Disclaimer: ...they're MINE! ALL MINE! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA-- ::thunk::
Author's Notes: For Santa Madness and the irresistable amnesia prompt.
Summary: It matters like a hole in the head, because that's what it is: a hole, a wound, a fissure. He can feel out the raw edges where his memories have been cut to pieces, the sudden blanks where the film breaks and he is left flailing on the edge of words.
Folie a Deux
He wakes up screaming, but he doesn't even know why; he sits up and thrashes off the blankets, but he can't get his bearings, he waits for recognition to set in and it doesn't. This place is wrong, all wrong, dirty cement and iron bed frames and a urine-like smell in the corners, but he doesn't know what's right, he doesn't know, he does not know--
"Hey. Hey!" A hand closes on his arms and he throws out a hand, not even pretending to make it a proper punch, just trying to get away. There's a rattling sound and then another hand catches his other arm and somebody says, "Calm the fuck down already. You look like you're gonna stroke out."
He shuts his eyes and breathes and thinks of blue skies and prime numbers. Surprisingly, it helps. When he opens his eyes, there are still hands on his arms, and there's a man—a skinny man with a crown of wild dark hair who's looking at him, staring at him without blinking. "Get your hands off me," he blurts, trying to muster something other than cold fear.
"You done freaking out?" Dark Hair asks.
"Who are you?" he asks instead, in a tone that's distinctly shriller than he was aiming for. "Where am I? What the hell is going on?"
Dark Hair just looks down, at his hands, and says, "You ask a lot of questions," in a tone of voice that's not fooling anybody.
He looks down and realized they're both wearing shackles, with long chains trailing from their wrists.
You are in the House of Renewal. You have been cleansed of your sins. Here you will learn to live free and virtuous lives unencumbered by your past mistakes. When you leave this place you will be a new and better person.
They call him Rhe. He's not sure why. Tall, dark and skinny is Ja, which makes about as much sense. They are given thin baggy clothes and thin fuzzy socks and fresh sheets every morning before breakfast.
When Rhe demands to know why he's even here, the staff look at him sadly and say, "It doesn't matter now."
But it does matter, he wants to shout. It matters like a hole in the head, because that's what it is: a hole, a wound, a fissure. He can feel out the raw edges where his memories have been cut to pieces, the sudden blanks where the film breaks and he is left flailing on the edge of words. It actually physically hurts, but nobody seems to believe him, except Ja, who rubs his own forehead when he thinks nobody is watching.
The other...patients or inmates or penitents or whatever the fuck they are...the others don't care. They shuffle around in their fuzzy socks with big bland cow-eyes and nobody seems worried, nobody seems hurt. They are blandly compliant with their keepers and sometimes Rhe wants to shake them by the shoulders and ask What's the matter with you? Don't you understand? Aren't you angry about what's been done to you? But the one time he does ask, they all stare at him blankly, as if it is Rhe who doesn't understand.
He writes, but only when nobody is watching, because it makes the keepers angry. He starts out writing words, but they're too dangerous, too easy to recover, and so he writes in numbers and equations, starting with a + b = b + a.
These things are true, and so he writes them down on his arms, on the wall behind his bed, in the dirt of the courtyard with his finger or a broke stick. When the others notice, they sit and stare at what he scribbles and asks what it means, what it's supposed to say.
When Ja notices, Rhe is up to quadratic equations, and he casually says, "You reversed the sign there," and Rhe kind of loves him for it.
Your questions are inappropriate. They will only interfere with your rehabilitation. You must let go of your past if you wish to move forward.
We only want what is best for you. We only want to help you. You have a chance to let go of your sinful nature and become a new man, a good man, a productive member of society. You are now free of all your vices and temptations; why would you want to burden yourself with the knowledge of another life?
Of course you were a wicked man. Why else would you have come here?
"What the hell is this?" Rhe mutters when the keepers set a bowl of slimy beans in front of him. There are small yellow flecks visible against the purple-red beans and the whole thing smells like mildew. "Am I supposed to eat this or decontaminate it?"
"It's uersh," one of the others says dully.
"It's disgusting," Ja says. He actually prods his bowl, and one of the beans bursts from the slightest touch, reduced to mealy slush under the spoon.
Rhe pushes back his bowl. "No. No way. I'll starve, thanks."
"But it's just uersh," they say, and they are looking disturbed, the first emotion he's seen penetrate their blank lethargy.
"It's vile and I'll have none of it." He turns to seek Ja's support and finds him tasting the bean-sludge from the bowl. "Oh my god, what are you doing?"
"Tastes like chicken," Ja says warily.
"And you think that's a good thing?"
One of the keepers came up behind them and asked, "What is the matter?"
"This," Rhe says, pointing at the bowl. "I'm not eating this."
"You must eat," they tell him, because now there are two.
Ja nudges him under the table while Rhe says, "And when you bring me something that is not toxic waste, I will."
"Uersh is not toxic nor waste," the keepers tell him. "You see that the others all eat it."
"Maybe Rhe's got allergies," Ja says, while putting his heel into Rhe's toes to keep him from talking. "Did you ever think to check him for allergies?"
"Rhe is not your problem," the keepers say, because there are three of them now, looming over Rhe's shoulders, and he has suddenly realized that maybe he should've just eaten the sludge. "We will feed him."
Four hands seize his arms, and Rhe can see clearly in his mind's eye how they will drag him away and hold him down and force chicken beans down his throat with syringes and tubes, and he will choke and vomit, so they will do it again, and then they will tell him in soft kind voices how this is all his fault.
But first, Ja vaults over the table.
This is a House of Renewal. This is a place to change.
"That was really dumb," Rhe says, even though his throat is raw from the tubes.
Ja seems fascinated by the bandages on his hands. "They didn't look that tough."
It's past lights-out, so they whisper, and fall silent when they hear the keepers moving up and down the halls. "Why did you even do that?" Rhe asks.
Ja is silent. Ja was a quiet guy, and at first that made Rhe think he remembered things, but now he just thinks Ja is scared to talk. "Wanted to see if I could," he finally says, which is a big damn lie, but Rhe lets him be because it hurts to talk.
The keepers don't like Rhe because he asks question. They don't like Ja because he doesn't say anything at all. Their days are full of prayer and chanting and lectures on virtuous living, but Rhe and Ja ignore them all, preferring to scratch in the dirt or stare into space or huddle in migraine misery. Well, Rhe huddles; Ja stands over him, or leans against him, and answers for them both in short, broken sentences.
Sometimes that gets them into trouble, or rather it gets Ja into trouble, because Ja will vault over the table or punch people in the face or kick their knees out with the slightest provocation. Rhe doesn't get it, except how he kind of does, because he knows this is all wrong but he doesn't know what would be right and sometimes it hurts so much he wants to scream till the walls come down.
Ja tries to stop him from screaming, but Ja also broke somebody's nose just for touching Rhe's sleeve. Maybe that's just how he deals.
Because when they whisper in the dark they both know something is wrong, very wrong, though Ja won't actually admit to any headaches. And maybe what's wrong with Ja is the same thing that's wrong with Rhe, the broken edges as sharp as glass where memories used to be. The others, the gray-faced patient-inmate-penitents, they walk around like they're lobotomized (a word only Ja understands, when Rhe uses it; they have a lot of words like that between them) and that's what makes Rhe think something is different about him. That's what makes him think something is very, very wrong.
That, and the wound on his forearm, about the width of his little finger. For some reason, whenever he sees it, he wants to cry.
Whoever desires to be saved, will be saved; whoever desires to change, will be changed; whoever desires to live, will live.
"We need to get out of here," Ja says one day, as they crouch by the courtyard wall. It's too hot in the sun, but the others are walking there, smiling vacantly and looking at flowers. Rhe and Ja are huddled in the shade because the sunlight makes Rhe's brain want to crawl out of his ears.
"And how do you propose we do that? Hmm?" Rhe peeks out from behind his sleeve, but no, still photosensitive; he can barely make out the watchtower and the armed keepers on its balcony. "Stab security to death with our spoons?"
"They've got a computer," Ja says, and that instantly revolutionizes everything, because computer is one of those words that sets off sparks in Rhe's brain and makes him a little sick and a little giddy at once. "I saw it in the room where...the quiet room."
This is where Ja disappears to every time he does something inadvisably violent. He is usually delivered back to their cell-room-holding tank in a drugged haze, and Rhe sits next to him until either his pupils contract to a normal diameter or he starts swearing. "Are you sure?" Rhe asks.
Ja nods, eyes moving restlessly across the courtyard. "It's a large console, maybe four feet high, with writing down the sides. They're using it for a candleholder."
"Then how do you know it's a computer?"
"How do you know what a foot is?"
Rhe stares at his feet and thinks, not for the first time, that he's completely insane. It's what the others whisper about them, he knows, and since they seem to be the only ones with chronic headaches and secret languages he thinks it might possibly be true. "Even if it is a computer," he says, "what do we do with it?"
"You're a smart guy, Rhe," Ja says confidently. "I bet you can figure it out."
There is more than one kind of keeper, though they all wear the same blue-gray shifts and go about with shaved heads and pierced ears. There are the kind who do the menial work, like mopping and serving up uersh, and there are the kind who lead the prayers and meditations, and the kind of who drag Ja off to the quiet room when he starts smashing dinnerware. Nurses, doctors and orderlies, Rhe thinks, but he tells these thoughts only to Ja, who of course agrees.
It's a doctor who comes to Rhe after one of the meditations, which he spent laying on his side with his sleeve over his eyes, thinking about ways to describe the slope of a curved line. "You did not participate."
"He's not feeling so good," Ja says.
"He is not your concern," the doctor says, and two orderlies appear at his shoulders. Bad things come in threes, you know.
"I'm sick," Rhe says. "I keep telling you I'm sick and you don't believe me."
"You will not get better if you continue malingering."
"The man is sick," Ja says, standing up, but one of the orderlies puts his hand out to hold him back.
Rhe manages to sit up, though the light through the windows makes him nauseated. "This is not malingering, you overbearing hippy," he says. "This is an atypical migraine caused by whatever voodoo you used to mangle my frontal lobes. If I could concentrate for long enough, I'd have even more insults, but as it is I can barely keep down my chicken-flavored slime from this morning, so you'll have to settle with 'raging incompetent and backwater sadist.'"
The doctor frowns. "Perhaps you require further treatment."
It takes Ja one well-placed move to break the first orderly's arm, and a knee in the face to floor him. The second orderly gets in a fairly haymaker, but then Ja flips him over his back and brings his heel in the guy's nose; that orderly does not move again. In the time it takes him to do these things, the doctor has managed to turn ninety degrees and say "Oh;" Ja punches him three times hard in the stomach, then boxes his ears and kicks him to the ground.
He should run for it, then; Rhe yells at him to run for it. Instead Ja grabs something, one of the tall censers that holds fragrant oils, and spins it so its three little legs make a sort of trident. "Nobody touches him!" he starts yelling. "Nobody fucking touches him, you understand me?"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Rhe demands, struggling to his feet.
Ja presses him to the wall, because more keepers are coming, orderlies and doctors and men with sticks. "I'll kill every last one of you sons of bitches if I have to, you understand me?"
And he certainly makes the effort, but the last thing Rhe sees before he's dragged away is Ja going limp from all the needles in his chest and neck.
Memory is a kind of prison, for we are slaves to our own history, our own weakness, our own bad habits. It is easy to become a good person if you no longer have a reason to be a bad one.
The quiet room is very, very quiet. It is also dark, and Rhe realizes he shouldn't move after he already has, and has felt the restraints around his wrists and ankles and neck. He can hear the keepers talking quietly, but doesn't understand what they're saying, except dangerous and abnormal and negative influence.
He doesn't see Ja anywhere. But he does see Ja's computer, with the angular script running up and down the sides, and he realizes in an agonizing flash that escape will be the easiest thing in the world. It makes him throw up a bit, actually, and with the strap around his neck he cannot turn his head. His choking summons the keepers, who turn up the gas lights and turn Rhe's head.
"You are a problematic case, Rhe," the head doctor says when the vomiting is over. "I cannot tell if it is a blessing or a curse."
"If you hurt him I'm going to kill everyone on this planet," Rhe says calmly, and means it, even if later he can't explain why he phrased it that way.
"If the Ancestors are kind, you will never have the chance," the doctor says, and moves behind Rhe's head. The room is suddenly full of white fire and noise, or maybe it's all an illusion, or maybe he's simply gone mad.
Forgetfulness is a kind of freedom. You can do many amazing things when you do not know they are impossible.
He wakes up screaming and doesn't know why; he thrashes off the blankets until a pair of strong arms gets him from behind and whispers "Shh, shh, chill out, you're all right, shhhhh..."
There is a terrible empty minute before he can say, "I know you."
"Yeah, you do." The arms relax but don't let him go. "I'm sorry. I tried."
"They hurt me."
"Yeah." Pause. "I'm going to kill them for that."
He looks down at his arm, and the arms around him. There's matching horizontal cuts along the inside of the forearm and they make him want to cry. "I saw the computer," he says. "But they made me forget--"
A long beat of silence. Then: "We'll figure it out, buddy. We'll figure it all out."
"Tell me my name," he whispers.
"...I was kind of hoping you knew."
His name is Rhe, and his roommate is Ja, and Ja is covered head to toe with bruises but won't or can't say why. Rhe has trouble concentrating for any length of time and can't stand bright lights or loud noises, and Ja glares evilly at anyone who comes in ten feet (feet? What sort of measurement is a foot, anyway?) and together they make a plan.
"There's something below us," Ja says. "Look at the walls. You can see where they plastered over the vents."
"Mmm. And some of the floors, you can actually feel where they're sagging between the joists."
"But this place hasn't got any stairs." Ja paces around to Rhe's other side. "Except to the quiet room."
"The computer's in the quiet room." Rhe has to repeat this to himself several times a day, along with things like the quadratic equation and his own name. Next time he won't forget. Assuming he survives.
"So what else is down there?" Ja asks.
Later, in the dining hall, Ja stands up very deliberately and grabs a dinner tray from a server's hand. Then he starts beating her with it, about the head and shoulders, until he's dragged away by orderlies. Rhe throws up all his dinner and hides in their room for the rest of the evening, tearing holes in his blanket and hiding from the gas light in the ceiling and thinking to himself If he doesn't come back I will kill them all, I will kill every single one of them, because he'd do it for me. It will give him something to do, a project to work on, because otherwise without Ja to talk to he will go so mad--
Or maybe it's madness that he's got now, a confusing madness, and without Ja he will simply come out the other side into a new and terrible clarity.
Either way, he's fairly certain Ja won't die alone.
You have been reborn, and like all infants you must be educated in the ways of the world. And we will care for you with the same loving kindness as mothers and fathers until you are strong enough to leave us. Like mothers and fathers, we will not abandon our children, and like mothers and fathers we only do what is best for you.
But twenty-four hours later, they dump Ja in the room again and tell Rhe not to touch him before they leave. Rhe of course ignores this entirely. Ja is breathing shallowly, and they have very nearly shaved his head, so it's easy to see the patterns of small blisters on his scalp. Rhe runs his fingers through the fine bristle of black hair and cannot muster thoughts of revenge.
Ja starts awake, every muscle tensing, but his pupils are blown black and he starts to shiver. For a minute Rhe is scared to touch him, and then he's scared not to touch him; he runs his hands down Ja's back and shoulders and says "Hey, hey," until those black eyes fix on him. Then he doesn't know what else to say.
"I know you," Ja whispers. Rhe nods. "I know you."
Rhe climbs up on the bed next to him and Ja crawls forward, practically climbing him like a tree, until his head is over Rhe's heart. It is awkward on the narrow beds but Rhe doesn't know what to do except wrap his arms around Ja's shoulders. "Your name is Ja," he says, because these things are true. "My name is Rhe. X equals negative B plus-minus the square root of B-squared minus four-A-C all over two A. The computer's in the quiet room."
"Yanua angusta, tantum operari licti," Ja mutters, and he says it again and again until Rhe stops being terrified and starts feeling sick. "Yanua angusta, tantum operari--"
"Emergency exit, authorized personnel only?" Rhe says, and it's terrifying that he knows that, that he understands, that Ja can speak gibberish and Rhe can speak it with him. This is wrong, all wrong, in a way even the keepers would agree with.
"That's what it says on the computer," Ja says. "And the door in the...the..."
"The quiet room?"
Ja nods, and doesn't let go of Rhe. "That's why...I had to remember. Yanua angusta tantum operari licti. I had to remember that."
"You got your brain fried on purpose so you could stake out the quiet room?" Rhe demands, because oh my god.
"I had to remember," Ja says, and snuggles closer to Rhe. He's still shaking a little. "We gotta get out of here."
"Yeah," Rhe says, and rubs his back up and down between the bruises. "Yeah, we do."
There is something under the House of Renewal. There is a computer in the quiet room. There is a door marked authorized personnel only, and they are probably the furthest thing off from authorized, but if Rhe doesn't have something to plan for he has nothing but Ja and the hole in his head.
This could all be an elaborate delusion, of course, but at least they're in it together.
"So how do we get into the quiet room?" Ja asks while the others are all chanting their redemption.
"Not by attacking the staff, is how," Rhe tells him firmly. "We can't exactly escape if they melt our brains."
(They can't escape when Rhe can barely stand, when they both recoil from bright light and throw up more than half their meals; they've stopped complaining to the doctors, though, because it only draws attention.)
Ja plays with a spoon that he stole from the cafeteria, making it disappear up his sleeve and then pulling it out again. "They drug us before we go down there," he says, but doesn't sound sure of that until Rhe nods. "But this place isn't really that big, so...process of elimination."
They are herded through more rites and chants and prayers, and Rhe takes a little nap at one point, but he still says at lunch, "We can eliminate the bunkhouses and the cafeteria, and the interior layout of most of the big halls don't leave enough room for a stairwell."
Ja makes another spoon disappear up his sleeve. "What if it's a secret stairwell?"
"Maybe if it's a magic stairwell, then yes."
The keepers swoop by, and Rhe chokes down a piece of bread so they don't stop and look at him. They stop and look at him anyway, but he keeps his head down and Ja keeps his chin up and stares until they're gone. "What about the watchtower?" he asks in a whisper.
"What about the watchtower?" Rhe asks.
"It looks funny. It's three stories tall."
Ja leans over and makes his spoons reappear. "Stairs that go up also go down."
Rhe blinks. "That is so fundamentally stupid that it actually becomes profound."
"You say such nice things to me," Ja says with a little smile. The spoons make a hissing noise when he slides the handles against each other.
To awaken you must first sleep. To be satisfied you must feel hunger. To be healed you must be ill. To be reborn you must first die. To be remade you must be destroyed.
Their room has a window, and Ja watches out of it every night until Rhe falls asleep. He's usually watching when Rhe wakes up, too. Rhe is not certain if sleep ever enters into the equation for Ja, except for that time he got his brain fried and fell asleep laying across Rhe's chest. He was sitting by the window when Rhe woke up then, too.
Rhe falls asleep to the sound of Ja's spoons sliding across each other and dreams about the watchtower, only it is not the watchtower, but he doesn't know what it is. There is blue light and water and broken glass everywhere he looks, and he doesn't know, he does not know. He wakes up with a little scream in his throat to find Ja looking at him, not out the window, still as a statue.
"Hey," he says, as Rhe pants.
"It's all right."
Rhe wonders if there's a reason Ja doesn't sleep. He wonders if there's a reason Ja is looking at him. "We need to get out of here," he says, though he doesn't think it'll help if there's nowhere else for them to go.
"We will," Ja says as if he knows what the hell he's talking about, and when Rhe huffs Ja moves, quick and quiet, to sit on the edge of Rhe's bed. "We will get out of here," he says heavy and urgent, and his eyes are big and black, and he is staring at Rhe like some kind of large predator. "I promise I will get you out of here."
"That's not the same as--"
"We will get out." Ja grabs Rhe's shoulders. "Say it because it's true."
Instead Rhe kisses him. It is rough and awkward because of their beards (the keepers aren't stupid enough to let Ja near a razor) and because Ja stays still for one moment, two, three. Then it is awkward because they are both too big and the bed is not big enough and they can hear the keepers right outside the door, walking up and down the hall, but it doesn't stop Rhe from grabbing every inch of Ja he can touch and it doesn't stop Ja from grinding into his hip with explosive little sighs.
Their clothes are thin and baggy and easy to push down, and Ja sucks wet kisses on his neck and collarbone, marks more permanent than memory. Rhe grabs Ja's hips and holds on, holds on to the one thing he can, and when they're done Ja peels off his socks to clean up before tucking his head into Rhe's chest again.
"We'll get out," Rhe whispers, and does not dream again.
In the morning the keepers find them like that.
The last thing Rhe sees is Ja falling to the ground.
We do not choose where we are born, how we are raised, how we are educated. We cannot undo mistakes made before our birth. We cannot even really change ourselves. But here we can remake you into the person you should be. And like all creators, we must start with a canvas scraped clean.
He wakes up screaming and flailing, and his roommate is clearly terrified; they give him thin baggy clothes and thin fuzzy socks and tell him his name is Rhe. They do not tell him about the bruises on his arms and legs and neck, the red marks on his collarbone or the faint white scar on his right forearm; they say, "It doesn't matter anymore."
The sun in the courtyard makes him vomit, so one of the nurses lets him sit in an empty lecture hall instead. It's still too bright but he can put his sleeve over his eyes and watch the numbers and letters dance behind his eyes.
When he lowers his sleeve there's a man standing near him, half-hidden in shadows; a tall, thin man with a shaved head and bruises and burns on every inch of him. He says, "I remember you."
Rhe touches one of the strawberry marks on his chest and says, "Yeah."
The man creeps closer, staying in the shadows. "Authorized personnel only," he whispers.
"Stairs that go up also go down," Rhe whispers back.
This man grins, and Rhe knows this, he knows, he knows.
They are in different rooms, Rhe and Ja, and that makes it hard to plan things, especially when the keepers don't let them sit together anymore. But they find ways to pass messages, with gestures, with code words, with the spoons that Ja keeps filching from the cafeteria.
It makes Rhe laugh sometimes, to think that they should pass each other and mutter A-squared plus B-squared or The Joker laughs at midnight and have it mean something, make sense. It doesn't make any sense at all. He cannot keep down his food most of the time. There are burns under his long greasy hair that radiate red lines. Sometimes he is overcome by the fear that he and Ja are the only real people in this place. Sometimes he fears that it's only him.
A doctor asks Rhe, "Do you feel you are making progress?"
"I think I'm losing what little is left of my mind," Rhe says. "Is that what you mean?"
"You cannot hold on to your past. It will only burden you."
"But what else is there?"
At night, Rhe sits up by his window, forcing his eyes open when his mind is blurred shut. He and Ja pass messages by catching the lights on their spoons. Dots and dashes of reflected gaslight, but they spell out words like WAIT and WATCH and SOON and TRUE.
They spell out SEVEN EIGHTHS, and Rhe has to throw up, and that's when the keepers notice the redness of his burns. They don't take him to the watchtower, though; they make him stay in his room and use needles and pills until he stops vomiting so much. He doesn't see Ja for days, just the flashing spoons, and they spell out SOON, SOON, SOON.
Rhe thinks about gaslights, about the lamps in their rooms, while he's confined to his. When he's finally let out he tells Ja, "Seven-eighths." Ja smiles and lets a spoon flash into his hand before it's gone again; Rhe is kind of afraid to find out where he's hiding the damn things.
He knows where Ja's room is, relative to his, and he knows when the lights-out sounds, and he knows the patrols of the keepers; he knows these things because Ja has told him to pay attention. Rhe knows that they will get out, and the computer is in the quiet room, and tan of X equals one over cotan of X, and he kind of wants to lick Ja's neck; that's because they are all true. He wanders the courtyards even though the light makes him sick and shaky and looks at the watchtower, looks at it, rubs the dust off the side to expose silver metal until an orderly shouts him away. There's a balcony at the top, and sometimes the ornamental rails spells out Welcome To Our Facility when he sees it from the right angle, but not in any language he knows.
2MORROW NIGHT, Ja signals, and Rhe sits up all night because he is afraid of dreaming. He is afraid that seven-eighths doesn't mean what he thinks it means. He knows they will get out but he's afraid it'll be in pieces.
They ignore each other all day and it hurts so much Rhe wants to shout the walls down, this knowing, this waiting, this hole in his head.
At lights-out Rhe tells his roommate, "I'm sorry." He's not sure why, because the man just looks at him, blank-eyed, and it strikes Rhe that maybe he's not real, this thin pale man who eats uersh and prays to the Ancestors for enlightenment. Maybe none of them are real. Certainly it's hard to think they're human. The others are cattle and the keepers are monsters and seven-eighths doesn't seem nearly so bad when he frames it like that, so he holds onto that thought while he moves his bed to the center of the room.
The gas lamp in the ceiling of every room is small and pyramidal and easy to unscrew with the edge of a spoon. Inside there are fixtures, easy to disassemble, and the room begins to stink of gas. Rhe pushes his bed out of the way and covers his mouth and nose with a torn piece of blanket; his roommate begins to cough and paw at the window bars. One two three four five six, Rhe's heart is pounding, and the gas (what is it?) makes his eyes water, but soon there are others knocking and crying, soon the keepers have to open the doors.
It's just one keeper at his door, and not even a big one; Rhe shoves her down and runs flat-out even while he chokes. He runs where the pipes go, to the little rooms where not even the keepers spend much time, and inside he finds what he thought he would: a gas main, a water main, and a smoldering boiler.
He takes a bundle out of his underwear, one he and Ja spent too many hours debating in their broken way: it's broken-off bits of candles and oil from the censers and dry grass from the courtyard and cups from the cafeteria, and yes, spoons. He lights the fuse with an ember from the boiler and then hides it behind the gas main, and then he runs, runs, runs, just like he told Ja to when he told him how to make the damn thing.
In consecutive seconds, two bunkhouses go up in flames.
The explosions are enough to knock Rhe down; he goes down and the dust sticks to the tears on his face, but then Ja is pulling him to his feet, Ja is with him and they are getting out. They are the only ones prepared for this, the only ones thinking, and while everyone is running for the scenes of the crime they are running for the watchtower, for the emergency exit, for freedom.
The only keeper who tries to stop them goes down in a splash of red, because a spoon can become a knife if you're as patient as Ja apparently is.
It's dark and cold inside the tower, and Rhe asks, "Which way?" but when he bumps into a wall it lights up. Not gaslight, either, but cool blue light that makes his head hurt in a totally different way. The walls light up when they touch them, dimly, and maybe it's some last great delusion but Rhe has killed dozens of people and finds he doesn't really care if it means out-exit-freedom.
"Down the rabbit hole," Ja says, and they follow the lights, or maybe the lights follow them.
The quite room is right downstairs: Ja stabs the first person he sees, and the rest run away. Rhe can see the crystal crowns, now, and the leather straps, and the computer that says Authorized personnel only in a language he doesn't know. Only he does know it, because it lights up for him (when he's scraped off enough of the candle wax) and he knows how to navigate its screens. He knows it better than he knows the taste of uersh, that's for damn sure, and he think he might faint for the joy of it. "The Ancestors built this place," he blurts as he reads.
"That's nice," Ja says, scrubbing at the blood that's splashed on him. "Open the doors."
"They built it for Ascension," Rhe says instead, because it's true and because it's suddenly important; he suddenly needs to know why. "They thought if they could manipulate their memories they'd be able to let their burdens down and Ascend faster. The project was banned because all the test subjects went insane...it was officially banned, but a few stayed behind to keep refining the technique..."
"Rhe," Ja says, over the sound of feet approaching,"Open the damn door."
He finds a map and makes Ja look at it so they will both remember it, and then he opens the door. There is darkness beyond it, and no friendly blue lights come up when Ja touches the walls, so Rhe takes a candle and lights it on a gas lamp (and does not vomit) before they go in. Then he makes Ja wait while he closes the door and takes out the crystals that make it work. "They'll have to take it apart to open it and I don't think they know how to take it apart," he says.
"Let's not find out," Ja says, and they run again.
They run through the darkness; Ja leads with his shiv and makes Rhe cover the candle from time to time, hot wax spilling over his hands. It is dark and dirty here, with illegible messages on the walls and the bones of small doomed creatures underfoot, and sometimes Rhe has to think of blue skies and prime numbers so he doesn't think of cave-ins and asphyxiation. He also uses his own spoon to cut blazes in the walls as they go, one-two-three-five-eight, and they don't get turned around very much. Ja seems to know what he's doing. (Of course he does, because he said they'd get out, and it was true.)
The map shows that the House of Renewal doesn't even cover a fraction of the dark halls underneath it; some of those are caved in or flooded or tangled with tree roots, but the last one, the furthest one, ends in a door, an emergency exit to freedom. An out.
They get very close to this, and then Ja suddenly blows out the candle. Rhe cries, "What are you--"
"Shhh." Ja goes statue-still and Rhe strains to hear over his own thundering heartbeat. He hears Ja breathing. He hears water dripping nearby. He hears footsteps and voices and oh no, no no no, the keepers haven't caught them here. The keepers will never catch them here. Not unless he's gone so made the last forty-five minutes have been one long delusion.
Actually, that was entirely possible.
But he killed dozens of people to pretend he was free and he doesn't know what else he'll do to maintain the illusion.
He hears voices and footsteps and then long white shafts of light pierce the darkness; they do not flicker and they are not blue. They move, sweeping back and forth across the passage from somewhere around the corner, from the direction of the door. Rhe holds his breath; Ja breaths very lightly, and he might even be counting something.
Then he leaps around the corner and somebody screams. All the white lights fix on Ja now, with his nearly shaved head and his shaggy beard, his burns and his bruises and the shiv in his hand. He's got the blade to a woman's throat, a small woman who looks nothing like the keepers or the penitents: her skin is darker and her hair is lighter and she's wearing black clothes and carrying a big gray gun. In a blinding moment of nausea and insight Rhe takes it from her, and he's amazed at how it feels in his hands; just like the computer, he knows how to use this machine.
There's a moment of sound and fury, and then somebody says uneasily, "Colonel Sheppard?"
"Who the hell are you?" Ja asks, and behind their hedge of white lights it's hard to see, but Rhe makes out a lot of people in black clothes; big men with the gray guns and the white lights, and somewhere behind it all, he might even see sky.
One of those men steps forward but doesn't lower his gray gun. "Colonel Sheppard? Dr. McKay?"
Ja finds another gun on the woman, a little black one; he holds the knife to her throat one-handed and points the gun into the lights. "Answer me or she dies," he said.
"Can we just calm down for a minute?" the man asks.
Rhe snorts. "Not really, no. Who are you?"
There's a long silent moment, and Rhe knows they're being studied in the lights. "Look," the talking man says, "look, I know this is a freaky situation, but we can all calm down--"
"Or I can shoot them," the biggest shadow suggests.
"—or we can calm down," the leader echoes, "and then we can talk about this, and nobody has to get hurt. All right?"
"No," Ja says.
Rhe adds, "You seem to be mistaking us for good people."
And then the woman says, quietly, "John." Not Ja. "John. Rodney."
Rhe does not drop his gun, or look at Ja, or breathe, really. But he will remember that moment forever, because it is true.
"You are John Sheppard and Rodney McKay," the woman says. She's still as a statue, because if she moves at all the shiv will open up her windpipe, but she says, "You are from a planet called Earth. You live in a city called Atlantis. It was made by the Ancestors, much like this place. You are explorers. You are my friends."
"How do we know?" Ja asks, and there's the slightest tremor in his voice.
"The people of this world betrayed us," the woman says, in a stronger voice. "They framed you for a terrible crime and put you in this prison. They tried to kill Ronon and I, but we escaped, and we have spent many weeks searching for you and then planning how to extract you."
"So what took you so long?" Rhe asks, because it would be nice to talk to someone other than Ja, but it's been too many days, but there's a hole in his head, but "If you're our friends, what took you so fucking long?"
The talking man starts to speak, but the woman cuts him off. "You each have a small wound in your right forearm, do you not? You were implanted with transmitters there by your people, and those were our only way to find you, but thanks to our enemies the Genii the prison wardens knew how to subvert the technology. You were two men among thousands, and since we could not follow your transmitters we had to follow rumors and information obtained in secret and at great cost."
Rhe realizes he is shaking, not because he feels weak but because the white light from his weapon is quivering in the air. In the interest of not shooting anyone he doesn't mean to, he lets it drop. Ja asks the woman, harshly, "Why'd you go to all that trouble for two men?"
"Because you are both great leaders among the people of Atlantis, and heroes to many others," the woman says. "And because you have become as brothers to me during the few years we have known each other, and I would not leave you in this hell, no matter what the price."
Ja asks in a whisper, "Why aren't you afraid?"
"Because," she says, "I know you are good people."
Rhe decides that he is very, very tired. He sits down on the dirty floor of the passage and puts his head between his knees and thinks about blue skies and differential equations. Ja makes a striken noise, like he doesn't know whether to pay attention to Rhe or the woman, and he ultimately decides on Rhe; he shoves the woman into the hedge of lights and kneels behind Rhe, one arm around his chest and the little black gun over his shoulder. "If we go," Ja says, voice trembling, "if we go with you, what happens?"
The talking man isn't talking anymore. The woman says, "We will take you home Atlantis. We will try to restore the memories you've lost. You have many friends who will welcome your return."
And that scares Rhe more than the hole in his head, because of course something used to fill it but he's not sure that will fit anymore; he doesn't think anything ever will. But Ja is warm and steady behind him, and when he presses his mouth near Rhe's ear Rhe just nods. Because they had been trying just to get out, but this woman was offering to get them home, whatever the hell that means.
"All right," Ja sighs, and squeezes Rhe tighter. Then, louder, "All right."
"You're coming with us?" the talking man says.
"We're coming with her," Ja says. "The rest of you get the hell out of here and we'll follow."
"Why?" the big shadow demands.
"'Cause she's prettier than you," Ja says, and somebody giggles a bit shrilly, but the woman smiles.
Soon they are alone in the cave, or not alone, but the illusion of it; Ja and Rhe and the woman who called them her brothers when they don't even know her name. There is no light but the white lamp on her big gray gun, which she takes from Rhe, and after a moment, Ja gives her the little black one, too. "You do not remember my face, but you believe my words," she says as she puts them back in place.
"You know who we are," Ja says with a shrug.
Rhe corrects, "Who we're supposed to be."
She takes them by the hands, and she is so tiny, but somehow she lifts them both up to their feet. "I will do my best to be worthy of your trust," she says, and then Rhe snatches Ja's hand and squeezes it; and they follow this small woman out into the starry night.