Chapter nine: Casualties
Teyla was careful not to make any sudden movement. "Why are you doing this?" She remembered his name from the mission a few months previously, when they had rescued his team from captivity. "We are not your enemies, Lieutenant MacDonald."
"Really?" His gun remained level, though, even though his voice was not. "From where I'm standing, it's not so clear."
Everyone called him Mac, she remembered, but she thought it unwise to try it. The people from Earth had levels of intimacy tied up with the use of the names. Even Rodney seemed reluctant to call John by name. "Lieutenant–"
"I ask the questions here."
She saw his finger tighten on the trigger. Beside her, she was aware of Ronon quivering with the need to fight, but he was more subtle than the people of Atlantis often gave him credit for, and he knew when it was necessary to be deathly still. Do not attempt to speak, she willed at him. Leave this to me. Act only when the time is right.
"Then ask," she said, "and we will answer."
She had to ignore Ronon utterly, knowing that the slightest signal from her would prompt him into a reaction. Was this their traitor? She was less sure of that than she might have been. Doctor Zelenka was sure that the traitor was a scientist. Unless there are two of them working together. No, although she could not dismiss that thought, she would not be too quick to assume that it was correct. This was something else, she thought.
"Why did you drive Colonel Sheppard away?" MacDonald demanded. "Don't deny it. I know you did it. I've asked around – not just gossip but the truth. You. Colonel Carter. Doctor McKay… They didn't want to talk about it when officers were present, but I found out. I tried to tell Major Lorne but he said it was nothing, just stupid gossip. But it isn't, is it? It's true. Why were you plotting against him?"
The gun was unwavering, so close that there was no possibility of him missing, but far enough away that she had no chance of knocking it out of his hand. He really believes it, she thought, looking into his eyes. And she had no defence. The truth would condemn Colonel Sheppard to death.
"Can't answer?" he sneered. "I know far more than you think I do. You thought no-one would find out, didn't you? My God! There's a proper conspiracy. How high does it go? Colonel Carter… No. But she's new. God knows what little secrets they've hushed up about her past. Ten years going off world, doing God knows what. And of course she'd listen to you two – Pegasus natives, pretending you know everything, not one of us. How long have you been working against us?"
"There is no conspiracy," she said. "Colonel Sheppard and Ronon and I exchanged harsh words, in the way that friends sometimes do. Things were said in the heat of the moment, but they were not meant."
"It sounds like he exchanged words with a lot of people," MacDonald said, "and that afterwards you call got together and concocted lies."
How could you argue for your life when faced with someone whose accusations were true? She wanted to look at Ronon, but could not. "It was not like that," she said. "I can only assure you…"
"Then how was it?" McDonald shouted.
Ronon spoke for the first time. "Why's it important to you?"
"Colonel Sheppard saved my life." For the first time the gun wavered. "Lots of commanding officers… They wouldn't have done what he did. He went in, took fire for me… He didn't have to. Could have sent someone else. Could have thrown good men in to die. But he didn't. He… I won't believe that he's turned traitor. I won't believe… No!" He started forward, perhaps reacting to some response from Ronon that Teyla could not see. "Don't give me that classified mission crap. He left. He wouldn't do that unless he knew that something was terribly wrong on Atlantis. He wouldn't walk out on us. He just wouldn't."
Loyalty, Teyla thought. Oh, John, why did you not foresee this? She felt regretful rather than afraid, as if this was a quiet talk by the fire, not a struggle with life as the stake. Not once, in all the planning, had John considered that his men would be too devoted to him to believe the lies. Throughout the planning there had been the assumption that he just had to plant a few seeds and everyone would believe the worst of him. Did he not realise? Did he not know?
He always seemed such a confident man. Maybe, she thought, he does not realise how much he is valued. No, not merely valued. He has no idea that he is loved.
What could she say? She could not give that lie; she could not. But anything she said now would spread across the city. Even if MacDonald was not the traitor – and she was fairly sure now that he was not – the traitor might come to hear what she said.
"He left," she said. "That is true. Words were said. Things… went wrong. You have to understand, Lieutenant MacDonald… Colonel Sheppard had been through a lot. He was infected with a crystal entity not so long ago. He was affected more seriously by the memory loss than many others were. He is not himself. We… fought, because he was… he was being irrational and…" She struggled for the right word. "Paranoid. He–"
"You're lying!" MacDonald screamed. Ronon, she saw, was beginning to move incredibly slowly towards him.
"I am not," she said, and the irony of it was that she had not spoken a single lie to him, but at the same time had completely failed to tell him to truth. "You have to believe me. Colonel Sheppard is our friend, even if he thinks we are not. We were worried about him. We are worried about him. We would never do a single thing to hurt him."
"Then why…?" The gun wavered even more. Ronon, she knew, was ready. "I nearly died. I would have died if he hadn't… And it isn't… It's not like they say it's going to be. I can't…"
"You are loyal to your commanding officer," she said gently, daring to take a step towards him, "but there are things happening here that you know nothing of. You saw fragments of the whole and–"
"But Colonel Carter lied! I saw you all having your secret meetings."
She moistened her lips; breathed in and out. "She concealed the truth, yes. She hoped, as we did, that we would be able to find Colonel Sheppard quickly and could get him the help he so clearly needed, and that no-one else needed to know." He was on the verge of believing her; she saw it in his eyes. "If Stargate Command found out," she said, "they would ship him home, or, worse, give us orders to hunt him like an enemy. None of us wanted that. He belongs on Atlantis. He is our friend."
"But Doctor McKay shot him."
What? She managed to still her reaction. Ronon did not. "Doctor McKay was terrified that Colonel Sheppard was going to leave forever," she said. "He cracked. He acted out of emotion, desperate to stop him from leaving. That," she said firmly, wishing she felt as firm inside, "is the only reason. He regrets it bitterly."
Ronon moved then. Teyla played her part, darting forward, smashing MacDonald's wrist, kicking his knees away so he fell to the ground. Ronon twisted the gun from his hand, and sat on his back, pinioning MacDonald's legs between his own, pressing his face into the floor.
For a moment their eyes met over the man's struggling body. He had no intention of shooting, she tried to say, realising it as the truth. He had already been lowering the gun when Ronon had struck. His finger had already left the trigger. The safety catch had been on throughout. Had it even been loaded? Please do not hurt him.
This, Ronon's eyes said. This is the result of all our lies. With one last hot glare, he stood up and left the room, jabbing MacDonald's gun into his belt as he went.
Teyla sat back. MacDonald turned his head to one side, and his eyes met hers, but she could not read him. Perhaps she was so mired in lies now that it was hard to read anybody.
"I don't know what to think," MacDonald said quietly, lips brushing the worn flood. He looked broken, she thought – another casualty of Carrick and the web of lies.
Another casualty of John.
"No," she said; just that.
Once again, he had been fully aware as they had dragged him away. Fully aware, but paralysed, he had tumbled into his room. He had lain there, expecting torture. Instead he got nothing. It felt worse, really.
It was several hours before Carrick came for him, the ever-present torturer at his heels. By then he was ready – but not ready; never again.
"You disobeyed me," Carrick said. "I made it quite clear that this was a test of your loyalty, and you failed it. You must have known what the consequences would be."
"Yeah." Sheppard sat down and stretched his legs out. "It's like I said. I've got nothing against most of the people on Atlantis, and even those I do have something against, I don't want dead. Manning's done nothing wrong." No, he couldn't maintain the appearance of casualness, not when talking about an issue like this. He sat up straighter. "He's one of my own men. He thought I'd come to rescue him."
"So you are loyal." Carrick sat down opposite him. His eyes were cold. "Loyal to your old comrades, but not to me."
"I'm loyal to people who put their trust in me." He tried not to think of Manning's face. No, he had to remember it. He could not forget it. He had done many things in the service of this plan, but there was a line that he could not cross.
"So if I decide to put my trust in you, despite everything?" Carrick pressed two long fingers together, steepling them. "Will that loyalty be transferred to me?"
He had no idea what to say. He knew he was fighting for his life here, despite the soft words, but he was so deep in deception now that he had lost track of how his assumed persona would think. So what? he thought. I'm winging it. He was so far out on a limb now, so far out beyond anywhere he should ever have gone. All he could do was try to cling to the core of what made him himself.
"You shouldn't trust me," he said. "I don't like you, and don't like what you're doing. I'm prepared to help you because I need you. You're a means to an end. I want Elizabeth back. I want to… punish… to punish everyone who turned against me. I want them out. But I'm not one of your lackeys. I won't do anything against my conscience. I'll help you take Atlantis because… because I've got no choice. Just don't accept slavish devotion, because you're not going to get it."
Carrick's voice gave nothing away at all. The torturer watched in silence. Sheppard looked at his case of instruments, and was very aware of the transmitter hidden inside his body. There was still time to bail. There was no shame in that. Pilots who survived were those who knew when to eject.
To hell with it, he thought. If he'd been one to accept the inevitability of giving up, he wouldn't have been in Antarctica in the first place, and would never have reached Atlantis. "I want Sergeant Manning treated well," he said. "I want him released–"
"To race back to Atlantis and tell them my entire plan? Come, Colonel Sheppard, you know I cannot do that."
Sheppard had expected as much. "If you have to keep him here, I don't want him touched. I want him to be fed and given a proper bed. I want him to receive medical attention. I want him to come with us when we leave. And if he's here… There was another of my men who went missing, not long before I… before I left. Is he here, too?"
"You are making demands now?" Carrick's expression was chilly and deadly. He ignored the question."I hardly think you are in a position to–"
"Last thing I heard," Sheppard said, "you needed me. You have a ship; I'm the one who can fly it. The way I see it, that puts me in a position to make demands."
"You would dare…?" Carrick stood up so violently that the chair fell over. "You will– I could… I should have you killed. I can hurt you."
Sheppard stood up slowly, in control. He folded his arms, and stepped easily to one side when Carrick lunged at him across the table. "Like I said, you need me," he said, "and you said yourself that I am not the sort of man who can be won over with pain. At the moment I'm willing to give you the help you need. That can change."
"Then I will kill you."
"So?" Sheppard shrugged. "I don't see life offering me much right now." He saw Manning's face, broken and twisted with betrayal. "I've already lost everything that mattered to me."
"You'll regret this…"
Sheppard looked at him consideringly. "You know, I can feel my willingness to help you disappearing away to a big fat zero."
What are you doing? He could hear Rodney freaking out in his imagination. Provoke the madman in his lair, why don't you? He wasn't even sure why he was doing it. Words came out, and it was hard to stop them.
He let out a breath. He suspected that he had gone far too far already for anything to be salvaged, but he had to try. He couldn't take the lies too far. He couldn't lose himself. "Treat Manning well, and let me see Alvarez if he's here," he said, "and I'll fly your damn ship all the way to Atlantis. I'll help you take the city, but that's where it stops. That's the deal. Take it or leave it: it's your choice."
Rodney seldom slept now. He avoided the main labs, where somebody was a traitor, somebody was watching everything he did, somebody was reporting it all, looking for clues that would shatter the façade. He had no desire to spend time with his fellow conspirators. Katie had come to him, shyly full of gossip, and he had shouted at her and shunned her.
He had nobody. He missed Sheppard. But if Sheppard came walking in now, that infuriating casual grin on his face, Rodney knew he would slam the door on him and refuse to talk to him.
He couldn't remember ever feeling quite so miserable and quite so angry and quite so powerless. At least in the past, he had had the safety net of not really caring about anyone around him. Now… God! Now was worse.
I don't know why. He sat on his bed and made an attempt to work on the laptop on his knees. He saw figures and numbers – meaningless figures. They drifted and floated away. He saw Carson and Elizabeth and Sheppard. He saw Ronon and Teyla and Sam and Lorne and Keller and Radek. He saw his own face in the mirror of the screen.
"I'm just tired," he said aloud. He twisted a fist in his eye, and then his vision was watery and stinging.
He had no idea why he was finding it so difficult. They were all in it together, all swept up in Sheppard's plan. Why was he finding it almost impossible to be in the same room as Ronon? He couldn't bring himself to speak civilly to Radek. He hated emerging from his room; hated seeing anyone.
He slammed the laptop shut, and reached for a power bar, but even that held no flavour. It made him choke, crumbs and saliva on his chin. With a wordless cry, he hurled it away, and saw it crumble against the wall.
"I'll be a natural," he had told Sheppard, after Sheppard had persuaded them all to go along with his damn-fool, stupid, ridiculous, crazy plan. "I got an acting prize when–"
"I know, I know." Sheppard had waved his hand. "You told me."
"I'll have you know…"
Even that memory felt tainted now, and not something he had the heart to remember. He couldn't forget their fight, and what was wrong with him, for God's sake, because of course he knew it had been staged. He couldn't forget shooting, and watching Sheppard fly away. He couldn't forget that one of his scientists was betraying him. And he wasn't a good actor; he wasn't a good actor at all. "I blurt out everything that comes into my mind," he said. "I can't help it." His hands moved in response to feelings that could not even be put into words, and he knew that his face was always mobile. It didn't normally matter, but now, with a traitor watching everything he did…
I don't want to be the one who gets Sheppard killed.
He closed his eyes, where he saw his own hand on a gun, and a patch of blood on the jumper bay floor. He tore them open again. "No no no. It's not my fault. It was his idea. He shouldn't have forced me to do this."
Shouldn't have trusted me to do this, his dreams said, when finally he slept. They said more, too. They showed him Sheppard dying beneath a hail of bullets from Rodney's own gun. They saw him flying away and never coming back. They showed him looking heartbroken and lost in the darkness of his own room, because of things that Rodney had said. He called to him, but Sheppard walked away, along with Carson and Elizabeth – walking away because they chose to. Leaving him alone.
Then Carrick was there, and he was a monster, like Kolya with his knife, and the Wraith with maws in their palms, and everything else that had ever haunted his dreams. "You're mine now," Carrick told Sheppard, and flayed him of his skin, and ripped away his flesh, as the traitor laughed, and Rodney sat in his room and did nothing, nothing at all, nothing, just nothing.
"Sheppard!" he screamed, and a hand was on his arm, hauling him up. He opened his eyes, but it was still there, dragging him up, and he fought, but he had never had the faintest hope in hell of being the physical match of this man.
"What is it?" he gasped. "Has Sheppard sent a message?"
Ronon sat on his bed, leaving Rodney to scrabble with his legs to press himself against the headboard. "We need to talk." His eyes reminded Rodney inescapably of how many men he had killed.
They locked him in again, of course. Like Rodney, Sheppard wasn't made for sitting quietly and doing nothing. He hammered at the door occasionally, and shouted, because he had to. "You're giving me a complex," he said. "Come on, we've got a deal."
At least, he thought they had a deal. He hoped they had a deal. Carrick had left without another word after Sheppard had made his offer, or presented my ultimatum, I guess would be more accurate. But at least he hasn't killed me yet. That's good.
He thought of Manning in his cell; thought of the lies. He had never expected it to be so difficult. It had been horrible to say those things to his team, and even worse to have to sit here and tell Carrick that he hated them, but the thing with Manning was something that never should have happened at all. Guess I've got an honest streak after all. Guess I really do care what people think.
No-one came. He drank some water, then felt it sloshing around in his stomach. "Food would be nice." He thought he had located where the camera was, and directed most of his comments at it. He had considered pretending not to know about it, but he was weary of lies. Confronting Carrick had felt better than anything else he had done for days. It felt like the one good thing in a tawdry mass of lies.
Footsteps passed. He pressed his ear to the door, and heard something very far away that might have been Manning screaming, but maybe was something else entirely.
Maybe I should just bail. Manning had a transponder, so the Daedalus would beam him out alongside Sheppard, and Alvarez, if he was there. It's not just me any more. Plans change as circumstances change.
He lay down on the bed, hands behind his head, and looked up at the dingy ceiling.
Perhaps it was a stupid plan.
No, no, the plan was still on course. If Carrick didn't have Sheppard, he would be out there snatching more pilots, killing more teams. It was worth it. All Sheppard had to do was ensure that Manning came with them on the expedition to Atlantis. As soon as they were in space, he would activate the transmitter, the Daedalus would come and get them both, and Carrick and all his men would be prisoners in a ship they could no longer fly. That was what mattered: saving Atlantis. It didn't matter how uncomfortable he felt. It didn't matter that he felt as if he was selling his soul.
But you're not the only one caught up in this now, are you, John?
Minutes passed. Of course, he realised slowly, it had always been like that. He knew that Rodney had found their staged fight just as difficult as Sheppard had done. They were the ones who had to deal with the fallout of his departure. He imagined how he would be feeling if Rodney was the one out there undercover, and there was no way of getting in touch with him. Sheppard had seen only what needed to be done, and hadn't bothered to think how it would make everyone feel. Not until he had looked into Manning's eyes…
A crazy plan, Rodney had called it.
Perhaps he was right.
He closed his eyes. Then the sound of footsteps had him scrambling to his feet again. The door opened. Sheppard stood ready, prepared to fight if he had to, or to resume the charade if he must.
Everard and Scarface stood outside, with Manning dangling limply between them. Without a word, they threw Manning at Sheppard, forcing him to catch him, to ease him as gently as he could to the floor, to fall there alongside him, blood on his hands.
He looked up, but he had already heard the sound of the door closing, and already heard the turning of the key.
end of chapter nine
On to chapter ten
Note: I do feel a bit bad about the end of the previous chapter. One thing I try to avoid is the "false cliffhanger", that promises danger, then reveals in line one of the next chapter that it was all a false alarm. I know some of you were expecting torture and all sorts of nasties for Sheppard as a result of him being stunned at the end of the last chapter, and of course nothing happened. In fact, the Sheppard scene that ended chapter 8 was written as the opening scene of chapter 9, but I moved it just before posting, on the grounds that it fitted better thematically into chapter 8. I didn't really think through the consequences of the movie – i.e. that it would add a second cliffhanger and a red herring.
By the way, Sheppard was never supposed to be stunned at all. He was supposed to hand over the gun, then let them lead him quietly away. This happened in the first draft, but on the second draft he just wouldn't shut up, and refused to let them lead him away without Manning coming too. This came close to blowing his cover and ruining the entire story, so I had to shoot him. Pesky characters. They bring on the whump themselves, you know.
On to chapter ten