The banging started just about the time Rodney was rubbing a towel over his shower-wet head.
(Thinning hair didn't run in his family, so the cause had to be work-related stress -- and see, that right there was yet another reason he should be grateful that his employment with Dreamland Industries had ended, however ingloriously. This positive thinking thing was working out pretty well for him so far.)
The banging didn't stop until he yanked open his front door three minutes later. He was barefoot, in a pair of ratty jeans and a rumpled tee-shirt that clung to still-damp skin -- and oh yeah, totally commando, because he'd been conditioned to respond as quickly as possible to such an insistent summons. It usually meant something in the research and development lab was on fire. Again.
(Which reminded him that the location of every fire extinguisher in the lab building was now completely irrelevant data, and could be purged from his brain. Further, all that reclaimed storage space could be put to a much less frivolous purpose. He could start by, oh, memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary.)
"This had better be good," he grumbled, looking out the door, and then down, and holy shit but Mrs Brewster hadn't changed much in twenty years. She was perhaps a bit more shriveled than he remembered, but that was it.
"Why Meredith McKay, look at you, so handsome and tall! I just knew you would grow out of that awkward phase."
"Actually... I go by Rodney." Trying to get her to remember that had been a losing battle ever since he'd been old enough for his first drivers license. She blinked up at him expectantly, and... damn. "Where are my manners?" he sighed. "Mrs Brewster, won't you please come in?"
She didn't even allow him to finish the offer before she was sneaking inside beneath his arm. "I always said to Martha, that Meredith McKay is such a polite boy. Mark my words, he's sure to go far in life."
(Oh, of course, being polite had helped him so much when that patent scandal had broken -- helped him right out of a job! The early retirement Rodney had strongly been encouraged to take had not, in fact, done anything to salvage the company's tarnished reputation. But it had allowed President Ingram to install his favorite sycophant Kavanagh in Rodney's vacated position.)
"I'll just put these things in the kitchen, shall I, dear?"
With that she was off. And damn, of course the old busybody would remember exactly where everything was in the house. She'd been his uncle's neighbor for years, and visited often. Or used to, at any rate. Rodney chased after her, catching her as she was unloading the items from a the grocery bags she'd been carrying onto his counter top.
"I-" What is this? he wanted to demand. Instead he heard himself say, "Would you like some coffee? I'd offer tea, but I'm afraid I don't have any. I just moved back to town yesterday," he stressed, "and I haven't had time to go shopping yet."
"I know." She smiled indulgently, reaching up to pat his arm. "Your uncle, God rest his soul, never kept his pantry properly stocked. And the house has been empty a little while now, so even that's gone. I thought I would help you start to get everything back in shape by bringing you a few basics."
He watched helplessly as eggs appeared, and flour and sugar, tea and bread and cold cuts and margarine and milk and seriously, how had such a tiny old woman carried such a load? She'd even remembered a few packages of the pudding he liked. "Oh hey, I can't-" he protested when she yanked open his refrigerator to toss in a liter of orange juice. "Horribly, deathly allergic."
"That's nice dear," she said, digging raucously through his cabinets in search of some utensil. "It's not good for a growing boy to skip breakfast."
Rodney wanted to point out that he was pushing forty, and that all of his growth potential at this age was his waistline. "Mrs Brewster, thank you, but-"
"Don't argue," she scolded, shaking a frying pan at him. "I could hear your stomach was growling. Now, how do you like your eggs?"
Giving up, Rodney mumbled, "Cooked." He sank into a chair at the minuscule kitchen table, leaning all the way over until his forehead thumped against the formica table top.
Rodney had always liked Uncle Mortimer. And it stood to reason that Morty wouldn't have singled out Rodney in his will if the feeling hadn't been mutual.
When Rodney had been fifteen, finished early with high school and waiting for the fall term to roll back around at Northwestern, he'd been desperate to get out of his parents' house. He'd even tried to convince the university to take him early, but it turned out they were serious when they said they preferred to admit freshmen in the fall quarter, and anyway his scholarship wouldn't cover any expenses before then.
So he'd done the next logical thing, which was hitchhike to Alaska and try to get himself hired on a fishing boat as a mechanic. But it had turned out that no amount of mechanical brilliance would convince a captain that a scrawny, inexperienced kid was anything but a liability. And so, excruciating reluctance overcome at last by dwindling financial resources, he'd had to turn back south and start dragging his ass home to Vancouver in shame.
That was when he remembered Uncle Morty lived in a small town not far from the Alaskan border. Good old Uncle Morty, who gave non-educational, entertaining gifts on holidays; who could hold his own in a discussion about electronics; and whose offers to let Rodney come visit him were always turned down by Rodney's mother with a vehemence that suggested she'd deemed her own brother a capital Bad Influence.
Intrigued, Rodney called his kid sister Jeannie and coerced her into finding Morty's number, then contacted the guy from a gas station pay phone just outside of Ketchikan, Alaska. Morty dropped everything to come pick Rodney up personally the next day, and if the spirited conversation during the drive back to Morty's place hadn't cemented the friendship, the fact that he hadn't ratted Rodney out to Rodney's mother certainly would have.
Plus, Morty never ever called him Meredith.
Those months were some of the best of Rodney's life. Morty owned a small cable television business on the outskirts of town, and he laughingly introduced Rodney to the other employees as his intern. Rodney took the job to heart, and he knew more about the station equipment than even the station manager by the time the new school year rolled around. He left for university with some spare cash in his savings account -- Morty didn't tell him until the last day that it was a paid internship -- and the sizable portion of Morty's science fiction library he'd won on poker Fridays.
The whole Bad Influence thing hadn't made a lick of sense to him at the time. He didn't figure it out until years later, when he was comfortably entrenched in his own bachelorhood. And okay, maybe Rodney didn't have his uncle's preference for huge, hirsute men like the lumberjacks from the logging camp up the road, but he would always be a disappointment in his mother's eyes. Unlike his sister Jeannie, who'd gotten knocked-up by an English major and dropped out of school to pursue a career changing diapers.
Living the McKay Dream, Rodney liked to call it. Mostly with bitterness, alone in the dark, when he was trying to convince himself that he wasn't envious of what Jeannie had: a partner and some semblance of a family.
When Morty's cable TV business had eventually succumbed to the age of digital satellite television, he'd done what any devious entrepreneur would: sold his house for tax purposes and moved into the old cable building. And okay, he'd probably left it to Rodney in his will because the resale value was next to nothing, but Rodney didn't care. He didn't need the money; not exactly, not yet. But he could desperately use a vacation, or a sabbatical, or hell, even a midlife crisis. And the middle of nowhere, British Columbia, seemed like as good a place as any to find it.
After Mrs Brewster had run out of local gossip -- and Rodney had finally been able to run her out the door -- he finished dressing, then spent the remainder of the morning checking out his inheritance. The building's stint as a domicile had barely left a mark; it was almost exactly as he remembered it from the working days, with all the old equipment scattered around, and the huge satellite dish perched jauntily on the roof. Some things were possibly too much as he remembered them; it had probably been twenty years since the place had seen fresh paint, or new carpet, or new appliances for the break-room-cum-kitchen. But these were trivialities, really, when Rodney and recalled his juvenile fantasies concerning the alternate uses to which the equipment could be put. It was all his now, to do whatever the hell he wanted with it. And damn it, if Meredith Rodney McKay wanted to turn that satellite dish into the world's largest private rooftop porn antenna, there was nothing to stop him.
Throughout the next week, it seemed that the entire town trickled by to gawk at him. He didn't mind so much the ones who brought baked goods, but the rest, mostly men, carried busted electronic devices as an excuse. Apparently, after Morty had "retired" from the cable business, he'd helped make ends meet with a modest small appliance repair shop, and everyone assumed that Rodney was going to carry on the fine tradition. It was the threat of impending boredom more than anything that made him accept the broken toasters and radios and hair dryers, and toss them on a shelf in the room he was already thinking of as his workshop.
Actually, the hair dryer was from Mrs Brewster, who wanted to check up on him but had already used the baked goods subterfuge. Rodney just bought her a new one down at the local drug store; he couldn't charge her for it, and in the end that turned out to be less hassle than trying to fix her old one.
Small town life moved slow. Rodney did his best to fall back into the rhythm, but mostly he spent the time between visitors trying not to be unsettled by the abject solitude. His old apartment had been plagued by noisy neighbors; he'd never imagined he could miss them, not even the jerk next door who'd liked to drunkenly abuse his electric guitar at two in the morning. But the new place was on a quiet side street in a quiet town in the middle of a forest. If it wasn't the lack of ordinary human sounds getting to him, it was the strange cries coming out of the woods, or the shrieks and groans of the old building shivering down to its foundation as the satellite dish caught in the wind.
The nights shouldn't have been as bad as they were. After all, Rodney had spent a lot of time on the road with industry conventions, sleeping in strange beds in strange hotel rooms, with creaky plumbing and chattering old furnace vents. This shouldn't have been any different, but some nights he stayed awake for hours with the covers drawn up to his chin; others, he fell asleep immediately, only to wake at strange intervals for no discernible reason.
Except for the time he heard music.
He sat bolt upright, head cocked and ears straining against the dark, hoping that it had been a dream, or perhaps just his ima-
Shit, there it was again!
Okay, not imagining things. There had to an explanation. Some normal, logical explanation why he would be hearing the faint strains of big band drifting from the depths of his new abode. And Rodney, being scientifically-minded, was determined to hunt down the cause -- but not before slinging on his robe and a pair of shoes, and arming himself with a cast iron bookend that looked like a murder weapon straight out of Clue.
McKay in the library with the faux Empire State Building.
Flipping on every light switch in his path, he followed the music to the workroom, and eventually to his repair shelf. There, on the end, the clock-radio that Mr Johnson had dropped off. The one that needed a replacement cord, because Mrs Johnson had frayed the old one by running over it with the vacuum cleaner. The radio that continued to hum its soft music to him, undaunted by the fact that it was absolutely, positively not plugged in.
He was rearranging his grip on the bookend-club, preparing to hurl the ghostly radio to the ground and beat the everliving shit out of it, when he remembered that clock-radios sometimes had batteries.
He turned it over and had to work the battery door open with one hand, because he wasn't about to let go of his weapon. And... sure enough, it had a full complement, a neat row of AAs.
Really, there was nothing to do but laugh -- mostly in relief, but also at himself -- and figure out how to turn the damned thing off before putting it back on the shelf. Then he retraced his steps, turning off lights and shucking the robe and shoes before crawling back into bed.
The Empire State Building stayed on his night stand. And if he remained awake almost until dawn, wondering why in the hell Mr Johnson would set an alarm to go off at three in the morning, it beat wondering if his midlife crisis was going to turn out to be more of a midlife nervous breakdown.
The lumberjack, who seconds before had been pounding on Rodney's front door, kinda looked like an extra in a slasher movie -- long, lank blond hair, jeans and scuffed work boots, topped by the ubiquitous plaid flannel shirt. Just add a goal tenders mask and voila! Instant homicidal maniac.
So naturally, Rodney offered, "You, ah, want to come inside, maybe have a cup of coffee?" Because the initial new-guy-in-town curiosity had worn off, and Rodney hadn't had a visitor in more than three days. Also, the lumberjack did look an awful lot like Morty's type, if a bit young for him...
"Uh... no thanks, Mr McKay."
"Engineering, not medicine. You know what, just call me Rodney."
"Steve," the lumberjack said, extending his hand.
The grip was warm and rough, firm without being painful. Manly, Rodney decided. Perhaps a penchant for lumberjacks ran in the family after all. "So about that coffee..."
"Actually," Steve said, "I was waiting until the fuss died down to see if I could talk you into coming to my place. If coffee will clinch the deal, I can oblige."
And okay, Rodney was getting settled into Morty's house, with Morty's things, and growing accustomed to the idea that he was falling into Morty's role as the eccentric and reclusive town genius, but he was pretty sure he wasn't ready to take Morty's place in Steve's bed.
On the other hand, company. And coffee. Besides, he could always pretend he'd misinterpreted the situation, or flat out say no... right?
"Sounds great," Rodney said. "Is your place close? Should I grab a coat or something?" It was late in the season, bleeding into autumn, but the locals were still carrying on as if it was high summer in a far warmer climate. Rodney's blood must have thinned from living too long in Nevada; he'd turned on the furnace his very first night in town.
"It's not far, but I'll drive," Steve offered. He watched Rodney funny as Rodney fumbled with the unfamiliar keys to close up the house. Then he led them out to his truck, which was sitting in Rodney's front... parking lot, completely unlocked, with the keys dangling from the ignition.
Oh, right. There wasn't much crime in a town where there was guaranteed to be at least one nosy old lady witness, and the victim was just as likely to call the perpetrator's mother as the police.
It was probably a good thing that Steve drove, because once they turned off the main highway heading out of town, Rodney was fairly well lost. Far too late, it occurred to him that Steve could be taking him to a secluded patch of woods with the intent to axe-murder him and dump his body in a shallow, unmarked grave. But appearances aside, Steve didn't strike him as the axe-murdering type; he maintained a pleasant conversation about the weather, of all things, with enthusiasm for the topic that went far beyond idle chit-chat.
The weather thing made a lot more sense when, a few kilometers down the road, Steve turned the truck into the parking lot for the local airstrip.
The bright orange wind sock gave it away. Otherwise, it was an unremarkable field with a long, raised bed of gravel, and a cluster of outbuildings at one end. Steve parked near the buildings and shut down the engine. "Well, here we are."
"This- I thought we were going to your place?" Rodney blinked, confused.
"Close enough," Steve grinned. "I live just up the road, but I spend all my time at the airport anyway." He leaned across to casually knock Rodney on the shoulder, "C'mon, there's something I want you to see." Then he was gone, striding for one of the more hospitable looking buildings, the one with actual windows.
Airport -- that was certainly a generous word for it. Muttering to himself, Rodney didn't have much choice but to stumble out of the truck and follow.
The building turned out to be a combination office, control tower, and passenger waiting area, all decorated in a style so similar to the old cable building that Rodney suspected he was seeing the influence of the same designer. After all, the commercial construction market in this neck of the woods had to be extremely insular.
The gate in the reception counter was already lifted, and Steve was in the area that a faded, dog-eared sign designated Authorized Personnel Only. "Come on back, it's okay," he waved, and returned to fussing with a well-used coffee pot. Along the other wall of the large room stood the features more in line with what Rodney expected to see in an airport: computers and meteorological equipment, radios and scanners, maps and log books.
Okay, definitely not what Rodney had expected from Steve's invitation, but it did beat getting axe-murdered in the middle of the woods. Also, it looked like the coffee was from the little shop in town, not some horrible store brand as Rodney had feared. He venture through the gap in the counter, easing toward the interesting-looking array with the most blinking lights.
"How do you take yours?" Steve asked, procuring mugs from a cupboard.
"Just black is fine. Say, this isn't- Holy shit, it is."
Steve wandered over, looking pleased. "Yep, it is. Wanted you to see it because Morty built it for me. For the airport, that is."
Fascinated, Rodney moved in for a closer look. It was a rudimentary radar for chrissakes, cobbled together from god knew what bits and pieces; and of course the PPI scope was blank in the wake of the sweeping line, because there wasn't any traffic overhead, but Rodney had to assume it worked, to some degree. "Morty made this?"
"He always said an airport didn't count as an airport if it couldn't scan the skies." There was definitely a touch of fondness when Steve continued, softer, "He was really something, old Mort. It was strange to lose him like that."
Rodney nodded. Routine appendectomies typically weren't fatal. "The family has a history of weird allergies." Bee stings, citrus, peanuts, and apparently general anesthetic.
"He talked about you lots. Used to complain that you didn't write often enough."
"You and my uncle were... close?" Rodney guessed, and realized immediately that he was wrong by the way Steve's eyebrows pinched together. Oh so very wrong, and he'd just implied that the nice axe-murdering lumberjack air traffic controller had been involved in a May-December romance with- Well, to be honest, Morty had been a really great guy, but not exactly a looker, in the traditional sense. "Oh god, I didn't mean- That is-"
"We were friends," Steve said simply. "Everyone liked Morty. The town's... easy going, if you catch my meaning. Otherwise I doubt he would have chosen to live here."
Rodney did. It had probably been difficult, all those years ago, for Morty to find a place to fit in. The implication was that Rodney's... eccentricities would elicit just as little comment and concern, should he decide to stay long-term as well. "Thanks. That's... that's good to know," he said, surprisingly touched.
Steve shrugged, and turned around to pour out two mugs of coffee. Handing one to Rodney, he said, "Now I'll come clean with the real reason I dragged you out here. I've been working on a project, and I could use some help, something I'm hoping will be right up your alley."
Without replying, Steve snagged a set of keys from a hook on the wall -- whatever this project was, it was valuable enough to warrant securing -- and led outside and across the park to one of the hangars. He unfastened the padlock and pushed back one side of the double doors with great ceremony, and an unholy screech of un-oiled hardware.
Inside was chaos that might have once been an airplane. The last time Rodney had witnessed similar havoc, the graduating engineers had dismantled their favorite professor's car as a prank, down to the very last bolt. And the funny thing was, he'd sworn it had run better than new after they'd finished putting it back together. But this... Planes weren't really his thing, and Rodney was just one man. "I'm, er, not sure how much I'll be able to help you," he said slowly, eyes sweeping over the strewn parts with dismay. "Maybe if you have some extremely detailed technical manuals..."
Steve picked his way to the rear of the hangar, where the workbenches were. "Relax Rodney. I mean, it'd be great if you could help with the plane too. She's my pride and joy."
Rodney wanted to point out that his pride and joy resembled a mechanical do-it-yourself Frankenstein's bride, but whatever. To each their own. "What are you- Is it broken?"
Steve chuckled. "Not exactly. What you're looking at is a Cessna 195. Last plane they built with a radial engine, in its prime it was called the Cadillac of the skies. A true classic. Hard to find these days. Most are in the hands of collectors. But the military outfitted a bunch of them in the fifties, sold them off to private buyers a couple decades later as surplus. Some ended up as bush planes around this area. I got lucky picking up this beauty off a retiring pilot. She's put in her time as a workhorse, so I figure she deserves a proper restoration."
"You're actually re-building it from the ground up?" Rodney looked at Steve with new-found admiration.
"Hell yes," Steve beamed. "I'm taking her back to factory specifications. Original parts when I can find them. Gonna strip her down, go with the polished aluminum finish. The judges love it, guaranteed to win at the air shows."
"So how can I help?" Rodney blurted, before he'd even realized that he did want to help. Very much so.
Steve carried over a large cardboard box. Inside was the electronic version of the hangar; tangled wires and bare circuit boards and corroded transistors. Rodney had no idea what it was, but he itched to get his hands on it. Still, he was somewhat surprised when Steve motioned for him to put down his coffee before giving him the box and the delicious puzzle it contained. "What do you think?"
Rodney nudged some of the pieces with curiosity. "It's old. Post World War II, because of the circuit boards, and there aren't any vacuum tubes- You did say these planes were built in the fifties, right?"
"Yup." Steve looked smug, as if he'd known all along that he'd selected the right man for the job. "You hardly ever find these old beauties with the original avionics. Everybody wants to upgrade to digital radios and weather equipment and GPS. What's in the box came out of a different plane. I bought it as-is at an auction. It came out of the same model, same era, but from its condition I'd say it spent the last thirty years on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust."
Rodney sniffed, and sneezed. "And mildew. I can clean a lot of this, but some of the parts will have to be replaced. If I use modern equivalents, that won't ruin the historical accuracy of the project, will it?"
"It's a radio. It only has to look original on the outside," Steve laughed. "So you really think you can get it to work again? I was pretty discouraged when I saw it, it's in such bad shape. And, well, I kept meaning to ask Morty about it, and then..."
Rodney tightened his grip on the box, which somehow felt like a legacy. "Can I do it? I'm not Morty's nephew for nothing! The more applicable question is: How long will it take?"
The strange thing was, the gift of the radio did more to highlight Rodney's displacement than anything else since he'd arrived in town. The ennui and sense of being under-utilized were nothing new; his job hadn't exactly been fulfilling. But at least he'd had one, before his career had done the Oregon Trail equivalent of a wagon breaking both axles simultaneously while being swept away fording a river. Now he had no plans, no purpose, and the highlight of his week was undertaking a silly side-project for a guy who liked Rodney because Rodney was related to some dead person.
Part of the trouble was that he knew he could carve out a place for himself here. He just didn't know if that's what he wanted, or if the option was attractive because it involved limited commitment and little risk of failure.
Still, he installed Steve's cardboard box in the- in his workroom, and set about sprucing up the place, finding the tools he would need, and organizing parts. Unsurprisingly, Morty had kept a good stock of spares, and Rodney would probably be able to fix the radio without ordering much online. Like the care Steve was taking with the rest of the plane, Rodney wanted to do a thorough job, right down to cleaning or replacing every last component, and he was motivated only partially by a desire to prolong the task for as long as possible.
It was nice to keep his hands busy and let his mind float. All the best solutions usually came to him when he was preoccupied. Perhaps the simple pleasures of a soldering gun and a pile of corroded parts were what he needed to help solve the what-came-next part of his life-in-general quandary.
That night was the first time he dreamed about the dark haired man.
Rodney was in his house -- Morty's house, not the old apartment -- and he wandered into the front room to discover a figure silhouetted against one of the windows.
The shape was tallish but trim, which automatically ruled out Morty, or pretty much anyone Rodney recognized from town. Back turned to Rodney, it gazed out the window with- Well, it struck him immediately as a sort of intense concentration, though he couldn't say what, exactly, made him think that. Perhaps the set of the shoulders, or the way the person's fingers clutched the side of the window frame.
Frankly, it felt almost as if Rodney was intruding, which was ridiculous considering that it was his house. What are you doing here? he wanted to demand. Or perhaps, better, Who the hell are you?
Instead, he cleared his throat and asked, "Excuse me, do I know you?"
The figure turned slowly, as if it -- he -- had been aware of Rodney's presence and had expected the question. Which of course made perfect sense, because who wouldn't expect to be accosted by the concerned homeowner while loitering in someone else's home? What didn't make sense was the man himself -- an attractive face capped by the aforementioned dark hair, and set off by a pair of green eyes that met Rodney's without hesitation.
There was an honesty and... knowledge in the gaze that sparked some inexplicable recognition in Rodney. It didn't feel like he was being studied by a stranger, although he fairly certain he would have remembered this man.
Then the man move forward; with each step Rodney had the urge to retreat one step of his own, but something held him rooted to the spot. When the man was quite near, he reached out to brush Rodney's cheek with a cool hand, cupping the side of his jaw. The gaze, which hadn't broken the entire time, softened into melancholy. "No," he said simply.
Rodney woke to hard, full-body shivers, and couldn't think about returning to sleep again until he'd searched the house top to bottom. But the doors were locked, the windows bolted, and he was perfectly alone.
The next morning, Rodney felt foolish to have been unsettled by a dream. He was a scientist, damn it; he didn't believe in portents or omens or any of that psychoanalytical nonsense like repressed emotions or wish fulfillment. He chalked it up to the fact that he was still growing accustomed to new surroundings, and put the entire experience out of his head.
Life progressed without much forward momentum. The radio became a labor of love. Rodney researched information on the archival-quality restoration of old equipment, and labeled each and every part, and kept a notebook filled with hand-drafted diagrams. He spoke to Steve most days, and sometimes stopped by the airport for firsthand updates, and to witness the slow transformation of the Cessna. And Mrs Brewster had given up needing excuses to stop by and pester him. She turned up unannounced some mornings to make them both breakfast, and to scold him for never drinking his orange juice -- which she kept restocking, damn it, but he couldn't bring himself to throw it away because she enjoyed it with her toast. In exchange, he felt compelled to do small things around her house, like replace old light fixtures and tighten leaky pipes and -- god help him -- upgrade her computer.
The strangeness and the newness rubbed away, nudging Rodney closer to something resembling contentment. At least, that's what he told himself the sensation was, but in truth it could have just as easily been the onset of numbness.
Somehow, the idea of hooking Steve's radio up to the satellite dish sounded far more reasonable to Rodney than it should have.
In theory, he was ready to reassemble the thing. Every component was either new or looked it, and he knew without doubt that the result was going to be flawless. Still, he wasn't quite ready to take that final step, so he decided to breadboard it, set it up on a solderless platform to test it first, before he made any of the irrevocable modifications needed to accommodate some of the modern parts.
The project spread to include some of the old cable equipment, when he realized he was going to need things like speakers, and a microphone; and if he wanted to test the range at more than about two meters, an antenna would be beneficial. Sure, he could have used a set of rabbit ears off an old television or even a long piece of wire. But why stop at a thousand meters, or five thousand? If he hooked it up to the dish, he could probably reach Russia.
Hell, the dish on its own could pick up Russian porn, but that had been a failed experiment in horror, so at present it wasn't serving any purpose except to collect mildew in interesting patterns.
It was overkill, Rodney had to admit, akin to outfitting a vacuum cleaner with a 300 horsepower engine, but there was an undeniably geeky thrill in wiring the whole mess together, then finally connecting the power. Slowly, he lifted his hands away from the last alligator clip and sat back, tingling with anticipation.
The responding soft hum of static was disappointing only when he recalled that he hadn't wired in any type of tuner to calibrate the frequency. There was no telling what "channel" he was tuned to, if any; he could be completely outside the typical range of aviation chatter. A digital tuner would be best for the delicate adjustments he would want to make, and as it would take time to dig one that worked out of Morty's stash of old parts, Rodney embraced the excuse to drag out the excitement another day.
He was about to shut down the system for the evening when the voice flared out of the makeshift speaker, quite loud and close to his ear.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is CGLZM, CGLZM, CGLZM. Mayday CGLZM, eight zero miles south east of Juneau at one nine two five zulu. Losing fuel and looking for a soft place to put down, will attempt water landing if possible. CGLZM, over.
Rodney stumbled back, tripped over an oscilloscope, and fell on his ass, hard. Well, that answered the question of what frequency he was tuned to. The emergency one, apparently.
He got up and dusted himself off, heart pounding faster from alarm than he would have liked to admit. And damn, now he wished he'd added recording capabilities to the experiment, because this... this was outstanding, better results than he could have hoped! Okay, Juneau was a bit short of Russia, but it was still several hundred miles away. And the sound quality was startling, almost as if CGLZM was in the same room with him. Surely that meant he could pick up much more distant transmissions, even if they didn't remain so clear.
He was so busy congratulating himself that it took Rodney a moment to notice that no one had responded to CGLZM's call for help.
There were a million reasons why CGLZM wasn't his problem. Juneau was, after all, a long way away. CGLZM could have received a reply from a source that was just outside of Rodney's range. Or on another channel. And even though the border did some strange things up there, he'd probably crashed inside the United States, making it none of Canada's business. Except... crap. CGLZM was a Canadian registry, making it Canada's business even if the plane had gone down in the states. If the plane had taken a nosedive at all. The pilot could have misread his gauges, or coasted in to a local airport on fumes, put down in a flat valley without a scratch.
The lack of additional maydays was what eventually convinced Rodney that CGLZM had to be fine, just fine. As opposed to... lying broken and bleeding and unconscious in the middle of the wilderness. Heading into night. With the dark and the cold and the hungry wild animals.
So, convinced or no, he still left the radio powered on while he made dinner, and ate with one ear cocked for further messages that didn't materialize.
Eventually, the urgency of the mystery diminished, he shut everything down and went to bed.
"I've got some good news, and... some good news," he informed Steve the next day on the phone.
"Let's hear the good news first."
Rodney was spinning his chair in slow circles. The joys of cordless phones meant he could do that and not strangle himself in knots. "I'm pretty sure the radio is going to work."
"Great! I have time this afternoon if you want to swing by and help me install it."
"Oh no, it's not ready," Rodney said hurriedly. If he finished with the radio, that would mean he was going to have to find something else to do with himself. Not to mention, he would need another excuse to stop by and see Steve -- not that he did so already for any reason besides the fact that the man had decent taste in coffee and almost always kept a fresh pot brewing. "I mean, the parts are all reconditioned and they function, or at least I think, but the whole thing still needs to be reassembled."
There was a clang of metal in the background, and he heard Steve grunt. Probably meant he was in the hangar fiddling with his baby. "Okay, so that's actually good news with a stipulation. What's the plain old regular good news?"
That had been the good news. Floundering, Rodney offered, "Ah, I can have it for you on Friday, if that's convenient." Hopefully it wasn't, thereby prolonging the inevitable.
"Friday's fine," Steve said. "Let me know if you're thinking of coming around today. I'll stick on a fresh pot."
Argh! Tempting, but... "Maybe tomorrow. Oh hey, I just realized that you might know the answer to this."
Rodney stuck out his foot and halted his slow revolution when he was facing the radio spread. He nudged a transistor back into line. "If a plane crashed -- not a big commercial jet, but one of the private ones like at your airport -- and you saw it happen, who would you call?"
Puzzled and slightly concerned, Steve asked, "Why, has there been a crash?"
"No! I just- You know, unhealthy curiosity. I sort of have this brain where if I can imagine a disaster scenario, I need to feel that I'm prepared with the proper response in case it ever does happen."
Steve was clearly humoring him when he explained, "The local police and emergency service. They'd send out help fastest, and handle contacting the other authorities like Transport Canada."
Yes, of course. That made sense. "Thanks," Rodney said. "It doesn't seem like much, but it's a load off my mind."
More clanging. Or make that more of a sustained hammering. "Er, you're welcome?"
"I guess I'd better let you go."
"I SAID, I'D BETTER LET YOU GO! GOODBYE!"
"BYE!" Steve agreed, and Rodney hung up Steve could turn on the grinding machine and subject his ears to more pain.
Rodney still wanted to try a digital tuner, but he wanted to make sure he hadn't knocked loose any connections first, so he turned the radio back on while he went to scavenge one out of the spare parts.
The resulting faint static meant he was good to go.
He had his head deep in the storage closet, the one with cramped old metal shelves, when CGLZM's voice drifted to him from across the room.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is CGLZM, CGLZM, CGLZM. Mayday CGLZM.
Rodney leaped so hard that he smashed his head into the underside of the shelf above. Cursing, he stumbled out of the closet and rubbed at the wound, hoping it was merely bruised and not bleeding. Blood would demand a new tetanus shot.
Last known position... approximately eight zero miles south east of Juneau. Blew a fuel line and attempted an emergency landing.
Holy shit! If CGLZM had been in trouble last night, and was still sending out maydays, that meant he'd been in trouble for more than twelve hours. Why in the hell hadn't anybody sent help?
It occurred to him belatedly that this shit was important, and that he should be writing it down.
Went down hard over moderate vegetation. One on board. I don't- There was an audible hiss, and come to think of it, the voice wasn't steady at all, punctuated by short, raspy breaths. I don't know the time. Cracked my watch in the crash. Morning, I think, but I don't know how long I was unconscious. Injuries not life-threatening, but I need help getting out of here. If anyone can hear me, please respond...
Rodney was one step ahead of him, already grabbing the phone to contact the police.
"No, I would prefer not to hold, actually.
"It's an emergency.
"Why else would I be calling the line dedicated to emergencies?
"I think there's been a plane crash.
"No, not a jet. A small plane, a private plane.
"I heard the mayday over the radio last night, and then I just heard another one this morning.
"Well, I don't know, aside from maybe the fact that my radio is connected to a fifteen meter dish antenna and yours isn't?
"He said he crashed approximately eighty miles south east of Juneau.
"No, I'm sorry, but he didn't give GPS coordinates.
"Registration number CGLZM.
"One, the pilot.
"Thank you, oh thank you so much.
"So do you think there's any way you could call me back to let me know how the whole rescue thing goes? Because I- Hello? Hello?"
Rodney hovered by the radio for a good hour, and was considering calling the police again -- even though it was improbable that they would have received news in the ten minutes since he'd last called them -- when CGLZM started talking again.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is CGLZM, CGLZM, CGLZM. Mayday CGLZM.
Maybe CGLZM had been looping through channels, testing every one in the hope that something would get through.
He had no idea if the transmit range of the radio was anywhere near its reception, even after he'd boosted the wattage a smidgen. And there was no reason whatsoever that he should be able to reach CGLZM when apparently no one else could, but Rodney had to at least try. If nothing else, the man deserved to know that help was on the way.
Keying the microphone -- one of those old public address models, heavy as hell -- he leaned close and said, "Um, if you can hear me, wait."
There was an agonizing pause. Then, finally, I can hear you.
"Don't worry, I got your mayday and called the police. They're mounting a rescue as I speak, so you can rest easy."
Oh thank god. The man let out a shuddering sigh. Any idea on the ETA?
"I don't- I'm sorry, but I don't know. They have to find you, and they said it could be difficult. You don't happen to know your coordinates, do you?"
No, the man said. I was circling pretty wide, looking for a flat place to put down. Could be several miles off my last known position. The extremely flat, dull tone suggested that he knew exactly how hopeless his situation sounded.
"Well, I'm sure they'll find you," Rodney insisted. "Are you sure you're okay?"
You know what they say about any landing you can walk away from? Well, I'm not walking away from this one, the man almost chuckled, until it turned into a hiss of pain. Still, with rescue on the way, I'll live. Might not like it at this rate, but I'll live.
"I'm Rodney," Rodney said.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, John. Er, that is, I would have been even more pleased under less dire circumstances."
Are you always like this?
I don't know. Polite?
Rodney refused to answer that. Also, his back was starting to bother him from leaning over the workbench, so he slid into his chair and scooted back up to the microphone. "So, um, you've probably noticed that I have no idea what I'm doing."
This is an emergency channel. Supposed to keep chatter to a minimum, John confirmed. But-
It's odd, John began slowly, and somehow Rodney understood that by odd he meant frightening. Been trying different channels for hours. You're the first person I've been able to raise. I don't- Okay, probably banged my head a little, so this might sound strange, but feels like if we stop talking I won't be able to find you again. Or worse, it'll turn out this whole conversation was a hallucination.
"No no, I get that!" Rodney assured. Irrational phobias, oh hell yes. He understood. "Keep talking and I'll listen. And when you get tired I'll talk and you can listen, and I won't-" He swallowed. "-I won't leave you alone. I'll stay with you until help arrives."
Promise? John demanded, with undisguised desperation.
Thank you, he whispered, and fell silent.
After a long moment, Rodney called, "John? John, are you there?"
An even longer moment passed before the reply. Yeah, I'm here. Chest hurts. Think I might've cracked some ribs. You go first, but if I'm quiet for too long, do that again -- make me talk.
"I'm not sure-" Rodney hesitated, suddenly nervous. He'd always hated public speaking, mostly because no one ever laughed at his requisite jokes. But oh, they were funny when other people told them, so he guessed he just had crap timing. "Where should I start?"
Life story, John suggested. Start at the beginning. Take it slow.
Rodney was up to the fourth grade piano instructor who'd crushed his aspirations and ruined his life when John interrupted to ask, Why can't I hear anything? How long 's it been? Should be able to hear something by now.
As the morning had stretched on to late morning, and then early afternoon, John had been growing markedly disoriented. Sometimes he repeatedly asked for clarification on some minor point, or thew his own garbled anecdotes into the mix. Sometimes, when Rodney tried to make him talk, it took shouting to rouse him, and he didn't always remember right away where he was or what had happened.
Rodney was absolutely determined not to let on how worried he was, or that he was growing more so by the minute.
"It's okay John. Help is on the way. They just need to find you. Please hang on."
They can't, Rodney. No good. I can't find the flares, got nothing to start a fire. Too much leaked fuel to risk it anyway. 'm under the canopy. They won't be able to find me.
"Damn it, don't talk like that! They have their methods. Thermal imaging, infrared cameras, something!"
'f you say, John allowed at last. But not, it seemed, because he believed him. How many hours has it been? If they're searching overhead, I should hear them. Why can't I hear them?
In the evening, Rodney had to pry himself away from the microphone to call the police again, use the bathroom, make some coffee, and grab some food.
The police insisted that the proper authorities were aware of John's distress and were doing everything in their power to locate him. They also requested that Rodney stop calling, as he had already been promised numerous times that he would receive any updates that they did.
When Rodney returned to the workroom, John was frantic, shouting for Rodney between gulps of air that sounded heartwrenchingly close to sobs.
It took Rodney twenty solid minutes of cajoling to talk John down, and he wondered how he manged to stay calm enough to do it, because his own nerves were frayed. He needed to be drinking something a lot stronger than coffee. He needed some support, maybe Steve, but he didn't see how he could find the time to sneak way and contact him, let alone explain. Perhaps the next time John fell asleep, Rodney just... wouldn't wake him right away.
And just when Rodney thought it couldn't get worse, John started imagining that he was hearing things that weren't really there.
The doorbell rang. When he opened his front door, the dark haired man was waiting on the other side.
The man said, "Find me. Help me." And Rodney wanted to argue that he didn't need to be found, considering that he was standing right there. But then the man raised his arm and reached out, and Rodney recalled the last time it had happened, and the shock of being unable to move while the man advanced on him, so he yelped and slammed the door in the man's face.
But his fear was irrational, and what he'd done had been just plain rude. So, with reluctance, he pried open the door again.
He knew it had to be another dream because mere seconds had passed, yet the man was nowhere to be seen.
When Rodney picked his head up off the workbench, the first thing he noticed was that his chin was still connected to it by a thread of drool. The second thing he noticed was the digital time display on the old VCR, third device down on the system rack next to the bench. Ten o'clock.
The third thing he noticed was the sunlight pouring in the window.
Ten o'clock in the morning. Sometime during the night, he'd fallen asleep.
He pushed the microphone button and whispered, "John?" Then again, louder, "John, I am so sorry. Are you there? Please, if you are, answer me and let me know you're okay."
But there was no response, and the police hadn't called to update him on the rescue, and the nice lady dispatcher had made it clear that Rodney should not keep tying up her emergency line for no good reason if he wanted to be taken seriously at all in the future event that he might actually need her services.
Rodney furiously dialed Steve.
"Oh, thank god, you're there," he said when the other man picked up. And he didn't stop there. The entire story came tumbling out in a wretched mess -- the radio boosted by the satellite dish, and how CGLZM's name was John, how Rodney had fallen asleep and now couldn't get him to respond, and the police giving him the run-around and insisting that the situation was under control when it obviously wasn't. Rodney's voice rose steadily through the telling, until he was approaching a panicked pitch himself.
"Shh," Steve told him. "Easy. You're clearly upset. Do you want me to come over?"
"You think I'm delusional!" Rodney accused. "You want to come over and make sure that I'm not hearing things! Well... I'm not!"
Ouch. Lame comeback of the century.
Steve chose his words with caution. "I don't think you're delusional. I believe that you believe that this John fellow is actually out there and in danger. But Rodney... you should be aware of the possibility that this could be a hoax."
"I don't- That doesn't make sense. Why would someone do something so heinous?"
"I don't know," Steve said, "but I don't know how else to explain that there isn't a CGLZM tail number registered anywhere in Canada."
Stunned and caffeine-deprived, Rodney had to process that statement more than once. "What?"
"Are you sure that you have the number right?"
"Yes. Genius with the near perfect recall here, remember? I even wrote it down. Charlie Golf Lima Zulu Mike."
"I just checked the database. Not the basic one the public can access, but the one reserved for the aviation industry. It's got pretty accurate historical data, back to the time they first started keeping computerized records. If CGLZM ever existed, it was more than twenty years ago"
Rodney had to check the database for himself -- not because he didn't trust Steve, but because he didn't trust anyone.
It was just as Steve had said: there was no current or recent record of tail number CGLZM. When he spoke to John again -- if he spoke to John again -- Rodney would have to draw some information out of the man that would help him in his quest for verification, or justification, or just plain evidence that he wasn't in the throes of that nervous breakdown after all.
A full name would be a good place to begin. Home airstrip, where John should have registered a flight plan, and where they also would have realized that he'd been missing for almost thirty-six hours. Make and model of his plane. Intended destination. That sort of thing. He even made a list while he fixed a sandwich for lunch, and reconsidered asking Steve to come over and bring a couple gallons of coffee with him.
The radio was still quiet when he returned to the work room. He tiptoed in and eased into his seat, which was frankly ridiculous, because if John was sleeping Rodney wouldn't be able to wake him by making noise in his own home. The man was hundreds of miles away; and besides, he might have been rescued. Or, as Steve had suggested, he might not even exist.
No, Rodney couldn't accept that. The whole thing was too random and elaborate for a hoax. John's fear and distress were too genuine. The only other option was that Rodney was crazy, and he refused to believe that of himself... just yet.
Still, he keyed the microphone with trepidation, and his voice could have been a lot more steady when he ventured, "John?"
When there was no reply, he didn't know whether to be relieved or distraught. But then, Is that... is that Rodney?
Shit, he still didn't know whether to be relieved or distraught. "Oh. You're still out there." How horrible that he hadn't been rescued yet. Thank god he hadn't been eaten by wild animals.
Yeah, I guess I am, John mused. He sounded different than Rodney remembered, lighter somehow. Almost as if he was drifting, no longer quite so tethered to the aches and pains of his body. Drugs would do that, if he had a good first aid kit, or he might have had a stash of booze on board.
"John, I am profusely sorry. I promised I would stay with you, and I... I don't know what happened. One minute I was telling you about my sixth grade science fair project, and the next I was waking up and it was morning."
No, it's okay. I want to apologize for yesterday too. You probably noticed, I was in bad shape.
Rodney winced. "You may have... rambled a bit at times, but hell, I do that normally, on a good day!"
Really bad shape, John insisted. I can't remember half of what I told you, or you told me, but I seem to recall that at one point, you had to talk me into staying put.
It had taken some fast talking, too. Disoriented, John had been extremely stubborn about wanting to find "the highway". He'd thought he'd heard vehicles nearby, traffic. "You didn't seem like you needed to be wandering around," Rodney admitted.
God knows how I would have managed it on this ankle!
"Sprained?" Rodney hoped.
John sounded certain, though Rodney had no idea how one would tell the difference... unless it was a compound fracture with the bone poking out of the skin, oh god, oh god. He didn't want to know. He did not want to know.
So anyway, thank you. While you slept, I managed to sleep too. It did me good. I'm still hurting, but I'm in a better place mentally, you know?
Yeah, Rodney thought he did. "So, uh, how are you doing otherwise? I realize I don't even know if you have food and water, or how you're staying warm..."
I'm not, John said. Staying warm... particularly. But I'm not freezing either. The fuselage is mostly intact. I've been hiding inside to stay dry. But the fact that it's been raining means I'm not worried about water, yet, and like any bush pilot I've got emergency rations, so.
So he wasn't in imminent danger of dying from dehydration, or hypothermia. Thank god for small favors. "Wait, did you say it's raining at your location?"
Was, up until about an hour ago. Why? Does- Oh.
John got it, Rodney was sure. For a guy who was stuck in a miserable situation, he was keeping a remarkably level head. Well, when he wasn't concussed or delirious. And his mind was pretty agile, too. "Yeah. If the police compare precipitation patterns to historical Doppler radar data, they might be able to narrow down your location."
That's a pretty big might. Look, Rodney... I've been trying to take my mind off all the stuff that you just asked me about. Do you think we could talk about something else? Something totally unrelated to me being stranded in the woods?
A distraction. Right. Rodney could do distractions. Except... he'd used them all the previous night, and then some. "I'm all out of embarrassing childhood anecdotes," he admitted. Some of that shit he'd never discussed with anyone -- not friends, not family. It had been cathartic and unexpectedly wearying to unburden thirty year old hangups on a total stranger. "Do you have another suggestion?"
Well, John said slowly, as if leading up to a point without wanting his intent to be obvious, you did all the talking before, so it's probably my turn. Just stay with me, you know? Maybe answer me now and then, so I know you're still there. He laughed at himself, the sound not entirely without humor.
"I'm not going anywhere," Rodney swore, in no small part because he was curious, damn it. He already felt irrationally responsible for the guy; it was only fair that he got to learn more about him.
If it was a hoax -- if John was lying about being stuck in the woods -- then he certainly wasn't lying about himself. His story was too solid, and the details meshed too consistently. Rodney was keeping track.
Surname: Sheppard. Originally American, but he flew back and forth across the border, anywhere the odd charters he could pick up would take him. Parents dead; one brother, estranged. No wife, no kids. He described the love of his life as an LC-126, a scrappy little plane who always gave him everything he asked for, even though he knew he sometimes asked too much of her.
John thought Doug Flutie was the best thing that had happened to college football since the wishbone formation. He had crap taste in beer, but surprisingly good taste in television; Rodney had been on the brink of despairing that they had few interests in common when John had quoted classic Trek at him. They lingered over a mutual and possibly inordinate appreciation for Tom Baker, which led Rodney to talk about the cable business, and Uncle Morty.
For the first time since Mort's death, he was able to do so without his fondness being overcome by regret that he hadn't been better at staying in touch.
John spoke about being the living, breathing embodiment of disappointment to his father; when John's voice grew dry and weak and needed a rest, Rodney explained how his refusal to produce offspring to carry on the family name made him a failure in his mother's eyes. And suddenly it wasn't just the childhood hangups Rodney was sharing, but the huge, ugly, recent ones. The ones he ordinarily wouldn't dream of imparting to anyone, not even Steve. Especially not Steve, because Rodney wanted Steve to keep liking him. But here was a guy Rodney wasn't trying to impress, or compete with, or hide his faults from; and John was honest about being just as screwed up in his own peculiar way.
Before Rodney knew, it was late afternoon and they'd been rambling forever. And John had received absolutely no sign of rescue.
"Hey, were you ever able to get in touch with anyone else?" Rodney asked with a sinking suspicion.
No, John replied, unconcerned. Just you.
Rodney offered, "I'll call the RCMP again and tell them their slogan is crap. Or better, I'll call Transport Canada myself."
Don't. Just let it rest. Hounding the authorities won't speed up the search, John told him, oddly magnanimous.
"I don't understand. It's been like forty-five hours now! How can you be so calm? I wouldn't be calm. I'd be freaking the hell out!" Unless it was a hoax after all. Then, understandably "John" wouldn't want the authorities involved.
John laughed. Actually laughed, and if the sound was dry and ironic, at least it wasn't maniacal, which it could have been. Perhaps should have, under the circumstances. I guess you could say I've been on the other end. I know how difficult the job is, and I know they're doing everything they can, but I also know what the odds are against them.
Rodney sputtered, "Oh, you are not allowed to talk about odds. I'm a certified genius, remember? Odds are... well, they're worse than statistics. They're chance. It's like saying you believe in luck."
I do believe in luck, John shot back. Nothing else explains why you can follow the same rules and the same procedures and try just as hard each and every time, but sometimes you find the poor bastard before it's too late, and sometimes you don't.
"Stop pretending that you know anything about-"
Search and rescue? John cut him off. I was in the Air Force, Rodney. I've flown CSAR missions. I think I know what I'm talking about.
"Oh," Rodney said, mortified.
"So... Air Force?"
Kinda rather not talk about it.
"Hey, I told you about getting mono from Ashley Bingham, and about how Mr Eriksson made me doubt playing so much that I forswore the piano forever."
There was a pensive static from the other end of the radio. Then, Okay. I fucked up, got caught with my pants around my ankles, literally, and my hand on another guy's dick. Since the Air Force kinda frowns on that sort of thing, I was dishonorably discharged. That's why I've been drifting, not because I enjoy the lifestyle. God knows I don't. It's made it hard for me to find work, when all I want to do -- all I've ever wanted -- is to fly. I put everything I had into this plane, and now-
"Now you're sitting there looking around at the tatters of your life, wondering how you managed to hit such a dead end when you started out with a road map of ambition and good intentions," Rodney finished for him. And holy shit, he completely hadn't seen the gay thing coming at all.
The resulting silence had a stunned quality to it. Then John blew out a sigh. So... you too.
Rodney shrugged, not that John could see it. "The company I worked for was involved in a scandal. I sort of... ended up the scapegoat without realizing what was happening. Now I'm like poison. There's not a respectable engineering firm in the planet that'll touch me. When I heard that my uncle had left me his house, I didn't think about it. I canceled the lease on my apartment, gave away most of my stuff, threw the rest into boxes, and headed north."
"I don't know," Rodney sighed. "It doesn't sound very satisfactory, does it? But this town... I think it's a good place. Morty lived here for decades and he was happy."
That's good, Rodney. That's real good. You should stay and try to make a go of it. Then, if it doesn't happen, at least you can say you put in the effort.
The notion only appeared monumentally insane at first glance. The instant he said it aloud was the instant he realized it could work. "I'll try if you will."
"You heard me. I think you could be happy here too. The town's really laid-back. There's even a little airport, and I know the guy who runs it. He's cool, and he's rebuilding a plane of his own so I'm sure he could help with yours. I could help with yours."
There's not... exactly much to salvage, even if there was a way to get it out of the woods. Which there isn't.
"I've mentioned that I'm brilliant with mechanics, right? I'll think of something. And you can stay with me while your ankle's healing. It's an old commercial building, so there aren't any steps to navigate with crutches, and there's plenty of room. I'll just throw some of the junk out of one of the spare offices-"
Rodney, John said gently. The offer is... generous beyond words. But I can't accept. I- I just can't. You don't even know me.
"So? I know more about you than I did about my next door neighbor at the apartment complex, and I lived next to him for four years. I don't-" He swallowed, because it wasn't exactly true. "-don't care about the stuff that got you kicked out of the Air Force."
That's not entirely what I meant. You have no idea what kind of person I am. I could be a criminal, or a drug addict, or mentally ill.
"Or you could be just some guy who's had a run of shitty luck and could use a break, same as me." Rodney argued. "I'm not suggesting charity."
"What do you mean, no? You haven't even thought about it!"
I just did, John snapped, and the answer's no.
Topic's closed, he choked out with more than a touch of bitterness. Please respect my wishes and let it drop.
"Oh god," Rodney said. Suddenly it all made sense. "You don't want to think about what happens after you get out of the woods because you don't think you're going to be rescued. You've given up. That's why you're not freaking out, and why you don't care if I hound the police or not. And all that talking about yourself. What the hell was that, some kind of screwed up eulogy?"
John didn't refute it. Please don't. I'm trying to make this as easy as possible, for both of us, but I'll turn off my radio if I have to, he warned.
"No! You are not allowed to dump this shit all over me and then just die! You are getting out of those woods," Rodney gritted, "if I have to march in there and pull you out myself."
"That's a promise. We can discuss living arrangements later. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some important phone calls to make."
The police were at least finally willing to admit that they thought Rodney was either lying or crazy. Not only was there no CGLZM on record, but no light craft had been reported missing in the area during the past month; no maydays or distress transponder codes had been monitored by anyone besides Rodney; and aerial sweeps of the area had yielded no signs of wreckage or suspicious heat signatures.
The search had been officially called off earlier that afternoon.
So it really was all on his shoulders now. Good thing he was a genius with electronics, and knew this guy who had a plane and owed him a favor.
He didn't want to give John the bad news and hand him even more reason to despair, but he rather thought he should tell the poor man something, so he advised that he was going to be tinkering with his radio, and that he would be incommunicado for a while. In the meantime, he made John promise, repeatedly, that he wouldn't do anything stupid or foolish or drastic until he heard from Rodney again.
John grudgingly agreed to sit tight and give him one day.
Rodney spent the night yanking the radio apart and shoving it back together with extreme haste, and none of the painstaking care he'd envisioned. But he hadn't envisioned a man's life being at stake, either. He'd considered trying to convince Steve to let him modify the radio in Steve's regular plane, the proper Canadian de Havilland Beaver he kept on floats down on the river, and used for his supply runs. But since they were going to be flying that plane on their rescue mission -- provided Rodney could make a strong enough argument for a rescue mission in the first place -- it made sense that they would need the radio to act as an actual radio, and not a tracking device. So he hoped Steve would forgive him for the modifications he made to the vintage Cessna radio to accommodate the external power supply, and the signal strength indicator, and the hand-held GPS which had been converted to function as a crude display.
The color outside his windows crept from full night to the haze of dawn before he was finished. Rodney flipped the power and verified that the portable, umbrella-shaped dish antenna he'd constructed out of overlapping aluminum vanes actually worked. John could still hear him; and more importantly, he could distinguish and track John's signal. Then he packed the kit away, grabbed his coat and a thermos -- Steve could be trusted to have a pot of coffee brewing -- and set off to go beg for his favor.
It was Friday anyway, the day he'd promised to have the radio ready for Steve. And Steve had said something about Rodney helping him install it, which suggested that Steve didn't have any pressing business lined up -- or hadn't, earlier in the week. Rodney prayed that was still the case.
By the time Rodney was pulling into the airstrip's parking lot, it was still disgustingly early. But Steve was a self-avowed morning person, which had something to do with the upcoming short winter days, and the fact that he'd rather leave his home runway in the dark if it meant getting out of unfamiliar territory while there was still sunlight left. He'd beaten Rodney there, if not by much. The hangar was still closed and dark, while the office showed only faint signs of life.
Since it was already an all or nothing proposition in Rodney's mind, he went ahead and lugged the souped-up radio inside and dumped everything unceremoniously at Steve's feet.
Steve was in the middle of counting out scoops of coffee grounds into the filter basket. He paused with one rounded spoonful hovering tenuously in midair.
"Hi," Rodney said. The chill morning air had him slightly flushed; he could feel the sting on his cheeks. And if he was breathing fast, it wasn't from exertion, but from the heady sense of purpose, something that had been absent in his life for too long. "Sorry your radio's not ready. Well, it is, just not as a radio. I had to turn it into a tracking device -- a fairly sophisticated one I might add, given how little time I had to work on it. To come to the point- You remember John, right? The pilot I was telling you about, the one who crashed? CGLZM? Well, the police say he doesn't exist and they've called off the search, but I know I'm not crazy because I talked to him all day yesterday and I promised I'd rescue him since no one else will. ...I need to borrow you. And your plane. For the day."
As if released from a spell, Steve dumped the scoop, tossed on one more for good measure, and started up the pot. "Okay," he said.
"I realize that your plans might have changed," Rodney continued, "but earlier in the week you said you'd be available today to work on the Cessna, and- What, really? Just like that?"
"Why not?" Steve leaned against the counter and surveyed Rodney with a faint frown. "This is obviously important to you. You're my friend, Rodney. Your peace of mind is worth more than a few hours of my time and a tank of gas."
Rodney blinked. "It is?"
"Are you sure you're a genius?"
"Last time I checked." Rodney patted down his chest, felt his pockets, as if genius was something he could misplace like a set of keys. "I just- This seems too easy. I was prepared to beg. On my knees if necessary."
Steve rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, because flying's such a hardship that I would never dream of doing it on my day off, for recreation. Hell, I was gonna offer to take you up some time. Kinda wanted it to be in the Cessna, when she's finished, but maybe the Beav's better for your first time. The 195 is a beast. She'll spoil you completely for any other plane."
"Oh," Rodney stammered. He didn't know quite what else to say to that.
Luckily Steve let him fidget in silence while the coffee finished. He poured two mugs, slid one down the counter in Rodney's direction, and said, "I gather by all this equipment that you have some sort of plan for locating your mystery aviator?"
The coffee was hot and strong, and Rodney shamelessly dumped what was left in the pot into his thermos. "Of course. I'll need to pull up some historical Doppler radar images for the area, see if I can narrow down the search. And maybe you could talk to John. Since you're both pilots, he could retrace his steps and describe what was doing when he crashed, and you might be able to make some sense out of it.
"Me. Talk to John." Steve was clearly trying to disguise his skepticism.
"Oh, that's right. You don't think he exists either."
"That's not what I said. I believe he's out there. I'm just not sure he's being honest with you, Rodney."
"So humor me and talk to him. If he isn't a pilot, you'll be able to tell right away, right? And once we get out there, this equipment won't be able to tell me how far away his signal is, but it will be able to give me a direction and relative strength. After a few sweeps I'll be able to triangulate his position. If it turns out to be a town or a settlement or even a cabin in the woods, we'll say that you were right and I was gullible and call the whole thing off. But if there's nothing there..."
Steve shook his head, but it was in bemused defeat. "I find a place to put down and we hike in to search on foot. I get it."
"Great, yes, it's a plan. Let me just get the radio- No, first let me look at the weather data from yesterday and outline a search box. You can-"
"I can pack," Steve decided, pushing off the counter. "Sounds like this is going to be an all day affair. I'm not setting foot in the woods unprepared, or unarmed. And it's been a while since I've had to fly a medevac, but I'm pretty sure that flimsy little first aid kit in the Beav is going to cut it if this does turn into a rescue."
"Oh god," Rodney said. "You're right. I should have thought of that. Why didn't I think of that?"
"No idea. But Morty used to ask me the same question, all the time."
Rodney managed to map out a search area that was roughly two hundred square kilometers, and not quite box-shaped. It seemed like a daunting amount of space to cover, but it also made for an interesting puzzle, trying to intersect the area with proposed aerial sweeps that would be most efficient at pinpointing John's signal. Rodney finally had to settle on an if-then cascade of patterns; if the first vertical sweep placed John's position in the northern quadrant, then the next sweep would bisect that quadrant at a fifty-eight degree angle to the initial sweep, and so forth.
Steve watched him draw lines -- and erase and re-draw and damn it, geometry had never been his forte -- on a map for a while, before helpfully pointing out that so much backtracking was a waste of fuel. They might as well continue to search as they were moving into position for the next sweep. And also, didn't Rodney know that a lot of flying wasn't accomplished in a straight line? There would be circles and arcs at varying altitudes, and if they caught a bad tailwind their bearing and heading wouldn't coincide-
Rodney groaned aloud.
-and they didn't really need to draw their lines in the sky when they had a GPS, and could record direction and strength variables for a whole bunch of random points, then scatter plot the results.
After a moment of wordlessly opening and closing his mouth like a gasping fish, Rodney blurted, "I think I might love you. ...in a way that's totally platonic and non-threatening to your heterosexuality."
"Yeah, Morty used to tell me that too," Steve grinned. "So what else do we need to do to get this show off the ground?"
"I'll need a laptop. We'll have to swing by my house so I can grab a spare."
"No problem. It's on the way down to the river dock anyway. What else?"
"Sustenance. My hypoglycemia-"
Steve patted his backpack. It wasn't one of those little school things either, but an actual hiking backpack with a tall support frame; and Steve had been stuffing it with supplies as if he knew a thing or two about balance and load distribution. "We're set. What else?"
Rodney hesitated. "Would you like to talk to John now, before we leave?"
"Depends. If I can get him to admit it's a hoax, can we call the whole thing off?"
"That's... fair." Rodney bent to sort out the equipment, starting with the portable satellite dish and the long umbilical that tied it to the radio. "You can try to stump him with technical questions, or trip him up in details. Just, you know, I'd prefer if you don't flat out accuse him of anything. He's already not too keen on my idea -- which, I should remind, is entirely dependent on his cooperation."
"So suspicious but subtle. Geeze Rodney, what have you done to my radio?"
"I can reverse it!" Rodney assured. "Well, most of it. Cosmetically you shouldn't be able to notice. Now, do any of these windows face north or west?"
"Try that one," Steve pointed. So Rodney shoved the portable satellite dish into his hands, and after a moment Steve took the hint. Trailing wires, he moved across the room and pried the window open.
"Stick it outside before you unfurl it," Rodney suggested. "Yeah, like that. And if you drop the window back down on the frame, it'll hold it- Perfect."
"So Rodney," Steve said, as if he felt obligated to broach the subject even though he didn't actually want to know the answer, "how do you expect this set-up to work while we're in the air?"
"Easy," Rodney said, yanking on the headset he'd adopted in place of speakers and a microphone. He cut on the power. "I'm going to bolt the dish to the underside of your plane."
When Steve put his hands on his hips like that, he looked less like an extra in a slasher movie and more like an extra in a teen melodrama. "The hell you are!"
"Tape, I meant tape! With plenty of padding to prevent scuffs and scratches. Jesus, don't get your panties in a wad."
He must've knocked the transmit button by accident, because John's voice crackled through the admittedly crappy headset. My panties are fine, not that it's any of your business. Also, good morning to you too.
Rodney immediately stuck his finger against his lips, indicating that he desired silence from the audience. "Hey. Good morning. So, you're still-"
No, I haven't been rescued. Yes, I'm staying put like I'm supposed to.
"But only because I made you promise, like, a dozen times I bet."
Steve made inquisitive gestures with his eyebrows, and mimed that he wanted to know what the hell was going on.
"Listen, I haven't given up on the plan to drag you out of the woods. Remember how I told you about the guy who runs the airport? Well, he's here with me. We're gonna fly out in a little bit to look for you, so I figured it couldn't hurt if you told him everything you remember from before the crash. You know, where you were, what you were doing-"
So he can try to retrace my steps, John finished. Yeah, that... that's a good idea. Put him on.
Rodney yanked off the headset and handed it over. "Steve, meet John. John, Steve."
Steve tucked the headset over his ears and adjusted the boom mic. He glanced at Rodney one more time, wearing the single most skeptical expression Rodney had ever seen.
Rodney mouthed, Go on! and made shooing motions with his hands.
"Uh... hello?" Steve ventured, right about the same time that Rodney realized he was holding his breath over the outcome. It was the moment of truth, after all. If Steve could hear John, it proved that John wasn't imaginary, and therefore Rodney wasn't crazy. If he couldn't- But oh, right there, Steve must have received a response, because something caused his eyebrows to pinch together in a frown. "Yeah, that's right, Rodney's friend." He might have leaned a little heavily on the word friend. "Steve."
Thank god, oh thank god. Still, Rodney's nerves needed verification, so he mimed, You can hear him?
And Steve motioned back, No thanks, save the banana for lunchtime. Which... okay, basically proved that Rodney, in addition to being not delusional, was also not particularly adept at charades.
He wished he'd bothered with a tiny speaker, because he was desperately curious about the other half of the conversation. Steve said things like, "What was your IFR clearance?" And, "Tracking which VOR?" And, "Last known BRA before you broke flight plan?" And so what if Rodney didn't have a clue what any of that meant? He still would have been able to tell from promptness and inflection if John's answers were acceptable.
"One twenty one point five hundred megahertz," Steve nodded, as if this piece of information was correct and expected. He shuffled over to the airport's radio, fiddled with the frequency setting, then peeled the headset away from one ear while he cocked his head to listen. "Huh."
"What?" Rodney hissed. "What does that mean?"
Steve shook his head, and was still addressing John when he suggested, "Try victor one two two point seven two five. Yeah, and gimme about a minute of noise." This time, after he adjusted the airport's radio, he pulled the headset off entirely. "You hear anything?"
"Uh, no," Rodney was forced to admit.
"Wait for it..." Steve adjusted the radio to a third channel, whereupon a burst of staticky aviation chatter assaulted Rodney's ears. "How 'bout now?"
"Of course I can hear that!" Rodney grimaced.
Steve shut down the airport's radio, but he didn't reach for the headset that was looped around his neck just yet. "Okay. Your friend? Definitely a pilot. My guess would be military."
"Air Force," Rodney confirmed. "Former. But how did you-"
"Their slang's peculiar." He held up his hand, forestalling the inevitable interruption. "But here's the freaking weird part. If he went down near where he said he did, that's a helluva ways away. I wouldn't expect to be able to raise him on the big radio at that distance. And it's no good -- just tried it. So even if we go with the assumption that your funky antenna allows us to receive a signal that should be too far away -- in crystal clear quality, no less -- there's still no explanation for how he's able to hear us."
"Oh. That. I might have... boosted the wattage on the little radio. A little."
Steve crossed his arms. "I should've known. How much is a little?"
Rodney fidgeted. "Two or three... or maybe seven or eight times normal strength? I was sort of hoping to reach Russia."
For some reason, Steve looked unaccountably relieved. "Figures," he said, and his smile was fond as he ducked back into the headset. "John, you copy? Yeah, damnedest thing I've ever seen. I'm blaming Rodney. He really is a genius with electronics. Anyway, we've got some work to do before we can take off. I'm thinking departure in thirty, ETA your location two hours. Sure, hold on."
One last time, the headset changed hands. When Steve pulled it off, he leaned over and snapped it directly over Rodney's ears.
It was crooked. He had to adjust it for comfort. "I'm here. You wanted to talk to me?"
Yeah. Like I told your friend... I think you're both crazy.
"But...?" Rodney prompted. There had to be a but.
But... I appreciate it. You have no idea how much. I'm trying to stay rational, not get my hopes up... His voice dropped off to a whisper, so forlorn and plaintive that it squeezed Rodney right in the heart. Get here soon, okay?
In the future, whenever Rodney was asked how many rolls of duct tape were required to securely fasten a homemade dish antenna to the belly of a 1960 de Havilland Beaver, he could answer with complete authority: six.
It was pretty easy to tell which seat belonged to the pilot and which to the co-pilot. Only one had pedals and that steering thing -- which Rodney was glad not to have to contend with, because he needed all the space he could get for his laptop.
He probably should have been paying more attention to his very first trip up in a very small aircraft. But after the initial dutiful teasing- "The Doctor called. He wants his TARDIS back. No, seriously, this thing enough knobs and levers and gauges?" -he buried his nose in his programming and barely noticed when Steve taxied -- floated? -- the plane into the middle of the narrow waterway, opened the throttle, and pushed her into the sky.
Scatter plotting three dimensional coordinates would have been a lot easier if he hadn't had to deal with the stupid curvature of the stupid Earth. Still, he was fairly certain that his math was solid by the time Steve warned him that they were nearing the search box. And he was able to raise John on the radio, which suggested that he'd been correct about the vents on the fins preventing the antenna from being torn apart by drag. The weather was cooperating, Rodney's occasional motion sickness was behaving... in short, things were going too well.
Rodney didn't believe in luck. However, statistically speaking, they were due a setback, and the possibilities ranged from a freak thunderstorm to a mid-air collision with a large waterfowl to John being a serial killer intent on luring them to the middle of nowhere so that he could axe-murder them both and sell their organs on the Russian black market.
Or bears! They could run across a bear in the woods...
"Stop fidgeting," Steve scolded. "We're nearly there."
Steve reached over and clamped down on Rodney's knee, which... okay, might have been jiggling like an overworked piston. "If you keep tapping your foot like that you're gonna punch a hole in the floorboard."
"It helps me think," Rodney countered, squirming, because dammit that almost hurt. Steve had a lot of strength in his hands.
"Yeah, well it helps me go insane. Just... look out the window or something. Count trees if you need a distraction."
Steve had explained that he was going to cruise as low as air traffic for the region was allowed. When Rodney did glance out his window, he could actually distinguish the individual pricks of each coniferous treetop. Together, they formed a green blanket that spread as far as he could see in every direction, plush in the valleys, threadbare on the snow-frosted peaks. "Oh ha ha, very funny." Except maybe the word he wanted was breathtaking, because it was.
"We'll be in range in about ten, if you want to figure out how you're gonna handle this."
"Yeah, okay. Good idea. We're doing... what?"
"About a hundred and fifteen knots."
"So convert that to- Ow, god, my brain! Forget it, forget it. Let's just say that the time constraint isn't going to be communications latency, but the speed at which I can read off the numbers and accurately enter them into the database. I should be able to handle thirty second intervals, right? If not, we can kick it up to forty five, but the point is to sample as large a set as possible without spending the entire day out here doing it."
"Every forty five seconds should be fine, Rodney. I filled the spare fuel tank, so we can search for a few hours before we need to think about heading home. What do you need me to do?"
Rodney peered out the window again, his breath frogging on the glass or plexiglass or whatever that stuff was. "What's our altitude again?"
"Fifteen hundred feet."
"Can you drop us to a thousand? That's a nice round number." Since they weren't going metric after all, Rodney altered some figures in his code. "Try to hold as steady as possible, and unless you say otherwise, I'll assume our altitude hasn't changed. But if it does, call it out for me when I key in the coordinates."
The plane's nose dipped slightly, and when it leveled out again the treetops were even closer. "Low and steady and call out changes, got it."
The tracking device was wedged between Rodney's seat and his door, which was about the only place it would fit and still allow the umbilical of wires to reach the antenna. He had to twist awkwardly to read the screen, and type with his left hand, but that was okay. Tugging on the headset, he positioned one of the ear pieces behind his left ear, so that he could hear what was going on in the cockpit as well as on the ground. "John, still with me?"
Yeah, I copy.
Rodney flashed Steve a double thumbs up. "Good. We're almost in position. Here's what I need you to do..."
The call and answer routine quickly grew tedious. It was John who capitulated first. Granted, the contents of his transmissions didn't matter; Rodney only needed him to transmit a signal, any signal that could be measured and recorded. But John had been sticking to the unofficial script and using proper radio lingo, so Rodney was taken aback by the deviation when one of his prompts was met with a deadpanned: Polo.
Thirty seconds later, when it was time for the next signal reading, Rodney tried, "Marco?" And Steve promptly cracked up, even though he couldn't possibly have heard John say Polo again right back.
They completed three sweeps over the search area that way. The exchange must have been amusing from Steve's one-sided perspective, because he never quite stopped snickering quietly to himself. Rodney ignored him, and typed row after row of coordinates, and repeated, "Marco," every so often. And John dutifully responded Polo... right up until the time he didn't.
That time, he asked, Rodney? with a new note of strain in his voice that halted Rodney's fingers dead over his keyboard. You aren't by any chance flying a Pratt and Whitney, are you?
"I don't- No, I don't think so," Rodney answered carefully. "It's a de Havilland." Oh. Oh, shit, he understood.
"What about the Beav?" Steve wanted to know.
An odd, bright sensation settled in Rodney's stomach. It was the sort of feeling he generally categorized as apprehension, though in this case it was diluted by something else. Excitement, perhaps. "Pratt and Whitney mean anything to you?"
Steve nodded. "Standard issue Pratt and Whitney R 985. Guess I have a soft spot for the old radial engines. Besides, it'd be a travesty to update the Beav to accept a turbo-prop. Wait. Are you saying-"
"John? That would be yes." The words were so unsteady that even Rodney could hear the tremor in his own voice.
Thought I recognized that engine. Tell your pilot friend he's got excellent taste.
"John, er, compliments you on your taste in aircraft," Rodney told Steve. "Says he recognized the engine. Is that even possible?"
Steve flexed his fingers on the yoke. "More than possible. Ask him how close we were on that last pass."
Rodney asked, and relayed, "He says south-west, about two hundred degrees, and maybe half a mile. That make sense?"
"Yeah." Reaching over, Steve yanked off Rodney's headset and dropped it in his lap.
"Hey! What are you-"
The finger slicing across the throat gesture he made next was pretty obvious. Rodney fumbled with the radio tracking device until he'd managed to find the power button. "Okay, geeze, it's off. You could have just asked."
"Rodney." Steve's low, level tone was an immediate warning. "Take another look out the window. There is a whole lot of nothing out there."
Rodney looked; he was right. No roads, no clearings, no traces of development or human habitation. It was actual wilderness. "But that's good! Well, not exactly. It does, however, mean that it's not a hoax. If John's really down there -- and I think it's been proven conclusively that he is -- then chances are he's not lying about needing my- our help."
"So you still want to go through with this?"
"Absolutely," Rodney was emphatic. "I promised him. I- You didn't hear him earlier. I think he's humoring us, putting on a brave face, but he's given up hope and doesn't expect this rescue to succeed. I really, really- Want to prove him wrong." More to the point, he was sort of desperately intrigued and wanted to know more about John. It would be inconvenient if John were to... well, die and leave him burdened with a mess of unsatiated curiosity.
"Hey," Steve defended, "I already agreed to do this. I'm not trying to back out. I just wanted to be sure that you're sure before I put us down."
"Before you- What?"
They were executing a slow right arc. Steve pointed to a glint, tucked in the shadow of a valley; it was just coming back into view as the plane swung around. "I'm guessing that's the lake where John tried to ditch. And even if it isn't, it's suitable for our purposes and near to where we want to be. Think you've collected enough data to be able to find your guy on foot?"
"Yes." Definitely excitement; he recognized it now that he was almost dizzy with it. "I mean, it won't be exact. I wrote the program knowing that I would need to do some extrapolation, but I can get us within shouting distance for sure."
The right wing dipped sharply as their bank turned into a descent. "Then better get back on the horn and give him the good news. We're going in."
As if Rodney had needed more evidence that Steve was descended from lumberjacks, the man had looked extremely competent swinging into that huge backpack. Perhaps worse, he'd seemed just as comfortable shouldering a rifle in a worn leather scabbard.
Rodney also sort of wished he hadn't noticed that the rifle, though it jostled awkwardly where it hung, remained in easy reach.
"So you, ah, do this a lot?" The plane was tethered to the gravelly shore behind them. Steve had the lead and the GPS, while Rodney juggled his laptop case and the tracking device -- now detached from its antenna, which had sort of refused to be detached from the Beav on account of the six rolls of duct tape. He hoped they were close enough now to John's signal that they wouldn't need it.
"Stomp through the woods?" Steve asked, figuring that Rodney probably didn't mean the rescuing stranded pilots thing. "I make supply runs to some pretty remote and inhospitable locations, and not a lot of them happen to sit on convenient natural runways. So yeah, I do a fair bit of trekking back and forth."
"And the gun is for...?"
"Bears. Moose." Rodney could tell Steve shrugged by the way the pack shifted. "Bigfoot."
Despite having the far lighter load, Rodney was still struggling over the uneven terrain. And if it was obvious that Steve was descended from lumberjacks, it was equally, painfully so that Rodney's ancestors had primarily been accountants. Still, he took the time to snag a stray pine cone and hurl it at the back of Steve's head. "If you're trying to scare me, you're doing it wrong. I find reality plenty terrifying on its own."
He missed, but Steve glanced back at the distraction. "Who said anything about scaring you? I'm serious. You name it, I've run afoul of it out here. Or if I haven't, I know someone who has. Humans are the intruders, and the things that thrive in this habitat do their damnedest to remind us of that at every opportunity."
"Point. Still, Bigfoot," Rodney snorted.
But Steve didn't respond, and the way he clammed up suggested that he wasn't interested in arguing the statistical probability of imaginary creatures remaining, well, imaginary.
Rodney discovered that he didn't like long stretches devoid of conversation. With nothing else to focus on, the ambient forest sounds took on an oppressive quality; everything from the drone of the insects to the rattle and sigh of the swaying trees to the occasional animal shriek sounded too loud and too close. His initial impulse was to pull on the headset just to blot it all out, but then he realized how ridiculous he would look, walking around in headphones for no reason. And they had a decent fix on John's coordinates, so the radio had outlived its usefulness as a tracking device. If Rodney wanted to use it as a radio, and coax John through the final stage of his ordeal, he could do so without worrying about running down the battery.
So Rodney turned it on and said, "Hey."
After a period of radio silence, John sometimes took a while to respond. Not this time, however. I heard you buzz overhead, and then I lost you. I can't hear the plane anymore, Rodney. You're coming back, right? You promised you'd get me out of here, and I-
"John, I'm sorry! Remember, I told you that I'd be quiet while we landed, and then we had to unpack the plane and sort out equipment, and I had to plot our course, and it just occurred to me now to turn the radio back on." And did he ever feel guilty, thinking about John sitting there, anxious and desperate for news. "It's okay," he soothed. "We're down. We're on the ground, and we're hiking in to get you."
Steve glanced back over his shoulder once to pin Rodney with a questioning expression, but he turned away again before he could receive an answer.
I know that's what you said, I know. John's breathing was shallow and fast, but the scratchiness wasn't him. The overall sound quality of the transmissions had degraded, probably due to the loss of the antenna. I kept telling myself that you haven't lied to me yet, and that you wouldn't start now. But then the plane flew away and I couldn't hear it anymore, and I- He gave a rough bark of laughter. Jesus, I'm sorry. Just listen to me. I'm a wreck.
"That's not true! You're amazing to still be so level-headed after all this time. I mean, considering all the phobias and neuroses that I have, I wouldn't have lasted out here an hour without going completely out of my mind. I'm talking panic, hysteria, meltdown..."
SSSHHHKKRRZT-ou say, Rodney?
"John? I didn't catch that first bit."
Gentleman that he was, Steve was in the middle of pushing a pine bough up out of the way so that it wouldn't smack Rodney in the face. He halted there, motioning for Rodney to hurry and duck beneath his arm. "Problem?" he inquired, when Rodney neared.
"No, it's just-" Rodney pointed at the headset to let him know the mic was still active. And wow, he hadn't noticed how dense the woods had gotten. For the first little ways, he'd been able to look back and see the comforting shimmer of the lake behind them. Now the forest had well and truly swallowed them up.
"I said, I'm sorry about the static! I think it's because I got rid of the antenna!"
"Shouting isn't going to help," Steve said mildly.
Rodney, how clo-SSSSHHRRRZT-
Wincing, Rodney pulled the headset down around his neck. "You're right," he told Steve, glum. "This can't just be the missing antenna. The static wouldn't be increasing with proximity. There's got to be some sort of interference."
"Outcropping of iron ore?" Steve suggested. "Those can play hell with navigation equipment."
"No, no, electromagnetic waves aren't really affected by magnetic fields. This has to be something else, maybe... maybe a solar flare, creating a localized ionospheric disturbance... Except that wouldn't explain why it didn't affect the radio transmissions when we were flying overhead."
"Unless it just hit us now." Steve pulled up short, frowning at the GPS in his hand. "Which wouldn't explain why I'm still getting a solid reading on this thing." He smacked it a couple times against his palm. "I think I'm still getting a solid reading on this thing."
Rodney yelped, "Careful! That's a delicate piece of- Give me that!" He plucked it away and verified that it was still programmed with the coordinates he'd fed it. The device was reading just over a mile to their destination. Just over a mile to John. "Huh. You're right, it's not affected at all."
Steve did that thing where he stuck his fists on his hips and ended up resembling an irate fishwife more than a virile woodsman. "If you want to take a turn on point clearing brush, be my guest. Otherwise I'm gonna need that back."
"Higher frequency," Rodney blurted, snapping his fingers. "Ionospheric disturbances impact lower frequencies first and strongest, and sometimes don't affect the higher frequencies at all. Oh, I'm so glad I figured that out, because I have to say, I was pretty unsettled by the-"
SSSHHHKKRRZT-ney? hissed the headset around his neck.
He handed the GPS back to Steve and pulled the microphone up to his mouth. "John? I'm having a hard time receiving you, and I guess you can't hear me any better. I'm going to turn the radio off again. But hang in there! We're close, really close."
There was no response, not even a blast of static. Oddly reluctant, Rodney cut the power on the radio for the last time.
Steve was forging ahead, but making surprisingly little sound as he parted foliage, bending some of the more slender branches aside. A minute later, he dropped out of view, skittering down a slight incline. His boots dug furrows in the carpet of pine needles, exposing ink-black soil and the sudden scent of damp and decay. It was sharp in Rodney's nose when he slipped down the same incline behind him, albeit with less grace and more flailing.
Steve was waiting at the bottom to steady him with a hand on Rodney's elbow. "Careful. We're already gonna be carting one person out of here with a busted ankle. I don't want it to be two."
"How far now? If we started shouting, do you think he could hear us?"
"A little further." Steve checked the GPS, realigned their course, and blazed off again. "Sound doesn't travel well in the woods. Too much insulation, too many surfaces to strike echos. Besides, we should listen. He's probably calling to us."
John would do that. Nodding, Rodney dropped into silence. He picked his way gingerly over a fallen log that was thick with moss, ears strained to pick up the cry of a human voice. It should have been difficult against nature's cacophony, except-
No, it wasn't his imagination. The insects had stilled, the animals quieted; even the trees shivered mutely in the faint wind. But it wasn't just the forest. Rodney's footsteps were deadened by the layer of rotting vegetation on the forest floor, and his breathing, which felt harsh in his lungs, escaped with barely a sigh. The silence was so encompassing that it adopted the illusion of loudness. His ears roared with it, until he wanted to clap his hands over them, or shout -- something to break spell. But he was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he wouldn't be able to make the sound come...
Where are you? Rodney!
Was that... John?
"Rodney!" Steve repeated, shouting from somewhere too far ahead. Suddenly the odd paralysis was broken, and Rodney realized he'd stopped moving and fallen behind.
"Wait up!" he called. Now, when he set off crashing in the direction of Steve's voice, it was all real -- the rasp of his breathing, the twigs he splintered underfoot, the pounding of his pulse. He broke between two trees and stumbled into a small clearing, nearly slamming into Steve.
Steve didn't reach out to steady him. That right there should have been the first indication that something was wrong. But Rodney doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees while he caught his breath, so the first thing he noticed wasn't Steve's wary posture, or the way his face had gone ashen.
The first thing Rodney noticed was the wreckage.
There was a piece of it twisting out of the ground a short distance from his toes. Just a strip of metal, aluminum maybe, badly mangled and still bearing the evidence of torn rivets.
"Oh god." The impact of the crash must have been brutal, to embed that flimsy piece of metal in the ground. Rodney's gaze rose as he pulled himself upright. Through the trees there were more abnormal shapes, glinting unnaturally in the filtered sunlight. "John! I think we found your plane! Answer if you can hear me, please!"
"Rodney," Steve warned, stretching out to snag at his sleeve.
Rodney ignored him, twisting out of reach. He rushed ahead, toward the largest piece of wreckage. It was the fuselage, mostly intact, although its spine was split and the tail bent awkwardly to the side. One wing was snapped, the other shredded. No wonder John had said there wasn't anything left to salvage. "John?" He stumbled around the carcass, trying to find a way inside. "John, it's me -- Rodney. I'm here to rescue you, just like I promised."
The passenger side door was dangling on warped hinges. It broke off when he yanked it open. He stuck his head inside the cockpit. "John?"
A hand descended on his shoulder, gripping fiercely. He yelped and banged his temple extracting himself from the empty plane.
Steve. It was just Steve.
"Damn it, he should be right here! He knew we were coming. I told him to stay put! Besides, he couldn't have wandered far on a broken ankle."
"Rodney!" Steve spun him around and grabbed his other shoulder, shaking him with enough force to rattle his teeth. "Rodney, look at this wreckage and tell me what's wrong with it."
Now he noticed the dread in Steve's expression, and the first icy tendrils of fear slid over his own heart. He turned in Steve's grasp to study the side of the plane... and he saw it. Oh god, how had he missed it? "It's old," he stammered.
Evidence of decay was everywhere, now that he was looking for it. Bare metal surfaces sported rust spots and a patina of age. The patches of paint that still clung doggedly to the flank were faded and cracked. The cockpit was littered with forest debris, the upholstery rotted and tattered. The dash itself was crumpled, the avionics damaged. It would have been a miracle if any of it had functioned after the crash. And the plane... the impact of the crash hadn't sunk it into the ground; the ground had grown up around it.
Given enough time, it would eventually be swallowed whole.
"I don't understand. This isn't John's plane?" The chances that they would stumble across another, older wreck in exactly the same area were astronomically small. Unless this was some sort of undiscovered Canadian equivalent to the Bermuda Triangle...
Steve made a wordless sound of frustration and dragged Rodney to the rear of the plane. "Give me the radio," he ordered quietly.
Rodney handed it over without protest, somehow making his numb hands pull the headset from around his neck before Steve could choke him with it. When Steve prowled away, Rodney let him go. He was too busy staring at the tail in horrified fascination to move.
The registry number was there in large, authoritative block letters: CGLZM.
It might have been five minutes or an hour before Steve reappeared by his shoulder. And for a moment they stood side by side, confronting the impossible evidence. Rodney thrashed his brain, trying to invent an explanation that would appease both logic and his eyes.
CGLZM. CGLZM didn't exist. It did; he was staring straight at it. He could reach out and run his hand over the chill aluminum, feel the edge of the painted letters.
"It was a hoax after all," Rodney decided at last. His voice sounded flat to his own ears, and if he couldn't manage to fool himself, there was no way he was fooling Steve. "Someone must have found this old wreck and decided to play a joke, pretending to be stuck out here. Whoever they are, they sure got us good, huh?"
"No," Steve murmured. "There are no tracks, no signs that anyone has disturbed this place in a long, long time." Then, abrupt, "Don't you recognize this plane?"
"No. Of course not! Why?" Rodney asked, suddenly wary. "Should I?"
"It's an LC-126." And yes, Rodney dredged up that reference from his memory. That's how John had described his plane. His beautiful beast, the love of his life.
"So? I don't-"
Steve caught his wrist, uncurled Rodney's fingers, and dropped something slithery into his palm. "LC-126 was the military designation for the Cessna 195. It's the same as the one in my hangar, the one I'm rebuilding, except this one was probably decommissioned and sold as surplus. It's been retrofitted with the civilian kit, but I can tell the difference. I know where to look."
Rodney gaze fell down to his hand. There were a pair of silver discs resting atop a silver pool of chain. Dog tags. He recognized what they were, but he'd never held a set before.
"Come on. We're leaving."
"But your radio-" Rodney protested weakly. His thumb rubbed grime off one of the metal plates. It was upside down; he flipped it over, but couldn't make his eyes focus on the stamped letters.
"I left it in the cockpit. It stays with the plane." But Steve was shaking his head, attempting to rearrange his thoughts. "I think it... belongs to this plane," he stated carefully. "Or it did, originally. Anyway, it stays and we go. Now."
"And these?" Rodney grasped the chain in his fist, letting Captain John Sheppard's identification tags dangle and swing.
Steve was already backing cautiously away, never taking his eyes away from the wreckage. "They were in the cockpit. Rodney, come on." His voice cracked on that last word, hitting an edge of extreme unease; Rodney realized that if he didn't obey now, he was in danger of being left behind.
Before turning to follow, he touched the plane briefly and whispered, "I'm sorry," to no one and nothing in particular.
Rodney would always wonder if the impulse that made him run his fingertips over the scarred aluminum hide one last time was the same one that made him slip the dog tags into his pocket. That tactile memory -- the coolness of the metal, the raised welt of a seam -- was sometimes the only way he was able to assert his sanity and say: Yes, this happened to me, in a reality that exists outside of my admittedly vivid imagination.
The theft... well, he was pretty damned sure it was the root of his madness.
Discussion, apparently, was not permitted. But that was fine by Rodney.
If Steve had marched them briskly from his plane to the crash site, he double-timed it in reverse. Rodney didn't have the breath to spare for trivialities like words, or the mental faculty to argue when it required all of his concentration just to keep his footing on the rough terrain. His scrapes had scrapes by the time Steve was standing on one of the Beaver's floats, hurling his gear and Rodney up into the plane with equal abandon.
During the flight home, Rodney made the mistake of reaching for the radio. He got as far as, "I know it's probably pointless, but I feel like I have to-" before Steve had his wrist in a grip like a vice, forcing it away from the frequency selector.
"But I need to know-"
"No," Steve repeated flatly. "If you choose to pursue this -- and I know you will because you're you -- use your own equipment and do it on your own time. I want no part of it."
"How can you just ignore what hap-"
"I am expending a lot of effort not thinking about what happened out there, thank you, and it would be a thousand times easier if you would goddamned shut up about it already!" Steve punched his fist against the windshield. And okay, even he probably couldn't break it barehanded, but the sound was violent and startling, and so very out of character for such a mild-mannered guy that Rodney wisely subsided.
He spent the rest of the flight pretending to watch the scenery, when he wasn't shooting surreptitious glances at Steve's hand -- the one he was favoring, with the reddened knuckles.
All told, their adventure had lasted perhaps six hours. But that was six hours during which Rodney had forgotten to eat, punctuated by a roughshod crawl through the woods. All on top of a sleepless night. Rodney didn't realize what bad shape he was in until his legs wouldn't quite hold him, crawling from the plane to the dock, and he nearly ended up in the river.
Steve must have noticed, because instead of returning to the airport for Rodney's car, he drove Rodney straight home.
Rodney fidgeted while he unlocked his door, unsure what the social protocol was in situations such as these. He doubted it was appropriate to come out and say: I feel much closer to you now that we've shared an inexplicable and deeply unsettling experience, and I'm hoping that you don't want to be alone right now any more I do, so won't you please come in?
It turned out that Rodney didn't need to say anything. Steve pushed inside on Rodney's heels without an invitation, overtaking him in the hallway to beat him to the kitchen. He had a pair of glasses on the counter top before Rodney could blink -- and oh yeah, he'd been Morty's friend, and it wasn't like Rodney had rearranged, so of course Steve knew where everything was, down to the half empty bottle of vodka in the freezer.
"That was here when I arrived," Rodney explained unnecessarily.
Steve twisted off the cap and sniffed the contents. "Not like it goes bad," he shrugged, splashing some in the glasses. Then he rummaged in the fridge and withdrew the dreaded carton of orange juice.
Rodney rescued one of the glasses, clapping his hand over top of it and sliding it to safety. "Not in mine! I'm allergic, deathly allergic."
The dribble of juice Steve added to his own glass might as well have been a garnish, for color. He knocked back a gulp like a man dying of thirst, and gasped, "Then why keep it around?"
"Mrs Brewster likes it with her toast."
"Oh," Steve said, as if that explained everything. And maybe it did. "Morty loved her omelets."
A hypoglycemic reaction was imminent. Rodney dug a pudding cup out of the cabinet. Then, on second thought, he grabbed another. It wasn't polite to eat in front of company without sharing. And maybe it was the unorthodox mix of alcohol and butterscotch swirl, or maybe there was something about sitting in his kitchen that elicited a sense of comfort and safety, but whatever the reason, Rodney's nerves began to uncoil for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
He was leaning against the counter, not wanting to sit yet after being cramped in the plane for hours. His finger, which had just been swiping the last streaks of pudding out of the bottom of the container, now ran along the rim of his glass. "So. I, er, should apologize for tampering with your radio like that. If I'd just fixed it normally like I should have..."
Steve slugged back the rest of his drink and pounded the empty glass on the counter. "You look like you could use a shower and about twenty hours of sleep. I should go," he declared, rushed and over-loud.
So that's how it was going to be. For now, at any rate. "Yeah," Rodney agreed, letting the matter rest again. They both knew it wasn't dropped. "Thanks for bringing me home. And, you know, for trying."
"Welcome," Steve mumbled. "I'll stop by tomorrow to bring you to your car. Till then, you know where to call me if you need me."
"I'll bring something to help get all that duct tape off the Beav," Rodney promised.
"Sounds good." Steve shoved his hands into his pockets; one bulged when he made a fist, presumably around his car keys. "Thanks for the drink. ...I gotta go now," he repeated, and made good his escape.
Apparently, some people preferred to recover from assaults on their world view in private. Listening to his front door slam, and the sound of Steve's truck starting in the parking lot, Rodney wished he was one of them.
The marathon shower only ended when he ran out of hot water, an impressive feat considering that his house was outfitted with a commercial water heater. Still, he was feeling close to human again, and he'd managed to stop jumping at shadows in broad daylight. Though perhaps it was a bit premature to declare himself on the road to recovery, because rediscovering Captain John Sheppard's dog tags when he shook out his pants for the laundry was akin to taking a header off a Suzuki crotch rocket while doing 200 kph. Not... that he could speak from experience, but that vivid imagination did have its uses.
The tags had slithered from his pocket and fallen to the floor. He nudged them with his toe, but they remained inert. Finally, after reminding himself that he had a moral and scientific obligation to not behave like a superstitious bonehead -- sorry Steve, no offense -- he picked up the tags and tossed them in a junk drawer.
He couldn't just throw away evidence. Some day -- not today, and god, not anytime soon, but some day -- he might want to do a little research on John Sheppard.
As bizarre as his day had been, it shouldn't have been any surprise that his dreams were just as disconcerting.
Or make that dream, singular. In it, he'd been searching frantically through his house -- upending drawers, ransacking cabinets, and rifling through closets -- while John's voice urged him on. Rodney, please. I- I don't know where I am. It's dark. I can't see. Why can't I see anything? Please, you've gotta help me.
He'd opened his eyes to discover a dark, man-sized silhouette standing at the foot of his bed.
Then he'd opened his eyes again -- for real this time -- and flailed for the bedside lamp while screeching like a cheerleader in a slasher flick.
Of course there had been nothing there. But sleep after that... so wasn't happening.
Steve looked disgustingly well rested when he came to retrieve Rodney the next day, just after lunch. It would have been a small consolation if he'd had matching dark bags beneath his eyes, or if Rodney had caught him doing that stare into the distance with a haunted expression thing. But that whole suppression and denial routine seemed to be working well for Steve; while Rodney was back to jumping at shadows, with the echo of dream-John's cries still prickling at overwrought nerves.
"There's a pot of coffee on," Steve said as he was parking next to Rodney's car. "If you want to come in."
As conciliatory gestures went, it was small and predictable... but also heartfelt. "Okay," Rodney agreed.
Inside, Steve motioned for Rodney to sit at a desk, then poured him the promised coffee and slid it across. And there was one of those distant, haunted expressions, but Rodney refused to acknowledge it. He sipped his drink -- strong and black and fortifying, just what the doctor ordered.
"So, um..." Steve began.
"I didn't," Rodney sighed. "At least, not yet."
"But you're going to."
"Maybe you don't understand how much it bothers me to leave a mystery unsolved. What happened out there-"
Steve met his gaze pointedly. "I've already drawn my own conclusions."
"Is that so. Care to enlighten me?"
He hesitated. "No, I don't think I will. You just want to hear it aloud so you can ridicule the idea. Then I'll get pissed off, and you'll declare that I'm being unreasonable, and we'll sulk and pout and not speak for a week."
Rodney opened his mouth to protest.
"I played the same game with Morty, off and on. I know how it goes."
"Are you sure that you and my uncle weren't... you know... never mind."
There was a book sitting on the corner of the desk. No, more like a scrapbook, or a photo album. It was a traditional deep hunter green, but there was a faded stripe across the top, as if it had rested on a shelf next to a smaller tome for some time. Steve nudged the book toward Rodney. "At least give me a chance to convince you not to pursue it."
Fair enough. When Rodney reached to open the book, Steve's palm slapped the cover back down. "Better take it home with you," he suggested. "It'll... take some time to digest."
It was a scrapbook, though not the modern take on the notion, with stickers and cut-outs and sixteen different shades of glitter ink. This was a man's scrapbook. Photographs of hunting conquests vied with yellowed newspaper articles offering home-improvement advice and clippings from a sex magazine that had to be a couple decades old, going by the hair styles. There were many, many amateur photographs of pilots and planes. And if one of the gangling kids in the one of the photos looked an awful lot like Steve minus twenty years, well... that might have something to do with how he'd gotten his hands on the book in the first place.
Then Rodney turned the page, and his heart literally missed a beat.
The pictures belonged to a series, labeled '82 BPA annual gathering. Bush Pilots' Association? A cluster of light, hardy little planes stood at the edge of an expanse of field. They'd been parked in a semi-circle formation, noses in; pilots leaned casually against wing supports and propellers.
CGLZM stood to the left of the circle, looking eager and flight worthy despite a touch of shabbiness.
But that alone wasn't enough to induce heart palpitations. No, Rodney had to catalog the pilot's lean frame, sensible jeans, and loose oxford shirt that was rolled up above the elbows, and compare the ensemble to the closer, more intimate shots. There was one that had caught him from the waist up, in three-quarters profile, not quite looking at the photographer. Perhaps not even aware that he was being photographed.
Rodney recognized him, but not as John Sheppard, or even CGLZM.
It was the dark-haired man from his dreams.
There was an entire pantheon of things Rodney was willing to concede could exist, even though he'd never personally witnessed evidence thereof. Time travel, for starters. Space aliens. The perfect man. But he absolutely, positively could not accept that he'd been dreaming of a guy he'd never seen before in his life, who turned out to be real, and probably dead. The guy from his dreams looked close to the same age as the guy in the photographs, not a day over forty. The guy in the photographs would be sixty now. Even with that sort of age difference, Rodney would have remembered him if they'd met during the year Rodney had stayed with Morty. He would have; he'd never been immune to the charms of older, experienced men.
Steve couldn't have known about the dreams or the dark-haired man. He'd only wanted Rodney to see the plane, CGLZM, and be spooked enough to give up the hunt for answers. He definitely hadn't intended to hand Rodney a whole new host of questions.
Rodney was tearing through the rest of the book to see if John Sheppard or CGLZM made any further appearances -- a missing pilot would make the local papers, even if it was just an obituary -- when a shadow fell across the page. He didn't notice at first; it hadn't been an unusual occurrence for his moronic assistants to creep up behind him and try to read things over his shoulder. Except... well. It was a much more unusual occurrence when he was at home, supposedly alone.
It required supreme willpower to maintain his composure, but somehow he managed. Instead of whipping around, he twisted slowly, leading with his peripheral vision. His range of sight shifted degree by degree, until he was looking completely back over his shoulder.
Then he did whip around to check over his other shoulder, but there was nothing there either, and when he returned his attention to the book, the shadow was gone.
If it had ever actually been there to begin with.
Thanks to the amount of effort he'd put into the old radio, Rodney was behind on his small appliance repairs. He spent the next day sitting at his work bench, trying to catch up. But his work bench faced the wall, and his back felt way too exposed turned to the large room like that, and he spent less time fixing toasters and more time arranging small, reflective objects on the bench so that he could see behind him.
He had to give up entirely when he started to think he was catching the occasional faint shimmer of motion, because dear god, the point of the exercise was to convince himself that there was nothing there.
Steve called three times, leaving a message once. Rodney refused to pick up each time.
Steve retaliated by siccing Mrs Brewster on him Monday morning.
She totally didn't have the grace to deny it, either. "That nice boy Steve told me that you were feeling a little... under the weather," she explained, bustling down his hallway toward the kitchen. "So I brought bacon."
Argh, bacon wasn't playing fair. Rodney had no idea how she always cooked it to such perfection -- crisp, not burned or soggy.
He was plotting a new shower head for her bathroom while she cracked eggs into the frying pan, and thus was completely unprepared when she turned to inquire, "What about your friend? Should I make enough for him, too?"
"Steve?" Most of the mornings Mrs Brewster came over, Steve was already in the air making his deliveries. It was rare -- but not unheard of -- for him to stop in for breakfast. "Nah, I think he's got a mail run today."
She made a gesture as if she meant to thump him with her spatula. "Not Steve. Your other friend."
Rodney blinked at her stupidly, the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to rise. "Other... friend?"
"I'm sorry, I thought you had company," she said, eyes dancing with amusement. "My mistake."
Dear god, she thought- The whole town knew by now that his tastes ran similar to Morty's. Why would he deny it if he'd actually been lucky enough to have a man spend the night? Rodney hadn't gotten laid in- "Wait." He choked on the word. "My friend. Did you... see him? Just now?"
"He was watching out the window when I arrived," she gloated at catching Rodney in a gossip-worthy act. "He even waved to me. If he's as polite as he is handsome, you should keep him. Now, aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Excuse me," Rodney said, nearly overturning his chair in his haste to get up from the table. There was no point in rushing to the front room to search for something that did not exist, and therefore could not have been seen by his elderly yet sharp-as-tacks neighbor. Instead, he bolted to the bathroom, where he spent a few indecisive minutes leaning over the toilet, trying to decide if he wanted to throw up now, or wait until he had a decent meal in his stomach to make the effort worthwhile.
The benefit of returning from the bathroom with such a pallor on his face was that he didn't need to lie to Mrs Brewster to get her to leave. She took one look at him and fixed her own breakfast on a plate to take home with her. "Try to eat something," she coaxed him with a kindly pat on her way out the door. "You need to keep up your strength."
Rodney stared at his breakfast without touching it; the colder it grew the more unappetizing it became, until he finally dumped the whole thing in the trash.
He ripped the photograph of John Sheppard out of the scrapbook and dug out his dog tags from the back of the junk drawer, and arranged them on the kitchen table -- the chain of the tags forming a loop, framing the photo inside -- as if he could glean the mysteries of the universe from studying them.
The chain didn't want to remain in a perfect circle. He kept having to nudge it with his fingertip; if he'd been willing to embrace madness, he could have imagined that every time he made an adjustment, an invisible hand pushed another segment of the chain askew.
He ignored two more phone calls from Steve, but picked up in a damned hurry when he heard the answering machine click over, and John's voice begin, Rodney...
"Listen," he growled into the receiver, cupping it both hands for fear he'd drop it if he tried just one. "I don't know who the hell you are, or what the hell you want with me, but I am through! If you don't leave me the fuck alone, I'm going to call the police and press charges for harassment. And if the police aren't competent enough to find you, believe me when I say that I will hunt you down and put a stop to this myself!"
Rodney slammed the receiver down, ending the call.
Please, will you just wait a moment and let me say something?
Rodney picked up the receiver and tucked it to his ear again. He jiggled the switch-hook a few times to make sure the call was definitely disconnected; a dial tone confirmed it.
I wanted to thank you, for not giving up on me.
Dropping the receiver like it was on fire, he traced John's voice to its new source, a boom box sitting on his repair shelf. When he leaned close to the speaker, the impression was similar to listening to someone speak with your ear pressed to their chest; the words swelled, rich and deep.
I'd been out there so long I'd sort of... lost my grip, you know? Given up. I was close to losing myself. But you never wavered. That meant so much to me, more than you could possibly-
Rodney was acting on impulse when he picked up the boom box and hurled it against the cinder block wall. He then proceeded to kick the remains until it was nothing but a silent smear of busted plastic and electronic guts, splattered all over his work room floor.
When he was finished, he clutched at his hair and tried to calm his breathing around the bubbles of hysteria that continued to rise in helpless laughter.
So this was what a nervous breakdown felt like.
Also, he owed somebody a new boom box.
He didn't think he would be able to sleep ever again for the rest of his life, but he was tired enough that he might have dozed off on the sofa while desperately trying to distract himself with a book. It was Hitchhiker's Guide, a comfort read he pretty much had memorized, so he didn't notice when the words started to blur on the page, and his head nodded toward his chest.
He jerked awake when a weight compressed the cushions next to him.
The dark-haired man was sitting there. Rodney knocked the book off his lap and tried to scramble up, but the man put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, gently but firmly pushing him back down. Wait, Rodney, it's okay.
"The hell it is!" The man's touch was cool even though his shirt, the way icy air seeped right through loose-weave fabric. "Okay... I've got to stay calm, think about this..." He winced. "I'm dreaming again, aren't I? I mean, I must be, because you're not real. You're not even remotely possible. You don't exist."
And yet, here I am, all thanks to you. You saved me.
"John?" The name was a strangled whisper. Rodney could not bring himself to lay a hand on John in return, to throw off the grip and flee. Instead, he was captivated, sitting there trembling beneath the touch.
John broke into a smile that was all the more horrific for its fondness. I've been considering what you said, he pressed on, and it turns out you were right. I never thought I'd make it out of there, so I never gave any thought to what comes next. If you hadn't brought me here, and let me stay with you, I... I don't know what would have happened, but I'm certain it would have destroyed me.
Oh god, oh god... he had offered to let John stay with him. I'll try if you will, he'd said, meaning that he and John could attempt to eke out new lives here, together. John was taking full advantage of his goddamned invitation.
John's hand slid off his shoulder and down his arm, raising goosebumps in its wake. I've been watching you, you know. He shifted closer to Rodney, until their knees were pressed together. I like what I see, and I think we could be good together.
"Oh, fuck me! This is a dream, a very demented dream, and I need to wake up right now," Rodney babbled.
Not if I can help it, John murmured, leaning in with a rapt expression and lightly parted lips. I was kinda hoping for an opportunity to demonstrate my gratitude...
Rodney squeezed his eyes closed; they involuntarily flew open again at the sensation of John's chill mouth pressed against his. But the sensation was all there was. He was suddenly alone -- no, awake -- sprawled on his sofa with a book sliding off his lap.
When it hit the floor with a thud, he shut his eyes again and didn't move for a very long time.
After that, he was afraid to sleep. In his dreams, John -- the delusion he called John, whatever the hell it actually was -- seemed to be... more. Stronger, more cohesive and influential. It was terrifying to imagine that it could do things to him without his consent, that he might not be able to escape into wakefulness the next time. That the dreams weren't real didn't particularly matter. They were vivid enough as he experienced them that he couldn't tell the difference until it was too late.
Staying awake meant coffee. His hands shuddered as he prepared a pot, and it ended up tasting burnt and disgusting because he'd made it too strong, but he didn't care and forced down huge gulps of the stuff anyway.
The kick brought his brain online. It was almost like being back in the crunch of the R&D lab before the rollout of a product that everyone had to pretend was ready even though they all knew it was still faulty and full of flaws.
There had to be a spin, an angle, some manner he could present the problem so that he could sucker himself into believing it could be fixed if he adhered to a rational, logically progressive plan.
There had to be a solution that didn't involve psychoactive drugs.
Wait. Rational. Could he... reason with it?
"Look," he addressed his kitchen in general, "I don't know how this works. I don't know if you can hear me, or... or whatever, because you don't actually have ears. The point is, this is all a really huge misunderstanding. And I sincerely apologize for misleading you, as that was never my intention. Although, to be fair, you sort of mislead me, too. The only reason I offered to let you stay here is because I thought you were, you know, a person."
The question of whether or not John was listening was answered pretty conclusively when his photograph picked itself up off the table, drifting across the room to settle on the counter near Rodney's elbow. It was crooked at first. An invisible nudge straightened it out.
Rodney looked at the photo again, noticing details that had escaped him before -- the way the collar of John's shirt was unevenly turned down, the dark smudge of a five o'clock shadow on his jaw. Small, human imperfections. Rodney might suck at charades, but he understood the message as plainly as if John had spoken aloud.
He wrung his hands and moaned. "Oh god, I should have known this would happen. I'm not in any shape to debate semantics or philosophy. And besides, there stands a good chance that you're nothing but a figment of my imagination. In which case... I would be arguing with myself, and I am far too stubborn to ever let me win. So let me begin again. I'm sorry, but you can't stay here. Please leave."
I have nowhere else to go.
For a moment, Rodney thought he'd imagined the words, but no; the tone completely wasn't what he would have expected. It wasn't wheedling or plaintive, but plain and matter-of-fact. It also wasn't emanating from any device Rodney could pinpoint. The sound hit both ears at precisely the same time; without the stereophonic effect, it seemed to be directly on top of him.
Or perhaps inside his head.
"That's n-not my problem," he stammered, trying to be firm.
Oh, come on Rodney. You have a ton of space here, way more than you need. And I don't need much. I'm a good roommate, well-behaved and quiet. In fact, John suggested slyly, you won't even remember I'm here unless I make myself known.
"Is that supposed to reassure me?" Rodney squealed. "Because I don't know about you, but the idea of a silent, invisible... thing watching my every move unsettles me profoundly."
Will you stop referring to me as if I'm not even sentient? I'm the same John Sheppard I always was, just... in a slightly different format.
"Not helping!" Oh god, he really was bickering with himself. No one else would use such a bizarre and strangely appropriate argument.
The air across the room from him shimmered, and in the time it took to blink, John had materialized. He was lounging in a kitchen chair as comfortably at ease as Mrs Brewster, or Steve. Like he freaking belonged there. "How about this?"
Okay, that was new. John had never appeared so solid outside of dreams before. He was even casting a shadow, and his reflection was a blur of vague color against the shiny front of Rodney's stove -- a fully realized hallucination in every detail. Rodney's psychosis had just upped the ante. "No, no, no, no, no. You aren't actually sitting there." He framed a space with his hands in the air, roughly John's size and shape.
"Then why don't you try to touch me to prove it," John challenged with a faint scowl.
Which... only caused Rodney to plaster himself against the cabinets, as far away from John as was possible in the confines of the small room. "I don't think that's such a good idea."
John pushed the chair away from the table and stood, making Rodney flinch and cower back even more. "Rodney-" he began, but cut off in a frustrated sound. "Have you ever heard the saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes'?"
"Now you're telling me that God exists? That's it, I'm checking myself into the mental hospital first thing tomorrow."
"What? No, you're missing the point. Strong beliefs aren't put aside lightly. It can take a pretty drastic experience to open your eyes. Hell, I used to be quite the skeptic, and look at me now."
"Great, just great," Rodney moaned. "My hallucination suffered a crisis of self-doubt."
"Damn it, I'm not a hallucination!" His hands clenched into fists at his sides. "I know I can convince you otherwise. Eventually. I just- I need some time, and I need you to stop being so unreasonable."
Rodney started to edge for the door. He would have to swing closer to John than he would have liked to squeeze through, but now that John was mobile he had to move or risk being cornered and trapped. "We all want things we can't have. I for one want you get the hell out of my house so that I can have a decent night's sleep without worrying about you hovering at the foot of my bed watching me breathe!"
"I only did that once," John defended.
"Oh my god, I can't believe you just admitted that!"
"I will convince you," John repeated, firm. "You'll come to see that this isn't such a bad deal for either of us. I need a place to stay, and you're miserable and lonely-"
Rodney snorted. It might be true, but it was still a low blow for his own delusion to point it out to him.
"-and I'm good company. We're a good match."
"Like hell! Remember, this is me, Rodney McKay, hello, I actually exist?"
John folded his arms over his chest. "Fine. Be as stubborn about it as you like. But you're forgetting one thing."
"What's that?" Rodney sneered.
"I have all the time in the world to convince you, because there's nothing you can to do get rid of me."
Taken aback, Rodney blinked at him stupidly, while John just looked superior and smug. But in the back of Rodney's mind, a plan was beginning to form. "The hell I can't," he growled, lunging for the table, where John's dog tags were still pooled in a heap. He snatched them and darted for the door.
John moved to intercept him, but Rodney didn't slow his momentum, just squeezed his eyes shut and braced for the collision... that didn't happen. Suddenly he was stumbling down his hall, and John was behind him, still shouting.
"Will you hold on for a damned minute? Where do you think you're going?"
"To prove you wrong," Rodney gritted, and kept going.
He made it as far as his car. As he was shoving the key in the ignition, the interior lights flickered out, and when he rotated the switch there was dry clicking sound instead of the roar of an engine turning over. Dead. Completely dead.
Then John was sitting in the passenger seat next to him, reaching over to unlatch Rodney's safety belt. "You're upset. It's the middle of the night, you haven't slept... you're in no shape to go anywhere. Come back inside," he said gently.
"What did you do?" Rodney demanded. He groped under the dash to pop the hood, then slid from the car.
John didn't need to follow; one moment he was in the car, the next he was standing by the bumper waiting for Rodney. "Don't worry, it's nothing you can't fix tomorrow, in daylight, after you've had some rest."
When Rodney yanked the hood open, he discovered that the cables running to the battery had been cleanly severed. He slammed the hood back down in disgust, then braced his palms to lean over it, letting his head sag. "It's the tags, isn't it? You don't want me to get rid of them because if I do, I get rid of you." He'd intended to throw them in the river. Now that his car was out of commission, he needed another way to get down there.
"There is no trick, Rodney. Certainly not my dog tags. I'll admit, when you found them, they helped me... remember. But that's all."
"That's exactly what you would say if you don't want me to put it to the test." Rodney stalked back to the house, taking great satisfaction in slamming the door on John's face.
Of course, it didn't work; John merely met him in the hall. "Come," he coaxed. "Come sit down. We can talk. You can ask me anything you like, about anything. I can help you relax..."
There was no fancy running through John this time. Rodney sidestepped him with caution, not wanting to brush -- or brush through -- any part of him. He hesitated only a second when his hand touched the the telephone. It was extremely late, but Steve wouldn't mind being woken up for an emergency, and Rodney rather thought this counted as one. He lifted the receiver, cradling it against his shoulder, and... no dial tone.
When John spoke, he was standing across the room, but his voice came from the telephone as well. "Please don't bother your friend on my account. It's dangerous to fly if you're preoccupied or tired, and I'm sure you wouldn't want him to have an accident tomorrow because you had him running around for no reason tonight."
Rodney dropped the phone. "You wouldn't," he gasped.
"I have no idea what you're insinuating," John replied, with the barest trace of a knowing smile.
"You know what? Fuck it. I'm out. I quit. You can have the house if you want it so badly." He stormed to the kitchen, where he pulled John's dog tags out of his pocket and fed them into the garbage disposal.
"Now you're just being spiteful. You already know that won't work."
Rodney flipped the switch... nothing. He toggled it rapidly half a dozen times before giving a hoarse, frustrated shout.
"Besides, I don't want your house. That wasn't our deal."
"What deal? We don't have a deal! Are you insane?" Rodney rubbed his face in his hands. "Wait, don't answer that. You're all in my head, so of course you're only as sane as I am."
John appraised him from the doorway, where he was leaning against the frame as if he actually using it for support. "I will if you will, you said. And I agreed. Do you have any idea what it cost me to do that? I might have been wasting away in the woods, but at least there would have been some relief in oblivion. You aren't allowed to back out now -- not after convincing me to invest everything in starting over, here, with you. We are doing this together."
Rodney pretended to consider John's argument while he poured himself another infusion of caffeine, ignoring the excess his unsteady hands sloshed on the counter. Then he said, "I'll need to turn off the utilities and winterize the place, but that shouldn't bother you, because you don't need heat or running water. I'll have to leave most of the equipment, so feel free to entertain yourself. I know that normally requires electricity, but you seem to have a certain knack with electronics. Anything left in the fridge or the cupboards is fair game. Not... that it will do you any good. Let's see, am I forgetting anything? Oh, the deposit."
"Rodney, I don't wish us to be at odds. It doesn't have to be this way."
"The deposit is non-refundable," Rodney continued, "in the event of structural or cosmetic damage to the premises. So no wild parties, and try not to stain the carpet or scratch up the walls. Oh wait, you'd have to be corporal to do that."
John pushed off the doorway, moving across the room to bury his arm to the elbow in the sink, retrieving his dog tags. He coiled the chain slowly around his fist. "Please, I'll ask you one more time-"
"I'm afraid the rule is absolutely no pets." Rodney threw back a gulp of coffee and slammed his mug down . "Now if you'll excuse me, I have quite a lot of packing to do. I'm getting the fuck out of town, and I plan to get an early start."
"No! You see, I realized that I might not have the power to throw you out, but you don't have the power to-"
"I'm sorry," John said, and his expression as he stretched out a hand in Rodney's direction was so earnest and remorseful that it brought Rodney up short.
Panic flared in his chest. "What do you mean?" he asked, because he could already sense that there was something wrong, profoundly wrong.
"It's all right." John crept closer, his words pitched low and soothing.
"John, what did you do?" Rodney pleaded. He was sweating suddenly, and it felt as if all the blood had run out of his face.
"Listen to my voice." John's hand touched his shoulder. No -- gripped it, somehow helping to steady him. Why did he need steadying? "Concentrate."
The panic in his chest tightened, forcing his breathing shallow and rapid. There was an unfamiliar bittersweet taste on his tongue...
"Focus on the sound, and I promise it will be over soon."
Rodney stumbled; when his flailing arm knocked his mug to the floor, it broke in a splatter of orange liquid. Not coffee. "Oh my god, I'm allergic-"
"Shh, I know. It's okay."
He kept a dose of epinephrine in most rooms of his house, just to be safe. But always, always in the kitchen. The cabinets took most his weight as he pawed the drawer open, digging through the contents. "No, no, no..." he moaned. "Where is it? It should be right here!"
John crooned and petted his shoulder, offering comfort. "Calm down. You can stop searching. You won't find it."
"You- He-" But it wasn't panic cutting off his air. Rodney gasped and clawed at his throat; he lost his grip on the cabinets and would have fallen if John hadn't been there to catch him and ease him to the ground.
Strong arms cradled him, rocking gently.
"Don't worry, it doesn't hurt."
His vision blacked. The panic was dimming, drifting away, until he was left with nothing but the peaceful voice and the solid warmth of the embrace.
"Just a little longer, and then we can start over, together. Just like we promised."