I would ’twere bed-time, Hal, and all well. – Henry IV, pt. 1, V.i
There is (was, will be) a boy running through the grass. Blue sky overhead, green grass underfoot; the boy runs. A rabbit runs also, aware of nothing but the open space before and the boy behind. A dog barks from inside the forest that stretches out along the green grass; barks twice, and bursts out of the underbrush, a brown and white arrow aimed at the rabbit.
And (the boy runs; the boy stumbles; the boy falls; the boy drops to his knees and clutches at his eyes; the boy sees blood; the boy sees an empty field and a panting dog) the boy stops, watches dog and rabbit disappear back into the forest, wonders what just (didn’t happen) happened.
There is a story they tell, about Xenophon, the Greek seer-general, and his defeat of the emperor Phedorus. They say that the Greek army was surrounded by Phedorus’s men, outnumbered as the grains of wheat in a bushel basket are by the grains of sand on a beach. They say that Xenophon met with Phedorus the night before the battle, and that Phedorus was amazed by his youth, and asked how it came to be that the Greeks had entrusted their army to one who was little more than a boy.
And Xenophon said: I have lived a hundred days in one day; I have seen the sun set many times while it is still rising; my skin is young but my soul is old. There is no fear in me, despite all your might.
They say that Phedorus was even more amazed by this reply, and answered that Xenophon must be either mad or a fool, but that still did not explain his command of the army. For it had been observed that no Greek soldier spoke ill of Xenophon, and that all followed his every order without question; a thing most curious to see in a people usually so contentious.
And Xenophon said: They obey my every order without question because I tell them what will happen if they don’t.
Phedorus laughed then, for Xenophon was slight of build and mild of speech and did not move as one able to inflict punishment on anyone. Besides, the Greeks were known to only ever respond to threats with unshakable defiance—as Phedorus could testify.
But Xenophon only smiled, and would answer no more before he left.
In the morning, the emperor awoke and found that his weapons were gone, his generals humiliated, his soldiers in deep despair or fled, and the Greek army nowhere to be seen. Where his armor had been brief hours earlier, a fragment of parchment sat, reading, ‘I do not tell them what I will do, but rather how things will be.’
After the emperor’s retreat, no other army attempted to invade the Greek states for another four generations.
He remembers this, remembers the cell holding them, the odd spider-web of bars penning them in. Remembers the look on the man’s face as he’s singled out and dragged away, and finds himself swallowing the protest he’d been about to make. It would be as meaningless as the bleat of a lamb in a slaughterhouse, and as easily ignored.
The aliens stride away and this too is familiar, a view he already knows, although he’s never seen it before.
Except he has, once, years and years ago.
When he was sixteen, he spent seven months in a sanatorium, unable to tell possibility from certainty, trying to claw his way back out of the maybe-future and into the solid present. He’d done it, eventually, and the doctors there had made sure he wouldn’t have to do it a second time—something for which he is still profoundly grateful. After a week in observation, he’d returned to his regular life with an ink-covered back and a head full of memories that might never happen.
This is one of those, one he hadn’t thought could come true. But he can hear the hitch in the breathing of the woman standing at his shoulder and knows what she would have said in reply if he’d spoken as he’d meant to. Knows as well why he’d had the eerie feeling of having already met her when she first introduced herself.
If he’d figured that out sooner, they probably wouldn’t be standing next to each other, waiting to be eaten.
He feels exposed in the hall, stripped of any illusion of safety. Unprotected, except for the tracery of ink and magic that covers most of his skin. Hard to trust it in the face of what he’s seen will happen, but thanks to it he’s survived where other people haven’t, so he squares his shoulders and keeps his face impassive—he will not cower before these creatures, despite the way his spine has seemingly turned to water.
Nor does he flinch at the sound of something landing behind him. He won’t allow himself to be spooked, will be damned if he’ll react the way these creatures expect of him. Instead, he turns to look, with all the measured patience he can muster. They’re playing with him, now, cat and mouse, but he’s more of a rat—and rats can bring down a cat, if they strike in the right place at the right moment.
It’s another alien, this one definitely female, her red hair shockingly vivid against the dullness of her surroundings, and when she speaks to him he can feel the growl of her voice in his bones.
“Are you not hungry?” she says, half question, half command. It’s not what he’s expecting, and he stands mute, unsure how to answer. If he should answer. His stomach is empty, emphatically hollow, but that’s irrelevant.
She snarls when he remains silent, all teeth and displeasure at being ignored, and stalks toward him—cat, or shark. “What do you call yourself?”
“Colonel Marshall Sumner, United States Marine Corps.” But that’s just answer by rote, and less than true. When he thinks of himself, it’s always as ‘Mack’—same as the sixteen year old boy who spent the bulk of a year in a padded room. Not that it matters, now.
“You are unafraid. Do you not know what I am?” Unafraid? He almost laughs in her face at that, because the last time he felt so terrified he’d been a young idiot, dumped half-prepared into his first war. The dead body—mummy, more like—seated at the table keeps him silent, though. As does the memory of how he’d survived his first brush with death.
“Ma’am,” he says, because politeness is a reliable and easy way to baffle the enemy, “I haven’t the foggiest, and frankly, I don’t care.”
She snarls again, showing too many teeth and nothing but malice. They are sharp, those teeth, like needles made of bone, and the thought flits through his head that there’s no visible marks on the dead man, no blood—nothing but the shriveled skin that comes with extreme age.
If he tried, he could probably piece together the memory of what is about to happen to him, but he’d really rather not.
Most soldiers have some kind of fire-starting spell inked onto them—thumb and second finger, usually, so that snapping the fingers together produces a small flame. Shielding spells of some kind are also popular, though the strength and location varies; the strong ones burn out fast, the weak ones last practically forever but don’t do much good.
And then there are spells for improved eyesight, for steady hands, for dry feet, to prevent someone from being compelled to share sensitive information, to briefly grant greater strength or stamina, to protect bones and joints, to make injuries heal faster and without lingering weakness—Mack doesn’t have all of these, but he has many. And in payment for all these advantages he eats more, sleeps more than he would otherwise. Carries certain kinds of stones in his pockets. Wears so much magic on his skin that at times he feels it wrap around him like invisible armor, like solid moonshine.
This is probably what’s keeping him alive right now.
The alien has her claws hooked into his chest, has mental claws hooked into his head—almost. She keeps trying and barely failing to snag his thoughts, keeps sucking away at his . . . life, he supposes, with that freaky mouth on her hand, but all she’s getting is the magic stored in all his tattoos. Any moment now that’s going to run out, and then she’ll be getting him, but his armor will hold for just a little longer.
“Where is your world?” she demands, fury both sharpening her will and spoiling her ability to cut with it effectively. “Tell me!”
“Never,” he manages to spit out, even as the first spell goes dry. Not the one currently keeping her out of his mind, but that’s only a matter of time. “Might as well eat me, because you won’t get anything out of me otherwise.”
His eyes tell him she hasn’t torn his heart out, but every other part of him screams she has, there’s a gaping hole in his chest, and he shouldn’t still be breathing—
And then all the rest of the spells fail and she’s hooked a mental claw around what he’s trying so desperately not to think and he can feel the life being sucked out of him like the marrow from his bones, air from his lungs, and he remembers this, remembers what it will feel like in a moment when she’s finally found what she’s looking for and he’s nothing more than a mid-afternoon snack and he’d really rather be dead now—
But instead the alien is dead, abruptly. Mack stares down at her crumpled body for a brief eternity before beginning to slowly slump toward the table. There’s a shoulder under his arm, steadying him, and a voice in his ear telling him that they need to move, sir, now, sir, please don’t make me carry you, sir—
(but that’s wrong because he should be the one on the floor)
Lieutenant Ford’s leaning over him, eyes wide and young and normal, not freaky, but he blinks, eyelashes brushing cheek for an instant, and when his eyes open again one of them is as black as a hole to hell (as he runs away in a ship that’s not his, scornful and desperate and young, too young, and he wants to tell Ford no, don’t do it—don’t throw everything away for what only seems like everything, but then he’s gone and the city’s sinking, burning, flying, full of people, empty; the expedition comes, goes, is cast out, dies).
The problem with seeing the future is that there’s too many of them: the more possible futures you see, the more spin off from them, and even more from those, until there’s no room for the present. No room to breathe in, live in. If you have a strong will, a strong self, an anchor to the present—if you have these things, you can manage to see only a little of the things to come. A little, and no more. If you have none of these things, you’ll be lost wandering among the perhapses until the world dies, or you do.
Suddenly they’re in the fields, ships overhead and mud underfoot (catching at them, trying to pull them down so that they can be caught and eaten, and they shoot and shoot and try to run and get caught anyway and he can’t keep them out of his head) and someone’s fierce grip propelling him along, someone’s voice in his ear.
“Not much farther now, sir. Just keep your feet moving. Sir? Sir!”
He opens his eyes and there are knees under his cheek, closes eyes and the aliens come and eat everyone, open and the world shudders all around him, closed and someone’s bleeding out—open—Dr. Weir’s been shot and the city’s about to sink—closed—the aliens are tearing out his mind—Major Sheppard’s killed himself to save everyone—the city’s locked them up and they’ve starved to death and—each blink contains a hundred thousand possibilities and he doesn’t know who or why or when—God almighty—and even as he says the words he forgets that he’s said them, time fracturing around him into a million simultaneous futures—
(there are doctors in some of them)
(and death (and death and death))
The infirmary feels dead, like a morgue or cemetery. Like Mack will be soon. “I expected to die with my boots on,” he tells the room at large, studying the backs of his withered hands, unfamiliar as a stranger’s and less useful. When he looks up, Sheppard is staring uncomfortably at the wall, as though unable to bear the sight of what his only partial success has wrought. Mack’s already lectured him about the guilt, but it’ll be a while before it takes properly, if it ever does. Complete failure might have been easier to accept. Might have, except apparently Sheppard rides himself harder than anyone (except, perhaps, O’Neill) ever realized.
“You still could, sir.” It’s a good attempt at nonchalance, but not enough to keep him from getting called on it.
“That’s the sort of feel-good bullshit I expect from someone like Ford—you of all people should know better, Major.” Mack’s never been one for pulling his punches, but this one doesn’t land the way he expects it to, because now Sheppard finally looks him in the eye, one corner of his mouth quirked up ever-so-slightly.
“I meant, I could go get them for you if you’d like, sir. I’m sure Dr. Beckett wouldn’t notice.”
And Mack shouldn’t laugh at that for many more reasons than one, but he can’t help it, even though the first creaking, ragged run of it makes Sheppard wince, makes Mack’s throat feel like it’s peeling apart inside like old paint and his lungs burn and he can’t stop laughing but he also can’t breathe—
Somewhere, distantly, Sheppard shouts for a doctor, but even as world goes spottily black around him, Mack thinks that there’s worse ways to go out.
He lies with his eyes closed for a little while, not sure he wants to open them, until he finally notices the voice in his ear that’s been there all along—words indistinct, but steady. Sheppard’s voice, cracked and breaking, words splintered into meaningless syllables. It hurts to hear him, so Mack opens his eyes, vaguely surprised when the room around him remains as it was before: alien art-deco. His wife would have loved it.
“How long have I been out?” he croaks, interrupting the popular history of two very stubborn men. For a whimsical, depressed moment, he considers the possibility that they’re a veiled reference to Sheppard and himself, and then discards the notion. Sheppard’s stubborn and Mack’s stubborn and can see the future (again), but there the similarities end. “Please tell me you actually did kill that alien bitch and I didn’t just imagine it.”
“Almost two days, by our clocks. And yes, I shot it. Her.”
He doesn’t want to ask, but he needs to know: “How much did I spill before you made the shot?”
“‘Spill’?” Sheppard’s eyebrows go up. “Nothing—or at least nothing even remotely actionable. It sounded like you were trying to say eighteen things simultaneously, so it was pretty much just word hash. Something about fields and dogs, maybe a powerball number or two.” His tone turns wry. “Not that those’ll do us much out here in the middle of alien nowhere.”
They fall into quiet then, Sheppard gulping down what smells like cold coffee, Mack’s thoughts spinning off into too many directions. The room rings with words unsaid, entire conversations he can remember not happening, until the silence threatens to drown him.
“Sheppard, talk to me,” he finally manages to gasp out, because he can feel all the maybes pressing in on him, pressing down, like water when it’s deadly, and Sheppard’s words are the closest he has to rope. “Don’t stop talking. Please.”
“No sir,” Sheppard says, more there than two words should be able to contain. Back under the mountain Mack would have dismissed it as well-hidden sarcasm; now he wonders how many layers deep the man runs. “Any requests?”
“‘One Thousand Nights and One’,” Mack manages, joke and truth together.
“I know a variation or two,” Sheppard says slowly, more serious than Mack would’ve expected, if he’d been capable at the moment. Even as the doctors arrive and Mack finds himself drowning on his dry bed, Sheppard begins: “Once, long and long ago, almost before there were stars or sky, the elves looked up and dreamed….”
And Mack clings to the major’s voice, as he has for days without knowing, fighting to keep from being swept away again. Clings to it amid the needles and distant futures and the undercurrents of panic and desperation that sweep through the room.
It’s like building a dam, and he can feel the pressure rising with each resurrected bit of the original binding spell, the growing weight of uncountable potentials—and he’s the one bearing it all, holding steady even as the eave of maybes and perhapses threatens to wash him away entirely. His sight does fail toward the end of it, in a way, leaving him unable to see the room and the people in it as they currently are. But Sheppard keeps spinning his tale, and the doctors keep sticking him with needles, and these things are enough. Must be enough, if Mack’s going to come out of this as himself.
(But he will. He has to.)
He notices the silence first—near silence. No doctors talking in calm but urgent tones, no steady cadence of Sheppard’s dying voice: just an annoying hum, akin to a dog howling softly into a fan. Or something like that. When he turns his head toward the sound’s source, it winds up being Sheppard again (still), in dire need of a shave—and a drink, judging from his pinched expression and slumped shoulders. But he looks to be asleep at last, head tilted back against the wall at a painful angle, tablet balanced across his knees, which is probably a good thing. Means he’s been at least looking at the current logistical issues. Or playing solitaire, but he’s earned himself a little slack.
Mack licks the inside of his mouth a couple of times in a mostly-futile attempt to lubricate things enough for him to talk. “Major,” he manages to croak in the end. The dog/fan noise stops and Sheppard’s eyes open.
“Good morning, sir,” he says, voice sounding so raw that Mack almost flinches in sympathy. “There’s water by your elbow if you want it.” Mack most definitely does.
The hand, the glass, and the water all stay in the same now as Mack drinks, and he finds himself unutterably grateful. He leaves a little in the glass and holds it out to Sheppard. “I don’t have cooties,” he says when Sheppard hesitates. “I’ll make it an order if you like. Hearing you talk makes my throat hurt.”
Sheppard pulls a wry face at that and accepts Mack’s offering, although he stares at the contents for a good long while before drinking, just long enough for Mack to start feeling antsy about it. Though why he should feel anxious and not annoyed or frustrated, he really couldn’t say—maybe just that Sheppard has obviously run himself into the ground trying to help him, even though Mack had all but written him off.
Sheppard glances at his watch, twisting his mouth slightly as in surprise. “You know where you are?”
“Atlantis,” Mack says with genuine confidence—the alien Tiffany glass is still there, so they’re definitely where they were the last time he was an active participant in the present. “How long?”
“Three days.” Sheppard looks at his watch again. “And a half. Ish. They’re longer here than back home.”
That would take some getting used to. “Anything happen while I was out? My Marines still identifiable as such, or do you have them making lace and braiding each other’s hair?” It’s not a very good joke; poor payment for such good service, but it’s the best Mack can manage under the circumstances.
Sheppard twists his mouth a different way to register protest, but the tiny thread of tension slides out of his frame, back and shoulders visibly loosening. “Didn’t get a chance to corrupt them that far, sir—too busy holding your hand.” His mouth twists again, in some unidentifiable emotion. “And Ford’s, though that was mostly unnecessary and usually involved one of the scientists being so smart they were stupid.” He hesitates, clearly wishing to stop there, then adds with great reluctance, “Although I did have to leave a few times to keep Bates from locking up the Athosians. He’s convinced they’re actually Wraith spies.”
“The Athosians?” But Sheppard had confirmed this place was Atlantis, so— “Did you bring them here?” The harshness of the question is only partly intentional, but he regrets it a moment later when Sheppard goes tight again, all the openness and ease gone from him as if they’d merely been a mask put on for Mack’s comfort, although he’d hazard two fingers from his left hand to have it be the opposite: he owes Sheppard life and likely sanity, and the man has proven (will prove) himself to be neither power-hungry not a fool; merely generous to the point of being reckless, or seeming so. Given the circumstances, Mack can hardly hold that against him.
“I brought them here in the wake of your capture and the destruction of their home. Dr. Weir agreed to let them stay until we could better plan our strategy for making our way in this galaxy.” Sheppard’s words have gone as stiff as the rest of him, despite his still-casual drawl and the insouciant lines of his body.
“They didn’t ask to come?” Mack keeps his voice as even and disinterested as he can, even as he hides his white knuckles in the disheveled sheets, silently cursing his early antagonism when they were still under the mountain and safe. He’d thought Sheppard merely lacking in discipline then, needing a heavy hand to remind him of his duty and position. But Sheppard, if Mack is any judge of men, is more highly conscient of both than any of his former commanders have given him credit for, and they in turn taught him not to trust those in command over him. And Mack has given him no reason to expect anything different now.
“No,” Sheppard answers, still guarded and remote. “They grabbed their things, we grabbed them, and everyone tumbled through the gate together, a bare handful of minutes after you were taken. And they offered to leave, once we’d gotten you and Teyla and the others back.” For a moment his guard slips, showing earnestness and fire. “We’ll need allies, sir, if we’re to survive here, and we owe them almost as much as they owe us. Friendships have been built on much less.”
“And much better,” Mack counters, but mildly. Sheppard isn’t wrong, and Bates is suspicious of everyone who isn’t a Marine, to the point of paranoia. It’s one reason he got tapped for this posting. “But as long as they stay where told, I don’t suppose we need to do more than keep an eye on them until we’ve had a chance to figure out what the hell we’re doing. You can tell Bates I said so, if the issue crops up again before I’m let out of here.”
As if summoned by his words, one of the doctors appears in the doorway—Dr. Biro, if Mack remembers correctly. As she comes in, Sheppard goes out, expression pensive.
The silence following Dr. Biro’s exit is broken by the voices of Ford and Sheppard in unhappy counsel. Mack turns his head, expecting to see them in the doorway, but it’s empty, and there’s no sign of them in the room beyond.
“That’s the fourth time, Ford,” Sheppard says, quiet but forceful. “You can’t keep letting him get away with it—it sets a very bad example, and if he gets himself killed we’re all screwed.”
“I know, sir.” Ford sounds more frustrated by Mack would have thought him capable of, and that’s what convinces him not to call for a doctor or ignore the voices as hallucinations. “But he keeps getting distracted and I don’t know what to do about it except physically drag him back to where he’s supposed to be. He’s worse than my cousin’s three-year-old on a sugar high.”
If Mack keeps his eyes closed, the conversation sounds close enough to touch, so he reaches out a little with his right hand—and his fingers brush a fabric-covered knee where there was only emptiness before.
The knee disappears, accompanied by the sound of someone jumping up. “Sir!” It’s Ford.
“Go get a doctor. And Technician Letty, if she’s to be found.” That’s Sheppard, and when Mack opens his eyes, it’s to see Sheppard’s concerned face and the back of Ford as he runs out of the room. “Good morning, sir,” he says. “Don’t suppose you can tell me where you are?”
‘What, don’t you know?’ Mack’s tempted to say, but his mouth and throat are too dry to work, his body is bitterly angry with him for being in bed for so long (how long?), and he’s suddenly, acutely aware that he’s been hooked of with both IV and catheter.
Well, the latter won’t last long he has anything to say about it.
The only response he can make at the moment, however, is to clutch at the glass Sheppard’s already offering him. “How long this time?” he croaks as soon as his voice is in working order again.
“‘This time’?” Sheppard repeats. “This is the first time. It’s been almost a week since you collapsed on board the puddlejumper.”
A week—the world goes gray around Mack for a moment as he is shaken by the shock of it. And by the flood of past future-maybe-memories. Now that he’s fully present in himself (he is, isn’t he?), he can tell the difference (he can, can’t he?), like being awake and looking back at a dream that seemed real while within it (but how many times has he already awoken?). Even all these simultaneously-known potentialities are a sign that he’s tracking properly with the rest of the universe (he hopes)—the same sort of thing had happened to him all those many years ago, the first time he lost and found himself. But they don’t stop this time, creeping up on him like the tide. ‘Like riptide’, a warning voice tells him from the back of his thoughts.
“Ford better come quick with those doctors,” Mack says, fighting too hard to hang onto the proper flow of time to keep the tremor of worry (fear) out of his voice. The cup in his hands gives a warning crack as he clutches it like a lifeline.
“Here,” Sheppard says after a moment, holding out his hand toward the cup. Mack almost doesn’t pass it over, but he can’t afford to act like a frightened child—it might turn him into one.
Sheppard, ever a surprise, takes the cup with his other hand, continuing to hold out the first, and Mack finally figures out that it’s there for him to hold onto. Which he does, feeling awfully like a sixteen-year-old idiot and not the battle-worn soldier he’s become.
It helps, though, more than the cup did. At this point, Sheppard’s respect is probably a lost cause, anyway.
He lets go when Ford races back in, a small flood of doctors on his heels. “Sir!” Ford cries, heedless of anything but his commanding officer awake and cognizant, demonstrating the loyalty that got himtapped for this posting.
“Lieutenant,” Mack responds, gravely, soberly, ignoring the sudden smiling creases around Sheppard’s eyes.
The needles ought to come then, he thinks, but instead there’s only soft voices and softer fingers and what feels like a lamb’s ear leaf tracing across his back—across the wall of ink that’s supposed to be keeping out the flood of futures-maybe. Which is why he knows (knows) before they roll him over again that it’s going to be very bad news.
They talk about miracles, point out that from what few small experiments they’ve been able to do on one of the dead aliens he likely should be dead, spin very fine words about how there’s a possibility he’ll be able to recover on his own, but what it all comes down to is Letty, standing beside his bed after the doctors have all left. “I’m sorry,” she says; it sounds like she might be coming down with a cold. “But there really isn’t anything we can do to help. It’s going to come down entirely to you, and whether you can master your Sight a second time.” Her fingers brush against his, warm and dry, but her nails are rough from being bitten down to nearly nothing. “There’s always the possibility that the magic can fix itself, if you hold on long enough.”
The room rings loud and heavy with silence when she leaves.
“We’ll figure something out, Sir,” Sheppard tells him over luke-warm MREs (it all tastes the same to Mack, like ash or dirt). He has a bruise on one cheekbone and slightly too much stubble.
“‘We’?” Mack raises his eyebrows. “Only if the first step is you relieving me of command.”
“Sir!” Before the expedition had left, Mack had nearly accused Sheppard of angling to supplant him—but the man sitting next to him is galaxies away from the one who’d smirked at him in front of the stargate. There’s nothing in his tone or face except dismay. “There’s absolutely no grounds—”
“No grounds, Major? I don’t know if this conversation is actually happening!” Mack has never been one to cry, would never show that kind of weakness where someone under his command could see, but in this strange new world, Sheppard is the closest he has to a peer, and has been the one constant through all these maybes he keeps waking up in. “This might be just one more possible future and I can’t tell. Maybe I’m actually in a coma somewhere—maybe I’m being eaten by those aliens or spilling all of Earth’s secrets.”
“We rescued you,” Sheppard denies instantly. “You’re safe, sir. You’re here on Atlantis. You’re safe.”
“Am I?” Mack looks him straight in the eye and wills Sheppard to understand. “Because I’ve heard this before. How do I know that this time it’s true?”
“Because it is.” But Sheppard’s the one who looks away first.
Emperor Phedorus died old, they say, poisoned by one of his sons, hated and feared and loved by all. All except the Greeks, who had forgotten about him and fallen back into squabbling amongst themselves.
No one knows what became of Xenophon.
Sir? Sir? Can you hear me?
Mack opens his eyes.