Summary: When an injured John Sheppard shows up at his door in the middle of the night, David Sheppard finds himself in the middle of a desperate adventure. Hunted by implacable enemies and haunted by past misunderstandings, the two brothers struggle to survive in a world gone terribly wrong.
Part one / Part two
It snowed at some point in the night – just a light dusting of white.
Before that, though, Dave built up the fire, remembering childhood survival camps and lessons from Johnny out in the wilds. They ate tinned meat, and rice with unidentifiable bits in it. "Worse than an MRE," John said quietly. He didn't eat much of it, though, drifting into something that might have been sleep, and might have been something worse.
Dave had never expected to sleep himself, but at one point he woke up sharply, jerking awake to the crackling sound of a dying fire. John was awake again, he saw, sitting huddled on the couch, his eyes glittering in the firelight.
"You should be resting," Dave tried to say, but sleep took his words and made them little more than a cracked breath.
John didn't respond. His eyes closed and opened again, and he sat there taut beneath his blanket, watching, waiting, lit only by shadows and embers.
There was too much of childhood there. Although it shouldn't have done so, it lulled Dave to sleep again, feeling almost safe.
By morning the fire had completely burned down, and their breath condensed in clouds in front of their faces. John's eyes were still open, but his responses were off when Dave tried to talk to him. "John?" he called, and received only a slow blink in response. "Are you thirsty?" Dave asked, and John nodded slightly, even though he mumbled a "no". He said something else, too – incomprehensible things, interspersed with names Dave had never heard before.
John's skin was far hotter than it should be; Dave's own flesh was as cold as ice. John protested only weakly when Dave pushed off the blankets and pulled up his shirt. Guided by John the night before, Dave had fashioned a make-shift bandage, but even that wasn't enough to conceal how badly inflamed the skin was.
John needed medical attention, Dave realised, or he was going to be in serious difficulties even if the enforcers didn't catch up with them. Not a hospital, though – those places were always monitored. That left… God, what options did it leave?
Not to mention, of course, the fact that John was apparently losing his mind, forgetting things that had happened to him.
Dave looked at his watch. Nearly eight o'clock. Time to arrive at work, ready for his meeting. Time to sit around a table and pretend that the world was the same as it had always been. "I'll build up the fire," Dave said, because that, at least, was something he could do.
"No." John grabbed his arm weakly. "No smoke. Too obvious."
"But we'll freeze." Dave shook his head. "Johnny, you're sick."
"Got to move the car," John said, the words seeming to trip over his lips as they came out. "Hide it. So can't… can't see it from above."
Or use it to get help. There were other cabins out here, and endless miles of wild places across the State border. People said, sometimes, that not everyone who disappeared had been taken. Some had run, they said, to hole up in places where no-one could find them. They were bound to be rugged types, who knew how to take care of themselves, and were not averse to helping people who'd fallen foul of the enforcers.
"I'll go--" he began.
"No." John shook his head, his eyes flickering from side to side. "Be careful. Check… check defences first. Be careful. Don't…"
Dave saw John's eyes following him as he walked to the door. Outside was even colder, with a bitter wind that knifed right through his thin suit jacket. God! he thought, because it seemed quite ridiculous that he was still wearing a suit, as if he was still living in the world that had started to die five years ago, however much people tried to pretend that it still carried on. Board meetings, games of golf, Christmas trees… But the natural world was still the same, and the air was still as crisp as it had been when he was a child, sliding down the hill after Johnny, always trying to go as fast as him, but never managing it, never quite able to touch that magic.
He wasn't quite sure what he intended to do. Move the car? Go for help? Just bring a coat in from the trunk?
A man with a gun took shape from the nearest tree. "David Sheppard."
His mouth went dry. He knew how to talk to all sorts of people – senators, janitors, business rivals – but he couldn't muster a single world. He had never stared down the barrel of a gun before.
Another man stepped forward, so now there were two. He couldn't fight off two – couldn't fight off one; had never been good at things like that. "Where's your friend?" the first man sneered.
"Friend?" His voice didn't sound like his own.
"Blood on the couch in your house," the man said, "and blood on the passenger seat of your car. Don't demean yourself by lying. How did he persuade you to help him?"
A mass of snow fell from a high branch, thudding in stages to the ground. Dave moistened dry lips. "He's… he's my brother." It sounded weak, but he'd intended it to mean everything.
"You're lying," the man said. "A man such as John Sheppard is closely watched, and we know for a fact that he's three thousand miles away right now."
"No," Dave breathed, and then, "No..." again, because the second man was heading for the cabin, was tearing the door open – and Dave hadn't locked it, hadn't even thought to remind John to lock it behind him. "No," he moaned, trying to run forward, but stopped by the barrel of the gun. "No…" He expected gunfire. He expected screaming.
The second man emerged; shook his head briskly. "There's no-one in there, Colonel."
No-one? Dave felt his hands trembling; wanted to scrape the sweat off his palms, but didn't dare move.
The first man, the colonel, moved his gun, pointing it at Dave's leg. "It won't kill you," he said, "unless it strikes the artery, but it'll hurt like Hell. Care to tell me where you've hidden him?"
He was in there. Dave swallowed again and again. He was… God! Perhaps they were lying. Perhaps they'd killed John, and this was a game. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
"I'll look round back," the second man said. "He can't have gone far."
Dave moistened his lips. He listened for noises – for gunshots, for shouts. Had John found somewhere to hide inside? Maybe he'd found a way out – but how, because the windows were barred? How? He didn't know, and snow fell from the branches, and the birds were singing, just as if this was a normal day.
The man didn't return. The colonel held his gun steady, tapping his radio with his other hand, opening his mouth to speak.
"Put the gun down," John said, his voice low and deadly, and like nothing Dave had ever heard from him before. "I said now!" he demanded.
The colonel smiled. "Why, you don't think we came alone, do you?" He gave no further command, but two more men rose up from behind the trees, dressed in snowy camouflage. "If you shoot me," the colonel said, "they'll kill Mr. Sheppard here, so why don't you play like a good boy, and put the gun down before anyone gets hurt?"
"Well, I guess that does change the odds a bit." John smiled. God, John even managed to smile! He didn't lower the gun, though. He didn't even look sick, even though he had to be burning up with fever, and had barely been lucid only minutes before.
"So you'll surrender?" the colonel said.
"Perhaps." John shrugged. His gun was steady, though. "See, it depends on what you're planning on doing with Dave, there. He didn't have anything to do with… whatever it is that I did. I showed up on his doorstep, and he mistook me for someone else – helped me out of misguided sense of loyalty. But it's nothing to do with him. Before last night, he'd never seen me before in his life."
John! Dave almost gasped, but the look John shot him was impossible to disobey. Be quiet, it said. I know what I'm doing.
"A stranger, huh?" The colonel's finger tightened on the trigger. "Then you won't care if we kill him."
"No!" John rasped. He took another step forward, but he swayed, his gun wavering, and Dave felt cold all over, knowing that it was over, it was all over. But John recovered himself. "No," he said. "He's innocent, and I don't want him hurt. Let him go, and I'll surrender."
"Or we can just take you, anyway," the colonel said.
"Yeah." John's smile was cold and rueful. "But you won't all survive the attempt."
Who are you? Dave thought. This was his brother Johnny, who had always stood up for him, who had always fought anyone who was trying to hurt him. This was Johnny who suffered scuffed knees and a bleeding nose in order to look out for his little brother. This was the brother who had walked away, had landed Dave with the burden and the prison of duty, and had now returned a total stranger. This was a man who held a gun as if it was as familiar to him as a pen or a computer mouse, and who stared unruffled into the eyes of death.
"You for him, then?" the colonel said.
John nodded. "Yeah. Me for him."
The colonel lowered his gun. John kept his own weapon steady, his eyes glittering in his flushed face. "Let him drive away," he said. "Nothing happens until he's gone." Dave just looked at him, unable to move. "Go, Dave," John said. "Please. Take the keys and go."
And leave you here? Dave thought, but his voice was still frozen, incapable of producing words.
"Please," John urged him. His voice cracked. "Listen, Dave, I'm not who you think I am."
"I know that." Dave found the words at last, but they were little more than a breath coming through barely-moving lips. For years, John had been the disappointment. He'd been the empty chair at Christmas. He'd been the golden boy who'd wasted his potential and thrown away everything to pursue a childhood dream. He'd been the failure who shied away from responsibility and had spent the last six years God alone knew where, surfing, drinking, gambling, perhaps even taking drugs.
"Go!" John ordered him, in desperate command.
The car was as cold as ice, crystals forming on the windows. If Dave drove away, what then? He would always remember, he thought. He would never be free of the image of John surrendering himself to armed men to save his brother's life.
"No." The word scraped out, closer to a sob.
"You had your chance," the colonel said. "I'm tired of this."
Dave didn't even know what happened next, not clearly. Guns were fired. Snow sprayed up. He ducked down behind the car, and saw nothing but its metal flank. Someone screamed. He reached above him, clawing at the door handle, wondering if he should climb in, should start the engine; wondering if that would help. Then he saw the pool of gas beneath the car, soaking into the ice-hard ground. A bullet struck the car, then another and another. He didn't know… He didn't know…
"Dave!" John grabbed him. "Now. Quick."
"The car," Dave tried to tell him, and John nodded once, and then hauled at his arm, and Dave said, "What? What happened?" and "Did you kill them?" and John didn't answer at all, just dragged him into the cover of the trees, and pushed him forward, wading through treacherous ground, as someone screamed behind them, their voice high and shrill, like a voice of nightmare. "Did you kill them?" Dave asked again, but still got no answer, just a pistol thrust into his trembling hands.
"You said you could use it," John said. "You might have to."
Dave wanted to drop the weapon, but he gripped it tight. "Did you kill them?" He thought of all those years when he had disapproved so intensely of John's choices. He saved my life, he thought now. He was going to give himself up. "How…" He ducked under a branch. "How did you…?"
"Three against one," John's voice said. "I've had worse. And getting out of the cabin? Easy. Defences… no good when… can't get out from inside. Keep the bad guys out, not us in."
And it was wrong, it was wrong, it was wrong. He shouldn't be here, shouldn't be alive. Dave's breathing began to speed up, his heart pounding in his chest. "Where are we going?" he panted.
John was clambering over trees, weaving through branches, looking around, always looking around. "They must have a vehicle," he said.
"And back-up." Dave pressed his hand to his chest. "They had radios."
"I know." John ran, if anything, even faster. "But I've got to try, you know?"
They emerged close to the track, but snow covered it in a light dusting. "Damn," John swore, but Dave was a moment slower in processing what it meant. No vehicle had come along here this morning. "How did they…?" John frowned. His hand on his face was bloody. "We have to carry on. Further down, or find… find another cabin."
Perhaps they ran for half an hour. Perhaps it was far less than that, every second amplified until it seemed more like a minute. Dave worked out in the gym – you had to, really; useful place to make contacts – but he hadn't for a few months, not since Laura… Soon he was panting, his chest a clenched fist of agony. His hands hurt from forcing a path, and his face was scratched with branches and thorns. His skin was bitterly cold, but inside he was blazing, on fire with exertion.
But it was John who fell first. It was John whose strength gave out first.
They were in a small clearing then – a place about twelve feet across, where no trees grew. The edges were thick with drifted snow. John's legs just seemed to crumple, and he fell forward, catching himself on his hands and knees, then slumped sideways. His breathing was even more rapid than Dave's, and blood stained the snow where he lay.
Dave stopped; came back to him. "Go," John gasped, waving his hand. "Carry on."
"Don't be ridiculous." Dave tried to pull him up, but John was heavy, as if his limbs had turned to lead. Fresh blood stained Dave's hands, making them slick.
"Please," John breathed. "Please." His lips were little different in colour than the rest of his face.
Dave hauled him up; manhandled him until John's arm was draped across his shoulder. "You saved my life," he forced out past heaving breaths. "I understand now."
"What?" John's breath was warm on his shoulder, even through the clothes.
"Why you left the Air Force," Dave forced out, the words disjointed, only two or three at a time. "Not because you're irresponsible, but because… because you're too responsible."
It had always been there, he realised. This was the John who had spent his childhood fiercely defending his little brother. All that had changed was that the stakes were higher – lives, not childhood treasures – and that he did so with guns, not words. Of course John would feel himself unable to take orders from someone who had prevented him from saving the life of a man he felt responsible for; he couldn't do anything else. And his family had hated him for it, blamed him for it, cast it in the worst possible light. They should have known. No, Dave should have known.
"Sorry," Dave gasped. "I'm sorry," and then he couldn't say anything else, not for several minutes, as snow started to fall from the leaden sky, and the sound of a helicopter crept into the very fringes of his hearing.
John fell again not long after that, and not even Dave could lift him. He curled up loosely, one hand clasped to his middle, and fresh blood splashed onto the snow below him. "Can't…" His eyelids drifted shut.
"No." Dave gripped his upper arm. "You have to…"
"I'm not your brother." John rolled stiffly onto his back, his eyes open and glittering. "I need you to know that, if… if you get out of this."
Dave turned his face up to the sky, feeling snow on his face like cold tears. "What do you mean…?"
"I'm not your brother." There was blood on John's lips. "Not in this universe, anyway. I don't expect you'll believe me. I wouldn't have believed it, 'cept that it's kind of… kind of hard to argue with a chair that reads your mind, and--" His words broke off in a groan. "Hurts like a bitch," he said, then, "Dave. Listen. I came over from another universe, a parallel universe. Don't know how, but it happened, and--"
"You're crazy," Dave told him, eyes pricking with snowflakes and tears. "Delirious. Shh, don't speak."
"No." John's hand grabbed his wrist, his grip even now managing to be strong enough to hurt. "Not delirious. It's true. If I don't make it… go to that address he gave you – my other self, I mean. Your John. Look for him. I…" He coughed weakly. "I don't find it easy to… to say these things, not normally, but you're… not real. No, you're real, but you're not mine. Not my Dave. He… your John… He wants to put things right between you, but he doesn't know how to make the first move. He doesn't think he's wanted."
"But you left," Dave said, and it still hurt, still, after all these years.
"Because Dad made me." Snow was beginning to settle on John's hair, as if he was already dead. "He made the ultimatum, and I couldn't… couldn't be something that I'm not, not even for him."
"Not…" Dave barely got beyond voicing the first syllable.
"Not even for you," John whispered. "I'm so sorry, Dave."
The noise of the helicopter grew louder and louder. Was that shouting behind them on the trail? Dave tried to lift John up. "Stop talking like that," he chided him, barely able to see through tears. "Don't talk as if you're already dead."
"Find him," John begged him. "Find him, please."
The sound filled the whole world, swelling until it seemed as if every tree was vibrating with it. "I have," Dave said. "I have."
And then the enemy found them, the clearing suddenly full of armed men, and every one of them was shouting.
end of part three
On to part four