Chuck Bartowski downloads the Intersect and becomes a prisoner in the same night. Who has taken him and why? Is the stranger discovered in the facing cell a friend or a foe?
A/N: This will be one of the only A/N with this fic. The story restarts, AU, and with a different-featured Intersect. Only a handful of chapters.
Unit One: Facing
LAB'YRINTH, noun [Latin labyrinthus; Gr.]
1. Among the ancients, an edifice or place full of intricacies, or formed with winding passages, which rendered it difficult to find the way from the interior to the entrance. The most remarkable of these edifices mentioned, are the Egyptian and the Cretan labyrinths.
2. A maze; an inexplicable difficulty.
3. Formerly, an ornamental maze or wilderness in gardens.
4. A cavity in the ear.
Chuck watched his computer screen effloresce. He felt his mind inflate, balloon, then burst.
His knees gave and he sank into a black-on-black bottomless blackness.
Chuck woke up and opened his eyes.
He was still in blackness. He blinked, tried to clear his vision. But it was clear; he just could not see. A bag, some dense, dark material, was over his head. For a panicked second, he had an attack of claustrophobia, and he tried to reach for the bag, yank it off, get a full breath of fresh air. But his hands were cuffed and anchored down and he could not raise them to his head. He heard a voice, gruff, male.
A second voice, frustrated, female.
"Tranq the bastard."
A pinprick in the shoulder. Chuck stopped seeing the black innards of the bag and sank again into the black innards of his head.
Chuck woke up again. He was still in the dark - but after a moment, he recognized that the dark neither was inner darkness, unconsciousness, nor was it the closed, stale darkness of the bag. It was outer darkness - he was in a dark place.
Outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. -Wait, where did that thought come from?
His head ached, and the ache radiated to his feet. No, 'ache' was too weak a word. His head was in continued extreme physical grief. He was a reanimated cadaver. His head was too heavy for his body, as if his brain had ossified, become dense and ponderous bone.
He was half-seated, half-supine, uncomfortable. Feeling gingerly with his hands, he could tell that he was wedged in a corner, his shoulders against the two converging walls, his body mostly on the floor, like he had been discarded there, dropped, a bag of trash.
The floor was concrete. The walls too. Dank. Damp and cold.
He was no longer handcuffed. Inventorying himself, he realized he still had on the clothes he had been wearing when he looked at the email in his bedroom. But his feet were cold - his shoes, his Chucks - were gone. His socks too.
The movement made his head throb, as if the labyrinths of his inner ear, the cavities there, were cavities in an aching tooth. His hands cupped his head, his thumbs rubbed his temples, seeking to soothe the pain, his eyes closed.
When he opened his eyes again and dropped his hands, he realized his eyes were adjusting. Black had lightened into dark, dark grey. He could barely make out the gross anatomy of his environment. He was wedged in a corner. He straightened himself to sit more comfortably, ignoring the intensified pain in his head, neck, and shoulders. Ignoring it - but he could not stifle a groan.
He strained to see. A cell. He was in a cell. He could make out bars, vertical, a few feet away. Blinking again and straining more, he could see that beyond the bars was more concrete floor, a narrow strip, and then another set of bars. But he could not make out anything beyond that second set of bars, - whatever it was, if it was anything at all, it was for him no more than a host of generic shapes too dark to count or name.
He closed his eyes, hoping to get them to adjust better to the darkness.
It was his birthday.
Happy birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, Happy birthday, dear Chuu-uuck, Happy Birthday to me! The tune played in his head, blaring, off-speed, as if from the speaker of an ice cream truck.
Hell of a birthday. A birthday in hell. Hell.
Birthday. Time. He grabbed his right wrist with his left hand. Naked. His watch was missing. He felt around. They had emptied his front pockets, whoever they were. Man's voice. Woman's voice. What had been in my pockets? Bilbo's guessing game. A couple of paperclips. A stubby putt-putt pencil to take notes. A pocket notebook. A guitar pick. Two final breath mints in their remaining paper-and-foil wrapping.
But that they were missing - his watch, missing - pissed him off. He forced himself up, sliding along the slimy wall until he was almost standing, then using his hands to push himself away from the wall. He almost pushed too hard, not expecting the dizziness that accompanied the change in posture. Tottering, an unsettled needle on a Geiger counter register, he finally found his balance, straightened, upright.
"Careful. You'll fall."
A woman's voice from the darkness, from beyond both sets of bars. Chuck blinked and strained but he could see no one. It did not sound like the woman's voice from before, the one he heard when he was bagged.
"Where am I?"
The darkness did not answer and he began to think he had hallucinated the voice.
But then: "Plural."
"Where are we? - I seem to be in your predicament, or you are in mine." The voice was cool, controlled. The tone was, given the circumstances, pleasant. But the pleasantness was chosen, exhibited, not spontaneous.
Chuck recalled a theater class at Stanford he had attended for a few days before dropping it. He knew that peculiar tone - an actress's tone.
The hairs on his neck stood up, his flesh goose-pimpled. He decided to act too, to choose and control his tone.
"Um...okay...We. Are you asking the question or just correcting mine?" Chuck intended to match her cool, controlled tone - but then he remembered why he dropped the theater class. He was no actor. He sounded petulant and afraid - and a little pissed.
"I'm asking the corrected question." He heard a hint of amusement in her otherwise still-controlled voice.
"I don't know where we are. I was at home - recovering from the birthday party my sister threw for me, and…" He stopped. Perhaps he was giving too much away. He couldn't control his tone, but maybe he could - and should - control his tongue.
"And, well, yada yada yada and I am here, wherever here is...this damp inky nothing."
The voice was silent. "'Yada yada yada'?"
"Yeah," Chuck said, momentarily forgetting where he was, what was happening, "you know, Seinfeld."
The voice responded automatically, clipped, bristling. "Is that a code word, a shibboleth?"
Shibboleth: The criterion of a party; or that which distinguishes one party from another; and usually some peculiarity in things of little importance. - Since when is there a dictionary in my head? Code word?
The voice was silent.
Chuck filed the question away. "It's a TV show, a sitcom. A show about nothing."
More silence. Then: "How can a TV show be about nothing? Isn't it at least about the characters?" The tone of the voice became harder to understand - maybe icy, genuinely icy, but maybe the iciness, if that was the right term, was forced. A still-liquid drop of amusement seemed to drip from the iciness. Whether the drop represented thawing or freezing, Chuck could not tell.
"Good question. The show is about characters who are pitching a TV show about nothing, so the show is about itself, in a sense, but the show it's about is a show about nothing, so the show is a show about nothing."
An almost immediate response: "What did you just say? Did you just manage to say nothing while explaining a show about nothing?"
Chuck laughed - but the laugh rang dully against the dank walls and he suddenly recalled where he was, wherever he was.
He thought he heard her chuckle but so softly he was unsure of his ears.
"Who are you?"
He heard her exhale. "Who are you?"
Chuck felt a flush of frustration. "Who are we?"
This time he did hear her chuckle. "That seems to be our question, doesn't it?"
She exhaled again.
Her next comment was spoken carefully as if she recognized his frustration and wanted to allay it a little, but she also seemed surprised at herself. "My name is Sarah."
Sarah. Chuck's head seemed to buzz. He did not understand how but it was as though he knew that she was not telling the truth. She was not lying but that was not her name. How can I know that? How can I know that I know that? It was as if he had a sixth sense or a third eye or...a third ear. Is a third ear even a thing?
All he knew was that what she said was audibly off-color. Like that makes sense. Untrue, if not a lie.
Not wanting to test his third ear against his own voice, Chuck responded with the truth. "I'm Chuck."
"'Chuck'? Not really?"
"Oh, yes, really. My parents rejected a number of equally exciting, career-enhancing, romance-insuring options, 'Horatio', 'Reginald', 'Darth'..."
"'Darth'? Is that a name - or a sound effect?"
"Ha! Well, it was a joke, actually, just now. I don't think my parents ever considered that name, as they did the other two. But it is a name. 'Darth' - as in 'Darth Vadar', Star Wars' villain in black."
"Huh." Clearly, none of that meant anything to her.
"So, Sarah, if we know who we are but not how we got here, maybe we can try to figure out, reconstruct, how we got here?"
Silence. A huff. "That's reasonable, I suppose. You start."
"Expected that - I have to say, Sarah."
She laughed. "Don't get too familiar. We don't know each other, Chuck."
"No, we don't." He felt that Sarah was unknown by anyone and knew no one, not in the sense of real acquaintance. He realized that that was the tone he had heard - iciness, yes, coldness, but a frost of isolation, aloneness. It was not directed at him - or not at him personally. She directed it at the world, and at him only as one of its denizens.
He was feeling better. Not well, not yet, not close — but better.
His headache remained but it had retreated into the darkness of his head. The darkness outside it seemed to lessen a bit more. During the conversation, his eyes had continued to adjust. He still could not see Sarah but he could see the bars of her cell, and just past them, into her cell. He could see none of that clearly enough to make out details, and Sarah must have been seated against the wall of her cell.
The darkness around her was too deep for him to see into it.
He turned and looked around his own cell, rotating in place. He could see a narrow cot attached to the back wall. There was a toilet - it seemed to be stainless steel but in the darkness, it was hard to tell. Attached to the toilet was a shallow sink with a faucet. Other than that, the cell was empty.
"Do you think it is safe for us to talk in here?"
The answer and the answer's not setting off the lie-detector in his head surprised him. "How can you know?"
"I had some items...hidden on me when they...when I ended up here. One was a bug-detector. I swept my cell while you were out - the range should be enough to have detected anything in yours too. Nothing showed up."
A picture in his head - a menu of bug-detectors disguised as other things. Hair combs, ink pens, bracelets. Like the pages of a mail-order magazine for spies.
This makes no sense. He decided to play along. He and Morgan had been playing spies, escaping from his party. That had been in the dark too.
"Should be enough?"
"It's a game of inches, Chuck; I can't be sure, but I feel safe enough. They seem more interested in knowing where we are than in hearing what we say."
"Yes, 'they', I don't know who they are, Chuck."
"I wish I could see you."
"No, you don't."
Chuck did not know how to respond to that. "Okay, so you want to know how I got here, or as much as I can remember?"
"I was at my birthday party. My sister threw it for me. Invited lots of people - mostly single nurses and doctors who work with her, she - her name is Ellie - is a doctor. I...um...let's just leave it at this: I disappointed her."
Chuck had not expected a follow-up. "I was...ah...single but didn't mingle."
"Ha!" Her sudden laugh caused Chuck to jump.
She went on. "So, you weren't interested in...playing doctor?" The question ended hesitantly, despite the earlier laugh, almost as if she were frightened of her own joke.
This time, Chuck laughed. "Hey, that's good, O Lady of the Dark. But, yeah, that's right too. I didn't want to...play doctor."
"No one attractive enough?"
"No, no, it's not that. My sister has good taste - well, in everything but siblings and it'd be unfair to blame me on her. I just happened along; she's the eldest."
"Uh-huh. I imagine she wasn't happy about so many stethoscopes and so little deep breathing…"
Chuck barked a laugh that bounced around the damp walls. The echo brought him back to the situation, which he had somehow managed to forget, talking to Sarah.
He responded much more quietly. "Hey, you're funny for someone trapped in the dark."
She chuckled softly. Chuck asked, puzzled: "Did I say something funny?"
"No, but you called me funny, and no one - especially not me - thinks I am funny."
"Huh? Well, you are. And I know funny. I've faced myself in the mirror for lo! these twenty-eight years."
"28th birthday then?"
"Yes, nearly thirty and still a man-child with a man-child's job and a man-child's living arrangement."
"I live with Ellie and her husband-to-be. People may not think you're funny, but at least not everyone knows you are a joke."
"You don't sound like a joke to me, Chuck."
Chuck huffed, partly because the situation was making him panicky again, partly because of what Sarah said.
He sat down on the floor, closer to his bars. "Have you ever heard that story about the prisoners who've been imprisoned together so long they've memorized and numbered all the jokes they know, so that every now and then one calls out a number, like '12!', and everyone laughs?"
"No, never heard it."
"Well, I think my birthdays are like that: …'26!', laugh, '27!', laugh, '28!', laugh - although 28 is looking more like a bad dream than a good joke."
Sarah seemed to hear the panic he was fighting in himself. "Don't freak out, Chuck. As long as there's life, there's hope."
"Geez, no Seinfeld, no joke repertoire to speak of, but a fund of Hallmark bromides?"
"Did you really just say 'fund of Hallmark bromides'?"
Chuck felt sheepish. "I guess I did...I almost-graduated smart."
Chuck shook his head and then remembered she could not see it. "Why do you keep repeating what I say?"
"'Do I keep repeating what you say?"
"Sorry. I just find your...style of talking to be...unique."
"'Unique'? Now I feel like a museum exhibit. The Incredible Talky Man. Step right up and hear him say things that only an underemployed, overly verbal loser would say."
"I never called you a loser. I...like the way you talk. It's...unpredictable." She was telling the truth.
"Yeah, what fresh self-humiliation will I let slip next?"
She laughed quietly. "See what I mean?"
Chuck made himself get back to her earlier question.
"So, I made Ellie mad at her own party for me. Very Alice in Wonderland, now that I think about it...And then I went to my room, after a...confrontation...with hatter-mad Ellie - and I had a birthday email from an old…friend. We went to college together but he graduated and I left by...a side door. I opened the email and my head exploded…"
"No, Sarah, geez, no...No, I have a friend, Morgan Grimes, who is not above that sort of thing. He has a...firm fixation on a flexible blonde named 'Irene'...But no, Morgan knows better and...Bryce would not send me porn. I have no idea why he would send me...anything at all."
The facing darkness had become intensely silent. Chuck waited for some sign that Sarah was still listening. A moment passed. Two. Three.
Chuck threw his hands up, a slightly bitter gesture. "There you go again, repeating my words. And yes, Bryce. Bryce Larkin. CPA. BMOC. Other endless, heroic, alphabetic titles. No doubt, even now, he's working on some beautiful client's bottom line."
The silence was intense again. One. Two. Three. Four.
Five. "And your name is 'Chuck'? Like Charles?"
"Yes, Charles I. Bartowski, at your service." He gave her a sweeping formal bow, a twirl of his hand, all pointless in the dark, but his circus ringmaster's voice made obvious what he had done.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Six. "Charles Bartowski...An email from Bryce Larkin..."
"Yes, I know these are just names to you."
"Chuck, please, be quiet. I need to think."
Chuck stood up, chastened. "What about?"
"Nothing," she breathed out finally. Chuck's head buzzed. That was a lie. But I would have known that without the internal buzzing, right?
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Seven. Spies. What game am I playing? Shudder. Headache. Chuck broke the silence. "How did you get here?"