Chapter one and all header information is here
So many things came down to accidents of timing. You did something a moment too early or too late, and the whole course of your life could change.
If only Cowen had let Rodney into the relic room one day earlier! Rodney could have sauntered out of the palace with the cylinder in his pocket, and no-one would have been any the wiser. Then he could have strolled back to his lodgings, collected his things and the slave, and headed off to do a quiet bit of engine-stealing, and so back home. But, no, Cowen had wanted him to labour in every other room in the palace first, so now Rodney stood here, his triumph all tainted because he was returning with just one prize, and not two.
Of course, he still had to get home, and the journey was long, and riddled with its own kind of dangers.
Rodney shrugged off his robe, careful of the broken glass in the pocket, and picked up a new one – well, almost new, and only slightly stained – from the back of a chair. Grabbing a bag, he scooped as many fixings and documents into it as possible, then ran to the kitchen and filled another bag with water and smoked meat and dried food, good for a journey.
He took nothing else. As he left the house, he looked back, but only once. How long, he wondered, before the looters came? How angry the nobles would be when they heard that he had left behind all their expensive bribes and gifts! Well, if they weren't busy falling from grace in the new regime, that is.
The city was changing. Kolya was military through and through, and… and I don't care, Rodney told himself, because he was leaving it all behind. All he had to do was find an untended steam engine, work his magic on the locks, and head off. It was hardly a discreet way of travelling, but there was no way on earth he was walking all the way back home on foot.
The city was quieter than normal, but he still met several people on the street, and he stiffened each time until he had passed them. "Er… good evening," he tried on the last of them. "Pleasant evening. Nice… er… sparklies." The woman frowned. When Rodney dared look back over his shoulder, she was still frowning after him.
Rodney pressed his lips together. He knew where steam engines were stationed, parked in their shiny metal stables. The nearest one, he thought, belonged to the father of the most recent of his pathetic apprentices. That seemed like the best option; there was no reason to walk further than he had to, after all.
There were no security guards present. They'd probably deserted, Rodney thought, afraid that their noble master was about to fall foul of Kolya. Either that, or they'd been called into the house to guard a nervous family. In dangerous times, even the rich preferred to leave their possessions unguarded than risk being bloodily murdered. Still, the reason didn't matter. It meant that no-one tried to stop him as he worked his way effortlessly through the lock, and there it was, his way out of this mess.
Without the slave, he thought, as he ran his hand across the brass panels of the engine. Without the collar. He brushed his fingers over the talisman again, but nothing had changed. On the far side of the city, in the west.
Where Kolya lived.
Of course the slave hadn't run away; of course he hadn't.
"I really shouldn't go without the collar," he said, because, well, hello? Instant glory! A huge advancement in their understanding of Wraith technology, too, of course. Oh, and it would help save countless innocents, because the more they understood about the Wraith, the better they could fight them, and…
"And Kolya's taken him back," he said, and although the unquickened brass of the engine told no stories at all, Rodney still remembered everything that the chains had shown him. That was the existence that the slave had been returned to. He was probably in pain even now, and as Rodney returned home in glory, he would still be in pain, and would continue in pain for years and years, until he died.
And he had made Rodney dinner, and he had sat at the table with him and asked sensible questions, and sometimes, just sometimes, he had smiled.
"I'm going to rescue him," Rodney said, and he said it wonderingly, because it wasn't the sort of thing that Rodney McKay normally said. If people got themselves into difficulties, it was their own stupid fault, and Rodney would run the other way. Physical danger really wasn't his thing, and…
"I'm going to rescue him," he said, as he turned and headed back the way he had come.
When his masters were hurting him, the slave had learnt to think of nothing much at all. He concentrated on staring straight ahead, and he gave up struggling for words. The most important thing was not letting them know how much they were hurting him. He didn't even like to look at what they were doing. His body would tell him afterwards, as he lay in the darkness, wrapped around his pain.
It had never been more difficult. Kolya was taunting him with his knife, making tiny cuts, then smearing his thumb in the blood. Not again! the slave thought. Not again! But being back here was inevitable. Being hurt was inevitable. This was just how life was – but, oh, by the flame, it hurt! He couldn't live like this again. He couldn't--
Because you've changed. Kolya had said it. But he hadn't. Of course he hadn't.
Because you escaped it for a little while, and it might have been forever.
Kolya stepped back, breathing fast. "That fool Cowen died too quickly. I didn't have chance for proper justice."
"This isn't justice." The words came out of him without him intending them to.
Kolya smashed him across the jaw with his fist. The slave tasted blood.
His time with McKay hadn't been freedom, of course, because he had still been a slave, but every day there had been a tiny step away from an existence like this. He had words again, and his thoughts were clear. He'd said things that had made McKay snap angrily, but McKay had never hit him, and so he had dared say such things again. He'd chosen when to wash, and he'd sat down unbidden at his master's table and initiated a conversation. Tiny things, he thought; tiny things, but…
Kolya grimaced down at his knuckles, and slipped on a black leather glove. "I don't like having my possessions taken away from me," he said. "I hadn't finished with you. I mean to break you." The next blow sent the slave sprawling onto his side.
Perhaps, the slave thought… and he almost stopped it there, because it was something too big, too impossible to contemplate.
Kolya dragged him up again, harsh fingers on his chin.
Perhaps… Perhaps the decision to endure everything silently had been nothing more than the product of his confused mind. And now that the effects of the collar were eased…
Kolya's eyes were glittering like silver alchemy, but the slave saw a sudden image of McKay flustering anxiously as he realised that he'd forgotten to let the slave go outside.
"No!" the slave cried, and it wasn't a scream, not really, but as he shouted, he lashed out with his feet and managed to hook Kolya's legs. He surged upwards, pushing himself up with his bound hands, and smashed his entire body's weight into Kolya, then brought his hands up, his fingers groping and clutching at the knife. Kolya bellowed in fury, but the slave lashed and twisted, his knee gouging in between Kolya's legs, and Kolya tried to get the knife back again, but the slave sawed his hands up and down, and felt the knife dig into his hands, felt the blood pour down his wrists and his arms, but then the rope was severed and his hands were free.
His left hand found Kolya's throat, and his right hand found the knife. By the time he arose, reeling, Kolya was the still one, lying broken on the floor, and the slave stepped around him, slumped heavily against the door, then managed to claw it open.
How did you actually launch a rescue mission? Kolya's men had firearms, and there were… well, there were a lot of them, tall and upright and organised in their crisp grey uniforms. But they were also busy sweeping their master to power in a military coup, which might mean that they had other things on their mind. They might not see a solitary alchemist as a threat.
Which he wasn't, not really. McKay's power was immense, but there really wasn't very much he could do when faced with a horde of soldiers who wanted to kill him. With apprentices and irritating lesser alchemists, insults and shouting usually sufficed, but he doubted soldiers would be that impressed with even the choicest of insults. He could break through any metal lock, but first he had to reach it. He could prevent firearms from working, but only if he could touch them, and the whole point of firearms was to kill you before you got to that point, which did tend to present something of an obstacle.
I'm going to die, he thought, but he kept on walking forward, clinging to shadows. There was a growing patch of darkness in the direction of the palace, where silver discs had always sparkled particularly thickly. He thought he could smell smoke, but there was no sign of flickering flames or wholesale destruction. In a quiet square, where he stood as the only person, he felt suddenly as if the whole city was watching him. His bag of phials clanked on his shoulder, even when he tried to move silently, raising his feet and bringing them down on just the toes, in the way he had seen sneaky people tip-toeing on the stage.
I really shouldn't, he thought. What can I do?
The talisman told him that he was getting closer. His fingers tingled with the thrum of it as he walked onwards, sometimes trying to look nonchalant, sometimes trying to move stealthily, sometimes pressing his back into a doorway and just standing there, frozen, breathing fast.
They'll cut me down, he thought, but maybe there were other ways in. Quickened metal could be used as a shield, and quickened glass could distract people with illusions, and could even make the person who stood behind it invisible. He could wait until the dead of night and infiltrate his enemy's lair all by himself…
He thought of bullets tearing into him. Gasping, muttering "no, oh no, oh no," he scurried to the tall railings that edged the square, sloshing too much fixing over them as he fumbled with the right patterns to uproot them, and then to weave them into a lattice. "Shield me," he begged them, coaxing the pliant metal until it covered the gaps.
That's the thing, he thought, and then he murmured it aloud, because it was harder to be terrified when you had someone else to impart your wisdom to. "The Genii think of alchemy as a purely decorative thing, but that just shows how stupid they are. They're obsessed with war, but it's never crossed their mind that, well, mastery of metals? Armour, war engines and metal firearms? I mean, it's hardly a difficult connection to make."
He fell silent. Was that shouting up ahead? Clutching his quickened shield with both hands, he shrank behind it, then reminded himself that he was too far away from Kolya's residence to do the defensive thing. Inconspicuous probably worked best for now, and…
Firearms sounded, loud and close. The shouting grew louder.
Rodney pressed himself back against a wall. Movement flickered on the far side of the railings as someone ran towards him.
"No," Rodney whispered. "No." He was just a normal, non-suspicious citizen going about his business. He was…
The person came into view, and Rodney didn't believe it at first; closed his hand on the talisman to make sure that it really was. The talisman thrummed excitedly with proximity.
Rodney stepped forward, and the slave reacted, skidding to a halt, swinging round with a knife bloody in his hand. "It's…" Rodney cleared his throat. "It's me. I, uh, came to rescue you."
The slave just looked at him, eyes gleaming in the darkness.
"Are they…?" Rodney shrank inwards as the firearms continued to sound. "Are they chasing you?"
The slave nodded.
"Then we should run." Rodney looked down at the knife, then his eyes flickered away again.
But he wasn't good at running, not really. His shield slowed him down, but he wasn't going to throw it away, not when there were actual bullets being fired at him from behind. The slave seemed faster, even underweight and abused as he was, and… He's running in bare feet, Rodney thought. I never thought to give him shoes. I never thought.
Fresh shouting started up from the right, as a second party tried to cut them off. What happened? Rodney wanted to ask, but his hand was pressed to his heaving chest, and his bag was thudding against his back, and the metal shield was trailing on the ground as he tried to hold it behind him. He saw lights appear from far above him as people looked down from high towers. The towers were lurching with the rhythm of his steps, and the stars… there were stars away to his left, shining over the newly-dark palace.
"We're going to die," he gasped. A bullet smashed into the wall to his right, only half a dozen paces away from him. What if they split up? Would the pursuers follow the slave and leave him…? No, no. He grabbed the slave's arm, perhaps to drag him on, perhaps to beg him not to leave him. The slave's sleeve was damp, and Rodney recoiled and almost fell.
"What did you do?" he panted, but the slave was veering to the left, heading for Rodney's lodgings, and Rodney had to grab him again, even though that was actual blood smearing on his hands, and gasp, "No, no, this way. I've got us a way out of the city."
The slave obeyed, but the pursuers were getting closer, and Rodney's legs were burning, and it felt as if the bones in them were melting, his legs threatening to crumple into nothing. Bullets flew past them, and one struck him in the middle of the back, where the quickened metal of the shield absorbed its energy and kept him safe.
They passed through a belt of dark shadow, where the slave gasped and almost fell, but Rodney dragged him up. "Almost… there," he managed, as he hauled the slave into the metal stable, then gasped, "Shut the doors! Help me shut the doors!" and bullets struck the metal as Rodney took one door and the slave took the other, and Rodney hurled a whole bottle of fixing at the lock and sealed it shut.
Fists hammered at the door. Bullets struck the lock. "What did you do?" Rodney gasped. Getting the words out was an effort; saying nothing was worse.
"Stabbed Kolya," the slave said.
"I don't think so."
"Oh. Well, no wonder they…" Rodney gestured with his hand in breathless circles, but there was no time for this. He had to start up the engine. "It runs on steam--" He heaved in a breath. "--from burning oil. It's limited by the… pressure… the tank can… withstand without... exploding." He opened up the casing. "Fortunately, it's all metal. A little… quickening…" He had to clear his mind a little to focus on the workings. "There," he said. "We'll go faster than they can manage, and if I quicken… the exterior of the carriage… we'll…" He steadied himself with a hand on the brass surface. "They shouldn't be able to shoot us," he finished.
The shouting grew louder. Rodney tried not to listen to the specific words; they were promising hideous tortures, and he didn't really want to hear any more than that.
Rodney snapped his fingers, suddenly barely able to stay on his feet. "Jump in," he commanded. It was only a surface quickening, but it would be enough to keep out the bullets until they'd outrun pursuit.
"What do you want me to do?" the slave asked quietly.
"Nothing," Rodney said with a sigh. "As usual, everything rests on my shoulders." Then he frowned, because having an uncatchable engine was worse than useless when you were trapped inside a metal stable little bigger than the engine itself. Biting his lip, he darted to the stable doors again and made the patterns that would make them yield to pressure from inside. "Get in." He snapped his fingers.
The slave climbed inside, and Rodney followed him, clambering into the driver's seat. He'd never actually driven an engine like this, but the Genii could drive them, so how hard could it be? A spark to light the oil, a touch of alchemy to fan the spark, and then they were moving, lumbering forward, the stable doors parting to let them out. Soldiers scrambled out of the way, and bullets smashed into the carriage and the window, but none of them could harm him. His alchemy had triumphed, and he was home and free.
And it was then, of course, that the slave chose to crumple sideways, his hand clasped to the bleeding wound in his side.
Hours passed hazily, punctuated with jagged stabs of pain. Whenever he surfaced through it, he could hear McKay talking, words pouring out of him without any breaks.
"And I can't…" the alchemist was saying. "I'll need to renew the workings soon, and you'd think they'd get tired of trying to shoot us, although we are going faster than them, and road blocks! What's the point of setting up a barrier to stop people leaving your city? Surely it would be more sensible to-- Oh, Shadow! The bumps! Haven't these people heard of springs?"
The slave stirred, struggling to raise himself up. His head throbbed with dizziness, and there was a deep core of burning in his side – a pain that went deeper into him than anything any of his masters had ever inflicted upon him.
"And you're no help." He caught a glimpse of McKay's face, etched with strain and nervousness. "You got shot. When did that happen?"
"When…" He was accustomed to having to fight for words. He cleared his throat, curling around the pain in his side, and tried again. "When… running. Just before we… reached the… engine."
"When you stumbled." McKay hauled at the lever, jerking them to the right. "And you didn't think to say anything?"
Things came to a halt again, teetering between one breath and the next. It had never occurred to him to say anything. Masters knew when you were hurt, because they were the ones who had hurt you. To say 'it hurts' was the same as to scream.
"And I don't know how to treat an injury like that." McKay frowned, looking angry. "But…" He swallowed, his knuckles white on the lever. "I would have tried, back there in the stable. I'm still going to try when we're… when we're safe-- Oh, Shadow!"
Something thudded into the side of the carriage. McKay was muttering under his breath, his voice getting higher and higher – "no, no, no, no, no" – and the slave knew that he could sink into the jagged red darkness, or he could do something. He'd taken a knife to Kolya. He'd taken control.
"What can I do?" He forced himself up into a sitting position.
"Drive," McKay said. "Use the lever – forward, back, right and left. I need to renew the workings. They can only take so many hits before they get worn out."
The slave clambered onto the bench beside him. Pain was something you couldn't show. The masters got angry if you fainted. Then he saw the bloody knife on the floor where he had first fallen. This was a world after he had attacked Kolya. He could do this. He could do this.
There were hardly any towers here, and no silver alchemy. The window in front of him was covered with cobwebs of fine cracks, and everything was distorted, but he could see the road and the open horizon.
"We're almost out of the city," McKay said, and then his voice changed and he muttered his strange syllables, fingers tracing patterns on the edge of the glass.
Out of the city, the slave thought. Away from Kolya. Away from the masters. Away from the place where he had been bought and sold. Away from the only life he had ever known. "And what's ahead of us?" he asked, his voice floating high above the sea of burning pain in his side.
"The barrens," McKay said, wriggling past him to work his magic somewhere else, "and then--"
They were trundling through the conquered villages on the fringes of the glorious Genii state. People watched them from shadows and doorways.
The slave was gripping the lever with white fingers, as if it was the only thing holding him up. The lower part of his shirt was drenched with blood, and Rodney was sure he had seen drops of the stuff occasionally fall down into the darkness beneath the bench. His own head throbbed with the weariness of too much alchemy performed too fast. But ahead was the first glimmering of morning. He was almost sure that no-one was pursuing them. Nothing he had seen had given him cause to believe that the Genii had mastered remote communication, but he would feel happier once they were beyond the territory that the Genii called their own.
"It hasn't been safe to stop yet." He settled down on the bench next to the slave. He had managed to smooth out the cracks, and the glass showed the last gleaming of the winter stars. "I haven't forgotten your… injury. But there isn't really anything I can do. Treated or untreated…" He let the words trail away.
The slave was staring straight ahead, and his only movement came with his shuddering breathing.
Rodney's mouth had never felt so dry, food and drink a distant memory. "But I'll try." If the slave was dead, of course, the collar would be easy to remove and study-- He snapped off that thought, horrified at himself for even thinking it. Was this the sort of person he was? "I… don't want to you die," he stammered, but it seemed like a stupid thing to say, inadequate against the awfulness of his thoughts.
He didn't, though. It would be a horrible journey for one. He wasn't somebody who needed other people, but time went faster when there was someone to talk to. Rodney had never been close to a dead person. He didn't know what comfort to give to the dying. The slave had suffered so much, and it wasn't right that he would die like this, shot by Kolya's men just as he had finally dared to strike out against the people who had hurt him. Rodney didn't want him to die like this.
Slowly the sun rose ahead of them. The villages grew sparser, and the roads grew ever more bumpy. "How long?" the slave asked at last, his lips barely moving.
Rodney let out a breath. "At least eight days." His hand gripped his older, darker talisman. "Unless my friends meet me on the way, in which case it'll be quicker." Then he thought of the silver cylinder in his pocket. "And perhaps quicker still."
The slave managed three steps in the midday sunshine, then folded to the ground in the shadow of the carriage. "Drink this," McKay said, passing him water. Hands tugged at his clothes, and the slave batted them away, flashing back to memories of pain. "No," McKay said, "don't. I'm trying to help you. I need… I've got to look at the wound."
He felt air on his side, harsh with dust. He was burning up beneath the midday sun, even though the air was like ice. He turned his head from side to side, and there was nothing he could see but the broad horizon. It was as flat as the barrens, but speckled with green grass and patches of snow. He saw no towers. "Are they…?" His voice sounded fragile, like the voice inside him that always whimpered silently for them to stop, to stop hurting him. "…chasing us?"
"No," McKay said, shaking his head from side to side. "Leastways, if they are, they're too far away. My plan worked, you see. And to think that Kolya dismissed me as a mere gilder! Fast as the wind, we are. Fast as the wind."
Fingers pressed into his side. The slave gasped, and pressed his lips together to keep the sound from escaping him.
"I… I don't know anything about wounds," McKay said, "but I think it's bad. Shall I wrap it up? It's not bleeding much any more. Is it supposed to look puffy?"
A bird passed above him, moving on rapid wings. It spoke of freedom as it flew across the blue, dwindling away to a dot.
"But it's no use sitting here," McKay said. "You can get better or worse in the carriage just as well as here. And the faster we move…" He looked away, looking the same way the slave had been looking, following the path of the bird. "They'll be able to treat you back home."
Dried food was quite disgusting, but it was still food. Rodney swallowed some strange, amorphous mass of something, then bit off a chunk of some leathery smoked meat.
The slave was sitting in the foot well beside him, his head resting against the door. Sometimes a particularly bad jolt would make his head bounce against the metal, but even that made him stir only slightly. "I need to cushion that," Rodney said, but he had forgotten to bring a spare robe along with him. All he had was the clothes he was wearing, for a journey that might last for days, and winters were cold here in the north, and burning oil and clouds of steam only worked so well as ways to keep away the chill of the night.
He gripped the talisman again, steering them one-handed into the night. Far away, it whispered, but moving.
"But help is on the way," he said. "They probably won't get here for days, though."
The slave raised his head; blinked his fever-bright eyes. "Who?"
And there was no need to keep it secret any more, of course. "I come from a place called Atlantis," he said. "It's a city – not like the city of the Genii, with all its brutal straight lines, but with pinnacles and windows and… and water, everywhere there's water. I was sent on a mission to the Genii because our scholars found out about something very important that was located in one of the territories the Genii overran some years back. We thought it was probably stashed away somewhere in the palace… But you know all that."
"Tell me," the slave breathed, "about Atlantis."
How could he begin? It was beautiful, that was for sure, but it hadn't really felt like home, not until he had been forced to spend so long away from it. "I came from the south," he said, "from a place so far away that you can't travel there by normal means. It was a one way trip, and I… Well, I don't make friends easily; I don't try to. But…"
He thought of the reflection of the towers on the water. He thought of all those people who had worked so hard to wake up the dormant city, and he thought of them dying at the hands of the Wraith.
"Our ancestors abandoned Atlantis thousands of years ago," he said, "and sealed the city behind a wall of alchemy and sorcery. It was only five years ago that we found a way to come back. An expedition was sent out, and then, three years later, they sent out a second wave of vital expertise, because they knew that the first party was bound to be floundering…" He found himself incapable of finishing. It hadn't been meant as an honour, of course, but as banishment; this was a truth he could no longer avoid. Every one of them in Atlantis was one of the brilliant, troublesome people who were an inconvenience in their placidly-run homeland in the south. They were a collection of misfits and exiles, every one of them, and McKay had never loved them for it; it had never even crossed his mind to love them for it, not until he had been a whole year away.
Not until a slave had asked.
"But things aren't going well," he said, staring into the night, seeing, perhaps, an echo of those beautiful towers. "The Wraith know about Atlantis now and they want to destroy it. We're fighting a war, and we're missing vital weapons. This--" He could feel the cylinder pressing against his thigh. "This could provide us with a vital breakthrough." But nothing could bring back the dead, of course. They had lost far too many vital people. "We haven't got any really powerful sorcerers left and--"
The slave's eyes were still open. "Thought you said sorcerers were just stories."
For some reason, that seemed to shatter whatever mood Rodney had been in. "I was lying," he said harshly, "because I had to," and he turned his attention back to driving.
He thought it was another morning. Were they in the barrens? But the barrens didn't burn like this, like a rod of fire impaling him to the ground.
A round disc of a face was dancing to and fro above him. "Drink," a voice said. "It might help." Cool water dribbled down his chin.
Something was tangled in his fingers, and when he brought his hand up, he saw short green blades of grass, and smelled fresh earth.
When he closed his eyes, he could see a shining city surrounded by water. Atlantis. McKay's words had kept him anchored through the night. You couldn't run away unless you knew where you were going to. A city of exiles and outcasts. Maybe it would have a place for him. Maybe--
And then a muscle twitched, and the agony dragged him down into the fire again.
The slave was dying. Come quickly, Rodney thought, gripping the talisman, but the only message it could report was, coming, and still far away.
He dragged the slave bodily out of the carriage, setting him down on the frost-covered ground. His fingers were stained with blood and worse things.
"I need to get the bullet out," he said. "I think I should probably have done that days ago, but I didn't know." His fist clenched uselessly. "I'm not used to situations like this."
He thought the slave was semi-conscious, but only just. Rodney grabbed his head, one hand on each cheek, and turned it towards him. "Listen to me," he said, "I think this will probably hurt, but--"
"Said you wouldn't hurt me," the slave mumbled.
Shadow, how he hated this! The sun baked down on his back, but the air was cold as ice, his breath condensing in terrified puffs. "I know," he said, "I know, but I think… I don't think you'll survive this if I don't try something."
The bullet was lead; he could feel a faint echo of it when he gently probed the edge of the wound. He pulled out the right fixing, and poured a few drops of it into the wound. It fizzled, unused to contact with raw flesh. "Steady," Rodney urged himself. "Steady." It was much harder to perform alchemy when you couldn't touch the metal in question, of course, but he could feel it in there, barely a hand-breadth away. Tracing patterns on the slave's skin, he coaxed the bullet towards him, and felt it coming, slowly, slowly…
It was a tiny thing, really, to cause such damage. Rodney caught it between his fingers, then turned his palm so it rested there, ugly and blood-stained. "I did it," he said quietly, sagging with weariness.
It was then that he saw the slave's face. His shoulders were off the ground, his neck arched back, his head pressing into the ground. His face was set as solid as stone, etched deeply with lines of agony.
"Why don't you scream?" The words left him without him intending them to. Rodney scraped a blood-stained hand across his face. "You're allowed to make a noise," he said. "Why wouldn't you, if it's hurting you? I would. You can say it in front of me. I won't… tell." The slave relaxed ever so slightly, but the lines of pain didn't leave his face. Rodney almost touched his shoulder, then curled his useless fingers in on themselves. "You can scream, you know," he said, but he didn't have a name to call the slave by, to give his words more impact.
Another day. Another night. Maybe there were two, or maybe there were ten of them. He surfaced only in snatches now.
They were in the barrens; he knew that.
The carriage was failing, its engine stuttering and fading. McKay was ranting about oil, berating himself as stupid, stupid, stupid.
The slave had the name of a place to run to, but he thought that he would die before he reached it. It was probably better that way. The towers of the Genii had shone, too, but they had been closed to him.
On the fourth day, the engine failed completely and no amount of alchemy could make it start. The slave was so quiet that several times Rodney had to check his pulse to make sure that he was still alive.
Not that it mattered. They would both be dead soon, stranded in the barrens, far closer to Wraith territory than to Atlantis.
Still coming, the talisman told him. Not here yet. He wanted to tear it from his neck and throw it away, cursing it as a useless, useless waste of alchemy. At the same time, though, he wanted to clutch it and never let go.
"At least they'll know where to find my body," he said. "They'll find the cylinder. They might even put up a statue."
At least the slave was too far gone to be aware of their fate. He was curled loosely on his side, and Rodney sat close to him, as if to shield him from some as yet unidentified evil that was going to try to finish him off.
If he hadn't gone back for the slave, would things have been different? No, Rodney realised, because the engine would still have failed; he'd been so focused on the brilliance of his alchemy that he'd quite forgotten that these machines only carried a finite amount of fuel. In fact… No, things were different with the slave here, because it was a miserable thing to journey alone, and a terrible thing to die in the barrens without anybody beside you.
"If only I'd known your name," he said sadly, remembering all those people whose names he had pretended to forget, and all those others one that he hadn't bothered to remember. It had never seemed important before. People had never seemed important. But the slave was shoeless because Rodney hadn't thought. The slave was dying because Rodney hadn't stopped earlier to try to fix him. Rodney had spent his life doing a thousand thoughtless deeds, and never before had he been forced to see the human cost.
"I wish…" he said, but he didn't complete it, and they were still there hours later, side by side against the broken carriage, when shapes crested the distant horizon, heading fast across the barrens to where they sat.
On to chapter six