Note: Thanks to everyone who sent words of encouragement yesterday after my self-indulgent ramblings. I've not replied to any yet, since I realised that what I most needed last night was an evening in which I didn't do a single thing that was story-related, but they were much appreciated.
I did seriously consider changing the posting schedule – either by taking a short break, or by speeding things up – but have decided to stick with one a day, with the exception of the final day. I am now intending to post the final two parts on Tuesday – one in the morning and one in the evening – and finish one day earlier than planned. I need to get up early on Wednesday to head off to the mainland for a conference, so it wouldn't be a good day for me to post the final part.
Now on with the show…
Chapter thirteen: "And there this ends"
They stunned him before going through the Gate, of course, and this time Sheppard lost consciousness completely. Waking up afterwards felt depressingly familiar. Crazy sort of job, he thought, if waking up after being stunned feels so normal. He stirred, rolling onto his side, seeing his sluggish hand through bleary eyelids. "Guess I should see about a career change."
"Sir?" The voice was tremulous. It cut through the fuzziness like a knife; made Sheppard push himself into a sitting position, leaning against whatever hard surface happened to be behind him.
Manning was hunched in a corner, one leg stretched out in front of him, and one drawn up to his chest. "You all right, sergeant?" Sheppard asked him.
Manning nodded, but his eyes said no. Sheppard knew enough about that to recognise it.
Sheppard tried to stand, but the lingering effects of the stunners made that impossible. It felt vulnerable to be sitting on the floor, unable to get up. He concentrated on driving away the fog from his limbs. Everything was possible if you had enough willpower. As he flexed his hands and feet, he looked around, and tried to stop his neck from sagging. "Seems like we're not in Kansas any more, Toto."
From the look of it, he was fairly sure they were in an Ancient ship. It wasn't moving. Even with inertial dampeners, a pilot just knew. It was a moment later before he realised that of course it wasn't moving, because they needed him to fly it, and that was the whole point of this charade. He pressed his fingers to his brow, trying to clear away the fog. If his thoughts went sluggish now, so close to the end, they were lost.
"We're on a different world?" Manning asked.
Sheppard looked at him. He really did look rough. Got to get him to a doctor… He pressed his lips together. There was no time to think about that right now. They were so close. If all went to plan, Manning would be home within hours, but Sheppard had to focus on the plan, and not on the man who had been left here in order to test him. It felt harsh, but sometimes these things were necessary.
"I think so," he said at last. "Carrick said he had lots of bases on different worlds. My guess is that this is the one where his ship is parked."
"They knocked you out," Manning said. "Me too, but you… lots of times. I saw it. That means–"
Sheppard stood up, because he had to. He rested his hand against the wall. "Don't go getting ideas, sergeant." His voice was harsh. That, too, was something he had to do. "I'm doing what I have to do. I'm taking this ship against Atlantis."
"I am glad to hear that, Colonel Sheppard."
He hadn't heard the door opening. Damn. He tried for anger, but fear would have been closer, probably. Carrick stood in the doorway, with the usual henchmen at his side. "My scientists are very keen to work with you," Carrick said. "They were most put out when you were… indisposed."
"Sorry to have disappointed them," Sheppard said. "I'll try not to fall into the path of any stunner beams in future."
Carrick did not smile. "Come," he said, but Sheppard saw how his eyes flickered to Manning, small and broken in the corner, and how the thugs behind him began to move.
"Just 'come'?" Sheppard stepped forward. Really, it wasn't hard to move steadily when you tried. "No 'please'? I'm a pivotal part of your plan, and you've threatened me and attacked me. The least you can give me is a please."
Carrick's eyes were still on Manning, and very slowly he started to smile. Manning seemed to fade, to become a dead man on a distant world, who had died a prisoner, and would never go home.
"Or not. Maybe I can live without a please just now." Sheppard put himself between Carrick and Manning, but Carrick continued to look where Manning was, as if Sheppard himself was invisible. Only after several seconds did he slowly raise his eyes to look Sheppard full in the face.
One false move, those eyes said, and the smile, and he dies.
"What are we waiting for?" Sheppard said. "Here I am, right where you want me. Let's go."
Rodney didn't lose consciousness, but afterwards if felt almost as if he had, because the world he opened his eyes onto was so different from what had gone before. He threw himself backwards, and rolled as soon as he landed, bringing his arms up. "Cover your head," he shouted, his voice sounding unnaturally loud. Then there was silence, but his ears still thought they heard the sound of the world ending.
Radek was muttering something in Czech. His voice was quiet and muffled, but when Rodney started to speak – just words; he had no idea what – his own voice was still loud. He wanted to cower until it was safe again. He wanted to check himself for damage – I could be dying, and you don't notice it at the time, do you, because of the adrenaline? – but instead he pushed himself upwards with his hands.
That was how he saw the man, edging forward on the far side of the explosion, through the smoke. He saw his hand begin to rise, then fall again. He saw him see Rodney; saw him realise that he had been seen.
"Help us." The words died on Rodney's lips, and no real sound came out.
The other man just stood there. He hasn't come to help, Rodney realised. He's the one who caused this, coming back to finish off the job. He's our traitor.
"Radek." Rodney felt unable to move, but he hissed Radek's name.
I should look away, he thought. I should run. Tell people who he is before he…
Radek stirred. Still staring at the unmoving man on the far side of the smoke, Rodney saw him only out of the corner of his eye. He saw Radek rub his eyes behind his glasses, then saw him check his own body, as if he was surprised to find himself alive.
The man moved. He's going to kill us. But still Rodney could do nothing but kneel there, blinking into the smoke. This was the man who had ruined the security of Atlantis for him and filled it with shadows. This was the man who had forced them to set up the horrible charade with Sheppard. This was the man who thought he had set his wits against Rodney, and won. Rodney wanted to run screaming at him, to smash him to the ground like Ronon would do.
The smoke thickened. We're not supposed to know who he is, he thought. Carrick has to think that everything's going according to plan. He has to think we're idiots – lambs to the slaughter. He has to think…
"Who's there?" Radek said.
Rodney reached for him. Radek's hand rose to his ear. He spoke again, but Rodney didn't hear what it was. "No radio." Radek's arm fell.
Rodney blinked, his eyes stinging from the smoke. He brought his hand up to his eyes, but that only made it worse. When he lowered his hand, the smoke was even thicker, but it was as if the man on the far side had melted into the smoke. He had gone.
But Rodney had seen his face. Rodney knew now who he was. And the traitor knew.
There were two scientists. When pushed, one admitted that he had once been one of the Travellers, but had jumped ship during one of their brief stops in order to pursue alternative employment prospects. "Ah yes," Sheppard said. "The rich opportunities of a life of crime. Your last boss was hotter, don't you think?" The second one didn't even need pushing. He had once served under Acastus Kolya, he informed Sheppard, adding that all true Genii should curse the name of John Sheppard. "Guess that makes you my best buddy, then," Sheppard said.
He turned his back, half expecting one or other of them to strike him, but Carrick spoke sternly to them. "We need Colonel Sheppard to get us to our destination, gentlemen."
No mention of needing him beyond that point. Of course Carrick would be planning on killing him the moment they reached Atlantis. He would need people with the Ancient gene, but would take people who were more tractable. Despite everything Carrick said, Sheppard knew that he didn't trust him and that he had doubts about his story. He'd use Sheppard for as long as he had to, but no further.
Too bad I'm not planning on sticking around that long.
He was so close to the end, and the part he had been playing already felt like something he had long since laid aside. Even Carrick had laid aside the pretence. Fly this ship, or Manning dies. It was enough. Even without the charade, it might have been enough.
"Can you fly it?" Carrick's voice sounded different now, as if a trace of genuine emotion was showing through beneath his usual affected politeness.
Sheppard sat in the control chair, and felt immediately the demanding of the ship's controls. He held himself back, though, just a little. He could almost imagine that the ship felt eager to fly again after such a long sleep, but he knew he was just projecting his own feelings. He had been too long away from his friends, too long underground. Atlantis was his home, and it lay at the end of this journey now starting.
The viewscreen showed nothing but darkness – the shape of a hangar, and outside that, the night. The ship was far smaller than the Aurora had been, in a design that they hadn't encountered before. He pressed his hand down, and sought more. It had a hyperdrive and drones, he learnt. It was cloakable, and it was in good order. From the looks of things, the scientists had done their work well.
He broke the connection, and leant forward, breathing fast as he struggled to recover himself. It was harder to lie after he had been connected to the chair. Lying felt tawdry compared with the wonder of an Ancient ship. "Your scientists know their stuff," he conceded, since it seemed safer than any of the other things he could have said.
"Can you fly it?" Carrick sounded impatient.
One more breath. "Yes."
"Then do it."
So it had come. It had come. He should be feeling so many things, but he was still half held by the chair. The part of him that had awakened in Antarctica knew what was required of it, and wanted to respond. "Now?" he managed, sounding like a fool.
Carrick's eyes were gleaming. "Now," he said.
There were times when Teyla felt useless on Atlantis. She had become familiar enough with the technology to use it, but at times like this, she had to yield to the expertise of others. It was not something she was used to. It was not something that she liked.
"Communications down," someone announced. She saw Colonel Carter try her radio one more time, and saw that movement reflected in others, as they gave in to the natural urge to test for themselves.
"Power's still on," they said. "Transporters still functional. Shield… Damn! Shield's off-line."
"Jumper bay inaccessible."
"Life signs detector… Dammit!"
"Is anybody hurt?" she heard herself say. That was the worst of it. Alive one moment, and dead the next. The world changed in the blinking of an eye.
The explosion had happened just as she had been leaving the Control Room. She had whirled around, and watched people drop to the ground, shielding their heads. In that moment, she had flashed to a memory of lying on the floor, pinned by the agony in her side, wondering what was happening, wondering if anybody had been killed... and then waking much later to find that Carson was gone. She had been watching the windows blow in, and Elizabeth flying backwards through the room, with shards of glass falling around her like rain.
"Nothing serious." Chuck had burns and cuts on his face. He had been the closest to the explosion, she thought.
"What happened?" That was a new technician, a young man, still crouched nervously on the floor.
"That's what we have to find out." Colonel Carter moved forward to the devastated controls. The technician visibly straightened.
Teyla left. She needed to see her team. Alive one moment, and dead the next. And John was gone, and Elizabeth, and Carson. One by one…
They brought out Manning, who hung between two of Carrick's thugs, barely standing. The threat was implicit.
I could do the trick with the inertial dampeners… Sheppard dismissed that thought as soon as it came to him. The plan was still on course. He was not yet in open defiance, and he was not alone this time. Manning was the one who would pay the price.
Taking a deep breath, he sank back into the chair, and felt again the demanding grip of the Ancient technology in his mind. Go, he thought, and the scientists at their station did their part. The ship juddered a little, and then was on the move, gliding slowly out of the hangar, then rising into the night. Even in the middle of all of this, a treacherous little part inside him felt the thrill of being airborne after so many days underground.
"Sir." He heard it only faintly, but he could spare no glance for Manning, not now. Half his mind was encased in blue. He sensed the drones, dormant now, but ripe with the potential of destruction. He saw the scientists at the controls, their fingers moving swiftly, and saw that they had already set a course to Atlantis; that they knew exactly where it was. We're going to take the city, he thought rashly, and it was almost as if the ship heard him and disapproved, the touch on his mind growing cold and hard. Then it turned soft again, yielding to him and letting itself be used.
Here's hoping Carrick can't see through me so quickly, he thought, though the whole thing had probably been in his imagination. You could push feelings deep inside, but they could not entirely be denied.
Sheppard pulled his thoughts away. Once they were in the air, the technology required little of him. "Feels good," he said, and there was more truth in there than he would have liked to admit to an enemy. "Too bad you'll never know what it's like."
Carrick's expression remained icy. Beyond him, Manning cried out in pain.
"Take us to Atlantis, Colonel Sheppard."
Yes, thought Sheppard, not daring to look at Manning. And there this ends.
Ronon had no idea what stopped him. He cocked his head, listening, but heard nothing. Breathing heavily, he stalked to the edge of the room, and picked up his discarded radio, pressing the ear-piece against his ear. Still nothing.
He knew what it was like to be edgy. You had to respond to the slightest hint of a threat. It was better to respond to false alarms than to miss that tiny glimmer of sound that marked a genuine threat. Even in the middle of Atlantis, he sometimes thought he heard footsteps stalking him through the undergrowth. Even when alone in his room, he sometimes heard a single word spoken in the voice of someone long dead.
Better that way, he told himself, as he returned to the punching bag. He punched it once; twice. A double. A treble. It was different from sparring. It was more intimate, just himself and his anger. It was running from the Wraith. It was fighting for his home. It was surviving. Sparring needed two. Sparring required an opponent whom you trusted. Teyla had declined for now, and Sheppard was gone, and he didn't have the heart to spar with anyone else, not when any one of them could be the enemy.
He smashed the bag again: one, two, three. Then he stopped, the bag swinging back towards him, before he stopped it, holding it to his chest. What was…?
He was half way to the door when Teyla opened it. "Ronon." She was breathless, and her hair was disordered. "I fear that something has gone terribly wrong."
"Take the ship into hyperspace."
The order was given. This was it, Sheppard thought. This was the moment that everything had led to. This was when it all became worth it. This was when it became real.
Because there were other ways, of course – ways he had never breathed to the others. If something went wrong with the transmitter… If he thought there was no way to do this thing without unleashing Carrick and his men on Atlantis… He could bring the ship down. He would bring himself down with it, too, but sometimes such a thing was necessary.
The voice was soft, with no warning in it, but then Manning was crying out, clearly in pain. Awakened by the chair, instinct took over, shaking off the last vestiges of his pretence. Sheppard hurled himself out of the chair towards him, but Manning kept on crying out. "No! Please, no!" and Sheppard had no idea if he was begging not to be hurt, or if he was begging Sheppard not to do this, because what he was doing was worse than any torture.
"Stop it!" Sheppard shouted, and he managed with a supreme effort to make his voice sound commanding. "You said you wouldn't hurt him."
"I said no such thing."
Carrick was enjoying this. Sheppard surged towards him, and then hands were on his arms, too, dragging him back, and he tried to fight, but he wasn't moving properly, not even the adrenaline countering the effects of the stunner and the lack of food. He found himself on the floor, and Manning was there, his face only inches away. Manning's eyes were burning in his flushed face. There seemed to be some message there, but Sheppard couldn't read it.
It took Sheppard a few seconds to collect himself. He still had a few more hours of pretence to maintain. "I'm keeping my side of the bargain." He rolled away from Manning, then sat up, and the thugs who had brought him down stepped away from him, letting him do this by himself. "There's no reason to hurt him."
"No. You're torturing him perfectly well by yourself."
No, he thought. Not long before, at the darkest point of his test, it had seemed true, but Carrick was the only torturer round here. He pressed his lips together, though. Whatever else he knew, it was still not easy. It could never be easy.
It'll soon be over, he reminded himself. In a few hours, perhaps even less, he would be on the Daedalus, and everything would be explained. Too late for Alvarez, though. Too late, perhaps, for Manning, who had endured too much. But despite all that, he felt the familiar stirrings of adrenaline that came with a confrontation. He was flying a ship, and the enemy was in his sights, and would soon go down.
But, "You still need me," he managed to say coldly, "and if you hurt him any more, I'll fly you right back home and trash your ship so you won't be going anywhere again, ever."
Carrick stepped close, and his hand brushed the back of the chair. "We both know you won't."
What did that mean? No, it was too late to speculate. He had come too far, and he was committed now until the end. With a show of defeat, he took the ship into hyperspace.
But before he did that, he activated the transmitter.
"What happened?" They found him in his lab. Teyla came in first, and Ronon behind him. "Rodney, are you–?"
"Quiet." He tried again. Nothing. Still nothing. "Damn it!" He slammed his fist down; raked his hand across his face. It smelled of smoke and decaying things.
Rodney blinked. "He's won. That's what's happened."
He didn't even feel the anger that he plagued him for days. His team was here, gathered around him, watching him as he worked, not understanding what he was doing, entirely in his hands, asking inane questions… God! His eyes itched from the smoke. And Sheppard wasn't here, and that of course was the whole point, and… No. Think! He could do it, of course. He could race against time with their lives on the line, but what if he didn't do it in time, because it had to have been timed like that deliberately – too late for them to do anything about it, because the traitor – and he had a name now, didn't he? – knew him and knew his skills, and would have made sure that not even he could…
Ronon was there, a hand on his arm. Rodney shook it off. "An explosion," he said, "in the communications suite. I–"
"There was an explosion in the Control Room, too," Teyla said. "It took out many of the controls and disabled the DHD."
"Ah. Of course." It felt like only a minor blow. He had known it, really, deep down. One step ahead of him. One step ahead of him all the way. "There were probably more explosions, too, in other places. Shield generators…"
"Who did it?" Ronon looked murderous. Of course he was. Always the predictable barbarian. Always wanting to fight. Always wanting to fix things with his fists. Always wanting to…
He let out a breath. Always wanting to protect us. Hands to his face for a moment – still that rank smell of smoke, and their hopes ending – then returned to the futile work that he could not stop.
"I saw him," he said, his eyes on the screen. "He set the bomb – well, not a bomb, not really, but a targeted explosion, very cleverly done, to take out what he wanted to take out and nothing else – then came back to check it had worked. You know what they say about a murderer always returning to the scene of the crime?" His eyes flicked up, and saw blankness. "No? Well, they do. And he did."
"Who is it?" There was Ronon, trying to fight his battles, just like Sheppard would have done if he had been here. The traitor was Rodney's enemy, of course – one of his scientists, pitting his wits against him, thinking he'd won. And Sheppard would pay the price, and all of them.
"It doesn't matter." He tried again. Nothing. Still nothing.
"We cannot confront him, Ronon." Teyla, poor foolish Teyla, still so far behind the plot.
"It doesn't matter any more." Was his sleeve singed there at the cuff? And there was dirt in the folds of his knuckles, and blood behind his nails, though where had that come from?
"Who is he?" Ronon demanded.
Rodney looked up, and there the traitor was, like Banquo's ghost returning for the feast, like a vulture coming in to pick over the corpse of something that had died. Of course he was here, because this was the end, and he'd heard everything they'd said, but it just didn't matter any more. This was their traitor – Ewan Cameron, and Rodney barely even knew him, had never even talked to him, which should have made it better, but just made it worse. Cameron saw Rodney's eyes on him, but still he edged forward, looking for all the world as if he wanted to confess, though he was here to gloat, really, wasn't he, or to drive another nail into the coffin he had crafted. "That him?" Ronon asked, and Rodney nodded mutely – though it didn't matter; it didn't matter at all – and Ronon raced out of the room, dragging his gun from his belt, as the traitor turned and fled.
"It won't make a difference," Rodney told Teyla, who was starting after Ronon, her face twisted with urgency. Teyla turned, questioning, torn. Rodney knew he had to explain, but his ears still felt hollow from the sound of the explosion, and there was a place inside him that was even worse. "He can't communicate with Carrick any more. Let Ronon kill him if he wants to."
She didn't understand. For the first time since the explosion, he felt a spark of real feeling. His hearing grew sharper, and he felt stabs of pain from places where he had fallen. He heard Ronon's footsteps fading in the corridor, and knew that one person, at least, would get the punishment he deserved.
He felt, perhaps, as if he was beginning to wake up.
"Because we're deaf," he said. "He's literally blown up our sensors." Teyla said nothing at all. God, he was surrounded by idiots! "We can't communicate out. We can't Gate out. We can't raise the shield. We can't talk on the radio – and why would we want to do that? Oh! Maybe to co-ordinate our defence when Carrick's goons attack."
"Yes," he snapped wearily. "Yes, Carrick knows. Or very probably knows. Sheppard's going to activate that transmitter and we won't know a thing about it. And he won't know that we don't know."
"Yes. It means that this whole ridiculous plan has fallen apart. It means that a ship-load of thugs is going to show up any second – because where else is Carrick going to strike but here, the biggest prize of all? – and we won't know where and we won't know when and we won't be able to co-ordinate any sort of defence. It means that Carrick is probably wise to Sheppard's little trick and is plotting how to kill him even now." He let out a breath. It meant so many things, but they all added up to the same thing, really. "It means that we are completely screwed."
end of chapter thirteen
On to chapter fourteen
Note: Just to stop people from leafing back searching for clues as to the identity of the traitor: there really aren't any. He is mentioned once, in a Robert scene, when he appears as a fellow scientist who is questioning Robert about Sheppard's disappearance, but that's all. I did debate about this for quite a while. It is, of course, rather contrary to literary convention to suddenly have a totally new character appear at the end to take the role of the villain. The villain is supposed to be someone we've seen before – someone who acts in a way that allows to astute reader to speculate that this might be the one.
However, in this case, the whole point was that the traitor was invisible. If I'd suddenly started showing a brand-new character popping up in all sorts of places, looking suspicious, then it would have been obvious. I wanted readers to be in the same situation as the main characters – aware that there was a traitor, but not having the faintest idea who it could be, and forced to distrust everyone. I hope no-one feels too cheated.
More tomorrow. And I haven't forgotten about the Shep whump, honest…
On to chapter fourteen