Practise to Deceive
by Eildon Rhymer
Something is very wrong on Atlantis, and Sheppard is at the heart of it, walking a very dangerous path.
Note: This is a hard one to summarise without giving away secrets. The first chapter is a bit unrepresentative for various reasons. Most of the rest of the story is told from the viewpoint of Sheppard and his team. The people you see here are outsider viewpoints, rather than original major characters – and they are certainly not Mary-Sues!
This is a Sheppard-centric story, though the rest of the team also play their part. There is angst, and there is also physical whump scattered through the story, although it's not the main focus of the story.
As for spoilers: This is set a few weeks after Tabula Rasa, but before Missing. There are spoilers up to that point.
Chapter one: Things fall apart
"Dammit, McKay!" Something smashed into the wall, shattering. "How can you–?"
Colonel Sheppard carried on shouting, but Doctor McKay was louder, shrill and furious. "I can't believe you did that. I put days of work into that and you just went and broke it. You–"
"Shut up, McKay!" Colonel Sheppard all but screamed. "Just shut up. I'm sick of your talking. Just listen to someone else for a change."
"Oh, and by 'someone else' you mean you?" McKay's voice was scathing.
"Yes, because it sure as hell seems that no-one's listening to me right now."
"Well, maybe you should concentrate on coming up with something worth listening to."
Robert Middleton listened in gleeful horror. He had been working late in the lab, concentrating on keeping his head down and not drawing the attention of Doctor McKay. McKay must have forgotten that he was here. Or maybe he knew, but didn't care; in the two months that Robert had been on Atlantis, he had never seen McKay show any embarrassment about shouting in public. Colonel Sheppard, on the other hand… Robert had never spoken to him before, never even been this close to him. The man scared him a little. The tales people told…!
"I've always been a joke to you, haven't I?" Sheppard said. "You're more than happy to let me put my life on the line for you, but as soon as I've got anything to say–"
"Because how many PhDs do you have, Colonel? Three? Four? No! A big fat zero. Oh, now you're going to bring up the Mensa thing," McKay sneered. "Please! That's a joke. A stupid concession to people like you who are good for nothing but explosions and fast planes."
Robert had heard about Colonel Sheppard and his skill at flying. Once, they said, he had taken out two hive ships. He had saved Atlantis from invaders, waging a one-man war on half an army. There's a good brain in there, despite appearances, he remembered someone telling him on his first evening off, when he had sat stiffly over his drink and been bombarded with facts about the key figures on Atlantis. There's no 'them' and 'us' on Atlantis. Some of the soldiers have brains, and some of us scientists… hey, we've even been known to fire a gun.
"I didn't hear you complaining when I –"
"Oh, please!" Robert could imagine the look on McKay's face. "Everyone knows that I'm the heart of Atlantis. The whole place would fall apart without me. But you… You're replaceable. Just a decorative grunt. Any idiot with an ATA gene could do what you do."
"An ATA gene, yes." He heard the sound of feet pacing heavily up and down. "It still bothers you, doesn't it, that you didn't have it naturally. You're jealous."
"Jealous?" McKay spluttered. "Jealous? Why on earth would I want to be like you?"
"Well, this has got to be about something, hasn't it?"
"Oh, yes, and it has to be me? Why do you assume there's something wrong with me?" Robert remained bent over his work, but strained to see as much as he could. McKay, he saw, had closed on Colonel Sheppard, jabbing a finger against his chest. "You were the one who was lying in an infirmary bed just a few weeks ago, without the faintest clue who we all were. I think it scrambled your mind. You've acted more stupid than normal ever since you woke up."
Robert remembered the terror of finding himself in a vast city without any idea of who he was. They had warned him that life in the Pegasus Galaxy would be full of dangers, but he had imagined guns – and that was what the military was there for, surely, to protect him – and not the feeling of being alone at the centre of a vast and unfriendly universe, full of eyes that stared at him.
"No." Sheppard smashed McKay's hand away. "You're the one who's acting weird. You can't accept that it wasn't me in the dreams. That's what it is, isn't it? You, and everyone else… You're still blaming me for–"
"That is the most ridiculous thing I've heard, even from you, colonel." McKay stamped over to a laptop and opened it violently. "Not everything in the galaxy revolves around you. Now, go away, and–"
Sheppard gave a harsh bark of laughter, obscuring the rest of McKay's words. "That's rich coming from you, Mr – Oh, I'm sorry, Doctor Centre of the Universe. I'm dying with a bug on my neck, and you have a tantrum about lack of food. You emotionally blackmail me into supporting you when you want to play with Ancient weapons, and you end up destroying most of a solar system–"
"Will you stop going on about that?" McKay shouted. "It was two years ago. I've changed."
"Yeah, well." Sheppard's voice was quieter, almost defeated. "I thought so, too. I won't make that mistake again."
"You know what, Sheppard? I just don't care what you think. Go play with your gun, or whatever people like you do in your spare time, and leave me to get on with my work."
Robert clenched his fist, as if he could catch all the words and keep them there, ready to relay in eager whispers later. He had taken an instant dislike to Doctor McKay. "How does Colonel Sheppard put up with him?" he had asked his new friends. "I bet he'd kick McKay off his team in an instant if the choice was up to him." No, they had told him, it seemed that Sheppard and McKay actually got on well. "They bicker," said someone who claimed to know them well – or, at least, had several times sat at the adjacent table in the mess hall – "but it seems to be friendly." Perhaps McKay was different when he was with his team, Robert had wondered. Perhaps Sheppard's reputation and Dex's sheer scariness kept him cowed, and that was why he lashed out when he was back in his lab. But that wasn't the case, either, or so they had told him. "He's just the same with them as he is with us, but they don't seem to mind. They even seem to be friends."
Well, he thought with relish, he could set them right on that account. Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay clearly hated each other. Further, it was clear now that they had always hated each other, and if they appeared differently in public it was only a show. People showed their true colours when they thought no-one was watching them.
"McKay." He saw Sheppard try again, raking his hand through his hair. "I… No, forget it."
"I already have." Robert could see how tightly McKay was gripping the edge of the desk, his knuckles white.
"No. I…" Sheppard turned his back, both hands raised as if to his face. "Everything's changed. Carter isn't supporting me. Ronon and Teyla… They're different. The team's all wrong... Broken. Atlantis is…" He turned round, his face strangely naked. "Rodney, can't you humour me? Just listen for a moment. Hear me out."
"Oh? Have we jumped into the universe where you say things worth listening to?" McKay looked around, and pinched himself. "No. We're still in this one." He looked up deliberately, speaking with exaggerated slowness. "That's a no, colonel. That's a 'go away.' Shoo!" He turned back to his work, but was clearly unable to resist adding more. "You're saying that the problem is with everyone else. There's you, and there's the rest of the expedition. What's more likely to be wrong: one person, or hundreds?"
Sheppard's hand lashed out, and McKay recoiled with a gasp. He was really going to hit him, Robert thought, almost hugging himself with horrified relish. He almost did.
"Dammit, McKay." Sheppard dragged the hand back, clenching his fists tightly at his side. "I should have expected this. Don't know why I came."
He looked defeated, rather than furious. Robert let out a slow breath. Perhaps I shouldn't be watching this, he thought. If Colonel Sheppard realised that he'd… He eyed the door, wondered if he could slip away unseen. No, he'd pretend to be intent on his work: What was that, colonel? Sorry, I'm dead to the world when I'm concentrating. Hear what?
"Sheppard," he heard. McKay's voice was different now. Robert risked another glance, and saw that Sheppard had paused in the door; that McKay was looking after him, his face twisted with something that looked almost like distress. "I–"
"We're finished, McKay." Sheppard's hand was closed on the door-frame. "We're through."
He left. McKay sat very still, then audibly let out a breath. For a long time after that, he made no movement at all, although his computer was open.
Robert swallowed. He had his story. The triumph, though, had faded, and left him feeling only tawdry.
He would tell it, though, of course.
The sound of raised voices caused Private Chris Hudson to stop walking. He glanced around quickly. No, there was no-one there, only Doctor McKay walking away, his hand on his ear as if he was talking quietly to someone on the radio. When McKay had gone, Chris edged towards the training room door, and placed his hand on it. Had he really heard…? Could it really have been…?
"You've made it quite clear where your loyalties lie," a voice shouted. Yes, it really was Colonel Sheppard! "We're just people you happen to be staying with. As soon as anyone better comes along, you–"
"That is not fair, John." It was a woman's voice. Teyla, he thought.
"Not fair?" the colonel echoed nastily. "Of course you'd take his side. The two Pegasus natives banding together against the rest of us. Against me."
"Ronon and I have certain–"
"I don't want to hear it." Chris flinched as something struck the wall not far from the door. "I'm your team leader, for God's sake. The least I should be able to expect is some loyalty."
"Loyalty has to be earned." The voice was gruff.
Chris could almost still feel the bruises he had earned from his one and only sparring match with the large Satedan. He had been obliterated. It had rankled, of course, to be obliterated by a native, but it had been awesome, too. The man was incredible! He didn't pretend to be something that he wasn't, either. He was mere brawn, and he knew it. That put him way above someone like Sheppard, who played a part.
"I thought I had earned it," Sheppard said, more quietly.
Silence followed. Chris could imagine Ronon's response, silent but scathing. As if a man like Ronon could respect someone like Sheppard! Sure, everyone spoke highly of him on Atlantis, and bristled like an angry dog if anyone said anything against him, but Chris had his idea of what a commanding officer should be, and Sheppard didn't match it. He was too flippant, which Chris thought probably indicated a desperation to be liked by his men. As far as he could tell, Sheppard was only in command thanks to series of lucky chances and accidents. He was a jumped-up flyboy, fond of grandstanding and showy heroics. He'd disobeyed orders, too, in his time, though doubtless he wouldn't look too kindly on any of his men who disobeyed him. These showy officers always were hypocrites.
"Colonel Sheppard…" Teyla began, at last.
"What's wrong with you guys?" Sheppard shouted. "I trusted you, both of you. I defended you, Teyla, when Bates thought you were betraying us to the Wraith – and he was half right there, wasn't he?"
"So you think I owe you my blind loyalty in return?" Chris had seen Teyla about the base, and had thought how serene she looked. Now she sounded anything but. "Bates was wrong. You defended me, yes. I did not know that I was going to be expected to pay a price for that defence."
"I just want support from team," Sheppard shouted. "Is that too much to ask? Apparently yes. And you, Ronon," he said, over Teyla's attempted reply. "I brought you to Atlantis. If it wasn't for me, you'd still be out there, a Runner, or dead."
"It's like Teyla says." Ronon's voice grew louder, as if he was coming towards the door. Chris backed away for a moment, and missed the next bit. "…is earned," he heard, when he dared move forward again, "not bought."
"Well, I guess you're showing your true colours now," Sheppard spat. "Both of you. I should have known. I saw it with the dreams, with that crystal thing. One bad dream with me in it, and you started avoiding me. None of this ever meant anything, did it."
"John, that is unfair," Teyla said. She had apparently calmed herself since she had last spoken. Chris had no idea how she had done so. Sheppard was such a hypocrite! Chris had only been on Atlantis for a week, and had yet to see Sheppard in action during a crisis, but he knew everything he needed to know about him.
"Not fair?" Sheppard echoed. "Damn straight it's not fair. I can't trust any of you any more. I guess loyalty doesn't count for anything. You've never really been part of us. Both of you, with your secrets… And you, Ronon. You stunned me. Don't think I can't remember."
Chris hardly dared breathe. This was dynamite! Sure, the others had bristled when Chris had criticised Sheppard without evidence, but what soldiers anywhere could resist a good bit of solid dirt on their superior officers? This was his ticket to acceptance. The premier off-world team of the Atlantis expedition, full of people who hated each other! Chris hadn't even been allowed to go off-world yet. Sheppard kept all the good stuff for his team, and he so didn't deserve it.
"Yeah," Ronon said. "I'd do it again. Feel like doing it now."
"Yeah?" Chris heard a faint sound, like a gun being drawn from its holster. "Just try it."
"No!" Teyla cried. "Stop it, both of you."
"Both of us?" Sheppard demanded. "Don't lie. You're on his side." His voice grew louder, and Chris had just enough warning to push himself away from the door, and virtually throw himself to the far side of the hallway. He turned his back, remembering what Doctor McKay had been doing, and raised his hand to his ear, as if busy with his radio.
He heard the door opening. "Yeah, run away," Ronon shouted, his voice startlingly loud. "Don't bother coming back."
"Oh, don't worry. I won't," Sheppard shouted. "I don't want to see either of you ever again."
Chris waited, counting silently to ten. When he had finished, he turned round slowly. Sheppard had gone, but the door to the training room was still open. Ronon and Teyla were standing there, looking in the direction that Sheppard had gone. Ronon's fists were clenched, as if he was furious, but Teyla slowly lowered her head, biting her lip.
Chris turned away. Behind him, the door closed with a hiss. God, he thought, this is big. He started to walk to the mess hall. Atlantis was small. You couldn't keep something like this quiet for long. Soon everyone would know. So it won't do any harm if I'm the first to tell them. Let's see them give me the cold shoulder now.
Jessica was lying on his back underneath the console when she first heard the sound of raised voices. She froze.
"You don't know anything," she heard. The voice was vaguely familiar, but she could not immediately place it. It was someone she had never heard shouting with such fury, though; that much she was sure of. "You come along, new, and push everyone else aside–"
"Stop right there, colonel." Colonel!
"Are you going to make me? Order me?"
"If I have to, I will."
Jessica found herself moving slowly out from under the jumper's console, hardly daring to breathe. Colonel Sheppard! And the other voice had to be that of Colonel Carter. Although Jessica was twenty-eight, she had to admit that she had a bit of a girlish crush on Colonel Sheppard. Colonel Carter was another matter. A strong woman, playing the men at their own game, and winning. A leader, a soldier, and a great brain. And she had been ten years on SG-1. The things she had done…! The things she had seen…!
"I don't take well to orders, colonel." Colonel Sheppard sneered the title. "It's all there in my report. I expect you read it, you and your little friends at Stargate Command."
"You disobeyed orders to try to save lives," Colonel Carter said. "I can respect that."
"But it looks different when you're the one in command, doesn't it?"
"That is enough, Colonel Sheppard."
"Like hell it is!"
Colonel Sheppard's voice was hoarse, and if he had been shouting for a very long time. Of course, if the rumours were true… A screaming argument with Doctor McKay in the lab. He threw things, the whispers said. Physically attacked him. A rift with Ronon Dex and Teyla Emmagen. Whispers in the mess hall, and thumbs pointing slyly at those who knew. Chris Hudson heard every word of it. News spread through the lower ranks, while the officers and leaders were completely unaware of it.
Jessica had been uneasy at first. Wasn't it their duty to stick together, fighting their secret battle for survival so far from home? Gossiping about the leaders seemed… disloyal. Not at all, she had been told. It was like a family, which fought at home, but united against the outside. "It doesn't matter if they hate each other in private," she was told. "They're good at their jobs, and that's all that matters." "A good commander," someone else had said, "can have feet of clay. It doesn't stop us trusting his judgement in the field."
She raised herself into a crouch, peering over the console of the jumper she had been working on. As luck would have it, they were standing in full view. Colonel Carter looked strong and steady, as befitted the sort of woman she was. Sheppard, on the other hand, was coiled with fury, pacing up and down. When she caught a glimpse of his face, she saw that it was red with anger. He looks deranged, she thought, as the last vestiges of her crush vanished in an instant.
"You don't listen to me!" he screamed. "None of you do. Something's wrong, and I'm the only one who can see it."
Carter reached out placatingly with one hand. "Something's wrong with you, John. You aren't yourself. It's been developing for weeks, with all the stress… Please let Doctor Keller look at you."
"Oh, it's 'please' now, is it?" Sheppard sneered. "You were ordering me just now."
"I will order you if I have to. I can also order –" Carter gestured towards her radio. "– a security team to take you to the infirmary against your will, if you refuse both request and order. If I let this… this irrationality go unchecked, I run the risk that you will become a danger to Atlantis, and I cannot allow that." Sheppard turned his back, and smashed his fist into the side of a jumper. Jessica started, her hand rising to her mouth in horror. "John…" Colonel Carter said.
"Don't call me that!" Sheppard shouted. "That's reserved for friends. Though I don't seem to have any of those left round here, do I? Just tell me one thing, colonel: are you all in on it together?"
"I don't know what you mean."
Jessica heard no sound, but both their heads snapped around. A moment later, she saw Doctor McKay. Sheppard just said "Rodney," his face hidden and his voice unreadable. Colonel Carter looked at McKay intensely, with some sort of message in her eyes. Jessica felt suddenly as if she was watching the second act of a play, with no knowledge of what had gone before.
"Go away, McKay." Sheppard advanced on McKay, his voice different again from what it had been a moment before. "This is between Colonel Carter and me. You've already made your feelings clear. I don't need to hear them again."
McKay swallowed, but planted his feet firmly. "But you didn't… I don't think you listened last time. And now–"
Sheppard took a step back, and then another. "You are in it together." His hands fell to his sides, then rose again. He looked smaller than he had before. He turned to Colonel Carter. "Of course, Rodney would always take your side. It's the whole slavish devotion, unrequited lust thing he's got going. How did you get Teyla and Ronon on your side? Teyla I can understand. There's that woman to woman thing. You probably talk about make-up and shopping. But Ronon… What did you offer him?"
"There are no sides," Carter said. "You've been irrational for days. Something's wrong."
"No." Sheppard gave a mirthless laugh. "I'm the only one who's right round here."
"What if it isn't…?" McKay looked desperately at Colonel Carter. "What if he isn't sick? What if he's really changed? We don't know anything about what happened when he was with those so-called Travellers, and he went round killing everyone in their dreams, for God's sake. What if he's been compromised? What if he's… if he's the enemy, and oh God, oh no, he's trying to kill us all by weakening us, and–"
"McKay!" Sheppard screamed. "Shut up!"
Carter spread her hands placatingly. "It is far too early to make that sort of accusation, Rodney."
"You know what?" Sheppard said. "I think you're the compromised ones. No-one's listening to me. Everything I say… Good reasons, good ways to keep Atlantis safe. Ways to get Elizabeth back." McKay, she saw, reacted to that as if he had been struck. "You… No, I'm not fighting it any more. You've made your little alliance. You've judged me as guilty. I'm through with you all. I was proud to call this city my home, but you've turned it into a prison." He moved towards the nearest jumper, and Jessica let out a horrified breath when she realised how easily he could have chosen hers.
"You are not leaving Atlantis without permission." Colonel Carter's voice was like ice.
Sheppard paused at the hatch, and his hand went to the gun strapped at his thigh. "You really don't want to try to stop me."
"Don't!" McKay all but squeaked. He, too, had come armed, Jessica saw. He drew his gun now, and as Carter shouted something indiscernible, he aimed it in Sheppard's direction, and fired. Jessica clapped her hands to her face, and gasped so loudly that she was sure they must have heard her. Bullets smashed into the floor of the jumper bay several feet from where Sheppard was standing. McKay, she saw, had his face screwed up, as if he was firing blind. At length he seemed to run out of energy, or perhaps the fury or madness had flowed out of him with the rain of bullets.
"McKay!" Colonel Carter moved to his side, and her body obscured McKay's face. Jessica saw, though, how the gun slowly slipped from McKay's hand. She saw how the hand that had held it was trembling.
But she missed the moment when Colonel Sheppard entered the jumper. She missed the closing of the hatch. By the time Carter and McKay stirred, the entrance to the Gate Room was already opening up, leaving them standing on the brink. Something seemed to hold them frozen for a moment. As Colonel Sheppard's jumper passed, Jessica caught a quick glimpse of his face, but the two panes of glass distorted it too much to see his expression, making his face melt, as if into tears.
Colonel Carter was speaking into her radio. Below, very faintly, Jessica heard the sound of the wormhole engaging. "Stop him!" she commanded, then her face went very still. "I see," she said.
"What?" McKay's voice was faint.
"He's gone." Her expression was still blank. Her hand fell on McKay's shoulder.
McKay sank to his knees. His hand seemed to fall accidentally on the discarded gun, and linger there for a moment. His eyes went to where Sheppard had last stood, where blood now marked the floor.
end of chapter one
Chapter two: He lied in every word
I shot him. It took Rodney two attempts to sheathe the pistol. He felt Sam's eyes on him, and glanced up. There were so many messages there; how the hell was he supposed to know which one she meant? Put the gun back in the armoury; hope no-one asks why you were carrying it. Face the future. Lie. Lie.
"There isn't much blood," he found his voice saying. "I don't think… I mean, I… I didn't…"
Sam's hand tightened almost painfully on his shoulder. Oh. Yes. Pull yourself together. Sheppard's not your friend any more, remember. He was screaming at you just a few days ago. You shot him.
"We need to talk about this in the briefing room." Sam's voice was louder than it needed to be; of course it was. She spoke over her radio, summoning the rest of them: Teyla, Ronon, Lorne, Zelenka, Keller. No-one else.
He wanted to rip the gun away and cast it into the far corner of the jumper bay. He hadn't had to bring it, had he? He hadn't even had to come. He hadn't had to start firing. He had seen the bullets impacting harmlessly several feet away from where Sheppard had been standing. You couldn't hit a barn door at ten paces, Rodney. Sheppard's voice had echoed in his memory. He had screwed his face up, still firing, and…
"Rodney." Sam's voice was firm. He dragged his gaze around to meet hers. Pull yourself together, Rodney. You can break down, but not here.
"Yes," he said. "Of course. Yes. Coming."
They walked out of the jumper bay – and he resisted the urge to look back – and down to the control room, where Sam spoke briefly to Chuck. "I didn't think to question him," Chuck was saying. "It was Colonel Sheppard." And that said it all. Some people were beyond reproach. If they gave an order, people would obey. It didn't matter if the order was flawed. It didn't matter if everything had been crying out that…
He pressed his lips together. A Sheppard mannerism, he thought, pushing things inside, not letting them out, not like me, always waving my arms around. Then he wondered suddenly if this was all they would have left of him – the man living on in turns of phrase and mannerisms adopted unwittingly by those who had known him. And the arguments, of course – the cruel words said and received. You're replaceable. Just a decorative grunt. Some things would never be forgotten. It didn't matter what the reason was for them; they had been said, and that was what mattered.
"It's all right, Chuck," he heard Sam say. "No harm done."
No harm done? He could have laughed at that. It was so true, and yet, at the same time, so very wrong.
I shot him, and now he's gone.
"Rodney." Sam's face was perfectly controlled. Rodney almost hated her in that moment. How could she do that? "Come with me."
He trailed her to the briefing room, the gun feeling treacherous and conspicuous against his thigh. No-one else had arrived. When the door closed, Sam turned to him, and said, "You almost blew the whole thing there, Rodney."
"What?" He sat down. No, he had to pace. To the far wall, and back again.
"Not what you did," she said, "though that was bad enough, but how you reacted afterwards. There were lots of people out there."
"So I showed concern?" He stopped, his hand jittery on the back of a chair. "So what? You can have a huge fight with someone, and not like… not like what they've become and… and hate them, even, but you still don't want them to get hurt. It's different for you. You never really knew him. And now he's gone, and I shot him. I didn't mean to. I was trying… I don't know what I was trying to do." Make it real, he thought. A moment later, he thought, Make it stop.
Sam let out a breath. "Hopefully no harm was done." The door opened behind him. "And I saw it. It was just a graze," she added quietly. Perhaps that, too, was a lie. Sam Carter, it seemed, was better at lying than any of them. He would never have suspected that of her.
Ronon and Teyla entered together. Ronon looked as if his fury was barely being contained by his skin, and even Teyla's disquiet was evident in her eyes. Rodney sat down and placed both hands on the table to keep them still. There was no need to speak to the others. They knew what this summons meant. A few minutes later, Lorne appeared, followed by Keller, and Radek came last.
"It's done," Sam said, when they were all seated. "He's gone."
Rodney looked at his hands, having no desire to see their reactions. His whole face felt stiff with the effort of keeping in words. The worst thing of all was that he was gagged. Normally he let words pour out without a thought; now he had to think about every one. Even the expression on his face could 'blow the whole thing', or so Sam told him. He couldn't be himself. Over the last few days, he had felt himself changing.
Worst thing of all? he thought, as Ronon said something, and Sam responded. Of course it isn't. But I can't help being self-centred, can I?
"What now?" Lorne asked.
"There's no reason to deviate from the plan," Sam said. "Major Lorne will take over Colonel Sheppard's duties for now. Your men, Major, will of course have questions. You will tell them that Colonel Sheppard has been called away urgently on a classified mission for Stargate Command. All is well. He will return in good time and resume his duties."
A lie wrapped in truth. Truth wrapped in a lie. "An officially sanctioned lie," Rodney said bitterly. "They'll see through it."
"Of course they will. They won't accept it at all, but they will at least pay lip-service to it. Outwardly, at least, they'll pretend to believe it."
"Can't damage that chain of command," Rodney muttered.
Sam ignored him. "But for those who need more, we'll give them more. They'll expect us to find out where he dialled, so we'll look, although he will, of course, have immediately dialled elsewhere. Doctor Zelenka will handle that side of it."
Radek nodded, pushing his glasses nervously up with one finger.
Sam folded her hands on the table. "We will look for a reasonable length of time, but the trail will run cold, for obvious reasons." She looked Radek full in the face until he nodded, swallowing. "This will, of course, be done discreetly."
Sam interrupted Rodney's question. "We've been through all of this, Rodney. It's too late to start having doubts now."
Rodney curled his hand, fingers digging into the table. You're replaceable, he heard. Any idiot with an ATA gene could do what you do. And Sheppard's face, twisted with fury. Sheppard almost hitting him. The crash as he had hurled things into the wall, breaking them. Then a jumper going away, and a final ending.
"Rodney?" he heard. Teyla sounded as if she had already called his name more than once.
He looked at them, at each one of them, knowing that from now on, these were the only people that he didn't have to lie to with every word. He had intended to say so many things, but instead he said, low and bitter, "I hate him."
He pushed his seat away from the table; moved to the wall; placed one hand there. He didn't feel like himself. For days, he had been Rodney McKay, conspirator, robbed of the ability to speak like himself, robbed of the ability to act like himself. "Yes, yes, I know," he said. "It's worth it. We have to do it. It's all in a good cause." He sneered the last two words.
"Yes, yes. Toe the lie. Be quiet. Go along with our little plot." You're jealous, Rodney. We're through. Of course you'd take her side.
"You know the stakes," Sam said.
He thought of blood on the jumper bay floor, and how Sheppard had spoken his name when Rodney had walked in on that final confrontation, and how he had looked when he had walked out of his lab for the last time.
"Yes," he said, and perhaps he didn't hate Sheppard after all, but hated himself, and all of them around the table, and everyone outside who innocently served the plan. Sheppard had made conspirators of them all.
The stranger stuck out like a sore thumb. The sad thing was, he didn't seem to realise it. He sat on his stool downing shots of cheap spirits, and resisted the bar-maid's efforts to flirt. Jorris smiled to himself. Rosia liked to dream that a dark-haired man from another world would whisk her away to a life of riches and excitement. Not this one, sweetheart, he thought. The man was drinking the cheapest spirits, after all. But Rosia wasn't stupid, either. Maybe she just fancied a tumble in the stranger's bed.
His own mug was empty. He upended his mug and shook the last few drops into his mouth – only a fool wasted things that good money had bought – and pushed through the growing crowds to the bar. He caught Rosia's eye. "Same again." Money changed hands, but not enough; he had his own arrangement with Rosia, and the landlord was usually too drunk to care. As he took the full mug from her reddened hands, he jerked a quick glance towards the stranger. "Who's the fresh meat?"
She shook her head slightly. Don't know. I'm working on it.
Jorris stayed at the bar, sipping slowly. The stranger was a good-looking man in his prime. If he hadn't been so clearly from off-world, Jorris would have thought him an aristocrat slumming it. His face lacked the coarse heaviness of everyone else in the bar, and the hand that held the glass looked strong enough, but didn't look as if it had been forced to work for all the hours of daylight to provide for a starving family. His clothes were made of a fabric that was unusually fine and clean, although the cut and the dark colours suggested that they were working clothes of a sort. They almost had the look of a uniform to them, although part of one sleeve had been hacked at with a knife, and the other sleeve was torn and blood-stained, with a glimpse of bandage visible through the tear.
The person to Jorris' left moved away from the bar. Jorris took the chance to sidle up to the stranger. "Strong stuff." He nodded at the contents of the stranger's glass. "Hard day?"
The stranger swirled his glass clumsily. Yes, definitely a uniform, Jorris thought, now that he was closer. He didn't recognise the exact type of weapon that was strapped to his thigh, but he knew a weapon when he saw it. Of course, the stranger was rapidly becoming so drunk that he wouldn't be able to fire it. Jorris could only hope that he wasn't so drunk that firing it would seem to him like a good idea.
Jorris tried again. "You're new to town." Don't worry, sweetheart, he thought, with half a glance at Rosia. I'll hand him over to you after I'd had my sport.
The stranger started. "How can you tell?"
Jorris hid his chuckle. Oh, but this one was green. He wasn't young, but it was possible to live out all your years without knowing a thing about real life. "Oh, there's a few clues," was all he said.
The stranger raised his glass to his mouth, but tipped it too soon. The clear liquid ran down his chin and onto his clothes. From the moisture there, it wasn't the first time it had happened. In high class bars, Jorris knew, people were thrown out when they were this far gone. In places like this, no-one cared, as long as you kept handing over money. He clapped the stranger on the shoulder, careful not to laugh at his look of stupid dismay. "Let me," he offered. "I'll get you something better."
"No." The stranger shook his head. "Don't want to be… be…be-hold-en." He struggled over the word. "Can't repay…"
"Don't want repayment," Jorris told him. It was only half a lie. "You can buy me one later. My round; your round. It's what men do." And your story will be payment enough, he thought. Who knows? There might be profit in it. He pushed the now-full glass over to the stranger, who almost knocked it over in his clumsy attempt to take it. "How's about starting with your name?"
"Sheppard." He raised the glass to his lips, and lowered it, nursing it in both hands.
"Jorris," Jorris said. "See? Now we know each other." He wondered how to start fishing for more. Most drunks were quite happy to spill all their secrets, but some, especially men with unknown weapons at their side, were easy to provoke with ill-phrased questions. He decided to repeat his earlier question. "Hard day?" He nodded at the clear liquid in his glass. "That's not the sort of stuff a man drinks if all's well with the world, I'm just saying."
"Hard day?" Sheppard laughed harshly. "You could say that. Hard few days. They threw me out. I can't go home again, because they… with their orders… They used to be my friends. Rodney shot me! You see that?" He jabbed his finger clumsily towards his bandaged arm. "Told me I was stupid. Refused to listen. And her… Sam… Trying to push me out, thinking she knows how things work round here, when she doesn't. And they said something was wrong with me!"
Interesting, Jorris thought. Then he got the sudden impression that the man on his other side was listening equally intently. He turned round, but the man's attention appeared to be on Rosia and her barely-decent blouse. When he turned back again, Sheppard's glass was already empty.
"They're the ones that something's wrong with." Sheppard jabbed ineffectually at the bar, emphasising each word. "They're plotting against me. No, plotting against everyone. I'll show them. Gotta go back – not yet. One day, when I've got people, I'll show them. Then they'll be sorry." He pulled at the fabric of his sleeve. "Rodney shot me. I thought he was my friend, but they never were. Got no friends. Got no-one."
Sheppard looked heartbroken, perhaps even close to tears. Jorris seldom felt embarrassed in anyone's company, but he suddenly had no idea what to say. "Have another drink," he settled for instead. Drink always made things seem better, at least until the morning, and the morning wasn't Jorris' problem.
"Drink. Sounds good." Sheppard fumbled in one of the pockets and pulled out three coins. Jorris caught Rosia's eye, and allowed the slightest flicker to pass between them. So Sheppard was paying over three times the proper price for the hideous liquid that he was drowning his sorrows in. Oh well. It wasn't Jorris' responsibility to tell him. Rich strangers who wandered unprepared into the roughest bar in town had to stand on their own feet, and if they went under, it was no-one's fault but their own. "You?" Sheppard asked.
"Not for me." Jorris shook his head. His own mug of ale was far from finished, and it couldn't do any harm to keep Sheppard in the role of debtor.
Sheppard took another mouthful, and swayed, apparently barely able to stay on the stool. Even more of it spilled, splashing onto his chest. "Bet they miss me," he slurred. "Ungrateful. I saved them. Lots of times... I saved them. Can… I can fly anything. Got the strongest Ancient gene of all of them. They'll be sorry." He swallowed, then swallowed again. Jorris knew the signs, and edged away, but Sheppard didn't throw up. "Gotta sit down somewhere. Don't feel so good." He peered behind him stupidly. "This chair's got no back!"
"Here." Exchanging another glance with Rosia, Jorris led Sheppard to the back of the room, where there were wooden high-backed seats, wide enough for three. Only one seat was empty, and Jorris helped Sheppard into it. A few coins found their way from Sheppard's pocket into his own during the process. Count it as payment in advance when he pukes on me.
"Don't feel so good," Sheppard mumbled again. "Need water."
"I'll get some."
Jorris went to the bar. The man who had been on his other side had now gone, he noticed. A crowd of apprentices had just come in, and Rosia was busy serving them. Jorris never minded waiting. It gave him a chance to check out the crowd, to pick his marks, or just to discover who would make his evening a little more interesting.
Rosia came to him at last. "Three silvers?" he mouthed, and she blushed, but showed no repentance. Only a fool failed to take advantage of an idiot rich man blundering into places he had no right to be. "He needs water," he said. "Your pretty boy's going to have a headache tomorrow." If he isn't dead first, he thought. It was that sort of place.
Rosia handed him a tankard of water, but then her eyes narrowed. Jorris turned in the way that she was looking, and saw three men entering the room, trailed by the man who had been beside Jorris at the bar. A cold feeling settled in Jorris' stomach. He liked to think of this place as his playground, but now someone else had entered the arena. He didn't know their names, but he knew their reputation. They were trouble.
And, by the looks of it, they were interested in Sheppard.
Jorris wove through the crowd, but they had already found Sheppard. Sheppard was sprawled on the long seat, looking miserable and barely conscious. The tallest newcomer, a man with close-cropped fair hair, kicked Sheppard's feet off the seat. "I hear you've been kicked out of your home." He gave the word 'home' a strange emphasis.
"Yeah." Sheppard seemed oblivious to the threat that they presented.
"Got a place to stay tonight?" the newcomer asked.
Sheppard shook his head. He looked smaller than he had looked before – incapable with drink, and completely defenceless. Jorris looked again at the uniform and the weapon, and reconsidered his earlier opinion. Not a runaway soldier, but an officer, who'd never fired his weapon in anger, and had stormed off like a spoiled brat when they'd stripped him of his commission because of incompetence. Jorris uttered a despairing prayer to the spirits of the Ancestors. Some people really deserved everything they got.
"We can give you a place," the man said.
"Who's we?" Sheppard mumbled.
The man sat down beside him, and his companions silently took their places at either side of the long seat. Perhaps Sheppard was too stupid to recognise this as a threat, but Jorris wasn't. To his amazement, he found himself starting forward. Stupid, he told himself. Stupid. He didn't owe Sheppard anything. Quite the opposite, in fact, what with the drink he'd bought him. People were killed or coerced every day. It was none of Jorris' business. Every man to himself, and let the weak go under.
"Your new team," the man told Sheppard, clapping him harshly on the shoulder. "We can help you get back home."
"Make them sorry?" Sheppard asked.
"Yes." The man reached into his pouch and pulled out a round disc. He passed it to Sheppard, who took it apparently unthinkingly. The moment it was in his hand, it glowed a pale blue. The man's face was impassive as he took the object back, but his Jorris could see the covetousness that glittered in his henchmen's eyes. His eyes half closed, Sheppard appeared to be oblivious to the whole thing. "Yes," the man said. "We can make them sorry. Do you want that?"
"I want that," Sheppard said, and let them raise him to his feet, and let them lead him, stumbling, out of the bar.
Jorris wandered to the window, and watched them until they were gone. He knew a kidnap when he saw one, regardless of how it had been veiled.
He let out a breath. The idiot had been asking for it, after all. Not my problem, he thought, as he drank the water he had bought for Sheppard, and headed off in search of fresh sport.
End of chapter two
Chapter three: Will you walk into my parlour?
Sheppard stumbled as they led him from the bar, tripping over the small step. Immediately hands tightened on his arms, gripping him painfully. He tried to regain his footing, but failed, letting his knees sag. For a moment, all of his weight was dangling from those merciless hands.
"Ground jumped out at me," he mumbled, then tried for a laugh. "It's good now."
They continued forward, and it quickly became necessary to find his feet. When he was up again, they hemmed him in with the bulk of their bodies. His right arm was seized and dragged over the brawny shoulder of one of his new acquaintances, and his hand was firmly imprisoned. A few stumbling steps later, the same was done with his other arm. The third man followed close behind, and Sheppard felt that uncanny tingling at the back of his neck that told him that a weapon was being discreetly trained on him from behind.
So that's how it is, then.
He kept his footing until his new companions slowed, clearly nearing their destination. Then he tripped, his head lolling forward. They didn't pause even for a moment, but carried on, dragging him between them like a dead weight. When they stopped at some kind of vehicle, they hustled him in bodily, flanking him on the narrow seat, their hands on his arms as firm and effective as handcuffs.
"It hurts," he decided to say. The gunshot wound on his upper arm throbbed nastily, and there was more truth and weakness to his words than he would have liked.
The leader took a seat on opposite him, and gave a brief nod. The pressure eased just a fraction. "We don't want you to hurt yourself," the leader said. "That's all."
"That's good, then." Sheppard let his head loll forward. Then the vehicle started up, and he went with the slight backwards pressure and let his head fall onto the shoulder of one of the men beside him. The front of his shirt was still damp with the disgusting liquid that apparently passed for saleable alcohol round here – smells worse than the chemistry lab on a bad day – and the smell seemed to travel straight up his nostrils to the back of his throat. He swallowed hard, but then the foul taste travelled to his stomach. The things I put myself through, he thought, then had to admit that McKay might have some choice things to say about his sense of priorities, if he thought this was the worst thing he had done or was likely to do in this whole affair.
The vehicle travelled on. Sheppard kept himself very still, but the only sound was the faint noise of whatever it was that powered the vehicle, and the heartbeat of the unmoving man whose shoulder he was lying on. No-one said anything. He considered starting to snore, but thought better of it. Chances were, they wouldn't risk spilling their plans even if they thought he was asleep. That sort of thing only worked in the movies.
Instead, he opened one eye, keeping his focus blurry. The windows had been obscured with dark screens, shutting out all view of the outside world. The perception of movement was too slight to offer him any clues about what direction they were going. His pistol was still in its holster at his thigh, though, which was comforting, but it was also wedged up against his guard's leg, so drawing it could prove a problem.
He risked a glance at the leader of the men who had captured him, and found himself looking directly into a pair of considering grey eyes. It was a struggle to fight instinct in that moment. He let his eyes close again, though, and let his head sink lower on the chest of thug number one. "Where we going?" The thug's jacket was coarse against his lips.
"Somewhere safe," said the leader, "where you can sleep it off. We'll talk more in the morning."
"That's good," he mumbled.
"Don't know why you bother." It was strange to hear a man's voice from so close, to feel the growling vibration of words against his cheek. "He's pathetic." The man sneered the word with a currently-sober man's contempt for a man who was embarrassingly drunk.
"I wouldn't be so sure," the leader said, with a voice that was like a chill finger on the back of Sheppard's neck, urging him to run, to run, to fight. "This one is more than he seems."
Sheppard concentrated on breathing – in, out; in, out – and keeping his muscles slack. He could feel the gun now, pressed between an enemy and himself. There were precautions and escape routes and fail-safes, of course, but none of them would be even the slightest bit of use against a knife between the ribs in a windowless vehicle far from home.
The vehicle slowed, then stopped. He heard the sound of a door opening. But not here, he thought. Must be a separate driver's cab. So there's another person here, maybe two. Faintly, he heard a wormhole surge into being. He stirred, and it was not entirely feigned. Going off world? It was to be expected, of course, but he had hoped to do it on foot. A trail of breadcrumbs could be left, then, for those who knew what to look for. Damn, he swore, covering it with a groan.
The vehicle moved, and the wormhole claimed him. Just before it took him, he wondered what the effect of Gate travel was on someone who was as drunk as he was supposed to be. He groaned loudly on the other side, and acted as if he was going to throw up. Thug number one pushed him away in disgust, so his head snapped back, striking the high back of the seat. "Ow!" he cried reproachfully. "That hurt."
"I can only apologise." There was mockery in the leader's voice, he thought, but I'm too drunk to notice.
"Yeah," said the other thug. "We're your friends."
Team, he remembered. They had used the word team, back in the bar. Even more than the performance with the Ancient device, that had been the thing that had made him agree to go with them. "My team?" he said. "You're my new team? I had a team. Would have died for them, but they turned… mean. Don't like me now. I… I miss them." Tears? No, tears would be going too far. Don't think I could manage them, anyway. He couldn't remember when he had last cried. Years ago, perhaps, while things that could have wrung tears from a different sort of man remained inside, pushed out of the way, safe… Forgotten.
"We'll get you a new team," his captor said placatingly. "We are your new team."
"Good." Sheppard smiled stupidly. "I'll go anywhere, do anything… Just want people… a team… Want to belong. Like to look out for people. An' they… They threw it back in my face. Would have done anything for them. Hate them now. Hate them."
You're replaceable, he remembered. Run away. Don't bother coming back. And Carter with her cold commander's face, that he had seen before on other commanders. Rodney with his face screwed up, firing blindly…
The vehicle entered another wormhole. Sheppard emerged from it with a creeping sense of disquiet. He hadn't noticed. He hadn't noticed the sounds and clues that suggested another transit. Two worlds had gone by unmarked. Two worlds away now from a place where he could be safely traced. Not that it matters, he reminded himself. But still… But still…
"Don't think I'm drunk any more," he said with a smile. "Feel perfectly sober."
Looks were exchanged. He pretended not to see them.
The vehicle stopped almost immediately, and the leader got out. Sheppard was dragged out after him, and had to grit his teeth to keep himself from crying out when a hand closed on his gunshot wound. Damn you, McKay, he thought. You had to have the final word.
"Where are we?" he mumbled, looking around, squinting. They were inside; that much was plain. Underground, perhaps? An underground garage? It's got that Genii underground bunker chic going, that's for sure.
"Home," they told him.
He frowned. "This isn't home."
"It is now."
So you're working from the book of villain clichés, then? He had to bite his lip not to respond. It seemed as if suppressing his natural urge for flippant retorts was going to be one of the hardest things about this whole game. Best not tell McKay, he thought, as they dragged him on his stumbling way through bleak hallways. He’ll never let me hear the end of it.
His head bowed, he watched every turn, and committed each doorway to memory. The further they went, the more he saw touches of the Ancients in the architecture, fusing with the bleak human style in a way that should have looked incongruous, but didn't. By the time they stopped at a bare room, he thought he could probably find his way back to the garage. Not that it mattered. They pushed him into the room, and he landed heavily; it took an enormous effort of will not to cushion his landing, but to land as a dead weight. His shoulder struck first, and his head impacted afterwards. Reeling from that, he saw the club too late. It smashed into his knee, and enormous pain exploded outwards, driving out all rational thought.
He wanted to curl over the pain, but some instincts couldn't be denied. He rolled over, pushed himself up, brought up his fists, coiled and ready to defend.
"What d'you do that for?" a voice said. Enemy! his body screamed at him.
"He'll have forgotten about it by morning."
Forgotten. Forgotten. Yes, I'm drunk. Stupid. He let out a breath. Very slowly, he uncurled his fists. He let his shoulders relax in slow and agonised increments. With a small sigh, perhaps of defeat, perhaps of triumph, he slumped sideways and fell beneath the waves of pain that issued from his knee. Even when they took his gun from him, he didn't stir. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
"I don't want him mobile," the leader said – my new friend. How nice! – "in case things look different in the cold light of morning."
They left then, leaving him alone on the cold floor of a bare grey room. But the pain was not so great that he couldn't hear the sound of the door being locked. A prisoner, then, he thought. Of course.
The news was all over Atlantis. Of course, people knew not to talk about it when the wrong people could hear it, but that had never been known to stop gossip before, and never would.
As bearer of the first firm reports of the great rift that had opened up between Colonel Sheppard and the other leaders, Robert had suddenly found himself the centre of attention. Few people had believed him at first, but then fresh news had spread from other sources. Sheppard had had a huge and violent fight with Ronon and Teyla in the gym. Sheppard had… Oh, God. It was still so huge, so unbelievable. Sheppard had hurled insults at Colonel Carter and had stolen a jumper and left Atlantis. Doctor McKay had shot him, for God's sake.
That was when things had changed. The gossip had suddenly became real, and no longer harmless. If it ever was, he thought. Colonel Sheppard had left Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard had left Atlantis.
Robert was distracted, barely tasting his food. "Of course, we know what the official line is," he heard his friend, Ricardo, say, gesturing with his fork. "Sheppard's gone off on some classified mission, very hush-hush. Think it's true?"
"Of course it's not true." That was Ewan Cameron, a physicist in Zelenka's department, usually silent. "I mean, there's everything… What Rob here heard. That engineer, Jessica…" He swallowed. "I mean, it can't be true. Can it?"
"Course not." Ricardo was still stabbing with his fork; Robert saw it only vaguely. "It's a cover-up. Best case scenario: Sheppard cracked. Worst case: he's sold out to the enemy. But they can't tell us that, can they? Morale, and all that, especially at a time like this, with all soldiers we've lost. It would make the leadership look bad, and we can't have that, not with Wraith and Replicators and God knows what beating a path to our door. Cue lame cover story. And it is a lame cover story. Know how I know?" He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. "I saw Zelenka coming back from off-world. When I asked him where he'd been, he looked terrified. Stammered some ridiculous lie, of course, but I did a bit of asking around, and I know where he'd been, and what he'd been doing."
He looked around the table. "What?" Cameron obliged him.
"Harvesting Gate addresses," Ricardo said. "Trying to track down Colonel Sheppard. They don't have a clue where he's gone either, you see. It might be all calm on the outside, but inside it's all panic. They might have had this falling-out, but they still want to get him back before he does any damage."
There were only the three of them at this table, and the tables nearby were deserted. Two days before, Robert had been at the centre of a crowd. Now, many people subtly shunned him, especially the soldiers. It was as if he, as bearer of the first report, was to blame for the whole thing. Perhaps I was, Robert thought. He remembered the sight of Sheppard walking so dejectedly out of McKay's lab. He had felt tawdry even then. "If I hadn't said anything…" He hadn't meant to say it aloud.
"Would still have happened," Ricardo said. "Not your fault."
If Robert was avoided, that young Marine, Hudson, was openly shunned. Initially the soldiers had listened to Robert's news as avidly as anyone else, although most of them had been firmly of the opinion that the whole thing was clearly McKay's fault. All that had changed. Most of the soldiers were fiercely loyal to Sheppard, and in an instant the thing had gone from harmless gossip to tragedy. They had lost their commanding officer – because, oh yes, hardly any of them believed the cover story, even though they nodded and pretended to believe it when in the presence of their officers. Robert's harmless gossip had become ghoulish reports of the breakdown of a once-great man.
"But I still shouldn't have said anything," he persisted.
If he hadn't said anything, then perhaps Hudson wouldn't have said anything, and that engineer, Jessica, would have kept silent about what she had seen. At least Sheppard would have his dignity preserved in the eyes of his men. After all, it was quite understandable that a man who had been through the things he had been through would crack in the end. He was indefatigable, constantly putting his life on the line to save others. He had been tortured repeatedly by the Wraith, for God's sake, if the reports were true, and had just bounced back and kept on going.
People had breakdowns sometimes. Robert's uncle had had one, and so had a colleague in his first job. All Robert had done was to make the breakdown public, and ruin any chance Sheppard had of ever coming back from this.
"I wish I hadn't," he said. Atlantis felt more dangerous without Sheppard there, as if the colours had gone out, to be replaced with grey, and grasping black shadows.
Sheppard had slept in the end, despite the pain in his knee, despite the knowledge that they must surely be watching him. Awake, he could maintain the pretence. Asleep… Well, he had no idea how he looked when he was asleep.
There were dreams. Afterwards, he could not disentangle them from memories. McKay had shouted in both of them, and had shot him… No. No point in lingering on it. Everything that had happened had happened because it had to happen. Better far to think about the future, and to prepare himself for what was to come.
He sat up, moaning loudly at the pain in his knee, and dragged himself towards the wall until he was leaning against it. He didn't think anyone had entered his room while he had slept. His sleep pattern had been forged in combat zones, and he always slept through noises that didn't matter, but woke in an instant if a noise indicated a threat. There was a thin strip of light under the door, and a smear of light on the ceiling that could have been a very weak bulb. It was enough to show him the camera, though. Hello, guys. He fought the urge to wave with his fingers and speak a flippant greeting. He was supposed to be hungover, after all.
Could he stand, he wondered. No, best not to try it. Best to sit here and look miserable. Still, he bent his knee experimentally, and pain stabbed right up to his throat. He tried again, easing it more slowly. It hurt horribly, but he was fairly sure that it wasn't seriously damaged, only bruised. Hurts like hell, though. He bit his lip. Pain alone could be enough to cripple someone when it mattered. He could stand if he had to, and walk if he must, but run…? He doubted it.
Time passed. His stomach was an increasingly emphatic reminder that he hadn't eaten for far too long. Hadn't drunk much, either, since you couldn't count all those shots of vile and unidentifiable spirit that had found their way onto his clothes or the floor at his feet. Of course, it would be reasonable to expect that his stomach was churning, after all that drink. They'd be expecting him to be throwing up by now.
Not going to oblige, I'm afraid, he thought. There's such as thing as asking too much. He moaned, though, and pressed his head into his hand. A weak head, but a strong stomach.
After a while, he almost dozed; caught himself with a jolt from a scene of strangers swarming over Atlantis, and McKay screaming at him in fury as he died. He clenched his fist, fingers digging into his palm. Stay awake. Stay alert.
The door opened not long after that. It was not the leader from the night before, but another man, tall and lean, with a face that might have been called aristocratic on Earth. His deep-set eyes surveyed Sheppard. I'm hungover, Sheppard reminded himself, but not stupid. Not weak, either. He clambered to his feet, pushing himself up awkwardly to avoid bending his knee. When he put his weight on that leg, the pain was almost enough to floor him, but he set his jaw, and remained silent. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The man spread his hands in the sort of gesture a politician might make. "It is too soon to say that I am your friend. Let's just say that I am not yet your enemy."
Sheppard had spent days wondering how to play it. As close to himself as possible, he had decided. McKay had disagreed, of course, pointing out that Sheppard was supposed to be bitter and furious and betrayed and heartbroken. "Shall I just wear a false moustache and speak in an outrageous French accent?" Sheppard had finally snapped and asked him. No, McKay had admitted. "It's just that…" "McKay," Sheppard had interrupted firmly, "unlike you, I didn't win a serious drama festival award when I was a kid. If I play myself, I'm least likely to get it wrong."
Not the moment had come, though, all the preparation flew through the window. He hesitated just a moment, then took a breath. To hell with it. I'm winging it.
"See?" he said. "Much as I'd like not to have made another enemy, that doesn't really help." But he pressed his hand to his face and closed his eyes, wincing from the pain of an imagined headache, and perhaps from a pain inside, desperately hidden with light words.
"I am Carrick." The man's smile looked almost genuine. "Some of my men found you in a bar last night, a very rough place. You became… attached to them. They brought you here so you could sleep it off in safety."
"That's good." He raised his head, wincing at the light from the hallway. "Thanks, I guess."
Carrick's eyes were sharp, like blades. They wanted to pin him. Since he had entered, Sheppard realised, Carrick had not once taken his eyes off him. "You are welcome," he said. This time the smile went no further than his mouth.
Sheppard shifted, letting out a slow breath when he had settled his leg in a new position. He supported himself behind with a hand on the wall. Should I lay my cards on the table, he wondered, or wait for him to bring the subject up? "So why…?" He stopped, letting the words be cut off by a moan at the pain in his knee. He'll have forgotten about it by morning, he remembered. "I guess you saved my life. Someone attacked me. My knee… I…" He smiled bravely, making the best of it. "I can't remember anything, I'm afraid. I've had a rough few days."
"I know." Carrick gave no signal that Sheppard could see, but two henchmen entered behind him, and took up positions on either side. One was as large as Ronon, and both were heavily armed. "You said."
"Did I?" He brought his hand up, scratching his neck awkwardly. "Here's the thing… I say things when I'm drunk – things that should stay secret, and to people I shouldn't. It doesn't mean anything."
"Oh, but it does." Carrick stepped closer. Sheppard eyed the distance, factored in his knee, and decided that there was no chance of escaping alive, even if he tried to grab Carrick to use as a hostage. "You said your people had cast you out. You said you had no home any more. You said you wanted a new home."
Sheppard swallowed nervously, letting his eyes move from the weapons to the bare walls and finally back to Carrick's grey and merciless eyes. "You think this is it? You're offering?" He made a valiant attempt at a smile. "It doesn't really look homely. And you'll forgive me if… Like I say, I say things when I'm drunk."
"People do." Carrick's eyes were unwavering. "People say things indiscreetly, that get heard by the right people."
"I don't know what you mean." He felt the wall at his back now.
"No." Carrick's voice rose fractionally at the end, as if he was asking a question. He turned away, though, and Sheppard felt it with a relief that was almost physical. He fought the urge to relax. He fought the urge, too, to ask questions. That would come in time, if it came at all.
"I am not a stupid man," Carrick said, without turning round. He placed his hand on the far wall, showing knuckles that were marked with scars. "Here I am, in the market for one thing. And then what happens? A man goes into a crowded bar where I am known to have…eyes, gets drunk enough to be noisily indiscreet, and shouts to anyone who'll listen that he has this thing that I need."
There was nothing that he could say. All he could do was prepare for a fight, or for death, when it came.
"Perhaps it is a happy coincidence." Carrick still had his back turned. That deadly regard was better, Sheppard thought. If you couldn't see your enemy's eyes, then you couldn't predict where the attack was going to come from. "But I have to consider that it is a trap."
"A trap?" He echoed it quietly.
"Yes." Carrick turned at last, but his face was now unreadable. The henchmen stood there as impassive as robots. "It would be a fine trap, would it not? You go out with some sad tale about having been cast out by your friends, and rant about how you want to get revenge on them. My men pick you up, and offer you just that chance. Using your… gifts, you quickly become indispensable, and learn all our secrets. Then you activate whatever escape route you have planned, and let your friends wipe us out."
Sheppard could feel his heart racing. To squawk his innocence, he instinctively felt, would be the worst possible thing to do. "That isn't true," he said. He made his voice low, suffused with despair that was barely concealed. "My friends… They aren't… Not any more." He lifted his arm. "They shot me. They drove me out."
"Did they?" Carrick headed for the door. His henchmen went before him, and stopped in the hallway, their weapons trained on Sheppard. "That's what I mean to make sure of, Colonel Sheppard."
end of chapter three
Chapter four: Those left behind
His day had been dull enough to numb his mind. Jorris walked home, but the fresh air felt grey and tedious in its coolness. When he reached the small room that counted as home, he tossed his pack onto the bed, and stared out of the small barred window at the darkening sky. Feet went past at ceiling level, the outside world existing like players at the revels. Sometimes, at night, he could hear faint laughter, but never the words that provoked it.
He let out a slow breath; closed his eyes. The bars of his window seemed to grow and fill his mind.
Jorris tore his eyes open. He moved away from the window, reaching for his discarded clothes from the night before; missing, and reaching again. Stripping off his dull work clothes, he pulled on his low-slashed shirt and his leathers. He styled his hair with his fingers, and smiled jauntily at his reflection in the cloudy mirror. He kept that jauntiness as he left the room and climbed the dingy stairs, strewn with the relics of wasted lives. His feet became one of the pairs of feet that passed his room. He greeted strangers with confidence, and his laughter joined theirs.
Rosia greeted him at the bar, smiling at the Jorris who drank here every night. "Anything new?" he asked her.
She shook her head, then pouted prettily. "I'm not pleased with you," she informed him. "You let that handsome off-worlder go with Carrick's men."
Handsome? he thought. The girl had listened to too many stupid stories about true love and happy endings. "He wasn't good enough for you," he told her. "Stupid, for one thing."
He took his mug of ale, and moved to the end of the wooden bar, where he turned and surveyed the room, his elbow resting on the surface. It was early yet, but the place was crowded with apprentices and journeymen, still dirty from their work. Their talk was the usual empty boasts about women they had bedded and men they had fought. Nothing interesting there. Off-worlders offered the most chance of both the types of sport he was interested in. His pickings from Sheppard had given him enough to keep him in drink for a couple of nights, but a man needed more than drink; he needed entertainment.
As his eyes scanned the room, Jorris became aware of a man sitting on one of the high-backed chairs at the back. He was a stranger, and that in itself was enough to make Jorris' ears prick up. More interesting, he thought, as he sipped his ale consideringly, the man was watching the room as intensely as Jorris was.
He turned round; waited for Rosia to give him her attention. "Who's the big guy, back of the room?" He asked it quietly. Rosia knew enough not to look at the man in question. He gave her a share in anything he took in the bar, and that was enough to buy her complicity.
"Don't know." She was careful to stand so that Jorris was between her and the man in question, shielding her lips. Perhaps, Jorris thought suddenly, he would ask her to marry him one day, if no-one else came along for either of them. "He came in, ordered ale, and sat down. I didn't get more than two words out of him."
"Ah." Jorris turned back, and surveyed the room casually, letting his eyes pass over the man as if he was of no consequence. That quick glance was enough to show him that the man was still looking. Jorris felt small beneath the man's regard, and malicious, and petty.
Well, he thought. Can't have that. Jorris of the Day would bend his head and cave in to it; Jorris of the Night was the equal of anybody. He took his drink, and sat down next to the man. "This seat taken?" He was careful to ask it only after he was sitting down.
He could feel the man's discomfort almost like a physical thing, pulsing from his impressive frame, but "No" was all he said. He was gripping his mug tightly with one strong hand. His clothes showed him to be a native – someone from the badlands, perhaps, new to the city. Maybe that bizarre hair-style was all the rage out there, too. They were half like savages, after all.
The hair and the growling voice caused him to try to direct approach. That intense gaze was been misleading. This was a savage young man, a brute. No need to be subtle. "What's your story?"
"None of your business." The savage raised his mug and downed half of it. Jorris watched the muscles moving in his powerful throat, and his own throat felt suddenly very thin and vulnerable.
Jorris swallowed. The smoky lights suddenly seemed dingy; the smell of alcohol seemed stale and rancid. What was he doing, living vicariously through the stories he could harvest from stupid idiots before he robbed them? But what could he do without them? "Looking for work?" he asked, his voice tighter than it normally was.
"Not yet." The other man shook his head. "Looking to see what work there is. Checking out the market." He said it with an emphasis, as if he was quoting something someone else had said to him.
Jorris looked down at his own drink, at the hands that held it. Sheppard had sat in this very chair. Jorris had persuaded him to talk, and then had stood back and done nothing when Carrick's men had taken him, drawn, presumably, by something he had said. It was all an excellent story – that spark that made a day worth enduring. It was…
"Word of advice," he heard himself say. He glanced round. Nobody nearby but those stupid apprentices. "Be careful whose offer you accept. Carrick recruits round here."
Jorris watched the man's hand as it gripped his mug, knuckles white with strength. "Carrick?" the man asked. "Local gang leader?"
"Worse." Jorris grimaced. "Not local, I mean. He operates on… I don't know. A dozen worlds? Got bases on several, so no-one can pin him down. Word is, he's planning something big, some kind of hit. So he's recruiting, and here's one of the places his men recruit. Big strong lad like you… He's bound to be interested."
"Sounds like a good deal," the man said hoarsely.
Jorris glanced around again. Still no-one. "No. You see… People… They go willingly… but you never see them again. He demands total loyalty. You have to wonder what happens to people who regret joining him and want out, that's all I'm saying."
"Then I'll just say no." Jorris wondered why the man's hand was still gripping his mug so tightly, though.
He swirled his own drink, looking at his fractured reflection in its dark surface. Sometimes it felt as if there were eyes and ears everywhere. But he had stood by and watched… "It doesn't always work that way," he found himself saying. "There was this man in… Looked a bit like a toff; very drunk. He said he'd been kicked out of his home by people he thought had cared for him. Said a few more things, too, and suddenly Carrick's men were here. As good as kidnapped him, really, because he was too far gone to know what he was saying yes to. That was last night. Just where you're sitting, too."
The man stood up, and placed his half-full mug on the chair with a coiled deliberateness that made Jorris' mouth go suddenly dry. He shrank into the chair, half expecting violence, but the man just turned and stalked away without another word, his coat swinging.
I need another drink, Jorris thought, when he was gone.
Ronon gave his report to Colonel Carter, because he had to. When he had finished, he made straight for the training rooms. He had dimly aware of people getting out of his way. Once his shoulder smashed into someone, and he hard them babbling apologies, but he didn't look back. Nothing really existed around him; it felt less real than memories long years gone. It faded away, became nothing against the pounding of his heart, the pulsing in his head, the sound of his breathing, the things inside him – that huge, all-encompassing Everything that was what existed within his skin.
He slammed his hand against the controls to release a door, and the thing inside him began to flow outwards through his hand. He pounded at it again, then snatched his hand back with a cry. Someone passed by; he saw their unreal face recoiling from him. His hands itched, desperate for the feel of a weapon. Clenching his fists, he strode on.
There were two men already in the room he was seeking. "We were just finishing…" they said.
"Go," he snarled. "Get out now."
When they were gone, and the door was closed behind them, he unleashed himself on the heavy bag dangling from the ceiling. He struck it with his right fist, then the left, catching it as it swung around. Then again and again, right then left; right then left. Nothing existed but the blows. He saw his fist; felt the impact…
He had no idea how long it lasted. A voice penetrated from far away, but he couldn't hear the words. His next blow was softer. With very strike, he became more aware that his hands and knuckles were hurting. Best wear gloves, buddy. Sheppard had said that once. Sheppard… His next blow was as hard as his first, but the one after that faltered, and the heavy bag almost struck him in the chest. He dodged, then caught it, wrapping an arm round it and hugging it to his chest. He closed his eyes, and hung from it, as the world around him grew still. All he could hear was his own rasping breathing, but it was slowing now.
And then the voice. Teyla. He could hear the sound of someone shifting on their feet, and a faint sound, louder than a swallow, but quieter than a cough. McKay was there, too, of course. He stiffened, and when he opened his eyes, he looked only at Teyla.
"You discovered something?" Teyla asked.
"Of course he did." That was McKay. He never knew when to shut up; always said too much; always did too much. "That's why he'd doing the Incredible Hulk thing, beating the crap out a poor defenceless sack."
Ronon turned his back on both of them. "It was the fourth place on his itinerary," he said, his voice impassive as he used the formal words of a report. "He was there on schedule. He made contact with the target, and he's gone with them."
There was silence for a while. "All going according to plan, then," McKay said at last. He said it in the tone of someone trying to find a spark of hope in a catastrophe.
"Yes." Ronon said it bitterly. The brief stillness he had found was gone, and he felt as if he was about to boil over from the pressure inside. "My contact said that people never come back. He says Sheppard was kidnapped."
"Ronon," Teyla said sharply. Ronon turned round and saw that McKay's face was twisted with distress, and that Teyla had moved closer towards him, as if in defence.
"Yes," Ronon said, taking a step towards McKay. "Kidnapped. And we can't do anything about it." He jabbed a finger at McKay's cowering chest. "We can't send teams after him. We can't even let anyone know we're worried. We have to pretend we drove him away."
"It isn't Rodney's fault, Ronon," Teyla said.
"Isn't it?" Ronon turned away with a snarl, and brought his fist up. It was bleeding, he saw, the skin cracked over the bruised knuckles. Of course it wasn't McKay's fault. The plan had been Sheppard's, and Sheppard's alone. He had no idea why he felt such fury directed at the scientist. There was nothing… There really was nothing…
"We need to stick together," Teyla said firmly. "There are only seven people we can trust on the whole of Atlantis, and nearly half of them are in this room."
But I don't, he thought. Not any more. Not even Teyla, not completely. And he had no idea why. "I just hate lying," he said, and that, too, was true. This whole distasteful game was built on lying. He thought of his time in the Satedan military, with simple right and wrong, and his time on the run. There were no shades of grey when you were running for your life. There were no lies when you held an enemy in your hands and took away his life.
"We all do," said Teyla, "but we have no choice. For Colonel Sheppard's sake, we have to do this. His safety is as much in our hands as it is in his own. If we want to help him, we–"
"Lie about him," McKay said bitterly. "Pretend we don't care that he's gone."
Teyla looked at McKay until he met her eyes, then turned her attention on Ronon. "Perhaps this is our trial," she said, "as much as it is John's."
Ronon pushed past her, and left without another word.
Teyla knew that she should say something; her role, far too often, was peacemaker. Ronon had walked out, his body taut with fury. A fury directed at the wrong people, she thought. They were stuck on Atlantis, reduced to waiting, and there was no physical enemy to fight. Part of her understood why Ronon was pulling away from her, was reacting to McKay with open hostility. She understood, but she could not approve.
No, she thought, a moment later. I understand. It would be easy for her to feel the same way.
She turned instead to Rodney, and spoke his name.
"He threatened me!" Rodney protested. "Did you see him?" He pointed at his own chest, where Ronon's finger had come so close to jabbing. "Why did Sheppard let him in on this? Maybe he's the one who–"
"Why not?" Rodney's face was flushed. "He showed us how much loyalty he feels to us all, didn't he? It's not so long ago that he was packing his bags and leaving us. And we both know what happened with his old friends. Wraith worshippers. How do we know that they didn't convert Ronon before they–"
"Rodney!" She said it firmly, almost shouting it. "Ronon has far more cause to hate the Wraith than you do." She took a deep breath, calming her voice. "Ronon left us precisely because he is capable of great loyalty," he said. "He felt bound to his old team, just as he is now bound to us. When he fights Wraith, he avenges people, not a cause. I do not consider him capable of betrayal. You know this, Rodney. You do not truly believe what you are saying. This is fear talking."
"But it isn't the Wraith this time, is it?" The words came out of Rodney's mouth as if he had no choice in what he was saying.
Teyla felt a surge of anger. "No, it is not. And if Ronon had…" She broke off. "No. I am not going to defend him to you. I am not having this conversation. I know that Ronon is loyal just as surely as I know that you are." The anger faded, leaving only sadness. "Colonel Sheppard had no doubts."
She could still remember every detail of the meeting that John had called. He had been light at first, quick with smiles. "The inner circle," he had called them. "The conspirators." Afterwards, though, he had looked every one of them in the eye, meeting their gaze with a directness that he often shied from. "I know I can trust every one of you with my life."
"That doesn't mean you have to," Rodney had protested nervously. "Seriously, I'm not a good conspirator."
"Then you will have to become one." John had been completely serious by then, and his voice and his presence had held everyone still, like creatures caught in a web.
The pattern had first become clear only a few days before that meeting. Weeks before, a pilot had vanished while flying a supply run, and they had not been able to trace him. Some time later, three soldiers had been killed in an ambush, and the pilot with them had vanished. The third attack had targeted a group who had been taking aid to a settlement recently struck with an earthquake. Once again, the pilot had vanished, and the people with him had been killed. The pilot's body had been found a week later, with injuries that had not come from natural causes.
"They're targeting pilots!" Rodney had been the first to articulate it; John's expression showed that he had realised it long before. "It must be your Traveller friends."
"I don't think so." John had shaken his head, a strange expression flitting across his face. Teyla had turned to her trading contacts, and eventually had been able to report that he was right. A man called Carrick – nobody knew where he had come from – was assembling a force for something big. "An attack on Atlantis?" This time John had been the first to put the fear into words. "Might not be, of course; there are other big targets round here. I'm guessing they've gotten themselves an Ancient ship and can't fly it. Anyone getting déjà vu round here? Is someone giving away free Ancient warships with breakfast cereal?" His smile had faded. "The methods seem more brutal this time, and I'm willing to bet this Carrick doesn't look good in leather."
"So what do we do about it?" Ronon had asked.
They had tried to trace Carrick to his base, of course, but everyone they talked to told them that people did not find Carrick; Carrick found them. Contacts and agents had faded away the moment teams from Atlantis had shown themselves. There had been no-one to interrogate, no-one to threaten, no-one to follow. And the day after they had started trying, three Marines on one of the search teams had been killed.
The day after that, at the meeting, they had heard John's answer to Ronon's question. "The thing that's bugging me most is how they know where to attack," he had said. "The Travellers sat at space gates like a cat at a mousehole, and eventually got lucky. But four attacks in as many weeks… They know."
"What do you mean?" Rodney had demanded, as Ronon had stood up, his hand on his knife hilt, and growled, "A traitor?"
"That, or a bug of some sort," John said, with no trace of the emotion that he must surely be feeling. Betrayal was the worst of feelings, and could taint everything. "That's why we're meeting here, not in the briefing room. We can't assume that any of the obvious places are safe. McKay can't find a bug in the briefing room, but I don't want to assume it's clear. Even McKay can make mistakes."
If he had been expecting a cry of protest, he did not get one. Rodney was silent. "But a traitor, John?" Teyla found herself asking.
John looked at her. "Some of the anthropologists and zoologists are off-world for weeks at a time, and we've had lots of new recruits lately. I don't like the idea any more than you do that one of them might have been compromised, but it's possible. The enemy knows where we're going to be. There has to be a reason. I really hope I'm wrong, but we have to act as if I'm not. It's my men out there in danger."
He said it as if there was nothing left to say. Perhaps in his mind that was true. Rodney, Teyla saw, was sitting miserably. Perhaps he had known part of this already. If John thought that messages were being sent to the enemy, he must surely have asked Rodney to try to trace the leak.
"So what I propose in this," John said, spreading his hands. "They want a pilot. Let them get one."
Rodney's head snapped up. "You?" he spluttered. "That's insane, even for you. What about… We just turn Ronon on them. He'll discover the traitor in no time."
"Like last time?" John said. Teyla well remembered the damage done when the leaders of Atlantis had openly suspected their own. "And in the meantime people die. Twelve good people dead or missing, Rodney. I can't let that carry on, not if I can do something–"
"But it's crazy!" Rodney protested. "Do you have a suicide wish, because it sure as Hell looks–"
"There'll be failsafes," John reassured him. "You'll come up with them. If it all looks like it's going wrong, I'll bail. But if it goes right… I'll pretend I've gone as crazy as you think I really have gone. I'll rant about how I've left Atlantis and want to get revenge on the lot of you. Kind of like Kirk – no, Rodney, don't say it – in that episode when he pretends to go crazy so he can trick the Romulans–"
"Oh, please. Can we keep the geek references out of the briefing room, please, Captain Kirk."
"– go along with their little plan –" John continued as if Rodney had not interrupted him – "get them all gathered in their ship, fly them wherever they want to go, where we can…" He snapped his fingers.
"That's a stupid idea!" Rodney protested.
Teyla, however, was busy watching John's face, and saw the tension hidden by his matter-of-fact words. "If there really is a traitor on Atlantis," she said, "the enemy will know all about you. They will know this is a trap."
"Then we'll have to make sure our traitor thinks it's for real."
But nothing had been said about how hard it would be. Nothing had been said about how awful it would feel to hurl hateful words at a friend, and to know that everyone on Atlantis thought that you had meant them. Nothing had been said about how awful it would feel once that friend had gone, and you were left behind with nothing but the memory of your last words to him, in a city that possibly housed a traitor.
The Wraith was the enemy; that was how it should be. Humans drew together, prizing fellowship and kin, rejoicing in the life that was left to them. When a hand of genuine friendship was offered, you reached for it and clutched to it with all that you were worth. The concept of treachery was the most horrendous one imaginable. To betray your people to the Wraith…! To betray your people to anyone at all…! She understood why Ronon had killed his former team-mates, and knew that she would have done the same, if she had been in the same position.
Rodney could not understand. Treachery was the worst thing, and trust was its antidote. We should be drawing together, she thought. But – oh Ancestors! – she knew why Ronon had stormed out. She understood.
Because Sheppard had asked them to, they had all taken their turn at playing a traitor of a kind. It was hard to lose that taint, and to forget that people you called friends had taken their own turn at the part.
Rodney made his way slowly towards his lab. Got to act normally, he reminded himself. How did he normally act? How did he normally move his feet? What expression did he normally have on his face? How did he normally react when someone was coming towards him in the hallway?
No-one else seemed normal. Whispers stopped when he walked into the mess hall. People were suddenly intent on their work when he walked into the lab. Zelenka told him this was because everyone was talking about what had happened, "but don't want you to know they're doing it." But perhaps one of them – perhaps several of them – were acting strange because they were the traitor.
He couldn't trust anyone.
It was strange, he thought bitterly, how hard it was. Rodney McKay, self-centred genius, never trusting anyone to do a job as well as he could do it, never really letting anyone close. A few years ago, he might have said that he didn't trust anyone he worked with, and didn't care one whit about it. Just two years ago, he might have said that he was beginning to trust a few people, but everyone else was just a mindless grunt or minion, and trust didn't come into a relationship like that.
It mattered, though. Now it mattered, and he had no idea how he had come to a state like this. He walked into the lab now, and there were three people already there. One was that Middleton person, and Rodney could barely bring himself to look at the man now, let alone act normally around him. Zelenka had chosen him to be the audience for Rodney's staged argument with Sheppard. "He's new enough that he'll believe anything," he had said, "and he's eager to fit in." In other words, he was the sort of person who would overhear a private conversation and eagerly blab it to anyone who would listen.
Rodney hated him. "Remember that they are all innocently serving our purpose," Teyla had said a few day before, when Ronon had wanted to smash the soldier who had spread the report of his own fight with Sheppard. "We are using them. When they go on respond in the way we wanted them to respond, it is a success."
Empty words. Maybe Middleton was the traitor. Yes, he probably was. New to the city, with his loyalties belonging to who knew what; passionate loyalty to Atlantis came only with time, and was forged by siege and epidemic and battle. A traitor, and…
"Whatever you do, don't confront anyone," Sheppard had warned him, before they had torn each other apart in public, and the ridiculous, tragic game had begun. "You have to unmask the traitor–"
"Unmask the traitor?" Rodney had echoed, sick at heart. "Are we in a melodrama now?"
Sheppard had been uncharacteristically solemn during those last few days. "Unmask the traitor," he had said again, speaking low, for there were so few places in the city where they counted themselves safe. "But don't let the traitor suspect that you're looking." There had been no humour in the half smile. "Don't let him suspect that you suspect. Act normal at all times."
As if I can be expected to act normal when Sheppard's gone, and everyone here thinks I helped drive him away! The think I shot him! And I did. I did, and I… I didn't mean to. I don't know why…
He snapped out orders to his scientists. That at least was normal, wasn't it? When one of them – not Middleton – came with a question, he insulted them and said that their doctorate wasn't worth the paper it was written on. That was normal, wasn't it? He drank coffee; raked his hand through his hair.
People came and went. One of them could be the traitor. None of them could be trusted.
He wondered if the traitor had reported Sheppard's absence to the enemy yet. He wondered if the traitor was going to report how Rodney was sitting at this very moment, and what he said, and what his body showed about how he was thinking.
He left, muttering some excuses; he didn't even know what. When he reached his quarters, he sat on the edge of his bed, his hands useless at his sides. Damn you, Sheppard. He said it silently, without moving his lips. Perhaps the traitor had eyes and ears even in his own quarters. Perhaps… He curled his hand into a fist. Perhaps they even had eyes and ears in his own mind.
Damn you, Sheppard, he thought again. I told you it was a stupid plan. He breathed in and out again, as the other fist tightened. How could you do this to us? he shouted inside. How could you do this to me?
End of chapter four
Chapter five: Face to face
It was several hours before they came for him. By that time, Sheppard no longer needed to feign a headache. He wondered how long it had been since he had last had anything to drink. His mouth was dry, and it felt as if all the tissues of his body were arid and shrivelled, craving liquid.
When he heard the footsteps outside, he stood up, sliding up the wall to avoid having to put too much weight on his injured knee. "Is that room service?" he called out. The footsteps stopped. Four people, he thought. "I'd like water – a big glass. Oh, and any chance of using your… facilities? There's only so long a guy can go without…"
The door opened. Behind him, the wall was cold against his palm, but already warming. It was not Carrick this time, but the leader of the men who had brought him from the bar. Sheppard wondered whether to recognise him or not.
"Colonel Sheppard…" the man began.
"Yeah. About that…" Sheppard frowned. "How do you know my name?" There was no point in denying it, of course. Asking the question, though, might result in useful information about quite how things stood in this double-dealing charade of his.
"You told me last night," the man lied. Sheppard looked at his strong hands, and remembered them holding a club, bringing it down. He won't remember it in the morning.
"Oh." His frowned deepened, and he brought his hand up to his brow. His headache was growing more real with every second. "I guess I had too much." Ha! A classic Sheppard under-statement, he heard in Rodney's voice. "I don't normally drink that much." He plastered a making-the-best-of-it smile on his face, brazening it out, refusing to show fear. "So, how's about returning the favour? If you told me your name, I've forgotten that, too. In fact… Can't really remember…" He tugged at his lip with his teeth, as if racking his sodden memory. "You're vaguely familiar… Something about being my new team. Friends." He gave it another long pause, but the man remained silent. I'm babbling like Rodney, he thought. "This looks more like a prison than a place you put friends, and that other man… Is he your boss or one of your…" He almost said 'minions', but stopped himself.
"My name is Everard," the man said at last.
"Everard." Sheppard gave a little wave. "Hi."
"These men –" Everard gestured at the impassive thugs behind him. "–will take you somewhere more amenable."
Which meant nothing, of course. It could mean a proper room with a bed – and water! Please let there be water! – or it could mean some hideous torture chamber. These inter-galactic warlords did so like their irony. "Didn't want me puking on the furniture," Sheppard said. "That seems… fair. You put me in the drunk tank. I'd probably have done the same to me, too."
Everard watched him, a faint hint of a cruel smile on his lips. Sheppard swallowed. "I think that Carrick guy's the boss," he said. "After all, he's using you as errand boy here."
The smile vanished as the barb hit home. A little tension here, perhaps? Sheppard thought. Some power play I can exploit? Alternatively, he thought, he had just managed to piss off someone who could very well be second-in-command to the manor who had already killed several of Sheppard's people. Perhaps not so clever, John.
"Just as long as there's water in my new room," he said.
Everard pointed at the door. "My men will take you." There was a slight but unmistakeable stress on the first word.
He could resist, of course, but he felt it would be counter-productive. Quite apart from anything else, it would probably result in him having the crap beaten out of him, what with his knee and the whole outnumbered four to one thing. He let great trepidation show on his face, though. The person he was pretending to be had seen little sign of friendliness, and was bitter and furious and heartbroken about having been driven out of Atlantis, even though he tried to hide it with bravado and smiles. He had no idea what these people wanted from him, and his hosts had shown him a distinct lack of welcome. He was desperate, and perhaps these people really could offer him a home and a purpose, once they'd all got past this initial distrust. Or perhaps they just wanted to kill him.
Walking hurt horribly, and he cried out at the first step. "It was a rough bar," he said in explanation. "Can't remember the guy who did this, but I bet I paid him back."
Everard smiled. Sheppard understood that smile, and hated him.
When they reached the hallway, though, Everard stayed behind, and it was only the three thugs who escorted Sheppard to wherever it was that he was going. No attempt was made to restrain him. All three had weapons at their sides, and it would be a matter of moments to grab one of them and…
No. He shook his head mentally, squashing those instinctive patterns of thought. So this was a test, he realised, after half a dozen more painful steps. They were presenting him with a chance to escape, just to see if he took it. It wouldn't be proper escape, of course, because there would be no way out of this complex; they'd have made sure of that. Would the man he was pretending to be try to run, he wondered. Would they be more inclined to believe his cover story if he showed spirit or if he showed trust?
He had no idea. You're right, Rodney, he thought. This is harder than it looks. It was like a chess game with its bluffs and double bluffs, but instead of rules you had the infinite complexity of human nature.
The thugs walked along silently. Do you guys know you've been chosen as bait? Sheppard wondered. You're here because you're expendable. Neither answer was reassuring. If they knew, then Sheppard had placed himself in the hands of fanatics. If they didn't, then Sheppard was in the power of a man who treated his own people as disposable. And here I am trying to join the company.
They reached a door. Sheppard wasn't sure if he had made a reasoned decision not to try to escape, or if he had just decided to sit back and let things unfold. Strategy or apathy? His head pounded horrendously, and if only he could have something to drink…
They pushed him inside. The hand on his back was not violent, but with his knee, it was enough to make him stumble even so. Carrick was there, he saw, as he righted himself. Carrick, and another man, wearing black.
Sheppard hadn't thought it was possible for his mouth to get more dry. He swallowed, but there was nothing there. The man in black stood with his arms folded, a large case at his feet. Everything about him shouted 'torturer.'
"I didn't do anything." Chris speared a lump of unidentifiable meat. "I just told people what I heard. I don't see why I should be treated like a criminal for it."
"People need a scapegoat." Kurt nodded sagely. He seemed to fancy himself as more deep and intelligent than the other Marines. Chris didn't really like him, but at least the man was willing to be seen with him in public. "They'll get over it."
Chris chewed his mouthful and swallowed it. It was tough and unpleasant. He was willing to bet that even the kitchen staff were out to get him. "It's the unfairness of it all, that's what I can't take. I overheard something. It wasn't even private; they were shouting loud enough for anyone to hear. I told it to people exactly as it happened." Or almost exactly, but who didn't indulge in harmless exaggeration when passing on stories? "They were willing enough to listen at the time. Hypocrites!"
"They're scared," Kurt said. "I've been here longer than you. It's a frontier station. People who've been here a long time… It's like family. And now Daddy's disappeared, perhaps after losing his mind, and Mommy and the aunties and uncles might have had a hand in it."
"That's nothing to do with me," Chris stated.
"Perhaps not." Kurt looked as if he was humouring him. "You know how it is: people need someone to take out their feelings on. Colonel Sheppard's not here, and the other leaders… Well, you can go marching up to Colonel Carter and give her a piece of your mind, can you? Hence you. Easy game. New, as well, with a habit of pissing people off. Like I say, it'll wear off if you concentrate on being nice."
"I don't care." Chris impaled another mouthful, peered it at, and put the fork down on his plate. "I'm going to put in for reassignment. This isn't how I thought it'd be - on Atlantis, I mean."
"Rats leaving the sinking ship, huh?" Kurt looked disapproving. "Bailing out at the first sign of trouble."
"It isn't like that!" Chris slammed his fist on the table. "None of you gave me a chance. A frontier station, you say, like a family… Well, you sure as hell don't let newcomers in. Why do you think I passed that story on in the first place? Because at least then people would listen to me. They sure as hell weren't listening to me before. It's a closed circle, no-one new allowed in. It's worse than the girls at school."
"Maybe if you'd tried to understand the way we do things around here, then people would have let you in." Kurt's voice was cold. "You went around with your nose in the air, sneering at everything that didn't accord to the manual and wasn't like the way things are done back home. You expected things to be the same out here. They're not. They can't be. There's the Wraith…"
"This place is a joke!" Chris cried. "There's scientists – civilians – giving us orders; I've heard the way Doctor McKay talks to people, and you lot just take it – Marines who could take him out with their hands tied behind their backs. Protocol's non-existent. I've never seen anyone salute, and then there was Colonel Sheppard… Lounging around with McKay, so laidback, making jokes… That's not how an officer should behave."
"I think you should quit there," Kurt said warningly.
"No." Chris saw no reason not to tell it as it was. He had to carry on talking, he had to, or the misery would be too much. "He was a joke, waltzing off on pleasure trips off-world. And his record…? You think I don't know about his record. Well, my brother once came across him in Afghanistan. He disobeyed a direct order, and now he has the nerve to stand over us and expect us to obey him? And you know what makes it worse? You all seem to love him. You all believe the hype and think he's a hero. A commanding officer shouldn't be a hero. Heroes get people killed."
"You'll feel differently," Kurt said, "if you stick around long enough to have your life saved by…"
"You know what? Chris said. "I don't care. I'm sick of the lot of you. I just said what I heard, and now it's my fault? Well, let me tell you something. It's all Colonel Sheppard's fault, and I for one am glad he's gone."
"Chris…" Kurt stood up; backed away from the table.
Chris stood up, too, pushing his chair back. "No," he said, jabbing his finger. "You know what? I'm through with the lot of you. I don't care who hears me–"
He had only the slightest warning, but not nearly enough. He had a perception of movement behind him, the sound of feet… and then he was grabbed by the jacket, hauled backwards, and… The pain was enormous, like a wall of shining redness coming down across his vision. He fell, lost his grip on everything for a moment… and blinked to see chair legs and a fallen table; the ceiling above him; and pain, huge pain in his jaw.
"No!" someone else was shouting. "Stop!" It was loud at first, then fainter, hissing quietly and urgently. "Stop." Or perhaps he was fainting, drifting further away from consciousness. He knew he should struggle to his feet to defend himself, but his head hurt, and fringes of darkness danced at the edge of his vision.
"Stop!" he heard again, and he struggled up into a sitting position, blinking. Ronon Dex stood above him, boiling over with fury, his fists clenched and ready for another attack. Chris blinked again. Kurt had backed away. Teyla was standing beside Ronon, speaking to him. "Stop it. Ronon, stop it. Now." She dared touch his arm, and Chris saw him quiver with the urge to throw her off, but then he saw Ronon let out a long breath, and lower his fists.
"Ronon," Teyla said again. Still with her hand on his arm, she led him away, and the big man followed, looking for a moment almost lost.
"What was that all about?" Chris tried to say it, but his jaw screamed in agony. He struggled to his feet, sank into a chair, and rested his forehead in his hand.
Yeah, run away, he remembered Ronon saying. Don't bother coming back. Ronon hated Sheppard; why, then, would he defend him? Natives, he thought. Crazy, the lot of them. To think he'd admired the man! There'd be a complaint about him, too. And where were the doctors round here when you needed one?
Teyla led Ronon to the nearest balcony. She wanted to go somewhere more secure, but she could see Ronon quivering with fury beside her, and feared he would snap and do even more damage, shouting things in public. She was unsure how long she could stay silent, too.
As soon as they were there, she shut the door behind her. "What was that about?" she demanded.
"You heard him," Ronon snarled. "He was saying things about Sheppard. He's a pathetic, snivelling, puny…"
"That does not matter." She spat out each word separately. It was windy out on the balcony, and her hair lashed at her face.
"But he said–"
"I know what he said." Ronon gave a wordless sound, almost a snarl, and moved away from her, to lean on the balcony edge with both hands. Teyla took her place beside him, and spoke more gently. "He was merely saying the sort of things we manipulated him into saying."
She saw Ronon's hand tighten on the edge. "I hate this. To stand by and listen to someone bad-mouth a friend…"
"We have to endure it. I, too, have had to listen to–"
He snapped his head around, his expression fierce, as if he was doubting her, as if he thought less of her for not reacting as he had done.
"I wanted to react as you did," she confessed. Her hands had burnt with the desire to snatch up her sticks and silence the petty ignorant people like Chris Hudson, who knew nothing. Teyla Emmagen defended the people she cared for, and that was that, whether the threat came in the form of physical danger or words. "I knew I could not."
Ronon said nothing, but turned away, to look out across the ocean. Far below, she could see the white tips of waves on the grey and undulating mass of water. The wind was rising, and the sky was darkening. She could never forget the great storm, when John had gone to extreme lengths to save Atlantis. Ronon had not been there then, of course. Standing at the railing, staring out to sea, he looked like part of Atlantis, as if he had always belonged there.
"He was the one," she said quietly. "That man, Chris Hudson… He was the one Colonel Sheppard chose to overhear our fight. That is why–"
"He told everyone I hate Sheppard," Ronon said, turning his face even further away, so that all she could see was his hair, and even his words were nearly snatched by the wind. "Told him I don't respect him. Told him I think he's…" He stopped, or maybe the wind took his last words so that even Teyla could not hear them.
"He told people exactly what we wanted him to tell them," Teyla said, "and everything he says now…" She let out a breath, wishing she could feel angry with Ronon, but she understood, of course she understood, and if he had not lashed out at the man, perhaps she might have done so herself. "Ronon, if somebody on Atlantis is really telling this Carrick know everything that happens, we have to act as if every word people like Chris Hudson says is true. If we hear it, we have to ignore it, and just walk away."
"Yes. Lie." Dark clouds were rolling in from the horizon, and above her, pale birds were struggling to keep flying in the wind. She thought of John, his wings clipped, his spirit dimmed by the need to play a part. How many millions of miles of space separated him from her, as she stood here beneath the sky?
"Carrick has to think there was a genuine rift between us all," she said. "If we do not play our part well, Colonel Sheppard will pay the price."
She did not say the rest of it. She did not need to, for Ronon knew. By his actions in the mess-hall, there was a chance – a small chance, oh please - that Ronon had written Colonel Sheppard's death warrant.
The room had furniture; that was something. There was a bed, with pillows and a blanket; a table with two chairs; a small chest of drawers. Yeah, so I can lie on a nice comfy bed while they rip my guts out and dangle them in front of my eyes. I'm sure it'll be a real comfort. There was even an additional door, slightly open, showing…
"Is that the bathroom?" Sheppard asked. "I could really use a…"
Carrick inclined his head, moving his hand in a 'go ahead' gesture that was clearly universal, from polite earth society to the underground lairs of galactic gang leaders.
Sheppard retreated; shut the door. There was no lock. What can I…? No. Stay calm. Take things as they came. It wasn't over until it was over. By his own admission, Carrick needed him; had he meant to reveal that fact quite so early? They needed him alive, with a mind that could think. His ATA gene wasn't something that could be extracted from him and used when he was dead. They needed him. Of course, they might decide that they preferred him as a broken slave, flying their ship because he'd do anything, anything, to stop the pain.
It won't come to that, he said firmly.
First things first. The bathroom – oh blessed relief – had water. It splashed out cold and clear when he worked the handle of something that looked like a small version of an old-fashioned water pump. He let it fill the bucket beneath it, then cupped it in both hands, and splashed it on his face. His headache peaked eagerly, responding to the cold. He scooped up water again, and drank, feeling as if every cell of his body was reaching out its hands and basking in the water. And if that was drugged, then it's all over for me, anyway.
When he was done, he surveyed the clinical hole in the floor that was presumably the toilet. The unlocked door glowered maliciously from behind him. Beyond it was Carrick, his enemy, and a man whose profession was causing pain. He couldn't… Oh, God, he couldn't…
"Got to," he told himself, almost speaking the words aloud, but not quite. He did what he had to, and let out a shaky breath when he had finished. God, but a man was vulnerable when he was unzipped! If the torturer had come in… Of all the tortures he had seen and imagined, some things were too horrible to…
More water. It was cold on his face, trickling down into his collar. He pressed his lips together, taking that precious liquid into his mouth. He had known all along that torture was a possibility, although of course he hadn't told McKay or the others. Torture was simple, too; there was no deceit when you were screaming. There were none of these lies within lies, these layers of masks, this constant struggle to decide how the person he was playing would react and what he should say.
He returned to the main room, and smiled a smile that was paper pasted onto a heart of ice. He smiled that way because he thought the man he was playing would look like that, but it was real, too. "That's better," he said.
Carrick gestured to the empty chair. "Sit."
Sheppard pulled the chair out; it grated noisily on the harsh grey floor. Sit, he thought. Not a promising start. Regular guys said things like 'sit down' or 'take a seat.'
Carrick folded his hands on the table. "I wish to resume our earlier conversation. Needless to say, my suspicions still stand. I have need of someone like you, and here you are. The thing is, do I take it when it is offered, or do I treat it as something too good to be true, and get rid of it?"
Sheppard shifted, leaning back in his chair, hearing the wood creak. "You know what they say: never look a gift horse in the mouth."
Carrick gave a barely perceptible nod. The torturer knelt and began to unfasten the clasps on his case. Sheppard tried not to watch him. He told himself that the slow movement of those long fingers was not fascinating.
"Perhaps you have come here to trap me," Carrick said. "Well, there are ways around that. I can break you." He said it mildly, as if he was discussing possibilities for dinner.
"I… uh… prefer not to be broken, as a general rule," Sheppard said. Both clasps were open now. The case opened a rift into blackness. As pale hands opened the rift further, silver gleamed inside. "I'm quite attached to this body, you know."
Carrick smiled. One long-fingered hand vanished into the blackness. Got to say something, Sheppard thought. Something real. All this fencing… That's Colonel Sheppard talking, fencing with an adversary. The person I'm playing… I need a name for him. John? The shrinks do not get to hear about this when I get back. John doesn't have a clue what this is all about. He'd be asking… Dammit, he should have asked before now. Unless he's doing all this out of bravado to cover the fact that he doesn't have a clue what everyone's talking about.
"I don't know anything about any trap," he said. "My friends betrayed me, I got kicked out… Got drunk; probably said some things. I woke up here and you say I've got something you need."
The hand emerged from the blackness, gripping a paring knife. Tugging his gaze away from it, Sheppard saw relish gleaming in Carrick's eyes. It was veiled an instant later. Sheppard was not the only one wearing masks, it seemed. A thug and a sadist, for all his manners.
"Maybe you're telling the truth," Carrick said. "Maybe you're lying. There are ways of finding out. Truth, or lie, there are ways of binding you..."
The torturer stepped close. Unlike Carrick, his eyes were dead, like dull metal that didn't reflect. The knife gleamed. Closer, it came; closer, closer…
"Like hell I'm going to sit back and let this happen!" Sheppard was on his feet. He didn't care… John, Sheppard, anyone, everyone… Nobody would sit and do nothing when they were being tortured. They hadn't bound him. They couldn't force him. He snatched up the chair; used it like a shield. He jabbed the leg into the torturer's stomach, and suddenly the man's eyes weren't so dead, after all. He twisted round, and his knee screamed at the movement, and his headache peaked, but adrenaline was pumping, and slight pain didn't matter; all that mattered was escaping that knife, was about fighting with everything that he had before they could hurt him.
He never saw the stunner until its beam struck him. He fell to the ground. Although he remained conscious, he couldn't move; couldn't do anything but stare upwards at the two pairs of legs that took up position on either side of him, at the two faces that looked down at him, as if he was a bug beneath their feet.
end of chapter five
Chapter six: Cards on the table
"Rodney." The voice only slowly penetrated. If I ignore it… "Rodney. Doctor McKay."
He looked up. "Yes. What is it?"
Radek was twisting his hands nervously. He looked at Rodney, then jerked his eyes sideways, contorting his face ridiculously. "What?" Rodney snapped. "Are you going into convulsions?"
Radek repeated the performance, then pushed his glasses up his nose with an urgent finger. "Not here," he mouthed.
Oh. Oh. So that was Radek's way of acting furtive. Of all the stupid, over-dramatic, suspicious-looking performances… Rodney stood up and followed him, fuming. He had to physically bite his lip to keep himself from launching a tirade, and he felt as if he was bubbling over. What if someone saw you? What if the traitor saw you? What if he tells the enemy? What if Sheppard dies because of you?
They reached a small inner room; closed the door. "What was that about?" Rodney let the words pour out, hissing them harshly because even now, oh God even now, even here he couldn't speak freely. "You couldn't have looked more obvious if you'd gone round with a placard saying 'Look at me! I'm being super-secret!'"
Radek raised one ineffectual hand. Oh, but Rodney hated him sometimes! He was surrounded by fools! "Listen. Rodney…"
"Do you know the stakes?" Rodney demanded. "Do you? Sheppard's life…"
"I have proof," Radek blurted out.
"What?" Rodney demanded. "And now he's talking nonsense. We should never have included you in the first place. I advised against it, but did they listen? No. It was Sheppard. Sheppard was the one who wanted you to be involved. He said he trusted you; can you believe that? How many times have you stood beside him when your life is on the line?"
"I have, actually." Radek looked pugnacious. "You, Rodney, are unpleasant man, but I understand why and so I forgive you."
"Oh, how gracious of you," Rodney sneered. "I'm touched."
Radek's face went uncharacteristically still. "You are not the only one who worries." Then, still quiet, he said, "I have found proof that we have a traitor. I have found evidence–"
"What?" Rodney shouted. Seeing Radek's eyes flicker to the door, Rodney forced himself to lower his voice. "Why didn't you tell me," he hissed, "instead of prattling…?"
Radek opened his mouth, then shut it again. He raised his hand, finger outwards, then withdrew it with a visible effort. "Somebody sent out sub-space transmission," he said. "Burst mode. Very cleverly done. Almost impossible to trace. I wouldn't have found out if I hadn't known to look."
"When?" Rodney demanded.
"The last one was sent two hours ago," Radek said.
"That means…" Rodney snapped his fingers. "That means…"
"That our traitor is a scientist," Radek finished for him. "A clever one."
A scientist. And Rodney had searched and searched to find out how the leak was happening, and hadn't been able to… And now Radek had… He wanted to smash his hand into the door. The tiny room was stifling. There was just him and Radek, and outside the door, circling like a vulture, watching like a hawk, listening like… like a… Who cares what it's like? An enemy, out there, watching us. One of mine. And I couldn't… I didn't…
"What shall we do now?" Radek was twisting his hands.
Rodney paced; to the wall, and back again, only four paces across. "Nothing," he said. "Don't you understand? We can't do anything. We can't let him know that we know. We have to let him carry on sending his messages. If he doesn't… If he stops…"
"Then the enemy will know that something has gone wrong and might kill Colonel Sheppard."
"Yes." It came out before he could stop it. "No. No. Maybe." He took a deep breath; expelled it. It made no difference. "Shut up, Radek. Just stop."
"But at least we know." Radek looked almost gentle. Sympathetic. Pitying. Rodney hated him. Oh God… And he wanted to be able to swim through the anger and the worry, to surface, to say 'thank you.' "We know how it is happening. We know that it is happening, and that all of this… the fighting… it was necessary. In time we will find out who."
"And we won't be able to do a thing about it." Rodney felt incredibly weary; he hadn't slept properly for days. "Our traitor's going to think that he's won. He thinks that he's doing this and we don't know. He's strolling around secretly laughing at us, feeling smug. He thinks he's cleverer than me. One of my scientists, using one of my labs, sending out a message, thinking that I don't know…"
"Is it an affront to your pride that you feel?" Radek's voice was sharp. "Is that the worst thing for you?"
"Get out," Rodney said, but even that lacked force.
"No," Radek said quietly. "I know that it is not. And so, once again, I forgive you."
When Radek had gone, Rodney shut the door and leant against it, closing his eyes.
He never wanted to leave. His lab was full of traitors and enemies, and every bright corner now held shadows.
He still had feeling, although even that was muted. When the knife touched the base of his throat, it felt like the faintest prick. He tried to move his head, tried to see. Was it digging in, sinking in, carving out flesh? He couldn't move; could only lie there, breathing. It didn't hurt much. Did that mean…? Did that…?
"Yes," Carrick said. "I can have you tortured. I can break you… and you might think that you are not the sort of man who can be broken, but I assure you, Colonel Sheppard, that all men break eventually, under treatment such as I can give you."
With a stupendous effort he managed to move his lips. "Why?" The sound was so faint that it was as if he was broken already.
"I can hurt you," Carrick said, "until you will promise me anything to stop the pain. You will join me and take my orders, even if those orders are to slaughter everyone you ever held dear."
"Go," he forced out, "to…. Hell."
Perhaps the paralysis was lessening already, for the pain was worse. It was still only a fraction of what it could be, he feared. He could be dying, bleeding out from a paring knife jabbed into his throat, and he wouldn't know.
"Or…" Carrick stepped back, out of the small field of Sheppard's vision. The torturer rose and stepped away, too. As he did so, Sheppard saw the knife in his hand. The tip of the blade was red, but that was all.
The pain was slight, then, because there had been no injury – no injury at all. Sheppard managed to move his head enough for him to look at his chest. There was no blood there. If he strained desperately, he could see a small patch of redness, blurry from being on the very fringes of his vision. It was about the size of a penny.
The torturer returned, bending over near his head. Arms grabbed him – Sheppard felt them as little more than a gentle touch – and everything lurched as his eyes told him that he was being lifted; his body, though, felt very little. He saw his legs trailing uselessly, booted feet kicking limply in an attempt to take his weight. Then he was deposited on the chair, his arms falling limp to his sides. His head would have lolled, too, but he concentrated every scrap of his will and managed to keep it upright. Carrick sat opposite him, slightly flushed and breathing fast.
He gets off on it, Sheppard thought. If it wasn't for the fact that he needs me, he would have tortured me to death, and loved every minute of it. His thoughts seemed to be shaping themselves into words far more than they normally did. Is this what it's like in McKay's mind? he wondered. The words he said out loud had to be carefully constructed lies, and it was as if his mind was desperate for a place where he could speak freely. Or speak at all, he thought, although sensation was coming back a little more with every minute. Might even be able to fight them soon, or beat him with a sarcastic quip.
None of which, he reminded himself a moment later, is of the slightest use right now, given the fact that I'm as weak as a newborn baby, and there's a sadistic madman across the table, and a pet torturer glowering against the wall.
"However," Carrick said, folding his hands and resuming his mask of the polite aristocrat, "torture is best reserved for a certain type of man. I am aware –" He sounded regretful. "– that you are not the kind of man who responds well to coercion."
"Damn straight." It was hard to force the words, but he managed it. Once he had done so, the next words came easier. "Last guy who tried to torture me… I escaped. Killed his guards. Killed him, too, later." He concentrated on curling his hand, on practicing movement. It was hidden by the desk. "Last woman, too. I… hijacked her ship."
He thought he saw anger beneath Carrick's mask. He wants to take it as challenge; wants to break me where they failed. His hand was curled in a fist now, and he coiled his muscles, ready to act if he needed to. "A man like you, Colonel Sheppard…" Carrick said. "You are driven by loyalty, and not by fear. If your loyalty is won, you will die for a cause. If that loyalty is betrayed…"
John would show emotion at that, surely. He pressed his lips together, and averted his eyes.
"Yes, Colonel Sheppard," Carrick said. "I will lay my cards on the table. I know who you are. I know that you come from the city of Atlantis. I know that you are a commander in the military there. I know all this. My man Everard knew all this before he approached you in the bar."
Sheppard hoped that his face correctly showed both surprise, and an attempt not to show that surprise.
"And I know, too, that you left Atlantis under a cloud. You fell out with your former friends, fighting with them publicly. You were heard to say that you hated the lot of them. Some people think you had some kind of breakdown. Others think that your friends – led by Colonel Carter, perhaps – are involved in some plot, and that you were the only one who realised it."
Sheppard sat there struggling to regain his movement. Careful, he thought. Can't show… He concentrated on breathing, and then on Carrick's face and body language. Got to learn to read through his lies, he thought. The man was clearly relishing all this. It's his big revelation scene, after all. Perhaps Sheppard should be gaping gratifyingly, but he knew that John, however surprised he was by what he was hearing, would be careful to keep that hidden.
"How do I know this?" Carrick said. "Not from what you said yourself. You see, Colonel Sheppard, I have my own way of seeing into the City of the Ancestors. Since talking to you this morning, I took steps to verify your story."
This was it. This was it. Sheppard sat up straighter. The after-effect of the stun had almost completely worn off now. He considered pretending to be worse affected than he was, but presumably Carrick knew how long an effect it usually had.
"Why did you do it, Colonel Sheppard?" Carrick asked mildly. "I know what I have heard. But I know, too, that you are an intensely loyal man, and that you have often risked your own life in order to save your team-mates and colleagues. I know what I heard, but it smells wrong. Why would you suddenly want to leave? Why did you go from being prepared to lay your life down for your comrades, to ranting against them in a public bar, saying you wanted to bring them down?"
This was it. Play crazy. That's what Rodney had wanted him to do. Crazier than normal, anyway. "Oh, ha ha, Rodney," Sheppard had said. He had considered it, though. A bit of babbling here, some talk about hallucinations there. Make them think he'd cracked under stress. Someone like Carrick wouldn't care; he'd just use him. "It could work," he had admitted grudgingly, some time later. "Of course it'll work," Rodney had squawked. "My idea, remember?" But Sheppard had shaken his head. He could play crazy on Atlantis, but doubted he could maintain the act when in the hands of the enemy. Some patterns of behaviour were just too instinctive.
It was Ronon who had come up with it in the end, though.
"I…" He dropped his gaze, and struggling, biting his lip. Then John's mask shattered, and real emotion came pouring out. "It was Elizabeth," he whispered. "Doctor Weir. She and I… We were…" I'm sorry, Elizabeth. "We were…" He couldn't say the rest of it. Not all of his emotion was feigned. "But she's gone. We had to leave her behind. I…" His nails were digging into his palm, the pain driving away the last of the fog left from the stunner. "I wanted to go back for her. I needed to go back for her. But Colonel Carter…"
He struggled, as John made a valiant attempt to put the mask back on. Carrick just watched.
"She wouldn't let me go." Anger? Yes. Anger was good. He slammed his fist on the table. "I asked and I asked… Always some lame excuse, and I didn't even have command over my men any more, because she was there. She blocked everything… Oh yes, she lied, of course, saying it was beyond her control, or that the plan was a suicidal one and wouldn't work. But it was all about power, you see. If Elizabeth came back, Carter would be out. She can't bear for that to happen, so she blocked me. She turned everyone else against me. I tried to convince my team of what she was like, but they wouldn't listen. Ronon tried to leave, you know? Teyla… I don't know what she's doing, but she keeps sneaking back to her people, far more than she used to. Rodney doesn't care; he wanted to lead Atlantis himself, you know? And it's his beloved Sam. He wants her to like him."
"So it is all for love?" Carrick's smile was mocking.
Some men… They'll do anything for love, Ronon had said, speaking up for the first time in ages, after Sheppard and Rodney had argued themselves in circles. "Knew a man once," Ronon had gone on to say, "who killed his best friend over a woman."
Rodney had snapped his fingers repeatedly. "Yes yes yes! He's onto something there. A crime of passion. People except you to be irrational if you're in love… Well, no, perhaps don't expect you to, but they understand. Whether it's jumping on couches or taking scissors to your lover's clothes or going out and getting horrendously drunk…"
And so John, the man who had left Atlantis after falling out with all his friends, was in love with Elizabeth Weir, and heartbroken. Not that they had said any of this in the staged arguments. It was too close to reality for all of them, too recent, too raw. Things might have been said that would have hurt for real, and that could not be recovered from. Instead, they had fought about safe things – things that had never truly been an issue, or things that had already been securely healed.
Even then, the things that had been said were hard to forget. When a friend screamed hatred at you, their face twisted with malice, it was hard to forget the image, even when you knew that the words were staged.
"Yes," he said now, raising miserable eyes to Carrick's steady gaze. "Or no. That was what started it. It's gone too far now. Things have been said. Let's just say: people have shown themselves in their true colours, that's for sure."
"And you want revenge?"
How was it possible that Carrick couldn't hear the sound of his heart racing? "Not revenge," he said. "I don't know what I said when I was drunk, but, sober, I'm not that petty. No, I want Elizabeth back. I want an Atlantis that will go looking for her. I don't want Carter and Rodney and the others dead. I just want them out. Let them go back to Earth after they… after they…" He let his voice crack with emotion. "I trusted them and they…"
"They betrayed you," Carrick said.
"Yes." He said it like a revelation. "Yes. They betrayed me, and they betrayed Elizabeth. Petty. Power-crazed. I thought they were better than that… Atlantis could be something great, but they're just in it for themselves. They don't feel it, not like I do. They should be out there fighting our enemies, not just sitting there like… like a dragon on a hoard. I…" He sucked in a rasping breath. "I don't know what I want. It's all mixed up. But Carter and McKay and… and all of them back on Atlantis, now that Elizabeth's gone… Smug and gloating about the power. It's not right. I don't want them hurt, but I want them gone."
Carrick stood up; walked to the door. That's it, Sheppard thought. I blew it. He's going to… He thought about failsafes. It seemed so comforting in the lab, but now he saw that there was no safety at all. If the torturer had sunk his knife in just a few inches deeper, Sheppard would have been dead hours before any rescue could come to pluck his body out.
"Colonel Sheppard…" Carrick put his hand on the door. Then he turned round slowly, and headed back to the table, though not to sit. Leaning on the back of the chair, he said, "I will lay my cards on the table."
Didn't you already do that? Sheppard thought. He wondered how many of the words the two of them had spoken in this room were true. Perhaps none of them, he thought. Perhaps nothing Sheppard said was ever really true. Every single day of his life was about wearing masks, of a sort. This was different only by degree.
"I lead a group of people," Carrick said. "This is just one of our bases. We are split so that our enterprise can still continue even if an enemy should manage to destroy one of our bases." Oh look, Sheppard thought. A veiled warning. How nice. "I have… plans," Carrick said. "You see, it came to my attention some years ago that the City of the Ancestors was once more active. One of my men has even seen it. You might know him, Colonel Sheppard. He served under Commander Kolya once, before you brought him down."
Oh, crap. "Kolya," he said. "My old buddy."
"However, it has also come to my attention that despite its great resources and infinite power, it is failing to prevent the Wraith from culling innocent worlds. Moreover, they set the Wraith on us in the first place."
Huh, he thought. Best not tell him the truth about that.
"In my eyes," Carrick said, "and in the eyes of many, these people are not worthy to be entrusted with the stewardship of Atlantis."
And you are? Even John, consumed with bitterness and sorrow, would surely be sceptical of that. "You want to take Atlantis for yourself," he said, careful to give the words no particular inflexion. Then he let the sarcasm through. "Purely for magnanimous reasons, of course."
Carrick spread his hands. "Who doesn't want power? Who doesn't look at something precious in the hands of another man, and know that they want it? Yes, Colonel Sheppard, I want to take Atlantis for myself."
So it was out in the open. It was strange quite how real the emotions felt. He gripped the arm of the chair to stop his hand was trembling with the urge to kill this man, to strike out, to scream that Atlantis would never be in the hands of a man like this, that Sheppard would die first rather than let it happen. Rodney, Teyla, Ronon and the others, going about their life in the city, while this man plotted…
"You seem shocked," Carrick said. "I will tell you more. I know that Atlantis requires a special gene if it is to be used properly. I know, too, that the ships of the Ancestors require that gene. I have one of those ships." He looked Sheppard full in the face, his meaning plain.
"You want me to fly the ship," Sheppard said, with an air of dawning realisation. "In the market, you said. Something you need…" He let out a whistling breath. "I see."
"I want you to help me take Atlantis."
Sheppard breathed. To hear it stated like that… But this is what he had come here for; this was what he had fought and lied and pretended for. He had to say yes. But John wouldn't say yes so quickly, surely, no matter how betrayed he felt.
He covered his eyes with one hand, shielding his throbbing head. "If I help you get Atlantis," he said, "you'll let everyone go back to… go back home? You won't kill them?"
"Of course," Carrick said. And of course it was a lie.
He pressed his hand tighter. "You'll let me use the resources of Atlantis to get Elizabeth back?"
"If that is what you wish."
His headache stabbed into his eyes, and sent sharp tendrils of pain down even to his chest. Elizabeth… Not everything was feigned. Oh God, not everything was feigned.
"Then I'll do it." He spoke the words as if they were being dragged from his throat with hooks. He kept his face covered, though. John was hiding his self-loathing. Sheppard was… No, he didn't know what.
Carrick walked to the door, and stopped with one hand on it; Sheppard saw this blurred through the cracks between his fingers. "Of course," he said, as if it was an after-thought, "I will need further proofs of your sincerity. There will, of course, be a test."
I thought that was the test, he thought. He didn't say it, though.
Carrick smiled. "You thought that was the test?" It was just a lucky chance, Sheppard told himself. He was not that transparent. He still had his secrets. "Oh no, Colonel Sheppard. The true test is yet to come."
He left, and the torturer followed him. After they had gone, Sheppard sat at the table, aware only of the rhythm of his own breathing, and the fact that they were surely watching him even now, and would probably never stop.
end of chapter six
Chapter seven: Through the door
The door was locked. "Hey!" Sheppard hammered on it. "So much for trust." He listened. Still nothing. "I thought we were allies."
Then there was the matter of the test. Don't like the sound of that.
He sat on the bed. His headache still pounded, and he pressed his fingers to his brow, and lay down for a while with his eyes closed. It made no difference. He had no idea if Carrick was watching him closely, leaning forward with those long fingers pressed together, or if a bored minion was sitting in front of a bank of screens, idly checking on him only every now and then.
Perhaps the test had already started. Perhaps something about the way he was lying on the bed was being noted down and used as evidence against him. When he winced at his headache, when he drummed his fingers, when he opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling, that could make the difference between a pass and a fail. He could feel his heart beginning to speed up; perhaps Carrick could see even that. He swung himself off to bed, and went to the bathroom. The cold water on his face helped a little. He drank several cupfuls, hoping it would help ease the headache. He doubted it would. He feared it was in for the duration.
There was nothing to do afterwards but return to the bed. Perhaps it's not so big a deal, he told himself. Doesn't make much difference, really. Ever since those first furious exchanges with his team, every word he had said and every action he had made had been done on the assumption that an enemy was watching and making notes. Every single thing he did, however small, could make the difference between success and failure, between life and death. It wasn't usually the big things that led to a spy's cover being blown, but the tiny things, the things that they did unconsciously.
He was surprised how hard it was. He had thought himself a master of masks. Life was about playing a part: the cocky flyboy who could fly anything; the laidback commander; the honest soldier, good at what he did, but not too hot in the brains department. When things touched him deeply, he hid them behind a stoic mask, and told no-one. He had expected this whole game to be little different. His main concerns had been about Rodney, whose thoughts revealed themselves in words before he had even finishing thinking them, and whose feelings could be plainly seen on his face and even in the way he moved his hands. Rodney would find it hard to live the lie after he had gone, but for Sheppard it was just another part to play.
But it feels wrong, he thought. Dishonest. Difficult. It was almost as if playing a part had somehow become alien to him, after all. It felt wrong to have to think about every word and make sure that it supported the image he was trying to project. It shouldn't be hard, but it was. What had changed?
He rolled onto his side. He felt exhausted from the confrontation with Carrick, but far too tense to sleep. Perhaps he would walk up and down the room, or exercise, or hammer on the door. What would they expect him to do? What would support the image he was trying to present?
I don't know. I don't know.
He was entirely alone here. There was no Ronon to fight beside him when it all went south. There was no Teyla to guard his back, and assure him that he was not alone. There was no Rodney to conjure something up from the empty air and save the day. There were memories of the three of them, though, full of hatred and shouting. Not true, of course. Just an act. He knew that. With every rational part of his brain, he knew that. It's just that they weren't here, and he was playing a part, so I'm not even here myself, not really.
Crazy. Stupid. Lack of sleep. He sat up, and leant forward, forearms resting on his thighs. When the door opened, he sprang up and was halfway across the room before he stopped himself. Don't attack. Don't attack. Stop. Wait.
It was not Carrick, anyway, and not the torturer, either. The minion slammed down a bowl of food on the table, glaring at Sheppard with open hostility. Sheppard clenched his fist tightly, but managed to keep his voice light. "Run out of burgers, and having to make do with dog food? The last hotel was better."
The door gaped open, showing an empty corridor. Perhaps this is the test. He breathed in and out, shallow and light. Whether I'll run. Just one guard. An open door. No restraints. No attempts to hurt him. What would John do – the man who felt betrayed by his friends, who had accepted an alliance with an enemy out of heartbreak and desperation? Would he run?
Sheppard stood there, frozen. The man left. The door closed. He heard the key turn in the lock.
He didn't think that he had actively chosen not to run. Rather, he had stood there frozen, and failed to choose. The two were different. The two were so very different. It worried him, as if in this mass of lies he was losing himself.
Rodney still thought of them as meetings of the conspiracy. A dark lair would be more appropriate than this small side-room, he thought. As he went to the meetings and as he left, he felt as if he had a target painted on his back.
It was a very long time since Atlantis had felt so unsafe. Since Kolya, and the weeks that had followed that, with the dreams…
"All is going to plan," Sam declared, her arms resting on the table. "Ronon has confirmed that Colonel Sheppard has made contact with the target."
"Fat lot of good that is." Rodney spoke before he had intended to. All eyes turned to him. "I mean…" He waved his hand uselessly. "We can't follow him. We can't search for him because we might bump into Carrick and blow his cover. We can't have anyone know we're worried. They have to think there's a rift."
"Yes." Oh, but Sam's voice was cold. He wanted to hate her, wanted to scream at her for being unfeeling, but enough sense remained to tell him that she was nothing of the sort. She was the leader. Sheppard had been just as firm in the face of Rodney's objections.
Teyla's hand moved slightly towards his on the table. Rodney snatched his away.
"Doctor Zelenka has identified how our traitor is communicating with the enemy," Sam continued. Radek blushed, and pushed his glasses up his nose. "You, Radek and Rodney, are most likely to be able to discover who they are. I must remind you that you can't let them know that they are under suspicion."
"We know this." Rodney slammed his fist into the table. "We're wasting time talking about it."
He didn't know why they had these meetings. He remembered Teyla saying that there were only seven people they could trust on Atlantis. Maybe the others liked clinging to the people they could trust. Maybe it was some stupid group hug sort of thing. Rodney had no time for that. He felt… He just felt…
"I must also remind you –" Sam's eyes moved to Ronon, who glared hotly at her. "– that gossip is only to be expected. Colonel Sheppard went out of his way to encourage it. We will all hear things that we don't like. We can't react to them. Everything has been documented. Stargate Command knows the truth. Everything will be made clear in the end and there will no long-term damage to Colonel Sheppard's reputation."
"Shame he's probably going to be dead," Rodney muttered.
"I am in contact with Colonel Caldwell," Sam said firmly. "The Daedalus is in position. If Colonel Sheppard activates his transmitter, we will contact the Daedalus and they will be at his location as soon as possible." She looked at Rodney, her expression softening. "There's an escape route, Rodney. He's going to be okay."
"Lots of things can happen in 'as soon as possible,'" Rodney said miserably. "I know; it normally happens to me. You can go from alive to dead within seconds. And he's stubborn; you know what he's like. Stupid. Likes to play the hero. If things start to go wrong, he'll try to bluff his way through it. He won't activate the transmitter until it's already far too messed up to get out of. The Daedalus will be retrieving a corpse."
"Don't say that." It was Ronon who shouted it, Ronon who launched himself at Rodney.
Rodney pushed his chair back, struggling to his feet. "Get off me, you barbarian."
"Rodney!" That was Teyla. Then she placed her hand in the middle of Ronon's chest, and spoke his name equally firmly. "This is not helping Colonel Sheppard."
"You designed the transmitter, Rodney." Sam was still calm, just as Sheppard had been when he was proposed the crazy plan. "You know it will work."
"Yes. Well…" Rodney sat down again. "A miracle of technology, actually. Very hard. Do you know how difficult it was to combine Ancient and Wraith technology like that? A Wraith subcutaneous sub-space tracking device and an Ancient 'on' switch, activated by the ATA gene… It's a work of genius. One of a kind."
There was a ghost of a smile on Sam's face. "And it won't let Colonel Sheppard down. He'll get through this, Rodney, and so will we."
But I'm not there! Rodney wanted to shout. I'm not there with him! He needs me. I save his life as often as he saves mine. What if it's my turn, and I'm not there?
He turned his head to one side, and as he did so, he saw Ronon and Teyla, sitting side by side, and he knew that their thoughts were exactly the same.
For some reason, it made him want to hate them.
The third time they brought him food – and each time he told them in no uncertain times how disgusting it was – they failed to lock the door behind them.
Sheppard stood there; looked at it; walked to it; tried the handle. The door opened.
Was this the test? Dammit! he thought, almost saying it aloud. He was so damn tired of questioning everything, wondering if this was the test Carrick had spoken of. Bet there isn't a test after all, he thought. He's playing with my mind.
He still stood, though, the door slightly open. Should he leave? Was that what Carrick…?
To hell with it. He had signed up for this. He was playing a part, yes, but the part was based on himself. Presumably their traitor had been feeding Carrick tidbits of information about him. Probably knows my whole life story by now. The person he was pretending to be was bitter and ready to betray his friends, but he was still John Sheppard. He was not a man to turn his back on an open door.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the hallway. There were no guards outside. The minion who had brought his food was just turning a corner at the far end. Sheppard started to walk. Where? he wondered. He knew how to find his old cell, of course, and knew how to find the Gate from there, but they didn't know he knew, because he'd been playing drunk at the time. Wheels within wheels. Lies within lies.
He choose a random direction, and set off. Like the irrepressible explorer who left his own galaxy just to find out what lay on the other side of a wormhole. His knee still hurt, but far less than it had done, and his limp was slight. He could probably walk without any limp at all if he wanted to, but he saw no reason to try. As he walked, he made no attempt to hide the fact that he was studying everything that he saw. Perhaps, he thought, the secret was just to play himself. Well, except for the fact that I've just thrown my lot in with a gangster who wants to take over my home and kill all my friends. There was less chance of making a stupid mistake, that was for sure.
There were no windows in the hallways. He passed several open doors, and peered into several empty rooms, but saw no natural light. Classic underground base, huh? He saw little sign of people, either. Perhaps Carrick's organisation wasn't as big as he was trying to make out. Of course, Carrick claimed to have many bases scattered across the galaxy, so maybe all his eager little minions were busy preparing for Operation Capture Atlantis somewhere else.
The architecture… Now, that's interesting… He had noticed it when they had dragged him from the Gate, but had been a bit too busy thinking of other things to pay much attention to it. There was a vague Ancient feel to the architecture, coupled with Genii-style brutalism. And those two really don't go well together. He wondered quite how old this base was. Had it been built by the native people long ago, with a few friendly Ancients on hand to give home makeover tips? Or had an industrial society taken over an existing Ancient base and cannibalised parts for their own stark idea of aesthetics?
Not that it mattered, he thought. Except…
He had passed three sealed doors in a row, with no visible key hole. He moved on impulse towards one, paused for a moment, almost thought better of it, then passed his hand over the panel to the right of the door.
Nothing happened. "Oh well." He shrugged. "Worth a try."
He reached an intersection. Which way to go? "Shame there's no coin to toss." He said that out loud. As he did so, he studied the corridors to the right and left. Was that sound coming from the right? There were more locked doors there, too, and locked doors meant secrets. He shrugged, in a it's all the same to me fashion, and headed right.
A man stepped out of a door. Sheppard stiffened, then let out a cautious breath. "Hi."
The man said nothing.
"I'm the new recruit," Sheppard told him, "I guess. Since we'll be working together, what about telling me your name?"
"I'm John Sheppard."
The man stared at Sheppard coldly. He was almost as tall as Ronon, but Ronon's eyes had never been that cold.
Sheppard shrugged. "Only trying to be polite."
The man's hand went to the weapon at his side. He had the sort of face that was made to appear on a wanted poster, even down to the scar on his cheek. I guess Carrick got you from Central Casting, Sheppard thought.
As he walked on, it suddenly seemed less funny. The guy had been too stereotypical, as if he had been planted there deliberately to intimidate Sheppard. He resisted the urge to turn round. He was sure that the man was staring after him; he could almost feel it, like a blade at the back of his neck. He tried to carry on walking normally, not to show his sudden tension, but he was suddenly aware of the pain in his knee, and the fact that although it wasn't hurting as much as it had done, he was still limping, and that would make a difference if he had to…
No, he told himself. Don't think like that. It's just your imagination.
There were two of them round the next corner, standing side by side. They were angled slightly towards each other, and it could have been that they were idly talking in the corridor, and just happened to be blocking it with their bodies. Sheppard's step faltered, even though he really didn't want it to. No, he thought. Not backing down now. Brazen it out.
Even if they had been talking, they were silent now. Both of them watched him approach without the faintest glimmer of a smile. "Hi," Sheppard tried again. "I'm new round here. John Sheppard."
One was of medium height, but with muscles that would have made even Ronon drool with jealousy. The other was wiry, with eyes like beads in a narrow face, and a knife at his belt. Neither made any attempt to move to one side. Their eyes never left him.
Shall I? He hesitated. No. To hell with it. "Excuse me, guys." Smiling disingenuously, he walked between them, though he twisted his body sideways to avoid jostling them. Stupid, he thought, but not suicidally stupid. He was close enough to hear the wiry man's breathing, as if he had recently been exercising. He braced himself, ready to react to the first glimmer of an attack. He was ready to roll out of the way, ready to make a play for wiry guy's knife. He heard his own footsteps, one, two, three… a slight hitch between the one and the two. No knife sank into his back.
This is not funny, he thought. It took him a while to get his breathing back under control. These people had been planted by Carrick to test his reaction, he was sure of it, or maybe just to freak me out.
No, perhaps it was nothing, he told himself, as he paused to study an open room, where a table was strewn with unidentifiable parts. Perhaps he was reading too much into everything. It was easy to do so, he supposed, when you were living a lie yourself. When your every action was done with a thought to how it would appear, you tended to see deception and trickery everywhere. Just because he was playing a game, it was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Carrick was, too.
He carried on walking. When someone emerged to watch him from the shadow of a doorway, he said nothing, just walked past with a smile, a nod, and a look of unconcern.
Nothing happened. Once again, nothing happened.
No, he thought, it's not my imagination. Carrick was playing a game. He had proof of that, what with the charade with the torturer and the talk of a test. The worst mistake that Sheppard could make was to assume that Carrick was honest. Nothing happened by chance around here. Every single thing was a potential trap.
The question was, when would that trap be sprung?
He bit his lip, thinking. The other thing he knew was that he was at a disadvantage here, and Carrick was on his home territory. If Carrick wanted to spring a trap, then that trap would be sprung, and there was nothing Sheppard could do the stop it. Might as well find out everything I can, then.
He remembered where the Gate was. Time to find it, then. He kept his walking casual, and when decisions had to be made about direction, he made a show of choosing at random. He wandered in and out of open rooms, and when things inside looked important, he studied them openly. So sue me, he thought. Behaviour like this was not incompatible with the role he was trying to play, and he sure as hell wasn't going to play docile.
No-one else appeared. Once, though, he heard the sound of voices behind a closed door, and thought that, very faintly, he heard the sound of someone getting armed for combat.
Another room held shackles and a patch of dried blood. Despite every instinct urging him to be cautious, he knelt down and touched the blood, rubbing the brown flakes between his fingertips. He thought of his own missing men, presumed taken by Carrick. Had one of them died here? Would he…?
Footsteps outside. He sprang to his feet, knee protesting, but the footsteps were going the other way, fading away into silence.
He pressed his hand against his chest, then lowered it, remembering that he was being watched.
The blood was itchy on his fingertips. Got to take him down, he thought. This has got to work. He won't take any more of mine. He won't. He will not. I won't let him. But his limp was worse now, and his headache was returning. It was easy enough to play a part when he was walking in an empty hallway, but to do the same in front of Carrick… To live it faultlessly as he piloted an Ancient ship to attack the only place that had ever truly felt like home…
He wanted to do an all-out assault now; just steal a gun and shoot Carrick dead, and take the consequences. He wanted… No. No. Got to play the part. Got to lie. Got to… got to forget who I am, and hide what I feel…
He wiped the blood clean, then curled his hand into a fist. Ahead was the Gate, although of course he wasn't supposed to know that. It was invisible behind a pair of heavy doors. As he approached them, a guard stepped out of a side room. This time there was no mistaking the fact that he was blocking the way.
"Hi." Sheppard tried it one more time. So it failed the last few times. Hey, I'm an optimist. "I'm new round here."
"Can't go through here," the guard said. So this one talks! We have progress. "Carrick's orders."
He was probably an idiot to persist, but to hell with it! "Carrick's orders for me in particular? Because things have changed. I'm one of the gang now."
"No-one leaves without his say so."
Sheppard made a mental note. No-one leaves. That meant he now officially knew that this was the way out, and not just through a memory he wasn't supposed to have. Okay to say it in polite conversation, then.
"Fine," he said. "It's no big deal. I was just…"
He heard the footsteps too late to do anything but whirl round. Carrick himself was there, almost silent on soft-soled shoes. His pet torturer was even quieter, and the only person who made a sound was Sheppard's old friend Scarface from the hallway.
"Colonel Sheppard," Carrick said, with smile. "Please come with me, if you would."
"I have a choice?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course." Carrick spread his hands. "A man always has a choice – whether to act one way, or whether to act… the other."
Sheppard hesitated only for a moment. The way he saw it, he had no choice. John and Carrick had an understanding, after all. "You're the boss," he said, with a self-deprecating smile.
Carrick led him the same way Everard had taken him that first night. Sheppard followed, no longer able to stop himself limping even if he tried. He thought he should be saying something, but his mind had gone blank. If this was for real, he would have found words, but there were too many layers of deception here. Damn, he thought. I'm really not good at this.
They paused outside a door just short of the room Sheppard had spent his first night in. Carrick nodded. Scarface reached inside his jacket and pulled out Sheppard's own pistol. He handed it to Sheppard. Sheppard was taking it, hand closing around it, before he had consciously realised that he was moving. It felt right to feel it in his hand, and what did that say about him now, that it could feel that way?
"I just need you to do one little thing," Carrick said.
…could raise the gun, point it at Carrick, and murder him before anyone could do anything to stop him.
"There is a man inside that room," Carrick said. "I need you to kill him."
…could barricade himself inside a room, activate the transmitter, and wait for the Daedalus to bomb the whole place back into the Stone Age.
"Call it a test of sincerity, if you like."
…could go in there and kill one man, and see this game through to its proper end.
Carrick unlocked the door. Sheppard walked in. As the door closed behind him, the man inside looked up. He was chained to the wall, and his face was black with bruises. One hand was shattered, and he was gaunt with hunger and desperation.
But he was already smiling. He was already stirring with the hope of rescue. "Colonel!" he said. "You found me."
end of chapter seven
Chapter eight: The test
Sheppard was incapable of moving. "Colonel," the prisoner said again, his voice wavering.
Got to… Got to… He was seeing through a fog. He was standing at the centre of a maelstrom. Outside was Carrick, grinning, gleeful, doubtless listening to every word, and there was a gun in his hand, and…
"Sergeant." He forced the word out; made himself move; made himself crouch down beside the man. "Are you…?"
"They beat me a bit, but I'll live." Sergeant Manning tried for bravery. Emulating me. Trying to live up to his idea of what I expect of him.
"Looks like they did more than beat you." The words tasted like ashes.
"Not for a while now, sir. They've left me alone for the most part."
Four weeks. It had been four weeks since Manning had been taken, the first of the pilots to disappear. Four weeks a prisoner.
"Sir." Manning grabbed his arm with a hand that was swollen and twisted and marked with fading bruises. "I don't know how much you know." He lowered his voice to an urgent whisper, hoarse as if with too much screaming. "Carrick – that's their leader… He's planning an attack on Atlantis. He wanted me to fly them there, but I refused. I said no, but they… But they…"
"It's all right, sergeant." Sheppard could hardly see. He touched Manning on the shoulder, and his voice seemed to come from a long way away, as if he really was two people after all.
"But you…" Manning stirred desperately, pawing at the ground, struggling to get up. "You don't understand. He knows all about us. He knows that you… you're the best pilot, the strongest gene… If he finds you here…" His eyes darted from side to side. "You have to go."
Not without you, sergeant. That's what Sheppard should have said. Instead, he sat there silent, while the gun felt like a lump of ice in his hand, spreading cold right through his body.
When Manning moved, Sheppard saw the marks of old injuries through his torn clothes. His body was emaciated, and chains rattled whenever he moved. Four weeks, he thought. Four weeks. He had been a prisoner himself, and knew the fierce hope that came from the sight of rescue. And I have to… I've got to…
Of all the things he had ever done, of all the things he had ever had to do… He felt paralysed, his lips physically incapable of uttering the sounds he knew they had to make. But Carrick was outside the door, listening to every word. There had to be cameras watching every last flicker of expression on his face. He had managed to scream his hatred at Rodney, managed to insult Ronon and Teyla, managed to rant to a crowded bar about how he hated the only people in his life who meant anything to him. He could do this. He had to.
"Where are the others?" Manning asked. "Why aren't you…?"
"Here's the thing, sergeant…" He looked away, knowing that he could bear many things, but he could not bear seeing the expression on the face of the man – one of his own men – he was betraying. "You've been away for a long time. Things have changed."
"Changed?" Even hearing it was horrible.
"Colonel Carter's making changes. Everyone else… everyone else went along with them, but I couldn't. They wanted to… I couldn't… It wasn't like the Atlantis I was used to. It wasn't what Elizabeth had fought for. They left me with no choice. One by one, they turned against me. I left, and then Carrick… He…" He couldn't say any more. Oh God, please, no, he couldn't say more.
"Sir?" Manning sounded so very young. "I don't understand."
Sheppard didn't care what people thought about him. He never had done, and he had always known this about himself. Let the brass think he was a maverick and a liability. Let his enemies think he was a smartass. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.
So wrong. He had been so completely, so utterly wrong. He didn't care what his superiors thought, because he had been so sure that he was right and they were wrong. His enemies were his enemies, and it didn't matter if they despised him, because he sure as hell didn't like them much in return. But some things were pivotal to everything he did and everything he believed. You look out for people under your command and under your protection, and their safety comes first at all costs. You leave no man behind. For one of his own men to believe that he no longer held this principles sacred…
No, worse, to have to pretend to be the sort of man who no longer held those principles sacred…
"I've left Atlantis, sergeant," he forced out, so very aware that Carrick was listening to every word. "I've already told Carrick that I'm helping him."
"What? You… You…" Manning pressed himself against the wall; Sheppard saw this only vaguely, still unable to look at him fully. "No. No. No. No. No. I don't believe it. You. You wouldn't… You couldn't…"
"It's not how you think it is." He had to say that much, at least. "It's for the best. Atlantis… No-one's going to get hurt. No-one's going to die. It's for the best. It really is."
He didn't mean to look; really didn't mean to look. But he did, and he knew that the horror on Manning's face would stay in his mind for the rest of his life. It was like looking into a mirror, except that his own face in the mirror could never show such a thing, but could only show a lie.
There was nothing he could do. He couldn't wink, and couldn't give the smallest signal in word or deed to tell Manning that this was all an act. He had no choice but to break a tortured man's heart. If he gave any clue that this was all an act, he had no doubt that Carrick would kill Manning on the spot. To give him the slightest chance of survival, he had to betray him.
"But…" Manning's hand was opening and closing convulsively. "You. Not you. I'd believe it of anyone, but not you."
Sheppard could barely feel his hand, as if the ice block that was the gun had frozen his entire arm. He had let that ice into his voice. He had to, but he could not. "Everything's going to be fine, Sergeant, I promise," he said softly. "This is the best way. This is the only way. It'll all be okay. No-one's going to hurt you any more, I'll make sure of that. You have to trust me."
He stood up. As he did so, Manning seemed to notice the pistol for the first time, although Sheppard tried to hide it. His eyes widened. Sheppard couldn't bear to see the moment when realisation dawned. He turned his back, but he could still hear the rattling of chains, still hear the sound of a man in agony struggling to comprehend the collapse of all his hopes.
Kill him, Carrick had commanded. Carrick had talked about a test, and this was it. If Sheppard killed Manning, Carrick would be satisfied that he was sincere. The plan would be back on track. If he refused, then that was it. Everything would have been for nothing. More pilots would be taken and would suffer as Manning had suffered. Sooner or later one would yield. Helping by the traitor inside, they would launch an attack, and it might even succeed. Hundreds would die. Atlantis would fall.
To kill one to save many. Sheppard looked at the pistol, so small, so sleek, so innocent. One bullet was all it took. One tiny movement of his finger, and a man's life would be snuffed out. Just one man, already broken. One man for many.
He thought it sounded as if Manning was crying.
He thought of the towers of Atlantis crumbling. He remembered Kolya in the Gate Room, dragging Elizabeth towards the Gate. He thought of Rodney cut down at his post, and Ronon and Teyla fighting to the bitter end. He thought of many men like Manning dying as they defended their city.
One for many.
He could still see Manning's face as he heard Sheppard's lies. He thought of all he had said over the years about putting your own men first, about never leaving anyone behind. He saw all the people he had killed, lying dead because of something he had chosen to do. He thought of the taint you always felt afterwards, even when the death had been necessary. He thought of lies, and wrongs done in the name of something good, and what that had led to, both on his own world and on others.
There was no choice to make. There never had been any choice. He had known that the moment he had walked through that door. No, he had known that the moment Carrick had given him the gun.
"Sir?" If Manning had been crying, he was no longer crying now. Sheppard dared to turn round, because he couldn't hide from this, not now and not ever. If he was going to see this thing through, he had to face up to what he was doing, and never look away. "Has Carrick asked you to kill me?"
Sheppard was frozen, unable to say a word.
Manning didn't plead. He said nothing at all, just looked Sheppard in the eye and didn't look away. If you kill me now, those eyes said, it will be less painful than what you have already done to me.
And Sheppard knew it, and knew that if there was any justice in the world, he would be damned for this for ever more.
Jessica had been working late, and the mess-hall was almost deserted. She took a table in the window, where she could look out at the twin moons across the ocean, and imagined flying there, skimming over the sea in one of the jumpers she had worked on. She wished she could step through the Gate and go… somewhere. For the first time since she had arrived on Atlantis, home was often in her thoughts, tinged with longing.
When she heard someone approaching her table, she focused on her food. She worked late for a reason. Losing myself in my work, she thought. 'Hiding' would be more appropriate.
The steps slowed. She saw boots; a gun. She swallowed her mouthful too early, hurting her throat. She had worked alongside the military for years, but had never been quite so aware that the people around her were armed.
The soldier sat down opposite her. She didn't know his name, although his face was familiar. The Atlantis expedition was small enough to know everyone by sight, although, as now she knew, large enough not to know people properly, even if you thought that you did. "You're the one who saw Colonel Sheppard leave," he said.
She nodded, then coughed, her throat still sore. "I didn't mean… I told…" She had only told one person, but that person had told another, who had told another… Then she had had to tell everyone all over again, because the story had grown in the telling and become even more shocking than the truth. Few people believed her at first, and some had been openly hostile. Then Colonel Carter had made her announcement…
"Relax," the soldier said, but he didn't inspire confidence. He looked edgy, and his expression was grim. "I just want to hear the truth, that's all. Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were."
She had heard how Chris Hudson had been attacked in the mess-hall for talking. The scientist who had overheard Colonel Sheppard's fight with Doctor McKay walked around looking haunted and troubled. Jessica just avoided people and hoped that no-one would notice her. Colonel Carter had walked past her once, and her heart had started to beat so fast that it had hurt. Colonel Carter had announced a false reason for Colonel Sheppard's departure, not knowing that Jessica knew the truth. "I didn't meant to!" she had wanted to blurt out. "I wasn't thinking." Of course Colonel Carter had to conceal the truth. She had the morale of the expedition to consider, and wouldn't want the Wraith to discover that Colonel Sheppard, who had killed so many of their number, was no longer with them. If only Jessica had kept quiet…! If only she had thought…!
So far everyone had been discreet. Colonel Carter didn't know that everyone on the base already knew the truth. But one day she would find out. One day she would know that Jessica had been the one to talk. Jessica would lose her job. She'd be sent back home in disgrace, but the damage she had done would last forever.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said now. "I wish I hadn't said anything in the first place."
"We needed to know the truth," the soldier said. "If you hadn't happened to be there…" She saw his hand as it rested on the table; saw how it tightened into a fist. "Look," he said. "People are saying things. You know how rumours spread. I want to find out how much is true, that's all."
The truth was less extreme than some of the stories, she supposed. She glanced around to make sure that no-one else was listening, then started to tell him. It was already hard to remember details, as if every time she told it it slipped further from the truth, and shaped itself around the words she chose to use, rather than the words Colonel Sheppard and Colonel Carter had said.
She was starting even to doubt the truth herself.
Carrick's face was expressionless as Sheppard left the room. "Is he dead?"
Sheppard looked at him. "Don't you know the answer to that?"
Behind him, through the door, Manning started shouting. The words were cracked with betrayal and desperation, and muffled by the thick door. He knew there was pleading there. Perhaps there was denunciation, too. Sheppard had given what reassurance he could before leaving the room, but to Manning it had to seem empty.
Sheppard gave half a smile, papered over the void inside. "Guess you do now."
Carrick's eyes narrowed. Beside him, the torturer took half a step forward. Scarface locked Manning's door. All the while, Sheppard held the pistol ready at his side. Inside, he sought what was needed, and wondered if the Daedalus would come quick enough to save him if he activated the transmitter now.
He wondered why he didn't try.
"It's like I said," he told Carrick. "I'll help you take Atlantis. I've already said that. I also said that I don't want anyone hurt. I want them to be sent back home. You agreed to that, and then you do this. That man in there… None of this was his fault. He wasn't even there when everyone turned against me. I can't kill him. Even if it hadn't been him in there, but someone else, I wouldn't have done it. I'm not a murderer. I never said I was."
"So you refuse to kill him?" Carrick's voice was a knife at the base of his neck. Sheppard remembered being pinned down and helpless as a paring knife pressed into his flesh, while Carrick watched with eyes shining.
To hell with it, he thought. He had made his decision, and he would stand by it. Some things were too important to compromise on, even for the sake of a charade that could save lives. Leave no man behind, he thought, sure as hell doesn't mean pushing one of them out the hatch.
He had felt as if he was beginning to lose himself, but this was part of him that he could not ever lose.
"Yes." For the first time since he had known Carrick, he spoke with everything that he was, with no masks and no lies. "He's one of mine. I'm not going to murder anyone, but if you think I'm going to murder someone under my command…"
"Someone who was under your command." Carrick's expression gave nothing away.
"That's my affair," Sheppard said, "not his. He is innocent. He will not be harmed."
Carrick exchanged an unreadable look with the torturer. "You realise what this means?" he said. "This was my way of testing your sincerity. You will recall that I suspected that this was all an elaborate charade on your behalf? You could have convinced me otherwise, had you killed him. Are you sure you will not reconsider?"
"Not a chance," Sheppard told him. He felt better than he had felt for days. He had felt as if he was losing himself, earlier. He had stood and watched an open door, and done nothing. He had taken a gun, and gone into a room, and not said a word against it. The strain of playing a part had suppressed things that should never have been suppressed. But somewhere beneath the layer of masks, John Sheppard was waking up. If he was going to die now, at least he was doing something that felt right inside, and not playing games.
His pistol was ready; he wouldn’t go down without a fight. If it was going to end, then it was going to end, but it was better than selling his soul, better than having the blood of one of his own men on his hands. But it was not in his nature to play the martyr, either. "It doesn't make a difference," he said. "Manning's innocent. I won't kill him. It doesn't mean I'm not with you. I already told you I didn't want anyone killed. As long as you don't hurt him, I'll help you, but I won't murder anyone in cold blood. It's not who I am."
Carrick held out his hand. "Will you give me the weapon?" His tone was silky, like a request, but it was an order, of course.
Sheppard bit his lip. The choice in Manning's cell had been no choice at all, but this was real. If he refused to hand over the pistol, then he was accepting that this game was over. He might be able to take Carrick down before they killed him. Perhaps the Daedalus would come in time for him, and perhaps not, but at least it would come, and maybe Manning would get out. But the plan would have failed. Chances were they would kill Manning anyway. Everard would take over from Carrick, and the whole thing would start again. They had bases on many worlds, and Carrick was not the only one with brains.
But if he handed over the gun… There was a chance, a very small chance, that Carrick accepted what he said. There was a chance that Carrick's need for his help outweighed any doubts that he had. There was a chance that this thing was still on track. If he handed over his gun, he would be defenceless, but perhaps, at the same time, he would still have a chance, and Manning with him.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Carrick's hand reached towards him, palm upwards. "The gun, please."
Ronon liked to lose himself in sparring. When things were bothering him, he always felt better after he had "beaten the crap out of someone," as Sheppard liked to say. "Usually me." Problems usually started with people. When you were sparring, they became just the enemy. You had to focus on them and treat them as a mass of signals that indicated how they were going to strike. If you let yourself get bothered by things, your enemy won.
Teyla's stick came at him unexpectedly low. He countered, but she was faster, bringing the stick around for a blow that knocked him to the ground. "You are distracted," she said, standing over him, breathing fast.
He rolled onto his back, and sat up. "We'll go again."
"Then I will win again."
Snarling, he sprang to his feet and started to attack, not waiting for her to acknowledge that she was ready. She countered, though. His next blow was harder, and soon he was snarling, panting, almost bellowing.
She slipped away; held up her hand. "Ronon…"
His stick slammed into the wall. She had dodged, he noticed, and stood there, sticks ready. "Ronon!"
For a moment, he had really wanted to hurt her. He recoiled, but the fury was still there, and he smashed the stick into the wall again, but that did nothing at all to make things better. He had almost hurt Teyla deliberately. It had come upon him without him realising it. If she hadn't… If it had been anyone other than Teyla, with her quick reactions…
He might have hurt them.
He might not have regretted it.
She did not reproach him, but he knew her well enough to know that she was angrier than she looked. "This has to stop," she said. "There is Rodney lashing out at everyone, and you–"
"You know why." He threw the stick away, and heard it smash into the far wall.
"No." She shook her head. "I know the situation is difficult; I do not understand this rift that appears to have opened up between us all."
"There is no rift."
"Really?" She raised her eyebrows.
"I hate the situation, that's all. All this lying…" He wanted the stick again; wanted to hold it; wanted to fight. The worst thing was having to walk away. People went silent as he approached, and he knew it was because they were telling lies about Sheppard. He had to pretend he didn't care.
"It is necessary…"
"I know that," he snarled. "I'm not stupid. I know…" He took a deep breath. "Know I shouldn't have punched that man. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Where I come from, people fight for their friends. But –" He could see that she was going to interrupt. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"And you think that I like it?" Her voice was low and deadly. He remembered that voice. He had heard it used against Sheppard, heard it utter hateful things.
He had to get away. Perhaps to run, to lose himself in the pounding of his feet, in physical exertion.
The door opened behind him. "Go away!" he bellowed.
"Ronon." Teyla's voice had changed utterly.
Ronon turned round slowly. Nothing, not even fury, could dull old instincts.
"Stop right there," the gunman commanded. "I'll shoot her if you make a move. I mean it."
Sheppard looked at Carrick's hand, then at his eyes that held so many secrets, and his mouth that told so many lies.
He tightened his grip on the pistol, but there was no comfort in it, not now. Since coming to Atlantis, he had seldom been unarmed. Unarmed was being helpless. Unarmed was watching events spiral out of control. Unarmed was being a prisoner. Unarmed was being unable to protect.
If he refused to hand over the gun, the whole charade was over. If he handed it over, if he made himself powerless, then there was still a chance.
No, he thought. He had no option. This whole thing had been a wild chance right from the start. He had shouted hateful things at his friends, and had bad-mouthed people he respected. Now he was placing himself utterly in the hands of a sadistic man. It was the only way to save his people from harm.
He handed it over, leaving himself powerless. He opened his mouth to demand Manning's safety, and that was when they stunned him. The last thing he saw before they dragged him away was Carrick's impassive face as he held the gun in his hand.
end of chapter eight
Chapter nine: Casualties
Teyla was careful not to make any sudden movement. "Why are you doing this?" She remembered his name from the mission a few months previously, when they had rescued his team from captivity. "We are not your enemies, Lieutenant MacDonald."
"Really?" His gun remained level, though, even though his voice was not. "From where I'm standing, it's not so clear."
Everyone called him Mac, she remembered, but she thought it unwise to try it. The people from Earth had levels of intimacy tied up with the use of the names. Even Rodney seemed reluctant to call John by name. "Lieutenant–"
"I ask the questions here."
She saw his finger tighten on the trigger. Beside her, she was aware of Ronon quivering with the need to fight, but he was more subtle than the people of Atlantis often gave him credit for, and he knew when it was necessary to be deathly still. Do not attempt to speak, she willed at him. Leave this to me. Act only when the time is right.
"Then ask," she said, "and we will answer."
She had to ignore Ronon utterly, knowing that the slightest signal from her would prompt him into a reaction. Was this their traitor? She was less sure of that than she might have been. Doctor Zelenka was sure that the traitor was a scientist. Unless there are two of them working together. No, although she could not dismiss that thought, she would not be too quick to assume that it was correct. This was something else, she thought.
"Why did you drive Colonel Sheppard away?" MacDonald demanded. "Don't deny it. I know you did it. I've asked around – not just gossip but the truth. You. Colonel Carter. Doctor McKay… They didn't want to talk about it when officers were present, but I found out. I tried to tell Major Lorne but he said it was nothing, just stupid gossip. But it isn't, is it? It's true. Why were you plotting against him?"
The gun was unwavering, so close that there was no possibility of him missing, but far enough away that she had no chance of knocking it out of his hand. He really believes it, she thought, looking into his eyes. And she had no defence. The truth would condemn Colonel Sheppard to death.
"Can't answer?" he sneered. "I know far more than you think I do. You thought no-one would find out, didn't you? My God! There's a proper conspiracy. How high does it go? Colonel Carter… No. But she's new. God knows what little secrets they've hushed up about her past. Ten years going off world, doing God knows what. And of course she'd listen to you two – Pegasus natives, pretending you know everything, not one of us. How long have you been working against us?"
"There is no conspiracy," she said. "Colonel Sheppard and Ronon and I exchanged harsh words, in the way that friends sometimes do. Things were said in the heat of the moment, but they were not meant."
"It sounds like he exchanged words with a lot of people," MacDonald said, "and that afterwards you call got together and concocted lies."
How could you argue for your life when faced with someone whose accusations were true? She wanted to look at Ronon, but could not. "It was not like that," she said. "I can only assure you…"
"Then how was it?" McDonald shouted.
Ronon spoke for the first time. "Why's it important to you?"
"Colonel Sheppard saved my life." For the first time the gun wavered. "Lots of commanding officers… They wouldn't have done what he did. He went in, took fire for me… He didn't have to. Could have sent someone else. Could have thrown good men in to die. But he didn't. He… I won't believe that he's turned traitor. I won't believe… No!" He started forward, perhaps reacting to some response from Ronon that Teyla could not see. "Don't give me that classified mission crap. He left. He wouldn't do that unless he knew that something was terribly wrong on Atlantis. He wouldn't walk out on us. He just wouldn't."
Loyalty, Teyla thought. Oh, John, why did you not foresee this? She felt regretful rather than afraid, as if this was a quiet talk by the fire, not a struggle with life as the stake. Not once, in all the planning, had John considered that his men would be too devoted to him to believe the lies. Throughout the planning there had been the assumption that he just had to plant a few seeds and everyone would believe the worst of him. Did he not realise? Did he not know?
He always seemed such a confident man. Maybe, she thought, he does not realise how much he is valued. No, not merely valued. He has no idea that he is loved.
What could she say? She could not give that lie; she could not. But anything she said now would spread across the city. Even if MacDonald was not the traitor – and she was fairly sure now that he was not – the traitor might come to hear what she said.
"He left," she said. "That is true. Words were said. Things… went wrong. You have to understand, Lieutenant MacDonald… Colonel Sheppard had been through a lot. He was infected with a crystal entity not so long ago. He was affected more seriously by the memory loss than many others were. He is not himself. We… fought, because he was… he was being irrational and…" She struggled for the right word. "Paranoid. He–"
"You're lying!" MacDonald screamed. Ronon, she saw, was beginning to move incredibly slowly towards him.
"I am not," she said, and the irony of it was that she had not spoken a single lie to him, but at the same time had completely failed to tell him to truth. "You have to believe me. Colonel Sheppard is our friend, even if he thinks we are not. We were worried about him. We are worried about him. We would never do a single thing to hurt him."
"Then why…?" The gun wavered even more. Ronon, she knew, was ready. "I nearly died. I would have died if he hadn't… And it isn't… It's not like they say it's going to be. I can't…"
"You are loyal to your commanding officer," she said gently, daring to take a step towards him, "but there are things happening here that you know nothing of. You saw fragments of the whole and–"
"But Colonel Carter lied! I saw you all having your secret meetings."
She moistened her lips; breathed in and out. "She concealed the truth, yes. She hoped, as we did, that we would be able to find Colonel Sheppard quickly and could get him the help he so clearly needed, and that no-one else needed to know." He was on the verge of believing her; she saw it in his eyes. "If Stargate Command found out," she said, "they would ship him home, or, worse, give us orders to hunt him like an enemy. None of us wanted that. He belongs on Atlantis. He is our friend."
"But Doctor McKay shot him."
What? She managed to still her reaction. Ronon did not. "Doctor McKay was terrified that Colonel Sheppard was going to leave forever," she said. "He cracked. He acted out of emotion, desperate to stop him from leaving. That," she said firmly, wishing she felt as firm inside, "is the only reason. He regrets it bitterly."
Ronon moved then. Teyla played her part, darting forward, smashing MacDonald's wrist, kicking his knees away so he fell to the ground. Ronon twisted the gun from his hand, and sat on his back, pinioning MacDonald's legs between his own, pressing his face into the floor.
For a moment their eyes met over the man's struggling body. He had no intention of shooting, she tried to say, realising it as the truth. He had already been lowering the gun when Ronon had struck. His finger had already left the trigger. The safety catch had been on throughout. Had it even been loaded? Please do not hurt him.
This, Ronon's eyes said. This is the result of all our lies. With one last hot glare, he stood up and left the room, jabbing MacDonald's gun into his belt as he went.
Teyla sat back. MacDonald turned his head to one side, and his eyes met hers, but she could not read him. Perhaps she was so mired in lies now that it was hard to read anybody.
"I don't know what to think," MacDonald said quietly, lips brushing the worn flood. He looked broken, she thought – another casualty of Carrick and the web of lies.
Another casualty of John.
"No," she said; just that.
Once again, he had been fully aware as they had dragged him away. Fully aware, but paralysed, he had tumbled into his room. He had lain there, expecting torture. Instead he got nothing. It felt worse, really.
It was several hours before Carrick came for him, the ever-present torturer at his heels. By then he was ready – but not ready; never again.
"You disobeyed me," Carrick said. "I made it quite clear that this was a test of your loyalty, and you failed it. You must have known what the consequences would be."
"Yeah." Sheppard sat down and stretched his legs out. "It's like I said. I've got nothing against most of the people on Atlantis, and even those I do have something against, I don't want dead. Manning's done nothing wrong." No, he couldn't maintain the appearance of casualness, not when talking about an issue like this. He sat up straighter. "He's one of my own men. He thought I'd come to rescue him."
"So you are loyal." Carrick sat down opposite him. His eyes were cold. "Loyal to your old comrades, but not to me."
"I'm loyal to people who put their trust in me." He tried not to think of Manning's face. No, he had to remember it. He could not forget it. He had done many things in the service of this plan, but there was a line that he could not cross.
"So if I decide to put my trust in you, despite everything?" Carrick pressed two long fingers together, steepling them. "Will that loyalty be transferred to me?"
He had no idea what to say. He knew he was fighting for his life here, despite the soft words, but he was so deep in deception now that he had lost track of how his assumed persona would think. So what? he thought. I'm winging it. He was so far out on a limb now, so far out beyond anywhere he should ever have gone. All he could do was try to cling to the core of what made him himself.
"You shouldn't trust me," he said. "I don't like you, and don't like what you're doing. I'm prepared to help you because I need you. You're a means to an end. I want Elizabeth back. I want to… punish… to punish everyone who turned against me. I want them out. But I'm not one of your lackeys. I won't do anything against my conscience. I'll help you take Atlantis because… because I've got no choice. Just don't accept slavish devotion, because you're not going to get it."
Carrick's voice gave nothing away at all. The torturer watched in silence. Sheppard looked at his case of instruments, and was very aware of the transmitter hidden inside his body. There was still time to bail. There was no shame in that. Pilots who survived were those who knew when to eject.
To hell with it, he thought. If he'd been one to accept the inevitability of giving up, he wouldn't have been in Antarctica in the first place, and would never have reached Atlantis. "I want Sergeant Manning treated well," he said. "I want him released–"
"To race back to Atlantis and tell them my entire plan? Come, Colonel Sheppard, you know I cannot do that."
Sheppard had expected as much. "If you have to keep him here, I don't want him touched. I want him to be fed and given a proper bed. I want him to receive medical attention. I want him to come with us when we leave. And if he's here… There was another of my men who went missing, not long before I… before I left. Is he here, too?"
"You are making demands now?" Carrick's expression was chilly and deadly. He ignored the question."I hardly think you are in a position to–"
"Last thing I heard," Sheppard said, "you needed me. You have a ship; I'm the one who can fly it. The way I see it, that puts me in a position to make demands."
"You would dare…?" Carrick stood up so violently that the chair fell over. "You will– I could… I should have you killed. I can hurt you."
Sheppard stood up slowly, in control. He folded his arms, and stepped easily to one side when Carrick lunged at him across the table. "Like I said, you need me," he said, "and you said yourself that I am not the sort of man who can be won over with pain. At the moment I'm willing to give you the help you need. That can change."
"Then I will kill you."
"So?" Sheppard shrugged. "I don't see life offering me much right now." He saw Manning's face, broken and twisted with betrayal. "I've already lost everything that mattered to me."
"You'll regret this…"
Sheppard looked at him consideringly. "You know, I can feel my willingness to help you disappearing away to a big fat zero."
What are you doing? He could hear Rodney freaking out in his imagination. Provoke the madman in his lair, why don't you? He wasn't even sure why he was doing it. Words came out, and it was hard to stop them.
He let out a breath. He suspected that he had gone far too far already for anything to be salvaged, but he had to try. He couldn't take the lies too far. He couldn't lose himself. "Treat Manning well, and let me see Alvarez if he's here," he said, "and I'll fly your damn ship all the way to Atlantis. I'll help you take the city, but that's where it stops. That's the deal. Take it or leave it: it's your choice."
Rodney seldom slept now. He avoided the main labs, where somebody was a traitor, somebody was watching everything he did, somebody was reporting it all, looking for clues that would shatter the façade. He had no desire to spend time with his fellow conspirators. Katie had come to him, shyly full of gossip, and he had shouted at her and shunned her.
He had nobody. He missed Sheppard. But if Sheppard came walking in now, that infuriating casual grin on his face, Rodney knew he would slam the door on him and refuse to talk to him.
He couldn't remember ever feeling quite so miserable and quite so angry and quite so powerless. At least in the past, he had had the safety net of not really caring about anyone around him. Now… God! Now was worse.
I don't know why. He sat on his bed and made an attempt to work on the laptop on his knees. He saw figures and numbers – meaningless figures. They drifted and floated away. He saw Carson and Elizabeth and Sheppard. He saw Ronon and Teyla and Sam and Lorne and Keller and Radek. He saw his own face in the mirror of the screen.
"I'm just tired," he said aloud. He twisted a fist in his eye, and then his vision was watery and stinging.
He had no idea why he was finding it so difficult. They were all in it together, all swept up in Sheppard's plan. Why was he finding it almost impossible to be in the same room as Ronon? He couldn't bring himself to speak civilly to Radek. He hated emerging from his room; hated seeing anyone.
He slammed the laptop shut, and reached for a power bar, but even that held no flavour. It made him choke, crumbs and saliva on his chin. With a wordless cry, he hurled it away, and saw it crumble against the wall.
"I'll be a natural," he had told Sheppard, after Sheppard had persuaded them all to go along with his damn-fool, stupid, ridiculous, crazy plan. "I got an acting prize when–"
"I know, I know." Sheppard had waved his hand. "You told me."
"I'll have you know…"
Even that memory felt tainted now, and not something he had the heart to remember. He couldn't forget their fight, and what was wrong with him, for God's sake, because of course he knew it had been staged. He couldn't forget shooting, and watching Sheppard fly away. He couldn't forget that one of his scientists was betraying him. And he wasn't a good actor; he wasn't a good actor at all. "I blurt out everything that comes into my mind," he said. "I can't help it." His hands moved in response to feelings that could not even be put into words, and he knew that his face was always mobile. It didn't normally matter, but now, with a traitor watching everything he did…
I don't want to be the one who gets Sheppard killed.
He closed his eyes, where he saw his own hand on a gun, and a patch of blood on the jumper bay floor. He tore them open again. "No no no. It's not my fault. It was his idea. He shouldn't have forced me to do this."
Shouldn't have trusted me to do this, his dreams said, when finally he slept. They said more, too. They showed him Sheppard dying beneath a hail of bullets from Rodney's own gun. They saw him flying away and never coming back. They showed him looking heartbroken and lost in the darkness of his own room, because of things that Rodney had said. He called to him, but Sheppard walked away, along with Carson and Elizabeth – walking away because they chose to. Leaving him alone.
Then Carrick was there, and he was a monster, like Kolya with his knife, and the Wraith with maws in their palms, and everything else that had ever haunted his dreams. "You're mine now," Carrick told Sheppard, and flayed him of his skin, and ripped away his flesh, as the traitor laughed, and Rodney sat in his room and did nothing, nothing at all, nothing, just nothing.
"Sheppard!" he screamed, and a hand was on his arm, hauling him up. He opened his eyes, but it was still there, dragging him up, and he fought, but he had never had the faintest hope in hell of being the physical match of this man.
"What is it?" he gasped. "Has Sheppard sent a message?"
Ronon sat on his bed, leaving Rodney to scrabble with his legs to press himself against the headboard. "We need to talk." His eyes reminded Rodney inescapably of how many men he had killed.
They locked him in again, of course. Like Rodney, Sheppard wasn't made for sitting quietly and doing nothing. He hammered at the door occasionally, and shouted, because he had to. "You're giving me a complex," he said. "Come on, we've got a deal."
At least, he thought they had a deal. He hoped they had a deal. Carrick had left without another word after Sheppard had made his offer, or presented my ultimatum, I guess would be more accurate. But at least he hasn't killed me yet. That's good.
He thought of Manning in his cell; thought of the lies. He had never expected it to be so difficult. It had been horrible to say those things to his team, and even worse to have to sit here and tell Carrick that he hated them, but the thing with Manning was something that never should have happened at all. Guess I've got an honest streak after all. Guess I really do care what people think.
No-one came. He drank some water, then felt it sloshing around in his stomach. "Food would be nice." He thought he had located where the camera was, and directed most of his comments at it. He had considered pretending not to know about it, but he was weary of lies. Confronting Carrick had felt better than anything else he had done for days. It felt like the one good thing in a tawdry mass of lies.
Footsteps passed. He pressed his ear to the door, and heard something very far away that might have been Manning screaming, but maybe was something else entirely.
Maybe I should just bail. Manning had a transponder, so the Daedalus would beam him out alongside Sheppard, and Alvarez, if he was there. It's not just me any more. Plans change as circumstances change.
He lay down on the bed, hands behind his head, and looked up at the dingy ceiling.
Perhaps it was a stupid plan.
No, no, the plan was still on course. If Carrick didn't have Sheppard, he would be out there snatching more pilots, killing more teams. It was worth it. All Sheppard had to do was ensure that Manning came with them on the expedition to Atlantis. As soon as they were in space, he would activate the transmitter, the Daedalus would come and get them both, and Carrick and all his men would be prisoners in a ship they could no longer fly. That was what mattered: saving Atlantis. It didn't matter how uncomfortable he felt. It didn't matter that he felt as if he was selling his soul.
But you're not the only one caught up in this now, are you, John?
Minutes passed. Of course, he realised slowly, it had always been like that. He knew that Rodney had found their staged fight just as difficult as Sheppard had done. They were the ones who had to deal with the fallout of his departure. He imagined how he would be feeling if Rodney was the one out there undercover, and there was no way of getting in touch with him. Sheppard had seen only what needed to be done, and hadn't bothered to think how it would make everyone feel. Not until he had looked into Manning's eyes…
A crazy plan, Rodney had called it.
Perhaps he was right.
He closed his eyes. Then the sound of footsteps had him scrambling to his feet again. The door opened. Sheppard stood ready, prepared to fight if he had to, or to resume the charade if he must.
Everard and Scarface stood outside, with Manning dangling limply between them. Without a word, they threw Manning at Sheppard, forcing him to catch him, to ease him as gently as he could to the floor, to fall there alongside him, blood on his hands.
He looked up, but he had already heard the sound of the door closing, and already heard the turning of the key.
end of chapter nine
Chapter ten: Consequences
Rodney clawed at the pillow at his back. "I don't… I don't know… Talk about… about what?"
He felt stupid with sleep, and the dreams still lurked close by, close enough to hurt. Was Ronon…? God, was Ronon…? Oh no. Oh no no no no no. God. Please. He'd said as much to Teyla, hadn't he, accusing Ronon of being the traitor. But he didn't really believed it. He'd just been so angry, hating Ronon but not knowing why. It had been something to say against him – a legitimate reason for his anger.
"Don't…" His mouth was dry, and bitter from sleep. He moistened his lips, swallowed, tried again. "I don't know what…"
"You shot him."
Everything fell apart and reassembled. Oh. Oh crap. Oh God. Oh no. "I… I… I…" His hands were moving fast, that small sound repeating again and again like the firing of a gun. He felt queasy. He hadn't eaten enough, hadn't eaten anything like enough to…
"Is it true?" Ronon was deadly. How many lives had he ended? How many people had seen his eyes as their last living sight before Ronon killed them? Or hurt them. Tortured them. That's almost as bad. No, no. Ronon wouldn't. But they were all changed now. No-one was as they should be. Atlantis had turned dark.
"I… I didn’t mean to." He clutched a handful of pillow. He remembered the feel of the gun, and the sight of the blood afterwards. What came in between was a blur. "Not to hit him, I mean. I didn't realise I had until afterwards." He blinked several times. "I didn't tell you? Sam knew. I thought… I thought everyone knew."
"I try not to listen to gossip." Ronon said the word as if it was a sentence of death.
"Well, aren't you the virtuous one?" Rodney said. Ronon glowered. The wall pressed harder at Rodney's back. "I didn't hurt him badly," he said. I didn't hurt him badly. I couldn't have hurt him badly. "There wasn't much blood. And that… that man – the one you talked to in the bar… He didn't say anything about him being hurt, did he?"
"Why did you do it?" Ronon demanded.
"Well… Here's the thing…" His hand rose half way to his face, froze, then lowered again. "We talked about it. Sheppard thought it would add verisimilitude. Make things look more realistic, that is, if someone… if someone shot at him. I said… I said it should be you. More likely not to miss. Sheppard said that was the point. He didn't want to get shot, thank you very much. I said that… It's not true, though, that I can't hit a barn door at ten paces. I'm much better than I was. I've done some pretty good shooting–"
"Ah. Yes. Sorry." This time his hand did reach his face, trying to rub the worst of the sleep from his eyes. The grittiness remained. "Then Sheppard said that the thing with you was that it would be stun or kill, and he didn't much like his chances with either. I admitted that maybe he was right and I… uh… couldn't guarantee to miss him, and he… uh…" He looked down, where his sheet was arranged in valleys and mountains, white lines with deep shadows. "He said I could do it if I wanted to, because if we gave him some surprises, his reaction would look more genuine, but we didn't talk about it again after that."
"But you shot him."
"You're persistent," Rodney said. "Don't you ever get–?"
"You shot him."
Both hands to his face now. "Yes." He lowered them. "I don't know why. I wasn't supposed to be there. I just… I knew it was happening, him and Sam. I knew he was going, and I hadn't seen him since… since our fight. I went to the armoury and I–"
"Stop that!" he shouted. He tried to shove Ronon off the bed, but it was like trying to move a mountain. He pounded at him, and there was guilt there, and misery, but also fury, because he hated Ronon, hated him, hated him, hated him, and…
Ronon grabbed his wrist and held it in a crushing grip. Rodney twisted round, trying to ease the pain. "Ow. Ow. Ow."
"You shot him."
"Stop that!" he screamed. "Stop it! Stop it! Get out!"
"Like a coward," Ronon sneered, and Rodney could have cried, and, God, how mortifying, how ridiculous, how infuriating, how stupid…
"You're just a hypocrite," he fired back. "How dare you break in and… and attack me and… and… make accusations, and…"
There was a sound at the door. They both froze. The traitor! Rodney thought. He saw the same thought flicker across Ronon's face; saw him play back the last few minutes and wonder just how loud they'd been.
"Rodney?" he heard.
"Teyla." He let out a breath. He didn't want her to come in, but Ronon was already in. His refuge was already soiled. And perhaps she'll side with me against this crazy barbarian. "It's open," he called. At least it must be after Ronon broke in.
Teyla stopped a few paces in. "Ronon." Her voice was strange. There was something about her expression, too, but Rodney was too busy worrying about himself to think too much about it.
"Teyla," he hissed. "Ronon attacked me."
"He shot Sheppard."
"I've already told you–"
"You told me nothing."
"Stop it," Teyla snapped. "Both of you."
Ronon released Rodney's wrist with a show of reluctance. Rodney snatched it to his chest and nursed it. "That really hurt. I'll have to go to the infirmary for that."
"Why has it come to this?" Teyla stood at the end of the bed. Rodney felt frozen suddenly. Ronon, he saw, was motionless. "I can hardly bear to look at the two of you. There you are, fighting like little boys, and I…" She sighed. "I do not feel…" She did not finish.
The silence lasted thirteen seconds. Rodney counted.
"McKay shot Sheppard," Ronon said, "and I'm wondering how much else he–"
"For the last time," Rodney shouted, "I didn't mean to!"
"Stop it, both of you." Rodney swallowed; Teyla could be terrifying when she wanted to be. "I know what I feel," she said, "and I know that I should not. John is in danger, and we cannot strike out against Carrick and so we seek a fight amongst friends."
Ronon stood up; stormed to the side of the room, and stopped, his clenched fist against the wall.
"Tell that to him!" Rodney shouted, still holding his aching wrist. "He breaks in here and attacks me when I'm asleep. Talk about displaced aggression, when all along he–"
"He what, Rodney?"
He was conscious of his breathing, in and out. His hand around a clump of pillow was quivering. He still remembered his dream, but there was other words, weren't there, that haunted other dreams?
"I heard what people said," he blurted out. "About what Ronon said. About what you both said. About how he… about how Sheppard… about how he reacted."
No respect. Ronon had told Sheppard that he had no respect for him, and Teyla had agreed. Sheppard was not one to confide, and Rodney was not one to listen, but you learnt a little something about a man when you played computer games with him for hours, and little things slipped out that perhaps the other man never intended, and you would never talk about afterwards, not ever. He knew that Sheppard was less confident about people than he seemed. He knew that Sheppard had more self-doubt than he would ever let on. He would die before saying anything, but he knew that it was true. Those things that Ronon and Teyla had said must have hurt Sheppard for real.
So that was it, then. It came not with fury, but with slow, sad realisation. "I hated you both," he said, "because of what you said to him, and I… I… I knew it was an act." He touched his brow. "With my head, I knew it was an act. But I heard it, and it sounded horrible the way people told it."
Teyla was looking downwards at the floor, perhaps not even listening to him. Ronon pushed himself away from the wall with his fist, whirling around. "You said–"
"Don't listen to gossip?" Rodney crowed. "Ha! You did. That's why you've been so riled. You hated me because of what people were saying I'd said." He looked at Teyla again. Still nothing. "Huh! What do you know? Doctor Rodney McKay is the insightful one. In touch with my feelings. Solving things. It's an epiphany."
"I think you are right, Rodney." Teyla looked at him and smiled.
"But you shot him," Ronon said.
"Will you stop going on about that?" He stopped; leant back stiffly into the pillow. Not such an epiphany, after all. The last vestiges of his dream gibbered around the fringes of his awareness. Oh, but he was so starved of sleep, so starved of human company that he could trust… So hungry.
Always on about food, Sheppard said in his mind.
He pressed one hand to his face, then drew it down, fingers covering his face. "I don't know why," he said quietly. "We'd talked about it, but it wasn't the plan. But I knew he was about to go. I didn't… I think…"
Teyla sat down beside him, and touched his other hand as it gripped the bedclothes.
"I think I thought I could stop him, you know?" He blinked, mortified and horrified to find that his eyes were stinging. "So soon after Carson, and then Elizabeth… And he was going deliberately. I didn't want… I always thought it was a crazy idea. I hadn't slept, and our fight…" He blinked again, and blessedly no tears fell. "I fight with people all the time, and this felt different. We both knew this wasn't real, but it felt real, and I didn't want… I didn't want it to be the last time I saw him. I thought… I told myself that one extra person there would make the break seem even more real. So I shot at him. I don't think I wanted to hit him, but…"
He closed his eyes. He thought of Sheppard falling to the floor of the jumper bay; of doctors surging around him, taking him away. Another few days in the infirmary, and the whole stupid plan called off.
"I wasn't trying to hit him," he said. "I really wasn't. But I…"
Teyla's hand closed on him. "We understand, Rodney."
But he didn't. He didn't understand at all. This wasn't like him. He wasn't sounding like himself, wasn't acting like himself. He laughed harshly, silently. Of course, that was the whole point, wasn't it? Sheppard's plan had them all acting like strangers. It was hard to keep hold of what you were really like inside.
"Ronon?" he heard Teyla say. He had missed something pass between them, but, oh, he was so tired he didn't think he cared.
"Yeah," Ronon said, but he didn't sit down, he didn't stop pacing. "Makes sense."
"We need to stay united," Teyla said. "We all said things to Colonel Sheppard that we did not mean. We are all feeling powerless. We are all unhappy with the need to lie." And still she held Rodney's hand. The skin started to itch with the discomfort of it. "We must not turn against each other."
Ronon sat down heavily on the end of the bed. Get out! Rodney wanted to say. Get out, both of you! This was his room, and they had both…
But they were his team, and he supposed he had to count for something. They were his team, and at least he knew he could trust them, and he supposed he ought to take comfort in that.
So he let Teyla squeeze his hand, and managed a small smile at Ronon – but my wrist still hurts! – and despite everything, he felt a little better after that than he had felt before. Without Sheppard, and with the shadow of treachery hanging over them, they were not what they should be, but perhaps they were enough.
Manning was unconscious. His chains had been removed, but his wrists were a mess. "Hey." Sheppard touched his shoulder, but there was no response. Stupid, John. As if he's going to want to wake up to see you.
He extricated himself from the man's body. He looked at the door, at the camera, and back at Manning, who looked troubled even in sleep. Dreaming of betrayal. "Guess we're on our own here, buddy." He had asked for this, after all. He'd made Manning's safety a condition of his help. "Didn't expect Carrick to take it quite so literally," he said, but he supposed it was a good thing, really. As long as they don't plan to torture him while I watch.
There were few parts of Manning's body that were not encrusted with dried blood or stained with fading bruises. Sheppard looked at the bed. "Got to get you up there." He tried for a grip under the man's shoulders. "Best do it before you're awake. Hurts less." He heaved, his voice cracking around the sudden exertion. Up, and then steadying him in his arms. Almost onto the bed, then remembering just in time to tug the blanket away with one hand. Manning's head lolled against his own, blood-encrusted hair harsh against his cheek. The smell made him swallow hard against nausea. When he lowered Manning, his head sagged heavily. Sheppard lowered him in place, arranged his legs, pulled the blanket over him…
He sat down, then; just looked at him. Manning didn't move, but his chest was rising and falling with slow breaths. Was that…? No. No. Manning lapsed back into full unconsciousness again. There was fresh blood on the side of his head, but Sheppard suspected that he had been stunned, using a stunner on a stronger setting than the one they liked to use on him.
What now? he thought. No, it didn't matter. It didn't matter that the cameras were watching. It didn't matter that this, even this, was probably a test. It didn't matter what Manning thought about him. This was an injured and traumatised man. Damn it, he was Sheppard's man. Sheppard would do everything he could for him, and Carrick knew that, but even if Carrick had not known that, he would still do it.
He went for water, filling the battered mug. "Not much I can do with this." He tried, though, using a corner of the blanket to wipe the dried blood from Manning's face. The bruises below were not as bad as he feared they might be, and were all at least several days old. They stopped hurting him when they got me. But before that, all the time he had been making plans, and all the time before that, before he realised what needed to be done…
That made him clutch the blood-stained blanket, to breathe in and out harshly. Can't show… Can't show… Cameras staring. Carrick with his steepled hands. I wasn't the one who did this, he told himself firmly, hearing it in Teyla's voice, in the voice of his first commanding officer, in the voice of all the shrinks they had ever made him see in all his years in the air force. It was Carrick, and he… Watery blood oozed out from between his fingers, red on his knuckles. Carrick's going down.
Manning began to stir. Sheppard sat back, still on the bed, but no longer leaning over the injured man. Relaxing his clenched fist required the greatest effort. He did so in increments; could not do so all the way.
"Sir." Manning blinked; groaned. Sheppard saw the moment when he remembered everything.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Sheppard said, hating the sort of world where it was possible that he could have to say such a thing to one of his own men.
"But you…" Manning moved his hand, then seemed to realise that he was no longer chained. He tried to struggle up the bed, tried to bring his knees to his chest, tried to get away from Sheppard, as far away as he could. "You…"
"Didn't shoot you," Sheppard said sadly. He wished he could be John, the man who thought that all of this was worth it.
"You… You…" Sheppard stood up, letting Manning move the blankets wherever he liked, letting him cower away from him, letting him hide. "Why… Why am I here?"
He walked to the table, and leant on the back of a chair. He had meant to take it to Manning's beside, but perhaps he would just stay here, turned away. "I made it a condition," he said. "They had to stop hurting you or I wouldn't help them."
Manning made a sound in the back of his throat. Sheppard couldn't see his face. Had it been the right thing to say? It was the truth, and he perhaps it would give Manning comfort. But then he remembered the look of betrayal and revulsion on Manning's face, and wondered if he had said it only because he never wanted to see such a look again.
"Why?" Manning sounded naked.
Sheppard turned round. He had to, really; couldn't hide. "I haven't changed," he said. "I'm still…" Still me.
He remembered what it had felt like to hand his only weapon over to Carrick. This was worse. He had had days to psych himself up for talking to Carrick, but playing a part before Manning was so much harder. He felt as if something essential was being torn away from him with each word.
"Then why are you helping them?" Manning demanded. "They tortured me. They tied me down and they–"
"Don't," Sheppard gasped, but Manning had already stopped.
"And you're helping them. It was all a waste of time. I should have given in." Manning raised his chin. "I thought of you, you know, sir. 'Colonel Sheppard wouldn't give in,' I thought. I wanted… I wanted you to be proud of me, when you found my body. I wanted… I don't want to die, but I… but I…"
He couldn't look away. That, perhaps, was his punishment. Behind his back, his hand clutched the back of the chair as if it was the only thing holding him to life.
"I should have given in." Manning was openly crying now, broken by his commanding officer when he could not be broken by torture. "I could have saved myself from all that. If only I'd known… If only I'd known that you…"
"Sergeant…" It didn't sound like his own voice at all.
"It may as well have been you." Manning tore open his shirt and showed the shocking wounds there. "You did this, colonel." He spat the word with hatred. "You."
Sheppard scraped the chair around, and sat – fell, really – onto it, then gripped it stiffly at the sides of the seat, and managed to sit upright. "I know," he said, only his lips moving, no sound coming out.
end of chapter ten
Chapter eleven: His true test
"Don't touch me!" Manning hissed, when Sheppard offered him water.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Sheppard began to say, but then he remembered what it felt like to be helpless, and how awful it felt even when friends were the ones tending to you. He withdrew a little. "Can you walk? I'll help you, if you like… uh… to the bathroom. You can…"
He felt as if he had lost everything he had built up over the years, and now stood as stammering and insecure as a fourteen year old on his first date. He had often wondered what it would take to break him. Perhaps he now knew.
Manning let himself be led to the bathroom, though, and stayed in there for a very long time. Sheppard sat on the far side of the room, the chair pushed against the wall. His thoughts were racing, going through possible amendments to the plan, wondering what he would say to Manning when he emerged. He came to no conclusions, though. When Manning emerged, Sheppard felt as lost as he had felt before, as if somebody had snatched his plane away from under him as he was flying.
Manning looked better when he emerged, with wet hair and clean skin. Sheppard watched him hesitate at the edge of the bed. I don't want to accept anything from him, Manning's stance said, but weariness was warring with the pride, as if he was also thinking, But I deserve it more than he does. Then Manning sat down, pulled the blanket around his shoulders, and sat with his back to the wall, his eyes dead.
The camera watched silently.
Perhaps Manning dozed a little. Perhaps even Sheppard did. A sound at the door made him stir. Manning, he saw, had started up. "Don't," Sheppard said quietly. "You won't win."
"If you fought too, sir?" For a moment, it was almost as if hope had driven out the hatred.
Sheppard shook his head – a commander, used to giving orders. "No, sergeant." And he caught the instinct of obedience, too, before it was replaced with misery and mutiny. Manning stayed still, though, as the door opened. His eyes followed hungrily as a plate of food was taken to the table. He let out a small breath when the door was closed again.
"That's for you," Sheppard told him, when everything was silent again.
"I don't want you–"
"You need it." He walked to the table and picked it up, then pushed it into Manning's stiffly unresisting hands. "Don't be stupid, Manning," he said. "You know you do." He saw lots of emotions passing over Manning's face. "Don't be stubborn," he said. "It doesn't help." He smiled wryly. "Believe me, I know."
He went to the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and leant on the edge of the sink, staring at the place where a mirror ought to hang. Water was cold on his hands. He moistened his lips, then bent to drink, then drank some more. He stayed there, feeling the cold, his hand on the wall.
He left it at least half an hour. An empty bowl was on the floor beside the bed, and Manning, his back still against the wall, looked asleep.
Sheppard stood and watched him. Damn you, Carrick, he thought, but it was his fault, too, of course – the natural conclusion of the decisions he had made.
In the end, Sheppard slept too, of course, slumped on the floor like he had been during that first night, cold, without blankets.
He woke slowly, with a faint and formless memory of dreams that pulled away from him as soon as he tried to look at them. His knee had stiffened during the night – if indeed it was night – and he felt empty with hunger.
He sat up, pulling one leg up towards his chest, wrapping his hand around it. Manning was lying on his side, looking at him. "Why?" he asked; just that.
Sheppard moistened his lips. I'll get some water, he thought, but that was just running away. He did it, though, limping to the bathroom, drinking from his cupped hands, letting some of the liquid trickle into his hair, into his collar. He had to leave in the end, though.
Manning had rolled over, and now faced the bathroom door. "Your leg?"
He shook his head. "Nothing." Probably Manning wanted to hear that it was agony, that it was going to kill him. "You want some water?"
Manning nodded. Sheppard took the mug and filled it, then waited while Manning pushed himself up on one elbow. Their fingers brushed as the mug was handed over. Sheppard flinched internally. A small drop spilled.
"Why, sir?" Manning said, closing his hand around the mug. "You said… I know what you said… If there was a good reason for it, it would make it feel better, I think."
More water spilled. Sheppard took the mug from him, and helped him sit up. Then he retreated, back to the chair.
He had given his reasons to Carrick. He had shouted lies to his friends. "It's complicated," he said. "Lots of things happened after you… left." He heard himself say the words, but he no longer recognised himself. "I can't explain it to you. But it's nothing to do with you. That's why I…"
"Didn't kill me," Manning filled in, when Sheppard's voice trailed away. "Got Carrick to bring me here. Made my safety a condition of your helping him. Took care of me. Gave me food."
Sheppard closed his eyes. "Yeah," he said quietly.
He heard Manning shift in the bed, blanket scraping against flesh. He sensed him lean closer. "Are you working undercover?" Manning whispered.
Breathe, he thought. Breathe. He opened his eyes slowly, as if it meant nothing at all.
"I thought…" Manning's eyes were glistening. "I mean… We know you, colonel. The things you've put yourself through for Atlantis. You wouldn't… I know you wouldn't. I believed it yesterday, but I was hurting. I wasn't thinking straight. All I could think was that I'd gone through all that… that torture for nothing, and–"
I could let him know, he thought. Not in words, of course, but in a squeeze of the hand, or a whisper, hidden behind an attempt to raise Manning into a more comfortable position. It wouldn't make everything all right, but it would make things better. Manning would understand, and there would be two of them in this together.
"But it all makes sense," Manning said, his cheeks flushed. "You've infiltrated Carrick's operation. You couldn't blow your cover back then because he was just outside the door, listening, but he isn't here now. You can tell me."
But Manning was so vulnerable right now. Sheppard couldn't rely on him to hide his knowledge, and he had more than Manning to consider. There was the safety of Atlantis. There were other pilots out there, who might have been captured if Sheppard was not here. If he showed mercy now, he could be condemning hundreds. Back in the cell, with a gun in his hand, there had been no real choice, but this was different. One for many, he had thought then, and this time he had to mean it.
Manning's hands on the mug were as pale as bone. "It's the only explanation that makes sense. You willingly helping the enemy… It can't be true. It just can't."
Sheppard imagined Carrick leaning forward in his chair, eyes alight. Don't show anything, he thought. He felt his heart beating, pulsing all the way down to his fingers. Was his breathing visible on the screen? He was aware of every muscle in his face, and could feel how they wanted to betray him.
"I assure you it's true," he said coldly. "Get used to it."
Pulling the trigger might have been more kind.
Another meal came. Sheppard once again gave it to Manning. Once again their fingers touched, but then Manning snatched at Sheppard's wrist, almost making him spill everything. "What can I do to change your mind?" Manning's eyes were hot in his flushed face.
Sheppard transferred the bowl to his right hand, and put it carefully on the floor. He pulled his hand away – surely Manning could feel his pulse racing, at odds with everything he was showing in his face – and felt Manning trying to resist, but lacking the strength. "Nothing," he said quietly.
Manning's hand curled, fingers digging into the blanket. "God, colonel, I should–"
"Fight me?" Cold voice; sorrowful heart. Perhaps if Manning could beat the crap out of him everything would be better for both of them. "You're injured, sergeant, and half-starved. I'd get the better of you in a fight."
"I can't believe…" Manning shifted, grimacing at the pain. "You said something changed on Atlantis after I left, but what about the people…? People like me. People like us. Carrick's going to kill us all. You can't want that."
Sheppard looked at a spot high on the wall. "We've made a deal. No-one's going to get hurt. He'll give them time to go home."
"You believe that?" He pulled back his sleeve, showing livid injuries, barely healing. "He smiled when they did this."
He blinked, but did not look away from the wall. "It's a chance I've got to take."
"Is it stress?" Manning said. "I've read about it. Seen it, even. It can catch anyone, and you've been through more than most. You need help. You'll regret it, sir. I know it doesn't look that way now, but you'll hate yourself afterwards."
He didn't even need to shape the mental words in response to that.
"It's not too late to change your mind," Manning said desperately. "There's two of us now. If we fight…"
"Not a chance." He stared at the wall, and knew that Carrick was staring back. "I made my choice, and you, sergeant, don't know anything about it."
He thought of how he himself would have been when he had been young and idealistic, confronting an officer who had turned to the dark side. He remembered how he had been, so quick to tell those whose orders he had disobeyed exactly what was wrong with those orders. He remembered the pain of being forsaken, but the pain of being betrayed was not something he had ever had to endure.
"It's people like me who are going to die," Manning said. "We haven't changed. And you… The way you look at me when you think I'm not looking – as if it kills you to see me like this." No, John. Don't react. Can't react. "You can't be that far gone. I know you're not. Please, sir, there's still time to say no."
"It was already too late days ago."
This was the human cost. And, God!, he hadn't thought about it. Was this being repeated all over Atlantis – all those loyal men and women who now thought that he had stolen a jumper and left them. 'Make them believe it's true.' It had been so easy to say. He had never even thought that it might be difficult for those who heard it. He hadn't even thought…
When the third meal came, Manning threw the blanket off and would have bolted for the door. Sheppard had to physically restrain him. "No," he hissed into his ear, feeling how he struggled, too weak to prevail, but too desperate not to try. "They'll kill you."
Manning slumped back after that. It had been several hours before he had given in and eaten the previous meal. "It's only pride that's stopping you," Sheppard had said. "This is no place for stubborness."
"Believe me," he said now, when the door was once more locked, "I don't want to be in here any more than you do. I came here to fly a ship."
It was a slip. He let out a slow breath, and hoped that it hadn't been noticed. Since Manning had been thrown into his cell, he had stopped asking himself what 'John' would think. He had considered appearances when talking to Manning – of course he had – but perhaps he had made a hundred tiny slips. Perhaps it had all been for nothing.
Manning said nothing for well over an hour. Sheppard spent some of that hiding in the bathroom. Yes, Rodney, hiding. He spent some of it watching Manning, and some of it looking at the wall, but behind it all, he felt something beginning to change.
To hell with it! He thought that several times. Carrick was on to him, he had to be. This was his own sick version of torture. If Sheppard activated the transmitter now, then they'd both be free of this place. He could tell Manning the truth, and clothe himself again in all the trappings that made him who he was. He would be John Sheppard again by the time he stepped back on Atlantis. Then they'd go back to the drawing board, and draw up another plan to thwart Carrick's plot. A few blasts from the Daedalus would sure help in that respect.
He didn't really know why he didn't. Perhaps because he had come so far already, had done so much, had said such unforgivable things. He had to make it worth something.
Admit it. This time the voice sounded like Rodney. You're a stubborn son-of-a-bitch.
Yeah, he thought, a moment later. And look who gets hurt.
But it was worth something. This thing with Manning had made him start to forget that. Carrick was the true enemy, and this charade would help bring him down. Manning was hurting terribly, but he would know the truth soon. Other lives would be saved because of this.
Manning opened his eyes, blinking blearily. He seemed more than half asleep. No, Sheppard thought, seeing his renewed flush. He was slightly feverish. It was not enough to be dangerous, but enough, perhaps, to make a difference.
"It hurt so much," Manning said, in a quiet, broken voice. "I didn't think anyone knew where I was. I didn't think anyone was coming. I thought I'd die there. Sometimes I wanted to."
Sheppard said nothing. There was no comfort he could give, not yet.
"The only thing that made it better was the thought that I was holding out. I wasn't giving them what they wanted. At least Atlantis would be okay. At least everyone – You. Everyone – would be proud of me."
Sheppard stared straight ahead.
"I can't do that again." His bruised hand was like a claw, clutching the pillow. His eyes closed. "I'll help you. I'll follow you, sir. I've always trusted you; looked up to you. You've got to have a good reason for this. Just let me come with you. Let me go home, however we do it, however it happens. I was scared. Don't let me die here."
Manning looked smaller on the bed, his body slumped, his voice dull. "You're not going to die, sergeant," Sheppard promised.
"Please. I can't face that any more. I can't. I didn't think I'd break, but…"
"You didn't break, Sergeant Manning." Sheppard almost touched his shoulder, then drew back. It was not something he did; was not something he could bring himself to do, even now. Especially now. "You're sick. That's all."
"Please, colonel." Manning clawed himself into a half-sitting position. "I can't. I'll do anything not to…"
"You didn't break," Sheppard said firmly. "I'm proud to have a man like you under my command." He walked to the table – how even his steps were! – and picked up the meal. "Here," he said, and even managed a smile. "Dinner time."
Manning took it, but his eyes were burning.
Sheppard looked at him, brought so close to breaking because of Carrick's ambition and Carrick's cruelty. I'm proud, he had said, and he was. You didn't break, and Manning hadn't. Sheppard, on the other hand… He thought of Carrick's face as he had talked about a test.
This was the true test, he realised, and had been all along. The test had never been to kill Manning; Carrick knew enough about him to know that he would never do a thing like that. No, the test had been to see how Sheppard reacted when confronted with this. Manning had been put in his room as a weapon, not out of mercy. Carrick wanted to break him, and for a while Sheppard had almost let Carrick win.
Not any more, he resolved. He had to remember the certainty he had felt when he had presented his ultimatum to Carrick. He had to remember that Carrick was the enemy. Sheppard had played his part in this, but it was Carrick who bore the blame. Sheppard had made mistakes, and he had failed to consider the human cost of his plan, but reason behind the plan was still sound. I've always trusted you, Manning had said, and Sheppard thought of all the other people on Atlantis who also trusted him, and who were depending on him to get them through this dark hour. He was taking on all of this to protect Atlantis and its people from harm. There were some lines that he could not cross, but this was not one of them. It was worth it. It always was.
"Sergeant–" he began.
The door opened again. Sheppard's head snapped round. Manning started, spilling brown stew all over himself.
"It's time to go," said Everard.
"No." Manning looked stricken. "Go where? No. No…" Three men had entered behind Everard, one with manacles dangling from his belt. They were all armed. "No! Please! Don't…"
Sheppard knelt down beside him. He felt as if he had been given a life-line, and here he was, back on familiar ground. "I won't let them hurt you. Look at me. Look at me, sergeant." Manning did so, as if some habits could not be denied, even when he was at the very end of his endurance. "I won't let them hurt you."
A hand on his shoulder. Sheppard did not turn round. Someone grabbed his other shoulder. "You did well, sergeant," Sheppard said fiercely. "Whatever happens after this, you did well. You're going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine."
"How can you say that?"
The hands tightened. "Are you doubting your commanding officer?" Sheppard said with a smile. "Go with them, Manning. Don't fight." I'll make everything okay.
They hauled him up. Sheppard shook the hands off, and turned to find Everard far closer than he would have liked. "I'm coming. I'm coming." He spread his hands, reminding them that he was weaponless. At the same time, though, he marked the position of all their weapons, and the angle he would need to pull them from the holsters if he needed to. It felt good. "You should try saying please some time."
The other two men turned their attentions to Manning. "He's coming, too," Sheppard told them, and there was no trace of a smile on his face any more. "He isn't going to fight. You don't need those." He gestured with his chin towards the manacles. "He's coming quietly, aren't you, sergeant?"
Even after everything, Manning obeyed. It was clearly hard for him to stand, and he hunched over an arm pressed to his stomach, but then he drew himself up, his eyes full of terror, but his shoulders defiant. Just minutes before, Sheppard would have found it almost unbearable to watch him. Now he just felt proud.
"So this is it?" Sheppard said lightly, when they began to walk. "Carrick's gang is go."
Everard pressed his lips together, but said nothing.
Sheppard remembered – it seemed like weeks ago, now – when he had considered playing Everard off against Carrick. That had been before Manning, when so many things had seemed possible. Since then he had lost himself far more truly than he had ever realised. "So you're the errand boy," he said, "sent to retrieve the tame pilot."
He heard Manning suck in a breath, which turned into a moan. Don't, he thought. Don't say anything. Leave it to me. Trust me.
"So it's happening today?" Sheppard tried again. "Or is this another test? You know, I wish Carrick would get up off his ass and launch this attack already."
"Colonel…" Manning rasped.
"Because I don't think much of his hospitality," Sheppard said, "and now I get the minion, and not the boss."
Everard hit him. The fist smashed into Sheppard's jaw and he staggered backwards, but the sudden burst of pain from his knee caused him to lose his footing, and the wall was there, hard against the back of his head, and then the floor, cold and rough, and he rolled over, taking his weight on his hand, and looked up, but it was Manning that he saw, and not Everard. Manning, who was staring at him wildly, straining against the two men who held him. He looked sick, broken, with bruises dark on his skin.
"Get up," Everard commanded.
Sheppard's hand rose to his throbbing jaw. Everard kicked him, not hard, but enough to make Manning try to surge forward. "Don't." Sheppard locked his eyes on him. "That's an order."
He stood up, and now there were more parts of him that hurt. What were you trying to achieve there, John?
They turned a corner. Exploit a possible rift between Carrick and his right-hand man.
Pain radiated from his jaw, red in his vision. Yeah. Right.
He felt better, though, heading into danger with the identity of the enemy clear. This was familiar ground. Concentrate. Concentrate. Focus on the mission, on the whole point of this. He blinked, bit his lip, and pushed aside everything else. Check out the terrain. They appeared to be heading towards the Stargate. Perhaps this really was it – the beginning of the end of the mission. They'd go off world, he'd find himself his ship, and then…
No. There was something else he needed to do first. "Another of our pilots disappeared not long after he did," he said. "Anything to do with you guys?"
"Yes." Everard moved closer to him, a hand on the small of his back. Sheppard stiffened. He really hated that; always had.
"I want to see him," Sheppard said. "If not, then you'll get no more help from me."
Everard said nothing in response, but they turned to the left, away from the Stargate. In front of the third door they halted. One of the other men drew out a key. Manning drew closer to Sheppard, so close that Sheppard could hear the terrified breathing the other man was trying to conceal.
"In there," Everard said.
He stepped back, and Sheppard saw. Alvarez had been dead for at least two weeks. He wore tatters of an Atlantis uniform, and dog tags hung clear at his decomposing neck. Manning fell to his knees and retched, but Sheppard took a slow step forward, then went down on one knee.
One of his own men. One of his own men, dead. One of his own men, killed by Carrick. Sheppard slowly clenched his fist. This was why he was doing what he was doing. This was why it was worth it. Pulling the trigger might have been more kind, he had thought not long before, but that had been fool's talk. That had been the talk of someone who had almost let himself be broken by Carrick's latest test. Manning had been through a terrible ordeal, but he was alive, and when this plan worked, everyone else on Atlantis would be safe from this enemy. No-one else would die at Carrick's hands.
It was worth it. Whatever else happened, he would remember that.
He said the man's name, though, and gently took the dog tags from around his neck, and put them in his pocket. We'll come back after all this is over and retrieve your body, he thought. Then, face blank of expression, he stood.
They had thought to break him, perhaps, by bringing him here. Instead, he thought, they had helped him become himself again. These last few days with Manning had been the true test, but he had come through it. He hadn't blown his cover and he hadn't bailed and he hadn't broken. He was still in control. The plan was still on course, and the cause was still just. Within hours, perhaps, they would be arriving back at Atlantis on the Daedalus, everything would be explained, and this whole adventure would be over.
He turned to Everard, smiling grimly. "Let's get this show on the road."
end of chapter eleven
Chapter twelve: Truth
"And then," McKay said, brandishing his fork, "I said… Well, I can't remember what I said, but it was scathing and witty and clever, but of course you already knew that, because –" He pointed at his own chest with fork and finger. "– well, hello? It's me we're talking about. Rodney McKay, Ph. D."
"That's it?" Ronon had his feet up, taking up the fourth chair at their table, the empty chair that should have been Sheppard's. "That's your hilarious story?"
"Excuse me?" The fork turned outwards again. "At least mine didn't involve disembowelling goats."
"Wit," McKay said, "and panache, winning out over brute force. That's what mine's about."
Ronon swung his feet back onto the floor, and leant forward, elbows on the table. Still looking at McKay, he snatched a green leaf from his plate, and stuffed it into his mouth. "Hey!" the scientist protested predictably. "Hey, Teyla. Did you see that?"
Teyla smiled. "I saw that, Rodney."
McKay opened his mouth as if to say more, then seemed to lose the energy for it. He let out a breath, and put down his fork.
Ronon wondered whose idea it had been to stop talking about Sheppard. Nothing had been said aloud about it, after all. Sure, they talked about him when they had one of their thrice-cursed meetings, but when together, the three of them, eating, or just standing on the balcony and looking out at the ocean, they talked about anything but. He wasn't sure he liked it. This, too, was dishonesty of a kind.
The anger was almost gone, though, if he was careful. He remembered walking on a frozen lake, once, when you had to tread so softly and so gently, because of the depths that lay beneath you if only you looked. He wasn't one to analyse his feelings, but he preferred to push them out of the way if there weren't something that that would help in the situation he found himself in. Anger was good when the enemy was at hand. Anger that circled around like a caya bird, and struck out at the wrong targets…
He shifted again, flinging his arm across the back of Sheppard's chair. McKay and Teyla had been right in the things they had said in McKay's room. Ronon had almost come to hate the scientist because of the things he had said to Sheppard. It hadn't made sense. It had been foolish and stupid. Misdirected hostility got you killed.
But it was easier, he supposed, than hating himself. Your last words before any mission were important, because any mission could be your last. When you parted from your comrade and commander with words of anger and disrespect… It didn't matter that the words weren't meant. Words lingered. They weren't supposed to, but they did. It was something he had known once, had forgotten over his seven years alone, and had come to relearn after coming to Atlantis.
"The sunset is beautiful tonight," Teyla said softly.
McKay snorted, as if to say that such things didn't matter, but Ronon turned his head slowly. Beauty shouldn't have mattered when he was on the run, of course, but there had been times when he had noticed it; times when he had stood in a valley and looked up at the stars through a veil of leaves, and known that there were more reasons for staying alive than he had realised.
"Do you want the rest of my cake, Rodney?" Teyla said.
Rodney took it and took a bite. "Thanks." Ronon could smell chocolate, and saw its dark stains on McKay's fingertips. Then he looked away, back at the evening outside the window.
Ah, but the anger was still there, smouldering underneath. Not at his team. No, not at his team. That had been… misguided. The intensity of that had blinded him to other things. Sheppard was still out there, and he had to hone his anger for that. The traitor was still to be unmasked, and when the time came, there would be a confrontation. Treachery was never good. Treachery… He saw Tyre's face; clenched his fist, and looked at the sun sinking into the ocean.
When he turned his head slightly, he saw that Teyla was following the direction of his gaze. "Shall we go outside?" she said quietly.
"Not me," McKay said. "Work to do, problems to solve." He waved his hand airily, but then let it fall to the table.
Ronon thought that he needed to spar. He shook his head, and that was all.
He knew what Teyla was doing. They thought he wasn't insightful, but seven years had made him rusty with human contact, and not incapable. She wanted them to draw closer together, to take comfort in the team even though it was down one man and broken. It was sound reasoning. He had seen units go through fire and death and emerge on the other side, half its men lost, but the survivors with a bond that would stay with them until death.
Other times, though, they drifted apart, and things were never the same again.
Words lingered. There was a traitor on Atlantis, and treachery was like a virus that seeped into everything, and could poison even things that had once been whole. He looked round the mess-hall at the other people there. Once they had all been strangers to him. A few had slowly become friends, but with everyone else he still felt like an outsider. Then, ever so slowly, they had all become his own people. It was only when he so nearly left that he realised quite how much he belonged. Now they were all strangers again, one of them an enemy, and each one a potential threat. Now he had to lie to them all.
But it would pass; he knew that now. Sheppard would be back soon, and the truth would be out. Things would go back to how they had always been. It had felt bad for a while, but that was the sort of thing you had to put behind you, to focus on the reality that came after it.
"Want to spar?" he asked Teyla, suddenly not wanting to do it alone.
"Perhaps later," she said, as she shook her head, but she smiled.
Teyla stopped, stiffened, then turned with a polite smile. The young woman had her hands clasped in front of her, clearly nervous. It was hard to hold onto that smile. "You are… Jessica?" She knew her, of course.
"Yes. Yes. I…" Jessica pushed her hair behind her ear, then kept her hand there, pulling the strand out straight, then letting it spring back into its tight curls. "I've never spoken to you before. I don't…"
Teyla thought she knew what this was about. If she was right, they would have to go somewhere where no-one could overhear them. "It is a pleasant evening," she said. "I was planning to take the air. I am not accustomed to living indoors as much as we do on Atlantis." That was no lie. Ronon felt the same, she thought, and John did, too, though for different reasons. Only Rodney was like a burrowing animal, happy never to see the sky.
Jessica followed her. Only when they were outside, beneath the twilight, did she speak. "I haven't… I… It's been eating me up inside. Miss Emmagen, I…"
"Teyla." She rested her hand on the railing.
"Teyla. I…" Jessica moved to the edge, and looked out. Teyla saw her in profile, biting her lip. Then she turned even further away, so Teyla could only see the back of her head. "I saw Colonel Sheppard leave," she said in a rush. "I was inside a jumper, fixing it, when he came into the jumper bay. I heard him fight with Colonel Carter and Doctor McKay, and afterwards, I told someone. They told… Oh, I didn't mean for it to happen, but now everyone knows."
The railing was cold, and the city, and the ocean so far below. I know, Teyla could have said. We all knew. That was why it happened then, because we knew you were there. You did just what we knew you would do, what we manipulated you to do.
"I feel terrible," Jessica said. "I can't sleep. If only I hadn't said anything…"
"Why are you telling me this?" Teyla asked, knowing it was the wrong thing to say, but that all the right things were forbidden.
"Because…" She saw the hand rake through the curly hair. "I don't know. I've never spoken to you before, but you're… Maybe it's the woman to woman thing. Stupid, eh? And Colonel Carter… I know I've got to tell her, but… And you… I thought… I thought it might be easier, because you… you always seem kind, though I know you're on Colonel Sheppard's team so you're…" She trailed off; gave a nervous laugh that was closer to a sob. "I'm making things worse."
"No." Teyla moved closer. "You are not."
"I just needed it to be out in the open." Jessica was crying now. "I've always liked gossip. Just told one or two people and let them do the rest. It never mattered before. Or perhaps it always did, and I didn't know."
Teyla felt her hair stir in the cold touch of the wind. "You did nothing wrong," she said. She touched Jessica's sleeve, forestalling her outburst. "I will tell Colonel Carter, if that is what you wish, but I know that she will say the same. None of this is your fault. Remember that, Jessica. None of this is your fault."
"Not your fault," she said firmly. "You have to believe me."
Jessica scraped at her face with the heel of her hand, wiping away tears. As the last thread of light faded from the sky, she went inside, back into the city of people who had been deceived. Teyla stood there after she had gone, her jacket wrapped around her in the cooling wind. What have we done? she thought.
When the darkness was complete and stars were silver in the sky, she turned and walked through that city of strangers until she found Colonel Carter. Carter was in her office – and it was hard, even now, not to think of it as Elizabeth's – and looked up when Teyla came in. Teyla closed the door, but did not sit down; she knew the protocols now.
"Teyla." There was only a fleeting smile on Carter's lips. "What's wrong?"
Teyla had seldom exchanged words with Colonel Carter. Elizabeth had been a friend, and it was difficult… Oh, how difficult it was. Even when you had lived your life in the shadow of the Wraith, it was so hard to come to terms with loss. But Carter seemed reasonable; she had to remember that.
"We have made a terrible mistake," Teyla told her.
"Is it John?" Carter's hand gestured at the empty chair, her movements as controlled as Elizabeth's had ever been, her appearance belying the anxiety in her voice.
Teyla sat, shaking her head. "Not him, but us, the people left behind. That engineer, Jessica, came to me in tears this evening, tormented by her part in this. We made her play that part, Colonel Carter, without offering her a choice."
"Oh." Carter let out breath.
"But the wound is deeper than that. She is not the only one." Teyla thought of her own fractured team, and of the soldier who had attacked them in the training room. She thought of that Marine attacked by Ronon in the mess-hall, and how she had rebuked Ronon afterwards for defending his friend. She thought of Zelenka, trying so hard and failing so badly at subterfuge. She thought of Keller, nervous and new, but burdened with knowledge that she could not share. She thought of Lorne, forced to lie to his men, and to turn a blind eye to whispers against a man he deeply respected. She thought of a whole city lost in lies and rumours, no-one knowing who to trust and what to believe.
"It was necessary," Carter said gently. "If there is an informant in the city, he has to believe there is a rift."
"No." Teyla looked her full in the face. Carter was a good woman, she thought, but she was new to this level of leadership, and she was new to Atlantis. She could be forgiven. For her own part in it, Teyla could not. "All that was needed," she said, "was for the traitor to believe that Colonel Sheppard thought that there was a rift."
She thought of the angry words she had exchanged with John. They could have been kind, and the effect would have been the same. You are sick, John. You think we are plotting against you, but we are not. We never would.
Atlantis was like a family. When there was discord at its heart, the whole city faltered. Carter was new, so could be forgiven for not understanding. John, she now realised, had no idea that he was so valued, and had been unaware of the human impact of what he was suggesting. That left her. She should have known.
"Everyone is afraid," she said. "Trust has gone. Every man and woman out there is caught up in the web of our lies. It is our responsibility, Colonel Carter. Ours."
"But how can we backtrack?" Carter looked younger than normal, sitting at a desk too big for her.
"Tell the truth," Teyla said, "or the truth that matters here." She pressed her hand to her heart. "Tell them that Colonel Sheppard is missing. Tell them that angry words were exchanged, but they were not meant on our part, and that we are desperately worried about him, and that he will have a place here once he has received… help. Tell them that the truth was concealed from them because we feared that the news would reach the Wraith. Tell them that rumours have been spreading, but no action will be taken against those who spread them, because they were entirely understandable given the absence of information. Tell them we are sorry for hiding the truth from them. Tell them that we are united…" She let out a breath; closed her eyes for a moment. "As things stand now, I fear that if we were attacked right now, we would just crumble. But it is not too late to change that." She thought of her team, and how they had stepped back from the brink. "It is not too late for healing."
Carter was silent for a long time. She stood up, and went to the glass, looking out over the control room, to the inactive Gate beyond.
Rodney glanced round, making sure that no-one else was around. "Anything?"
Radek shook his head. He stood up, automatically assuming that Rodney wanted the chair.
"Is it…?" Rodney sat down, turned his back, eyes on his work. "Radek? I'm sorry."
Radek didn't ask for what.
"I've been… an ass."
It had taken Ronon to attack him, and Teyla to try to bring them peace. It had taken time in the mess-hall, desperately trying to pretend that things were normal and not falling apart at all, thank you very much. It had taken time hiding in his room, hiding from people who could no longer be trusted. He had let Radek handle the bulk of the work, because Radek didn't care, Radek didn't mind…; because Radek hadn't shot his friend…; because Radek had found the only clue they had, the only thing that any of them had done that wasn't just sitting around and falling apart and waiting.
"You always are, Rodney," Radek said quietly.
Rodney pushed himself down, right arm still leaning on the desk. "You don't have to agree, you know."
"An ass," Radek said. "I, too, am anxious. I do not like this subterfuge."
"Oh, excuse me, because I evidently look as if I do."
"No. Not at all." Radek seemed to be on the point of saying something else, then thought better of it, his mouth still open, his hand half raised.
Rodney sighed. It was far better that it had been just days before, but he was still tired, still miserable, still utterly sick of this. He didn't even have impossible odds to set his back against. All along, this whole thing had just been about waiting. "Go," he said to Radek. "Go… somewhere. Take a break." Radek still didn't move. "I'm not good at this," Rodney found himself blurting out.
"You are better than you think."
Presumably he thought Rodney meant that he wasn't good at subterfuge. He'd meant more. I'm not good at this… people thing. Not good at saying what he needed to say to Radek now. Not good at knowing what needed to be said in the first place. He'd drawn a gun on his closest friend, for God's sake.
"I know what you meant." Radek's hand twitched nervously. "I meant what I said."
And now Rodney had to laugh bitterly. Radek didn't have a clue. Rodney didn't have a clue. He hated thinking that he couldn't trust his scientists… but surely he'd never trusted them before, and had never really cared. He shouldn't be bothered by this. And the things he'd said to Sheppard… They shouldn't haunt him so. Someone who didn't care about people wouldn't be…
"Rodney…" Radek pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. "You–"
Rodney's radio crackled. Radek broke off, his hand going to his ear.
"Well!" Ricardo exclaimed, when Colonel Carter had finished her broadcast. "That was interesting."
Robert looked at him. "Do you believe it?"
"You're the expert. You're the one who heard it right from the horse's mouth."
He could barely remember the truth of it now. He had told it too many times, and each time people like Ricardo had been on hand to make assumptions and to recast the things he said in light of their own theories.
"Worried about him," Ricardo quoted. "He's cracked, then. Lost his mind. Gone wacko. Just what I always said."
Robert did remember some things clearly, though. The exact words had gone, but he remembered how defeated Colonel Sheppard had looked as he had left the lab, and how McKay had looked after him with an expression that belied all his earlier angry words. "I think it's true," he said, and for the first time, perhaps, he tried to imagine how Colonel Sheppard must have felt, sick and paranoid, but managing to alienate everyone who most wanted to help him.
"You're in the clear, then." Ricardo slapped him on the back. "You heard the woman. Now will you stop moping around as if you killed your grandmother's dog?"
…and leaving McKay's lab looking lost and defeated, then being rejected by the rest of his team, and confronted by Colonel Carter. It was one thing to stop the gossip on Atlantis, but Colonel Sheppard was still out there somewhere, far away from home. Colonel Sheppard had no idea who Robert was, but Robert still felt as if he had played a part in the man's disappearance.
"No." He stood up decisively, as things felt clearer than they had felt in days. "I want to help them find him. I want to help bring him home."
"Listen to them!" Chris exclaimed to no-one in particular. So they were still on about their precious Colonel Sheppard. "Worried about him! Of course they are."
Men like Sheppard got everything – just sat back and people brought him everything on a plate. He had the rank, and the adulation of the masses. He had beautiful women like Teyla Emmagen fawning over him, and men like Ronon – a barbarian, which was why he didn't know any better – giving him their respect. What did the man need to do for them to realise the hollowness of the façade? He'd stolen a jumper and walked out on them, and still they were worried about him, still they were desperate to get him back!
Atlantis was a place of seething rumour and distrust. Sheppard had left, but the powers that be had done nothing about replacing him with a proper commander. Colonel Carter was just a figurehead, of course – a scientist at heart, despite her title. She'd lied to them all… Well, that at least he could understand. The brass always lied. It was when they tried to act like your friend that you had to worry.
He hadn't hated it on Atlantis at first. It was hard to remember now, but in those first weeks, it hadn't seemed too bad. He had been predisposed to dislike Sheppard, but had been willing to be proved otherwise when he saw the man in action. Then he had overheard the fight between Sheppard and his team, and everything had gone to hell in a handbasket from then on in. He'd been ostracised. He'd been attacked in the mess-hall, for crying out loud!
And now Colonel Carter was putting out another official lie. Well, he was out of it. Let them destroy themselves for all he cared. He was through with them. He'd obey when he had to, and go where they told him to, but beyond that, they'd have nothing from him. Nothing.
Radek was exclaiming something. Rodney supposed he ought to be feeling more than he was. Sam had just made clear that they were no longer supposed to act as if Sheppard was their enemy. They were allowed to act worried.
Too late, he thought. If she had done that days before, it could have made such a difference, but they had moved onto other things now. The damage had already done.
No, he had to admit, a moment later. The damage was already healing. And now he had been given the licence not to lie any more, not about the way he was feeling, at least. That, too, could only be good. If only they could uncover the traitor, then everything would be all right again. No, if only Sheppard would come back…
He paused for moment. No, it was really good. To be free to show his concern…
"I wonder what's happened?" Radek looked anxious.
But the radio had been silent of other messages, meant just for the conspirators alone. Not that they entrusted such things to the communications network. It was terse summonses to meetings, with everything that mattered taking place behind closed doors.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm going to…" He stopped; looked at Radek; thought for a moment. "We should go…"
Then he saw it. He grabbed his computer closer, stabbed at keys, checked, double checked…
"What?" Radek squinted through his glasses over Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney lowered his voice. They had spoken so freely, but now… but now… "Another transmission." He jabbed his finger at the screen. "Right now. Just this moment. I only saw it because I happened to be looking."
"What does it say?"
It was encrypted, of course, but he couldn't even muster a sarcastic retort. "That's not the point," he said. "He's there right now. Our traitor." Radek swallowed, and looked around anxiously. "Yes, right," Rodney said. "He's going to be wearing a black cloak and be creeping up on you right now. He's not here."
Rodney was calling up what he needed. "Three places where you can send transmissions of this type. Here, of course. The Control Room–"
"He wouldn't be there," Radek said. "Is not–"
"And the secondary communications suite." Rodney jabbed a finger at the screen, where a single life-sign showed in the suite. "And there, my friend, is our traitor." With that, he headed for the door.
"We… we're not going?" Radek trotted along behind him. "We are not supposed to let him know–"
Was the man an idiot? "He doesn't have to see us. I can be sneaky. We just… Radek." He turned towards him. "We'd know, Radek."
They'd know who the traitor was. Everyone else would be off the hook. At the moment, all his scientists were people who wore the face of a monster beneath their smiling mask. Once he knew a name, they would become human again. Just to know who he could trust…!
"We'll know," he said again, and suddenly Sam's announcement seemed to make all the difference in the world. They only had to play a part around one person. They didn't have to lie about Sheppard, or at least not much. They'd still be worrying about him, of course, but that was an old, familiar feeling. Atlantis would feel like home again.
They had almost reached the communications suite when it exploded.
end of chapter twelve
Chapter thirteen: "And there this ends"
They stunned him before going through the Gate, of course, and this time Sheppard lost consciousness completely. Waking up afterwards felt depressingly familiar. Crazy sort of job, he thought, if waking up after being stunned feels so normal. He stirred, rolling onto his side, seeing his sluggish hand through bleary eyelids. "Guess I should see about a career change."
"Sir?" The voice was tremulous. It cut through the fuzziness like a knife; made Sheppard push himself into a sitting position, leaning against whatever hard surface happened to be behind him.
Manning was hunched in a corner, one leg stretched out in front of him, and one drawn up to his chest. "You all right, sergeant?" Sheppard asked him.
Manning nodded, but his eyes said no. Sheppard knew enough about that to recognise it.
Sheppard tried to stand, but the lingering effects of the stunners made that impossible. It felt vulnerable to be sitting on the floor, unable to get up. He concentrated on driving away the fog from his limbs. Everything was possible if you had enough willpower. As he flexed his hands and feet, he looked around, and tried to stop his neck from sagging. "Seems like we're not in Kansas any more, Toto."
From the look of it, he was fairly sure they were in an Ancient ship. It wasn't moving. Even with inertial dampeners, a pilot just knew. It was a moment later before he realised that of course it wasn't moving, because they needed him to fly it, and that was the whole point of this charade. He pressed his fingers to his brow, trying to clear away the fog. If his thoughts went sluggish now, so close to the end, they were lost.
"We're on a different world?" Manning asked.
Sheppard looked at him. He really did look rough. Got to get him to a doctor… He pressed his lips together. There was no time to think about that right now. They were so close. If all went to plan, Manning would be home within hours, but Sheppard had to focus on the plan, and not on the man who had been left here in order to test him. It felt harsh, but sometimes these things were necessary.
"I think so," he said at last. "Carrick said he had lots of bases on different worlds. My guess is that this is the one where his ship is parked."
"They knocked you out," Manning said. "Me too, but you… lots of times. I saw it. That means–"
Sheppard stood up, because he had to. He rested his hand against the wall. "Don't go getting ideas, sergeant." His voice was harsh. That, too, was something he had to do. "I'm doing what I have to do. I'm taking this ship against Atlantis."
"I am glad to hear that, Colonel Sheppard."
He hadn't heard the door opening. Damn. He tried for anger, but fear would have been closer, probably. Carrick stood in the doorway, with the usual henchmen at his side. "My scientists are very keen to work with you," Carrick said. "They were most put out when you were… indisposed."
"Sorry to have disappointed them," Sheppard said. "I'll try not to fall into the path of any stunner beams in future."
Carrick did not smile. "Come," he said, but Sheppard saw how his eyes flickered to Manning, small and broken in the corner, and how the thugs behind him began to move.
"Just 'come'?" Sheppard stepped forward. Really, it wasn't hard to move steadily when you tried. "No 'please'? I'm a pivotal part of your plan, and you've threatened me and attacked me. The least you can give me is a please."
Carrick's eyes were still on Manning, and very slowly he started to smile. Manning seemed to fade, to become a dead man on a distant world, who had died a prisoner, and would never go home.
"Or not. Maybe I can live without a please just now." Sheppard put himself between Carrick and Manning, but Carrick continued to look where Manning was, as if Sheppard himself was invisible. Only after several seconds did he slowly raise his eyes to look Sheppard full in the face.
One false move, those eyes said, and the smile, and he dies.
"What are we waiting for?" Sheppard said. "Here I am, right where you want me. Let's go."
Rodney didn't lose consciousness, but afterwards if felt almost as if he had, because the world he opened his eyes onto was so different from what had gone before. He threw himself backwards, and rolled as soon as he landed, bringing his arms up. "Cover your head," he shouted, his voice sounding unnaturally loud. Then there was silence, but his ears still thought they heard the sound of the world ending.
Radek was muttering something in Czech. His voice was quiet and muffled, but when Rodney started to speak – just words; he had no idea what – his own voice was still loud. He wanted to cower until it was safe again. He wanted to check himself for damage – I could be dying, and you don't notice it at the time, do you, because of the adrenaline? – but instead he pushed himself upwards with his hands.
That was how he saw the man, edging forward on the far side of the explosion, through the smoke. He saw his hand begin to rise, then fall again. He saw him see Rodney; saw him realise that he had been seen.
"Help us." The words died on Rodney's lips, and no real sound came out.
The other man just stood there. He hasn't come to help, Rodney realised. He's the one who caused this, coming back to finish off the job. He's our traitor.
"Radek." Rodney felt unable to move, but he hissed Radek's name.
I should look away, he thought. I should run. Tell people who he is before he…
Radek stirred. Still staring at the unmoving man on the far side of the smoke, Rodney saw him only out of the corner of his eye. He saw Radek rub his eyes behind his glasses, then saw him check his own body, as if he was surprised to find himself alive.
The man moved. He's going to kill us. But still Rodney could do nothing but kneel there, blinking into the smoke. This was the man who had ruined the security of Atlantis for him and filled it with shadows. This was the man who had forced them to set up the horrible charade with Sheppard. This was the man who thought he had set his wits against Rodney, and won. Rodney wanted to run screaming at him, to smash him to the ground like Ronon would do.
The smoke thickened. We're not supposed to know who he is, he thought. Carrick has to think that everything's going according to plan. He has to think we're idiots – lambs to the slaughter. He has to think…
"Who's there?" Radek said.
Rodney reached for him. Radek's hand rose to his ear. He spoke again, but Rodney didn't hear what it was. "No radio." Radek's arm fell.
Rodney blinked, his eyes stinging from the smoke. He brought his hand up to his eyes, but that only made it worse. When he lowered his hand, the smoke was even thicker, but it was as if the man on the far side had melted into the smoke. He had gone.
But Rodney had seen his face. Rodney knew now who he was. And the traitor knew.
There were two scientists. When pushed, one admitted that he had once been one of the Travellers, but had jumped ship during one of their brief stops in order to pursue alternative employment prospects. "Ah yes," Sheppard said. "The rich opportunities of a life of crime. Your last boss was hotter, don't you think?" The second one didn't even need pushing. He had once served under Acastus Kolya, he informed Sheppard, adding that all true Genii should curse the name of John Sheppard. "Guess that makes you my best buddy, then," Sheppard said.
He turned his back, half expecting one or other of them to strike him, but Carrick spoke sternly to them. "We need Colonel Sheppard to get us to our destination, gentlemen."
No mention of needing him beyond that point. Of course Carrick would be planning on killing him the moment they reached Atlantis. He would need people with the Ancient gene, but would take people who were more tractable. Despite everything Carrick said, Sheppard knew that he didn't trust him and that he had doubts about his story. He'd use Sheppard for as long as he had to, but no further.
Too bad I'm not planning on sticking around that long.
He was so close to the end, and the part he had been playing already felt like something he had long since laid aside. Even Carrick had laid aside the pretence. Fly this ship, or Manning dies. It was enough. Even without the charade, it might have been enough.
"Can you fly it?" Carrick's voice sounded different now, as if a trace of genuine emotion was showing through beneath his usual affected politeness.
Sheppard sat in the control chair, and felt immediately the demanding of the ship's controls. He held himself back, though, just a little. He could almost imagine that the ship felt eager to fly again after such a long sleep, but he knew he was just projecting his own feelings. He had been too long away from his friends, too long underground. Atlantis was his home, and it lay at the end of this journey now starting.
The viewscreen showed nothing but darkness – the shape of a hangar, and outside that, the night. The ship was far smaller than the Aurora had been, in a design that they hadn't encountered before. He pressed his hand down, and sought more. It had a hyperdrive and drones, he learnt. It was cloakable, and it was in good order. From the looks of things, the scientists had done their work well.
He broke the connection, and leant forward, breathing fast as he struggled to recover himself. It was harder to lie after he had been connected to the chair. Lying felt tawdry compared with the wonder of an Ancient ship. "Your scientists know their stuff," he conceded, since it seemed safer than any of the other things he could have said.
"Can you fly it?" Carrick sounded impatient.
One more breath. "Yes."
"Then do it."
So it had come. It had come. He should be feeling so many things, but he was still half held by the chair. The part of him that had awakened in Antarctica knew what was required of it, and wanted to respond. "Now?" he managed, sounding like a fool.
Carrick's eyes were gleaming. "Now," he said.
There were times when Teyla felt useless on Atlantis. She had become familiar enough with the technology to use it, but at times like this, she had to yield to the expertise of others. It was not something she was used to. It was not something that she liked.
"Communications down," someone announced. She saw Colonel Carter try her radio one more time, and saw that movement reflected in others, as they gave in to the natural urge to test for themselves.
"Power's still on," they said. "Transporters still functional. Shield… Damn! Shield's off-line."
"Jumper bay inaccessible."
"Life signs detector… Dammit!"
"Is anybody hurt?" she heard herself say. That was the worst of it. Alive one moment, and dead the next. The world changed in the blinking of an eye.
The explosion had happened just as she had been leaving the Control Room. She had whirled around, and watched people drop to the ground, shielding their heads. In that moment, she had flashed to a memory of lying on the floor, pinned by the agony in her side, wondering what was happening, wondering if anybody had been killed... and then waking much later to find that Carson was gone. She had been watching the windows blow in, and Elizabeth flying backwards through the room, with shards of glass falling around her like rain.
"Nothing serious." Chuck had burns and cuts on his face. He had been the closest to the explosion, she thought.
"What happened?" That was a new technician, a young man, still crouched nervously on the floor.
"That's what we have to find out." Colonel Carter moved forward to the devastated controls. The technician visibly straightened.
Teyla left. She needed to see her team. Alive one moment, and dead the next. And John was gone, and Elizabeth, and Carson. One by one…
They brought out Manning, who hung between two of Carrick's thugs, barely standing. The threat was implicit.
I could do the trick with the inertial dampeners… Sheppard dismissed that thought as soon as it came to him. The plan was still on course. He was not yet in open defiance, and he was not alone this time. Manning was the one who would pay the price.
Taking a deep breath, he sank back into the chair, and felt again the demanding grip of the Ancient technology in his mind. Go, he thought, and the scientists at their station did their part. The ship juddered a little, and then was on the move, gliding slowly out of the hangar, then rising into the night. Even in the middle of all of this, a treacherous little part inside him felt the thrill of being airborne after so many days underground.
"Sir." He heard it only faintly, but he could spare no glance for Manning, not now. Half his mind was encased in blue. He sensed the drones, dormant now, but ripe with the potential of destruction. He saw the scientists at the controls, their fingers moving swiftly, and saw that they had already set a course to Atlantis; that they knew exactly where it was. We're going to take the city, he thought rashly, and it was almost as if the ship heard him and disapproved, the touch on his mind growing cold and hard. Then it turned soft again, yielding to him and letting itself be used.
Here's hoping Carrick can't see through me so quickly, he thought, though the whole thing had probably been in his imagination. You could push feelings deep inside, but they could not entirely be denied.
Sheppard pulled his thoughts away. Once they were in the air, the technology required little of him. "Feels good," he said, and there was more truth in there than he would have liked to admit to an enemy. "Too bad you'll never know what it's like."
Carrick's expression remained icy. Beyond him, Manning cried out in pain.
"Take us to Atlantis, Colonel Sheppard."
Yes, thought Sheppard, not daring to look at Manning. And there this ends.
Ronon had no idea what stopped him. He cocked his head, listening, but heard nothing. Breathing heavily, he stalked to the edge of the room, and picked up his discarded radio, pressing the ear-piece against his ear. Still nothing.
He knew what it was like to be edgy. You had to respond to the slightest hint of a threat. It was better to respond to false alarms than to miss that tiny glimmer of sound that marked a genuine threat. Even in the middle of Atlantis, he sometimes thought he heard footsteps stalking him through the undergrowth. Even when alone in his room, he sometimes heard a single word spoken in the voice of someone long dead.
Better that way, he told himself, as he returned to the punching bag. He punched it once; twice. A double. A treble. It was different from sparring. It was more intimate, just himself and his anger. It was running from the Wraith. It was fighting for his home. It was surviving. Sparring needed two. Sparring required an opponent whom you trusted. Teyla had declined for now, and Sheppard was gone, and he didn't have the heart to spar with anyone else, not when any one of them could be the enemy.
He smashed the bag again: one, two, three. Then he stopped, the bag swinging back towards him, before he stopped it, holding it to his chest. What was…?
He was half way to the door when Teyla opened it. "Ronon." She was breathless, and her hair was disordered. "I fear that something has gone terribly wrong."
"Take the ship into hyperspace."
The order was given. This was it, Sheppard thought. This was the moment that everything had led to. This was when it all became worth it. This was when it became real.
Because there were other ways, of course – ways he had never breathed to the others. If something went wrong with the transmitter… If he thought there was no way to do this thing without unleashing Carrick and his men on Atlantis… He could bring the ship down. He would bring himself down with it, too, but sometimes such a thing was necessary.
The voice was soft, with no warning in it, but then Manning was crying out, clearly in pain. Awakened by the chair, instinct took over, shaking off the last vestiges of his pretence. Sheppard hurled himself out of the chair towards him, but Manning kept on crying out. "No! Please, no!" and Sheppard had no idea if he was begging not to be hurt, or if he was begging Sheppard not to do this, because what he was doing was worse than any torture.
"Stop it!" Sheppard shouted, and he managed with a supreme effort to make his voice sound commanding. "You said you wouldn't hurt him."
"I said no such thing."
Carrick was enjoying this. Sheppard surged towards him, and then hands were on his arms, too, dragging him back, and he tried to fight, but he wasn't moving properly, not even the adrenaline countering the effects of the stunner and the lack of food. He found himself on the floor, and Manning was there, his face only inches away. Manning's eyes were burning in his flushed face. There seemed to be some message there, but Sheppard couldn't read it.
It took Sheppard a few seconds to collect himself. He still had a few more hours of pretence to maintain. "I'm keeping my side of the bargain." He rolled away from Manning, then sat up, and the thugs who had brought him down stepped away from him, letting him do this by himself. "There's no reason to hurt him."
"No. You're torturing him perfectly well by yourself."
No, he thought. Not long before, at the darkest point of his test, it had seemed true, but Carrick was the only torturer round here. He pressed his lips together, though. Whatever else he knew, it was still not easy. It could never be easy.
It'll soon be over, he reminded himself. In a few hours, perhaps even less, he would be on the Daedalus, and everything would be explained. Too late for Alvarez, though. Too late, perhaps, for Manning, who had endured too much. But despite all that, he felt the familiar stirrings of adrenaline that came with a confrontation. He was flying a ship, and the enemy was in his sights, and would soon go down.
But, "You still need me," he managed to say coldly, "and if you hurt him any more, I'll fly you right back home and trash your ship so you won't be going anywhere again, ever."
Carrick stepped close, and his hand brushed the back of the chair. "We both know you won't."
What did that mean? No, it was too late to speculate. He had come too far, and he was committed now until the end. With a show of defeat, he took the ship into hyperspace.
But before he did that, he activated the transmitter.
"What happened?" They found him in his lab. Teyla came in first, and Ronon behind him. "Rodney, are you–?"
"Quiet." He tried again. Nothing. Still nothing. "Damn it!" He slammed his fist down; raked his hand across his face. It smelled of smoke and decaying things.
Rodney blinked. "He's won. That's what's happened."
He didn't even feel the anger that he plagued him for days. His team was here, gathered around him, watching him as he worked, not understanding what he was doing, entirely in his hands, asking inane questions… God! His eyes itched from the smoke. And Sheppard wasn't here, and that of course was the whole point, and… No. Think! He could do it, of course. He could race against time with their lives on the line, but what if he didn't do it in time, because it had to have been timed like that deliberately – too late for them to do anything about it, because the traitor – and he had a name now, didn't he? – knew him and knew his skills, and would have made sure that not even he could…
Ronon was there, a hand on his arm. Rodney shook it off. "An explosion," he said, "in the communications suite. I–"
"There was an explosion in the Control Room, too," Teyla said. "It took out many of the controls and disabled the DHD."
"Ah. Of course." It felt like only a minor blow. He had known it, really, deep down. One step ahead of him. One step ahead of him all the way. "There were probably more explosions, too, in other places. Shield generators…"
"Who did it?" Ronon looked murderous. Of course he was. Always the predictable barbarian. Always wanting to fight. Always wanting to fix things with his fists. Always wanting to…
He let out a breath. Always wanting to protect us. Hands to his face for a moment – still that rank smell of smoke, and their hopes ending – then returned to the futile work that he could not stop.
"I saw him," he said, his eyes on the screen. "He set the bomb – well, not a bomb, not really, but a targeted explosion, very cleverly done, to take out what he wanted to take out and nothing else – then came back to check it had worked. You know what they say about a murderer always returning to the scene of the crime?" His eyes flicked up, and saw blankness. "No? Well, they do. And he did."
"Who is it?" There was Ronon, trying to fight his battles, just like Sheppard would have done if he had been here. The traitor was Rodney's enemy, of course – one of his scientists, pitting his wits against him, thinking he'd won. And Sheppard would pay the price, and all of them.
"It doesn't matter." He tried again. Nothing. Still nothing.
"We cannot confront him, Ronon." Teyla, poor foolish Teyla, still so far behind the plot.
"It doesn't matter any more." Was his sleeve singed there at the cuff? And there was dirt in the folds of his knuckles, and blood behind his nails, though where had that come from?
"Who is he?" Ronon demanded.
Rodney looked up, and there the traitor was, like Banquo's ghost returning for the feast, like a vulture coming in to pick over the corpse of something that had died. Of course he was here, because this was the end, and he'd heard everything they'd said, but it just didn't matter any more. This was their traitor – Ewan Cameron, and Rodney barely even knew him, had never even talked to him, which should have made it better, but just made it worse. Cameron saw Rodney's eyes on him, but still he edged forward, looking for all the world as if he wanted to confess, though he was here to gloat, really, wasn't he, or to drive another nail into the coffin he had crafted. "That him?" Ronon asked, and Rodney nodded mutely – though it didn't matter; it didn't matter at all – and Ronon raced out of the room, dragging his gun from his belt, as the traitor turned and fled.
"It won't make a difference," Rodney told Teyla, who was starting after Ronon, her face twisted with urgency. Teyla turned, questioning, torn. Rodney knew he had to explain, but his ears still felt hollow from the sound of the explosion, and there was a place inside him that was even worse. "He can't communicate with Carrick any more. Let Ronon kill him if he wants to."
She didn't understand. For the first time since the explosion, he felt a spark of real feeling. His hearing grew sharper, and he felt stabs of pain from places where he had fallen. He heard Ronon's footsteps fading in the corridor, and knew that one person, at least, would get the punishment he deserved.
He felt, perhaps, as if he was beginning to wake up.
"Because we're deaf," he said. "He's literally blown up our sensors." Teyla said nothing at all. God, he was surrounded by idiots! "We can't communicate out. We can't Gate out. We can't raise the shield. We can't talk on the radio – and why would we want to do that? Oh! Maybe to co-ordinate our defence when Carrick's goons attack."
"Yes," he snapped wearily. "Yes, Carrick knows. Or very probably knows. Sheppard's going to activate that transmitter and we won't know a thing about it. And he won't know that we don't know."
"Yes. It means that this whole ridiculous plan has fallen apart. It means that a ship-load of thugs is going to show up any second – because where else is Carrick going to strike but here, the biggest prize of all? – and we won't know where and we won't know when and we won't be able to co-ordinate any sort of defence. It means that Carrick is probably wise to Sheppard's little trick and is plotting how to kill him even now." He let out a breath. It meant so many things, but they all added up to the same thing, really. "It means that we are completely screwed."
end of chapter thirteen
Chapter fourteen: Traitor
The coward wasn't used to running. Ronon closed on him within a few dozen steps, and caught him a dozen steps later, wrestling him to the ground. "Why did you do it?" He ripped out his weapon, aiming it at the vile creature's throat. "Talk, or I'll kill you. Maybe I just will."
"No. No." The traitor was on his back, struggling. "No. Please."
Ronon was dimly aware of someone else stopping, of people watching, of people shouting. None of it mattered. The only thing that existed for him was his enemy, and the weapon that could end it all. "Please." The traitor had seen them too, his eyes flickering desperately towards them. "Help me. He's trying to kill me."
Because he deserves it. He sold us all to the enemy. He almost said it out loud, but snatched it back at the last moment. Lying didn't come easily to him, but silence did. He hauled the traitor up, and dragged him away with an arm around his body, the weapon pressed to his side.
"Please!" the coward screamed.
He saw their faces then; saw the uncertainty and the fear and the distrust. He had seen looks like these for days. Sheppard had gone crazy, then had left; that's what these people thought. They'd heard Ronon shouting at Sheppard and betraying everything his team leader had ever done for him. Not any more, he thought. Not any more. They had their traitor, and things had gone far past the point of concealment now. Weapons were unsheathed, and the enemy was someone he could meet face to face.
"McKay caught him setting a bomb in the communications suite," he told them. "Explosion in the Control Room, too. Radios down."
It would have to be enough, because it was all he was giving them. His enemy was in his grip, and that was all that mattered. A door opened, and he dragged the man down the corridor, then into a room. He threw him down, letting him strike the wall, watching him slide down, watching him try to scrabble backwards with his feet, but getting the direction wrong and getting himself pinned in the corner.
Pathetic! He wanted to kill him there and then. A coward like this! A sorry excuse for a man! And yet he had caused them all to spend days distrusting each other, and had forced Sheppard into this dangerous game. He had brought Atlantis to its knees. A worthy enemy would have been better. This was just… was just…
"Don't hurt me," the traitor pleaded.
Ronon stood over him. "Why not?"
The traitor looked wretched, but at times like this Ronon knew how to be deaf to pity. "Because… Please…"
"No threats?" He started to pace, never letting his weapon waver from the traitor's chest. He remembered how adamant Sheppard had been that the traitor was allowed to get on with his work. If his messages to Carrick stopped, Sheppard would be in danger. But too late for that now. He'd shown his hand, and he'd overheard too much back in the lab. "Not threatening me with your friend's vengeance?"
"My friend?" The traitor's mouth opened and shut. "I don't know what you mean."
"We know you're a traitor." Ronon stopped closer. "I know."
He wasn’t good at interrogation. Sheppard was better at it, and Ronon had usually limited himself to standing in silent menace at Sheppard's side. It was easier just to hurt people. It was easier just to kill. But that isn't our way, he imagined Sheppard saying. It wasn't Ronon's way, either, or at least it hadn't been once, before the fall of Sateda. He was learning how to work with words again. They needed answers, not anger.
"Just tell me why." Just the question. Maybe not words at all, but just the threat of the weapon.
The traitor stilled. Except with his team, Ronon still wasn't as good as he could have been at reading people, but he thought the man looked almost relieved. "I had no choice," he began.
"There's always a choice," Ronon snarled.
"I didn't–" The traitor tried to move his hand, but Ronon jerked his weapon towards it, finger tightening on the trigger. "You have to listen. I… I was off-world, studying an Ancient facility when… when they… they took me."
"You did this to save your skin?" Ronon was flooded with disgust. He was back on the Wraith base, learning what his old friends had done. Best to kill him now, to hurt him, to smash his face, to… He snarled, a sound of pure wordless anger. They needed answers. Sheppard would need answers, and McKay, and Teyla, and everyone else damaged by this.
"No!" The traitor was crying now. "Not mine. They… they showed me pictures. Recordings. It was horrible. He was screaming. It was… I could hardly recognise him. It was Sergeant Manning. Nick. He flew me on a few missions over the last year, and we… I liked him. We were friends, and they were hurting him."
Ronon remembered watching Sheppard tortured on that screen. He remembered standing there, all of them, all watching, all doing nothing. He made his face cold, made his voice as icy as he had heard Sheppard's on a few awful occasions. "Go on."
"Carrick said… He said that if I came back to Atlantis and helped him, he wouldn't hurt Nick any more. He said Nick's life was in my hands."
"Bet he was lying. Bet he's already dead."
The traitor flinched, then let out a breath. He looked as if he was fading, sinking into defeat. "I couldn't… I had to take the chance. If I'd said no, it would have been murder. I couldn't do that; I couldn't."
"And you wanted to save your own skin." Ronon had to be cold.
"I had to do it!" the traitor moaned. "I didn't think it would matter."
He came close to dying at that moment.
"I thought Colonel Sheppard would start asking questions. I thought someone would notice and force me to say something. I thought they'd find Nick. I thought they'd go after Carrick and put him down. I thought they'd do it before any harm was done, because they always do, don't they? You found Colonel Sheppard when he disappeared, and I thought… And even if Carrick did make it to Atlantis, there's no way he'd take it. I mean, he's just a… a thug, and we've got all the techonology of the Ancients and of Earth. I didn't think it would come to anything. I didn't think it'd do any harm."
If he had been ranting hatred for everything Atlantis stood for, it would have been easier. "You planted bombs."
"Only small ones. Controlled ones. I was careful."
Ronon hit him, smashing him across the face with his empty hand.
"I didn't want anyone to get hurt."
"Ten men dead." Ronon hit him again. "Another still missing. You gave their positions to Carrick. You murdered them." He struck him again. What would I have done? No, no, he couldn't think it – couldn't imagine Sheppard or Teyla or McKay being tortured, and Carrick promising to stop it if only he… No. No. There was only one choice. Friendship and loyalty meant everything, but there were some places where you could not go.
But friendship and loyalty meant everything… And so he struck the traitor again, blood flying from his lying lips, and again and again, until he snatched his hand back, but he was not exhausted, and the anger was worse than ever.
"I never expected it to happen," the traitor. "I thought someone would stop it. People always do - Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay… They can do anything. It's… it's incredible. And then people started dying, but each time I thought… I thought it would be the last one, but if I said anything, they'd kill Nick." He let out a breath. "I knew it was my fault, but I was in too deep already. I didn't know how to make it stop."
"There's always a way to stop." He struck him again.
"I know. I was coming to tell you," the traitor said through broken lips. "That's why I came to McKay's lab. I can't communicate with him any more, so it doesn't matter. The attack's coming any minute."
"When?" Ronon demanded. "How many men? What's their plan?"
The traitor shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know any of that. I just know… He told me to take out communications and sensors. I said no – that I wouldn't go this far, even if he killed Nick – but he said… He said that if I made it easy for him to take the city, no-one would get hurt. He'd use stunners. He'd take prisoners and everyone could go home. But if I didn't do it… He said he had ways to get in anyway, but it would be far messier. He said he had drones. He said someone else from Atlantis was helping him, anyway. He said everyone would die unless I helped him with this."
"When are they coming?" Ronon had to ignore the pathetic justifications, and focus on what mattered.
"I don't know, but it must be soon. But I… I only damaged the interface. It won't take long to fix. McKay… he's better than I am. Zelenka, too. They'll fix things in time. And Colonel Sheppard defeated the Genii when they came, and Major Lorne and the soldiers…" He licked his lips, smearing the blood. "I was going to confess. That's why I came, but I… I lost my nerve when you…" Another breath. "It's been killing me. I haven't slept–"
Ronon turned his back. He could kill him, of course. Perhaps the man was lying and still had a way to help Carrick. If he was dead…
Then he thought of Carrick on his way to Atlantis. They'd have to prepare a defence, and radios were down. Sheppard had gone through all this – had put them through all this – in order to save Atlantis. We're not in it for revenge, buddy. He could almost hear his team leader's voice in his head.
The last time he had seen Sheppard, he had told him he had no respect for him. He had betrayed him.
Not any more, he thought, as he changed the settings on his weapon, and fired.
It would have been better, he thought, to have killed him at the start, and not bothered to talk. Questions were not his way, and the answers had offered no help at all, and had only made things worse.
It was best to have an enemy you could hate.
They were barely an hour in hyperspace. Sheppard was edgy when they emerged. It was better than a long trip, he supposed – less chance of giving himself away – but it didn't feel good to think of the enemy base being not much more than an hour away from Atlantis. They hadn't fully explored all their neighbouring planets yet. Of course, with the Stargates, any planet was effectively just next door, but they had a shield to take care of that.
"You're really doing this." Manning had been quiet for the whole time they were in hyperspace. Sometimes Sheppard had feared that he had died, but whenever he looked his way, the sergeant's eyes had been burning in his flushed face.
"Yeah." He gave a wry smile, perhaps of apology. Soon, he thought. Maybe only minutes.
Manning subsided. The worst thing to remember was not the pleading, but the time he had begged Sheppard to let him join him.
"Are we hidden?" Carrick asked.
"Yeah. Safely cloaked," Sheppard answered, then realised that Carrick had been talking to the scientists. "What? You don't trust me? I'm hurt."
Carrick ignored him. Because Sheppard had no choice – because he was doing exactly what he had chosen to do – he took the ship ever closer to Atlantis. It would take about twenty minutes, he thought. Twenty minutes. Plenty of time.
Atlantis would know they were here, of course. As well as the transmitter, there were the standard sensors; Ancient sensors could, of course, see through an Ancient cloak, although Carrick apparently thought they could not. It was a simple case of transmitting that location to Daedalus, and then it would all be over. Sheppard and Manning beamed out, the ship disabled, and there they'd have themselves a nice little prison ship floating in space. There'd be time afterwards to decide what to do with them. Despite everything Carrick had done, blowing the ship up in cold blood didn't feel right. Perhaps some savage wilderness planet without a Stargate…
Time for that later, he told himself, knowing that missions could go south right at the very end if you started to relax and tell yourself it was almost over. He still had to be alert. This was the most dangerous time of all.
Twenty minutes, he thought. No. Nineteen now. Eighteen.
Where was the Daedalus? Where was that ship?
It felt a little like waking up. Those shocked moments of defeat had passed. There was no deception and no lies when Rodney was doing what he did best, doing what he knew best. He was working with a deadline, trying to save Atlantis from a terrible fate. All that was missing was Sheppard goading him with inane comments, urging him to hurry up, as if Rodney didn't already know that they were doomed within minutes unless he could pull off another miracle, and I don't need you to tell me, thank you very much, colonel, because: working!
Nothing yet, though. Perhaps the attack had already come, and he wouldn't know – wouldn't know a thing until Carrick and his goons burst through the door and dragged him away to foul torture. Or maybe they'd just kill him on the spot. No, he had an incomparable mind. They'd need him. They'd try to get him to serve them.
No. No. Concentrate. Still nothing. "Although I am concentrating," he said. "I'm perfectly capable of panicking and concentrating at the same time. Call it a gift."
One by one, his scientists had reported to him, drawn by the discovery that their radios didn't work, or sometimes by the sound of distant explosions. "Why are you doing wasting your time here?" he had snapped. "Go fix the city. You. You…" He had snapped his fingers, failing to come up with a name. "Shield. You, sensors. Hurry now. Chop chop."
They were back to being irritating again – slow and half a step behind him when it mattered - but, if he was honest, they had their uses. It was almost as if they had shrunk. As potential traitors, they had loomed tall. Now they were humans again, and he was himself. If a ridiculous, crazy way, everything was all right again.
And he was at the centre of it, working away. It was quiet without Sheppard, though, and without people making demands over the radio. But everything was fixable; it was only a matter of time. The only question was whether they'd fix it before the attack…
No, there was another question, too. Carrick was one step ahead of them, and had shown his hand in a way they had never expected. What if he was on to Sheppard, too? Their sensors were down, but maybe there wasn't even a transmission to hear. Maybe Sheppard was dead. Maybe they'd gone through all this for nothing.
Then he thought of the shield going back online, and thought of them raising it, while Sheppard was just outside in a ship full of enemies – of them slamming the door in his face and shutting him out.
"Fearing the worst," he said. "Panic. Despair. Yes. Yes."
It was like coming back to life.
They were five minutes out, and the Daedalus still hadn't come.
Switch to Plan B, then, Sheppard told himself. Nothing was certain in the Pegasus Galaxy, and there were many things that could delay the Daedalus. If it didn't show, Sheppard was to take the ship to Atlantis, and land it there. Atlantis would know they were coming, and would know exactly where they were at all times. The section would be safely sealed off – just a tiny pre-planned escape route for Sheppard to take – and ambushes would be laid. Jumpers would be massing, ready to take up positions. If the worse came to the worse, they would simply raise the shield.
Still going according to plan, he thought. Stay positive, now.
Teyla was in position. She had tracked down Major Lorne, and together they assembled as many of his men as they could find. When the attack came, they were ready to fight it.
Assuming that it came where they expected it to come. Assuming that it was not already underway, stealthy figures creeping through the hallways elsewhere, slitting throats as they went.
Movement behind her made her turn round. Ronon slipped in beside her without a word.
"The traitor?" she asked. She had wanted to go after him when he had left Rodney's lab, but had felt that preparing for the future was a higher priority than revenge. "You killed him?"
"Still alive." She felt nothing at that, neither relief nor disappointment. The damage that this man had done…! "Locked away." She could only see the back of Ronon's head. "Said he did it to save a comrade from torture."
She said nothing. She thought of John, and of what he might be suffering if Carrick found out the truth about him. She remembered the terrified faces of the newest scientists – men and women who had never been raised as warriors, and many of whom had never seen violent death before. She thought of Carrick's men in Atlantis, making offers – let us through that door or I kill your friend.
"Doesn't matter now," Ronon said. "Does it." He did not phrase it like a question.
Teyla let out a breath, and thought of the long days of lying and deception. She thought of Jessica, tormented because of what they had done, and Rodney raging against everybody, and Ronon overflowing with fury because he had no enemy to fight. She was fully armed now, P90 in her hands, and a pistol at her side. With her comrades at her side, she was preparing to fight for her adopted home.
No, she thought, a moment later. With her comrades at her side, she was preparing to fight for her home. It felt good, like a dose of pure water after weeks in the stinking fog.
He could see Atlantis below them. Beside him, Manning was silent.
"Where would you recommend landing, Colonel Sheppard?" There was tension beneath Carrick's smile.
He thought about it for a while, weighing his answers, wondering how much to bluff. He knew Carrick didn't trust him, but… He felt the sweat on his palm, sticky against the controls. "East and west piers are the best options," he said. If something goes wrong and the Daedalus doesn't show up, he had told them, this is where I'll land. Would Carrick go with whatever he suggested, or choose the opposite? He remembered chess games with Rodney – bluff and double bluff. "Let's go with the west pier," he said.
Carrick consulted the scientists, asking for direction. One of them indicated on the viewscreen. West. Then he indicated again. East.
"Set a course for the west pier, then."
Sheppard tried not to react to the sly triumph in Carrick's eyes. He was aware of his breathing, aware of his heartbeat, aware of Manning at his side, and his city below him, beautiful on the ocean.
It looked almost close enough to touch, if only he reached out.
"And he won't know." Rodney jabbed at his tablet, then raced from it to the screen on the wall. "He won't know anything wrong. He won't…"
"Radek!" He shouted it, then he screamed it again, running into the hallway, hand on the edge of the door. "Radek! Somebody! Anybody! Are you all deaf? Radek!"
What if something had gone wrong, and they didn't know he was coming? He could lower the cloak for a moment, and hope they saw him. He could fire a drone somewhere harmless, perhaps skimming the very top of the control tower, like a beacon shouting, 'Here I am.' The Ancient technology responded to him, like a cat leaning into his touch. This was stronger, far stronger, than the controls in the puddlejumper. He just had to give it the thought…
Close enough to see the towers now, with blank windows that showed nothing of what lay behind them. Everything looked normal, but yet… but yet…
Carrick said other things, issuing orders to his men. Sheppard knew they were gathering in the rest of the ship, ready to begin the assault.
How many times had he flown home like this in a puddlejumper, his team at his side, heading back at the end of the day? He knew this sight, but somehow it had never seemed so intense and shining. He saw every tower, every spike, every balcony, illuminated in the darkness… And then they were going down, moving slowly and silent through the pale towers, heading for the pier. He saw the water below, close enough to see the white-topped waves. He brought the ship around, and saw the core of the city, full of the only people alive that he cared about, although he had spent days pretending that he did not.
The ground drew closer. Almost there, and then it would be real. Almost there…
The lights across the city went out. The ship very gently came to rest, and he felt the faint vibration that was the doors opening, men already spilling out.
The lights went on again. On, and off. On, and off. Three short flashes; three long…
And when it came to it, there was no thought at all, just instinct. He fired two drones, sending one into the very top of the main tower, and another into the tower above the west pier. A third he sent to impact just outside the door of the ship, where the enemy was thronging.
He reached for a fourth, but Carrick was already moving. He tried to take the ship back into the air, but Carrick was already acting. Sheppard was more tired than he would have liked, and still sluggish from the effects of the stunners. The Ancient technology slipped away from him like water, and although he tried to react to what was coming, he was far too late.
Carrick had already pulled the trigger. Sheppard heard the bullet strike the chair at his back. That was the first thing he noticed, really, before the pain.
end of chapter fourteen
Chapter fifteen: End Game
Rodney heard the distant tremor, as the lights pulsed around him, on and off, finishing their desperate SOS. His head snapped up. "What was that?"
There was nobody near him except for the new scientist – what was his name? The gossip. The one who'd overheard their fight so long ago. The one who'd talked. The one who'd told everyone that he…
No. No. It didn't matter. It didn't matter at all. "Find out what happened," he ordered. The scientist seemed to hesitate. "Go!" Rodney commanded.
"I want to help…"
"Then help!" Rodney stopped, raking his hand across his face. Too late now. It couldn't have been another bomb because the Ronon had gone after the traitor. And that meant… That meant that it was too late already. Carrick was already here. Too late to get the sensors back online. Too late to raise the shields. Too late for everything but fighting. He had failed.
"But I don't…"
But if it was too late, then the ship was here, and Sheppard was home. That meant… "Sheppard went undercover," he blurted out. "Everything else was an act. Someone was passing information on to the enemy. He's here now – Sheppard, I mean. The traitor… Ronon took him. I never hated Sheppard. It was under orders all the time." And still the scientist hesitated. "Go!" Rodney snapped at him. "Go!"
This time it was Rodney himself who called him back, just as he was on the point of leaving. "Tell people," he said, because it might not matter, but perhaps it might matter more than anything else. "Tell them what I said. Sheppard's one of the good guys. And tell them… Tell them to focus on getting radio communication back. It's too late for anything else now."
The scientist nodded once, then left, but it didn't change anything. Rodney had failed, and everything was unravelling all around him, and Atlantis was still blind. They'd die knowing the truth, but they'd still die.
But still he kept on working.
Sheppard heard Manning cry out. The pain was still slow in coming, but he could feel the slow flow of blood on his chest and at his back. "Don't," he managed to say, but Manning was already up, standing in front of him, quivering in anger. "Manning," he hissed. "Don't."
But Carrick had eyes only for Sheppard. He stood there, Sheppard's own pistol in his right hand, cold-eyed with victory and contempt. "I knew all along, of course."
Maybe it was the flow of blood. Sheppard just nodded, inclining his head slowly.
"But you gave me what I needed," Carrick said, "and I stayed one step ahead all the time. Atlantis is crippled and defenceless and ripe for the taking."
"Yet here you are, talking to me. Guys like you can never resist gloating." It was stupid, of course, but if you couldn't be stupid when you were dying, when could you be? Nothing ever seemed quite real at moments like that, but there were parts of it – the eyes of your enemy; his finger on the trigger; your city spread out before you – that seemed like the most real thing you had ever experienced.
"Not any more." The finger tightened.
"No!" Manning threw his body in front of Sheppard's. "Don't–"
"Sergeant!" It was a snap of command; it was a cry torn from the soul. Sheppard threw himself at Manning, twisted his body around…
And when the pistol fired again and then again, he had no idea at first which of them had been hit, but he saw the blood pooling on the floor, and then he was striking it, blood against his cheek.
He saw everything in strange and lurching movements. He saw Carrick's feet walking away. He saw a door close. Far away, echoing, he heard the sound of many boots. Then even that was fading.
Ronon saw the drone strike the tower above the west pier. He gave a fierce grin."He's here."
He tried his radio. Still dead. Lorne was on the far side. Teyla was crouching low. Other men still came up in ones and twos, reporting for duty, strapping on weapons, receiving orders whispered face to face. Once they went away, though, and took up their places in hidden corners out of sight, there was no way to keep in touch except by physical signals. Ronon didn't like it. Take away their technological advantage, and he feared these people would fall apart and fight like children.
He would still fight on their side, though.
"Stop." He felt Teyla's hand on his arm, and realised that he had been edging forward. He hated this inactivity! He had set traps in his time, and had waited, patient and unmoving, for hours, but there was a difference between being able to do something when you had to, and actually liking it.
"Wait," Lorne had said. "We want them all before we spring the trap. We want them to think they're getting in unopposed."
Unstated, behind it was all, was the desire to see Sheppard alive before they let the enemy know that they had been betrayed.
And there was nothing yet. Still nothing. And so Ronon crouched and waited, and although it was almost unbearable, it was better than the sort of waiting they had been doing for days.
Soon they would come, and then it would end.
Someone had knocked on Chris' door, ordering him to arm himself and report for duty down near the North Pier. It made no sense. Everyone was running around like headless chickens… No, actually, it seemed quite organised, really, though that was probably only a front.
He had no idea what was happening. Some attack, or something like that. A scientist guy had set bombs in various control rooms; he knew that much. That was why there was no radio communication. Why people went from that to expecting an attack, he had no idea.
No-one else seemed to be questioning. They were in their positions, staring intently at the place where they expected the enemy to come. Lorne and the other officers had issued orders, and they had all jumped.
For the briefest of moments, Chris had considered refusing, but his training was too strong. Whatever you thought privately of an order, you obeyed it. He wanted to leave Atlantis, but he didn't want a black mark on his record. So he'd do what he had to, but in private he'd laugh at these pathetic idiots who ran such a rotten base that one of their own could sabotage their communications and leave them running blind on a fool's errand.
Sheppard had been in charge for far too long. The rot had spread through them all.
"Sir." The voice brought him back from the place where he had gone. One of mine. Got to… "Colonel Sheppard. Colonel. Sir."
He opened his eyes. "You hurt?"
Sheppard swallowed. No blood yet in the back of his throat. "No lying to… to your commanding… officer, sergeant."
He felt someone touch him. The hands felt far away, beyond the pain. "You saved my life."
That part was jumbled. "I think… you saved… mine, too."
Had to sit up, though. Had to carry on. Atlantis was… And Carrick… He'd brought them here. His plan. His responsibility. He tried to sit up, but the hand held him back; tried again, and pain ripped across his body. One bullet straight through his shoulder; he had known that already, before the pain. The deepest, grating pain was in his side. He didn't know. He didn't know if he could…
"What did Carrick mean, sir?"
He blinked and managed to bring Manning's face into focus, swaying in and out. No time, he thought. Got to… And he tried again to sit up, forcing past Manning's restraining hand. No time, but Manning had believed… Manning had thought… Manning had been… "Was undercover the whole time," he managed to say. "This was the plan. Guess it… it went south."
"So you didn't…" There was relief there, but something more.
"No." But this time there really was no
time. "Can't talk now. Got
to…" He managed a smile. It was that or screaming, when he managed to
stand up. "Got to fix this mess. Got to save Atlantis."
Rodney made the last connection. The life-signs detector appeared on the big screen. He saw people in the Control Room, clustered around the controls. Three dots in the communications suite. Four around the shield generator. Two in the Chair Room. God, were they going to use drones? Blow up the ship – but Sheppard was on it! and surely it was too late, anyway, because it must have already landed. The enemy was already in Atlantis…
Dots, he thought. Dots that weren't friendly dots. Everyone on Atlantis was now fitted with a transponder, and the life signs detector had been calibrated to know them. Look for the enemy dots. Enemy dots moving towards him, hunting him down, preparing to drag him from his lab…
No. No. None of those. Look near the west pier; that was where Sheppard was supposed to land, though only if the plan was already shot to pieces and they were moving on to the last hope that was Plan B. No friendly dots at all out on the pier. So that meant that Sheppard was… No. Still on the ship. Perhaps the ship was shielded. Not dead. It didn't mean that he was dead.
But the unfriendly dots… "Oh crap," he said aloud, because there were lots of them, there were so many of them. "He's supposed to be a petty gang leader, for crying out loud", not someone with fifty dots on his side, no, more like a hundred. They were spilling out, flooding across the west pier, heading towards the place where the friendly dots were in place, waiting, but not enough of them, surely not enough.
He looked elsewhere. "What are they doing?" he cried. "Sleeping?" Because there were still a few dots in the mess-hall, and still several dots in private quarters, and in one place there were two, almost on top of each other. "Having sex while Atlantis burns!" he cried. "And you–" He jabbed at a stationary dot. "Wake up! Get your weapons on. Go join the fight. Save us."
Back to the pier. The dots were almost engaged. The friendly ones at the front were entirely still, while the ones at the back darted around, seeking better positions. Which one was Teyla, he wondered. Which one was Ronon? And none of it made a blind bit of difference. He knew where the enemy was, but he had no way of passing that knowledge on to the people who needed it. Some of them had hand-held detectors, of course, which would help, but the range wasn't as good, and if those with the detectors couldn't communicate with those without...
He clenched his hand, fingers digging into his palm. "Transporters! We need to disable the transporters." They had all the friendly dots they were likely to have. If the unfriendly dots reached the transporters, they could go anywhere in an instant. "Like here," he said, "and… and… and places where Radek and the others are working. Important work. They… they can't defend themselves like I can." If the transporters were disabled, it would be hand to hand fighting in the hallways, but doors could be barricaded and the enemy could be contained.
"Transporters!" he shouted. He jabbed at the screen, at that little cluster of dots in the Control Room. "Disable the transporters! Sam! Get those transporters offline."
But there was nothing he could do to make himself heard, but back near the west pier, unfriendly dots started winking out, which was something, at least.
"What can we do?" Manning spoke from behind him.
Sheppard steadied himself with a hand on the back of the chair, smearing blood there. "We could fly away," he said. "Steal their ride, but that doesn't help. Fire drones, but that will… that will hurt our guys…" His vision greyed for a moment. "Go out there…"
And that was what he burned to do. To fight the same battle that his men were fighting. To find his team. To fire a gun. To kill Carrick. To do something. He had been away from them for too long – much further away than they had ever known. Lost. Living a lie. Just to stand out there and fight, fully himself again…
"Where we'd die," he said, because sometimes that was the hardest lesson to learn – that sometimes you had to stand back, and couldn't fight. Two unarmed wounded men out on that pier could do nothing. Two men inside…
He dragged himself over to the controls, where the Genii scientist had sat. "Sometimes," he said to Manning, "you have to be able to know when you're beat. You have to know when…" He coughed, and almost passed out, his hand splaying on the controls.
"Lie down, sir."
"No." He dragged his head up again. They had no bandages present, and their clothes were filthy. Perhaps he only had minutes, but he would ensure that those minutes were full.
The enemy fanned out. They were clearly intending to split up into pairs, and spread themselves through Atlantis to wage warfare by stealth. It was what Ronon had expected. From now on, without radios, it was every man for himself.
He met Lorne's eye from where he was hiding, announcing his intention without waiting for consent. Then Ronon started hunting.
Jessica was working on the shield. It felt better to have something practical to do with her hands. She wasn't in charge, just doing what she was told. It was better than talking. It was better than dealing with… all that.
They talked around her, though. No-one really knew what was happening. Ewan Cameron – she'd seen him around, but not really talked to him – had planted bombs. Someone was coming to attack them, but no-one really knew who. No-one knew why.
"Colonel Carter and Doctor McKay'll fix the communications," she heard someone say. "I saw Major Lorne gathering a team."
Silence for a while. Then somebody said it. "I'd feel happier if it was Colonel Sheppard."
Teyla had said that Jessica had nothing to feel bad about, and then there had been that announcement… But Jessica couldn't help but think that she had helped fatally weaken Atlantis, and now they were under attack, and they couldn't defend properly because they were already broken. The scientists had less faith in the military than they had had when Colonel Sheppard was in command. The unimpeachable was tarnished. The invincible was broken.
No, she thought, as she focused on her work. Perhaps not broken. People were afraid, but they were doing what they had to. They were pulling together. And slowly, beneath their hands, broken things were being repaired. That's what they did.
If Manning hadn't been there, perhaps Sheppard would have let himself slip into the darkness completely.
He had tried to hail Atlantis. There was no response. He had tried…
No. Just to stay awake. To stay conscious.
"Calling the cavalry," he told Manning. He wasn't entirely sure that he was making much sense.
"Transmitter," he said. "Inside me. Too weak… That's the thing… with the Daedalus. Asgard are great guys, but they're not… Ancients. This small transmitter…" He waved his hand vaguely over his body. "Too weak for the Daedalus to pick up that far away. So Atlantis had to relay it on, and if they couldn't…"
He had no idea what had gone wrong, but it had to be the traitor's doing somehow. He hoped it was just communications that were hit. Maybe they were all dead. But, no, somebody had done that thing with the lights. Rodney all alone in his lab, bodies piled around him… No. He cracked a smile. Thinking like Rodney now. I'm supposed to be the positive one.
His own blood pooling beneath him. Manning hurt worse than he was letting on, and broken inside even worse than that. My responsibility. My plan.
"But I know… the frequency," he managed to say. "Ancient ship. Ancient transmitter. United States Air Force SOS." Another smile. "Know when you're beat. Know when to call for help."
But it would take time, of course, if it happened at all. So many other things that could happened to delay the Daedalus. So many things that could happen before it came. "Can't stop yet," he told Manning. "Got to do more."
He trailed off. Sheppard knew what he had been going to say, though. He pressed his lips together, and managed to stand.
Ronon killed two, and then he killed three. Gunfire stuttered, mixed with the sound of stunners, and any element of surprise was over. It was hand-to-hand battle now, and the Atlanteans knew the terrain, so the enemy shouldn't have had a chance. But the Atlanteans were deaf, and the enemy was communicating with radios of their own.
He paused just for a moment. "Teyla," he hissed.
Rodney ran to the transporter, and hammered on the door. Nothing happened. "Sam!" he cried. "Bless you!"
Then he hammered again, and kicked it, hard enough to hurt. He was stuck, too.
Teyla cut one down, then dodged behind the corner as a stun beam smashed into the wall where she had been. Another shot, and a piece of debris grazed her arm. She heard the sound of Ronon's weapon, but then she heard the sound of gunfire behind her, higher up, and deeper into Atlantis than the enemy should have been able get. They were creeping through the line already. She fired another burst.
Ronon was back at her side. "Got one of their radios," he said. He tossed it at her. "Find out what they're planning."
She took it, but she nodded in the direction where she had heard the fighting. "I fear it is not going to plan," was all she said.
They were blind and deaf. She had fought like this for years, living without the technology that the people of Earth took for granted, but perhaps she had grown soft. It felt fragile to be without it. It felt as if they had already half lost.
Friendly dots were going still. Rodney saw an unfriendly one break through, and then another, and then another. He saw them move to places where there were no friendly dots to stop them.
"There!" he shouted. "There! You idiots! You morons! Stop them!"
And he couldn't go anywhere, because although he was toned now, and he worked out – because you had to count running for life with your team as working out, didn't you – the city was huge, and with the transporters out, there was no way he could get anywhere useful. All those stairs, with enemies stalking him on them…
He let out a breath. Radek was working on the radio communications. "If only I'd gone myself. Zelenka's such an idiot."
Another moment. He looked at the unfriendly dots on the screen – fewer than there had been a few minutes before, he was sure of it.
"No. No. Zelenka's good. He'll fix it."
No-one came back. He was entirely by himself.
"We're through," Teyla heard on the enemy's radio.
"Stay hidden for now," another voice said. "Let them think–" It broke off.
Teyla was breathing hard from the fight. She forced herself to stop breathing; forced herself to stop moving.
"You can hear me, can't you?" the voice said. "It is an obvious trick. Is this the valiant Major Lorne, filling a dead man's shoes? Or the lovely Teyla Emmagen, or Ronon Dex, or one of the good little soldiers?"
"Carrick." She heard Ronon breathe it.
"Your Colonel Sheppard brought me here," Carrick said, "and then I killed him."
The radio went dead.
"Carrick!" Ronon roared. "Carrick!"
Teyla grabbed him, clapped a hand to his mouth. "Be quiet!" she hissed, but she wanted to scream it, too. Dead. John was dead. But there was no time for grieving. There was no time…! If anyone else had heard that… "What have we done?" she said aloud, but the tears had to wait, and so did the grieving.
Chris dropped the radio he had snatched from one of the dead enemies. Colonel Sheppard… Colonel Sheppard had…
"I knew it," he muttered, as rage filled him, mixing with the adrenaline of the fight. Blood stained his clothes. He had fought in earnest for the first time in months, and there was no commanding officer to tell him what to do, and that felt scary, a little, but good, too, because with the quality of the officers round here…
Colonel Sheppard brought me here.
Not the poor victim, then. Not the poor hero who cracked under pressure and ran away like a wounded animal. A traitor. A traitor to his precious Atlantis, which still adored him. Chris had been ostracised for saying a word against him, and now Chris as the only one who knew just how fallen he was.
He'd show them. He'd show them Colonel Sheppard's body, caught red-handed in the middle of the enemy base. He'd capture the enemy ship, too. Two birds with one stone. Show them what they were spurning when they ostracised him, and expose the lies of their false god.
But he had to start walking in the end. "Rodney?" he heard.
He had jabbed at his radio and begun to answer before he realised. The radios were back! Radek must have…
It was Sam. "I could have fixed them quicker," he found himself saying.
"Everything's back except the shield and the long-range sensors."
"Yes, yes," he said, because he was all alone, and the city was huge, and what on earth was he supposed to do about it?
"No," Sam said. "Wait a minute. Someone's hailing…"
He tried one last time. "Atlantis. Do you read?"
"Yep. In the flesh."
He was clinging to consciousness with his fingernails. The response made it harder, rather than easier. He was no longer on his own. Time to sleep.
"Are you…" He stifled a cough, his fingers digging into the edge of the console. "Is everyone…?"
"We're fine." It was Colonel Carter, he realised. "Are you–?"
"Fine." He curled his fingers tighter. "Listen. The Daedalus…"
"We couldn't get the message though, I'm afraid. It's hand to hand, but Major Lorne reports that they're holding their own. We got communications back just in time, and the enemy doesn't have much fire power, and are mostly armed with stunners."
Which meant nothing at all. He wanted to be out there with them. There was no reason to stay. The Control Room could deal with the Daedalus when – if – it arrived. If he stayed here where Carrick had left him for dead… Guess I'm just a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, he thought. "I'm going out there," he said.
A large explosion rocked the corridor just ahead of them. Someone swore over the radio.
"They have explosives," Teyla said. Her face was a grim mask, set solid with grief.
Lorne issued orders, but Ronon thought they came too late. The forces were scattered. The enemy had gone to ground. He'd killed at least six, but it was too late for them to assemble any clear picture of how many had gone in.
"I can't…!" someone gasped over the radio. "Damn. I saw him. I couldn't stop him. He got past."
When he had first come to Atlantis, Ronon had studied it to work out how he would take it. It was too much of a maze. A single man could wreak havoc if he managed to get into a good hiding place. I know, Sheppard had said with a grim smile, when Ronon had passed on his assessment. It had been several months before Ronon had discovered the story behind that. This was not just a single man, but many. They had weapons and explosives. The defence was scattered. Radio communication was back, but it only told them only how scattered they were, and it was too much to hope that the enemy wasn't eavesdropping on their communications, as they had done with the enemy's.
Another explosion sounded above them. Over the radio, there were screams. Ronon felt fury rush in to fill the hollows of his heart. With a roar, he raced forward.
Sheppard dragged himself to the door, then out into the corridor. Manning walked beside him, his face flushed, blood leaking from his arm. "What a pair we make, huh?" Sheppard said quietly.
A few more steps. He had no weapons. Perhaps it was just foolish romanticism. To die on Atlantis, beneath its silver towers… No-one's going to die, he tried to tell himself, but it was hard to believe that. To die trying to fight, not just sitting where he had been put, waiting for the cavalry… He had always been stubborn. He had always been obstinate. And that's what got you your black mark, John, and banished to Antarctica. Another step. And that's what brought you here.
"Sir." Manning saw it first. Sheppard's vision was beginning to dissolve into patches of grey.
He blinked them away as best he could, and cursed under his breath.
Carrick had not left the ship unguarded.
His lungs were screaming for air by the time he reached the communications suite. "Doctor McKay," the gasped, when they saw him. "We're almost–"
"And now I'm here." He leant with one hand against the wall, struggling for breath. The place was a blackened mess, and several of the scientists had bleeding fingers.
He staggered forward; pushed them to one side. And so it was that a few minutes later, he was the first to see what lay in the sky above them.
"Carrick!" Ronon screamed over the stolen radio. "Carrick! Come out and face me!"
Teyla tried to hold him back, but he pulled himself away from her. He stood in the open, because even now he trusted Teyla enough to cover him. Whirling round, he shot at a man who tried to take aim. He spun behind, and killed another. "Carrick!"
More explosions. He wondered who was dying. But Sheppard was already dead. Dead at the hands of Carrick. All of this, all of this, at the hands of Carrick.
"Hand to hand," he snarled into the radio. "Man to man. Just us. Finish this."
No-one came. But the bullet that struck him made him falter, and the next one drove him to his knees.
He heard Teyla screaming his name, then heard her suddenly cut short. Blood dripped from his leg. His head sagged, but still he shouted his enemy's name.
The sounds of battle grew further away. The radio had come back on, but Chris had torn his headset off, and refused to listen. He was working alone. They had forced him to do this. It was their fault, and they couldn't expect obedience, not after all this. Lorne was probably in on it with Sheppard, anyway.
There was little cover on the pier, but he used what he could, clinging to shadows. The ship was there, resting near the sea, with at least a dozen of the enemy lying fallen near its hatch. Chris took his time, took aim, and killed the guard nearest the entrance. He saw movement at the door, and shot again; missed, and tried again. Another enemy guard fell to the ground.
And then there was someone else, and Chris held his fire just in time. Not dead after all. No, of course he wasn't dead. He was in league with the enemy, so of course the enemy wouldn't have killed him. They were laughing at them – laughing. Colonel Sheppard was the enemy, and it was Chris' duty to kill him. Hadn't Colonel Sheppard himself had killed his commanding officer on his first active mission on Atlantis? But he'd do this face to face. He wanted them man to know who had killed him. This was justice, not murder.
He began to move forward, his P90 ready in his hand.
"Take this." Sheppard stripped the second fallen man of his gun, and passed it to Manning. The first one was already gripped in his right hand.
Standing up, though, was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do.
He watched the Marine walking towards him. "Thanks for that," he managed to say.
He thought of how Manning had reacted. But now Manning was clinging to him, holding him up. "I know this looks bad…" He had been gone for days, and was now emerging from the enemy ship. Lorne knew the truth, but perhaps Lorne hadn't had chance to tell everyone. He went for the snap of command, because it was simpler than finding words. "Report."
The Marine – Hudson, he realised, who had been chosen to overhear his fight with Ronon and Teyla – had his gun pointed at Sheppard's head.
Manning reacted, raising his own weapon warningly. "It isn't what it seems."
"Of course you'd believe him," Hudson spat, but his eyes never left Sheppard's. "Colonel Sheppard, I–"
But Sheppard was no longer listening. He saw something else behind Hudson. "Carrick!" he gasped.
He heard two gunshots go off simultaneously. He tried to move, but his feet wouldn't co-operate. He stumbled, then fell, then struck the ground on hands and knees, then rolled onto his side, onto his back, where he could see the silver towers of his home, pale against the blue.
end of chapter fifteen
Chapter sixteen: Robbed
Chris felt the bullet hit him. He struggled to hold onto his gun, but his hands were weakening. He fell to one knee, and for a moment felt as lost as he had felt in his first active engagement, with no idea what was going on.
Sheppard was down; he saw that much. He didn't think he had shot him, though; didn't think he'd shot at all. The man beside Sheppard, in the tattered remains of an Atlantis uniform, was crouching over the colonel, holding a gun on Chris… No, not on Chris. On somewhere just behind him. "I'll kill you," the man was saying, his voice cracked and broken. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you." He fired the gun, but he cried aloud, almost sobbing, at the same time as the gun fired. "I won't let you hurt me again. I won't let you hurt him."
Chris groped for his gun again, but pain stabbed through his right arm. He'd been shot! He'd been shot! He'd known it before, but he hadn't really known it. He snatched his hand back, unable to bear to move it. Then he found Sheppard's eyes on him. "Stay down," Sheppard said, but he himself was dragging himself up, crawling over to Chris's side, picking up his discarded P90. "Stay down," he said again, unmistakeable command in his voice.
Chris obeyed. Light streamed out of the ship behind them, cutting through the night. It showed Chris the slickness of blood shining on Sheppard's front, and the drawn pallor of his face. It showed him redness and dirt in the folds of his knuckles, but also showed him how he gripped the gun. He saw his jaw set, he saw the way he held his head upright, determined not to let it fall.
"No!" he heard the other man scream, and then a shot, and then another shot, and another, and another, and then the click click click of an empty gun, as he carried on firing again and again.
Ronon dragged himself upright. He was shot in the leg and the bicep, but that meant nothing. Sheppard was dead, and Teyla… Teyla…
He turned around, raking the air with the barrel of his weapon. Teyla was caught in the grip of one of the enemy, who held her with his arm around her throat, his gun pressed to her brow. "Drop your weapon," the man said, "or I kill her."
"Big man with crazy hair," the man said. "I know who you are. You're the Runner."
"You Carrick?" Ronon's eyes narrowed. He saw only the arm around Teyla's throat, and the eyes of the man who held her.
"My name's Everard," the man said, "and I'm the man who's going to kill you."
Sheppard would make a joke about the way he said it; Ronon heard it very dimly at the back of his mind. He saw Teyla's struggles, saw her struggling to breathe. He saw the enemy. He could shoot him, perhaps, but even if he killed the man instantly, there would be time for him to kill Teyla.
He had lived for years, never laying his weapons down, never giving in to a threat, never giving up on a fight.
"I. Will. Kill. Her," the enemy said.
He thought of the traitor locked in that room. He thought of times with his team in the mess-hall. He thought of how furious he had felt, how dirty, at the thought that he had been forced to betray his friend. He had been alone for so long, but now he was not. Friendship counted for more than pride. It counted for more than anything. The loss of Sheppard had almost driven his team apart, but they had found each other again, and Ronon refused to lose them.
He laid down his weapon.
"Now!" Rodney shouted. "Now! Sam! Tell Caldwell… Tell them… Now! Do it now!"
It felt like a miracle. It had been none of his doing, but that no longer seemed to matter. They had done it. He had no idea how it had known to come, but come it had. The Daedalus was here. They were saved.
Manning had run out of ammunition. "You got him?" Sheppard managed to say.
Manning sank slowly to the ground, as if the last of his strength had left him.
Sheppard knew he was clinging to consciousness only by a thread. He turned round – but it was closer to falling, really – and saw Carrick's body. Then everything shimmered white, and his enemy was gone. His sluggish mind didn't understand at first, but then he knew. He knew.
A dark shadow slowly moved across him. In its sudden cold, he found he could cling on no longer. Manning and Hudson were safe.
He let himself go.
Teyla twisted in the enemy's grip, and slithered free. She fell to the floor, gasping, then sprang up again, her eyes blazing.
The enemy ignored her. "I have taken a dislike to you," he said to Ronon.
Ronon readied himself to fight. Even unarmed, he was far from defenceless. He had weapons, fists, and he would never give up, never…
"Ronon," he heard Teyla gasp.
He blinked. The enemy shimmered, and disappeared. Ronon bellowed, and smashed his fist into the wall.
"What happened?" Chris asked, when he could speak.
The man in the tattered uniform ignored him. He was slumped on his knees, still holding the gun, looking shattered. "I killed him. I killed him. He's dead. I think he's dead. Is he dead?"
There were just the three of them now. Chris couldn't move his arm, but the other two were hurt worse than he was, he thought. Colonel Sheppard looked dead. Serve him right, Chris thought, but the thought had little force to it, not any more. He had been unable to hold a gun, and Sheppard had crawled to his side, and had crouched above him, his body broken, but fire in his eyes. Nothing laidback there. Nothing joking or arrogant or empty. He had commanded, and Chris had obeyed.
The other man seemed to fall in on himself. Then he, too, seemed to see Sheppard for the first time. Chris could see the moment when he decided to pull himself together, because he had to. It was not something he had ever seen before, not quite like that. It was not something he would ever forget.
"Have you got bandages?" the man said. "Colonel Sheppard, he…" He pointed. His arm was bleeding, too, Chris noticed, and his skin was sweaty and covered with old bruises.
"Yes." He swallowed. "Yes."
He had come here to kill the man. Hell, he still didn't know…
"Help me with him." The man seemed to holding himself together only by sheer determination. No, Chris thought, it was not the first time he had seen it. He had seen it only minutes before, in another man.
He needed the things he had been feeling over the last week. He needed them, because what would he have without them? With one hand, feeling as if he was lost in a dream, he helped the man. Colonel Sheppard was still breathing.
"He was undercover," the man said, "the whole time." He blinked, shaking his head. "I'm Manning. Nick Manning. I… I don't know you. You're new? Has it been that long?"
They didn't shake hands, though; it wasn't that strange. But their eyes met briefly, as they knelt on either side of Colonel Sheppard's body, both working as best they could.
"We need help," Manning said. "Got a radio?"
Chris shook his head. He had thrown it away when he had started to go in alone to bring Sheppard to justice and show everyone just how wrong they had been. That certainty had left him, like water flowing from a pipe. What did he have left when it was gone?
He had only wanted to belong. He remembered that suddenly, remembering arriving on Atlantis. They hadn't embraced him instantly. That meant that they were at fault. It hadn't meant that he had gone about things badly. No, they were at fault, and then they had turned against him… He had been right to feel what he had felt, he had been right. Undercover, Manning had said. A pack of lies. No wonder he'd…
"There's one in the ship," Manning was saying, "tuned to the right frequency. Colonel Sheppard used it to talk to the Control Room after he'd summoned the Daedalus. Tell them… Tell them to come quickly. Colonel Sheppard… I don't think he's… Just come quickly. Tell them to come quickly."
You're not an officer to give me orders. Chris might have said that, too. He couldn't see Colonel Sheppard moving at all. He wondered who had shot him. Chris had wanted to, he knew that, but there was all the difference in the world between wanting something and actually doing it.
"I don't want to leave him," Manning said, with all the heartbreak and certainty of blind and absolute loyalty.
Chris should have hated him. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet, and scrambled into the ship. He didn't want to see anyone, he thought, not for a while. But he found the radio – there was no much blood in there, so much blood! – and he did what he had to, and he was answered.
Rodney jabbed at the radio. "Are they gone? Sam, are they gone?"
The person who answered was not Sam. "Doctor McKay? Your suggestion worked. The Daedalus was able to use data from our lifesigns detector and it has now finished beaming all non-Atlantis personnel to the holding cells or to its own brig."
There was no sound of triumph in the man's voice, though, as it relayed its stilted words. "What is it?" Rodney asked. "Did lots of people die?"
"Casualties are still being assessed," the voice said, "but Colonel Sheppard…"
Rodney started to run for the transporter.
The enemy had been stolen from him. Someone was hovering around him, trying to get him to sit down, trying to let them treat him. As if Ronon could sit…! He had been days spoiling for a fight, robbed of the chance to strike a blow. He'd killed several, but not enough. Not enough.
"Ronon." Teyla's voice was hoarse. "Let them do their job."
And Sheppard was dead. And there were people around him being taken away on gurneys, as medics shouted orders around them. There was blood on the floor, and his weapon was at his belt again, but no-one would tell him where Carrick was, and the one called Everard had been snatched away from him just as he had been about to fight him.
He snarled, almost smashing Teyla's hand away, but stopping himself just in time.
Teyla just looked at him until he stopped and looked at her, too. "I feel the same," she said. Her voice was low and fierce. "I wanted to hurt them, but that would not have brought John back."
"We were winning," he snarled. He was sure now that they had been. Once the radios had been restored… No, perhaps even before that. These people were worthy fighters even without their technology.
"A victory is still a victory, no matter how it is gained," Teyla said. "There would have been more casualties if it lasted longer. Perhaps you. Perhaps me."
Lorne had said something over the radio, but beyond that there were only whispers. The Daedalus had beamed the enemy away in small groups, and they were all locked away. But not out of Ronon's reach. He would find them. He would find Carrick and…
"Death is not undone by more death," Teyla said.
Ronon almost responded furiously to that, but something told him that she was trying to convince herself of it as much as she was trying to convince him. He smashed his fist into the wall. The young medic tried to grab his arm. "I'm good," he told her. "Go treat somebody else."
"You are making her afraid of you," Teyla said when the young woman had gone, but there was a slight smile on her lips.
He wasn't quite sure why he said what he said next. "It's not the killing. I know what they say, but it's not true. Don't particularly like killing, but you have to do it. I've seen people who liked it too much. That's not me. It's not having something to fight, that's what's bad."
He saw Teyla nod slowly. It was in the hands of the diplomats and the leaders now. He knew how it would go. Carrick and his men would be taken to a planet without a Gate, and left to live. Sometimes killing was better. It wasn't because you liked violence, just that it was necessary. It was an ending for everyone. It was always better to have an ending. When the enemy was snatched away from you before you could bring that ending yourself…
"He killed Sheppard." He smashed his fist into the wall again.
Teyla nodded again, her eyes shining with tears and vengeance. She understood. He knew she understood. She might try to talk him down or try to calm him, but at heart she was not much different from him. She understood. Sheppard had understood, too.
He looked at them all, some trailing off unharmed, some injured, some lying still. "They won't believe the truth about him," he found himself saying. He had seen how these people worked, and how reluctant they were to speak ill of the dead. Colonel Carter would tell everyone the truth about Sheppard, but deep down everyone would suspect it was just a lie, an attempt to give the man honour in death. They'd remember that he had brought the enemy to Atlantis. That part they would never forget.
"I think you are wrong." Teyla touched his arm. "They were very reluctant to believe ill of him, despite the evidence we presented. I think they will believe, because they want to believe. John is well liked here."
"And dead." Anger was easier, and more loud. There were worse things beneath it. "Dead, because he left – because he made us say we hated him." It was not even a warrior's death, with honour and a farewell. The things that had passed between the two of them would never be forgotten, even though the whole thing had been a lie. The last time you saw a person alive remained forever in your memory, as if burnt there with flame.
He started to walk, his injured leg screaming beneath him, and then Teyla was there at his side, supporting him with her deceptive strength. He could not bring himself to refuse her aid. Anyone else, perhaps, but not her.
She did not ask where he was going. She did not need to. Sheppard's body was out there, and he was going to bring it back, and if anyone dared try to make him stop… He had not been able to kill for his friend, and he had not been able to undo the words he had said, but he could bring him home.
But then even that was stolen from him. A voice spoke over the radio. They had Sheppard, they said, in the infirmary. Ronon had shouted aloud before he heard the rest of it, and realised the truth. He had not been robbed, after all, but granted a gift.
Sheppard was still alive.
Nobody would tell him anything. There were people working everywhere. Every bed was full, and there were people on gurneys in the hallways. "How many didn't make it?" he heard someone ask, and Rodney had to bite his lip to keep himself from answering that it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all. Because of course it mattered, but nobody could tell him about Sheppard, and perhaps he was selfish, but that mattered more.
He tried to sit down, but they moved him on, telling him he was in the way. He leant against the wall, and they told him to wait outside. What right did they have? He was the head of science, and… and… he supposed that medicine was a science, or sort of one, and that meant…
And he's my friend! He didn't quite manage to say that out loud, though.
Sheppard was in surgery, in a closed room behind curtains, and they wouldn't let him into it, even when he shouted in a voice that once upon a time had had his minions running, before they had grown used to him, or perhaps he had been tamed.
Someone shooed him into the hallway outside. Someone else led him by the arm, and he shook them off, but found himself going, anyway. There Teyla found him, and Ronon, who was covered with blood and limping.
"What happened to you?" Rodney asked. "Seriously, that looks bad."
"I'm fine," Ronon said, and, really, Rodney could almost hate them – men like Ronon and Sheppard, who got themselves hurt, and made you worry about them, because they refused to worry about themselves. They actively sought trouble. They didn't care about the people they left behind.
"How is John?" Teyla asked him.
"They won't tell me. I mean, what's wrong with these people? They know who I am. They know we're his team."
"They are busy."
"It shouldn't stop them," Rodney said. "Aren't these people supposed to be trained in bedside manner and keeping family informed? Uh… friends, I mean. Friends."
"They will tell us when they have time."
"Well, you know something, Teyla? That's not good enough. We've been waiting days to find out if he's still alive. We've been sitting here, twiddling our thumbs, waiting. And how he's back, and he still won't let us see him."
"It is not–"
"Yes. I know," he shouted. "It's not his fault. But it feels like it. Yes, yes, I'm petty, okay? I never claimed to be a good person. Because right now, I don't even care what happens to him. He. Left. Us."
Teyla touched his arm, and that felt like the worst thing, because it was as if she understood, when he didn't even understand it himself – how you could be terrified for somebody, but furious with them, both at the same time.
They had been waiting for over an hour when Colonel Carter made her announcement.
Ronon had finally allowed the doctors to tend to his injuries, though he had done so while sitting on the edge of the bed, as if ready at any moment for action. Rodney had finally run out of energy, and was slumped in exhausted defeat. Teyla waited for news, and focused only on that. If she let her focus slip, she was not sure what would come in and take its place.
"Today Atlantis fought off a major attack," Colonel Carter's voice said. Teyla watched the doctors in the infirmary glance up, then resume their work, listening. "I am sure you will be as pleased as I am to hear that there were no fatalities, although there have been many injuries."
Teyla let out a breath. It had looked bad, but battles often looked worse when you were in them. Although hampered by the lack of radios, their defence had been in place. Many of the enemy had fallen, she knew. Of the ones she had seen, several had Genii weapons, some had slow and clumsy firearms, but the rest had been armed with stunners, some evidently taken from the Wraith, and some of an unfamiliar design.
"You did well today," Carter said. "We owe a debt of gratitude to those who worked to repair our damaged systems and to those who were involved in our defence."
Teyla saw Rodney's eyes on her. Then Ronon shrugged off the last touch of the doctor, and limped from the bed to join them. Together, the three of them left the entrance to the infirmary and moved somewhere quieter. She had no idea which one of them led them, but knew only that she wanted this.
Colonel Carter continued. She told them everything, or as much as she could. The traitor was not named, though she told them that the enemy had had an agent in the city. "For this reason," she said, "we had to keep certain truths from you, because we knew that everything that was said could reach the ear of the enemy."
It was coming. The team – the three of them who were left – moved closer. "Many rumours have been spreading about Colonel Sheppard," Colonel Carter said. "I can now tell you the truth."
She told it all. She told them about their growing awareness of a threat to Atlantis, and of the pilots and soldiers who had died. She told them how John had volunteered to go undercover in an attempt to bring the threat to an end. She told them how a rift had been feigned, and how they had all had to lie, in order to ensure that Carrick learnt what they wanted him to learn. She apologised for that, too. "The last few days have been difficult for you all. The misinformation that we had to spread contributed to that, and I apologise."
And Teyla was glad. Some, she thought, might consider that Carter should not have apologised, because to apologise was to admit an error, but Teyla believed otherwise. Damage had been done. By admitting to that, perhaps they could help heal that damage.
Carter went on. She told them how John had brought the enemy towards Atlantis in order to gather Carrick's entire scattered organisation into one place, and here, too, she was honest, admitting that the ship should never have reached the city itself. Carrick had almost outwitted them, but in the end they had prevailed.
"There have been many lies told," Carter said, "because we had no choice, but what I say today is nothing but the truth. Colonel Sheppard was acting under orders the entire time, and anything that implied otherwise was a deliberate act designed to deceive the enemy. There is proof of this in writing at Stargate Command–"
"They shouldn't need proof," Ronon said, interrupting what came next.
"They should not, and many of them will not," Teyla said, because she knew that so many of the people of Atlantis had been so resistant to believing anything bad about John. "But trust has been eroded over the last few days. Some may need it."
Colonel Carter finished, and from the infirmary and beyond there came a sudden buzz of talk. Teyla realised that she had no desire to hear what they were saying.
And there was still no news on John.
So that was the truth. Jessica had made her way to her quarters, and was sitting on the edge of the bed. That was the truth.
A small part of her told herself that she should be angry. She had been beating herself up about this for days, thinking that she had been disloyal to Atlantis, but all along she had been serving the plan. All that pain for nothing!
But it had been necessary, Colonel Carter had said. An enemy agent on Atlantis? Who could that have been? Her own words, reported through the enemy, had helped the plan succeed.
Perhaps it had been worth it. Relief was the main thing she was feeling, she thought. No more worrying that she was going to be fired. It felt good, too, to know that Colonel Sheppard was still on their side. And she'd played her part today, helping fix the damaged systems, and she'd been in danger – though, really, she hadn't realised it at the time – and had faced a crisis and emerged on the other side.
Perhaps everything was going to be okay.
And soon as one set of rumours was laid to rest, another set started. An enemy agent on Atlantis? Ronon Dex had spoken too loudly. Several people had seen who he was dragging away, and the news had spread.
Robert was one of the first to hear. So it was Ewan Cameron! He remembered sharing a table with the man not long after Colonel Sheppard's departure, and remembered Cameron questioning him. To think that everything he'd said had been passed through to the enemy!
But a traitor…! It had felt horrible and incredible to think of Colonel Sheppard leaving Atlantis in anger, but to think a man so close to his own age – a man who might have become his friend – selling secrets to the enemy…
It felt worse, in a way, than it had felt after Sheppard had left. The colonel's departure had made Atlantis feel more dangerous, but Cameron's defection left it feeling tainted. There but for the grace of God… What sort of a galaxy had he come to live in, if people like himself could betray them all!
Chris found himself in an adjacent bed to the man called Manning. He wondered if he should say something, but just as he was wondering, Manning spoke. "Have you heard them say anything about the colonel?"
Chris shook his head. After he had spoken to the control room on the radio, the three of them had been beamed almost instantly to the infirmary. A doctor had taken one look, and had hurried Colonel Sheppard away.
He had no idea what to think about things. Colonel Carter had spoken, of course… All lies, he had thought. Covering up with lies to try to keep his reputation.
But he couldn't forget the way Sheppard had looked as he had dragged himself to Chris' side, covering him with his gun. Half-dead, but still carrying on. Protecting Chris. Coming back for him.
But if what Carter said was true, then Chris had been used. He'd been set up to hear the fight he had heard, and set up to tell it. As a result, he'd been ostracised. If he ended up hating Sheppard, then Sheppard only had himself to blame. He doubted they'd spared a single thought for people like Chris, their fall guys. Perhaps Sheppard wasn't the joke Chris had thought he was, but he was still…
"Did I kill him?" Manning asked. "Did I kill Carrick? I thought I had, but did you check on him? Was he really dead?"
His voice had changed. Chris hardly knew him, but looking at him now, he could hardly recognise him as the man who had been worrying over Sheppard just a moment before. "The guy outside the ship?" Chris asked. "I don't know."
"I hope I killed him." It was still in that altered voice. Then he changed again, and looked away.
"Carrick told us he was dead," Ronon said.
No need to ask who 'he' was. "Maybe he is," Rodney said. "They're not telling us anything. If Carson was here…"
But he wasn't. Carson had gone, because he was selfish and stubborn and had insisted on removing that tumour by himself, without a thought as to how his death would affect Rodney. Elizabeth was gone, running out on him before he could stop her. Now Sheppard was gone – probably going to die - and he'd forced Rodney to participate in that ridiculous charade, so their last words were in anger.
He saw someone leaving the infirmary with a smile. "God!" He almost slammed his fist into the wall, then remembered how much caveman gestures like that could hurt. "They think we've won."
Enemies in the holding cells. A traitor – one of his own hand-picked scientists. And Rodney hadn't been able to do anything much during the attack. He'd been useful, and… and Sheppard was gone, and why weren't they telling him anything? Why weren't they telling him anything?
It felt like failure. And the whole stupid plan had been Sheppard's. Failure, and it was Sheppard's fault. All his fault, and now he was being so selfish as to die.
end of chapter sixteen
Chapter seventeen: Surfacing
He became aware of distant voices very far away. He thought he might be underwater, and wondered if he should swim towards the voices, but he couldn't seem to find his body. The voices faded, but the sensation of being underwater did not. He drifted in blue sky and the endless ocean, and there at the middle it was a silver city.
The voices grew louder. He saw greens and white, and he tried to move again, and this time his hand obeyed. The voices ebbed and flowed, though, and soon he was sinking slowly back down to the bottom of the ocean, to a place where there was only darkness.
One voice came in, louder than the others, right at the end. "Everyone's fine," it said, "and you're back on Atlantis."
Back on Atlantis. That was good. Everyone's fine. That was better. He tried to smile, but the darkness grew thicker and the water was too deep.
Memory was a jumble. He wasn't sure why he was here, or what he had been doing. He tried to sort through the fragments, to work out which memory was the most recent. There was too much, too real, too soon, but at the same time strangely far away. He didn't know…
"Open your eyes." That was Rodney. "We know you're awake."
Sheppard opened his eyes. I was trying to work out if I was really on Atlantis, he thought, or if you were Carrick. Best not to say it, though. It already felt stupid, because he remembered everything now, and he knew that this was real.
"How is…?" He cleared his throat. It hurt, though he had no memory of doing anything that would make it so hard to speak. "How's everyone?"
"Fine." Rodney flapped his hand impatiently. "We've already told you, like four times."
"Oh." He had vague memories then of swimming through water, and sinking back into the darkness when a voice told him what he needed to hear.
"So are you awake for real this time, because I don't want to waste my time telling you things if you're only going to fall asleep again and forget them."
He still felt a little as if he was floating, but he knew that feeling well enough by now to know that it was due to drugs. It was best not to try too hard to move at the moment, he decided. Moving might send him back beneath the water. "For real, I guess."
He looked at them around his bed. Ronon was sitting, his arm in a sling. Teyla stood behind him, an arm on the back of his chair. Rodney was his usual restless self. They all looked tired and drawn and haggard, but they seemed suddenly to be the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. I missed you guys. He had had to pretend he hated them, and from then on he had been entirely on his own. Home had felt so impossibly far away when he had lived with Carrick, pretending to be someone he was not.
"So everyone's…" He cleared his throat again, swallowing. "Everyone's okay?"
"Yes, yes," Rodney said. "We won. The bad guys are defeated. All living happily ever after, etcetera etcetera."
"I thought…" The Daedalus hadn't come. The lights of Atlantis had flashed in a distress signal. "I thought it had all gone wrong."
Teyla started to say something, but Rodney spoke over her. "No. Everything went right. Everything went according to plan. By which I mean that everything fell apart round here while you went off without a thought… without thinking that…" He stopped, scraping his hand across his face. "You know, colonel, you just expect us to wait for you, but it's not… I'm not doing this any more. I'm not."
Sheppard swallowed. The water wanted to claim him, but this was real. "Rodney…" he began, but Rodney ignored him, walking away without another word. Sheppard subconsciously tried to start towards him, but sudden pain pinned him to the pillow.
He closed his eyes. He felt Teyla touch his arm, and when he opened his eyes again, she was looking at him gently. He tried for a smile. "What's gotten into him?"
"You have to understand," Teyla said, "that it was difficult for us. I… think you were not aware of how hard it would be. It was not easy to have those fights with you. It was not easy to sit and wait. It was not easy to have to pretend…" Her eyes lowered, then rose again, and he felt her grip tighten. "To have to pretend not to care."
"It was just…" Just an act. The words died on his lips, because he understood. Saying those things to Carrick… Pretending to hate everyone… Lying to Manning…
"You are loved, John." Teyla squeezed his hand. "Not just by us, but by many on Atlantis. Your… absence has affected many people."
He felt he ought to say something. Hell, he wanted to say something, but he couldn't find the words. And so he took the coward's way out, and closed his eyes. It was a while before he slept, though.
After that, he thought that he had a procession of visitors, and that he dozed a little between each one. It was only afterwards that they told him that the whole thing had covered several days, and that he had slept for hours between each conversation.
Keller came first, telling him that he was lucky to be alive. The bullet through his shoulder had caused him to lose too much blood, but the one that had lodged in his side had almost been the killer, and all of it had been exacerbated, in Keller's stern opinion, by the fact that he had moved around too much after being shot. "But I had to," he tried to tell her, but it seemed that doctors were all the same in having a dim view of necessity. As it was, she told him, he was damn lucky not have permanently compromised the mobility of his arm.
"You look as though you wish I had," he told her, and she smiled then, all sternness leaving her face, and said how pleased everyone was to have him back. "I'm not good at lying," she said, "really I'm not. I… I just… can't. I mean, not that… I mean, I don't mean I'm only pleased because I don't have to… to lie. It's not that. I…"
Perhaps she did something with his drugs, because he didn't remember the rest of that conversation. The next thing he remembered was Teyla, but he was asleep again before they could say much. Lorne appeared and kept him up to date with things he couldn't remember the next time he woke. Even Zelenka came by, but Rodney never came. Ronon came, though. Sheppard opened his eyes once to find him standing beside the bed. He wondered afterwards how long Ronon had stood there waiting for him to wake up. "I didn't mean it," Ronon said, when he saw Sheppard awake. "What I said. About not respecting you."
Sheppard blinked. His thoughts were sluggish on waking, but some things he understood immediately. Some things he would never forget. "Of course you didn't. I know that."
"Just wanted you to know." Ronon moved closer, as if he wanted to give Sheppard a one-armed hug, then stopped himself. Instead, he clapped Sheppard awkwardly on the uninjured shoulder.
"I didn't mean what I said either," Sheppard managed to say, before he drifted away again, but the sleep after that was a little easier.
There was still no Rodney next time he awoke, but Keller was there, and the time after that, he saw Colonel Carter, halfway through saying something to someone else. Someone out of sight must have signed something, because she turned round, smiling. "I'm glad to see back on Atlantis, John, and still in one piece."
She moved on to more than greetings, though, and soon he was struggling to focus on business. It was true that nobody had died, although there were many injuries, "but you grabbed the starring role as far as injuries are concerned," she said, with a wry smile. "If you hadn't managed to call the Daedalus, it would have been much worse."
"See?" he said. "I told Keller I couldn't just lie down."
The prisoners were still in custody, she told him, but he decided not to think about that for now. Then she told them about their traitor, and the things he had confessed. She told him about the bombs that had derailed their plan, and how Rodney and many others had worked tirelessly to repair the damage, but how for the most part the defence had been conducted blind.
"What's going to happen to him?" Sheppard asked.
"Cameron? He's in custody. He will be sent to trial, of course."
Cameron had betrayed Sheppard's city to the enemy. Only a week before, perhaps, Sheppard would have hated him more than anyone else alive. But then he had stood over Manning with a gun in his hand. He had wrestled with the choice of killing one man, or risking hundreds of lives by his refusal to do so. He had chosen not to kill him, and to hell with the consequences. Would he turn traitor in order to protect a team-mate from torture? Probably not, but it was not as clear-cut as that. The way he saw it now, there was precious little black and white in the issue, only shades of grey. His own decision had been on one point of the continuum, and Cameron's had been on another, and that was all.
"Go as easy on him as you're allowed to," he said. It would be easier on Manning, too. Cameron had sold Atlantis for Manning's sake. There was bound to be guilt there, and the man had already endured far too much already.
"I don't think we can, John."
"Please." Pain put a raw edge to his voice. Then he stopped, knowing that if he spoke again, he would say things that shouldn't be said.
She seemed to be about to say something, stopped herself, then spoke. "John, given the circumstances, perhaps you should be cautious before speaking out in support of someone who betrayed Atlantis."
He had no energy for a retort, but he managed to shake his head, and managed to set his jaw stubbornly, and saw how she sighed but smiled faintly at the same time. He would do what was right, and to hell with the consequences.
No, he thought, a moment later, before he slept. Perhaps not that, not any more.
"Do you think we will recover from this?" Teyla found herself asking.
Colonel Carter thought about it for a moment. "I think so. Everyone who chooses to come here is strong in their way."
"But we lied to them."
"Because we had to."
But I fear that they will not see it like that."
When you lived in the shadow of the Wraith, you needed perfect faith in your leaders. You needed perfect loyalty, too, when the price of concealing some knowledge could be the devastation of your people. Trust, once lost, was often difficult to regain.
"I think they will," Carter said. "The people of Earth… And this sounds bad, but they are used to their leaders keeping things from them. Every soldier on Atlantis has been trained in a system in which he takes it as read that the officers know things that he or she does not. It doesn't stop them from having faith in their officers, if they prove themselves to be good. And in this case, there was a reason for the lies. They will understand that."
"But it did so much damage." Teyla had been optimistic when talking to Ronon and Rodney, but here with another woman, another leader, she could show her concerns. There was Jessica, coming to Teyla in guilt and torment. There was Chris Hudson ranting against John in the mess-hall. There was Lieutenant MacDonald, threatening them in the training room – a thing that she had promised to tell nobody about. And then there was her own team, fractured and angry, and Rodney storming out of the infirmary, wrapped up in fury and misery. There had been physical damage, too. The plan had gone wrong. People had been injured and Atlantis had almost fallen, all because of what they had done.
"It did," Carter said, "but they know the truth now. In time, they'll remember the happy ending, not the days of fear and uncertainty that led to it. They'll forget that they ever doubted Colonel Sheppard. You wait and see. Lots of them will already be convincing themselves that they suspected the truth all along." Her expression faltered. "No, the thing that will do most damage is the knowledge that they were betrayed by one of their own. That will strike hard."
Teyla seldom now felt out of her depth on Atlantis, but every now and then something happened to remind her that she was not one of them. She was not from Earth. She had not signed up for a mission far away from home – a mission that she could get out of at any moment. She had heard many things about Earth, but she could never fully understand what it felt like to be from there. Teyla thought she understood people. Earlier, she had been the one to understand what Colonel Carter could not. Now she could only hope that Colonel Carter understood the people of Earth better than she did.
"But they should be told the truth about his motives," Teyla said, because she understood that much. "I believe that will help." Cameron had been foolish, but he had been a victim, too. He should have told somebody, but in his own way, he, too, had been acting out of loyalty. He had expected his leaders to solve things for him, before anyone got hurt.
Carter nodded slowly. "You're right." She touched Teyla briefly on the arm. "They're resilient, Teyla. They know they're here as an outpost to protect against enemies that threaten Earth. They'll pull together. They might even been stronger as a result, after being tested."
And that, at least, was a thing she had seen before. That, at least, was something that she knew.
Rodney knew he had been behaving badly. He spent a few days concentrating on fixing Atlantis, and supervising teams who could probably do it perfectly well without him, but you never knew, did you? Things could go wrong at the slightest warning, and then everything came crashing down.
"Have you spoken to him?" Teyla said once. No need to say who the 'him' was. Between the three of them there was never anyone else.
"I tried," Rodney said, "but he was asleep." It was not entirely a lie. He had visited several times, but he had kept his distance. He had interrogated Keller insistently, too, asking if Sheppard was really going to get better, because he didn't look comfortable there on the bed, and he looked too pale, and it wasn't natural for him to be so still.
"Perhaps you should try again," Teyla said. He said something about work, about important work, but she interrupted him firmly. "There are more things in need of repair than just the fabric of the city," she said, and what was that supposed to mean, he asked her, although of course he knew.
He slept badly that night. The following morning, he sauntered into the infirmary as if he just happened to be there, and it didn't mean anything at all, and…
No choice now. He edged to Sheppard's bedside. "Hey." His eyes flickered from side to side. There was no sign of any doctors. "Is anyone doing their job round here?"
"Perhaps they heard you were coming." Sheppard shifted minutely; Rodney saw the slight stiffening of pain around his eyes. "Don't worry. Breakfast's coming soon."
They were silent for a little while. Rodney tried several times to say something, but stopped each time, the words drying up before they could reach his mouth.
"So are you…?" He swallowed. "Does it hurt?"
"Like a bitch," Sheppard admitted, which surprised Rodney, "but they've given me good drugs. I'll be out of here in a few days."
"They probably want to get rid of you."
"Yeah." Sheppard gave a quick smile.
Another silence. Rodney was about to speak when he noticed the dressing on Sheppard's upper arm. "Is that…? Did I…? Is that where I…?"
"Where you shot me," Sheppard said. "Yeah."
Suddenly nothing felt quite the way it had felt for the last few days. It felt like months ago, but it had been less than a week – short enough for a wound to still be unhealed. "I don't know what I was thinking. I know we talked about it, but… I didn't mean to, and when–"
"Can't shoot a barn door at twenty paces, right?" Sheppard quirked a smile. Rodney tried to speak again, but Sheppard spoke firmly. "It's okay, Rodney. After all, I've shot you before."
"But…" Rodney raised his finger. "Yes! Yes, you have."
"Of course, you shot me during that adventure with Thalen and Phebus, so you're two-one up."
"That doesn't count!" Rodney protested. Then he let out a breath. "Look, about the way I acted the other day… I… I'm not very good at this, but I'm sorry. I… I don't know what I was thinking. It was all… It's just… It's been hard."
"It's okay, Rodney."
He barely heard it. "And there was Cameron thinking he could get the better of me and… and taking out half of Atlantis, and other people did the important part of fixing it, not me – though that doesn't seem to matter half as much as it should do, which is strange, because you know what I'm like – an arrogant man. I can't help it. But I just feel that we did it and it doesn't matter that much that it wasn't me…" He passed his hand over his face. "But that's not the point. You'd gone. You'd gone, and we didn't know… and, of course, I'd shot you. I… I… It’s just… I'm not good at this, you know? It's…"
"It's okay, Rodney."
"Rodney." Sheppard said it firmly, then let out a breath, clearly still in pain. Rodney twisted his hands in his lap. "And… uh…" Perhaps it was the pain that made Sheppard's voice slightly rough. "I'm sorry. About… uh… everything. The way this thing turned out."
Breakfast arrived then, and neither of them spoke while a nurse arranged it on Sheppard's tray, and studied the readings from various monitors.
"Yes, Rodney," Sheppard said, afterwards, "you can have what I don't want, but not yet." Rodney's hand froze in the air.
He had to sit and watch while Sheppard ate. "It really isn't fair, you know."
"No." Sheppard looked entirely unrepentant. "You up for a game of chess later?"
"Sure." Rodney stood up, and did his best tough guy impression. "I'll kick your ass."
"In your dreams."
And that was that. It was only later, during the chess game, that Rodney suddenly found himself asking, "We're good, right?" Sheppard looked at him as if he was an idiot for even to need to ask, but repeated patiently, "We're good," and nothing seemed quite so bad after that.
Some things, it seemed, were best when you didn't talk about them.
Sheppard tired easily, which he would normally have found frustrating, except that it was so damn boring in the infirmary. He woke from one light sleep to find Carter standing beside her bed. "Sorry to wake you," she said.
"Was awake anyway," he told her, knowing that she knew it was a lie, but knowing, too, that she wouldn't call him on it.
She tried to do the usual platitudes – enquiries after his health, and so on – that people always seemed to feel the need to do to someone who was in the infirmary. Instead of answering, he looked her in the eye. "Cut to the chase," he told her.
She sat down, looking stiffer than she often looked. "Carrick's men," he said. "Do you want to see them?"
He knew what she was asking. That was the other thing about being hurt. People were so careful of your feelings. They seemed to think that you were fragile, that you needed some professional to talk to, that the slightest thing could cause an open wound and stop you finding closure.
"Carrick's men," he said, avoiding an answer for now. "Not Carrick. Yeah, I noticed that." He let out a breath; pressed his hand down on the bed beside him. "He's dead, then."
"Sergeant Manning killed him."
He blinked for a little bit too long, closing his eyes for a long moment. He remembered seeing Carrick approaching from behind Hudson, outside the ship. Had he followed Hudson there? Had he realised he had made a mistake leaving Sheppard alive? Had he been a coward all along, leading his men from the back? They would never know, and perhaps it didn't really matter. What did he feel about Carrick being dead? Surprisingly little, he decided. It was only in the movies that things became okay only after you killed the bad guy who had caused them. Nothing would change about the past if he confronted Carrick one more time, or even killed him. Alvarez and the others were still dead. Sheppard would still be changed.
"John?" Carter said quietly.
He was not ready to speak, not yet. With Carrick dead, the torturer and Everard were the only ones that he had had any sort of dealings with, but even that had only been slight. Did he want to see them? The answer he wanted to give was no. What was done was done. It was over now. If he asked to see them, if somehow implied that he needed to.
But he was tired enough, and he hurt enough, to be honest with himself. He didn't want to see them not because they didn't matter, but because they mattered too much. He had become something he didn't like while he had lived with them. Yes, it was all an act, but try telling that to Manning. He had denied his friends. He had acted all along not as he wanted to act, but as he thought the person he was playing ought to act.
"No," he said. "I don't want to see them."
She didn't ask for reasons, and merely nodded. That was good.
"So…" He still didn't look at her. "What's happening to them?"
"The Daedalus is taking them to a world without a Stargate," she said. "One has been chosen that is… not a death sentence. They'll be able to make a life there, just not bother others…" She paused. "I don't know whether to be disturbed at how easily we can do this, without the need for a trial, or whether to wish it could be like this on Earth, too."
"It's a life sentence," he said. Perhaps some of them had families. Perhaps some of them had only enlisted with Carrick because they were desperate, or because they wanted a better life for their children. He might not have thought of that, but for a while, in a way, he had been one of them.
"Yes." She looked troubled, and they were both silent together for a while.
Some time later, Sheppard managed to get himself a wheelchair. Normally he would have argued fiercely against it, but he knew there were things that he needed to do.
He found Manning first, in a bed not too far away from his own. He looked listless, but when he saw Sheppard approaching, his face woke up, as if he was trying to stand to attention while lying down.
"At ease, sergeant." He hated the need to say it. After the things they had been through together… After the things Sheppard had put him through…
And then he found that he had very little to say, and no idea how to say what needed to be said.
"They're sending me home," Manning blurted out. "They say I need therapy."
He'd been tortured for weeks; of course he did.
"And after that…" Manning's voice trailed off.
Sheppard knew how he would feel if he was being sent home to recover. "Do you want to come back?" he asked.
Manning said nothing, but he looked miserable.
Hell! Sheppard thought. I'm not a shrink. I'm not good at this. But too many things were still close to the surface. He remembered how Manning had reproached him for joining Carrick, but how in the end he had begged to join, too. And now Manning presumably knew that Cameron had betrayed Atlantis for his sake.
"You still have a place here," Sheppard told him. "When you're recovered, I'll pull strings and make sure you're assigned back here, if that's what you want." Not that he had any real strings to pull, of course, but he thought General O'Neill would understand.
"But I…" Manning swallowed. "I… About what I said. About doubting you."
"I'm the one who should be apologising," Sheppard said. It still hurt to remember the things he had been forced to say to Manning. He would always regret that they had been necessary, but they had been necessary. "You got caught up in things. I couldn't tell you the truth."
"And then I almost blew your cover." Manning continued as if he hadn't spoken. "They had cameras in there, didn't they? I didn't think… People here are all usually low tech and.."
"No," Sheppard told him firmly. "You did nothing wrong. You were sick. Hell, I've done some crazy things when I've been sick."
"But I doubted you. And then, in the end, I…" He looked away. "I asked if I could join you."
"Because you knew the truth," Sheppard said firmly. "You knew I was undercover, but knew you couldn't say. You behaved in an exemplary fashion. You obeyed orders when you had to. You saved my life."
"You did nothing wrong," Sheppard repeated, meaning it absolutely. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. If you want a place on Atlantis, it's yours, and I…" He fought the urge to mumble, knowing that Manning needed to hear this. He had been able to say this in the cell, when everything had been different, and he could say it now, even though things were already trying to change back. "I'm proud to have you under my command, Sergeant Manning."
Manning appeared to think about it for a moment. His face was still lined, but Sheppard saw the moment when those lines began to ease. He saw the beginnings of a smile, and saw how it reached the man's eyes. "Thank you, sir," he said.
The others he expected to be easier. He had discussed it with Teyla, and they had decided that even now, not all truths should be told. "Damage has been done through lying," Teyla said, "but in this case, I fear that worse damage will be done with truth."
He was to make out that it had all been an accident. The three people who had overheard their staged fights had been carefully chosen. They were all new enough to Atlantis that they would be inclined to believe what they saw, and they were also people who seemed desperate to fit in, and keen to have something that would gain people's attention. They had been manipulated, and if they had been made miserable by it – and Teyla was of the opinion that they had – it was entirely Sheppard's fault.
But this part of it was not to be told. They were to think that it was just chance that had led them to the right place, and given them a part in the drama. It was better that way, Teyla said. To each one of them in turn, then, he apologised for the fact that they had been given a starring role in the charade without being aware of it. He stressed the fact that their part had been pivotal to the eventual success of the plan, and he thanked them.
It seemed so inadequate. Just a few weeks ago, he hadn't spared a thought for how these people might be feeling, but then he had spent a few days in a cell with Manning. The plans they had so blithely made had a cost, and Sheppard and his friends were not the only ones who had paid it.
The engineer, Jessica, looked embarrassed to be talking to him, but said she was glad she could help. "I… I felt bad for a bit," she said, "but now I know…" She played with her hair. "I'm sorry I believed–"
"You were meant to believe it," he said, then cursed silently, thinking he'd blown it already, but she appeared not to notice his slip. He covered it with a smile. "If you hadn't believed it, then I'd be worrying. All those acting lessons gone to waste…"
The scientist, Robert, seemed subdued. He accepted both apology and thank you, but he seemed slightly listless. "Ewan…" he blurted out at last. "Cameron… He was asking me questions. I didn't know… I thought you could trust people round here."
"He was meant to ask questions," Sheppard assured him, "and don't judge everyone by what happened here. This was a one-off. It'll only get better from here." Well, apart from the life-sucking aliens and the Replicators, he thought, but it was best not to say that.
Private Hudson was the hardest. Sheppard had known all along that the man didn't like him – it was one of the reasons why he had been chosen – and Teyla had told him about what Hudson had been saying in the mess-hall. But Hudson had been there at the end, too, and had been the one to call for help.
He started with that, thanking him. He moved on to the rest, but Hudson said nothing. He said even more, but still nothing.
"I want to request reassignment," Hudson said, when Sheppard had said everything he could.
Sheppard looked at him. "You want to leave Atlantis?"
Hudson nodded. He must have had reasons, but Sheppard realised that he was not going to hear them, just as he would never have poured his soul out to his commanding officer twenty years ago.
"If that's what you want," Sheppard said, "I'll support your request, but…" To hell with it, he thought. "I wish you'd reconsider. Don't judge us by what you've seen these last few weeks. Things aren't normally that… crazy."
"I know, sir." He said it without a smile. "I just don't think it's for me." But when he added the 'sir', there was a certain warmth there. Perhaps that was enough.
He made it to the mess-hall with his team one evening, as the sun was sinking into the sea. The talk was about nothing much. Ronon baited Rodney without Rodney appearing to realise it. Rodney teased both Sheppard and Ronon for having to eat one-handed. Teyla rolled her eyes, but gave as good as she got.
Talk continued, but Sheppard faded out. He looked at the sun, and the freedom of the skies. You could be yourself, there – utterly yourself. Even here, you had to wear a mask…
"John?" Teyla was looking at him with those deep eyes of hers. Rodney turned to him impatiently, his fork halfway to his mouth.
There were things that he had not said. You are loved, Teyla had told him. It had been hard for them all to pretend to hate him. But it had been hell to pretend to hate them. And it had been so hard to play a part.
"I thought it would be easy," he found himself saying. Only now, he thought. Only in this moment. If he held back now, he would never say it, and perhaps that would be a relief, but perhaps it would be…
"Playing a part, I mean," he said, "because I'm used to it. At least… uh… I thought I was. But it was hard. And I realised–" He looked at the red sunset, and the sea. "– that with you, I don't, not really." Because there were so many things that never got said, but these people understood them anyway. He didn't need to say them. It only counted as playing a part when you fooled people.
"We know." Teyla closed her hand briefly on his, awkward on the table-top.
Ronon said nothing. "Do we?" Rodney said. "Uh… I mean…" He jabbed his fork into his mouth, as if he was deliberately silencing himself. Perhaps Teyla had kicked him.
"I didn't realise how it would affect people," Sheppard admitted. Or how it would affect me.
"Told you it was a stupid plan," Rodney said, his mouth still full.
"Yes," Sheppard said placatingly, because the sun was sinking, and he was through with confessions now. "Your plan was better. What was it again?"
"Huh. I'd have come up with one."
"Just as Carrick was taking over Atlantis and selling you into slavery."
Rodney squawked, but Sheppard barely heard his outraged words. In this moment, all that mattered was that he was here, that he was talking, so typically Rodney, unchanged. And there was Teyla and Ronon, and around them, the rest of Atlantis. Sheppard had played a part. Perhaps there was nothing like playing a part to show you how much it meant to you just to be you.
Then he thought of Manning and Hudson and Alvarez, and the other soldiers who had died at Carrick's hand, and those who had been hurt in the defence of Atlantis. He thought of Cameron, awaiting trial and an uncertain future, and Carrick's men, sentenced without a trial to no real life. He could not pretend it had been an entirely happy ending. Atlantis had been saved, but the whole affair had left scars.
"But next time I come up with the idea to go undercover," he said, "remind me not to, right, guys?"
"Certainly," Rodney said with feeling.
Perhaps only people without roots could pull off the undercover thing. Until not so long ago, Sheppard would have thought that description matched him. Now he knew it was wrong, and if he hadn't tried – if he hadn't embarked on this whole crazy plan – he might not have known. These last weeks had changed them all, he thought, and some of that change had left scars, but some, perhaps, had left them stronger.
I'm glad I'm back with you, guys, he thought, but didn't say it. Then – for the sun wasn't entirely set yet, and the sky was still beautiful and free, and he had spent too long underground, and lost – he decided to say as much of it as he could. Perhaps he was not through with confessions, after all. "I'm glad I'm back on Atlantis."
Teyla smiled. Ronon nodded. Rodney jabbed with his fork, as if to illustrate some unspoken point.
"And we are glad you are back, John," Teyla said, and at length even Rodney nodded.
The sun sank into the ocean. Sheppard leant back in his chair. "What I mean is," he said, "I'm… uh… glad I'm back with you guys. Anywhere. It doesn't have to be here."
"We know," Teyla said, and that was enough. It meant that he would never have to say such things again, because they knew. No, he thought, a moment later, perhaps he would say them occasionally, even if they were hard. He thought of Manning, hurt so deeply with words, and the way that rumour had left Atlantis divided. He thought of how difficult it had been to say the words that had broken Manning. Compared to that, speaking the truth ought to be easy.
He opened his mouth; closed it again. He shifted position painfully. "Let's have a drink," Ronon said, as if he knew the truth of that. "A real drink."
"Got beer in my room," Sheppard told them. He felt a small weight lifting.
"Aren't you supposed to avoid alcohol," Rodney said, "what with the medications?"
"Then let's make sure no-one tells the doctors," Sheppard said, although he had no intention of drinking, not really, just of sinking into the fellowship of his team.
"Oh, please, no." Rodney looked alarmed. "Not another conspiracy."
You knew you would get over something, Sheppard thought, when you could laugh about it, even though it still hurt. He watched Ronon haul Rodney to his feet, but then his eyes moved away from his own circle, and he saw other people at other tables. Many of them were watching him. He saw things in people's eyes that he had never quite expected to see applied to him. He knew how to deal with disapproval, but this… He remembered how warmly people had greeted him on his first trip out of the infirmary. Some had been shy, and some had been vocal, and some had said things he would never repeat. He saw them in their tight groups around their tables now, closer, perhaps, than he remembered them being.
Outside the window, the towers of Atlantis shone as the sky faded into night. Surrounded by his people and flanked by his friends, Sheppard smiled.