Message in a bottle
by Eildon Rhymer
Sheppard wakes up to find himself in a medical facility on a strange planet, with no memory of how he got there, and only a tenuous connection to home.
When an Atlantis strike force launched an attack on a remote outpost on a hitherto-unexplored planet, they found no-one left alive. Two bodies lay on the floor in a room set up as a medical facility. They found two more between there and the exit. None of them were the man they sought.
It was a Marine on his first off-world expedition who first noticed the smears of blood on the wall at hand height, as if someone had stumbled often, bracing themselves against the wall to stop themselves from falling. A young corporal found the blood and hair on the base on the IV stand, and deduced that it had been used as a weapon. Someone even cracked a grim joke at that - anxiety mingled with respect.
Although they scoured the rest of the facility from basement to roof, they found no further bodies, and no signs of life.
It was the big man with the dreadlocks - the man that even some of the bravest Marines were secretly afraid of - who found what they needed. None of them knew what they were at first. When he picked up the bundle of metal tablets, the big man had no idea of the hopes and fears that lay within his hands.
"These were left," he said. "Deliberately. For us to find."
"Let me have them," said the scientist with the anxious eyes, who had not stopped complaining ever since they had come through the Gate. "You'll only break them."
"Don't know what they are," said the big man.
"Yes I do," protested the scientist. "That is, I will know. Just be quiet for a moment and let me work."
He took them back to Atlantis in the end. It turned out that they were recording devices. "Like an alien Dictaphone." And then everything drained from his face except for anxiety and sorrow, for he had already listened to the recordings.
The team was still searching the surroundings of the facility, calling in vain a name that was never answered, so the dark-haired woman sat alone in her office with the metal tablets.
"Just press that button there," the scientist said, and then he fled.
Alone, and sick at heart, she did.
Tablet number one
Uh… Elizabeth? I've broken another jumper. No, Rodney, don't roll your eyes like that… Yes, Rodney, you are. No, I can't see you. Yes, I know you well enough by now - put up with you on too many missions. It's not my fault people keep trying to use my jumper as target practice. How many successful evasive manoeuvres have you done?
Sorry, Elizabeth. Get Ronon to shoot him if he's annoying you. So I crashed another jumper. Well… Here's the thing… I… uh… I can't actually remember anything. They told me they found me in the wreckage of a vessel - sounds like a jumper from what they say. My head hurts like Hell and my ribs… Hey, McKay, get Zelenka to work on air bags for the jumpers. Those consoles are hard.
I asked them if I was alone. I… I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you might need your diplomacy hat for this one. There's one very pissed-off doctor with hand-shaped bruises on his wrists. I didn't mean to. I just didn't know where…
[The speaker breathes in, then out again. There is the sound of moving fabric, and a faint squeak, as if someone is shifting position on a bed. The sound of moving fabric continues throughout the following words.]
They say I was alone. Teyla, Ronon, Rodney… I hope you're listening to this. Until I see with my own eyes… It's hard… Why was I flying by myself? Where is this? They told me the name of the planet - Echt - but it doesn't mean anything to me. You heard of it, Teyla, Ronon? Please don't tell me it's famous for man-eating giants or Kolya clones. I'm not having a very good day today and I… I hope you guys are all okay and listening to this. I…
[There is a faint click, followed by the slight jump in sound that shows that the recording device has been switched off, then restarted. There is no way of telling how much time has passed.]
So I'm stuck in a hospital bed on an alien world. I can't get out of bed. My jumper's smashed up and I can't fly home. The doctors say they'll make sure this message gets through. No, Rodney, I didn't give them that address, just a route that ought to work. They didn't think you'd trust them without a message from me, and I can't get to the Stargate.
Well, I… uh… I'll finish now, so they can send it. Please come soon. They're looking after me, but they aren’t… This isn't… It isn't home.
Tablet number two
You haven't come.
They sent the message - took it through the Gate and gave it to one of our friendlies on… Best not say it, in case this falls into enemy hands. The message must have been delayed. If you'd received it, you'd have come. You don't leave people behind, 'specially when they're stuck in a hospital where the nurses aren't even pretty.
I still can't remember anything. It's tomorrow now. Or it's today and yesterday was yesterday. How long are the days on this damn planet? It got dark, and now it's light again. There's no window here, just a skylight, but I can see the sky. Last night, I dreamed that I was flying...
[There is the sound of movement. This time it is accompanied with a quiet moan of pain.]
Guys, I don't like to hurry you, but I wish you'd come soon. Saving my sorry ass… Huh. That's supposed to be my job, isn't it? Rodney can tease me about it when I'm better.
The doctors… I'm sure they're doing everything they can, but they're… Is Carson there? Hey, doc, I promise I'll never say anything bad about your bedside manner ever again. When I get out of here, I'll be a model patient, I promise. As good as gold. Butter won't melt in my mouth. I'll let you stab me with needles as often as you like - though, doc, I don't think it's natural for a man to like stabbing people the way you do. I'll even stay in bed when you tell me to. I'm a reformed character. You won't believe it, Elizabeth.
[The speaker sucks in a sharp breath. It catches painfully. When he lets it out, the moan is unmistakeable. There is a long silence. When he speaks again, though, the speaker's voice shows no sign of pain]
I thought doctors were supposed to make people better? Maybe these guys missed that part of the lesson. They don't say anything. Compared to them, Ronon's as talkative as McKay. They prod me and look at my chart and look satisfied. But if they're satisfied, why do I feel like I'm getting worse?
Sorry. You didn't need to know that. Just come, okay? Or send a message if you can't. Just so I know you're there. Cos I can't remember. How much have I forgotten? I thought it was just a day, but what if it's longer? What if…?
[A click. The sound jumps as the recording is stopped and restarted. The background noise has changed during the hiatus. It sounds as if a trolley is being wheeled into the room.]
Gotta finish now. I hope you get this. If you do… You don't have to come. I'm doing okay. Just tell me… Just get a message though, guys, okay?
Tablet number three
Still nothing. I've been thinking… No, Rodney, don't look like that. I do think sometimes. Not much else to do when you're stuck in bed and no-one talks to you. It's dark again outside. I can't sleep. With all these drugs they're pumping into me, you'd think they'd know about Carson's magic formula for happy sleep…
[There is a long pause. There seem to be no sounds at all, but when the dark-haired woman turns the volume up, she can hear the very faint sound of breathing.]
I've been thinking about you guys, about why you haven't come. I know you would if you could. It's not like back home… If this was Afghanistan… If I was stuck in some hospital behind enemy lines… I wouldn't be so sure that they'd come for me. Too much risk. Not in line with our objectives. But I know you'd come. You're different. That's why I don't regret it for a moment - coming here, I mean. You're… I never had much of a family - never thought I needed one. But you…
I miss you guys. No, not you, McKay. I don't miss you…
You know I'm only joking, right?
When I open my eyes, there's no-one here. I wish you were here, Carson. I wish… There's a chair by my bed, but it's empty.
But I don't care. I just need to know that you're okay. Maybe the message didn't get through. Maybe something went wrong with the chain of communication and the code words. Maybe you can't find the "play" button. Found some alien technology you can't get to work, McKay?
[Another long pause.]
I still can't remember. It's two days now. Last thing I remember, everyone was okay. Everything was quiet. No enemies on our long-range sensors. No reason for anything to be wrong. No reason for you to be… gone.
Why was I alone in the jumper? I wouldn’t go off-world alone, would I?
[There is the sound of footsteps. "No," the speaker says, but the voice is more muffled now, as if he is speaking to someone else, and the recording device has been dropped onto the bed and forgotten. "I don't want more drugs. No!" There is the sound of a struggle, then even that sound grows almost too muffled to hear. After a few minutes of indeterminate sound, words become clear again. "Let me see it. Just so I know for sure there was no-one with me."
A long time after that, the sound becomes crisp again.]
I guess you heard all that. Thought I'd switched it off. Sorry. Forget it. Forget everything I've said today. Was the drugs. You know that, right? I wouldn't say…
You know. You know what I meant.
I guess they gave me the sleepy stuff, after all. Tired now. Don't wanna sleep…
Please be okay.
Tablet number four
Listen, I don't think these guys are for real. I don't think they're really doctors. This isn't a hospital; this is a prison.
No, don't look like that. It's good news. I know why you haven't come. They haven't been passing the messages on, have they?
Yes, Rodney, I know that means there's no point in me talking to you right now. Guess I'm just stupid. Yes - ha ha - go ahead, laugh. I bet Dr Heightmeyer's interested, too. Yes, I'm sitting here talking to my friends even though I suspect they won't hear me. What does that say about me?
I pulled my IV out this morning. They must have some sort of alarm, cos they were in within minutes. They held me down, put it back in. I tried to fight them, Ronon, but I… Weak as a kitten, I'm afraid. The pain keeps getting worse…
[A pause. It sounds as if something has been placed across the microphone, deliberately muffling it. The silence lasts for nearly a minute.]
Next time, I ripped open the bag of fluids. All those drugs… I got out of bed. It wasn't easy. I'm glad none of you were here to see it because I didn't cut a heroic figure. I tried the door and it was locked. Then a doctor came in and I saw what he had under his coat. He had a gun.
I can't stop them drugging me. I keep ripping it out, but they just put it back again and again. They hardly ever leave me alone.
What do they want? Has anything they've said not been a lie?
I'm glad I'm a prisoner. Makes things easier. They're the enemy. I fight. Easier to plan an escape than sit and wait. Easier to hate than to lie back and let a doctor hurt me.
I'll get back to you. I will.
A rescue would be good, too, though. Just so you know.
Tablet number five
[There are no words on tablet five. The recording lasts for twenty-seven minutes. Not all the sounds are easy to interpret, but the sound of fists hitting flesh is unmistakeable, as is the silver clatter of a small instrument falling onto metal. There are frequent sharp gasps, and several times a low moan of pain. Because she is alone, the dark-haired woman cannot hold back the tears. The aggressor - for there is clearly an aggressor - makes no demands, and the victim - and oh how she weeps when she hears his ragged breathing - makes never a plea for mercy. Finally, thankfully, the recording stops.]
Tablet number six
It's tomorrow again. Another tomorrow. How many tomorrows have there been?
Last night I saw helicopters through the skylight. I saw Rodney in the chair. There were bugs on the bed. And then it was light and then it was dark again. Maybe there were two tomorrows.
I can't stop the drugs. I'm so cold.
[There is a faint thud.]
Sorry. Dropped the recording… thing. Rodney can name it. I'll put it… here. On the pillow. Then I can talk… Hope you can hear. Hope you can all hear. I miss you. Can pretend you're here. Sometimes hear your answers.
Put this on all team briefings: talking 'bout 'scape bids on a recording that you give to your enemies… Not clever.
If you do get these recordings… If there's one that comes before this… Don't listen to it. Elizabeth, Rodney, Carson… Please don't listen. Please.
It wasn't so bad.
See, I'd wondered… They know I've seen through their cover, but it turns it out they didn't, not till I… kinda… told them. So why the charade? Why keep bringing me tapes…? No, McKay, they're not tapes, but I'll call them that, okay? Too tired to think up new names. You can do that. Did I say that already?
[The recording switches off, then on again.]
Can't remember what I was saying. Wish the room would stop moving. Wish it would decide if it's hot or cold.
Yes. Tapes. Why get me to record messages? I think… I think they were pretending to be friendly, hoping I'd say something useful. Give them the Gate address of… home. Secret codes. IDC. Passwords. Complete description of our defensive capabilities.
Yesterday - was it yesterday? - they wanted me to scream. Like a kidnapper sending home an ear. Victim screaming down the phone. 'He's hurting me, Daddy. Please pay him whatever he asks.'
You mustn't, you hear me. That's an order, Elizabeth. Yes, I can do that. It's a security issue. Military. Don't. Whatever they do… Whatever they send you… Don't. Don't give them anything. Don't come.
At least I can see the sky.
Tablet number seven
[The voice on tablet number seven is seldom louder than a whisper.]
The situation's changed. I'm getting outta here.
I couldn't say much last time, cos they'd hear.
I… Oh. I wasn't as bad as I made out yes… yesterday. Was an act. You know that, don't you?
[The sounds give the lie to his words. The speaker's breathing is ragged. His steps are barely audible, but clearly irregular. Listening to it, the dark-haired woman hears the sound of a body lurching into a wall. Her eyes are still damp with tears, and they flow afresh now.]
This morning… Pretended to be asleep. He came in. Used the IV stand. Then when he was down, took his gun. Freaky-looking thing, but I can use it. Have used it.
This isn't a hospital. Lots of rooms… Only mine done up like a hospital so far. Most of them empty, full of crap. Not even a very good secret base.
[All the while can be heard the sound of the speaker's slow progress. Doors are opened, and closed again. Then, shockingly, she hears a double gunshot - one close, and one further away.]
Sorry. I got him. He…
[There is another long pause, this time without even the sound of movement. Just when she thinks she cannot bear it any more, he speaks again.]
He had all the recordings in his pocket. All of them. So now I know why you didn't… I knew it anyway, I think. Glad you didn't listen to them. I wasn't myself. Said stupid things. I've got them now, though. Safe.
Not sure where the way out is. Maybe my jumper's still okay. Got to… Gotta fly…
Not sure why I'm talking to you. It's a habit, you know? Makes you seem close. Got a team at my back.
I don't leave people behind. Gotta check every room just in case… Rodney. Ronan. Teyla. Can't assume I was the only one.
Don't know how many of them are waiting outside.
Oh. An open window. The sky… No. Can't go. Still not looked upstairs. Gotta…
If I get out of this, I'll destroy the recordings. You don't need to hear it, and I can forget.
If I don't… If things get bad, and there's no jumper… If the Gate is too far… If there's a battalion of them outside… I'll destroy them. It's better that you don't know.
[There is the sound of someone very slowly beginning to drag themselves upstairs.]
No, if I don't think I'm going to make it, I'll leave them for you. Hope you find them. I want you to know. Those things I said… They weren't stupid at all. I meant every word of them. Just so you know.
[Somebody cries out. A gun goes off, and there is the sound of something heavy falling down steps. As the dark-haired woman listens, fist pressed to her mouth, she hears the unmistakeable sounds of a fight, but she has no way of knowing who is winning. She can hear gasps and moans, and then the sharp and agonised cry that once she had never heard, but now knows all too well. It is the sound of serious injury.
A long time passes. Too long.]
I got him.
[She collapses bonelessly into a chair.]
Uh… Don't think… I can… talk… and walk… at the same… time. Red light flashing, anyway. Guess it means… tape's full.
Remember what I said, okay? You guys… All of you - every one of you… you're…
[There is a click. The recording comes to an end. This time it is not resumed.]
Afterwards - but not so long afterwards that her eyes were dry - the scientist returned. "Ronan found the tablets outside," he said. "That means he made it that far."
She nodded. It had been nearly a week of desperate searching, never a moment free from worry. At least they had had each other. At least they had known that they were not alone.
"There's no trace of a puddle jumper," the scientist said. "It's dry sand and the wind's blown it, but… but Ronon thinks there's evidence that there was one, but someone flew it away."
"And Carson says the bodies hadn't been there for long. An hour before we arrived, maybe two."
If only we'd been earlier… The difference between life and death, between a happy ending and the terror of uncertainty. Even if he came back now, there would be nightmares. Ronon had been robbed of his revenge, and Teyla of her chance of knowing. Rodney had been useless throughout the search, as leads came down to guile and diplomacy, and science meant nothing at all. And as for her…
"If he made it to the jumper, why isn't he back yet?"
A leader could not show her own fears. A leader had to be strong and in control always. "He wouldn't dial direct, in case they were tracking him. Give him time."
"How much time does he want? How can he do this to us?"
She took his hand; it was not an action she could have done at any other time than this. "You heard what he said, Rodney. We're his family, and this is his home. He'll come back. He'll always come back."
This is something rare and marvellous, she thought, more fiercely and vividly than she had ever felt it before. Even when far away and alone - just a voice in the darkness - we are one.
This was not an outpost; this was home. She thought of the voice on the tablets, more concerned about them than about himself. She thought of him talking to them as he escaped, drawing strength from the illusion of closeness that came from speaking their names.
As long as Atlantis survived, none of them were ever truly alone. She wiped the last remnants of the tears away. The tablets told a tale that could still turn out to be a tragedy, but at the same time they spoke a tale of hope.
All of you - every one of you…, he had said, you're…
He had not needed to finish the sentence. She knew what he had been about to say, and because she knew, she smiled.
1. The ending… *cringes guiltily* I just feel strongly that a happy reunion/infirmary scene wouldn't fit in with the mood, style or theme of this story. Sorry! Rest assured that the happy ending does indeed happen, just off camera.
2. This story is based on an X-Files fanfic I wrote 11 years ago, called Cry in the Dark. I thought it would be interesting to revisit a theme I'd written so long ago, and see what differences resulted from, a, not having reread the original story for 11 years, b, working in a different fictional universe, c, playing with different characters, and, d, with my own writing style and attitudes having had 11 years to evolve. It was an interesting experience. The main things I've learnt: Sheppard is tougher than Mulder, and I have long-since grown out of bleak endings.
3. I was on holiday in the north-east of Scotland in June, and it seemed to me that it was possible to cast every genre of novel from the place names there. Echt is one such place name. I'd originally decided that (the) Echt, and its neighbour, Torphins, were alien races, but it seems it's a planet, after all.