Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self....
Henry IV, part 2, V.v.56-58
His hands are wrong—too smooth, too pink. Nails blunt, trimmed short. And when he moves, the weight and heft of it is off. Like he’s woken up in someone else’s body.
The room is white, though dimly-lit, the bed he’s on oddly soft. It gives too much when he shifts around, so that he can’t get comfortable. There is a clip on his finger, a cuff on his arm, wires running underneath his shirt and out his collar, and he doesn’t know why any of these things are there. His skin feels tight, new, like it needs to be stretched a little. Each time he blinks, he’s startled by the brush of eyelashes against his cheek.
The hiss of an opening door comes as a welcome distraction, even though he is sure (as sure as he can be, having never seen a door open before) that doors don’t open like that. But he can’t remember how they do open, so he doesn’t say anything to his visitor. Visitors. A man wearing a white coat, with two escorts in black and grey.
He recognizes the guards’ weapons—or recognizes that they are weapons; he can’t remember what they do. Stun? Kill? Maim? Best not to find out.
All three men regard him as if expecting him to leap at them, snarling. He can think of no reason why he should—all he has are blanks, an endless series of questions, starting with:
“Who are you?” No, that’s not quite right. “Who am I?” That’s closer. He could ask ‘where’, but at the moment that seems unimportant. He wants to ask ‘why does my head feel so empty’, but doesn’t. The answer isn’t one he wants to hear.
The man in the white coat stops, eyes and mouth going a little round as if in surprise. His guards settle on either side of the door, faces as expressionless as the wall against their backs. He thinks he might have been able to take them down, once upon a time, but doesn’t know where that thought came from.
“You don’t remember?” the man asks, surprise subsided into something more subtle—understanding? satisfaction?—but less wary. He still stands as though ready to flee, but instinctively, not intentionally. The change is not altogether a comforting one.
“No.” And he doesn’t—except for the occasional flash of dim familiarity, there is nothing from before the moment when he first opened his eyes and saw a world full of strange colors.
The name of the man in the white coat is Doctor Beckett. Doctor means healer—he thinks. The word tastes odd when he repeats it, as though known but never used. Doctor Beckett is apologetic while shining lights in eyes and tapping limbs—testing reflexes, he says.
The apology is more foreign than the word ‘doctor’.
After removing the wires, clip, and cuff, Doctor Beckett leaves with a promise to return soon with people who might have answers, and takes the guards with him. For some reason the sound of the door closing seems louder than before. Not as loud as the following silence, though. It echoes in the almost-empty room, so full of weight that it’s hard to breathe.
It would be easy to drown in the absence of sound, of words, so he flips the covers back and gets out of bed. His feet feel naked against the cold floor, vulnerable. He walks gingerly, half-expecting something jump out and bite his toes. Each step is a reminder of his body’s boundaries, air and cloth almost harsh against his skin.
Tetherless, he keeps a hand on whatever piece of equipment is within reach, learning the balance and touch of things again. Besides the bed, there are a dozen blue-screened monitors, all with diagrams and symbols he can’t read. He lingers in front of the last screen, staring at it as if the meaning hidden there might suddenly reveal itself.
He’s intent on his hopeless study when Doctor Beckett and his guards return. And two others—a man and a woman. They are all grave-faced, restrained in their movements, like people attending to a wounded and unpredictable animal.
“Blood pressure’s fine, pulse normal. Physically he’s in fine shape,” Doctor Beckett pronounces after more poking and prodding and shining of lights.
“But no memory?” the other man asks.
“Hello,” the woman says, smiling—falsely. There’s nothing behind her eyes but worry. “Do you remember me?”
“No,” he says again. But he recognizes what she is—the one everyone follows. She is the center around which both men move, although the other man treads a wide and wandering orbit. Her smile fades a little.
“I’m Doctor Elizabeth Weir. This is Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard.” Another doctor, although she shows no interest in shining lights into his eyes. For which he is grateful, still half-blind with purple spots.
“Mind if I call you ‘Michael’?” Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard asks. Doctor Elizabeth Weir utters a rebuking “John!”—too many names and titles.
“Is that my name?” maybe-Michael asks in return, trying not to hope.
“If you want it to be,” Doctor Elizabeth Weir says, frowning at Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard (John?). “We don’t know your name, or if you even had one before.”
“Before?” And that’s the question he’s been trying to ignore. “Before what? Why can’t I remember anything?”
“You—” Doctor Elizabeth Weir starts to say, and then turns from him and begins talking to Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard in a language Michael can’t understand. ‘John’ is the only familiar word until Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard replies with ‘Elizabeth’. They are obviously arguing about something, and just as obviously, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard is winning.
“You know it doesn’t work that way,” he says at last, and it is a relief to be able to understand him. Doctor Elizabeth Weir nods once, a sharp, angry motion, and turns back to Michael.
“You have a choice,” she says abruptly, clearly unhappy with whatever she’s been forced into doing. “If you want, you can become Michael Kenmore, a new member of our expedition. There will be talk behind your back, and possibly a few more serious incidents, but we—” she gestures at Doctor Beckett and Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, “We would do our best to make sure the adjustments went as smoothly and as comfortably as possible.”
“And my other option?” This isn’t the answer to his questions, but it’s something. He flexes his fingers, gripping the mattress he’s sitting on, and wishes he had something more solid to cling to.
“You’re being given medicine right now that’s keeping you in your current form,” Doctor Beckett says, after a long silence in which Doctor Elizabeth Weir glances away, unwilling or unable to answer. “If we stop giving you the medicine, you’ll revert to your original form.”
“At which point,” Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard adds, “You’ll probably attack and attempt to kill us, and wind up either dead or in isolation somewhere.” He nods at the guards on standing by the door. “Hence the stunners.”
So, neither death nor mutilation. It’s small comfort.
“And how would I become Michael Kenmore?” he asks, although the answer doesn’t really matter. His time alone in the room was enough for him to know he could not survive being permanently locked away by himself. He can’t suppress a shiver when he tries to imagine how bad it would be—he needs people, needs words to stop up the yawning blanks that fill his head.
“We put a tattoo down your spine.” Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard says this without any apparent irony.
“A tattoo down my spine,” Michael repeats flatly, because he remembers tattoos. They serve as symbols, markers of who is what and where each individual belongs. Tattoos cannot take the place of medicine—either he is being mocked, or this world is far stranger than he thought. “That seems a bit insubstantial.”
“Oh, it’ll work all right.” And now Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard speaks wryly, with the tone of a man who knows too well what he’s speaking of.
They try to explain it to him—how ink and blood and this thing called ‘magic’ can somehow bind him into himself, hold him to the form he’s in—but he finds himself thinking that they’re just making it up. Until Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard (“‘Colonel’, please.”) snaps his fingers and is suddenly holding fire in his hand. It’s a bit harder to disbelieve after that sort of demonstration.
“Could I do that?” he asks the colonel after everyone else has gone, the door still open and waiting in the wake of their departure. “Do—” he snaps his fingers in imitation, unsure of how to put it into words. Because he wants that ability, wants to be like them—able to come and go as they please, to do whatever they want. He’s beginning to feel a bit trapped where he is, his world consisting of four walls, floor, ceiling, and what little he can see of the corridor through the open door.
“Probably.” The colonel shrugs, hands in pockets, back to the doorway. “Don’t see why not. It’s a pretty simple spell—couple of tats, takes an hour or two at the most. Jenny does them all the time for the Athosians.” He pivots out of the room with a nod to the guards standing in the hallway, the door closing behind him with excruciating slowness.
After that Michael’s visited by another doctor: Doctor Heighmeyer. She tells him to call her ‘Kate’, asks him how’s feeling, looks at him with well-concealed expectation. “Lost,” he tells her, too much meaning packed into so small a sound. ‘Isolated,’ he doesn’t tell her, because it isn’t true—the stream of people in and out of his room has been nearly continuous. There isn’t a word for how he feels.
Her hair bounces against her back as she walks out, the motion almost hypnotic.
Doctor Beckett stops in later to give him an injection and make sure everything’s still functioning properly. With him comes Teyla, who answers Michael’s questions about the Athosians and tells him stories about growing up in a world very different from the one where she’s now made her home. And for a while he can almost see somewhere that isn’t his room—can almost see outside.
But eventually she leaves with an apologetic smile and sweetly said goodnight. The door closes, and Michael is once again alone in a room that resounds with the absence of others. He tries to ignore it, to close his eyes and sleep, but he keeps seeing things against the back of his eyelids. In the silence he hears the whisper of a voice that might have been his, once. Before.
Left to his own devices, he might have gone mad, convinced that the walls were slowly creeping in around him, but the colonel shows up again halfway through the night.
“Heard you were still awake and figured I might as well teach you how to play cards,” he says, and starts off on an explanation of what comprises a suit. It’s so unexpected that Michael doesn’t think to question the visit until they’re deep into a game called ‘Egyptian rat screw’— which, the colonel explains in a serious tone, has nothing to do with Egypt, rats, or screwing.
“Why are you here?” They’re sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing each other, and by now Michael’s lost three times. He’s winning at the moment, though, his stack of battered cards easily twice the height of the colonel’s.
“I never sleep more than a few hours a night—my mom was the same way. Used to drive my dad nuts, when he was home.” Both of them know that isn’t the answer to the question, but Michael’s grateful enough for the company to pretend that it is. He’s learned enough to read the tension in the colonel’s shoulders, to suspect the consequences should he pursue the matter.
And he would keep silent, would let the game continue and the colonel speak— or not—as he wished, but there’s another question that’s been waiting far too long to be asked. It’s overdue, and if he doesn’t ask now, he might never find the courage.
“What was I, before?” He keeps his head bowed, eyes fixed on the cards. Four. Six. Nine. King. Queen. Three. Ace. Jack. Ace. Slap. The colonel leaves his hand on the bed, fingers cupped protectively over the pile of cards.
“Do you really want to know?” His voice is expressionless.
Michael nods silently, because no matter how much he needs to know what he will be locking away, he can’t quite bring himself to say ‘yes’. Because he doesn’t really want to know.
“Okay.” Setting the rest of his cards down, the colonel reaches a hand up to his ear piece. “Sergeant? Could you send someone down with a laptop and the tapes from when Michael first arrived?”
“Thank you,” Michael says after another half-dozen cards are played.
“Don’t thank me until you’ve seen the tape,” the colonel warns him, and takes the stack.
He doesn’t understand the warning until the tape’s running and he finds himself staring at the screen, horrified and marveling at the same time, unable to reconcile what he sees with what he is now, who he is slowly becoming. “That’s me?”
“Was you, a couple weeks ago.”
The palms of his hands are smooth, featureless. Innocuous. Safe. He watches them carefully, as if guarding against the slow change into the thing that continues loudly writhing on the screen until the colonel reaches across and stops the recording.
“That’s not you, Michael. You’re not a Wraith. Not anymore.” The colonel sounds like he believes what he’s saying, and Michael wishes he had the same belief.
“How can you know that?” Because the Wraith’s voice is the same voice Michael’s heard the times he’s been left alone. He could hear it now, if he listened for it—an endless stream of threats and promises and reasons why these ‘Lanteans’ can’t be trusted.
“Because a Wraith wouldn’t be sitting here playing cards with me.” The colonel shuts the laptop, sets it aside. “That is what we’re doing, right? Playing cards?”
Michael picks up the deck, shuffles it a couple of times. Considers his hands and the cards, the feel of worn edges against his skin. The man sitting at the foot of the bed. The possibilities contained in an open door and an empty room.
He begins to deal.