs it appreciatively. "Can you cook? Why didn't you tell me you could cook?"
John is having a good day, and so decides to attempt answers at all three questions. "Chili, a little, and because I'm trying to maintain an air of mystery." He makes a mental note to add the points to his tally for the day.
"Yes, I'm so burdened by your constant over-sharing," McKay snorts. Then he glances down and notices the oil-spots on his tee-shirt: "I'd better change before we eat."
He goes to the far side of the room, where their packs are sitting propped against the wall, and swaps his stained tee-shirt for a clean one. He's facing the wall, and so John lets himself look, as he's doing more and more often. McKay's back is pale, but broad and strong, the muscles in it stretching and flexing as he pulls the tee-shirt over his head. Looking makes John's skin prickle. It makes him hungry for a kind of touch he knows would shatter him into a million tiny pieces, but it's as if something in him, something which had lain dormant for a long time, is uncurling and flexing, too. He can't stop wanting.
McKay, oblivious, talks as he pulls down his clean tee-shirt and washes his hands. He tells John what was wrong with the SUV's engine and how he fixed it—which has, somehow, become a feat worthy of great praise, and not the mundane work of a mere mechanic. He's still talking as they're sitting down together at a booth in the front of the diner, although he breaks off to make impatient little hurry up motions at John as John spoons chili into a bowl and sets it down in front of him. He doesn't even wait for John to serve his own before he digs in, and is raising a generous forkful of food to his mouth when he suddenly stops.
"You checked, right?" he asks.
"Yes," John assures him.
McKay nods, but the fork doesn't move. He stares hard at it, clearly ravenously hungry but not quite able to bring himself to put it in his mouth.
Gently, John says, "The cans are all in the trash bag out back. I'll get them—"
"No," McKay says, interrupting. "No," he repeats, a second later. "I don't need to see them. You checked, and I don't need to see, because... I trust you not to poison me." He sounds as if he's talking more to himself than to John. "I trust you," he says again, and puts the fork in his mouth with a decisive motion.
John watches McKay slowly chew his food. John's own fork sits on the table next to his untouched bowl of chili.
Seconds pass, and then McKay swallows. He reaches immediately for a glass of water, and downs it. Then he says, "I trust you not to poison me; after this, however, I no longer trust you not to season me to death. What did you put in this?"
John thinks guiltily of the entire packet of dried jalapenos he dumped in the mixture. "Different stuff," he says vaguely.
McKay jabs his fork at him. "I'm never letting you in a kitchen again," he threatens, but he finishes the whole bowl, and has seconds. After that John cooks every other night, and learns to make more than just chili.
The idea is so simple and so obvious that when he thinks of it, John's amazed it didn't come to him sooner.
He's jacking up the SUV so that McKay can change a flat when he glances over its hood and sees the airfield a couple of hundred yards back from the highway. It's a small airstrip, not a commercial airport: there's a single hangar, the nose of a Cessna jutting through its open doors, and another couple of light aircraft parked in the bays next to the runway. The helipad next to the control tower is occupied by a chopper painted with the logo of the local TV station—it's probably the one they used for the eye-in-the-sky traffic report, he figures. The chopper's an Enstrom F-28, nothing special, but the sight of it makes his chest ache. The strength of his reaction takes him by surprise; he hasn't thought about flying in a very long time. He hasn't let himself.
"All right, you can lower it now," McKay says, waving a hand to indicate the jack. When John doesn't move, he stands up and tracks the line of John's gaze to the airfield. "What is it? Did you see something?"
"No," John says. And then the words just fall out of his mouth, quick and easy and still true, always true: "I'm a pilot."
John expects McKay to leap on the revelation and bombard him with questions. McKay, though, is curiously uninterested. "Hmmm," he says, and starts to bend down to lower the jack himself. John stops him with a hand on his arm.
"Did you hear me? I'm a pilot. I could fly us to Colorado. We could be there this time tomorrow." As John speaks, he can feel his excitement building, a clear echo of the way he felt the day he took the controls by himself for the first time.
McKay's response is as fast and as sharp as a slap across the face: "No."
John stares at him. "Why the hell not?"
McKay shrugs off John's tightening grip on his forearm and takes a couple of steps back, putting space between them. "Because it was my idea, so I'll decide how we get there." He sounds angry and petulant, like a whiny kid.
"I don't get a say? What am I, just your chauffeur?"
McKay jabs a finger at him. "Hey, I didn't make you come with me, you volunteered for this. And I'm sorry if putting up with my deficiencies is too much hard work for you, but you're a couple of cards short of the full sanity deck yourself, so you're just going to have to deal with it if I choose not to add dying in an air crash to the news ticker of terror I have scrolling along the bottom of my consciousness every waking second."
McKay's finger is still pointing at John, and John realizes that it's shaking a little. Not with anger, though: with fear. McKay's scared. He's not just a little scared, he's petrified. John thinks about McKay's excess of nervous energy, the compulsive regime of rituals and rules he's put in place to protect himself from imagined perils, even the way he constantly raps his fingers on the SUV's dash when they're driving. John wonders what it would be like to live with that kind of constant fear, the crushing weight of it just as debilitating as the loneliness which nearly broke him.
Before John can say anything, McKay's hand drops and his shoulders slump. "Look, it's not..." He trails off. "It's not you. You might be the best pilot alive. Actually, it's almost certain you are the best pilot alive. But I don't even feel safe in the car, and just thinking about getting in something that moves in three dimensions... I can't. It's not that I don't want to, I do, I just... I can't." Then he lifts his hands and touches them briefly to the sides of his head, fingertips to temples. Eyes closed, he says, "I am sick, I am so sick, of feeling like this all the fucking time."
And with that he turns and walks away from the SUV and from John. He sits down heavily on the edge of the embankment at the side of the road, looking in the direction of the airfield. Several minutes pass and, when it becomes apparent that McKay's not coming back any time soon, John goes over and sits down next to him.
They sit side by side for a while, shoulders almost touching. The airstrip's tattered windsock flutters in the breeze; the silence is vast and absolute.
"We have to talk," McKay says suddenly.
John's chest tightens in apprehension, and he's pretty sure the matching expression is writing itself clearly on his face. McKay's mouth twists in wry amusement. "Yes, yes, I know those are the scariest four words in the language, even for people who, unlike us, lack the kind of anxiety-slash-intimacy issues that give clinical psychologists spontaneous orgasms, but." He takes a breath. "But. I'm going to try to make this as easy as possible for you. Ask me about my family."
John has no idea where this is heading, but he goes with it. "You had a family?"
"I had a sister," McKay says. "Her name's Jeannie. Was Jeannie. She's dead. At least, I assume she is, since the chances of her being alive are vanishingly small. We used to be really close, and then... well, long story short, we had a massive fight on her wedding day—by the end of it, the caterer, three of the bridesmaids and the best man were in tears, that's how bad it was—and we didn't talk much after that. Or, in fact, at all. And when I was stuck in that hotel room watching the world end on TV, I thought about calling her, oh, at a conservative guess, maybe once every five minutes. We hadn't spoken in about five years; she had my cell phone number, but the networks crashed pretty early on, so she had no way of contacting me. I had to call her." He pauses, takes a deep, shaky breath. "I didn't. I didn't call her. I thought about it a lot, but every time I lifted the phone in my hotel room, I just... couldn't. And then it was too late."
John remembers the last time he talked to his brother—if a voicemail message he'd never responded to counts as talking. It probably doesn't. It was easy to delete Dave's message from his phone, less easy to erase it from his own memory. The cold fury in his brother's words and his voice is as easy to recall now as it was when he first heard it: It was a nice funeral. Everyone said what a shame it was you couldn't be there. It's too late to fix things now. I guess that's what you wanted, isn't it? Goodbye, John.
Too late, John thinks. It's too late for so many things.
"I didn't call her," McKay says again. "I had a lot of time, when I was stuck in that hotel all winter, to think about why I hadn't. I examined it from every angle, formulated a number of very plausible explanations and rejected them all. Eventually, I figured it out." McKay pauses, and looks at John expectantly. "Now you ask me what conclusion I came to."
John clears his throat. "What...?"
"I was scared," McKay says simply. "Scared that she'd tell me to go to hell. Scared she'd tell me she was already sick. In the end, I was just scared no one would pick up the phone. So, when I told you I wasn't always like this? I think I was."
It's too late to fix it, now.
McKay's eyes are blue, John notices—intensely blue, and he wonders how he didn't notice that before now. It might be because he tries not to make eye contact that much. But right now he doesn't have a choice: McKay is holding his gaze, and somehow it's impossible for John to look away, so he is spared none of the naked candor in McKay's face.
"John," McKay says: "Ask me what I want."
"Go on," McKay prompts. "Ask me."
"What..." John swallows, tries again. "What do you want?"
McKay tilts his head a little to one side, but his gaze remains steady and piercingly direct. There's fear in his eyes, but also a kind of reckless determination, like he's steeling himself to do something monumentally, stupidly courageous.
"I've spent my whole life being scared and I'm sick of it. I want to stop being afraid. That's what I want." He pauses. "What do you want?"
For a second, all John feels is a blaze of fury, because what kind of question is that? He couldn't have answered it even before; the way he is now, he doesn't have a fucking prayer, and McKay knows that.
But when he looks at McKay, the expression on his face isn't demanding at all. He looks scared, and hopeful, and utterly without guile. When he speaks, his voice is soft but clear: "I said I'd try to make this easy for you. So I'm going to tell you what your answer is. You say: I want to stop being alone. That's all. Just say it, and you don't have to be."
John doesn't answer, because there's no way it could be that easy, that fucking simple. He spent years finding ways to be alone, and it wasn't until he'd gotten exactly what he wanted—a whole planet to himself—that he realized it wasn't what he wanted, not at all. But if it's that easy to end it, then a part of him knows he could have done it—should have done it—half a lifetime ago.
"A million points," McKay says, his voice low with entreaty. "Ten million. What do you want? Because I want it, too, but I'm scared and I need to be sure, so you have to say it. I have to hear it from you. John. John, please."
It's too late for so much. Too late for McKay's sister and John's father; too late for Greg Zema and six billion other lives snuffed out like bacteria in a planet-sized Petri dish. If McKay hadn't found him, John knows it would have been too late for him, too.
It's not too late for this.
"I want—" he croaks. His voice feels rusty and strange, as though this is the first thing he's said—really said—in years. "I want," he tries again, and he's shaking with the effort of it, as if every word he wants to say is a stone lodged in his throat, choking him. "I want," he whispers, "just, this, you—"
And then he gives up on words and falls back on actions instead. John twists his whole body round, taking hold of McKay by his shoulders. McKay doesn't resist when John pulls him into a rough embrace, and when John leans in to kiss him, he parts his lips and lets him.
It only takes a couple of seconds before the now-familiar feeling of panic starts to curl up like black smoke within him, but this time John is a little more prepared, and a lot more determined. When the rush of sensations from the kiss becomes intolerably intense, he breaks off and moves his head so that his face rests in the crook of McKay's neck. He's got that plane-crash feeling again, and it's a good thing he doesn't have an ejector seat handy, because he'd use it right now if he could. Instead, he balls his fists in McKay's shirt and then just hangs on as he tries to ride it out, shaking and breathing hard and calling on every last ounce of resolve he possesses to not let go. He's distantly aware that McKay's put his arms around him, and is holding on to John almost as hard as John is holding on to him, and that McKay is talking to him, his voice a low murmur of reassurance and encouragement.
"It's okay, it's okay," McKay is saying; it sounds weirdly choked, like he's either laughing or sobbing or maybe some bizarre combination of the two. "That's all I needed, that's enough, Jesus, I'm sorry, I won't ask you anything else, ever, I won't even ask you your shoe size—"
And then, finally, John feels himself start to relax. As the adrenalin starts to subside, his muscles begin to ache and he can feel a headache building right behind his eyes, but at the same time his heart rate's slowing and he can breathe normally again, so overall he's calling it an improvement. He loosens his grip on McKay's shirt and winces as his hands cramp—Christ, he must have been holding on really fucking tight. He flattens his palms against McKay's broad back and lets them rest there. All things considered, he's pretty comfortable.
"Twelve," he mumbles into McKay's neck. "Shoe size. Twelve."
They take the next couple of days off.
It's a spur of the moment thing that starts when McKay spots a sign at the side of the road advertising Luxury Vacation Cottages for Rent. The billboard is faded and sun-bleached, but the directions underneath the image of a cluster of elegant vacation homes next to a placid lake are legible. "What do you think?" McKay asks, then answers his own question with, "It's got to beat yet another cruddy motel."
John agrees, and swings the SUV around, heading back in the direction indicated by the sign.
The vacation cottages, when they find them, are four small chalet-type guest houses situated between a lake and a golf course which is well on the way to becoming a meadow with sand pits. It's a push to describe the chalets as 'luxury'—McKay grumbles under his breath about false advertising—but, other than a little peeling paint, they've barely deteriorated after a year's neglect. Entering the largest cottage, John realizes why: when the plague began, the resort had already shut down for the season, and it's obvious from the dust sheets and neat order they find inside that this place was closed up with care, not abandoned.
They shake off the sheets, which causes clouds of dust to billow into the air and McKay to sneeze and complain about his allergies. A faintly musty smell pervades the cottage, but that's all: the air isn't tainted by the dull stench of death and decay. John likes it just for that.
McKay goes exploring while John brings in their gear and supplies from the SUV. When he's done, he goes to locate McKay. He finds him sitting at the table in the kitchen, writing something. When John comes in, McKay thrusts the paper at him.
"Go back to that mall we passed earlier and bring me everything on this list," he says without preamble. "Oh, and anything you want for yourself, obviously."
John glances at the list, not getting it. "But—"
"There's a diesel generator outside," McKay says meaningfully.
"Oh," John says. He grins. "Cool."
It takes John exactly two hours and forty five minutes to make the drive into town, get everything on the list as well as some other things, and drive back. It's getting dark as he pulls up outside the cottage. As soon as he kills the SUV's engine, John can hear the chug of the generator emanating from the rear of the building; every window is bright with the yellow glow of electric light. He sits outside in the car for a couple of minutes before he goes in, just admiring it. It's fucking gorgeous.
He's startled by a sharp knock on the SUV's window. It's McKay, of course. "You can sit out here all night if you want to, but I feel it's only fair to point out that inside there is microwave popcorn, freshly made coffee, and hot running water."
John regards him very seriously. "You had me at 'microwave'."
McKay grins at him. He's practically bouncing on his feet, he's so excited. "Did you get everything?"
"Oh, yeah," John says. "And then some."
They spend most of the rest of the evening setting up and organizing the haul John brought back: the xBox and the Playstation and the Wii, the plasma screen and the two laptops and the DVDs and the CDs and the cappuccino maker and the mini-pinball game John threw in for no better reason than he thought it looked like fun. They have a brief debate about the relative merits of the couch (big, lots of cushions, squashy) against the bed (bigger, lots and lots of pillows, firm). The bed wins. By the time they're finished, the master bedroom has been transformed into an Aladdin's cave of consumer electronics.
They're both tired, but too wired to think about sleep; it feels to John like being a kid at Christmas—it feels like every Christmas, all of them, rolled up into one. So when McKay suggests trying out the Wii, 'just to make sure it works', John doesn't even attempt to say no. Then, somehow, it's nearly four in the morning, and he wakes with a start, realizing he must have dozed off waiting for McKay to take his turn at Wii bowling.
When he next wakes, it's still dark outside, so it can't be more than a couple of hours later. He's warm all the way through, and he can't immediately work out why. He's still dressed, but shoeless, and he doesn't remember getting underneath the covers. Then he hears a soft snore coming from the other side of the bed and feels McKay's foot brush against his calf.
John stills, and tenses. He lies like that for several minutes while he tries to figure out if he's going to have a panic attack or not. Then McKay makes a contented, snuffling kind of noise and John thinks, Yeah, okay, and goes back to sleep.
They sleep very late, take turns in the bathroom (Hot. Running. Water.) and play videogames all afternoon: John wins at Wii golf, and is pleased enough to allow McKay to crow when he consistently beats John at tennis. In the evening, they eat microwave popcorn and watch DVDs, rounding off the night with a back-to-back marathon of the three original Star Wars movies. McKay claims to know the entire trilogy by heart, and John tests him by hitting pause at random points and asking him what the next line is. McKay is never wrong.
It's about three in the morning when the rebels and the Ewoks finally celebrate the destruction of the second Death Star while Luke stands by himself, watching moodily as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker rises from the flames. "You'd be annoyed, too, if you knew Sir Alec Guinness had been digitally replaced by Hayden Christensen," McKay says, turning off the big plasma screen they set up at the foot of the bed. He pulls back the covers, and then shoots an uncertain glance at John. "I, uh, I know we both kind of crashed last night, and I didn't want to wake you up just to ask if you wanted to move, but today I was thinking maybe now you're worried you've created an expectation, so, well, I just wanted to state explicitly and for the record that if you want to sleep in the other room I won't be offended." In a very small voice, he adds, "Also, I've been told I snore."
John hesitates. Then he strips down to his tee-shirt and boxers and gets under the covers on his side of the bed. "You're not loud."
McKay watches him. He looks wary, even a little unhappy, as he gets into the bed next to John. There's still something wrong, but John isn't sure what it is. The mattress dips a little, but the bed is wide and although John can feel the heat radiating off McKay's skin, they don't touch.
John is almost asleep when McKay says, quietly, "I keep thinking about all the ways this could go wrong."
The darkness lends his voice an intimate but strangely disembodied quality. John lies very still and thinks about pretending to be asleep.
"I should probably tell you that I've never had anything you could categorize as a successful relationship, and it seems to me that the likelihood of my achieving that with one individual selected from a population of six hundred million by randomly acquired viral immunity is astronomically low, especially given that I only know three things about you, and that's including your name." John thinks he's going to stop there, but apparently that's just McKay warming up. "Not to mention we both have moderately severe psychological problems, and then there's the additional pressure created by the circumstances, because if this goes wrong, there's no fall back: it's each other or nothing, and frankly I'm not convinced of my ability to cope with that level of situational stress."
"McKay," John says, and then changes it to, "Rodney, are you freaking out?"
"I don't know, I can't tell anymore," McKay says. He sounds so glum that it should be funny, but it's not. John knows how that feels, to be mired so deeply in the crud inside your own head that you can't even remember how normal should feel. Then he hears McKay take a steadying breath and go on, "Look, I know what the military is like. If that was your life, before, then I know... this isn't who you were, this isn't what you wanted. And if this is only happening because we're all we've got, because there's no one else... If that's the only reason, then it's still... It could be just that, and it wouldn't be wrong. It'd be okay."
Although John can't see McKay's face, somehow he finds he can picture the expression on it perfectly: wide-eyed fear mixed with the near-crazed determination that had taken him a thousand miles on foot. McKay's giving him an out—giving them both an out. What's changed can't be undone, but it doesn't have to mean anything if they choose not to let it.
John knows how that works; he spent years perfecting the art of not allowing anything to penetrate the shell of indifference he'd built around himself. He used to think of it as a kind of discipline. Now he sees it for what it really was.
He reaches out under the bedcovers until he meets a warm body. He lets his fingers curl lightly around McKay's upper arm, forcing himself not to pull back, even though the touch makes him a little uncomfortable. He focuses on the warmth of McKay's skin, the way he's rigid with barely suppressed panic. Then he moves his hand down the length of McKay's arm until he finds his wrist. He weaves his fingers between McKay's and then relaxes, as much as he can. Their interlaced hands rest together in the cool no-man's-land part of the mattress between them.
"This," John says. He stops, takes a breath, and forces it out in a single rush of words: "This was always who I was."
McKay is silent for a second. "I'd like to touch you," he says. "If you want to be touched."
McKay's hand feels strong and solid and supple. John imagines what it would feel like to be touched by that hand, to be stroked by those broad fingers. "I want that," he says. He pauses. "So now you know four things."
McKay lets out a shaky laugh. He's silent for a few seconds, and when he next speaks, his voice is laced with dry humor: "All right, then. Sex. Let's pencil that in for some time early next decade."
They fall asleep like that, holding hands.
But John wakes up with what McKay said still circling in his head. We're all we've got, he thinks, pushing himself up on one elbow and watching the steady rise and fall of McKay's chest. They're all they've got; it's the biggest reason there is, and yet, by itself, it isn't enough.
He has to push the thought aside once McKay wakes, because his brain is kept fully occupied figuring out how to navigate this new territory they have entered together. Breakfast is awkward for about ten minutes, until McKay says, "Of course, the other reason we have to sleep together, eventually, is to ensure the continuation of the species."
"Seeing a tiny flaw with that," John notes: "We're both guys."
McKay shrugs and reaches for another strawberry Pop Tart. "I didn't say it was a good reason."
He's grinning, though, they're both grinning, and John is grateful to McKay for finding a way of talking about this that he can deal with. Because it's easy to joke with McKay about all the sex they're not having—even a little too easy, because listening to himself reminds John of the guy he used to be, the one he really isn't anymore. But he'll take this over silence, and, weirdly, joking doesn't trivialize it, it makes it real. It makes it their promise to each other. A promise that won't be kept today, or tomorrow, or even soon, but will be kept.
They play more games and watch more movies and, after dinner, daring after his third beer, John leans toward McKay and plants a trail of soft, dry kisses on his neck. McKay shivers appreciatively and responds by stroking his fingertips over the inside of John's wrist, and for the next while they exchange these glancing, light touches. It's so restrained, it barely even counts as foreplay; it's more like fore-foreplay. John thinks he could handle more, but figures a panic attack would really kill the mood, so doesn't push himself.
"We could stay here," McKay says suddenly. "For a while. If you wanted."
John looks at him, not sure how to read that. "Do you want to?"
"There's power and heat and a comfortable bed," McKay says, too brightly. "What's not to like?"
John thinks about what McKay said, when they were lying together in the dark. About all the ways this could go wrong. Carefully, he asks, "What's in Colorado?"
"Maybe nothing." McKay looks away briefly, and then changes that to, "Probably nothing."
"But," John prompts.
"But," McKay echoes. "I want to see for myself. I have to know... to know for sure."
Back when they started out, John remembers suddenly, he hadn't cared where McKay was going, only that he was going somewhere. He hadn't cared who McKay was, only that he was alive and breathing. He tries to imagine McKay as a stranger once again and finds he can't do it any more than he could unmake their journey. It's true that they're all they've got, but what they've got is each other, and for John that means McKay's piano music and his rows of regimented cans and his talking and his broad, warm hands and his sarcasm and his fearful, hopeful, indomitable spirit.
"Then let's find out," John says.
They remain just long enough to use up the last of the fuel in the generator. It sputters out, taking the lights and all the pretty plastic and metal toys with it. John nudges the mini pinball machine with his foot; they never got around to playing it.
McKay looks at the roomful of inert, dead gadgets and appliances. "All things pass, I guess. I'll miss civilization. It was mostly crap, but a lot of it was fun crap. Now there's a fitting epitaph for humanity."
"Three days to Colorado Springs," John reminds him. "Let's go."
John is loading supplies into the back of the SUV when he hears it—the crack of a gun going off, sharp and shocking in the silence. The bottle of water he's lifting falls on to the ground, forgotten, as he grabs the two-way radio clipped to his belt. "McKay, was that you? McKay!"
There's no answer except the hiss of static.
John leaps into the car and accelerates in the direction of the gunshot. He left McKay happily rooting around a Best Buy, armed with a lengthy shopping list of components he says he can use to upgrade his life-signs detector. He'd been so obviously in his element, relaxed and content, that John hadn't wanted to do anything to trigger his anxiety, and so had left without issuing any of his usual reminders to keep alert and stay in regular contact over the radios.
He swings the SUV into the Best Buy parking lot and brakes so hard the tires screech. Apart from a couple of abandoned cars, it's empty, and weeds are starting to push their way up through the cracks in the parking lot. The store's yellow sign is streaked with dirt, and the tattered banner hanging beneath it flaps in the wind, making a thwapthwapthwap noise as it hits the blue panels on the store's frontage. It looks like it's been abandoned for years rather than months.
Then, just as John is reaching for the radio again, a dog rounds the corner of the building and starts to run toward the SUV. Another dog follows it, then another, and a second later the whole pack is bolting across the open parking lot, the individual animals moving so fast that they're hardly identifiable as anything other than dark, vicious streaks of movement.
Before John can react, the dogs reach the SUV. As if on command, the pack divides into two groups, flowing like water around the vehicle. Only a single animal—the largest dog, the leader—behaves differently. It leaps on to the SUV's hood and pauses there for long enough to fix its baleful stare on John through the windshield. The dog's ribs are visible underneath its mangy fur; it looks half-starved, and it's hard to believe that a year ago this wild animal was almost certainly someone's well-fed, well-loved pet. The dog snarls at John, baring its teeth at him. They're stained red, he sees, and the fur around its muzzle is dark and wetly matted.
Another snarl, and the dog leaps up on to the roof of the SUV. John hears the thud as it runs along the length of the vehicle and then jumps down to reclaim its position at the head of its pack.
John twists around in the driver's seat and watches the dogs disappear from sight. Then he throws open the SUV's door and sprints across the parking lot. He pulls out his gun on the way, but he already has a sickening sense of certainty that he won't need it. As soon as he saw the dogs, he knew he was too late.
"McKay!" he yells. "McKay! Rodney!"
The answer is a low groan. John halts, spins around, and sees McKay lying on the ground against the outside wall of the building. A wire shopping cart is in front of him, tipped on to its side—he must have tried to use it to shield himself. The cart's contents are scattered over the ground; among them, John spots McKay's radio, switched on but well beyond his reach. McKay is holding his gun loosely in his right hand, and his other hand is on his right thigh. He's clutching the ripped fabric of his pants, but to no useful effect, as blood is welling up between his fingers and dripping down from the heel of his hand to a rapidly widening pool on the ground next to him.
John falls to his knees next to him and drops his gun. "Let me see," he says. "I need to see."
McKay's breathing is rapid and shallow, and his face is gray. "You might need to see, but I really don't, thank you," he says faintly.
"So close your eyes."
McKay tips his head back and lets his eyes fall shut. John gives him a second, and then tugs McKay's hand away from his leg.
The fabric of his pants is ripped right along the seam, the material around it torn and sticky with blood. John pushes it aside to reveal the wound beneath, and lets out an involuntary hiss of concern. The bite is a jagged tear in McKay's flesh nearly six inches from end to end, a mess of crushed and mangled muscles and tendons awash with startlingly bright red blood. The skin around its edges is pure white, crinkled like tissue paper, and when John touches it, it slides around under his fingers with sickening ease.
"Is it bad?" McKay asks, his eyes screwed tightly shut.
John hesitates. "Looks worse than it is." He takes off his shirt and starts to wad it into a makeshift bandage. It won't stay on for long, but it'll last long enough to get McKay back to the car, where their medical supplies are.
McKay opens his eyes and, before John can warn him, he glances down. "Well, it looks pretty fucking awful."
McKay gasps when John tightens the improvised bandage, but he doesn't say anything. His silence is somehow even more disturbing than the grisly bite in his leg. "Tell me what happened," John says.
"Left the door open," McKay says. "Stupid, stupid mistake. A couple of them came inside, and when I tried to get out... the rest were waiting." His breathing is becoming irregular, and he's slurring his words a little. "Surrounded me. Should've remembered that's how a pack hunts. I was so... Jesus, John, I was so scared."
"It's okay. It's okay now," John tells him, grimly aware that it really isn't. His years in the Air Force left John with a good grounding in basic first aid, but all John's training was based on the assumption that he'd never have to do more than keep someone alive long enough to hand them over into the care of professionals. He knows he has to stop the bleeding and clean the wound, but that's the extent of his proficiency, and even his inexpert eye tells him that at the very least McKay's going to need stitches. Fuck.
"Never did like dogs much," McKay remarks. "More of a cat person, really." Then he giggles, and his eyes drift closed and his head rolls to one side.
"Hey. Hey, you can't pass out. You have to get back to the car." John relieves McKay of the gun he's still holding and tucks it into his own belt. "Can you get up?"
McKay tries to push himself up, and instantly grimaces and collapses backward again. "Not without help," he says, and then stops. He looks up, and holds out a hand to John. "You're going to have to help me." After a couple of seconds, he says, "John—"
"I know," John grits out. He inhales, and then, with all the mental force he can muster, orders himself to keep his shit together. He leans down and gives the shirt-bandage a final tug to satisfy himself that it's stemmed the worst of the bleeding. Then he loops his arms around McKay's chest and braces himself, in several ways. "Put your hands on my shoulders."
It takes a couple of attempts, but finally John succeeds in getting McKay upright. Their progress across the few short yards to the SUV is torturously slow, yet in another way easier than John had expected; it seems this kind of touch, functional and necessary, is something he can manage. He's almost ready to congratulate himself when they successfully reach the SUV, until he looks back and sees their route is marked by a trail of sticky red droplets.
In the car, McKay slumps into the passenger seat and breathes out in relief. Now that the adrenalin's wearing off, pain and exhaustion are swiftly overtaking him. John checks the bandage once more and gets their medical kit from the back of the SUV, hunting through it until he locates the half bottle of amoxicillin McKay carried all the way from Maine with him. He twists the cap off and gives McKay two tablets, holding the water bottle to his lips while he swallows them. As he lowers the bottle, McKay says, unnervingly calmly, "You know I'm probably not going to survive this."
"You're going to be fine," John says, not looking at him.
But McKay just continues on in the same, maddeningly composed tone, "Even if I don't die from blood loss in the next couple of hours, the chances of contracting an infection—septicemia, gangrene, tetanus, maybe even rabies if I'm spectacularly unlucky—are terrifyingly high."
"You," John says, very slowly, "are going. To be. Fine."
"The weird thing is, I almost feel relieved," McKay goes on. "I spent so much time thinking about all the different things that could happen to me, and now at least I know."
"Christ." John slaps the steering wheel with his hands. The noise is startlingly loud in the enclosed space. "You're going to be fucking fine."
"How do you know that?" McKay demands. When John doesn't answer, he lets his head tip back wearily against the seat's head rest. "You don't know that," he says, in the tone of someone who's never wanted to win an argument less.
John stares out of the SUV's windshield, at the empty parking lot.
"John," McKay says softly. "John, I'm sorry, it's all right, it's not... not your fault..." His voice drops to a whisper, and then fades completely. When John looks around at him, he sees that McKay's eyes are closed but his lips are still moving, his compulsion to talk having outlasted his ability to do so. Then his mouth goes slack and his head bumps against the passenger-side window as he loses the battle to stay conscious.
"You're going to be fine," John tells him quietly, "because I need you to be."
But McKay can't hear him, so it's almost as if he hasn't spoken at all.
Two days later, McKay's about as far from fine as it's possible to get.
For the first 24 hours, John lets himself believe that the injury is going to be nothing worse than an inconvenience. McKay's in too much pain to sit in the SUV for any length of time, and so they hole up in the best accommodation the town has to offer (another shabby motel, and John thinks wistfully of the vacation cottage they left behind), and John gives him amoxicillin and Tylenol and waits for him to start getting better.
By the next morning, though, it's clear that neither drug is anywhere near strong enough. The pain and swelling from the bite have been joined by a low-grade fever that makes McKay's cheeks flush pink and sweat bead on his brow. He deteriorates during the day, and by the afternoon, he's in too much pain to get out of bed at all. "It's typical of my life," McKay complains as he perches on the edge of the motel room bed, leaning on John and trying not to put any weight on his injured leg while he pisses into a bucket, "that of all the things I'd like to be doing with you while in bed and naked from the waist down, this is really, truly, incredibly low on the list."
"We'll save the fun stuff for when you're better," John promises.
But McKay has suddenly lost interest in making jokes. "When I'm better," he echoes flatly. "Right."
He's not getting better; he's getting sicker by the hour, by the fucking minute. John gives him the last of the amoxicillin, but without any real faith in its effectiveness against whatever infection has taken root in McKay's body. The fever climbs and climbs until he's twisting against sweat-damp sheets, panting into the pillow.
"Where are you going?" McKay asks when he sees John pulling on his jacket.
John lifts the keys to the SUV. "You need more antibiotics."
"I need a miracle," McKay says. He tries to move his leg and winces. "A miracle and really, really good painkillers. Yeah, okay. Just... don't be long, all right?"
John pockets the keys and goes over to the bed. He puts a hand on McKay's shoulder, noticing how his skin is slick with perspiration, and his eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot. "I'll be back before you know."
It proves to be a rash promise. The first pharmacy he tries is a washout, its shelves stripped bare of every kind of medicine. John searches the place from top to bottom, but there's nothing stronger than toothpaste and hemorrhoid cream. The second pharmacy is just as bare, although here John has a brief flash of hope when he sees the door to the storeroom is closed. When he tries the handle, though, it swings open easily, and he sees the lock has been broken off. Inside, he finds a blister-pack of birth control pills and a single plastic bottle which is still sealed but has no label to indicate what the rattling contents might be. Broken shards of glass bottles and crushed tablets crunch under his feet, and it's all too easy to picture what happened here, the sick and the desperate fighting over drugs as useless to them as candy.
When he reaches the sixth ransacked pharmacy in a row, John decides he needs another plan.
Back in the car, he assesses his options. He could try the local hospital, but it's more than likely he'll find its dispensary as exhausted as the pharmacies', and he'll have to wade through corpses to get to it. He's more likely to find the medicine McKay needs on the bedside tables and in the bathroom cabinets of the dead, but breaking into and searching individual houses and apartments could take days, and John doesn't have enough time for that.
McKay doesn't have enough time.
The sun is going down; John's already been gone far longer than he intended and, anyway, he won't be able to search effectively for anything after dark. He starts the car's engine and heads back.
Night has fallen by the time he gets back to the motel. Before he goes in, John sits in the parked SUV for several long minutes, mentally preparing something he can tell McKay that won't make the situation sound as dire as it actually is. He's relieved when he finally goes back to the room and finds McKay asleep, although his relief dissipates at once when he puts a hand on McKay's forehead and feels the heat radiating off him. McKay stirs at the touch, and opens his eyes to look up at John fuzzily. Then, without warning, he throws off the blankets and tries to get out of the bed.
"Hey, where are you going?" John says, pushing him back down. It's much too easy, and he realizes with an unpleasant jolt how weak McKay's getting. "Take it easy, buddy."
"I have to feed my cat," McKay says. He's looking at John but his eyes are dilated and unfocused.
"Your cat's not here."
"Of course he's not here," McKay says tartly. "He's in my apartment. I left him food and water... I was only supposed to be away for a couple of days. What's he going to do when it's all gone?" McKay shakes his head, upset and agitated. "He must be hungry by now. I have to go feed him," and he tries to get up again.
John pushes him down again and, this time, keeps his hands on McKay's shoulders, pinning him in place. "It's okay," he soothes, and then, in a flash of inspiration, adds, "Your neighbor fed your cat."
"She did?" McKay asks, wide-eyed and credulous.
"She heard him scratching at the door and she let him out and fed him."
"Okay. That's good. As long as someone's looking after him..." He blinks several times. "You'll look after Schrödinger, won't you?"
"Sure I will," John says. His chest feels tight.
Once McKay is asleep again—although sleep is a generous term for a state that seems to have no restorative properties at all—John pulls a chair over to the side of the bed and just sits, watching him breathe.
McKay next wakes just after two in the morning. The flickering light from the candles which John has left burning through the night gives his skin a sickly yellow tint, and the shadows under his eyes are even deeper than they would otherwise be. John steels himself to deal with whatever hallucination his delirium is going to throw up this time, and is grateful when he sees McKay's gaze is lucid, if displeased. He looks up at John and mumbles accusingly, "Said you wouldn't be long."
"Yeah, I know, sorry about that," John says. "I got held up in traffic."
McKay gives a weak snort that might be an attempt at a laugh. It turns into a dry, rasping cough. "Antibiotics?"
John hesitates. "Seems like a lot of people didn't understand they wouldn't be much use against a virus."
"People are morons," McKay says. "Were morons," he amends, and coughs again. "Thirsty."
John holds a glass of water to his mouth and tilts it so he can drink easily. McKay gulps gratefully and then, briefly revitalized, pushes himself up on to one elbow. Urgently, he says, "Listen, I have to... I should have told you. You'll think I'm delirious. I'm not. Not right now, anyway." He clutches at John's arm, but his grip is so weak John can barely feel it. "I have to tell you while I can."
"Sure," John says, keeping his voice level and soothing. "Sure, whatever it is, tell me."
McKay slurs something that John can't quite make out. John leans closer. "I didn't—"
"Stargate," McKay repeats, more clearly. "They found it... in Egypt. Not the only one. A whole network of them... thousands and thousands. Different planets, all over the galaxy. Amazing things. The physics of it... beautiful. Incredible. That's what I worked on, not deep space telemetry. That's what's in Colorado. You believe me, right? You have to believe me."
"I believe you," John says, and the crazy thing is, he does. Maybe a year ago he would have dismissed claims of some kind of alien transportation device hidden in Colorado Springs as supermarket tabloid fodder, but that was before he lived through the end of the world and met Rodney McKay, who found John with a life-signs detector he built himself, who can figure out how anything works, who walked a thousand miles even though every step terrified him.
"The mountain has its own power... the 'gate should still work, if they didn't seal it or bury it, if it's even still there, if they didn't move it... I know they had evacuation plans, if... The alpha site... if anyone survived, that's where they'll be. Even if they didn't, there are other places... other worlds you can go to... I'll tell you how, I'll explain what you need to do." He blinks and looks right at John, his gaze direct and completely lucid. "Don't stay here. There's nothing left. John, promise you'll go. Promise me."
John shakes his head. "I'm not leaving you."
"I know that, you idiot," McKay says, somehow managing to sound peevish, fond and immeasurably sad, all at the same time. "I'm leaving you."
After that, McKay doesn't speak again. He slips in and out of consciousness, and sometimes his lips move, but he doesn't make a sound. When the candles start to burn down to stubs and flicker out, John doesn't bother replacing them, and by four in the morning only one is still alight. John watches the flame gutter and waver as it sinks lower and lower and he wonders bleakly if its chances of lasting until daybreak are better or worse than McKay's.
The silence in the room is total: it's graveyard-shift quiet, can't-sleep, four-in-the-morning quiet. Somehow, McKay's voice has become an essential feature of John's world, and its absence leaves him searching for some way to fill the unsettling void. At last he clears his throat and says, "Hey."
It might be John's imagination, but he thinks that McKay stirs a little in his restless, half-conscious state.
"Hey," John repeats. Then, because there's a limit to how many times he can say hey, he says, "You know what this feels like? Feels like standing the night watch. I used to like night watches. Back when I was in the service. Even volunteered for them, sometimes. You don't get a lot of time to yourself when you're living and working with a couple of hundred other guys, and I liked the quiet." He stops. "I guess we're the night watch, you and me. Except there's no one coming in the morning to relieve us."
He says, "I don't know what you want to know about me. I don't have any big secrets. My family was pretty normal. I don't remember much about my mother; I was four when she died. My dad got married again. A few years later Christine had my brother Dave, and it felt like they were somebody's family, just not mine. My dad died six months before the plague. It was sudden. He had a heart attack. We hadn't talked for a while."
He says, "I guess I have one secret. I always told people I joined up because I wanted to fly. That's not true. I mean, I did, but that wasn't the main reason. I signed up because my dad didn't think I was serious about it. He told me I wasn't disciplined enough, that I'd give it up as soon as it got difficult, and I thought, I'll show you how fucking disciplined I can be. And I was, for all those years. There were a lot of things I didn't let myself have. And most of the time it was okay; I was okay, as long as I had flying. That was my reason, I guess. For a long time, it was enough."
He says, "I didn't go to my dad's funeral. My brother left me a voicemail about it. He was angry. Or hurt, maybe. I think maybe that was it, he was hurt."
He says, "I flew helicopters in Afghanistan. One went down, and I disobeyed orders and went back. Got shot down myself, and when I found the pilot, he was injured. I tried to get us both out on foot, but he was bleeding internally. I didn't realize how bad it was. He said he had to sit down to rest. He never got up again."
He says, "I should have gone to my dad's funeral."
He says, "They were going to send me to Antarctica, so I quit. I had a black mark on my record; my career was over. But I'd do it again. I couldn't leave him behind. I can't leave you behind."
He says, "I didn't call my brother and I should have."
He says, "I would've given up if you hadn't found me. I didn't have a reason to keep going and I needed... I need a reason."
He says, "You're my reason."
"I said I'd take you to Colorado," he says, "and I will."
As soon as the first murky tendrils of gray light appear in the east, John leaves the room and heads to the motel's reception area, guessing that's the most likely place to find what he needs. He's right: there's a fold-up wheelchair in one of the storage closets.
That's where the easy part stops. Getting McKay out of the bed and into the chair is a struggle: he's solidly built, and barely awake. The cool morning air brings him round a little, though, which at least means he's conscious—although unwilling—when it's time to get him out of the chair and into the SUV.
His face is sweat-shiny, his eyes fever-bright. "Where're we going?" he asks indistinctly, slurring the words.
"Where we've always been going," John tells him. "Colorado." He fastens McKay's seatbelt to keep him upright in the passenger seat, and then gets in the driver's side.
"No," McKay protests weakly. "Sick... leg hurts."
John feeds him more painkillers; they won't help the infection, but they might control the fever just enough to keep him conscious and just about coherent. He starts up the engine and drives.
"Too far," McKay says as John drives at speed along the empty roads. "Take... days..."
John shakes his head. "No, it won't. Not the way we're gonna do it. We'll be there in a couple of hours."
"How..." He stops and his expression becomes one of terror as he works it out. "Oh, no. No, no, no. I can't."
John turns the SUV into the airfield they passed two days ago as they drove into the town where the pack of dogs attacked McKay. He doesn't have time to mess around with the security barrier which blocks the entrance, so he just drives through it. The barrier snaps when the SUV hits it; McKay lets out a yelp at exactly the same time as the barrier bangs off the car's hood. There's probably damage to the engine, if the smoke that starts to come out from under the hood is any indication. John's a little regretful—he's grown irrationally fond of the SUV—but it doesn't matter. They won't be needing the car anymore.
He drives out on to the airstrip, and stops the SUV as close as he can get it to the helicopter which is sitting, as it has been for the last year, prepped for flight on its pad. "It's only a few feet," he says to McKay. "Lean on me."
But McKay cowers back into the SUV's passenger seat. "I can't, I really can't, John, please, don't—"
"Listen to me," John interrupts him. That's so unusual that McKay shuts up, probably more out of surprise than anything else. "You can," John says. "You can. So. Do."
It's possibly the most risible attempt at a motivational speech in human history; and, since history is now officially closed, John can be pretty certain there's never going to be a worse one. McKay is just staring at him, feverish, sick, breathing in short, rasping gasps that sound like someone's using a cheese-grater on his lungs. So John tries another approach. He puts his hand on the back of McKay's head and then leans in so their foreheads are touching. McKay is burning up; God knows what his temperature is. The infection is eating him up, a fire consuming him from the inside out.
"If I can do this..." John says, and kisses him, gently, lightly, on the lips.
He pulls back, and watches McKay's reaction.
"Best pilot alive," McKay says. He's trying to smile.
"Yeah," John says.
In the air, everything is simpler.
From up here, the world hardly looks any different than how it did. But the telltale signs are there, if John cares to look for them: the highways filled with static vehicles, the charred remains of whole towns destroyed by summer fires that raged uncontained.
The sky belongs to him; no need to file a flight plan when there's no one to record it and nothing else up here. He makes straight for Cheyenne Mountain, following a course which would have gotten him arrested, and possibly even shot down, if he'd attempted it eighteen months ago.
He tries not to think about what they'll find, or won't find, when they get there. All he lets himself think about is the promise he made to McKay, the day they met. John will make sure he gets to his destination.
The longer they spend in the air, the quieter McKay becomes. At first John thinks that's a good thing—he's calming down, panic subsiding as he realizes John really isn't going to crash into the side of a mountain—but then he sees it's because the infection is winning. McKay is slipping under again, probably for the last time.
Thirty minutes from the Mountain, John puts out a call on the radio, on all channels, announcing their approach. There's no answer. He wasn't really expecting one.
He lands the chopper right in the middle of the road that leads up to the base's main entrance tunnel. A few of the letters have fallen off the top of the tunnel's arch, so that it now reads CHEYE NE MOU TA N COMP EX. There are no sentries on duty, no alarms wailing at the unprecedented breach of security. There's nothing.
The chopper's blades slow and finally still. John turns to McKay. "We're here," he says. "Rodney. You have to tell me what to do next."
McKay doesn't answer. His eyes are closed and his head lolls on his shoulder. He's only sitting upright because of the straps holding him in his seat, and as soon as John unclips them, he sags to one side, against the door. John takes off his jacket and folds it to make a pillow which he tucks carefully behind McKay's head. Then he climbs out of the chopper and walks toward the mouth of the entrance tunnel. He can see electric lights inside the tunnel, which gives him hope for a moment, before he remembers McKay saying that the base has its own power source. There's probably a nuclear reactor under there somewhere, capable of pumping out electricity for the next hundred years or more.
"We're here!" he yells into the tunnel. His voice echoes off the concrete walls. "We're here!" he shouts again. And again. And again. He shouts until he can't shout anymore, uses his voice to stake his and McKay's claim to life, to existence, to survival in this empty world. He shouts until his throat his raw, until he's hoarse with it: We are here.
Finally, exhausted and defeated, he turns away from the tunnel's entrance.
And sees the woman.
She is small and lithe, with long copper-colored hair. There's something strange about her clothes, and after a second John figures out what it is: they look home-made, with no zippers or brand logos. She looks somehow out of place, as if she's been superimposed on to a background she doesn't belong in.
She is looking at John with wary curiosity, but no fear.
"I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tegan," the woman says.
"Uh, hi, I'm John," he says, and winces a little, because McKay was right, he really does suck at introductions. Also his voice is raspy from shouting. "We came... we're looking for the Stargate."
"You are not alone? There are others with you?"
"One other," John says. He points at the helicopter. "But he's sick."
Teyla takes an abrupt step back. John, out of practice at this and well behind the curve, realizes a couple of seconds too late how that sounded.
"No," he says quickly. "No, not sick that way. It's an infection... he has a fever. He was bitten by a dog."
"That is an animal," Teyla says. Her voice rises on the last syllable, making it partly a question, and John can't decide if he's completely lost the ability to read normal conversational cues or if that actually means what it seems to mean, that Teyla's never seen a dog.
Teyla's gaze shifts a little, so that she's no longer looking at John but at something—someone—behind him. He turns, just in time to see a man, dark-haired and a few years younger than John, emerge from the entrance to the tunnel. He's wearing what looks to John like a military-issue jacket over a homemade shirt; the jacket shows signs of having been repaired a number of times, and the stars and stripes patch on one arm is missing a corner. He's also carrying a gun, which he starts to raise as soon as he sees John. "Teyla, are you—"
Teyla lifts her hand. "I do not believe I am in danger, Major Lorne."
John raises his hands slowly away from his sides, showing them empty and open.
Lorne's eyes slide from John to the helicopter and back again, like he can't quite make the separate parts of what he's seeing add up to a coherent whole. "Where'd he come from?" Lorne asks Teyla.
"He is seeking the Ring of the Ancestors," Teyla says, as if that made perfect sense.
Not much does make sense to John right now. The list of questions in his head is growing at an exponential rate, but he decides that in the interests of hanging on to his sanity he's going to ignore all of them. Instead, he looks at Teyla and says, as steadily as he can, "My friend... He's sick. We need help. Please... help us. Please."
And Teyla, daughter of Tegan, nods and says, "Yes."
There's a city under the mountain.
All right, that's a slight exaggeration. There's an extensive military base under the mountain, and God knows John spent enough of his life living and working on military bases to be familiar with the general principals, but it's still a shock when he realizes that NORAD—fucking NORAD, for chrissakes—is the lesser part of what's hidden beneath Cheyenne Mountain.
There's heat and light and power; there's an infirmary which is, thank Christ, stocked with every kind of antibiotic; there are endless storerooms filled to overflowing with bottled water and military rations and enough weapons, ordnance and field equipment to mount a small war.
There are people. John feels like one of those apocryphal Amazonian Indians whose entire counting system goes, one, two, many, because although he tries to count the number of different faces he sees, he keeps losing track. Major Lorne appears to be in charge of a group of soldiers who wear uniform jackets over home-spun shirts, and there are also a number of civilians in the group who answer to Teyla. There's a doctor, too; John can't figure out where he fits in the hierarchy, and he doesn't much care so long as he helps McKay.
There is one other thing hidden under the mountain: Teyla's Ring of the Ancestors.
The doctor's name is Carson Beckett. He has a Scottish accent and a nervous manner, although the latter dissipates as soon as he starts to examine McKay, probing the suppurating wound on his leg with professional focus while he asks John a string of questions about exactly what happened. It's only when McKay's leg is freshly bandaged and he's dosed with drugs and sleeping comfortably in an infirmary bed that Beckett casts an appraising eye over John and says, "You look like you've been through the wars, too, lad. Why don't you stretch out there and try to sleep a while?"
Not the wars, the plague, John thinks, but it's not a very good joke and, anyway, he's very, very tired, so he mutely obeys. He swings his legs up on to the bed where he's been sitting while Beckett's been treating McKay and lies out flat on it. The infirmary ward's strip lighting glares brightly overhead, making him wince a little. In the next bed over, McKay's chest rises and falls in a steady, even rhythm. "Thanks," John mumbles.
"Och, it's no bother. Those antibiotics will see him right in a few days," Beckett says. He holds up a bottle of pills and regards it with an odd expression. "I wish I'd had these back home during the last few years. We ran out quite a while ago."
John's tired, and he can feel sleep gradually overtaking him. His thoughts hover between wakefulness and dreams, which makes it easier, somehow, to put what Beckett's saying together with McKay's talk of Stargates and travel to other worlds. Sleepily, he says, "This is gonna sound like a weird question... Are you from another planet?"
Beckett chuckles. "No, I'm from Edinburgh." He stops laughing, and then, his tone sober, he goes on, "Although I don't expect I'll ever see it again. Home is... somewhere else, now."
Even the bright electric light isn't enough to stop John's eyes from drifting slowly closed. "Where?" he asks, slurring with tiredness.
Beckett's answer slips into John's mind through the cracks between consciousness and unconsciousness and somehow lodges there, so that he has strange dreams in which NORAD is a city under the ocean, with a Stargate hidden at its heart.
When McKay finally wakes up, John says, "You were right."
"Of course I was right, I'm always right," McKay says automatically. He blinks. "Um. About what?"
"Stargates. Other planets. All of it."
"Oh, that." McKay shrugs, as well as he can, lying down; his expression is pure, Well, duh. Then his face changes, becoming more uncertain. "I'm, uh, I'm sorry. For not telling you sooner. I wanted to; I mean, you have no idea how hard it is for me not to vocalize every single thought I have, and there were any number of times I—well, for example, that time in the car when I subjected you to an entire history of my childhood ailments was mostly an attempt to distract myself before I spilled everything about the Stargate, so, sorry you had to learn more about my battle with eczema than you ever needed to know. But I thought if I told you, you'd think I was insane." He frowns. "More insane."
"It's okay," John says. He tries to imagine how he would have reacted that first morning if McKay had announced he was going to Colorado to find an intergalactic space-portal. But he can't: the memory feels weirdly remote, like it happened to someone else. John doesn't know what the guy who pulled a gun on McKay when they first met would have done, and he doesn't really want to think about it. He changes the subject by asking, "Did you ever go? To another planet?"
McKay shakes his head. "I was... asked to participate in a project that would have involved going through the 'gate, and I said no. I told myself it was because I was better suited to research than to fieldwork, but..." He trails off. "It was dangerous. Everyone knew that."
"There are people here," John says. "They came through the Stargate."
"Where did they come from?" McKay demands. "Did they say anything about the Alpha Site?"
Now it's John's turn to shrug. "Not unless your Alpha Site was called Atlantis."
McKay stares at him. "What?"
"That's where the doc told me they're from. Is everywhere in outer space named for places in myths?"
McKay turns his head away from John.
"They didn't come from the Alpha site," McKay says. Then he whispers, "I didn't go. They went. They found it."
When he turns his face back to John, he's smiling, and his cheeks are wet with tears.
"We thought getting there would be the hard part," Major Lorne says. "Actually, that was pretty easy. Getting back, not so much."
"Not enough power to open the 'gate back," McKay says. He's sitting up in his infirmary bed, leaning forward, taking in every word. All the nervous habits and gestures have disappeared, replaced by an intensity of focus that makes him seem like a different person. Or maybe the same person, the way he should be. "So you found the Ancients' city, but it was powered down. No ZPM." For John's benefit, he adds, "Zero Point Module. It's a power source invented by the same people who built the 'gates—works by folding space-time to draw on vacuum energy—" He breaks off. "Short version: it's the size of your fist and packs enough power to light up a continent."
Lorne nods. "Without sufficient power, we weren't able to explore the city anywhere near as much as we'd planned. Then the supplies we'd brought with us started running out. And things happened. There were... losses." Lorne pauses. "If it hadn't been for Teyla and her people, we wouldn't have made it."
"Our alliance has benefited both our peoples," Teyla says smoothly.
"So what changed?" John asks Lorne. "You found one of these... ZPM things?"
Another nod. "We thought our problems were over. We plugged it in, dialed Earth..."
"...And there was no answer," McKay concludes.
"Not entirely. The reply was a transmission playing on a loop, describing what had happened and warning anyone who received it not to come here."
"But you came back anyway. Why?" John asks. Then he stops to think about Lorne's patched uniform and Beckett's comment about antibiotics, and answers his own question. "Supplies."
Lorne says, "We weren't going to come back. But we got lucky—a month ago, we found a second ZPM. With two, we could make a round trip."
While they've been talking, Teyla has been setting out cups and filling them with a fragrant-smelling tea from a pot. John accepts his when she hands it to him, but McKay looks dubious. "I'm not really a tea-drinker," he says. "I don't suppose you have any coffee? Even decaf?"
John glares at him until McKay gets the message that offending the nice lady who helped save his life isn't the smartest move. His cheeks go bright pink and he says, in a tone which is wholly unconvincing but somehow manages to convey that he's trying very, very hard to be sincere, "Tea, tea is fine. Tea is great! I like tea."
John takes a tentative sip of the gently steaming liquid. It's stronger than he expects, and leaves the back of his throat tingling after he swallows. With a small, shocking jolt he realizes that nothing that grew out of Earth's soil ever tasted quite like this. Other planets, John thinks, and suddenly it's real to him in a way it hasn't been before now.
McKay hasn't touched his tea. He's holding the cup Teyla gave him, waiting. John is pretty sure that wherever the tea came from, they haven't even heard of lemons there, and so he nods. McKay drinks, and it's only then that John notices the others have been watching their silent exchange.
McKay must have noticed as well, because he says, haltingly, "It's a... thing. We're both a little..."
"Crazy," John supplies.
"I was going to choose a less pejorative term," McKay says with scowl. "But, well. Yes. Turns out living through the end of the world will do that to you."
"How many of your people survived the disease?" Teyla asks, tactfully changing the subject.
"I don't know, but it can't have been many," John tells her. He gestures at McKay: "We've covered a lot of ground, and we didn't meet any other survivors."
"Yes, but now we're going to find them," McKay says. "Obviously."
There's a moment of silence, during which John wonders if he somehow tuned out of the conversation for a couple of minutes. But Lorne, Beckett and Teyla look equally mystified.
McKay looks around the room, and shrugs in exasperation, like he's already remembering just how slow and dense he used to find humanity in general. His gaze settles on John: "The life-signs detector, remember? NORAD is connected to the entire satellite network. All I have to do is iron out the wrinkles, hook it up, and we'll know who's out there. We can even go and get them."
John stares at him for a second, and then feels the smile spreading across his face, because McKay has a plan. McKay always has a plan. He had a plan when he decided to walk across the country to get to the Stargate; he had a plan when he built the prototype life-signs detector that found John; he has a plan now.
"Wait a second," Lorne says, holding up a hand: "This is not a search and rescue mission—"
"It is now," John says, and surprises himself with how forceful he sounds.
Beckett looks to Lorne. "If there are people out there, we should find them."
Lorne looks unhappy. "I'm not disagreeing, Doc, but we don't exactly have the resources to do that."
Teyla looks at him, her gaze a challenge. "You are very fortunate that was not the answer I gave when you came to me for help."
Lorne opens his mouth, then closes it again, and John is left feeling deeply impressed by Teyla's negotiation skills.
And then John's world turns upside down and inside out, because then Teyla turns to him and McKay and says, "And if you or any of those you find wish to return with us when we leave, then we will welcome you. I cannot bring back your people, but I can offer you a place among mine. Come with us."
The catch is, it's a one way trip.
Once they return to their mythically-named city in another galaxy (and John is glad he's more confident about his sanity lately, or the fact that he actually believes what he's heard in the last couple of hours would be giving him fresh cause for concern), any power left in the ZPM will be needed to maintain Atlantis. No one will be coming back to Earth.
After Teyla, Lorne and Beckett have left them alone again, John and McKay stare at each other for a while over a pot of cooling alien tea.
"Not everyone we find is gonna want to go," John says finally.
"If they don't want to," McKay says, "we're not going to make them. But even if they decide to stay here, they'll still be better off together than isolated. Right now, anyone who's still alive is probably completely alone, the way we were, before..." He trails off. "They should have the choice not to be alone, at least. We can give them that."
They're both silent for a few seconds, and then John asks, "And what about us? Are we gonna take Teyla up on that offer?"
McKay looks away. He makes a series of nervous, flicking gestures with his hands and his uninjured leg twitches beneath the bedcovers; John thinks that he'd be up and pacing around the room if he could.
"It could be a terrible idea. From what the Major said, it sounds as if what's left of the Atlantis expedition is barely scraping by. Those people are just survivors; they're no different from us. The mountain has power, and there's enough food and water to last for decades, even after they take what they need. I mean, it's safe here. At least it's safe."
John used to think that about being alone. That at least it was safe.
McKay goes on, "And it wouldn't be fair to you. You said you'd come with me to Colorado, and you have. I couldn't ask... You don't owe me anything."
He is looking at John, his eyes wide with fear and also a kind of appeal that John thinks he understands.
John leans forward and kisses him. McKay, surprised, moves his arm and knocks over his cup; it falls, spilling cold alien tea on to the infirmary floor. John kisses him slowly, deliberately, savoring it. When he finally pulls away, he is shaking, but not with panic. He is intoxicated, liberated. He is alive; they are alive.
"I was thinking," he says, "this thing where you choose somewhere to go and we go there... That's working out pretty well for us."
McKay nods slowly. "It kind of is."
"Rodney," John says softly, "All you have to do is say, I want to go with them."
McKay lets out a breath. "I want to go with them," he says. He smiles, and for the first time since John met him there's no fear in his face, none at all. "John, let's go with them."
"Okay," John says, and smiles back.
There is a city of light and glass and spires, floating on an alien ocean.
There are places and things John never dreamed existed. There are people he calls friends, and is grateful and proud. There is an enemy that scares him shitless, most days, but that's okay, because fear is something John can handle: he learned a long time ago how to use it to fortify and focus himself. What he can't handle, he finally understands, is being alone.
But that's okay, too, because he isn't, anymore.