Do not go gentle
by Eildon Rhymer
John Sheppard had never been one to accept the inevitable. His commanding officers had always known that, and had labelled him a trouble-maker, too willing to defy orders. The men under his command had always known that, and felt a little safer as a result. His comrades and team-mates had come to know that, and knew that they owed their lives many times over to his tenacity and stubborn optimism.
It was a strange thing that, in the end, when he accepted the inevitability of his own death, it brought not despair, but contentment. It was, he thought, as he drifted towards death in the snow, the first time he had ever felt such peace.
"I'm glad you're here, Rodney."
"What? What? Have you entirely lost your mind, Colonel? Glad I'm here, freezing to death, injured, starving, lost in the middle of nowhere? I wish I was a billion miles from here. Yes, yes, back in Atlantis. Warm. In the infirmary pumped full of the good drugs. Not here, sitting next to… Not watching… Just not… here."
I've always been afraid of dying alone. I never admitted it; never said.
"So get up, Colonel. Chop chop! Up! You can do it. I… I'll help you. I don't think I can carry you, though. I know you're all skin and bone now, but so am I. Stale bread and mouldy carrots isn't enough to… Well, I… no. I'll try. Probably ruin my back forever, but…"
"No. Stay here. Doesn't hurt any more."
"Oh. Oh. That's the cold. Or the drugs. That last time… I don't know what they gave you, but it was blue."
"Didn’t work, though. We escaped. Saved the…"
"Yes, yes. We saved all those poor innocent women and children and doubtless some puppy dogs and bunny rabbits, too. We killed the bad guys, turned their torture chambers into rubble… All very heroic, and all that, but don't forget the last part of the happy ending – the bit where we get back home and live happily ever… well, live happily until the next wacky adventure, anyway."
"Can't? Oh no, no, no. You don't give up that easily. Giving up. This fatalism thing. It doesn't suit you, Colonel. You don't do it. You just… don't."
Rodney McKay was furious. It was the kind of fury that bled outwards from his body until it filled the whole world. It turned the ice crystals harsh. It turned the branches into dark claws that tore at the leaden sky. The sheeting clouds glowered, and beneath the snow, the ground was cold and cruel.
How could Sheppard just lie there, giving up?
For six weeks, Sheppard had been the strong one. For forty-three days and thirteen hours, Rodney had been kept alive by the force of Sheppard's defiance. Rodney had come close to giving up…
The first time I passed out for lack of food. When they broke my fingers. When I realised that science was no use in there. When I realised that, genius or illiterate, we were all equally powerless. When they chained the two of us together. No, when they tore us apart for a whole day, and I didn't know and I still don't know what happened to him then.
Rodney had been the one to sink to the ground, cradling his throbbing hands, and state in a low voice that they were never going to get out. Rodney had been the one to lie awake in the night, gazing bleakly into a future that held only despair.
The first time I thought they'd killed him. How it rained and rained, but his blood never washed out of my clothes. When they beat him almost the death, and I had to stand there, feeling the chain jerk at my wrist, but untouched, completely untouched…
Sheppard had blazed with defiance and burnt with hope. That was why they had hurt him so badly. Pick on the strong one. Ignore the weak one, because he is already half broken. And the more they had hurt him, the more Sheppard had blazed, and the more they had hurt him, the more Rodney had despaired.
Dreaming that Sheppard was dead. Dreaming that there was just a corpse attached to the other end of the chain, decaying a little more each day. Dreaming that I was all alone in the cell, useless, broken…
He remembered… oh so many, many things – enough for a whole eternity of nightmares. But one thing now, clearer than everything else…
Sitting in stagnant water in a corner of their cell, peering up to see a tiny square of sky. Not touching each other, not quite, but the chain transmitting every small movement, wrist to wrist. "We're going to die here." Rodney had kicked the bars, then almost wept at the jarring pain in his twisted leg. But Sheppard had said, with perfect icy certainty, "We will get out. We will fly among the stars again." And Rodney had shivered, because the words and the tone had seemed suddenly like something out of story, and the speaker like somebody he had never seen before.
If hope was a flame, it was a blazing torch that could only be held by one. As soon as it became clear that they were free, the torch had passed, and Rodney had not noticed it happening. Now he found himself holding the flame, while Sheppard was lost in the cold ashes, his dying hands unable to grasp the light.
"Get up," he commanded now. The fury was an overlay; what lay beneath it was worse, far worse. "You can't give up. You can't. I'll never forgive you."
And that, too, only fuelled his fury, for Sheppard had never been harsh. He had never been gentle, either. He had goaded and teased and taunted, luring Rodney out of the grey depths of despair. He had smirked and joked and grinned, and there had been steel behind it, but never anger. Anger he had saved for their captors. He had become a stranger during their escape, deadly and merciless. That, too, was a memory that stalked in Rodney's mind, waiting for the gates of night to open and let it free.
"We're not even that far from the Gate," he said desperately.
They had been taken from world to world in a dizzying chain that not even Zelenka would have been able to follow. There had never been any chance of rescue, but they had stolen a vehicle and driven it until it was out of fuel, and walked some more, and now the Gate was a bare fifteen miles away, if the whispers were true. Fifteen miles… The breadth of the world; the distance of Earth to the moon; from Hell to Heaven, and beyond even that. Fifteen miles of tiny, painful, agonised, dying steps. Normally he would have been the first to say it was impossible, but he was holding the flame now. Such words were no longer available to him.
"Please," he begged.
Sheppard said nothing, but he was smiling. It was not like any smile Rodney had ever seen from him. It was no cocky grin, papering over feelings. It was no mask. It looked like a smile of genuine contentment.
He looked at peace.
"Why are you looking like that?"
"Like…" His lips were numb, and his voice felt far away. "…what?"
"Because… uh… I don't… No. It's better… better to die at peace."
"You're not going to die. Or, yes, you will die, but only if you start thinking like that."
He drifted. Rodney's voice came back to him much later, through the softness of the snow.
"I don't understand. You've just… crashed. For weeks you… I… I didn't say anything, but you… I couldn't have…"
"Finished. Thinking… For weeks, I was thinking about… 'bout how to get you out of there, 'bout putting those sons-of-bitches out of business. Done it now. Finished. No reason left for…"
"That's stupid! I once spent two weeks trying to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I didn't lose the will to live once I'd learnt it."
"It's true, though. We won."
"Are you even listening?"
No, Rodney. Are you?
John Sheppard had never thought over much about the manner of his own death. Death was an ever-present risk in the job he did, but he had never really stopped to imagine it. Imagining made it real. Expecting it made it more likely. No, it was better to act as if death was an impossibility, as if no situation was beyond a happy ending.
Stay positive now…
Several times, since coming to Atlantis, had he faced almost certain death. Once he had crafted final words, but not been allowed to speak them. Once he had stood on the very brink of blowing himself up to save his city. Death had seemed certain, but deep down, it seemed, he had always harboured a tiny seed of hope. It had felt certain, but it had not felt real.
This was real. For six weeks, he had stayed strong. Every drop of energy in his body had been focused on keeping McKay alive, on keeping McKay's spirits up, on planning an escape. He had forced his blood to keep flowing, forced his mind to keep active, forced his body to keep moving. Now it was over.
He had always thought that giving up meant despairing. He had always thought that giving up meant defeat.
"I'm not giving up," he said. McKay was a smear of a shape, glimpsed through the fringed slits of his eyes. "I'm just… accepting."
The ice was a mirror, and it showed everything back in a different light, changed utterly. If he died raging, then he died defeated. If he fought for life every step of the way, but died anyway, then he had lost.
He was free. The snow was soft and pure, with the smooth, cool hands of a mother. The sky was a gentle grey, and he knew there were stars behind the thin clouds. Branches waved like delicate dancers. McKay was injured and had lost a shocking amount of weight, but he would live. Sheppard had done his job. The long fight was over. Can I rest now? He had asked it silently as they had fled, and the voices of everyone he had ever known had whispered, Yes.
"You need to carry on, Rodney." His hand did not look like his own hand, but when it landed on McKay's arm, he felt the touch, and knew that it was real. "After I…"
"After you roll over and die?" McKay was cold, so cold. No, he was hot – burning, blazing with a fire that threatened to melt the snow.
Please, he thought. Let me drift. Let me face this. Let me go. Perhaps he said some of this aloud.
"It's not finished," McKay spat. "In case you haven't noticed, the Wraith are still out there, and God knows who else, all trying to kill us. Are you just going to abandon us to them? I don't buy this My work here is done crap… And then there's me… How am I supposed to get back without you? How am I supposed to get over all this if you… if you aren't…?"
He had no words. The only words he could think of were trite, and would have been a lie.
The cold grew sharper. He felt the beginnings of pain stirring in his middle.
"So get up. Get up and fight, colonel." McKay slapped him on the face, smashing it sideways into the snow. "Get up." He pummelled him in the shoulder. "Get up!" he screamed.
Don't leave me, his eyes said, desperate beneath the fury. I need you just as much as I needed you back there, even though our positions have changed.
The sky looked down on them. The world was vast and cold, and the dark trees slashed it like knives. Fifteen miles to the Gate. It would be dark long before they reached there, even if they…
He stirred, shifting his head, moving his fingers. And then McKay was there, his arm snaking under Sheppard's shoulders, helping him with a sudden fierce gentleness.
"Of course," McKay grumbled, "life would be far more peaceful if you were dead."
Sheppard fought the blackness. "Should have left you behind, McKay."
The bubble of contentment had gone. But perhaps, he thought, as he started to fight for every step, what came after it was better. Perhaps he was not a man made for contentment. Perhaps none of them were, or they would not be here, fighting impossible fights so far away from home.
"Do not go gentle into that good night," he murmured, "and miles to go before I sleep."
"Which is mixing two poems. Murdering them. Though what can you expect of an illiterate flyboy like you?"
"At least I possess a book that's written in English, not equations."
"I do so know poetry," McKay retorted. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light Fight the good fight. Onwards and upwards." He swallowed. "I'm sorry I hit you. Hitting a seriously injured man…"
He concentrated on staying upright. "I don't expect that's in the manual of good patient care. Hurt like hell, too." For a moment, I was truly at peace. He had never felt like that before, and perhaps never would. No, he thought, never should.
But he mourned it, though, just a little.