Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one
Chapter five: Stories
Even when you stopped trying to count time, you still needed to help it pass. Sheppard sat on the bed, rhythmically moving his arms and legs in order to avoid the muscles going slack, and recounted stories.
"So Frodo decides to go to Mordor all by himself, but Sam discovers him, and goes with him. Meanwhile, the others…"
Flexing his arm – bend, and straight; bend and straight. Eyes always on the gap at the bottom of the door, but George had not returned. The person who always brought his food was Homer, but looked a bit like Carson. Hank was the one he liked least. He liked to prowl, rather than walk. He looked like Sheppard's first drill sergeant.
"And then Boromir tries to… No, I've done that bit. And then Frodo and Sam…"
Climbing through grey cliffs, all alone and lost. Wraith rearing up and trying to eat them. "No, that was Gollum." The tiny, wizened form of Gollum, with sorrowful eyes in a shrunken face. I did that, said the Wraith, the blood lurid on its killing hand. I sucked the life out of him, and then there was the pain and the burden, and Wraith in black cloaks on black horses. "Ring Wraith," he said, and laughed, as ash fell in a dying land, and the eye of the Wraith gazed into his soul, as it reached into him and ripped out his life, and…
He jolted awake, but he thought he had not been asleep, not really. He grasped a handful of blanket. "So there's this boy called Luke Skywalker. He's a pilot, but Han Solo's cooler. This is in a galaxy far far away… Worse than this one, really. There's an evil Emperor, and he's wiped out the Jedi, but I'm telling it backwards. Let's start again."
He never quite made it through to the end of any story. Stories were safer than memories, though. Sometimes he walked his way through old memories, but everything turned dark. Narrow escapes became disasters, and the bug sucked his life away, and they were never able to reach McKay's jumper because it lay too deep, and he couldn't stop the transformation and he killed his team, and Kolya took Elizabeth away, and the bomb went off and he died, and everything went white, because death was whiteness for ever more, in a place without human contact, where every second brought the threat of pain.
"Once there was a girl called Buttercup and a farm boy called–"
"I can't believe you like The Princess Bride," McKay scoffed. "It's a fairy tale."
Sheppard turned his back on McKay, and told the story. "But the ship is attacked by pirates, and he doesn't come back." His eyes slid shut. He lay on his back, hands on his chest. "And the prince chooses her…" And there was Kolya, smiling coldly. I'm sure you've discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. Strapped to a torture device, life being sucked away, drained…
His eyes snapped open. "I wasn't asleep," he said. "I wasn't asleep."
He sat up again, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and started to tell the story of Top Gun, but it drifted into memories of flying, and he couldn't even see the sky, couldn't yearn for it, couldn't dream. He tried Lethal Weapon, but his hands itched for a gun, and McKay was on hand to mock him for liking the cliché of a mismatched pair of reluctant friends. He tried to remember his childhood favourite books, but that brought memories of his mother reading aloud, and when he awoke from the dreams that followed that, his eyes were wet.
He avoided stories after that.
Ronon was not accustomed to failure. When he had lived as a Runner, every day that
he remained free was a triumph. Every Wraith he killed was a victory. Every step that he took without being caught was a success.
He wanted to smash things. He wanted to drive his face into the face of an enemy, to shoot those who stood against him, to mow them down like grass beneath a scythe as he made his way to rescue his missing friend. None of these were available to him, and so he sparred with Teyla when he could, and ran until he was exhausted, but it was not enough.
"It's been four days." McKay was the only one counting, clinging, as all these people did, to the time scale of a distant planet that Ronon had never seen. Ronon had grown accustomed to using their definition of hours and minutes, but such things were meaningless when you ran from world to world. You could leave a world at dusk, and emerge a moment later at dawn. Sometimes daylight stretched interminably, and sometimes light was only a snatched moment out of an eternity of darkness.
They had visited eight worlds, and McKay had scanned each one desperately, but there was no trace of Sheppard. Three of the worlds showed no signs of ever having been inhabited by humans. "Looks like people come here for hunting," Ronon commented, as he slung the still-warm carcase of a brown mammal over his shoulder. "A bit like a rabbit," McKay said, wrinkling his nose, "but… not." He ate it afterwards, though, and said it tasted like chicken. The second uninhabited planet was mostly water, and it yielded fish whose flesh was bland, but whose spines would make good darts. The third was a mass of flowers and brightly-coloured insects, and made McKay sneeze.
Two worlds were uninhabited, but had not always been so. These were the ones that had been destroyed by war and the Wraith. One had been abandoned by the last of its survivors, though the ruins still stood, speaking of a world that had once been proud and full of life, and it was clearly visited by scavengers from other worlds. On the other, small groups of refugees were scraping out an existence in the ruins, but they were cowed, possessing just enough will to survive, but none left for fighting. They knew nothing of Sheppard – "it's like we told the others" - and when he looked into their dull eyes, Ronon could not bring himself to disbelieve them.
The fifth planet caused McKay to get excited about minerals. It supplied fuel to many worlds, they learnt. "Oh! Oh! I know it! They've brought him here to join their slave army of miners," McKay cried, "but something in the mine is blocking our scanners." For several hours, they felt rejuvenated with hope, but in the end, even McKay had to accept that the mines were automated, and that there were no slave armies hiding out of view.
On the other three worlds, they were greeted by people who recognised their weapons and their clothes, and knew what they had come for. "We gave Colonel Carter all the help we could," they said. Ronon, Teyla and McKay asked every question they could think of, but all questions had been asked before, and every line of enquiry had already been taken. One of these worlds was only inhabited in a small circle around the Gate, and McKay had to admit that they had seen every living soul on the planet. Another was scattered, but possessed no vehicles, and no way of taking a prisoner to the far corners of the world.
"Of course," McKay said, sitting uncharacteristically still at the back of the jumper, "if he really was taken by bandits, they could have used one of these planets as a staging point. He could be anywhere in the galaxy now."
Later, Ronon was on watch, through a twilight that counted as night, because they had gone from day to day to day for twenty-four hours, without seeing true night. He had thought that the others were asleep, but McKay suddenly stirred, his face bleached by the dusk. "I thought they hadn't looked properly. I thought it was only waiting for us."
Teyla rolled up, propped herself up on her elbow, but said nothing.
"They did everything we did," McKay said. "They asked what we asked, and they did it for longer, and with more of them. I read the reports, but I didn't believe them. I thought I'd find something obvious they'd missed. It's like when Radek says something's impossible, and I have to try myself, because, well, Radek's clever enough, but he's not me." He let out a breath. "He's usually right, though. I know that now."
Ronon gripped his weapon tight enough to hurt.
"We needed to see it for ourselves," Teyla said.
"Don't use the past tense!" McKay rounded on her, suddenly furious.
After that, they were all silent. Perhaps the others fell asleep in the end, but Ronon did not.
It was horrible, when he came to think about it, how quickly some things became normal. The second bath was easier than the first. The third change of clothes he put on with barely a thought. He barely tensed up at all when he heard Homer's distinctive footsteps, bringing his food. He moved to get it only after Homer had gone, and he no longer shouted out anything at all, not to him.
Then he lost count of how many meals he had had. "Eighteen," he had repeated, over and over again, in between the rhythms of his counting and the rhythms of the running water. He told McKay and Ronon and Teyla, and they repeated it back at him. "Eighteen," they said. Teyla was especially grave. Then the meal came, and he suddenly had no idea if "eighteen" meant "I have had eighteen meals" or "the next meal will be number eighteen."
His vision sheeted white. All he was aware of was his own breathing, speeding up, racing, until he could barely suck in enough air to keep himself conscious. Perhaps he really did pass out. When the world came into view again - but still white. Everything still white - his skin was covered with goose flesh, and the meal was scattered on the floor.
"That was a panic attack," Carson told him - Carson, who wore the face of Homer; Carson, who was dead. McKay just snorted triumphantly.
"I never panic," Sheppard told McKay, but this was a McKay who could see inside him. This was a McKay how knew that he often wasn't as calm inside as he tried to appear, with all his light words. "Not as much as you, anyway."
But his hands were trembling as he tried to scoop the food back onto the plate. His chest hurt, and his throat felt scoured from too much breathing. When he turned his hand over, the palm was bloody all the way to his wrist, and he imagined the ghostly flash of a silver knife across the skin inside his wrist, blood welled up around the blade.
He hauled himself to the wall, and ran one finger down it, making a mark close to the floor, at the foot of his bed. Then he dipped his finger in again, and made an 8, the first curve clear, and the second fading into white. A third dose of blood, and he made a question mark. From now on, he would mark each meal.
But he would never know for sure. All along, like a shadow on the threshold, would be the knowledge that he could be out by one. "But it doesn't matter if I'm out by one," he told himself. "It's near enough." But near enough wasn't near enough, not when this was the only thing left to him to count, the only way he could mark time, the only thing left to him, the only thing he could control. Lines on the wall meant I have not given up. Lines on the wall meant that his thoughts still ran in order.
Lines on the wall meant that he was still alive.
"It's a paradise." Rodney had smeared cream over every inch of exposed skin, and it shone in the light of the control panel. "A beach paradise, with sun, sea and… and something that could pass for a palm tree if you squint. Is it too much to ask that it's full of hot alien women playing beach volleyball? Of course it is! The universe hates me. I get the camp of gun-toting bandits."
Ronon was still, readying himself for combat. Teyla had her sticks, but the first task would fall to Rodney. She knew now that his babbling was often just a way to cope with nervousness, but although she tried, she was not as good as John was at saying the right things to keep him in full flow, distracted from the things that were making him afraid. Sometimes he needed provocation as much as reassurance. If John does not return, she thought, Rodney will take it the hardest, I think. But then she chided herself for thinking so. This was their best lead yet - their only lead - but the hope was sharp and painful.
Cloaked, they came in low over the camp they had discovered in a cluster of trees. Twenty life-signs, Rodney had told them. As they had passed over for the first time, slow and silent, Ronon had peered down, and apparently liked what he saw of their weapons. They had ships, too - two small ones, no bigger than a puddlejumper.
On this second pass, they came in faster. As they descended, Rodney fired a drone, destroying one of their huts. "There was no-one in there." His voice sounded strained.
"Shame." Sometimes Ronon could still look like a stranger, cold and deadly.
As the men below them ran around in panic and confusion, Rodney opened the rear hatch, and Ronon started shooting them down. Five had fallen before they noticed the floating circle that was the interior of the jumper, still surrounded by its cloak. Bullets smashed into the side of the jumper, and Ronon rolled, and came up, still firing. Then they were low enough, and both Ronon and Teyla jumped out, firing as they did so.
Teyla started to count. "One," she said, as a man with sandy hair froze, his arm halfway towards coming up to aim at her, and fell. "Two." That was a dark-haired man, with a face that reminded her slightly of John. Her heart lurched as he fell, but she was already coming around for her third one, who was older, and was trying to speak as she hit him.
Ronon was unstoppable. She saw him briefly, a dark silhouette against the flickering fire of the burning hut. The flash of his weapon made the fire burn as red as blood. Then even Rodney was there, determined at her shoulder, shooting, even as he kept his shoulders slightly hunched, subconsciously trying to make himself small.
Two men tried to make it to the ships. Three shots converged on one of them, and Teyla smiled grimly, but still took aim at the second, even as she knew that Ronon and Rodney were doing the same. The second man fell mere paces in front of the first one. "I missed." Rodney sounded disconsolate. "But you hit the other one," Teyla told him, breathless with hope, and with the fight.
The battlefield was orange with fire and black with smoke. Ronon strode towards them over bodies, as if he was emerging from the flames. "I see him," he said, and despite herself, Teyla felt a surge of joy. But she already knew what he really meant. Ronon's face was dark with contempt and resolution, as he hurried away into the trees, and came back dragging a thin-faced man behind him. "Tried to run," he said. "This is the one who'll talk."
He did talk, but only after Ronon had calmly set his weapon to kill, and shot one of his stunned comrades. Teyla heard Rodney gasp. She just pressed her lips together, and wondered what they had become - what this situation was turning them into.
Yes, the man admitted, they were bandits - bandits of a sort, anyway - that's what people sometimes called them, but it wasn't fair, because a man's got to earn a living, and it's a harsh universe, and you have to take what you can, or you go under. That earned him a knife at the throat, and a twist of the arm that caused it to audibly snap. When he could speak again, he admitted that they travelled between worlds, going where the pickings were rich, but the risks were small. This planet, uninhabited because of its heat - "because this is its winter," said Rodney, wiping his brow - was one of their occasional bases.
Teyla asked him about Dareon's planet. He denied all knowledge. The knife snaked slowly across his collarbone, leaving a trail of blood. He still protested ignorance, until Rodney, his voice breaking a little, described the area of around the Gate. As the knife stilled, their captive said that they'd only been there once, years ago. "Too many traps," he said, "and they always watch the Gate. They have…" He flapped his hand. "…eyes." Rodney thought he meant cameras. "Gunmen, too. They come here sometimes, though." Why? He didn't know. "Perhaps they like the beach." The knife drew fresh lines at that.
Had they been there recently and captured a man? "Dressed like me," Rodney said, "but with hair like his." He pointed at one of the fallen men, but not the one who had reminded Teyla of John. Perhaps they all saw shades of their friend in every dark-haired man, and felt a surge of hope whenever they saw someone just his height. The man repeated that they hadn't been there for years. "Don't trade in people, anyway," he added, and the knife jabbed into his arm, Ronon showing his disgust at the very words. "Goods is easier. People fight back and have to be fed. Then you get people like you lot sniffing around."
"Like us?" The knife was back at his throat.
Teyla did not make a decision to move, but she found herself moving, anyway. "I believe he is telling the truth," she told Ronon, but she reserved nothing but hatred for the captive. "Or, rather, I am sure he is lying in an attempt to save his skin, but I think he is telling the truth about what matters." Then, seeing how tightly Ronon was gripping his knife, she stunned the prisoner, and calmly met Ronon's eyes when he whirled on her. They stood like that for only seconds, but it felt like much longer.
They checked the ships before leaving, though, and checked all the huts. Sheppard was not there. "But we know where we need to go now," she said, and neither of them disagreed.
He was marking out the twenty-second meal when the footsteps returned. He stopped, finger frozen in the middle of a line. Each time they came, the steps were a little louder than the time before. "No," McKay had told him, not so long ago, "it's because your hearing is getting more sensitive because of the lack of other external stimuli."
He wasn't sure whether to believe McKay. Still crouching by the wall, he turned, and listened to the steps approach. This was not Homer, who had brought his meal only moments before. The steps sounded firmer than Hank's, and he didn't recognise George, the one he had touched. This was someone else, and was that the sound of a key? Was that the sound of something worse, dangling from a hand?
He moved to the door, lurching a little as his heart tried to force the blood to run too fast through his starved body. The steps slowed as they neared his door; sped up as they passed. Sheppard shouted something, but, really, he had no idea what. By the time the world outside was silent again, the side of his fist was throbbing. He had a brief flash-like memory of striking it against the door, but had no memory of deciding to do so.
The smell of the food pierced him like a dagger. Every meal smelled a little more intense than the previous one. Sometimes the smell seemed almost delicious, but often it was repulsive - not sweet, but cloying even so. It just too much, coming as it did after hours of nothing. When he ate, the taste was as fierce as ecstasy and as sharp as pain.
He managed one mouthful before the steps returned. Once again, he scrambled to the door, to be ready for the attack. The food burnt the back of his throat. He felt it all the way to his stomach, falling like a line of fire. This time the steps stopped, and he counted to three before they started up again. Once again, he shouted, but this person was a stranger - not Homer or Hank or George, whom he knew. He tried for a light-hearted joke, but something broke inside him as soon as he opened his mouth, and the words came straight from a part of him that he didn't know existed. He didn't want to know what they were. If he refused to listen, he could tell himself that he was still strong.
The steps came back after three more mouthfuls. After that, he touched the food, snatched his hand back; touched the food, snatched his hand back. Eventually, his jaw set, he picked up the hunk of meat, and raised it to his mouth. He unclenched his teeth, and chewed it, but the taste was dull this time. Sound was everything. Taste had faded away to nothing.
The footsteps returned. He stayed where he was, this time, but he was still coiled, ready to spring if the door opened. The hook on the ceiling stared down at him, grimly amused. The steps passed. He thought he heard laughter in the silence, but perhaps it was only his imagination.
And then he had something new to count - not just meals, but the number of times the footsteps passed his room. He made it to twenty-seven.
"Just ignore it," McKay told him, as he sat on the end of Sheppard's bed, more calm than he ever was in real life. "They're playing with you. They have no intention of coming in. Ignore them, and they'll go away."
But if he lay back and lowered his guard, then they would come. No, then they could come, and it was not a risk he wanted to take. He would not lie down and be complicit in his own torture. He would be ready. He would fight. It was something to focus on. It was something to keep him strong.
"You're losing your mind," McKay said, "because of this constant readiness."
The twenty-seventh set of footsteps faded to silence. He counted, and reached a thousand, but the steps did not return.
He tried to swallow the last few mouthfuls of food, but his throat was sore, as if he had been shouting for a very long time. The sides of his fists were red and tender. His whole body hurt, as if he had been running a race, his heart and his muscles pushed beyond endurance.
Perhaps he passed out for a while, or perhaps he just stared at the whiteness, while time passed without him noticing it. By the time he finished his meal, the meat was dry and beginning to curl, as if hours had passed. His throat remained sore, though, and never really got better.
Once you started, you could never stop.
"Is this how people end up in a life of crime?" Rodney wondered. "I think I'd make a good master criminal, as long as someone else did the actual crime. Someone like you." His eyes flickered to Ronon, sitting impassively beside the case. "I have an honest face."
Ronon just looked at him. He was the only one of them who looked unchanged. Rodney had brought changes of clothes, but you could only get so clean when washing in rivers and in the primitive bathrooms of people who might have kidnapped your friend, even though they said they hadn't. Not that he had a mirror, except for the tiny one that came as standard issue in a tac vest pocket, though he had no idea why. Maybe Sheppard wasn't the only soldier to be ridiculously vain about his hair, although he hotly denied it, of course, but why else would it look like that? Anyway, the mirror showed Rodney to be less changed than he felt. His leg, though, was healing ridiculously fast. If it's completely better, and Sheppard still hasn't come back…
"Is this an act of war?" he asked. "I wouldn't make a good intergalactic warlord. Haven't got the temperament for it. The brains, on the other hand…"
When Ronon looked like that, you had to listen, even when you knew that he was softer than he seemed, and when he had once hugged you and called you buddy.
"Yes. Of course. Yes. Ready."
But once you started, you could never stop. You made a decision to leave, but staying away led to one decision after another. It led you to stand and watch as your team-mate killed an unconscious man. You justified it, because you were doing it to get Sheppard back. But with every day that went by without any leads, you had to take stronger action to try to get a lead. For every new day that you stayed out despite the lack of leads, you had to stay out another day, and another week, because how could you give up hope? How could you ever give up hope?
But the wormhole enfolded them, and they were out on the other side, Rodney slamming on the brakes to avoid crashing into the wall. As soon as they were still, he opened the hatch, and Ronon leapt down, the case in his arms. He placed it beside the small doorway in the building, then climbed back into the jumper, Teyla helping him up. "Done," Ronon said.
Rodney's hands took over, as they always did when there was work to be done. He closed the hatch, and pressed the detonator. It was only a small charge - enough to take down a wall without obliterating the building. As the viewscreen erupted into orange, he accelerated forward, heading through the storm of flying stones, trusting to shields and inertial dampeners. The jumper didn't even shake. They unleashed destruction, but flew on, unharmed.
Cloaked, he began to fly towards the city. Beneath them, looking so innocent now, were the ruins that Ronon had called a killing ground, and the place where they had last seen Sheppard alive.
"He must be here," Rodney said, "and now we're going to find him."
He had blown up hundreds of things in his time. Once, he had even blown up the control room of Atlantis, but Sheppard had been there, then, and Carson, and Elizabeth. That had been their own home, and this was just a stupid building on a stupid planet that was not their own.
Why, then, did he just feel that he had broken something that could never be rebuilt again?
Twenty-eight meals were marked on the wall. "Why do you no longer tell stories?" Teyla asked, as she watched him exercise.
"Because they all turn dark, and I forget them, anyway." As long as he didn't look directly at her, she wouldn't disappear.
"I like hearing stories from your world," she said. "Recounting tales keeps your mind sharp."
"Yes. Yes." McKay seemed to agree. "If you keep forgetting how the stories go, that's all the more reason to tell them. Your brain needs exercising as well as your body, you know." It didn't really sound properly like McKay, though, for all his talk of brains.
"What about telling the story of what's going to happen?" Ronon was eager. This was clearly something he wanted to hear about.
Sheppard settled on the bed. "One day, they'll come," he said. "They can't keep this up forever. One day… Maybe if they realise they can't break me this way. They'll come in, and I'll be waiting. They're going to try to hurt me. I…" He stopped talking, remembering that it was not just his team that was listening, but the men behind the cameras. He carried on silently. His team wasn't really here, and they could hear him just as well if he spoke only inside his head.
They would be expecting him to attack the moment they opened the door, so perhaps he would hold back. Perhaps he would let them wrestle him to the floor, let them begin to lift him up to the hook. Then he would fight. He had continued to exercise, and although he wasn't in peak condition, he wasn't too bad. Hunger was a problem, but adrenaline would counter that, at least for a while. Yes, he would bide his time and strike out, driving his foot between someone's legs, smashing his fist into someone else's face.
They were bound to have weapons. He'd get his hands on one, and then he could be the aggressor. He'd hold them at bay, force them to let him leave this room, and then he'd lock them in, and see how they liked it. But he wouldn't torment them with footsteps, oh no. Let them strain into the silence, and hear nothing at all. He'd be far away, heading back to the Gate, back to Atlantis, back to his home.
"They tried to break me," he'd say, "but didn't manage it." And Elizabeth… No, Elizabeth was gone. Carson. No. Who was the new…? Keller. Yes. Keller would… And the others… Back on active duty within days, perhaps, and then he would come here with a dozen teams at his back, and he would raze this place to the ground. He would find every one of them - Homer, who sought to control him by bringing food; Hank, who prowled; George, who had let himself be touched. He would let them plead for their life, and then he would kill them. He would kill them without mercy. He would break them. He would shatter them. He would slaughter them.
"How?" Ronon wanted to know. His glittering eyes stole into Sheppard's heart, and fed his words. McKay was not entirely sure he wanted the details.
"Shoot them," Sheppard told Ronon, but Ronon didn't feel that was good enough. Ronon wanted him to dwell on every bullet as it tore into flesh. He showed him lingering scenes of faces shattering into pulp. He showed the delight of feeling someone die beneath your hands, when you hated them. He showed Sheppard a knife slipping deliciously into flesh, and twisting.
McKay said that he didn't feel well. Teyla said she was worried about you, John. This is not like you, and of course it's not like me, he told her, because normally I haven't been incarcerated for weeks by these… by these…
"Monsters," Ronon filled in for him.
"I notice that your little escape scenario didn't include a role for us as rescuers," McKay pointed out.
"Because if you were going to rescue me, you'd have come by now."
And, there. It was said.
"And the last time I saw you, you were all injured."
They were no longer there. He was alone in a white room, and there were no shadows to hide in.
"And when I think too much about the real you," he told the spaces where they had been, "you go away, like you did just now."
But he went back, even so, and crafted a fresh story - one in which the footsteps approached his door, and there were three sets of them - a warrior, a beautiful woman, and a scientist. They opened the door, and he was ready for them, and together they turned this whole place into smoking ruin, awash with blood.
End of chapter five
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