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
On to chapter three