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Title: Liar's Chair
Author name: Icarus
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub Category: Angst
Rating: R for language and the fucked up situation
Rodney's summary: The planet was a tropical paradiseif your peculiar idea of paradise includes no technology, sinus-killing allergens, and stinging bees. But the real mission report pertains to how Colonel Sheppard ended up, from there, in a frozen wasteland....
DISCLAIMER: The characters and universe contained in this story are Copyright MGM, Showtime, Gekko, Double Secret. No infringement on their copyright is implied. Copyright © 2007 All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in whole or part without the author's explicit permission. Ask, guys. I'm easy to reach and usually quite generous.
Author notes: To Jessica/Oatmealfairy who for her 21st birthday wanted "John whumping." I hope this is whumped enough because I can't whump any harder. Thank you to Lttledvl for the swift beta review.
It's the rock or tree root digging into John's back that wakes him. He coughs, his leg aching and cold and not at a good angle. He tries to move it and a sharp blaze of pain brings him to full consciousness.
The trees overhead are bare of leaves. He's on his back, his knee pinned oddly, his left shoulder cold from the snow, the right against brick-hard frozen ground. The metallic gleam of his P-90 is at eye level, just out of reach, like he'd had it in his hand when he fell. He stretched for it, grimacing but prepared for the sudden heat of pain this time. With the weapon's comforting weight in his hand, that's when he looked down.
Fuck. The point of the stick protruded through his thigh, the fabric dark and wet around it. Seeping. He wondered how much blood loss there'd been, but more than that, he wondered just what the hell happened.
He'd heard of this before. Soldiers losing minutes, even hours of battle from shock, time they never got back.
He lifted his head from the ground. There were no bodies or other signs of a fight, burnt leaves, anything. His team was nowhere to be found, conscious or unconscious. Though the puddlejumper was there off to the right, doors shut, not more than fifty feet away. He glanced down at the clear plastic magazine on the P-90 and swore. There had been a fight. He was down to one bullet and possibly one round chambered.
He bit his lip and decided, breathing hard, to leave the stick in. It was probably the only reason he hadn't bled out. Taking it out now could be like pulling the plug. He felt around his tac vest, each movement bringing another little stab from his leg. His water bottle was missing -- and he hated stretch cord at that moment as he felt those loops hanging loose -- there was no food, he'd given that to Rodney, the first aid kit was in his now-missing daypack, and no spare magazine, which he didn't remember using.
Oh. He had a knife. Well, now that'll help a whole hell of a lot, he thought bitterly.
He had to get back to the jumper and find his team. And he had to get out of this snow bank. He leaned up on his elbows in his first real attempt to move and whited out in pain.
John rocked his head back and forth as he came to, feeling lightheaded and weak. The leg throbbed steadily in time with his heartbeat and he listened to it a long moment, mesmerized. Somewhere in the back of his mind idly aware that he was in real trouble. He let his head tip to the side and stared at the jumper, wishing that he could just... start it.
It wasn't far.
He shut his eyes, laughing at himself, Obi-wan Kenobi, you're my only hope. But then he forced himself to believe it, reaching out. He pictured the lights going on, the engines firing. C'mon, baby, On.
He felt a warmth and a faint stirring. Then heard nothing but the lonely sound of the wind scattering dry leaves, the hiss of shifting snow.
"I've watched too much T.V.," John groaned to himself.
Okay, John, focus. What happened here? Put the clues together.
For his team to have left the jumper they had to be... he decided to skip the worst-case scenario. So they could be captured. In which case they needed his help. But he couldn't see why he would be left behind by their captors; he was out in the open. He wished he could remember what the hell happened. Maybe they'd been separated, forced to go back to the gate? But the lack of bodies didn't support that scenario. He had nothing.
The gate. If his team missed their check-in, Elizabeth would send a team to check it out. If Rodney or Teyla had gone for help, a team was on the way. He was by the jumper. It was uncloaked, easy to find. He just had to sit tight.
He squeezed his P-90. So long as a Wraith didn't find him first.
Drifting, John listened to his own loud breathing. He contemplated eating snow and the risks of lowering his core body temperature. He was on cold ground. That was already bad. Which was the greater danger: dehydration or hypothermia? Did dehydration increase the risk of hypothermia? He couldn't remember. Though he felt warm, despite the snow. He unzipped his jacket a little.
Warm in a snow bank ... wait. That was not a good sign. At least he wasn't hallucinating. People with hypothermia hallucinated, right? He couldn't remember that either though he knew people got pretty whacked out. He was immobilized, so he wasn't going anywhere. That was good. He'd heard stories of guys freezing to death, wandering in circles so that no one could find them.
"See?" he said out loud as if to reassure himself. "There's always a silver lining."
Of course, those guys weren't lost on an alien planet.
It took him a moment to recognize the slow crunch of footsteps on dry snow. John tensed, fighting his first instinct to call for help. His second instinct was to clutch the cold P-90 to his chest. Not that two bullets would do him much good. A shadow cut across the sky overhead and then someone crouched on the little rise above him.
John raised his chin. "Rodney?" he said doubtfully, squinting at the bright gray sky.
"Way to go, John." It wasn't Rodney, though the voice was freakishly familiar. But John didn't think his own voice usually sounded that nasal. "You really screwed up this time."
John twisted his neck around and what he saw was ... himself. Looking relaxed with a slightly sarcastic smirk, sipping from a mug, the steam whipped away in the wind.
Hallucination. Check. John was dying of hypothermia.
John quickly discovered that his hallucination wasn't very good company.
"You've pushed it too far one too many times. This was bound to happen." The hallucination John took another sip from his mug, squatting with his arms resting on his knees. "This is payback for being a killer, John. Remember that deer?"
John didn't answer. He'd felt sick about that deer.
"Your dad always said you'd come to a bad end."
"Shut up," John growled, arms folded across his chest trying to stay warm.
The other John ignored him, his expression distant, distracted. "No, wait. How did that go exactly? Oh, right. 'At this rate you'll die friendless and alone.' Wow. He really hit that nail on the head. Except for the whole 'alien planet' part. But no one could've predicted that."
He gestured with the cup. "Number one, I don't think you swing that way. Number two, given that I'm you, I'd say that's physically impossible."
"Look," John snarled. "Unless you have some useful intel like where the hell my team is! you can kindly go fuck yourself!" John felt the fresh gush of blood and throbbing pain.
Great. He was yelling at a hallucination. He'd officially lost it.
"Yep. You've lost it all right," his hallucination helpfully agreed with an amiable nod. He didn't seem all that upset by that fact. "Sorry. How could I possibly know more than you?" He pushed himself up. "See you around, Major. Oh, right. It's 'Lt. Colonel' now." He snorted and shook his head, his voice dripping with John's own doubts that he'd really earned that promotion.
It was night. A pair of eyes glimmered like a wolf's in the dark above John, the presence of the other John strangely reassuring in this strange empty world. The wind had died down.
"Where is your team, John?" he asked softly. There was a soft slurp and then a scrape of a spoon.
"I dunno," John answered. His voice surprised him, how hoarse and tired it was.
He could see the slight shift of movement as the John overhead shook his head with slow disdain. "You should have learned in Afghanistan. That whole 'all for one and one for all' thing is bullshit." He leaned closer. "You're a soldier, John, just a cog in the machine. You're replaceable. It's cheaper than sending someone after you."
"They'll come back for me," John said.
"Where's your team then?" the other John asked.
"Just leave me alone, all right?" John whispered.
"Suit yourself." He got up with a satisfied sigh, brushing his hands off on his jeans. "Just remember: I could always be your ex-wife instead. I'm sure she'd find plenty to say, given it's her last chance and all."
"Yeah, I bet she would."
"Or your dad."
John fell silent as his alter ego slurped from the cup above him.
John twitched at the feel of cold air on his face, something tickling his nose. A leaf had blown and caught under his cheek. He brushed it away. His tongue felt thick and dry, and his eyes were hot, like he had a fever. He shivered.
No one had come. It had been over twenty-four hours.
John twisted his head around, but his "guest" was gone. John felt strangely relieved, if suddenly alone again. The blood surrounding the stick had dried up, which he hoped was a good sign. Everything else was the same. The clearing. The trees. The jumper.
If the puddlejumper couldn't come to him, then he'd have to get over there.
Gritting his teeth, John rolled to his side. There was a whimper of pain that sounded like a kicked dog, and John paused in shock, listening for a moment until he realized by the timing with his own breaths that was him. Jesus.
Ahead lay a radio. Food. Medical supplies.
"Come on, John. It's not that far!" he urged himself. Why hadn't he done this yesterday? Instead he'd stayed out in the open, risking death from exposure. Thoughts of lost mountaineers sitting right outside their tents floated into his mind, and he panicked. He could have flown the god damned ship out of here by now!
The world swam in front of John as he crawled forward, the entire universe contracting to the burning agony in his thigh. He moaned as the stick caught on something, twisting, expanding that pain. He rolled to his left side, holding the P-90 to his chest, gaining a few feet as he thrashed forward, kicking out with his left leg. He wasn't even sure where the jumper was now, just kept moving forward in its general direction.
The stick caught again but he managed to get it unhooked. He slid along the ground, grateful for the snowy patches that were hard and slick. He looked up through slitted eyes, gasping. Only a few more yards.
He reached out to touch the door, imagining it falling open on him, the metal crushing him after all this. It had just been that kind of day. John was convinced that if there was a god, it had an evil sense of humor.
His hand swung and missed. He pushed forward an inch or two more and missed again. John blinked and looked up from the dirt.
The jumper was gone.
John swore, long and fluently as his breath sobbed and he punched the ground. "Why couldn't I hallucinate being inside the jumper?"
John was on higher ground now, no longer in the little hollow that had protected him only somewhat, he admitted from the wind. His breathing was slow and shallow though the hammering pain gradually ebbed. His leg was wet, cold, and felt stiff. He could see where the swelling pressed against his BDUs and thought he should do something about that. But he felt warm and comfortable otherwise and decided he'd earned the right to be tired.
The other John leaned back against a tree comfortably. His cup was now filled with some sort of soup that he spooned up.
"That smells pretty good," John said.
"It is good," the other John said. "Beef stew."
"I would," the other John looked over at him with a pitying one-shouldered shrug, "but it's not real, so it wouldn't do you much good."
"Should I be able to smell it?" John frowned. "That's pretty damned convincing for a hallucination."
"You have a great imagination."
Since John had no idea which way the gate lay, he started hanging out with the other John out of sheer lack of anything better to do, fading in and out of consciousness. The hallucination John never said anything he could really disagree with.
"Fidelity's really not your strong suit, is it?"
"You would know," John shrugged, wincing at where this was clearly headed. He looked up, face serious and all expression wiped away.
"Your ex does have a legitimate complaint," the not-John continued with a chiding tip of his head, his eyes glinting.
John slumped, arms curled around himself for more than just warmth. "I should never have gotten married."
Occasionally their conversations took a turn for the weird.
"You know the whole Wraith feeding process?" the not-John said, his fork scraping a can.
"Do you ever stop eating?" John interrupted, irritated.
The not-John glanced down at his tin of pork and beans, nonplussed, as if he'd just noticed it. "It must be because you're hungry."
"I wish you'd stop...."
But of course he didn't. "Can't. One of us has to stay healthy," he said cheerfully, taking a large bite and chewing. He licked his lips and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He edged closer. "Anyhow, about the Wraith. The whole feeding process is messing with the scientists' little Darwinist heads." He snickered. "It has huge implications for the whole mind-body split, you see. Because just what are the Wraith feeding on? The Athosians call it 'life force' but there's no such thing in this material world."
John said, "I think we should just kill them because they're trying to kill us, and sort out the why and how later."
"That's what I like about you, John," not-John said, gesturing towards him with the fork. "You're a pragmatist. Still, that would be really something, to be able to feed like them. To eat... air. Have what you need in seconds instead of it taking days." He brightened. "Hey, then maybe you could eat."
As John drifted off it occurred to him... it didn't take days to eat.
John stirred, waking to a soft cool hand stroking his face, feminine nails gently carding through his hair. Familiar fingers smoothed across his cheek, brushing dirty hair off his forehead.
"Where am I?" John rasped, completely disoriented.
He looked up into his ex-wife's warm brown eyes. Cold wind cut across the field and John shivered. "You said I wouldn't hallucinate her, you rotten bastard."
"Everything's all right, John," she said.
"That's not what you said at the divorce hearing." John snorted.
"You can let go now," she said, her voice warm, sounding the way she had at better times, and John groaned. "I've had time to think it over and I've forgiven you."
John gave a rattling cough that doubled as a laugh.
"That's because you want my pension and you haven't seen the will yet." He shook his head, realizing that his head was in her lap and he wasn't any warmer. "There are these guys who'd do a lot more good with it than me paying for your condo. They're going to win a Nobel prize." But she smiled down at him, beatific and unconcerned.
Slowly John began to realize he was losing the struggle to remain conscious. The snow was bright around him and he wondered how long it had been falling. He needed to get back to the puddlejumper before it was covered in snow and he couldn't find it again. How many days had it been?
"It won't be long now," his hallucination John said, standing over him. He indicated John's gun with a jerk of his chin. "Why don't you make this a little easier on yourself? End it quick instead of taking the slow, painful route... you always wanted to go out fighting rather than in the hospital like your dad. This is close."
John raised the gun, staring into the barrel. Then he bit out the words, every breath costing him, "They wouldn't leave me behind."
"Yes. But they're too late, John." He spread his hands and let them drop. "You know how that is firsthand. You try like hell to save someone, but even your best?" He shrugged. "It isn't good enough."
White-hot anger flared up in John, and he did probably the most idiotic thing he'd ever done in his life he fired his last bullet at the hallucination's head. But if he was going to die, at least he'd have the satisfaction of taking that bastard with him. The surprised look on his face as it took not-John in the forehead alone was worth it.
Then John's body started to shake, twitching like a bug, helpless. He tried to say, "I'm okay, I'm okay!" but the words wouldn't form.
Men in white jackets rushed towards him, and John thought as he was carried off, Great. I'm being taken to the funny farm on top of it all.
"....delicate surgery, but we managed to get the creature out of his central nervous system. Strands still lead into sections of his brain having to do with memory, but they appear to be dead." It was Doctor Beckett's voice. Lights swayed overhead as John opened his eyes and tried to focus. "Now all we can do is wait and see."
"Doc...." John whispered.
"Oh, he's conscious." Doctor Beckett's concerned face bent over him, seeming huge. "What's your name, son?"
This question sort of freaked John out, but the startled answer came out anyway, "Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, U.S. Air Force."
"Is he okay?"
That was Rodney's voice though John couldn't quite place the direction. John became aware that he had uncomfortable tubes in his nose and prickly needles taped to his arm.
"Wait. What creature?" John demanded, having caught at least that much. He blinked hard, forcing himself to stay awake.
"What do you mean, what creature?" Rodney spluttered. "The one with the tentacles, you know -- buried in your leg?" His face came closer, bright eyes wide with shock. "If I never have to watch someone being eaten alive ever again, it will be too soon!"
"Shh, Rodney, it's over," Elizabeth said. "Needless to say, you gave us quite a scare, John."
"It was feeding on you, Colonel Sheppard," Teyla's voice explained, from the other side of his bed, very close.
"Like the Wraith?" John said.
"No, thank goodness. Simple blood and tissue," Doctor Beckett said. This was not as reassuring as Beckett seemed to think it was. "You'll have a very nasty scar. Fortunately, whatever it was required days to consume its prey. Though I doubt you could have remained in that cavern for much longer."
Cavern? John simply stared.
"It is unclear whether this... creature... was sentient or not," Teyla continued.
"Oh, it was sentient all right. It tried to convince me to give up," John said.
"It appeared you were fighting it. The creature was static, rooted in place. Ronon was able to cut Rodney free but we could not reach you," Teyla said. "If you had not been unconscious for so long it probably could not have infiltrated your body. Doctor Beckett suggests that perhaps it mostly fed on animals and was unused to a human's ability to resist."
"No." John shook his head, jaw set. "It had killed a Wraith."
"You killed it though." That was Ronon, somewhere behind Teyla. "Bullet right between the eyes."
"We couldn't get you out!" Rodney said, still sounding panicky, which was somehow far more reassuring than the explanations. "And you kept aiming your gun at yourself. It scared the hell out of us."
"Yeah," John said. "I remember that part."
Beckett shooed everyone out of the infirmary, insisting John needed rest. From the fuzzy edges around reality John suspected some pretty heavy drugs were running through at least one of those needles. As Beckett passed by, John grabbed his sleeve.
"Something the creature mentioned. What do the Wraith feed on, exactly?" John asked, squinting at him.
Doctor Beckett took a breath. "We know something about the feeding process, and that it is certainly enough to make one very, very ill, with all the symptoms of apparent aging that we see."
"As for what they get out of it, aside from the obvious fluids?" Beckett shook his head, raising his eyebrows. "We have no earthly idea."
Outside the window in Heightmeyer's office, seabirds swooped and wheeled, skimming the surface of one of the protected lagoons created by the snowflake design of Atlantis. Rodney constantly bitched and moaned about barnacles growing on the underside of the city. The shield had protected it on the bottom of the ocean for ten thousand years, but according to Rodney at least, they were going to be "sunk by seaweed!" within the next ten. John held back his suggestion to "put the city up in drydock" for maximum impact, waiting for just that moment it would annoy Rodney the most. They could, yeah, but it would take the star drive.
Some of the diving birds looked like they didn't have feathers. John wondered when an alien world had become home. He felt like an old man pacing with the cane, but he walked as often as he could to rebuild the muscle tissue in his leg.
Okay. Hobbled was probably the better word for it. His dad would have laughed at him.
"John?" Kate Heightmeyer prompted.
He sighed, still watching the birds. "It's like...." He licked his lips in frustration, his own face reflected on the glass. "It's like that thing was trying to justify killing me. It brought up all this... bad stuff." He ran his hand through his hair and hoped to god she wouldn't press him about what.
"If it had access to all your memories, then it probably knew you as well as you know yourself," she said, leaning forward. She stroked a pencil between her fingers. "I imagine it would be difficult to kill someone you understood."
They were silent a long moment.
"Was it able to justify it? Killing you?" she asked.
John stared straight ahead, nodding slowly. "Almost."
Notes (I love how Yin, Gaia, and Trinityofone do story notes):
1 Proper gratitude is in order to Piers Anthony's fertile if fetid imagination in A Spell for Chameleon. His carnivorous grass was the inspiration for the creature. Though obviously I've taken many liberties, including....
2 Auburn will probably recognize the influence of her The Taste Of Apples, though her own sentient being is more benign, if far more dangerous.
3 Johnny Cash fans will probably recognize the title from "Hurt." Joe Flanigan's interest and Walk The Line got me into Johnny Cash, and the song played over and over as I wrote this, along with Clinic's "Come Into Our Room."
4 I'd also like to acknowledge the influence of Pru's recent A Slightly Different Quality Of Light. I'm not sure how it influenced the story, but vague stuff about memories and mind is bouncing around in the atmosphere.
5 There's a nod to the boys at Seattle's Union Drydock. I'm sure they'd love to have a chance to bid on Atlantis.
6 This is also inspired by the many hikers and backpackers who don't carry the 10 Essentials, don't wear proper gear (cotton kills!), and end up dead or barely rescued via helicopter as a result. Each one is invariably described as an "experienced hiker" in the news.