Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Practise to Deceive - part 4 of 17

Chapter one, summary and notes are here



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–"

"Rodney…"

"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

******

On to chapter five

Note: So by now most confusion should be sorted out. I know there are still some outstanding questions – some of which have been brought up in reviews – but more answers are still to come. Rodney's reasons for shooting at Sheppard, for example, is something which will be addressed later, and will have repercussions.

When Sheppard refers to a Star Trek episode, that's my little nod at the original inspiration for this. Although I've not watched the episode for over twenty years, I've never forgotten the impact of the episode in which it looked as if Kirk had lost his mind, but it was all a ruse. It's been in the back of my mind ever since I started writing fanfic, and as soon as I started writing in this fandom, I realised that the time had finally come to write it.

Well, the time had almost come. This was last July, and I already had several other long stories queued up. Also, as with White Walls, I felt that the story would fit a lot better in an early season five setting. This was before I knew anything about Travellers, so I was a bit fed up to find a certain similarity there.

Sorry for the lack of Sheppard in this chapter, but the other characters were long overdue some scenes. He's back in the next chapter.

Feedback is always cherished, of course. Remember that authors are anxious creatures…

On to chapter five
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic
  • 14 comments