Fandom: Stargate – All Series
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Time Travel
Relationship(s): Jack O’Neill/Daniel Jackson, Pre-John Sheppard/Jack O’Neill/Daniel Jackson
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Torture, (The “torture” warning is for a mention of past torture.)
Word Count: 68,900
Summary: Afraid and alone, John Sheppard dreams to escape his reality. Soon enough, he finds the dreams are more than they seem. When the dreams lead him on the journey of a lifetime, will they also lead him to a brighter future?
Artist: Coco Portera
Nightmares and Dreamscapes
In pain he drifted.
The chill of the cave interior belied the heat of the desert outside, but it held no comfort for John. The hardness of the cave floor added pressure to his wounds and if he shifted too much, the blood would again begin to seep sluggishly into the dirt. John had no idea how long he had been there. At first, the beatings were every day. Now, his captors came less frequently, only bringing the bare minimum amount of water and bits of food to keep him alive. He had given no information despite the beatings, and he had been privately proud at the time.
Now he felt only pain.
He could no longer use the water deliveries to tell day from night because his captors kept no discernable schedule and the shadows deep inside the cave were long and dark always. And nobody talked to or around him, so his only distractions were his thoughts and dreams.
Both were disturbingly vivid.
In dreams, John sought refuge in memories. In his mind’s eye, John could recall with painful clarity the warm brown eyes of his beautiful Nancy as she laughed with him on their honeymoon—an all too short weekend before John had to ship out to some overseas assignment. He could not recall which one because there were so many.
Vivid dreams dragged him backwards through time to their first meeting in Washington DC. John recalled her laughing apology when she bumped into him while running from a sudden downpour just outside the National Gallery. He smiled easily as he introduced himself as ‘John’ and invited her to visit his favorite series of paintings, Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. He vividly recalled the scent of her shampoo and the lightly floral perfume as she stood close to him while they discussed each image and what they meant to him personally. Looking back, it seemed as though the glowing angel in the paintings were trying to direct John’s attention away from the beautiful blonde standing beside him, but he really only had eyes for her. Even now, tucked away in a dank cave in the desert of a war zone, John could feel the warmth of her hand as she touched his cheek before offering a good-night kiss after their first date.
John moaned softly in pain and closed his eyes and was immediately transported back to his wedding day: it had rained then, too, just like the day they met. Nancy laughed and called it kismet even as his mother fretted that rain on a wedding day meant bad luck. Their honeymoon was short, but his tour was not long, and they reunited quickly—and spoke of children.
The glittering brown of Nancy’s eyes transformed to bright, laughing blue in John’s mind, and her soft touch against his skin became rougher and bolder. John shifted in his delirious sleep as the vision shifted again. Nancy’s soft lips against John’s mouth became harder lips, and the gentle bite of teeth, against John’s shoulder. The surface beneath John shifted and rolled, and John realized that he was on a boat—the classic wooden boat depicted in his favorite paintings. John could hear the water lapping at the sides of the boat even though he could see nothing but a bright, golden light. Words, coaxing and seductive, were spoken by a deep, male voice. Nancy’s tinkling laugh from his memories became a rough chuckle, deep and rich—a voice John did not know and had never once heard in reality but would remember for the rest of his life.
John’s breathing became shallow with pain as rough hands pulled on his arms and shoulders, yanking on the chains that held him.
“No more…” John moaned weakly.
“Captain John Sheppard?” a rough voice inquired. “Are you Captain John Sheppard?”
“Yesssss.” John hissed in pain. “Who…?”
“I’m Sergeant Maxwell, United States Army Ranger, Captain, and boy am I happy to see you!”
* * * * *
The next days, weeks, flew by, but John was in a painful haze for most of it. He did not remember the evac out of Afghanistan. He barely remembered the medical evaluation at the army camp, drifting in and out of consciousness. Only the thoughts of his Nancy kept him sane and present on the flight to Germany. Her voice in his head babbled to him constantly—mixed with an imaginary masculine voice spouting odd facts about ancient cultures and myths. John remembered hearing about everything from Greece and Atlantis to Britain and King Arthur; a strange mishmash of facts strung together with a deep melodic voice; someone who was clearly at ease speaking or teaching. Once he arrived in Germany, John was lucid enough to question the orderlies removing him from the transport about ‘the weird audio books that pilot was listening to’. It sounded interesting and John wanted to see if he could find a copy.
He was too out of it to see the confused glances the orderlies exchanged.
The medical treatment was rough: small surgeries to repair broken bones in his leg and arm, deep cleansing of open wounds on his back and chest. John drifted in and out of dreams and memories during the whole of it, for which he was grateful. He lay bandaged and in traction for more than two weeks before he could be shipped back to the States. The orderlies on his wing were happy to bring him crossword puzzles because he could not focus his mind enough to read the magazines that were available. He had had several phone calls from his parents and Nancy, but he only told them not to bother traveling to Germany because he was going to be home soon enough.
And he was looking forward to seeing them, truly. He missed his family despite his strained relationship with his father. And he missed his wife terribly.
But those odd dreams haunted even his waking hours. John had never once considered that he could be attracted to another man, but those dreams were very arousing. Even when he was awake, the echo of the dreams—the taste of a man’s skin against his mouth, rough hands stroking every inch of his body—made John’s skin taut with unconscious desire. He was unsettled and confused.
The trip from Landstuhl to Walter Reed hospital was easier and less stressful. John’s minor injuries had healed, and his bones were well on the way to being back to normal. John faced lots of physical therapy, and psychological therapy, and he was looking forward to neither. The physical therapy that he had endured at Landstuhl was almost horrific; relearning how to walk while wearing a full-leg cast was no picnic. As for the psychological therapy, well—learning that he had been held captive in that cave for almost three months was devastating. For that reason alone John welcomed long telephone calls from Nancy and his mother. He could not tell them anything in detail for many reasons, but he allowed them to vent their anxiety on him and reassured them that he was fine physically. He also allowed that he was desperately in need of therapy to really deal with what he had gone through, and that he would be in many sessions after he arrived back in the States—and that he would include them if he was allowed to because his familial relationships would help hold him together.
Yet still he dreamed.
Nancy’s warm brown eyes, filled with concern, turned to cooler brown eyes that crinkled at the corner with mirth. Her floral perfume drifted away in the dreamy breeze, only to be replaced with a richer sandalwood scent—a man’s scent.
And when John finally could see his wife, was allowed to take her in his arms and kiss her after so, so long, he found that he would rather be embraced in hard-muscled arms and kissed with dangerous ferocity and forbidden lust.
And John allowed those confusing dreams to pull him away from his reality, somehow knowing that they, the blue-eyed scholar and the brown-eyed force-of-nature, were his future.
“What do you mean you’re not retiring?” Nancy Sheppard yelled in confusion. “You were taken, John! They almost killed you! I only just got you back after thinking that you were dead, and now you’re telling me that you want to go back!”
John Sheppard sighed and glanced around the room. In front of him was Nancy, his wife of three years, her once loving eyes now bright with angry tears. Across the room on the sofa sat his parents, Amelia and Patrick, looking confused and angry respectfully. Lastly was his brother David, younger by five years, pacing in front of the living room window, trying to hide his ire and failing. Shaking his head slightly, John returned his attention to Nancy.
“I’m sorry, Nancy,” he pled, “but this is my life. I have never wanted anything other than to serve in the military and fly. You knew that before you married me.”
“NO! I knew that you enjoyed flying and that you were a closet math geek!” Nancy flushed with anger and wiped a tear from her cheek. “Well, you can fly in the private sector, John! You were injured badly, and you deserve to live a safe life now. And I know there is a place in your father’s company for you. You’ve got your math degree finished, but you can finish the engineering degree, too! Take that job and we can have a good life and a family!”
John shook his head slowly, visions of laughing blue eyes closing in a deep kiss drifting through his mind briefly. “Nancy…look, I can’t—no, I won’t retire, not now. I have a good career in front of me. There is so much good that I can still do…”.
“Good?” Nancy shouted. “What good can you do for those people, John? They left you out there to die!”
“No, they didn’t, Nancy! They did not leave me behind! That’s why I’m alive today.” John wiped a shaking hand over his face and turned away from the woman he married. “I’ve felt the need to serve since I was a kid. My grandfather served in the Navy during World War Two, and I remember reading his letters home; how they were filled with such honor and a sense of other. Grandma always told me how proud she was to be married to such a brave man. I learned loyalty and honor at the knee of my grandfather when I was just a kid, and I learned to be loyal to my own heart at the knee of my father.” John turned his head and saw how pale his father had grown at his words.
“I just don’t have it in me right now to leave the Air Force, Nancy. I have finished all my assigned therapy and my physical condition is back to peak performance. I have been stateside in one therapy session after another for more than a year, and God knows I needed to reconnect with you all, but it is time for me to go back; maybe not to my old unit, but definitely back to where I’m put to good use. I’ve been gone from active duty for more than a year, and maybe that’s not long enough, but I have to get back into it.”
“If you go back to them,” Nancy said with a desperate finality, “if you do not retire and try to save this marriage, then it’s over. I cannot just wait around for you to die, John. Our vows said, ‘until we are parted by death’, but they said nothing about you hastening the process.”
John watched with helpless despair as Nancy stalked out of his father’s living room without once looking back. He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and turned back to his family, wincing when he saw his father’s furious expression. “Dad…”
“No, John!” Patrick Sheppard stood, shaking off his wife’s hand when she tried to restrain him. “I can’t believe you! That woman,” he said, pointing toward the front door, “has stood by you ever since she met you! She never asked a single thing from you until now, and you’re willing to throw away your marriage because she asked you to retire after your ordeal?”
John’s shoulders hunched. “I thought Nancy was the love of my life, Dad, but she wants me to change everything about myself and I can’t do that. You have to understand—“.
“I don’t have to understand anything except that my oldest son is turning his back on this family again!”
John’s expression hardened. “I know you never wanted me to join the military, Dad, but this is my life and I have to live it the way I choose—not the way you choose for me. And if you think that means I’m turning away from my family then I can’t help that!”
“John Patrick Sheppard, if you walk out that door…!”
“Patrick!” Amelia exclaimed, horrified. “Don’t finish that threat! Don’t you dare finish that horrible threat!” Amelia hurried to John’s side and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a tight hug. “You do what’s right in your heart, John,” she whispered in his ear. “I’ve always been proud of you, even when I was afraid for your life, so don’t let your father do anything stupendously stupid like forcing you away from your own chosen path!”
John pressed a gentle kiss to his mother’s forehead and stepped slightly away from her. “Thanks, Mom. That means a lot, truly.” John walked to the archway and picked up his jacket from the coat hook on the wall. “I have to go now. I’m due to report to Andrews in two days and I have to pack.”
With a nod to David and a cursory glance to his father, John kissed his mother on the cheek and left the house.
Three weeks later, John received two packages delivered to his base quarters on Andrews Air Force Base: one was a care package from his mother, containing a few music CDs, her ‘lucky’ silver dollar, and her own worn copy of War and Peace, and the second package contained signed divorce papers from Nancy. Nancy wanted nothing but a clean slate, so she cited irreconcilable differences and asked for no spousal support. John immediately called for a private divorce lawyer to amend the divorce petition, settling upon Nancy an unwanted monetary payment with the request that she get her own therapist to help her deal with what she considered his betrayal. Therapy had helped John greatly and the last thing he wanted was for Nancy to become bitter toward men after the divorce. She deserved happiness even if John could not give it to her.
After meeting with the lawyer and signing his own copies of the papers, John called his mother and thanked her for the gifts. He swore to take care of the silver dollar, which had belonged to Amelia’s own father, and to read the book faithfully, even if it took forever and a day—an in-joke between the two of them from when John was a teenager that had struggled with reading that same book in school. And then John asked her to take care of closing his apartment after Nancy moved out. Amelia had promised to put his belongings in storage for him or to bring them back to his room in his parents’ home and wished him well.
John’s father never asked to speak to him and never wrote back to him when John wrote before shipping out to the Middle East.
* * * * *
When John settled into a new combat unit as a pilot, he made good on his promise to his mother and read seven pages of that book a day, every day, right before going to bed in his too small bunk in a too hot tent. And every night after lights-out, John surrendered himself to the dreams and nightmares that therapy could not banish.
Sometimes he saw himself, as if he were watching a movie or something, and he was surrounded by clear, blue water. He was on the boat from Thomas Cole’s paintings, but he was not on the River of Life. He thought he might be on the ocean and the gentle waves lapped at the sides of the boat, providing a gentle melody that was harmonized by the seabirds flying high above him. At a distance John could see stony cliffs topped by bright white buildings staggered and terraced above the sandy shoreline. Hovering over the bright azure of the roofline, John could see the glowing angel from the paintings, pointing to something beyond the horizon. The sky was the same blue as the sea, the same blue as the bespectacled eyes of the man in front of him—the man who laughed in pure joy at something someone had just said. The man who leaned forward and kissed John with a tenderness that he had never known, even from Nancy—a tenderness that told John he was a gift that was to be treasured. And the man’s hands, too rough for a pure academic, showed John true desire as they wandered over John’s body. Though it was just a dream, John could feel the kisses, feel the touches, feel the warmth of that mysterious man’s body covering his own as they bobbed on top of the gentle sea not far off the coast housing those pure white buildings.
And sometimes after a particularly hard mission, when John had been tasked with flying heavily armed men over the sand and rocky cliffs of the desert for night drops, John would dream of a hard body pressed tightly against his, pushing him against a carved rock wall dug into a cliff high above a hidden canyon. John could vividly smell the earthy juniper of nearby trees mixing with the scent of the sand and dirt of the outcropping, and the glowing angel would be hovering in the distance, pointing to the lower cave dwellings in the canyon. The rough wall behind him was sturdy and tangible against his bare skin, scraping lightly even as work-roughened hands grasped and held, alternately pushing John against the wall and pulling John closer to hot bare skin, wiry chest hair tangling with his own even as John’s skin heated and his nipples hardened. John always woke feeling utterly sated, as if he had physically interacted with another human—though thankfully with unmarred sheets and underwear that was not sticky with release.
And then were the horrible nights, when John would hear about deaths of soldiers that he knew in passing. Soldiers that John had delivered to the sites of their demises. Those horrible, hot nights, when John would join other pilots drinking toasts to the honor of the fallen before stumbling to his own bunk to try and sleep off the horrors of war—only to fall into one of a dozen nightmares of his own capture and torture at the hands of Afghan insurgents. Or nightmares of his dissolved marriage. Or worse nightmares about a fiery-orange comet flying fast toward his helicopter before slamming into it and blowing him out of the sky.
And on the mornings after the nightmares, John carefully wrote the details—as many as he could remember—into a plain composition notebook, just like his therapist taught him. Sometimes, after having the same nightmares over and over, John could see a pattern and understand the cause. His wedding anniversary passed after a horrible dream about him digging Nancy’s heart from her body—using the engraved knife/cake slicer set her sister had given them as a wedding gift. He had that same dream the night of Nancy’s birthday, so there was no wondering what might have caused those dreams. A particularly nauseating dream of a flood of blood pouring out of his helicopter came after four Rangers died in an ambush six hours after John dropped them into a combat zone. That one caused John to re-think his habit of too many beers after hard missions.
John had no idea where the fiery comet came from. There had been no visible meteor showers while John was in the desert, not even the ‘annual’ ones that astronomers charted every year. If they happened, they were hidden by cloud cover or unseeable because of the position of the Earth. Oddly, that destructive comet worried him the most because it seemed more surreal than his other nightmares. Almost like it was a portent of things to come rather than his subconscious mind dealing with a tragedy that had already occurred.
It was like another nightmare, only John was wide awake.
He had been returning from a supply run when he had heard radio chatter about a missing helicopter—a helicopter carrying three close friends: Mitch Wagoner, Dexter Michaels, and Lyle Holland. Mitch and Dex were fellow chopper pilots that John knew from his early days in the Air Force, and he had been delighted to meet up with them again after so many years. They had managed to pick up their friendship as if no time had passed at all, although they both admitted to hearing about his capture years before.
Lyle Holland was relatively new to John’s acquaintance. He was just a few years younger than John and not nearly as battle-hardened. Lyle had trained as a medic before being assigned to John’s unit during his current deployment, and he frequently rode along with John on S/R trips. He was taller than John, and not as broad, and he had dark hair and dark eyes.
And Lyle Holland was someone John had turned to in the darker hours—someone who offered covert comfort of the physical kind. His eyes were not as blue as the mystery scholar in his dreams, nor were they as dark as the mystery man’s, but he was a willing body for John’s experimentation, and he taught John well how to make love to another man. They knew their relationship would go nowhere because of military regulations, and Lyle was certainly not looking for anything serious, but they were friends above all else.
And now Mitch, Dex, and Lyle were missing in action on their way to bring in casualties, and John felt like he was drowning.
“Permission to bring them in, Sir,” John pled firmly to his commanding officer, Colonel Basker.
“No need, Major,” Basker declared. “We’ve got a team out looking now. The best thing you can do is get some rest after your long day. Dismissed.”
John turned and retreated from Basker’s office, passing by the communication center to hear chatter from the S/R crew—and understanding from his own experience flying over that stretch of desert that that crew was headed in the exact wrong direction. John rerouted himself toward the helipad, deciding quickly that he would, in fact, fuel-up his chopper and head out to find his crew—his friends. After all, Basker never actually ordered John not to go, and surely two search crews were better than one. Not that John planned to take anyone else with him. If he was going to get raked over the coals for a minor indiscretion, he was determined to not drag anyone else into trouble. Basker was a hard man to work under and he was known to censure his soldiers heavily for even the smallest infraction.
* * * * *
Four long hours later, John was headed back to base with his ears full of Basker’s vitriol. His chopper was heavy, much heavier than when he flew out that morning, and his load was heavy on John’s heart.
Mitch, Dex, Lyle, and three others, all but one dead—and that one was drifting fast. John’s only hope was to get him back to base in time to receive medical care. Even that one task was proving difficult, because his chopper had received artillery fire while he was landing next to Mitch’s downed chopper. His fuel was not leaking, which was a small blessing, but the engines were grinding in a rather alarming way, and John was praying to several deities that he had heard about in dreams that he would make it back to base instead of crashing. He refused to leave them behind. He still had one good life to deliver, and he had bodies that deserved decent burials rather than to be abandoned in a foreign country in the middle of a war.
His only hope was to prove to Basker, whom John had been ignoring over the radio for the past hour and a half, that the first S/R chopper would never have found the downed chopper in time to save even one soldier. It was the unfortunate truth, and John could hear the ragged breathing of his only living passenger over the struggling engines.
* * * * *
In the end, the one living soldier was kept alive long enough to get medical care, but John was sent packing to Landstuhl Air Base in Germany along with that soldier and the five bodies that John recovered. Basker was almost foaming at the mouth in anger, so John quickly retired to his tent to pack as ordered. He knew he was in trouble and he certainly was not going to argue much just yet. His travel was sorted quickly enough as there was no morgue to hold the bodies at the desert base. He answered no questions and only requested legal representation to meet with him at Landstuhl. There was an extraordinarily strong possibility that he was going to need it. Basker was out for blood and John was his target. John had heard muttering about court martial as he boarded the transport.
* * * * *
“I specifically forbade you from leaving the base to go after your friends, Major, and you ignored that order and stole government property to undertake your own rescue mission! If I have anything to say about this, you’ll be bounced out of that uniform and dropped directly into Leavenworth!”
Colonel James Basker was in a right temper and his entire body was tense with it. If John Sheppard were not so concerned with his own state, he would be worried about the older man’s cardiac health because it certainly looked like the man was one breath away from a heart attack.
“And don’t think I’ll let go the fact that your rich daddy came all the way from Virginia to hold your hand!”
John winced slightly and spared a glance in his father’s direction. Patrick Sheppard appeared calm and collected, but John knew from experience that his father was close to losing his own temper due to the circumstances. There was tension around his eyes and John doubted it was because of Basker’s angry words. When John was informed that he would be called to a pre-court martial tribunal, he called his father as a courtesy, not believing at all that the old man would drop everything to fly to John’s side at Ramstein Air Base, where he had been held out of combat, but not in formal custody, after seeing to the delivery of his friends’ bodies. Patrick was distracted on the phone when John called, but John figured that was because John was in trouble—and that was why John was surprised when his father showed up asking for him less than twelve hours later.
“Major Sheppard,” said General Foxworth, the current commander at Ramstein, “do you have anything to say about the charges Colonel Basker is bringing?”
John cleared his throat. “Yes, sir, I do. While Colonel Basker informed me that there was already a rescue mission in the air searching for the downed chopper and crew, he only told me not to worry about the issue. At no point did he order me to not leave the base, nor did he actually forbid me from going out.”
General Foxworth frowned. “That’s hedging the edge of insubordination, Major; I hope you realize that.”
John inclined his head. “I do realize that, and if I had actually been given the order to stay put, I would have followed that order. But I had already heard radio transmissions from the first S/R pilot, and I knew he was headed in the wrong direction. If there was going to be any hope of retrieving our men, another search would have had to go out.”
“And you still only brought back bodies, Sheppard!” Basker spat furiously. “And you wasted government resources to do it!”
“With all due respect, sir,” John said carefully, “Sergeant Miller is still alive, and he most definitely would not be if he had had to wait for the other crew to find him.”
“You sanctimonious little shit!” Basker spat. “There is no excuse for taking that chopper! I’ll have you court martialed and tossed out—“.
“Colonel Basker!” General Foxworth interrupted. “Take a breath before you rupture something! Now, Major Sheppard, correct me if I’m wrong, but is there any other reason you went out alone like you did?”
John blinked at the question. He knew that he and Lyle were discreet in their meetings and there was no outward hint as to their relationship, so there could not possibly be a reason the general was digging for more information. Unless…?
“General Foxworth, I don’t know if you are aware, but a few years ago I was shot down and taken prisoner while serving with a different unit in Afghanistan. I was tortured badly and kept in a desert cave for several months, and I was fairly sure I was going to die there. But people were looking for me, long after they probably should have given up. They did not leave me behind. And I was damned if I were going to leave my own people behind, not if I could bring even just one back alive.” John took a deep breath and flicked his eyes toward his father again before returning his attention to the general. “And as for the others that I couldn’t bring back alive? Well, sir, I think they deserved to be sent back to their families rather than to be left to rot in the wreckage.”
John flicked his eyes toward Basker, who was clearly fuming in rage. He knew if that man had his way, he would lose his place in the military and would probably not be a free man for an awfully long time.
Clearly, the general thought so as well.
“Basker,” said Foxworth, “I understand that you think you have a case here, but I disagree. Certainly, Major Sheppard skirted past your wishes, but I do not believe you actually issued a plain order for him to stay behind.”
“Basker, stand down!” General Foxworth came out of his seat and jabbed a pointed finger toward the door to his office. “I don’t think you’re necessary for the rest of this conversation.”
Basker saluted rigidly and left the office, almost slamming the door on his way out. Once the door was closed John released an anxious breath.
“Now, Major Sheppard,” General Foxworth continued, and John focused on the man in front of him, “it is clear to me that you have been under extreme stress with this situation, and because of that, I do not think returning you to your posting is in your best interest.”
John opened his mouth to object but Foxworth held up his hand to quiet him. “Major, before I called you into this office, I had the chance to speak at length with your father about this situation. He’s informed me about your time as a POW, your divorce, and your insistence at returning to active duty. He also imparted the importance of duty to your sense of self. For that reason, I am going to reassign you to another duty station away from this war in order for you to get your mind straight. I don’t want you to become another case of burnout, and that’s what I see happening.”
“Yes, sir,” John replied, having no other choice.
“Good,” said Foxworth. “Now, I’m giving you two weeks leave Major Sheppard. Go home with your father, reunite with your family and get your head straight. Your orders will come to you at Andrews.”
John saluted in confusion and turned toward his father, who was showing physical signs of stress. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but why are you here?” he asked as he led his father from the general’s office.
“Let’s talk in my room, John. There are things you need to know that are nobody else’s business.”
* * * * *
“Cancer?” John sat heavily on the padded chair in his father’s guest room and hunched forward, elbows on his knees and head hanging low. “How? Why didn’t you call me?”
Patrick took a seat next to his son and sighed. “It was fast, John. Faster and more cruel than I could ever have imagined. She hadn’t been well for a week, but we both thought it was just the flu or something. She was run down and tired all the time, but she still went into work every day—until the day two weeks ago that she couldn’t get out of bed.” He sighed again and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “When I got her to the hospital, my first thought was to send a telegram or something. David reminded me that you were in a war zone and we had no way of knowing when or if you would get the message. I even contacted someone at Andrews, asking if there was a phone number I could call in case of family emergency. We still had not known how bad the cancer was at that time.
“By the time they got back to me, your mother had passed, and you called from Germany to tell me that you might be in trouble. I was completely devastated, but I knew that this was news you did not need to hear over telephone lines, so I got the first flight out. David saw to the cremation and is planning a memorial service for the end of this week. I’m hoping you’ll come back with me so you can be there.”
“Shit, Dad…yeah,” John swallowed back misery and cleared his throat. “Obviously, I’ll be flying back with you, if only so I can get sorted for my punishment. I just…I just wish I could have said good-bye. You know, in person.”
Patrick offered a grim smile. “She read all of your letters to me, whether or not I wanted to hear them. She was so proud of you, John. Her last words,” his voice cracked, and John shot him a desperate look, “her last words were to tell me off because I was holding myself back from you. She wanted me to mend the rift between us, and I am so deeply sorry that it took this for me to get my head out of my ass.”
* * * * *
Being a pilot himself, John always found it difficult to sleep on aircraft. But because of the stress of his disciplinary situation, coupled with grief over his mother’s passing, John’s eyes shut before the plane had begun to taxi to the runway. He barely heard the flight attendant giving the safety speech before her voice was replaced with the deep, resonating timbre of a man’s voice speaking softly in John’s ear.
“You’re a lot like me, John. You’ve been shaped by your loves and your losses, and you’ve come out a stronger man.”
John was drifting down a calm river in a familiar wooden boat. Behind him, with his arms wrapped around John’s waist, sat an older man with greying hair and piercing brown eyes. John sighed and leaned his head back against that man’s shoulder and looked toward the bow of the boat, where a glowing angel was pointing ahead toward a floating cathedral over the horizon.
“We’ll find our home there, won’t we?” John asked softly.
“It’ll take some work,” the man agreed, “but I think that’s a possibility.” He pressed his lips to John’s temple in a soothing gesture before moving away. John lifted his eyes to the cathedral and watched in shock as a huge wave of black brackish water rose up and crashed down upon it. “But there’s not enough power,” the man said. “We’ve got to find the potential.”
John jerked to wakefulness just as the plane touched down on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport. He rubbed his eyes wearily and turned to look at his father next to him. The older man looked rough, and John figured that had less to do with the hurried travel plans than with the loss of his wife and partner.
“You okay, Dad?”
Patrick offered a wan smile. “Not really. I doubt I will ever be okay again, but I will learn to survive. I owe Amelia that much.”
John reached out and patted his father’s hand. “I owe her that much, too. She believed in my dreams, Dad. I’m not going to forget them now that she’s gone.”
“I know that, John, and I wouldn’t ask you to. I’ve begun to understand more about honor in the past two weeks than I ever thought I could.” Patrick shook his head and gestured for John to leave his seat. “I had an entire future planned for us, you know? My two sons would join me in my business, and we would take clean energy to another level for the general populace. And then you decided to join the military after you finished four years at college, and I just wanted to wipe my hands of you. Amelia kicked my ass over that because she was so proud of you.”
Patrick retrieved his carry-on and moved aside so John could grab his from the overhead compartment, then led the way off the plane. “When you met and married Nancy, I thought that meant you might be ready to settle down outside of the Air Force. At the very least, I figured you’d be ready to have a family and I would get grandchildren out of you.”
John snorted involuntarily. “We were talking about it, before…well, before.”
Patrick nodded. “Nancy said as much. She came to dinner many times and she and Amelia bonded over your letters. When we thought you were gone…Amelia would not let Nancy pull away in her grief. We almost moved her in permanently just so we could keep an eye on her.”
“I wish things could have been different, Dad.”
Patrick turned and looked at his oldest son. “John, even I could see that something had changed in you. It might have been the captivity and the recovery, but I think there was something else. Nancy had no right to demand things of you that you were unwilling to give.”
John shook his head. “I was willing to work things out, but I really thought Nancy was ready to be a military wife. I never asked her to change her career or her life, but I also never misled her about mine.”
“I know. You were very straight forward with us when you joined the Air Force, even if I was too stubborn to admit it. Let’s go home, John. The memorial service is tomorrow, and you’ll want a decent night’s sleep.”
“And a shower,” John agreed.
* * * * *
John tossed and turned in his childhood bed, waiting for peaceful sleep to come. Sorrow had settled like a rock in his stomach and he could not get comfortable. The room was unchanged from his high school years, but even the pale green walls and Johnny Cash posters could not comfort him.
His mother was gone, too young and too soon.
Cancer was a real bitch.
John closed his eyes and prayed for sleep. He began running long division problems in his mind in order to bring sleep, and before long he felt himself sinking.
Sinking and drifting, swirling through clouds and whirlpools of mist, until a golden glow grew brighter and brighter before his closed eyes.
“I wanted so much to see you before I left, John.”
John opened his eyes and saw the glowing angel—with the face of his mother. “Mom?”
The angel laughed. “Did you expect someone else?”
“I certainly didn’t expect you!” John exclaimed. “I’m sorry I never got to say good-bye. I should have been here.”
“Oh, Johnny! I never wanted you to watch me waste away. I wasn’t really coherent in my last few days.”
“You were sicker than you let Dad know, weren’t you?” John reached out to pull his mother into a tight embrace. “It wouldn’t have mattered if you were coherent, Mom; I should have been there with you.”
“John, I felt every time you thought of me. I am so immensely proud of you, you know. And so are your grandparents.”
Amelia laughed, a fine tinkling of chimes that warmed John’s heart. “You have a bright future ahead of you, John. In a world like you have never dreamed of. There are dangers and joys coming your way if you only reach out to take it.”
John sobered. “How do you know?”
Amelia spread her arms wide, and the golden glow brightened further. Behind her, John could see a towering metal and glass spire climbing toward an unseen sky.
“Sometimes a person in my situation is given the ability to see much. I can’t tell you everything, but I have been given leave to issue a strong warning and a few clues.”
“O-kay,” John said bemusedly, “then please issue the warning and give me the clues, because I have a feeling that I’m going to need them.”
“You will, John,” Amelia said seriously. “And I truly hope that you will remember all that I tell you. First the clues: Always trust the ones whose smiles go all the way to their eyes, no love is forbidden if it is freely offered, and your powerful treasure can be found in ancient history.”
John frowned. “I’ve been dreaming of history lessons.”
Amelia raised one eyebrow and smirked. “Is that so? Perhaps there is something in that. And now for the warning: The female is deadlier than the male.”
John’s eyes widened in shock. “That’s it? Mom, nature documentaries have been saying that for decades!”
Amelia rolled her eyes and began to glow brighter. “All right then, how about—the female leader has the potential to destroy everybody because of her ambition. Is that sufficiently vague enough for you? Besides, it’s time for you to wake up.”
John jerked awake with a gasp and rolled to his feet. He immediately reached for the notebook tucked into this duffle so he could write down the still vivid dream.
His mother! Even if it was his imagination, he at least got to say good-bye.
After writing as many details as he could remember, John found a fresh change of clothes and went to take a shower. The memorial service was slated for late afternoon and John would be wearing his dress uniform as protocol dictated, but for now he settled for old jeans and a comfortable Henley. As he tied his worn sneakers he poked at a burgeoning hole near the heel. Perhaps he would have time for a shopping trip before his new assignment began.
Trotting down the stairs to the kitchen, John poked his head into the living room to see if he father was around. Instead, he found his brother, David, reading a newspaper.
“Hey,” John called as he entered the room. “I’m sorry I wasn’t within easy reach.”
David looked up, frowning. “It was no different than any other time, John. I’ve gotten used to not being able to count on you.”
John blinked. “Wow, been holding that in much?”
David folded the newspaper and set it on the coffee table in front of him before leaning back against the sofa and glaring at John. “You made your choices a long time ago, John. Mom might have been okay with it, but you know Dad never was. And you hurt Nancy something awful. It was clear that we couldn’t count on you because you sold yourself to the military, and you proved that by not being here when Mom needed you most.”
John leaned against the wall and crossed his arms across his chest. “I followed my heart, David. I had a…well, I had a duty—a calling, if you will. I know you don’t believe it, but I had to find where I belonged. I was not meant for an office—or even a research lab. I’m sorry if you feel let down by my choices, but they are my choices.”
David nodded. “Sure, and you didn’t care how anybody else was affected by those choices, did you? Mom cried a lot because you were in some war or another and she was afraid for your life. Dad was all stoic and acting like you didn’t exist most of the time, which was easy because you were not around. And Nancy…”
“What about Nancy, Dave?” John asked pointedly. “I never lied to her. I never made empty promises.”
“Maybe not, but she deserved more!”
John inclined his head. “I don’t doubt that. I am sorrier than you will ever know for what happened between us, but don’t you think I also deserved a wife who would stand by me and support my career? I guess Nancy will be at the service today, right? She and mom were pretty close; I hope that didn’t change because Nancy divorced me.”
David’s eyes narrowed. “She might be there. Would it matter?”
“Of course not,” John scoffed. “I can be civil, Dave. I never meant to hurt her, and I’m grieving my mother too much to cause a scene. I need to get something to eat. If you need to say anything else to me, you’ll have to do it in the kitchen.”
John left his brother behind and stalked to the kitchen in search of food—and his father. He found both, as Patrick passed a plate of sandwiches to John as soon as he walked in.
“Thanks,” John murmured, sitting on a stool at the island counter. “What’s up with Dave? I mean, I know nobody in the family really appreciated my military service, but he’s acting like I joined up to insult him personally.”
Patrick paused his food preparation and looked up in mild shock. “What exactly did he say to you?”
John shrugged and reached for the glass of water in front of him. “Well, he waxed poetic about how Mom cried over every letter I sent, and how you became a mute statue when my name came up.”
Patrick rolled his eyes and reached for the mustard. “I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, John.”
“Only a small one, and I’m not even kidding about the ‘Mom crying’ bit. And then he got all defensive about Nancy, like I purposefully set out to hurt her. We’ve only been divorced a year; it still hurts me, too.”
Patrick rested his hands flat on the counter and hung his head briefly before looking at John. “Okay. So, maybe four months or so ago, Dave ran into Nancy at a library fundraiser.”
John’s eyebrows shot up in shock. “Is he…are they dating?”
“I don’t know, John,” Patrick sighed. “I think Dave had a crush when you and she were still married. Maybe brotherly envy or something. She hasn’t been around here, so I’ve never said anything. Is this going to be a problem?”
John carefully set his sandwich down and stared at it. “I…don’t know. Honestly, I would be very suspicious of her if she is trying to get serious with Dave. Like I said, the divorce isn’t ancient history, and she’s the one who left me. If she is trying to get together with Dave, then either she was into him while we were married and she used my continued service as an excuse for divorce, or she really wants to be a Sheppard and isn’t too concerned about how she gets there.”
Patrick nodded. “I had the same thoughts, actually. But stubborn is a Sheppard trait, and David has it in the extreme.”
“Noted. So—if she comes to the memorial service, I will be civil and polite. I want to honor Mom and remember her with her friends.”
* * * * *
The service was lovely. David arranged for bouquets of irises and snapdragons—Amelia’s favorite flowers—to be placed in several locations in the banquet room. The small bursts of color were accented with ribbons of gold and green, which mirrored the table covers and candle centerpieces. Patrick and David wore matching Armani suits with gold and green ties and pocket squares, and John was shiny in his uniform with all the ribbons he had earned providing color and conversation.
All of Amelia’s closest friends were eager to speak with John, ensuring that he knew how proud she was of him. He answered questions by rote, never giving too much detail or scandalizing anyone.
And John maintained a polite distance when Nancy did show up, only nodding in greeting from across the room. He was a bit put out when she appeared to be affronted at his inclusion, but he held his tongue. He knew, more than anyone else there, how much his mother respected and loved him. In his mind he held the image of her glowing in his dream: the tinkling laugh, the adoring smile, the warm touch.
It was an image that he would hold dear for the rest of his life.
* * * * *
McMurdo Science Station.
John read his orders again and shook his head in disbelief.
For his penance, for having the temerity to go in search of his fallen fellows, John was being sent to ‘cool his heels’ at McMurdo Science Station—in Antarctica. At the bottom of the world.
“Not that I would ever dream of questioning the Air Force, John,” said Patrick sardonically, “but what are you going to be doing in Antarctica?”
John blinked. “Well—according to the unofficial orders, I’m to attend counselling sessions and ferry supplies to scientific outposts.” He looked up at his father. “Apparently there’s a lot of weather research going on down there.”
Patrick snorted. “I see. And apparently there’s a lot of weather as well?”
John chuckled softly. “Well, I won’t have to worry about heat stroke, that’s for sure.”
In truth, the missive indicated that John was being sent to McMurdo on the recommendation of one General Jonathon O’Neill—a man John had neither heard of nor served under. Apparently General Foxworth conferred with the other man about John’s situation, and O’Neill had a habit of taking an interest in hard and interesting cases. John did not really consider himself a ‘hard case’, but part of this assignment piqued his interest—specifically the part where he was specifically ‘ordered’ to work on his mechanical engineering degree and finalize the work for his theoretical mathematics PhD.
Someone somewhere wanted him to prove his intelligence, at least on paper.
“Well,” John said as he folded his orders back into the envelope, “I suppose I should report to Andrews to get outfitted. I have absolutely no cold-weather gear to my name.”
Patrick crossed the room and placed a hand on John’s shoulder. “It’s been good having you home, John.”
John grinned at his father. “It’s been good to be home—for a while. I’m fairly sure David is ready to see me go.”
Patrick sighed. “I suppose I’ll never understand either of my sons, because I don’t know what’s gotten into him!”
“I don’t know, either Dad.”
John had watched in dismay as David earnestly began a romantic pursuit of Nancy Sheppard, John’s ex-wife. She seemed to play coy when John was present, acting as if she wasn’t affected by him at all, but when she did not know John was near, Nancy was like another person: cool and aloof and barely interested in David at all. And David seemed to take that as a challenge of a sort, never connecting her behavior with John’s presence.
Patrick had also noticed the shift in behavior.
“I guess we’ll see how things progress when I’m not around to witness them,” John sighed.
“Yes, I suppose we will,” Patrick agreed. “And speaking of you not being around, I suppose you’ll be out of contact while you’re down there?”
“Nah—I’ll have access to a computer and a phone this time,” John countered. “I’m just going to be assigned there for a year so I can work some things out. I promise to be in touch…if you want.”
Patrick offered a relieved smile. “I think I want, John.”
* * * * *
Eighteen hours and some change was a long journey.
John passed some of the time by reading more of War and Peace, but even that couldn’t hold his attention. Since he wasn’t piloting himself, he was a bit restless in his seat aboard the transport. He tried reading his mission parameters, but after an hour he was well-versed in what was to be expected of him.
His next idea was meditation, something he had learned from another man in Afghanistan. John closed his eyes and began counting breaths: In-1-2-3, out-1-2-3, and so on until his mind was calm and the noise of the aircraft was no longer a nuisance. Soon bright images filled John’s mind, the colors and patterns of The Voyage of Life mixed with new pictures from John’s dreams.
“They say the Atlantis myth centered off the coast of Santorini,” said the blue-eyed scholar, his honeyed voice rising over the sound of crashing waves on the shore.
John looked up at the clouds and saw the glowing angel beckoning him out to sea.
“We need the power if we’re going to succeed,” John said softly as he reached for the other man. “I can’t fail them again.”
John stood between the scholar and the older man and stared in wonder at what could only be the true Sword in the Stone: a solid block of aged granite cradled in a nest of bronze, with a shining iron sword rising from the center. The grip was made of a dark golden wood that gleamed despite its age and the pommel and cross guard were bejeweled bronze set with rough-cut red stones. The image of the glowing angel at the bow of a wooden boat floated in the shadows at the other end of the chamber and a shining cathedral was etched on the stone wall of the chamber.
John skeptically eyed the blue/green lava lamp that practically hummed in his hands. “This is what we’re hunting?”
“This is all the potential we need,” said the brown-eyed man.
“Potential for what?” John asked.
“Potential for everything,” answered the blue-eyed scholar. “With this, we can save the world.”
John stood on the threshold of a mystical portal. Behind him was a canyon wall built with dwellings long abandoned. Before him was a steel and glass cathedral. All he needed to do was step through and his life would change, but before he could do that, someone shouted about not having enough power—and the glass windows imploded with a rush of black water, engulfing everything in sight.
“I never thought I’d feel this way,” John said with a smile. “You were a surprise to me.”
“A welcome one, I hope,” said the dark-eyed man gruffly.
“Very much so,” John replied, and he reached out to touch the other man’s hand—just as a high-pitched mechanical scream split the silence, and John watched in horror as a fiery-orange comet sped through the air and crashed into him.
John stood in the diagonal gallery and studied Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life. It was his favorite series of paintings and he knew it well, taking time to visit this particular part of the National Gallery whenever he got the chance. He fell in love with it after his first visit on a school trip when he was much younger. If asked, John could provide a detailed description of each painting in the series, which depicted the journey of Man from infancy to death on a continuous river that symbolized life.
In the first painting, an infant frolicked in a wooden boat being guided down a river by a glowing angel. In the background stood the cliffs and canyons of ‘the beginning’, and in the foreground lay a golden glow—promising a good future. All around the boat were fields of flowers—all blooming with springtime and life. To John’s eye, it seemed like the glowing angel was beckoning him forward to find his own destiny.
In the second painting, the glowing angel stood on the shore of the river gesturing forward as a young boy stood excitedly in the wooden boat, waving at an ivory castle in the sky ahead of him. Along the banks of the river were lush trees and bushes—a summer garden designed to show the aging process. As John’s eyes wandered over the long-loved painting, the glimmering palace in the distance began to shimmer and shift in shape: the rounded parapets became towering spires of metal and glass and the rectangular base of the palace spread out into a starburst shape with towers on each arm. The glowing angel seemed to smile encouragingly as she gestured to what now appeared to be a cathedral of some sort and John felt drawn to reach out and touch the painting—only stopping himself when he ‘remembered’ that he was in a public gallery.
It was the third painting that brought John up short, because it had changed so much from the well-remembered painting that John loved so much. Instead of a suffering man approaching rough waters, John saw three figures in the wooden boat: two young men with light and dark hair respectively and an older man with greying hair. And the rough waters of the painted river did not lead through rocky rapids and an unseen waterfall as John remembered, but rather it led through a star-rimmed tunnel adorned with odd rune-like shapes carved into solid rock. The glowing angel was still in her place in the far background of the painting, overlooking the wooden boat, and she seemed to be actively pointing toward the tunnel instead of passively watching the boat. John leaned closer to the painting in order to see the ‘new’ occupants of the boat and was shocked to see that one of the dark-haired men looked exactly like him, even though the figure was wearing the red tunic of the original painting. John quickly looked at the other two men, hoping to recognize them in some way, but they were completely foreign to him. The younger of the two had dark blond hair and seemed to be wearing round framed glasses. He was wearing what looked like a field jacket and dungarees and his hands were holding a short stack of books. The older of the men was wearing all black, but the clothing appeared to be a uniform. His visage was serious, and John recognized the dark gaze from other dreams; this was the dark-eyed lover that John had never met, the one that was both rough and gentle and understanding.
Shaken, John turned to the fourth painting, the one that was supposed to depict the end of the life—only to find the painting completely changed. Originally the image depicted an elderly man on a calm river, surrounded by rocky outcroppings. The glowing angel was in front of the man, leading the way toward another angel that was floating down from a shaft of light coming from a break in dark clouds. In the new canvas, the glowing angel was alone at the bow of the empty boat. Rather that bobbing on calm waters, the boat seemed to be docked at the base of the cathedral, and John could clearly see stained-glass windows in a myriad of colors lit from within. There were no rocks or clouds visible, but the glowing angel’s arms were held open in a welcoming gesture, calling to John in a visceral way. John moved closer to examine the canvas and noticed a shape through one of the cathedral’s windows: a completely round doorway in the center of a large open space. It appeared to be like the star-rimmed tunnel from the altered third painting. John reached out to touch the canvas and it began to ripple under his fingers like shallow water.
* * * * *
John jerked awake as the transport plane touched down roughly on the runway. He blinked blearily and looked around, noticing the other soldiers readying themselves for disembarking. John unbuckled his seatbelt, amazed that he had slept almost the entire trip. He took the time to scribble brief notes into his ever-present notebook, not even hoping to get every detail of the dream down. He did manage to get most of the details, especially of the last part and the transformed painting. He doubted he would ever forget the faces of the other men in the paintings—his fellows on his own Voyage of Life. They were too ingrained in his memory from other, more interesting dreams.
John shouldered his duffle and climbed out of the transport plane and quickly hustled through the biting cold toward the entrance to the compound, where he was greeted by an Air Force colonel.
“Major John Sheppard? I’m Colonel Davies.”
John dropped his duffle and snapped a sharp salute. “Sir.”
“At ease, Sheppard. Firstly, I would like to offer condolences on your loss. All your recent losses, in fact. It’s hard to lose colleagues in war and even harder to lose a family member; I can’t imagine taking both types of loss so closely together.”
“Thank you, sir,” John replied.
“Good,” Davies nodded curtly, “now that that’s out of the way, follow me. You will find things are done a bit differently down here at the bottom of the world. There is a large civilian contingent on half of the base that handles scientific research for lots of different organizations, but we do not have much to do with them. Still, we try to be polite if we meet in the mess.”
“Understood, sir,” John replied as he glanced around the open spaces they passed.
“I’ve been given specific orders for you during your time down here, Sheppard. I have seen your record, so I agree with them and I do not consider it to be special treatment. You have counseling sessions scheduled twice a week—non-negotiable. The base therapist, Dr. Sanderson, is a war vet himself, so he knows a bit about what you have gone through in the past few years. I will get reports on your progress, which I will have to pass along, but I will get no details and I will not press for any.
“When you are not in your assigned cubicle, you’ll be flying supplies to a military outpost about three hours from here. The weather can be a bit tricky with ice and wind, so you will need to make frequent training flights to acclimate yourself. We have got three supply helicopters and none of them are armed. We can’t afford to lose one to a weather-related crash, understood?”
“Yes, sir, I understand. When will I receive my training schedule?”
Davies smirked. “You’ll receive a detailed schedule after your first visit with Sanderson. When you are not flying, I have been informed that you are to put serious work into your advanced degrees. I will admit that this is a new one for me, but I won’t disobey orders. Apparently, you’ve already got one advanced degree under your belt?”
“Yes, sir,” John replied quickly. “I’ve got bachelors’ degrees in theoretical and applied mathematics, and I have already finished my master’s in advanced theoretical mathematics. I was working on my PhD in math while I was in the desert, just to waste time, to be honest. And I have got most of the work finished for my master’s in mechanical engineering—although my father thinks I should rework that for aeronautical engineering, since I’m a pilot and all.”
“Whatever keeps you busy and off my radar for the next year, Sheppard,” Davies said dismissively. “You’ll have a private room because there really isn’t enough staff here to double-up. The mess keeps regular hours but there is always coffee and snacks available in the computer lab—provided you don’t spill anything on the machines.”
Davies handed John over to his XO, who went through John’s schedule more thoroughly and gave him his room assignment. The small room was like any other on a military campus, with two small beds, two lockers, and a connected bathroom. The walls were grey, the floor was grey, and the windows were covered in grey shades—which nicely held back the glare of sun reflecting off the too-white snow outside. John dropped the shade back into place because even looking at the snow made him feel cold.
This was definitely going to be a different experience than the desert.
* * * * *
“I was surprised by your dinner invitation, John,” Patrick Sheppard said to his son after their plates were cleared by the server. “Pleased, but surprised.”
John allowed himself a small smirk as he sipped from his water glass. He had maintained an email relationship with his father during his time in Antarctica, sending nonsense messages every two weeks. He never had much to share because one day was very much like another down there. For his part, Patrick reported on advances in the company and any social news that he thought would amuse John. He even reported on the disaster that was his brother David’s romantic pursuit of John’s ex-wife. Apparently, she was after Sheppard money and status, and David finally figured it out after five months.
Because he was not going to be stateside for more than a day, John had thought to not even mention the visit to his father. Surely the older man had better things to do than to fly to Cambridge just to see John for one night. Better judgement, in the form of a session with his mandated counselor, took over, however, and John took the time to make a quick phone call before boarding the transport that would carry him from McMurdo Science Station in Antarctica to Cambridge, Massachusetts, inviting his father to meet him for dinner after he defended his thesis and obtained his PhD in Advanced Mathematics.
“I think I surprised myself, actually,” John admitted. “I know things have been…interesting…lately.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Patrick snorted. “You were a headstrong child and a difficult teenager, John. I was honestly surprised that you managed to finish the PhD with everything else you had going on.”
John rolled his eyes and settled back into his chair, draping his arm over the arm of the chair. “I really wasn’t meant for the classroom, Dad. The undergrad degrees were only a means to an end, which got me into the pilot’s seat a lot sooner than if I had never gone to Officer Candidate School. And math was an easy hobby that kept my mind sharp. I just finally found the time and inclination to finish all of the busy-work for it.”
Patrick sighed and reached for his coffee. “Busy-work, right.” He swallowed the milky brew and settled the cup back into its saucer before directing his full attention to his oldest son. “You’re back, though, right? Stateside, I mean.”
“Not exactly, Dad,” John said as he fiddled with his napkin. “I still have a few months left in my tour,” he said with a slight twist to his mouth. “The CO was being very solicitous in allowing me to come physically to defend the thesis rather than forcing me to take the video-conference option, but I do need to be on transport back tomorrow morning.”
John sighed and sipped more water in order to give his thoughts time to settle.
“The thing is, Dad—I’m asking for a continued term down there. Maybe for another year or so, depending how things work out.”
“Are you serious, John?” Patrick asked, incredulous. “That can’t possibly be what you really want! I know being sent to McMurdo to…cool down…was not great. I mean, I don’t think you deserved to be sent to prison either…”
“Dad—stop!” John sighed and leaned forward to place his glass carefully on the table. “Don’t try to minimize it, okay? I know in my very soul that I did the right thing in Afghanistan, and I know that I would still do it again. I just could not…leave my team behind in that horrible place, even if they were dead by the time I reached them. They deserved more than that and their families deserved to have their bodies for proper burial.”
“I know that John,” Patrick sighed. “That’s why I never said anything to anyone who asked why you were suddenly out of the war zone. But to actually volunteer to stay at McMurdo? Are you sure that’s what you want to do? Heaven knows I’m not a fan of your military service, but even I’m not stupid enough to think you’ll be happy doing anything but flying at this point in your life.”
John nodded in agreement. “I’ve been using my time in Antarctica to get my head together, actually. I have got a few more years in my current term of duty and I am still not sure if I will continue to serve or if I will take retirement once I hit my twenty. And I have been keeping busy while I’m there.”
“Yes, you have. And I must admit that I am extremely impressed, John.” Patrick huffed a small laugh.
John shrugged again. “In any case, I’ve got the Applied Mathematics degree defended and I’ve been working on the Mechanical Engineering degree.”
“So that’s the reason you want to stay at McMurdo?” Patrick frowned. “So you can finish a degree that you could finish anywhere?”
John laughed mirthlessly. “No, that’s not the only reason I’m staying down there. Frankly, I have found that the solitude likes me right now—no matter how silly that sounds. I get left alone enough that I have time to think, and it’s a pretty quiet place—which is a nice change for me after the last few years in a war zone.” John leaned forward on his elbows and clasped his hands together on the table. “I am grateful, Dad, that you were there during that farce of a hearing. The real reason you were there was horrifying, so I probably did not thank you properly at that time, but I am grateful. And I’m going to stay where I am for the time being.”
“All right, John,” Patrick acquiesced, “if that’s what you want. You’ll continue to stay in touch?”
“Of course I will,” John agreed. “I can’t guarantee when I’ll be stateside again after this, but I can always manage email and maybe the odd phone call. I almost did not call you this time—mostly because of the limited time I was going to be here. In the end, I’m just pleased that my dad got to see me get my doctorate.”
Patrick frowned at his oldest son. “I’m just sorry that your mother couldn’t be here as well. I know I put a lot of pressure on the education front, John. It never occurred to me that your education could continue while you were off fighting for your country. When David showed an aptitude for the family business, I put more of my attention toward him. That was a great disservice to you, and one I tried to rectify in recent years. I am proud of you.”
John dipped his head slightly. “That…means more than I can ever say. I always wanted you to be proud of me.”
Patrick drained his wine with a raised eyebrow. “Well, that’s certainly better news that you thinking I was one of your worst enemies. I should have taken more time to understand you when you were younger. I hate that I basically missed so much of your life. I also hate that you’re wasting away at the bottom of the world.”
John shrugged. “It might have felt that way when I first got down there, but I’ve gotten over it. Besides, I’ve heard scuttlebutt that something interesting is going to be happening down there. Nothing official, mind you, and certainly nothing I could tell you about, but I’ve seen my upcoming flight schedules and I’m about to be terribly busy.”
The Hits Keep Coming
With a hitched gasp, John Sheppard rolled into a seated position on his bunk and shoved his feet roughly at the floor, feeling the solid dryness of the scuffed and worn carpet. Rubbing his hands roughly over his face, John forced away the remnants of a watery demise.
John walked to his small bathroom and shakily washed his face with cold water before rinsing his mouth and spitting into the modest sink. Reaching for a scratchy towel, John met his own eyes in the mirror above the sink, and they were more alert than he would have figured. Bloodshot for certain, but more alert.
It only stood to reason that a man like Major John Sheppard would have nightmares. He had turned his back on his family to enter the military after college rather than follow his father’s orders to join the family business. Then he had been a combat helicopter pilot for many years, had spent more time than necessary in remote, dangerous locations, and had even been kept as a prisoner of war and almost died—and had recently lost some close friends and teammates due to a mission gone wrong. It seemed, at the time, that everyone close to him had died or turned away from him.
Well, maybe not everyone close to him. John had finally managed to create a good relationship with his father, even if it had come after his mother had died. And John’s relationship with his younger brother, David, was recovering after David’s foolish romance with John’s ex-wife, but John could count on one hand the number of close friends he still had. In fact, the only thing that kept John away from a full Court-martial was the fact that, while John did take off to try and save his friends, he did not actually disobey any direct orders. And he did not actually punch the sanctimonious asshole who allowed his friends to go out on that mission in the first place.
John was extremely proud of his restraint. He was silent in his anger and grief when facing a dressing-down by his CO, and he was stoic during the disciplinary inquiry when Colonel Basker tried to have him court martialed for disobeying orders. John still was not sure how he managed to come out of that situation with his rank intact and his record mostly clean.
Yet, somehow, someone with a lot of clout found John’s military record to be interesting enough to give him a break. He was allowed a brief leave to attend his mother’s memorial service and to reconnect with his family before being assigned to a scientific outpost he really had no business being in. And he was practically ordered to advance his education as much as possible while there.
The funny part was that he actually liked the place enough to request a longer stay. Colonel Davies had not objected, needing another chopper pilot due to some mysterious project out on the ice.
So, there he was, over a year later, living in a nondescript bunk in a science station in Antarctica, dealing with nightmares.
John dried his face and brushed his teeth before returning to make up his messy bed.
The base was just like every other base John had been posted at—just a lot colder. The walls were completely impersonal, decorated with the odd official notice or ironic motivational poster. The floors were covered with bland thin carpet or utilitarian vinyl tile. The lights were too bright, especially coupled with the reflected snow and ice through the windows, and the insulated ceiling tiles never seemed clean. The familiarity of it was almost enough to set John at ease.
The airmen and civilian personnel stationed there kept to themselves, mostly because of the rumors about John and his ‘punishment’, which annoyed John to no end because he could not officially refute any of the rumors. The CO was a decent enough guy, going as far as offering brief condolences to John before becoming a consummate professional, and he privately managed to make sure John’s honor and valor remained intact. And John’s duties while he was stationed at McMurdo were simple: complete requisite course work for the two post-graduate degrees he had been avoiding during his tours of duty—one of which he had finished the year before, keep up with the unending paperwork that the base CO kept dropping on his desk, and, more recently, occasionally fly people or supplies out to some distant science outpost on the frozen desert.
Oh, and for the first year there, he had to keep the mandated therapy appointments that were designed to help John keep his ‘temper’ in check. Even after he had finished his mandated therapy sessions, John occasionally dropped in with Dr. Sanderson when he felt like he needed to talk something out. John, unlike many career soldiers, valued therapy in all forms. He understood that keeping dark feelings bottled-up, especially during high-stress situations, could lead to reckless and dangerous behavior. And according to the base therapist, the nightmares John was having were completely normal considering the circumstances of John’s situation. Which could make sense if John were having nightmares about his dead teammates, or of firefights in the desert, or even crashing his own helicopter in place of Dex on that last mission. And while John was secretly happy to give the man the impression that those were the things John was dreaming (nightmare-ing) about, it really was not the case.
For one thing, John did not begin having those nightmares until his new flight schedule began and he was regularly taking strange people and supplies out to that remote station. For another thing, John was having nightmares about people he either had never met or didn’t really know—even by name.
And about places he had never actually been.
About places that could not actually exist.
John grimaced at his neatly made bed and grabbed his shower gear so he could officially get ready for the morning. He had an unofficial meeting with Sanderson before hitting the small ‘computer lab’ to work on the paperwork for his Mechanical Engineering degree. Just thinking about that made John laugh to himself.
Patrick Sheppard happily accepted John’s undergraduate degrees in Engineering and Mathematics from Stanford, as it would have paved the way for John to move into a strong position with the family company, and then John had disappointed the old man when he joined the Air Force, rather than heading to graduate school. Patrick had even allowed that a brief stint in military service could look good on a future resume once John was ready to have a ‘real’ life and career. The old man even approved of John’s intention to move further with a master’s in engineering during his service—until John stated a desire to fly. As an officer, John was able to realize his desire to soar, and he learned to fly every aircraft he could reasonably get his hands on, fully intent on becoming a full-time military pilot—and Patrick Sheppard then washed his hands of his oldest son. Until John got married and seemed to settle down.
While serving as a combat helicopter pilot, John showed an innate talent for understanding the mechanics of every aircraft he managed to get his hands on, and his basic Engineering degree flowed into Aeronautical Engineering. And during the coursework for that degree, John gave into his passion for numbers and began the Theoretical Mathematics work—purely for the fun of it.
John had almost completed both degrees before being shipped off to one war zone after another, and the final work had fallen by the wayside. He always swore that he would officially complete all of his course work once he had the time. He had always meant that, too, even though he figured he would eventually be shot down in the middle of a war zone. Actually being shot down and tortured as a prisoner did not stop his dreams, and he used numbers to stay sane until he was rescued. But it was not until he was divorced that he found that he did have enough time to finish those degrees—and finishing them had been made a condition of his continued career in the Air Force.
In the last year at McMurdo, John had not only finished the mathematics work, he had also received permission to head stateside to defend his thesis—and he had taken the time to call his father and invite him to dinner. Finally, it seemed that John had gotten the approval from his father that he had wanted all his adult life. His mother would have been proud to see two stubborn men finally come together.
Then John had decided to request a longer tour of service at the science station because of some new mission going on near there, and the nightmares began.
* * * * *
Breakfast was purely utilitarian: coffee, toast, a bit of oatmeal to hold him until lunch. John was never much for a large meal in the morning, and his stomach had been off since the nightmares had started, so eating first thing was never a good idea. Despite the horrors John had seen while flying in the Middle East during wartime, despite the real horrors of being tortured for months in a cave in the desert, the night-time visages were somehow worse. Dropping bombs or retrieving bleeding, burned men, or having his bones broken, had nothing on those night-time torments.
John grimaced again as he finished his coffee and returned his tray to the service window. He wiped his hands on the paper napkins and nodded absently to the table full of soldiers nearest the exit. The bland hallways were almost empty as everyone there had a place to be and there was no room for loitering. John knocked on the therapist’s door and entered when called.
Dr. Sanderson was a genial man who understood combat stress, and John appreciated that he never pressed hard for more than John offered on any given day. John understood the need for therapy in certain situations. He definitely knew some people who could benefit from it, and he would be the first to recommend it if asked—especially when it came to his own family. So, John endured, and he even contributed so as to show his cooperation to his superiors.
“You’re looking wan, Major Sheppard,” Dr. Sanderson said by way of greeting.
John grimaced and took a seat in front of the desk. “I’m not really sleeping well all of a sudden, Doc.”
Sanderson’s gaze narrowed onto John’s face. “More nightmares, Major?”
John shrugged. “They never really went away.”
Sanderson sighed and folded his hands together on top of his desk. “While it may be odd to suddenly begin having nightmares so long after a traumatic event, the nightmares themselves are not necessarily unexpected, as I have mentioned in the past. You did go through a rather harrowing ordeal. Several, in fact.”
John barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “I should think the ‘harrowing ordeal’ part happened to Mitch Wagoner, Dexter Michaels, and Lyle Holland, Doc. I was merely the person who brought them home to their families.”
“Yes,” agreed Sanderson, “and those dark circles under your eyes show that you were far more affected than anyone knew at the time. I have never agreed with the way you were treated in Afghanistan, Major. Colonel Basker came perilously close to abusing his limited power with the way he treated you, and the fact that you were kept from court martial shows that others thought so, as well. I know you have done better recently, and I am incredibly happy with your progress. And I was surprised when you volunteered for more time here. I had thought you’d gotten the nightmares under control?”
John shrugged casually and slouched a bit in his chair. “To be honest, Doc, so had I.”
And that was completely true. John had suffered minor nightmares and sleep disturbances in the weeks after being shipped stateside after his failed rescue, and learning about his mother’s death, and those dreams had revolved around imaginary poker nights with Mitch, Dex, and Lyle; the dream versions of John’s friends berated John for breaking rules and coming after them. And other dreams brought his mother to him, speaking of love and a new future for John if he was brave enough to reach for it. John faithfully recorded details of those dreams in a notebook, as once prescribed by a therapist after coming home as a POW, and he reviewed them at the end of every week. Once the physicians cleared John for continuing duty, those nightmares tapered off and John slept…fairly well. Uninterrupted, at any rate.
But the sleeplessness crept back after John had been at McMurdo for two weeks—a restlessness that saw John creeping out of bed and hitting the base gym in the too-early hours to build up his strength, and hopefully tire himself by bedtime so he could try and sleep again. And after a bit of therapy and some hard work, even those nightmares tapered off and went away. John connected with his father on a weekly basis, added a few academic letters after his name, and requested to stay at McMurdo when that new mission began, and all was good for a long while.
But once the CO added John to the new flight schedule, ferrying odd bits of equipment out to some dome on the ice, John’s nightmares began again. And while John would speak in broad terms with the base shrink, he was not about to explain that he knew absolutely nobody in his current dreams. There would be no way that John could explain that.
“Do you think you could benefit from mild sedatives, Major?” Sanderson asked as he wrote notes from that session, and John quickly shook his head.
“I appreciate the offer, really,” John said wearily. “I might indulge in an occasional beer—and maybe something stronger around the holidays—but I’ve never been one to alter my reality if I can avoid it. I even stopped drinking heavily while I was in Afghanistan because I decided needing a drink was no reason to actually have one. Keep the drugs for someone who really needs them, okay?”
“Alright, Major, but if you begin to suffer in your performance, I’ll have to ban you from flying until you get some real rest. We can’t risk any accidents at the ass-end of nowhere.”
After the short therapy session, John was able to plant himself at a desk in front of a computer with nothing but work. It should have been mind-numbing. It could have been relaxing. It definitely was productive, but John’s mind was incredibly alert by dinner time, and only an hour punching a heavy bag in the gym exhausted him enough for him to drop after a hot shower.
* * * * *
A blue-gold shimmer lit the cavern around him as he stood in a faceless crowd. The glow brightened briefly, illuminating the people around him, but the faces were unfamiliar. Suddenly the shimmer began to falter, and someone began screaming:
There’s not enough power!
And the ceiling began to crumble.
There’s not enough power!
And the walls began to shake.
There’s not enough power!
And the floor began to fall apart.
John lurched from his bed and stumbled into the bathroom, dry heaving and shaking with unexplained fear. He sat back on the cool tile floor and leaned his head back against the wall beside the toilet.
That was both new and unpleasant. The stark feeling that he was about to die—and that he was about to die with dozens of faceless strangers in a perilous situation that none of them had been prepared for.
John sighed to himself. If only they had…what?
If only they had done what? Who were they? Did he know them? Did they know him? What were they hoping for? Why hadn’t they been prepared?
John shook his head and stood to start his shower, thankful not for the first time that he did not have to share a bathroom. He could not remember the beginning of the dream. He could never remember the beginnings of the dreams; only the stark, frightening endings seemed clear in his mind. What he could barely remember seemed oddly optimistic, like he was embarking on some incredible journey—until it all went to hell.
This dream was familiar to John, only in that he could remember waking three times that week cursing the strange lack of power that doomed him and a host of unknown strangers. Those horrified voices screaming had haunted John during his working hours all that week, but he never let his performance drop in any way.
Dr. Sanderson might have wanted to prescribe drugs again, and John could not allow that. He could still fly while he was at McMurdo, and flying was all that he really wanted to do; drugs of any type could jeopardize that. The fact that this latest iteration of nightmare had begun after his usual ferrying job began including people as well as equipment was just a bit dismaying.
Certainly no worse than the dreams that began when he was only carrying out boxes that he was neither allowed to load nor unload. Those dreams involved a glowing orange comet that chased his helicopter into the snow and ice, blowing it sky high. John was a bit weirded out by the whole deal, honestly, but he certainly did not feel like he was breaking down. He’d had that nightmare before and never understood it.
Oddly, he felt that the nightmares were making him somehow mentally stronger. Sort of.
He was certainly fortified enough to call his father more often than he had planned—and he had added his brother to his email list. David was…coming around. John never brought up Nancy and they kept their conversation civil.
John had also spoken at length with Mitch’s widow only a couple of weeks before he went to defend his thesis, and Dex’s mother as well. He had managed to assure both women that their men were fine soldiers who served with honor, and that he was proud to have been their friend. Lyle Holland’s family were understanding about the danger of their son’s life, but they did not want to speak further about it, which John understood completely. But the phone calls had been ‘prescribed’ by Dr. Sanderson as a way of making sure John was rooted in reality.
John had the feeling that he would have been forced to take some sort of anti-psychotic if he had failed to contact anyone in his recent past about his recent past. Proving to be mentally stable was particularly important to his life and career, so John kept in compliance with his therapy and his job duties, and he was almost completely honest with the therapist.
Because he could not figure out how to make the new series of nightmares make sense, John spoke exclusively about his progress on the graduate degrees and recertifying his pilot qualifications. All were easy topics to stick with, and John even mentioned planning to meet his father and brother for dinner in a few months, once he had some leave built up. It would almost be Christmas and that was a time for family, so John thought he would give it a try.
And while John did not speak about the nightmares, he certainly tried to analyze them. Every morning, after retching uselessly into the toilet, John painstakingly wrote down everything he could remember about the dreams. His notebook was quite full. It was his fourth notebook since his arrival at McMurdo.
Mostly the dreams were nice, pleasant even.
He dreamed often about the physical pleasure with the blue-eyed scholar as they floated on the deep blue sea. Some mornings he would wake still feeling the sun warming his skin.
And he dreamed about an adventure in the canyons, making a campfire out of brushwood and sleeping under the stars. The stars winked brightly in the black sky and the scent of juniper filled the air, and John could reach out and touch the warm, work-worn hand of the man beside him. The lovemaking seemed real enough that when John woke, he was still shaking with the passion of it.
Those dreams got a notebook all their own—one he kept under lock and key.
The one about losing power was relatively new. John had had a few varieties of that dream. Sometimes the power loss would be followed by an earthquake, sometimes by a flood. John could have that nightmare three nights in a row, and then he would dream about warm lips against his, and strong hands combing through his hair. The scent of salt air would follow him to wakefulness, and it would seem so very real.
The glowing fiery comet was more disturbing because he’d had that dream since he was in Afghanistan. It followed him no matter where he was, but he could not understand it, and he had begun having it with disturbing regularity.
There were other new dreams because of course there were. Along with the bespectacled blue-eyed scholar and the dark-eyed powerful stranger, John dreamed of different people. Men and women he had never met. John dreamed of a dark-eyed woman with a powerful aura and more than a hint of arrogance. She smiled at him in a seductive way, but her smile never reached her eyes. And he dreamed of an angel-faced man who promised to save lives, but behind him John only saw piles of bodies.
Those dreams always made his mind feel itchy, as if he were in the presence of someone who would gladly step on or over others to make themselves look better. John had had a lot of personal experience with those types, both in the military and in his personal life as the son of a wealthy man. John really hated those types of people.
John still dreamed about a metal and glass cathedral that whispered to him about hope.
He dreamed about a mystic lava lamp that pulsed with life before snuffing out and sending him into cold despair.
He dreamed about excited voices chattering in many languages, happy at first before screaming in fear.
And despite rushing to expel bile from a sour stomach every morning, John never felt run down from the nightmares. And he never really felt dread after the dreams. He did not feel great, of course, but he felt rather like he had some sort of new purpose. In fact, John had begun to think that if he could figure out how to get enough power to…something…then maybe bad things would not happen to him.
John almost began to treat his nightmares and dreams like some sort of game: If he dreamed about the fiery comet shooting him out of the sky, then he would work on his Aeronautical Engineering paper, and if the dream were about power loss, he would write a pleasant email to his father or brother. If the scholar or mystery man and adventure or sexy times figured prominently in the dreams, John settled in to wrap up the rogue paperwork in his inbox before it took over his whole desk.
If the other people, the eerie man and woman with the creepy, unfeeling eyes, were present—John spent a lot of time in the gym working out his frustrations. On those days, John worked the heavy bag for an hour before logging no less than 10 miles on the treadmill. If he still felt itchy after all of that, John turned to his Tai Chi katas, followed by a spate of yoga and meditation. Those dreams made for exceedingly long, exhausting mornings.
John always treated the dreams about the unfeeling eyes as the most important, mostly because his mother had taught him to always look to a person’s eyes as a gateway—not to their soul, but to their character. If a person did not smile ‘all the way up’, she would always say, then they were hiding something deep inside, and the eyes were always a dead giveaway. She even said that in his last vivid dream about her just after she died—never trust someone whose smile does not reach all the way to their eyes.
So, on it went, day after day, and dream after nightmare. John flew supply runs as part of a rotation of three pilots at the end of the world, finalized his academic papers and submitted them for review, and generally impressed his commanding officer with his dedication to his duty and service. John even began to taper off his therapy visits—mostly by not mentioning the new nightmares or his personal dream journals.
* * * * *
“Sheppard! You’re on rotation!”
The summons was not exactly unexpected, since two of John’s fellow pilots were down with the flu, but the cargo was certainly…unexpected.
“Yes, sir!” John jogged forward to meet his flight commander, who was standing in front of two unexpected people: a tall man with short, dark blond hair and a thin woman with dark hair pulled into a severe bun at the base of her neck. They were facing away from him when he approached, so John could not see their faces.
“Sheppard,” Flight said by way of introduction, “This is Dr. Jackson and Dr. Weir. You’re going to be taking them to the igloo in the outback.”
At first, John smirked at the use of the pseudo-code words for the mysterious outpost miles from McMurdo base. They were irreverent and almost disrespectful, but since nobody at McMurdo really knew what was going on out there, they had to make it seem approachable. Then John’s smirk faded when they both turned to face him—the oddly cruel woman and the blue-eyed scholar from his dreams. John quickly schooled his expression when the woman spoke.
“Igloo?” she queried pleasantly. “Is that what you call the outpost?”
John shrugged slightly. “That’s what it looks like from the sky, Ma’am. Most of us here don’t know much about the place, so we call it like we see it—a big igloo out on the ice.”
John led the way out to the helipad in silence and helped his two passengers get settled and buckled in, unease settling uncomfortably in his belly.
“Is there a lot of speculation about what’s going on out there?” Jackson asked hesitantly, his voice tinny through the headphones.
“Not really,” John replied absently. “At least, I don’t hear anything like that. But then, I have a lot going on right now besides flying supplies out on the ice.”
John glanced sideways to see Jackson relax minutely in his seat.
The flight, all three hours of it, was spent in silence. John kept his gaze on the scenery as well as his instruments, making sure this whirly-bird stayed safely in the air because this was no place for a crash. He also kept a weather-eye on his passengers, but Jackson was staring resolutely out the window and Weir was reading silently in the rear seat. John scrambled to recall any and all of the dreams that featured his passengers.
Dr. Jackson, the scholar, embodied the passion and excitement of discovery that John felt when he was flying, and the dreams featuring him alone were filled with deep conversation and physical passion—lush, rich, and unabashed. Just hearing his voice in the waking hours was almost enough for John’s body to respond.
To the contrary, John’s dreams featuring the cruel woman—Dr. Weir—were enough to kill any erection John ever had. Those dreams showed the woman gleefully offering up the cathedral in return for power, and there was always a pile of bodies near her, people she willingly sacrificed in order to achieve her personal goals. For some reason, John had the sense that the woman most aspired to become a glowing angel, and that did not mesh with the idea of selling people out or allowing them to die.
There was not much activity around the huge dome on the ice when they approached, but that only made sense because the temperatures were so low. John’s usual practice was to keep the engine running to keep the propellers and gears from freezing while the cargo was being unloaded. John settled the helicopter and assisted his passengers from the aircraft.
“Thank you for a smooth ride, Major,” said Dr. Jackson brightly. “I’ve, uh, had a lot worse.”
John smiled in return. “I expect I’ll be back around, Dr. Jackson. After all, that flu is keeping the other pilots down for the count right now.”
Jackson pushed his glasses up his nose with a gloved hand and smiled, and John felt his heart lurch. “Well, if that’s the case, you’ll certainly be back here a lot. More personnel are coming out for the next month or so.”
“Well, then,” John stuttered, “I guess I’ll have to update the description of this place from ‘Igloo’ to ‘Beehive’.”
That night, John’s nightmare starred Dr. Weir—she was enrobed in a golden aura much like the glowing angel, reaching for the sky, and standing over a pile of bodies covered in the flags of various countries. The cold and cruel eyes John was familiar with, but it was her serene smile that stuck with him when he woke. She seemed untroubled by anything around her because she had what she wanted.
John woke shaking, disturbed by the imagery.
* * * * *
John was in the mess hall reading the letter from Stanford University that offered congratulations on his master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering when the call for attention was made, and he looked up to see his current commanding officer standing next to—an Air Force General, if the uniform was correct.
A very familiar-looking, dark-eyed man with greying hair, square jaw, and a heavy brow.
John stood to attention with everyone else in the room and offered a salute, which was returned by the newcomer. Then John’s CO motioned him forward, so John gathered his mail and shoved it into a pocket, heart racing slightly.
“Sir?” John asked when he met the two officers at the mess hall entrance.
“Sheppard,” Colonel Davies introduced, “General O’Neill will be making a visit out to the Igloo. You’re to fly him out and remain to bring him back when his visit is finished, is that clear?”
John was surprised but tried not to let it show. He remembered the name of course, from his orders after Afghanistan. This was the general that had originally slotted him to Antarctica after his botched rescue mission—a man John had never met in person but knew intimately in dreams. It had been weeks since he transported Drs. Jackson and Weir out to the outpost, two other people from John’s disturbing dreams; weeks since he had seen them, as well as other personnel, travel in and out from McMurdo Station every four or five days.
Weeks, in fact, since he had begun having new and interesting dreams.
Excited blue eyes and a crooked grin—before the blasting crack of shattering glass, and the shaking of an earthquake as the rushing of violent waters enveloped them all.
A bright burst of blue waters turning into a white-gold tunnel—a tunnel that shimmered darkly before collapsing, killing them all.
Nervous blue eyes seeking reassurance before rushing black water dragged them under.
A dark-haired woman with hard eyes betraying a kind and patient countenance, turning her back to a few survivors and shifting into a being of glowing light.
Feeling the safe, solid floor beneath his feet shift and split apart, swallowing the men around him before icy, black water completely surrounds him.
A black-eyed demon forcibly pulling his life slowly from his body, pain shooting from his chest as he died.
A glittering cathedral offering some sort of salvation before the light fades and icy darkness swallowed them all.
A friendly group of farmers offering salvation—before attacking and stealing the cathedral, delivering death as easily as they once offered safety.
A cool-gazed woman offering to trade the lives of her people for a chance to become one with the universe.
In all those weeks, John had ferried more equipment and people out to the outpost on the ice. He had transported Dr. Jackson twice more, but as far as he knew, Dr. Weir—the woman John now recognized in his nightmares, though he wasn’t sure if that was because he had seen the woman and she sort of matched the person he dreamed of—had never once left the outpost. It was not unusual for people to live full time in those remote science stations, but John could not imagine it; he had never really been fond of the extreme cold, and he was happy enough to stay inside McMurdo Station for most of the time he was there. The flying might have been his life’s blood but flying in the extreme cold made it not so fun.
And yet, John was always ready to get behind the controls of the A-Star helicopter that responded like an old friend. “Of course, Sirs. Just let me change into my flight suit and I’ll meet you on the helipad.”
“No hurry, Major,” General O’Neill replied with a smile that crinkled his warm, brown eyes. “I have some business with the Colonel before we leave. Finish your breakfast and make sure you have warm clothes with you. It gets a little chilly down there.”
John saluted again and turned back to his breakfast tray, wondering to himself…down there? Down where? And did that General really seem familiar or was John imagining things? John shook his head and began to clear his breakfast tray.
An hour later, and wearing more layers than John usually wore on this routine trip, John was greeted by General O’Neill on the helipad as he worked on his pre-flight checklist.
“I took the time to look you up before I flew down here, Sheppard.”
John’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Sir?”
O’Neill waved away John’s concern. “It’s nothing major, Major. I just like knowing the people flying me around. As a pilot, I’m sure you understand?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” John agreed. “It’s just that, since your name was on my transfer papers down here, I’d assumed that you had already looked me up. This isn’t exactly my normal gig.”
O’Neill raised an eyebrow and rocked back on his heels slightly as he regarded John. “The thing is—I think you’re down here on false pretenses.”
John looked up from his checklist and blinked. “Pardon? Sir?”
O’Neill smirked and nodded toward the helicopter. “Let’s get onboard, Major. We can chat on the way.”
John strapped himself in and began checking the instruments while O’Neill got himself settled in the seat beside him. For a moment, the roaring of the engine as the aircraft took off prevented all conversation, but once they were clear of the station, O’Neill activated his mic.
“Have we met, Major?”
John’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think so, Sir.” John certainly was not going to mention any weird dreams, sexual or otherwise—or the fact that General O’Neill’s eyes seemed awfully familiar to him.
“No,” O’Neill agreed, “I didn’t think so, either, but you seem familiar to me somehow. In any case, I did look you up while I was finishing up in Davies’ office. Your service record is damned near impeccable, Sheppard—right until your last tour in Afghanistan.”
John’s mouth tightened. “I’m aware, Sir.” In the back of John’s mind, there was an echo of a dream: You’re like me, John.
O’Neill turned his head to focus directly on John. “I think I know why you seem familiar to me, Sheppard.”
“Why is that Sir?”
“It’s because what you did—flying out without permission to bring back your team—is exactly what I would have done. It’s exactly what I have done, many times during my career.” You’re a lot like me, John. You’ve been shaped by your loves and your losses, and you’ve come out a stronger man.
“Did you ever get smacked down for it, Sir?” John couldn’t help but ask.
O’Neill chuckled. “Many, many times, Major. Being honorable and dependable doesn’t always mean going by the rules.”
John looked to his left briefly. “It doesn’t seem to have done you any harm, Sir.”
O’Neill laughed outright and gestured to the invisible stars hidden under the heavy jacket he wore. “You mean these? Let me tell you something, Major: Sometimes people get promoted as a way of punishing them. I was always a man of action, and sometimes that didn’t serve me so well, but getting promoted to a desk?” He shook his head and cleared his throat. “Let’s just say I’m doing the best that I can.”
“Sometimes that’s all we can do, Sir,” John agreed.
They flew in silence for a while longer as John contemplated the odd conversation. It was a lot like the dreams John had been having. And John felt oddly comfortable just sitting next to the older man. It was a nice feeling—like he was in some sort of exclusive badass club.
About twenty miles from their destination, an announcement came over the radio to watch for a drone that could seek its own targets, and an odd blip appeared on John’s radar—and it was moving quickly toward him.
Immediately, John’s mind flashed to the fiery comet of his dreams and he shuddered physically.
“Is there a problem, Major?” O’Neill asked as John visibly shifted his posture into defensive mode.
“I’m not sure, Sir.”
The object in the radar moved closer and closer, and John began evasive maneuvering, trying to fly higher or lower than the approaching object, but it seemed to be locked onto his position.
O’Neill braced himself hard against the door of the helicopter as John began to rise and fall and swerve and swing, trying to get around whatever was coming toward him, but when O’Neill growled “Jesus Christ, I’m gonna kill someone!”, John looked up sharply—just in time to see a bright orange missile headed straight for them.
John’s heart almost stopped, and he hissed in anger as he began flying wildly, using all his training to avoid being hit, because he knew—somehow, he just knew—that this was his nightmare come to life. No matter which direction he went, that orange comet kept coming, turning when he turned, rising when John flew high, and diving when John flew low—and all John could think about was those nightmares where his copter was hit and exploded into dust. It was in front of them, then it was under and behind them before swinging around and heading for them again. The missile screamed as it came, and John feared it would be the last sound he ever heard.
“I’m going to have to take ‘er down, Sir!” John screamed. “I can’t get around this!”
“Just get us down in one piece, Major, and we can pray to walk away from this!”
John banked to the left sharply and dropped behind a rocky outcropping, hearing the missile hit the ice and stone far behind him.
“Shut it down!” O’Neill shouted and John complied immediately, turning the motors off and unbuckling his harness.
“What the hell was that?” he asked breathlessly.
O’Neill held up a hand and said, “Wait for it!”
Seconds later, the glowing orange missile shot out of the rock far in front of them and turned toward the copter. “Get out!” John shouted, and both he and O’Neill opened the copter’s doors and dove out into the snow. John practically buried his helmeted head into the ice and prayed to gods he was not sure he believed in that he and his passenger would survive when he suddenly found that he could no longer hear the whistling scream of the missile.
Turning his head to look under the chopper, John saw that the missile, which now looked like a dead, grey squid, had landed and slid to a complete stop barely inches from O’Neill’s outstretched hand. John took a shuddering breath to calm his frantic nerves and stood up, brushing snow from his legs with hands numbed from clutching the control stick so tightly.
John shakily climbed back into the helicopter and took another deep breath as O’Neill did the same. “Well,” he said after a moment, “that was different.”
O’Neill tilted his head and glared at him. “With my life? Not so much.”
John shot the older man an incredulous look. “You know, I almost fought being sent down here at first because I’ve been a combat pilot for a long time, but I really began to like it. It’s quiet, for the most part, and I did manage to finish a few projects that I’d had to put on hold.” He shook his head and began to flip switches to turn the engines back on. “Now I don’t know what to think about this place, because clearly there is a lot of stuff going on that nobody knows about.”
“Wait! You actually like it down here?” O’Neill asked in shock.
John rolled his head and began to lift the helicopter again into the air. “It wasn’t my first choice, but it was my best choice at that time. People leave me alone here, and I got to keep my commission—and to keep flying.” He turned his head to meet O’Neill’s gaze. “I guess I’ll have to keep this little incident quiet, huh?”
“It would be preferred, yes. I suppose you have a lot of questions now, huh?”
John sighed and radioed into the outpost to let them know that the helicopter was in good condition and on the way—and that the General was unharmed. “I supposed it’s too late to live in ignorance.”
O’Neill reached out and patted John’s shoulder. “I’ll get some answers and then I’ll see about getting some for you. Although, you do seem awfully calm, all things considered. And that was some mighty fine flying you did there, so I really appreciate that.”
John bit his lip for a moment. “Look, you see about getting answers, and I’ll consider letting you in on a secret. Deal?”
“Is it a big, life changing secret?”
John turned his head and leveled a serious gaze at the older man. “It’s pretty big and pretty unbelievable. But if I have to believe that that,” he gestured to the wiggly grey squid-thing that O’Neill was holding, “could really have blown my life away just a few minutes ago, then maybe my secret is believable, too.”
O’Neill stared at him for a moment before nodding once and returning his focus to the front of the helicopter.
The rest of the flight was short and very uneventful, for which John was grateful. That glowing, self-directed drone was a thing of nightmares—his in particular. The fact that it was launched, apparently accidentally, from the outpost that John had been visiting for the past year, did not make John feel any better.
If that nightmare was going to come true, what about the others?
* * * * *
“Take a look around, Major,” said O’Neill before stalking off into the cavernous underground outpost, “and don’t touch anything.”
John just stood at the base of the huge elevator shaft; head tipped back as he gazed at the walls cut deep under the ice. From above, one could never imagine what this place really was. It was almost made of science-fiction, with solid walls and a smooth floor almost more than a mile under the surface of Antarctica. All around him, people bustled around carrying on conversations about everything from whatever sporting event was broadcast the night before to supply lists for a computer bank. Nothing John could overhear would be considered ‘Top Secret’ by any reasonable person. Nobody was wearing any sort of uniform, either so John did not know if there was any sort of military presence down here, and since he had only been introduced to very few of the personnel he ‘escorted’ to the site, he didn’t have names or rank to go by. General O’Neill was the only definite military member that John could count on, so he tucked his hands tightly into his jacket pockets and concentrated on not touching anything, as per orders.
And it was really difficult to do that, because somewhere down there, something was ‘singing’ to John—a soft, deeply-resonating siren-call of a song that John only heard inside his own head. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once, and John’s hands tightened into fists as he willfully resisted its call. He wandered from cluttered table-top to cluttered table-top, glancing at stacks of printouts and green files stuffed with papers and photographs, computer parts with loose wires, and empty coffee mugs. Along one long wall stood whiteboards covered in black and red and green drawings and mathematical formulae that he did not look too closely at because it was none of his business.
And still the song sang to him.
John wandered through the open area, steering clear of the roughed-out offices that were really none of his business, and he felt the song come from smaller pieces of machines that did not appear to be regular computer components. His hands itched to pick up something just to hear the song more clearly, so he tightened his fists inside his pockets. People bustled around him, ignoring him as if he either belonged or was part of the furniture. Computer banks flickered and beeped, but they did not drown out the song that resonated inside his mind.
Turning slightly, John wandered through brightly lit passages, taking in the odd architecture of the central chamber. The prominent safety station, decorated with a bright red cross on a white background made him smile, but the sound of arguing voices drew him onward until he faced a dark chair surrounded by three people—one with a Scottish accent who was explaining how he got the ‘drone to shut down’.
“So you were the one?” John accused, and the man turned to face him.
“Me?” he asked, obviously confused.
“You were the one that fired that thing at me!”
“Look,” said the man sheepishly, “we’re doing research with technology far beyond our understanding and sometimes we make mistakes. I’m very sorry to have fired that drone.”
But John’s attention had already shifted from the man to the odd chair—a chair that was singing that siren-song more loudly than anything else in this underground wonderland. He ached to touch it, and his hands automatically reached out before he could stop himself. “Next time,” he said absently, “just be a little more careful, okay? And what was that thing, anyway?” he asked, dragging his eyes from the chair and back to the man standing before him.
“The drone? It was the weapon the Ancients created to defend this outpost.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “The who?”
The man’s visage shifted quickly from sheepish to cautious. “You do have security clearance to be here?”
John rocked back a bit and replied, “Yeah, General O’Neill just gave it to me.” He itched to reach out to the chair because it was now sending mental pictures into his head—if that was even possible. The chair was definitely calling to him, practically begging him, and he was finding it difficult to resist.
“Then you don’t even know about the Stargate,” admonished the Scot, as if he were bewildered at John’s presence.
“What?” John asked, his attention pulled from the chair. His eyes narrowed in suspicion, because now he was sure the other man was now kidding him.
But he clearly wasn’t, because with that one simple question he was off on a long, detailed explanation of wormholes, space travel, aliens—and some kind of special genetic anomaly that allowed these Ancients to control their technology without it being used against them. And through it all, pictures kept filtering through his mind:
He was on a wooden boat, floating along a winding river, and a glowing angel was guiding his way—pointing ahead toward a swirling dark tunnel.
“You have a future here, John,” his mother had said, “if you’re brave enough to take it.”
The river was smooth now, but he could see rapids ahead of him as he approached the tunnel.
“There’s not enough power!” shouted many voices, and the tunnel glowed brightly blue even as the walls began to shake.
John reached out to the odd chair and it seemed to welcome him gratefully. Before he knew it, he was sitting in the chair even as the Scot was warning him away, and the chair lit in welcome, glowing with blue light.
Suddenly there was a rush of activity as General O’Neill, Dr. Jackson, Dr. Weir, and several people John had never seen before came running from some alcove or office to confront John.
“I thought I told you not to touch anything!” O’Neill admonished with a glare, and John could only shrug from his place in the chair.
“I…sat down?” he tried, and O’Neill glared harder.
“Major,” said an excited man in a bright orange fleece jacket, “think about where we are in the universe!”
John turned his head to face the man. “What?”
“Think about our position in the universe,” he repeated. “Activate the chair and think about where we are?”
John’s eyes flicked back to O’Neill and the older man just shrugged and crossed his arms negligently, clearly leaving the decision to John. John blinked and allowed his hands to rest on the blue gel-like pads on the chair arms, and the chair spun slowly in a circle and shifted so that John was reclined in a resting position. He closed his eyes, and the song grew in intensity inside his mind. Images flashed inside his mind as he sat and tried to clear his mind of all thoughts.
He was flying over an ocean of deep blue-green rolling with white-capped waves. He was higher than even seabirds flew and there was neither boat nor land in sight as far as his eyes could see—until a rocky outcropping gave way to a steep cliff face, and that also gave way to rough greenery and crumbled stone walls. Bodyless, John drifted away from the ruins to a steep path leading to a rocky cove—and a dark cave high on the side of the cliff. Deeper into the cave he drifted, far beyond a cleared passageway, until he reached a hidden recess and a stone staircase, and he…
…Was flying over the clear blue sea alongside dark beaches and high cliffs that were topped with scrub bushes and white buildings. Down he flew until he skimmed the bright waters, and then he submerged beneath the gentle waves, following colorful fishes as they danced within the warm waters. Down he drifted in the clear blue, past coral towers and waving kelp, until he found a cavern protected by marble statues of toga-clad spearmen. Past the silent sentries, the water grew cooler and cooler, and the cavern grew darker and darker, illuminated by a broad spotlight ahead of him—until he reached a gilded door covered in coral and barnacles that broke away with a touch, and still he drifted deeper until…
…He was soaring over desert canyons of red and orange and beige. A thin river ran through the canyon, leading him past juniper bushes and firs and cacti. The ground was hard-packed and rocky, and he drifted past boulders and rough paths and animal trails until he reached the bottom of a cliff wall, and then he drifted up and up and up, until he saw before him carved stone dwellings set into the cliffs. He drifted past carved doorways and open towers made of sandstone, and up carved stairways that ran deeper into the cliffs. A firepit opened under the hard sandstone, revealing a circular stairwell, and down he went, under the stone, under the cliff, under and under and under—into a dark cavern that spread out before him, welcoming rather than foreboding. Torches lit along the cavern walls, illuminating an altar of sorts, and beneath the altar…
…A metal staircase wound around the towering spire of the cathedral, offering a view of a main chamber filled with a single structure—a stone and metal ring standing upright in the center of the large room. All around him were stained-glass windows glowing in multi-colored brilliance, creating patterns of color on the dull metal floor. His vision filled with balconies and glass doors and intricate arches, and through a clear window he could see an endless ocean rippling with dark waves. Below him spread the city housing the cathedral, tall and short towers topped with glistening spires and glowing in the dark night. A star-shaped base spread out wide before him, and all around the lights were coming on, welcoming him home…
“Major, think about our place in the universe!”
The impatient voice halted the visions being fed to John and replaced them with a map—an astral map full of constellations and comets and planets. John opened his eyes in shock and blinked against the vision. “Did I do that?”
* * * * *
John had been part of many debriefings in his military career. He had had to take notes on upcoming missions and reveal details of how those missions succeeded—or failed. He had had to inform his superiors about locals that could be a help—or a hinderance. And he had most definitely had to defend his actions in many situations.
But never, in his entire life, would he have believed that he would be on the receiving end of a debriefing about aliens, distant warfare, and an ancient city in another galaxy. Not to mention some sort of super gene that General O’Neill had, which allowed him to activate the strange technology in the outpost—and apparently one which John had in spades.
“I’d like to obtain some of your blood to test, Major,” said the Scot—a geneticist named Beckett who had originally discovered what they were calling the ATA Gene.
John squinted at the gentle-looking man. “You mean like one of those little tubes, right? Like for regular blood tests?”
“Ah, no…” Beckett replied cautiously as he nervously ran a hand across the nape of his neck. “I’d really need a pint. Perhaps two?”
John’s eyes widened. “Um, no! No, you are not hooking me up to some syphon!”
“Major!” Beckett exclaimed, scandalized. “You have to understand how important my research is! I’m trying to develop a therapy that would transfer this genetic anomaly to other people, allowing more of us to activate the technology.”
John glared at the doctor. “Yeah, and I’m sure you’ll get that just fine, but you’ll have to do it without sucking me dry!”
Beckett crossed his arms stubbornly. “You know, I can always appeal to your superiors and have you ordered to comply.”
John’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’ll resign,” he snapped. “I’ll give up my military career and you’ll never lay another hand on me!”
“Now, Major,” Beckett began, but O’Neill interrupted.
“Hold on, Doc. While I do realize the need for this genetic therapy,” he said with an apologetic glance toward John, “there is no reason to torture those of us who have the ATA Gene naturally.”
“It’s not torture!” Beckett exclaimed, horrified.
“Oh, I don’t know,” John drawled sarcastically. “I think draining two or three pints of my blood without my permission kind of sounds like torture to me. I mean, when they took that much blood from me in the desert, it was because they were beating on me, but this doesn’t sound much better.”
Beckett actually looked offended, which offended John, so he turned to O’Neill and said, “I mean it, General. As interesting as this all sounds, I will resign and go to work in the private sector, and I’ll keep all of my blood inside my body where it’s safe.”
O’Neill stared at John for a moment before nodding his head. “I know you will, Sheppard.” He clapped his hands together and lay them flat on the table. “Okay, so here’s what’s going to happen: If he is willing, Major Sheppard will donate one vial of blood toward Dr. Beckett’s research. I will do the same, as I also have a strong application of this gene. Then I’m going to ask Major Sheppard to fly me back to McMurdo Station. Oh, and Dr. Beckett? That vial will be one of the small ones; is that clear?”
Beckett was clearly unhappy, but he nodded anyway. “Aye, General, that is very clear.”
“Good! So, you’re going to get the blood kit ready and I’m going to chat with the good Major,” O’Neill said firmly, and Becket left the table—but not until he shot a meaningful glance toward Dr. Weir. John didn’t miss it, and he was sure that General O’Neill didn’t, either.
“So,” O’Neill continued as if nothing untoward had happened, “while we’re waiting, let us discuss Daniel’s theory about the City of the Ancients.”
* * * * *
With a wistful backwards glance, John began starting procedures on the helicopter while O’Neill finished whatever business he had. The images that had filtered through his mind were still strong and John found that he really wanted to sit in that chair again just to see what else would be revealed to him.
O’Neill finally appeared and climbed into the ‘copter beside John, placing his headphones over his ears and signaled the okay to lift off. Once they were in the air, O’Neill turned his head slightly and asked, “Not what you were expecting, I take it?”
John huffed in surprise. “No, sir, not really.” After a few minutes of silence, John said, “So—those answers you went looking for?”
O’Neill sighed. “Carson Beckett is a gifted geneticist. He is the one that actually discovered the gene to activate Ancient technology, and he has been working to isolate it and find other carriers. But he’s pants at bedside manners and I think his tact was removed in med school.”
John snorted. “Wait—is that why you call it the ‘ATA Gene’? Because it activates Ancient technology? It’s the Ancient Technology Activator? Who the hell named that?”
O’Neill sighed again. “I have no idea because I was…out of commission at the time. In a cryotube at the outpost.” He tilted his head backwards and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “In any case, Beckett actually has the gene himself, but he’s terrified of most of the tech that we’ve found. I’m sure if we find any medical equipment, he’ll jump at the chance to use it, but McKay should just keep him out of that chair—for all our sakes.”
“Uh, huh,” John prevaricated. “And that chair is what launches the drones?”
O’Neill cleared his throat. “Okay, so I’m going to let you in on some things that you absolutely do not have clearance to know. You can keep a secret, right?”
“I can keep many secrets, General O’Neill,” John agreed.
“Call me Jack, Sheppard,” O’Neill said amiably. “After all, we share a gene.” When John barked a surprised laugh, O’Neill relaxed. “So, a few years ago we were facing a huge threat—alien-wise. I found an artifact on another planet that held the key to our defense, and in order to protect it, I allowed it to download itself into my brain.”
“That sounds pretty harsh, sir—I mean, Jack.”
“Yeah,” Jack replied with a humorless laugh. “It was very harsh, and this was the second time it happened to me—the first time was an accident. I got the information, but I began to regress into an Ancient Human—the originators of the Stargates. My brain chemistry began to change, and my vocabulary got really interesting. The information download led us to several different worlds before leading us right back here—to this outpost. I used a power source that we found on another planet and fired the drones on an attacking alien enemy and saved the planet. Then I collapsed and tried awfully hard to die.”
John shot a shocked glance sideways at his passenger. “Clearly that didn’t happen.”
“Clearly,” Jack agreed. “I made my way to the cryotube and was frozen until one of our alien allies could take me and heal me—removing the downloaded information that was causing the issue.”
“Did, uh, anything remain of the information?” John asked hesitantly, and Jack turned his head sharply.
“You’re the first one to ask me that, Sheppard,” he said grimly. “And that is because the information dump had happened to me once before, long before, and when our allies removed the information—nothing remained. It stands to reason that nothing remained this time.”
“Uh, huh,” John agreed. “But?”
Jack sighed. “Yeah, I can remember some stuff. Mostly I remember how to read the Ancient language, but I have never let on because Daniel would never let me alone. Language is sort of his thing. A few other things, like the spoken language and some knowledge of some of the tech—stuff that I never saw the need so pass along, so I’d appreciate…”
“I never heard a thing, Jack,” John said easily.
“Okay, then,” Jack continued. “So apparently the best way to check for the presence of the ATA gene is to put someone in contact with Ancient technology. Having them sit in the chair is easiest, but first that person must be part of the SGC and therefore easy to get hold of. We can’t exactly announce the existence of this mystery genetic condition without revealing the existence of aliens and the danger we face on a galactic front every day.”
“Not exactly a great idea,” John murmured. “So when I sat down?”
“You placed yourself within the sights of the SGC.” Jack removed his aviators and rubbed the bridge of his nose gently, massaging between his eyes. “I like to recruit the best and brightest, Sheppard; the people I can count on to keep us safe and to never leave a man behind. If you were not active somewhere else doing an especially important job, you’re just the kind I might have brought in.”
“Yeah. Anyway, as I was saying, Beckett’s fear of the Ancient technology caused him to get nervous while in the chair, and that is why the drone launched. Fortunately, he was able to use the chair to deactivate the drone, but I’m making sure he never sits in that chair again.”
“Sounds like a plan,” John said with a small grin.
Jack hummed a rough tune for a moment before saying, “Well, I got your answers. I believe you promised me something ‘hard to believe’ in return.”
John sucked in a breath and debated how much to tell. The visions of the cathedral seemed pretty far-fetched. His love of the Thomas Cole paintings were irrelevant.
“Well, Jack,” he finally said after some mental debate, “you might never have set eyes on me, but I knew you from the moment I saw you—despite never knowing your name.” He shrugged at Jack’s questioning look. “When I was being held in that cave for three freaking months, tortured and afraid, I retreated into my mind a bit. At first it was mental math problems because I’m a bit of a math geek. When things got really bad, I began remembering all the little details of my wife, Nancy—from the first meeting to our wedding. Those visions and dreams kept me sane.
“After a while, and I do not know how long it took, the dreams began to change. Nancy changed and turned into…you. Of course, I did not know it was you at the time. But the physical description was you: greying hair, dark eyes, profoundly serious expression, even when you’re smiling. Even that aftershave you’re wearing.”
“That’s…interesting,” Jack said hesitantly.
“Oh, no, that’s not the interesting part,” John warned. “You see, along with some pleasant dreams of camping trips that I never took, I was also having nightmares, and one of those recurring nightmares involved a fiery, orange comet shooting out of the sky and blowing me away. No matter if I were alone, or if I were with that mystery man—you—and no matter what I did to avoid it, this fiery comet would come shooting after me. Over and over I had this dream. Sometimes the dreams were silent, but sometimes I would hear a male voice telling me to…”
“Wait for it,” Jack continued, astonished. “Sheppard.”
“Yeah, weird,” John said.
“Not the word I was looking for,” Jack argued. “You said there were others? Dreams, I mean.”
John blew out a harsh breath. “Yeah, for a few years now. I treat them like regular dreams, so I don’t go crazy. It has become a game to me: Have this dream, do this action. It keeps my days interesting.”
“Anyone else you recognize from your dreams?” Jack asked cautiously, keeping his gaze forward.
“Yeah,” John said hesitantly. “Dr. Jackson has been in a few, telling me about mythology and folk tales. Usually about, well, ancient Greeks and Atlantis, or King Arthur—which is weird because that stuff has never really interested me.”
Jack chuckled. “Yeah, he does stuff like that all the damned time.”
“Hmm…anyway, I’ve also seen someone who looks like Dr. Weir, and maybe Beckett, but I’m not sure. I…don’t really have a good feel about those two, but I can’t explain it.”
“I think,” said Jack after a few minutes, “that I’d take anything you have to tell me with considerable consideration. I don’t believe in spiritual hooey or magical hocus-pocus, but this seems…different. I have never heard of you, not really. Your name crossed my desk after your failed rescue in Afghanistan and I saw a lot of myself in your actions despite going against your CO, so I thought I would give you a chance to save yourself before you imploded. I know what you were headed for because I almost ate my gun a long time ago and that action ultimately led me to the SGC. I don’t think I’ve looked at life the same way since then.”
John nodded solemnly. “My mother died while I was in Afghanistan. Cancer. It was really fast, apparently, and by the time my father was able to tell me, I had gotten sent to Germany by an angry CO and I figured my career was over. On the plane home, my mother was in my dreams telling me about a different life I could have in front of me, if I was brave enough to choose it.”
McMurdo Station loomed ever closer and John had radioed ahead to announce their arrival. Just before touchdown, Jack turned to him and said, “I think you need to request some time away from here to think. I will not ask you to join this mission, if we actually have a mission, until you’ve considered all your options. In the meantime, I think you and I need to have a very long discussion away from…all of this. I’ll email you some contact information and we can arrange something.”
John nodded. “My family lives in Virginia. I got to see my father last year for a short while, so maybe it’s time for a longer visit.”
* * * * *
The change in climate was nice.
The temperature was mild, and the trees were just beginning to change colors before shedding their leaves for the winter. Soon enough there might be snow, but John had a feeling he would not be around to see that.
“Not that I’m not happy to have you around, son,” said Patrick Sheppard as he watched his son across the restaurant table, “but why aren’t you staying at the house? There is more than enough room, you know. Your room is still like you left it.”
John inclined his head in agreement. “Yeah, I know, Dad. I just don’t want to disrupt your daily life any more than I have to. I am technically on leave for now, but I still have to go for meetings, so I’ll be in and out all the time. And I will not be able to account for my hours. I’ll still have dinner with you when I can, but I do need my space.”
Patrick chuckled. “Your space. I think you were thirteen the first time you asked for ‘space’, so your mother got me to clean out the bonus room over the garage and made me promise to stay out. I never did know what you got up to in there.”
John laughed heartily; head tilted back. “Oh, my God! My clubhouse! You know, I didn’t really do anything up there, Dad. I designed skateboard ramps and read Batman comics mostly. I just needed a place that David could not go. I was thirteen and he was eight, and he was always bugging me. I get that he was just a typical younger brother, but I really need a space to be alone—and we shared a room until he hit double-digits.”
Patrick laughed as well, enjoying the camaraderie with his oldest son. “I think David never really outgrew ‘younger brother syndrome’, you know. That might be what was behind his poor attempt to romance Nancy.”
John rolled his eyes and sipped his water. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad he got over that disaster. Nancy…might have been good for me, if she could have handled being a military wife. Maybe. But David is too rigid in his thinking. She would have eaten him alive.”
“I happen to agree. He’s met someone new, you know. A lovely woman named Janet, who designs learning toys for children.”
“Really?” John asked, bemused. “How did they meet?”
“She had a proposal for Sheppard Interprises. David is the head of Research and Development, so he was there, and I suppose there was a small spark of interest. This time he was smart enough to not make a move once it was apparent that SI could not help her—well, not in a direct way. David had a contact at another firm that he introduced her to, and that firm was interested in her project, so she went to work with them.”
“And then he asked her out?”
“Yep, then he asked her out. She’s very nice.” Patrick eyed his oldest son shrewdly. “She clearly cares for children and might want a family someday.”
John pointed to his father. “I see what you did there, Dad. But…a relationship is not what I am looking for right now. In fact, there might be something coming up—something good, maybe dangerous. I don’t know yet.”
Patrick leaned forward. “You’re not trying to get yourself killed, are you?”
John shook his head. “Nothing like that. It’s just something I really need to think about. If I can tell you anything, I will, but it might be very top secret for a long time.”
“Just don’t shut us out, John, not now that we’ve finally come together.”
“I won’t, Dad.”
Visiting his family near Richmond was nice, but John was making plans to head to the DC area in a few days. General O’Neill—Jack—had been in contact and wanted to meet with John away from any military bases. Apparently, he had been speaking with Dr. Jackson about some of the things John had told him, so the younger man would also be at that meeting. Feeling a yearning that he could not quite understand, John suggested meeting at the Smithsonian Institute campus, specifically the National Air and Space Museum. He and Jack were both Air Force officers, so the location was not really an odd choice, and there would be a good chance they could talk comfortably without fear of someone questionable overhearing.
And as that particular museum was across the lawn from the National Gallery, John could wander over and spend some time in his favorite place once the visit with O’Neill was over.
The Voyage of Life was calling to him.
John had not been back to the museum since before his most recent deployment to Afghanistan. At that time, it still held memories of his first meeting with Nancy and he could not drag himself to seek the solace of the paintings like he really wanted to. After he started having those odd dreams, he really wanted to see them in person again. Cheap poster-prints of them, or photos in books, just did not have the same impact.
After the dinner with his father, John followed the man to his home in order to gather his meagre belongings and take a long nap before driving the distance to Alexandria in the morning. It was a weekday so there would be workday traffic to consider, but his meeting with Jack and Dr. Jackson was not until the day after. John had time to settle into the hotel suite that he had reserved. He was doing everything he could to avoid being on a military base until his next assignment was decided.
* * * * *
Early autumn in Washington DC was almost pleasant. The leaves on the trees had just begun turning, so the changing of the colors was a striking contrast to the classic architecture of the old buildings. The walkways of the Smithsonian Institute were dotted with clusters of school groups gathering for museum tours, or families enjoying a day out to ‘educate’ the kiddies, and the food vendors were beginning to open for the day. It was a cool day, but not cold, and the breeze was heavy enough to allow for kite-flying on the lawn, so John watched as several colorful kites dipped and swayed in the air, controlled by experienced pilots.
Since John had exited the Metro at the Smithsonian station, he enjoyed a leisurely walk along the pedestrian walkway past the busy carousel and the Hirshhorn Sculpture garden before crossing the street to the front of the Air and Space Museum. Jack and Dr. Jackson were standing out front of the building, drinking coffee and pointing at the displayed aircraft mounted from the ceiling and visible through the large windows.
“Have you been waiting long?” John asked by way of a greeting, and Dr. Jackson turned to face him with a smile.
“No,” said the bespectacled man with a grin. “We really just got here. We had time to grab a coffee, but that’s about it. Were we going inside?”
John looked up at the busy entrance and shook his head. “Nah, not today, I think. There’s going to be an exhibit here in a few months that I wouldn’t mind taking in, but I’ve seen everything there is to see right now.”
“Okay, then,” said Jack as he tossed his empty paper cup in a trash can, “why did you want to meet here?”
John tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and rolled his head to the side, indicating the busy lawns. “I need to ask a few questions, and possibly tell you some really incredible things, and I figured I could speak freely here. Camouflage, you know?”
Jack nodded in agreement and gestured for John to lead the way, following amiably with Dr. Jackson by his side. “What questions did you have, John? Because normally I would need you to sign a three-inch-thick non-disclosure agreement before I would even allow you to ask any.”
John snorted as he fell into step between Jack and Dr. Jackson. “Please, sir…Jack. I have that magical gene that your business needs for easy operation, and I think we both know I am not really going to turn down becoming part of all that. But I’ve been having these dreams….”
“Yes,” Jackson interrupted, “can you tell me about any of that? Jack told me some of what you explained to him and I find it fascinating!”
John nodded brusquely and changed directions to lead the two men toward a cluster of trees near the refreshment stand. There was a cleared area under the trees and no kids running around, so John lowered himself in the lotus position and waited until the other men joined him on the ground—which Jack did with minimal groaning about his knees.
John tipped his head backwards and closed his eyes. “I first started having weird dreams while I was trying not to die in a cave in the desert. At the end of my time there, reality and dream sort of—merged, I guess? I really could not tell what was real and what was not, and I had to deal with a lot of therapy when I got home just to deal with all of that.
“In any case, while I tried to keep my sanity through the pain of the torture by remembering everything good that I had to go home to: my wife, Nancy, my mother—anything other than that cave. And while I could vividly recall my first meeting with Nancy, the memories began to merge with meetings and people that I never had and never knew. All I could really recall about the mystery people in my dreams were the eyes. Intense dark brown eyes under a severe brow or bright, glimmering blue eyes shielded by round spectacles.”
Jack and Dr. Jackson shared a shocked glance as John continued speaking, all the while keeping his eyes shut. “I even had audial dreams about voices telling me interesting facts about Ancient Greece and the myth of Atlantis or King Arthur and the myth of Merlin and the Holy Grail. I remember that much specifically because I’ve never really been interested in that stuff so there was no reason for this to be hidden deep in my subconscious memory.” John opened his eyes then to see concerned faces gazing back at him. “The dreams were nice, in a weird way,” he said calmly. “The nightmares were—and are—much, much worse. So, really, my biggest question is this: what happens if there’s not enough power?”
“Not enough power for what, John?” Jack asked quietly.
John shrugged. “That’s just it; I don’t know. I do not know anything about this project. That vampire in Antarctica just told me bare information about ‘Ancients’, gene-operated technology, and why he refused to sit in that chair. While I was waiting for someone to explain further, I heard about a search for weapons and technology—but nothing else. Even Dr. Weir seemed interested in how I might be of use to her—but nobody said anything. Not even you, Jack—not even when you told me to ‘seriously consider joining up’. So—what if there’s not enough power?”
Jack opened his mouth to say something, but Dr. Jackson put a hand on his chest and said, “Maybe I should handle this part, Jack.”
“Okay, Daniel,” Jack reluctantly agreed, “but please remember that we’re sitting on the ground in a public place, so maybe be a little light on the details.”
Dr. Jackson offered a half-smile. “I think I can do that. So—huh—maybe a short version, yeah?”
John nodded slowly. “I hope I’ll get more details later?”
“Sure,” said Dr. Jackson, “when we’re anywhere but right here. So, more than a few years ago, an artifact was found that led to a lot of exploration potential as well as telling us more about our distant past than we ever expected. The means of exploration is due to a manufactured passage—that is powered by a lot of electricity. I mean a lot. I don’t even want to see the utility bills for the, uh, company.”
“They’re not pretty, that’s for sure,” said Jack dryly. “There’s a reason I’m fighting so hard at the Office of Homeworld Security. Our budget is a real concern.”
Daniel stared at Jack for a moment before turning his attention back to John. “Anyway, I think we’ve discovered the location of this technology that we’re looking for. The technology is important because of enemies we’re trying to forestall, but the location is incredibly far away.”
John nodded in seeming understanding. “So making that trip would take a lot more power, right?”
Dr. Jackson pushed his glasses up with one finger and blushed. “Yeah,” he drawled. “There’s a battery that we could use, but the only one we have was almost depleted when we found it and it’s powering the outpost in Antarctica. We would need to use it to travel to this faraway place, and even then, that could make the journey one-way only.”
John frowned and turned to Jack. “You’re not okay with that, are you?”
“Not even a little bit,” Jack growled. “It’s not even the loss of the, um, battery—which we might need again if our enemies come back. I just can’t give the okay to some uncertain journey that would risk the lives of my people, even if they’re okay with the risks.”
John nodded and clasped his hands together around his now-upraised knees. “And this battery is some lava-lamp-looking green and orange thing about fifteen inches high? Sings when it’s happy?”
The other men’s jaws dropped in shock. “That’s, um, that’s a surprisingly exact description of the battery.”
John sighed and wiped his hands over his face. “So, maybe we should walk now, yeah?”
The trio climbed to their feet, with John offering a hand to Jack as he stumbled. “You know, you never answered my question about what if there’s not enough power. What would happen, realistically?”
Jack sighed. “The worst thing that could happen on our end of the passage is that we’d lose someone—or many someones—if the passage collapsed due to lack of power. Back in the beginning of this grand adventure, an enemy infiltrated and took control of one of my closest friends. His mind was not his own, and we all knew it, just as we all knew that he would betray and possibly destroy us if we allowed him to go through the passage. I ordered it to be shut down when he was partially through.” Jack’s voice cracked with grief and Dr. Jackson put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“What happened?” John almost whispered, his mind running through images of collapsing floors and exploding windows.
“The corridor shut down with Charlie’s head partially through it. When the shutdown was complete, the back of his head was sheared clean off and the parasite inside him had been cleaved in half. The remaining portions had—ceased to exist, but at least Charlie’s family had a body to bury.”
John’s forehead wrinkled in confusion as he tried to fit that information into what he understood from the nightmares, but it didn’t work. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Jack,” he said absently as he led the two men across the lawn without much thought. They walked silently, each in their own thoughts. John figured that Jack and Dr. Jackson were quietly remembering their long-lost friend, but John was trying to reconcile what he was now hearing with all the dreams and nightmares that he had been having over the years.
Before he knew it, they were approaching the entrance to the National Gallery, and John felt the phantom call of The Voyage of Life.
“My mother passed of cancer during my last tour,” he said for no reason, and the other two men turned their attention to him. John shrugged in apology. “Sorry, but there is a reason I mentioned it, because she came to me in a dream that was eerily like the ones that featured men that looked like the two of you.” John wanted to make sure that they did not think he believed he was dreaming about them long before meeting them, which would have been ridiculous.
John nodded to the entrance of the museum in front of them. “I first came here on a school trip when I was eight or nine. Richmond isn’t that far away, travel-wise, so our school district made trips here for educational purposes. At first, me and my friends just thought it was a lame day away from school, you know. I mean, what eight-year-old boy wants to go to a museum that doesn’t even have dinosaurs.”
“You know,” said Dr. Jackson, “there are dinosaurs just a few buildings away.”
John laughed. “Oh, I know, believe me. We went there later that same year. Exclusive private schools can afford lots of educational field trips. The National Zoo was extremely popular, but I digress. I do not remember the reason for that first visit, so it is possible there was a temporary collection there at the time, but while I was wandering around, I found this small diagonal room with paintings on the four cardinal walls in a series.
“It was Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, and it completely entranced me from the very beginning. There’s a boat on a river, and the boat is guided or watched by a glowing angel in all four paintings, and the passenger transitions from infancy to old age in the progression.” John blushed when he saw the bemused smiles of the two men who were watching and listening to him and he rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Hmm, anyway, on the plane home from Germany that last time, I had a dream about my mother, and in that dream, she was glowing like the angel in the paintings, and I was on that boat. And she told me a lot of things, and she showed me a glowing passage lined with stars, and she said I could have a future there if I was brave enough to go for it.”
Jack looked at the marble pillars of the entrance to the museum. “Did you want to go in and see the paintings? Because I don’t recall ever seeing them.”
“And the, um, glowing angel bit is…interesting,” Dr. Jackson murmured, causing Jack to look sharply at the bespectacled man.
“Daniel? Do you think this is the time?”
Dr. Jackson shrugged and glanced around, noticing that they were not, in fact, being noticed. “Before we go in, why not? He’s going to find out anyway.”
Jack sighed and clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “You’re right, unfortunately. But it’s your story to tell, so why don’t I go over to that nice street cart and buy us all coffee to fortify us for the rest of this day, and you can tell John all about your adventure with the Ancients.”
Jack meandered away leaving John to stare at Dr. Jackson in confusion. “I thought Dr. Beckett said the Ancients were, well, ancient? Like, long-past, long-dead, ancient.”
“Yeah,” Jackson sighed. “We wish.” He motioned for John to follow him to the edge of the stairs, where they could stand out of the way. “As it turns out, the Ancients are a race of proto humans that did die out many, many years ago. But many Ancients managed to, instead of dying, evolve into some sort of higher being existing of pure energy. Several years ago, I was involved in a, well, lab accident would be the best explanation. The area was highly radioactive, and I was injured badly as well as exposed to the radiation. I might have existed in that state for months before I died, but one of the Ancient-Ascended that I’d met beforehand on another mission came to me and offered to help me ascend to that state so that I could still watch over my team and possibly make a difference in the world.”
“Wow,” John stammered. “That’s…horrible? It was horrible, right?”
Jackson nodded quickly. “I’ve never felt pain like it, so yeah, it was horrible. I saved a few lives before the accident, and I was offered the opportunity to continue to ‘do good’, so I looked to Jack, hoping he could understand that I needed to do this.”
John looked up to see the older man striding toward them, balancing three paper coffee cups. Before he got too close, John asked, “How long have the two of you…?”
“Oh, um,” Jackson stammered, shoving his glasses upward again with nervous fingers, “we’re…not…really….”
“Hey, relax,” John soothed. “I don’t judge, but it’s clear the two of you are close.”
Jackson blew out an exasperated breath. “He’s my best friend, that’s for sure, but sometimes he just…anyway, as I was saying, I ascended into a being of pure energy, becoming ‘one with the universe’, as they say. The result was—in my less-physical form, I was a glowing being. All of the Ascended Ancients glow when they manifest, even though they can hide the glow if they want to.”
John took a minute to let that sink in as Jack approached and handed out coffee. He took a grateful sip, relishing the bitter brew. “So, you evolved and got to help the world, huh?”
Jackson sighed again, deep and heavy. “No, actually. Every time I tried, I was stopped and informed that interference could not happen. Oma Desala, the Ancient that helped me ascend, had basically lied to me about all that. The Ancients watch over the living all over the universe, but that is all they do—watch. It’s all hands-off, all the time. I was with them for more than a year and I’m quite sure I drove them nuts.” He shrugged and glanced in Jack’s direction briefly before continuing, “It also didn’t help that, during my time ascended, Jack got captured by our main enemy and was being tortured, and I couldn’t save him. I could only pop into chat, which made him think he was going crazy when all I wanted to do was give him the strength to go on and survive.”
“That’s not fair, Daniel,” Jack admonished. “You couldn’t do much, but you did save the citizens of Abydos when their world was going to be destroyed.”
John brightened slightly. “Wow, that sounds good! How did you do that?”
Daniel offered a wry grin. “I helped all of them ascend rather than seeing them die forever. The other ancients got so fed up with me that they kicked me out of Ascension.”
“They could do that?” John asked, confused.
“Yeah, sure, you-betcha,” Jack drawled. “They dropped him naked and memory-free on a distant world while my team was on a mission. It took a long time for him to remember who the hell he was, much less who we were or that he’d been a part of our team.”
Jackson sighed again, draining his coffee in one swallow. “I had learned so much while I was Ascended. I knew esoteric languages and holy locations, and they took it all away when they sent me back.”
“Did you get to keep the gene when you came back?” John asked nonchalantly, and the other two just gaped at him. “What? I figured that since you were technically an Ancient, that you would have the Ancient gene.”
Jackson turned to Jack and said, “I can’t believe we never checked for that!”
Jack shrugged and motioned for John to speak, so he crumbled his cup and tossed it into the receptacle on the sidewalk. As the other two followed his example, John said, “I have had a lot of dreams about the river in the painting in the past few years, and some just about being in the boat. It’s a really specific boat, so it was easy to identify when I was writing about my dreams the next day.”
“You journal about the dreams?” Jackson asked. “That’s fascinating.”
John nodded. “It was a suggestion of my first therapist after I told him I had nightmares about the torture. It was supposed to be a way of analyzing the cause of the dreams, like triggers that might make it difficult to return to active duty. Later, it became a method for me to catalog the strange dreams in order to find a sort of pattern, if there was one.”
“How long?” Jackson asked, not bothering to finish the question.
“Three months,” John answered, “and over a year in one therapy or another just getting myself back into fighting shape. Even after I was declared to be mentally sound and fit for duty, I stayed in psychotherapy for another four months just to make sure. I still keep the dream diaries; they are how I ultimately recognized you when I met you. My private love might be numbers, but my mother said I had the heart of a poet and the talent of an author at a young age.” He smirked and added, “My therapist said my dream diaries are almost detailed enough to force him into therapy.”
Jack grimaced. “Sounds lovely. Remind me to never ask to read those; I have my own demons to deal with.”
John gave a brief nod and led the way up the stairs to the large entrance to the National Gallery of Art, passing groups of students of many ages and tourists of many nationalities. Jackson made to reach for a map and directory, but Jack forestalled him as John had just walked past the welcome desk and headed into the main hall. He led them past fountains and statues that were all lovely in their own way, but he was on a mission to see his favorites and would not be deterred.
As luck would have it, and John would find himself questioning such good luck in the near future, all the side galleries were empty of visitors on the way to the Cole exhibit—probably because of the advertised Monet exhibit on the other side of the building—and the diagonal-shaped room was abandoned for John and his ‘guests’. As they entered the windowless room with the dark maroon walls, John turned to face the wall to the left of the arched doorway.
“This is the beginning,” he said, sounding like an unofficial tour guide, “conveniently titled ‘Childhood’. As you can see, the baby is sitting in the center of the boat with the glowing angel steering from behind. The boat is coming from the dark nether and it’s filled with the flowers of new life.”
Jackson stepped forward appropriately to examine the painting. “Did you dream of this particular painting?”
John nodded. “Yeah, I did. In the beginning, when I was in that cave, I dreamed that I was there with Nancy, beginning our life together. It is a painting about beginnings, after all. Later, specifically on the long-assed flight to McMurdo, I dreamed that the glowing angel was directing me. Like me me; not a figure in the painting, but a person standing in the gallery, looking at the painting. She would turn her head to face me and raise her arm to point forward, like she was showing me what the future could bring.”
“Interesting,” Jackson murmured as he examined the Childhood painting. “The aura of the angel figure does resemble the glow of an Ancient, but that could just be the style of the time.”
John hummed absently as he moved to the next wall, and the next painting. “This one is called ‘Youth’, and I had the first really interesting dream featuring this one.”
Jack was almost squinting as he examined the second of the four paintings, where a boy was moving away from the shore, and the angel, as he tried to command his own life. “How interesting?” he asked, and Jackson moved to stand beside him so that the three men were standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
John lifted his arm to point, taking care to not actually touch the painting. “Well, the angel would lift her hands toward me before gesturing to the castle in the sky, like she was telling me that there was my destination, and while I watched, the castle began to shift and change shape until the rounded roofs were taller and more angular, and it turned to some dark material rather than the white stone.”
Jackson’s eyes drifted to the top of the canvas, and the mystical palace in the heavenly background and he gasped. “You mean, like it’s changing now?”
Both John and Jack stepped backwards as they, too, noticed the slight change in the painting. John looked quickly around to see if anyone else had approached the small gallery, but they were completely alone. “Okay, so we all saw that, right?”
Jack nodded slowly, as if he did not quite trust his own eyes. “I don’t suppose that angel ever spoke to you in your dreams?”
John frowned. “Not as such. I mean, I talked with people in my dreams: my mother, Nancy, you two—even if I didn’t know you were real at the time. I do remember that in one dream about this painting, a voice said to me that I would find ‘all the potential that I needed’ on this journey.”
“All the potential, you say?” Jackson asked weakly.
“Yeah,” John confirmed. “Why?”
“Um, the Ancient word for the ZPM—um, the battery thing—is Potentia. Since the one in the Antarctic outpost is the only one, finding more Potentia would certainly be a necessity.”
John’s mouth suddenly grew desert dry. “Oh.”
They watched in muted fascination as the heavenly palace shifted into a tall, wide skyscraper. Jackson reached out to tug at Jack’s sleeve. “Yes, Daniel?”
“Um, if I’m seeing this right, and I really doubt that I am, the shape of that building seems to echo the shape of the sunken outpost in Antarctica.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah, I see it, too. John?” he asked, turning his head slightly, “did you have any dreams about the other paintings in this particular collection?”
John swallowed, trying to wet his mouth. “Yeah,” he croaked.
“Uh-huh. And did the paintings change in those dreams?”
“Yeah,” John licked his lips quicky. “Yeah, in my dreams they did.”
“Well, then,” said Jack hoarsely, “shall we move this tour along?”
John moved again, followed closely by the other two, and he began his formal narration of the much-beloved paintings. “In this third painting, called Manhood, you can see that the lightness of the earlier phases of life has been replaced by the darkness of uncertainty. The angel is not driving or guiding the boat, but she is watching from the background. The waters are rougher and there is no bright flora on the banks of the river, showing that the innocence of childhood and youth is long over. The boat is still golden, so there is hope here, and the passenger is praying for some sort of guidance.”
“Uh-huh,” drawled Jack dryly. “And what about in your dreams? What is different there?”
John took a deep breath. “Well, unlike in the other dreams where I’m just watching, in the dream about this painting—I’m the one in the boat. I mean, I am still looking at the painting, but instead of the pleading man in the red tunic, I see myself—sometimes in my military uniform, and sometimes in civvies. And one time, I dreamed that I wasn’t alone in the boat.”
“Did you, now?” Jack asked as the image on the painted canvas shifted and surged until the colors were just a bit brighter—and there were three figures in the boat. “And did the painting look like that?”
John again looked around, relieved to see that they were still very much alone in that part of the museum, before turning back to the painting. In the golden boat were now three figures, one clearly older than the other two. The figure in the center was carrying a small pile of books, which for some reason made Jack laugh out loud.
“Well, there’s no question about which one that’s supposed to be, is there, Daniel?”
“You think you’re funny, Jack, but you’re really not. However, this entire experience is rather disorienting and fascinating at the same time.”
Jack leaned toward his friend and whispered, “You don’t sense the presence of any of the Ancients here, do you?”
Jackson shook his head minutely. “No, but they don’t always announce themselves. Especially when one of them is interfering like they’re not supposed to.”
Overhearing, John said, “In my dreams, my mother is the glowing angel, if that makes any difference to this lunacy.”
Jackson turned to him. “Actually, it might. You didn’t get to see your mother before she died, did you?”
“No. Um, my father said the cancer was particularly fast-moving, and she was gone almost as soon as it was detected. Is that important?”
Jackson gently patted John on the arm. “I’m not sure. Let us, um, move on, okay. There is one more painting in the series, after all, and I’m getting hungry.”
John expelled a quick breath and nodded, blinking as the Manhood painting shifted back to its normal appearance. “Yeah, the fourth painting is called Old Age. In this painting, Cole depicts the end of a long life and the gaining of a Heavenly Reward.” He turned away and led the way a short distance to the fourth wall in the gallery—and the fourth painting.
“Here you can see that the glowing angel is again close to the boat, but there’s also another angel coming down from the sky in some sort of welcome. The passenger is quite elderly here and clearly at the end of his life. The darkness is now behind him, but you can’t see the heavenly palace ahead of him.”
“Yes, it’s very striking,” Jack said contrarily. “What about the dream painting? Because I’m betting that one’s different.”
John sighed. “Yeah, it is. For one thing,” he said as that canvas, too, began to roil and shift, “the man is not in the boat, but the glowing angel is. And the boat isn’t on the River of Life anymore but is….”
“Resting on a calm sea, docked quietly near that Ancient-looking tower,” finished Jackson as he reached toward the painting. Only Jack’s staying hand prevented the scholarly man from touching something that had to have alarms on it.
The painting shifted again, and the tower curled into itself, becoming a stone portal leading to a star-lined tunnel. The glowing angel also shifted, changing from the blond painted figure in the original canvas to a dark-haired, modern-appearing woman in jeans and a green tunic.
“Jack, that’s a Stargate!” “Mom!”
John and Jackson spoke simultaneously, turning toward each other in shock.
“That’s a Stargate?” “That’s your mother?”
Jack sighed deeply as the painting quickly shifted to its original visage—just as a small group of tourists entered the chamber just outside the gallery, they were standing in. “I think we need food—and a longer discussion.”
Jackson nodded eagerly and John wiped a shaking hand over his mouth. “Yeah, food would be good,” he agreed. He followed Jack and Jackson out of the gallery with one final glance back at his favorite paintings.
On the way out of the huge museum, John stepped into the gift shop to purchase prints of The Voyage of Life in easily framed forms. He has the oddest feeling that coming back to see the originals anytime soon would be out of the question—and that he would never be able to see them the same way again,
“Okay, let me get this straight,” John said after tossing his paper napkin onto his empty plate. “You found this structure in Egypt and brought it back, found out that if you pressed the right buttons you could create a ‘wormhole’ and travel to other planets, and you’ve been fighting aliens from those other planets ever since?”
Jack rolled his eyes and leaned his head backwards in exasperation. “Well, when you put it that way.”
Jackson snorted and reached out for his beer bottle. “There has actually been a lot of exploration as well as the fighting, and we’ve learned a lot about ancient civilizations. We’ve also gathered information for wonderful technological advancements, like medicines or machines.”
“And weapons,” Jack added dryly. “But, yes, we’ve attracted the attention of several enemies out there, and not all of them strictly use the ‘Gates for travel.”
John leaned back and cradled his own beer bottle between his hands, rolling it gently. “Right. Spaceships. I almost forgot about those.” He stared at the half-empty bottle absently before allowing his eyes to roam around the cozy dinette of Jack’s modest apartment.
After a short debate about lunch, Jack and Dr. Jackson decided that whatever conversation they needed to have should be private, so they agreed to retire to Jack’s apartment in Whispering Oaks. It was small, but probably expensive because it was DC, and John liked it more than the Hilton suite he was currently staying in. After they arrived, Jack passed him a stack of delivery menus, which told John more about the older man’s lifestyles than anything else could, and they decided to order Thai and a six-pack.
John had only drunk half of one beer.
Dr. Jackson eyed John carefully. “You know, you’re taking this very…calmly.”
John looked up in surprise. “Am I? Hmm—maybe because I’m trying to digest the fact that the dreams and nightmares might have been a sort of roadmap for me—and I’m also trying to convince myself that I did actually survive that cave in Afghanistan, and this isn’t some sort of dying dream.”
The other two men stared at John in horrified fascination. After a moment, he began to shift uncomfortably in his chair. “Oh, come on, sir—Jack! You’ve been a POW; surely you understand how something like this can be!”
Jack blinked and sucked in a harsh breath. “Okay, yeah, I can see that—and it still freaks me out that you said it out loud. Look, you’ve asked me several times what would happen if there wasn’t enough power—I assume you mean for the Stargate.”
John shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. I mean, clearly you have enough power to travel all over the freaking galaxy now, and you don’t have any issues other than a huge power bill.”
Jackson huffed and shoved his paper plate in Jack’s direction and slouched back into his chair. “Yeah, that might be, but I’ve been researching an Ancient city—as in a City of the Ancients, not a really old city—because we’ve got troubles all over the place right now and some of us think we could find technology or maybe weapons to help us in our fight.”
John blinked. “Well, that’s good, right?” He looked up as Jack wandered back into the room. “That’s good?”
Jack seesawed his hand back and forth in front of him. “Maybe. I mean, weapons would be good, of course, but what if the only people who can use them are people with the ATA gene? And what if we find this mystical City of the Ancients and we find another enemy to add to our troubles?”
Immediately an image filled John’s mind: a tall, shadowy figure with long dreadlocked hair and sharp fingernails was reaching toward him, slamming a hand into his chest and causing pain like he had never felt before.
“Yeah,” he croaked, rubbing his chest, “another enemy would be bad.”
Jack pointed a finger at John immediately. “You just saw something!”
John nodded and placed his half-empty bottle on the table. “Yeah, that was really weird and painful.” He shook his head to rid himself of the image. “But if going out…somewhere…can mean finding good things, then it should be a good idea.”
Jack’s eyes narrowed as he stared at John. “Well, Daniel thinks the Ancient City of Atlantis is actually somewhere in the Pegasus Galaxy, so it’s not exactly a local call. And in order to use the ‘Gate to dial that far, he thinks we will need to pull the battery from the outpost in Antarctica, which would leave us defenseless against spacefaring enemies, and why are you looking at me like that, John?”
“At…at…um,” John sat back and took a breath. “The City of the Ancients is actually called Atlantis?”
Jackson leaned forward eagerly. “Yes! Didn’t we say?”
John shook his head. “No, you didn’t. I mean, you talked about Daniel’s theory about Atlantis, but I just figured the myths might be some sort of code you were using.”
“Does that make a difference, John?” Jack asked carefully.
John took a shuddering breath and grabbed his bottle, tipping it back and swallowing the rest in one gulp. Setting the bottle back on the table with a clatter, John looked up at the older man and asked, “What would you say if I told you I might, possibly, be able to find more Potentia?”