I'm heading off in a few hours for a birthday trip to London, and won't be back until Sunday evening, so the next part won't be posted until Monday, at least. I also won't be able to respond to comments for a few days. I do hear, however, that feedback makes an excellent birthday present… ;-)
Earlier chapters: Chapter one / Chapter two
Chapter three: Numbering the days
Sheppard never expected to sleep. His eyes were starting to sting with tiredness, but relaxing was an impossibility. After a while, though, he pulled the thin pillow up against the wall, and leant against it.
He had no memory of closing his eyes. His perception ran in a straight line, with no gaps in it. One moment he was staring at the gap at the bottom of the door; the next he was starting up, his heart racing at a noise that echoed in his ears, but cut away to silence as soon as he moved. It happened again not long after. The third time it happened, he saw Kolya's Wraith coming at him with outstretched hands. He felt tearing pain in his shoulders as he hung from the hook. He saw his own blood circling hypnotically around the drain. The noise was metal chains and scraping footsteps; knives being sharpened against bone, and the soft sigh of someone entirely forsaken.
It was only then, sick with sweat, and breathing hard, that he realised he had been falling asleep – dropping off, perhaps, for just minutes at a time, and starting awake at imagined noises.
He tried with a fierce effort of will to keep his eyes open. He almost resorted to using his fingers, but decided he was not that far gone yet.
Sleep was best, perhaps, he decided some time later, when he had stared so hard at the white walls that his eyes felt stripped of all moisture. By training and practice, he knew how to sleep in a war zone, when you had to snatch every tiny opportunity for rest when it presented itself, yet be able to return yourself to full combat readiness within an instant, when you had to. If he was exhausted, his chances of fighting and escaping were lessened. Pain could be endured, but pain coupled with exhaustion was… difficult.
Difficult. He echoed the thought with a wry smile, even as cold steel ran up and down his spine.
This time he lay down. The moment he started trying to sleep, sleep became elusive. He tried his back, his front… So much for snatching sleep in a war zone. His back again, where the ceiling was the same white as the walls. Even when he closed his eyes, he could see that whiteness, driving through his eyelids, flooding his mind.
With a sigh, he headed for the bathroom, and did what he needed to do. "Hope there aren't cameras," he said. He gave a little wave in case there were, just his fingers. There were some things, at least, that he refused to let himself feel humiliated by. Brazen it out. Offer them bravado and a smile. That way they don't know…
No. Cold water, then, splashed on his face. He drank as much as he needed to keep himself well. He had tried some already, and was fairly sure it wasn't drugged. Its coldness should have made him feel more alert, but only made him feel more exhausted. He trudged back to the bed, pausing to touch the door, to crouch and feel the gap, fingers touching the floor outside.
After that, he lay down again. He lay on his side, his eyes open, seeing the hairs on the back of his wrist, out of focus, and the coarse fabric of the pillow. It melted away into scenes of violence and blood. This time, when he started awake, the footsteps were already there, already appearing as a dark shadow at his door…
And he was scrambling to his feet, heart racing so fast that it hurt. He leapt out of bed, landed in a crouch, pushed himself to his feet. They were already touching the door… No, no, a spreading darkness in the gap at the bottom. Something scraping, metal against metal, or stone against stone. Something at the gap; something, something…
It slid through, and he stared at it, and then he was at the door, but the footsteps were already retreating. "Hey!" he shouted. "That's not what I ordered." His voice was already beginning to sound not like his own. "I ordered a cheeseburger."
The footsteps faded to nothing. "Can't let McKay know I made the same joke twice," he muttered.
He did not allow himself to touch the food until he had counted to a thousand, and back down to one. By then, his heartbeat was almost back to normal. Didn't hear him coming, he told himself. Didn't wake up until he was right there. He crouched down; touched the food; withdrew his hand. If he'd been coming to torture me, he would have been inside before I…
No. There was no use in tormenting himself with what-ifs. "Leave the tormenting to the bad guys." He'd woken up just in time, and he hadn't needed to be awake, anyway.
Instead, he studied the tray of food. "Doesn't look exactly appetising," he said. "I guess that's why you're the bad guys." He picked up a chunk of coarse bread, and found that it was at least fairly soft. "Better than dry bread and gruel, I guess, whatever gruel is." He peered at the bread. There were no maggots. "I could have made a maggot into a pet. It would be something to talk to. I'd call him Rodney."
He took the tray over to the bed. As well as the bread, there was a chunk of red meat, leaking blood. Stringy vegetables lay beside it, thin and green. "You could have given me something to eat it with." He picked up the meat, and thin blood trickled down his hand all the way to his wrist. "That is not right."
He placed it down again. There were still no further footsteps at the door. Slowly, he raised his hand to his mouth, and tested the blood on his tongue. As he did so, his eyes were drawn to the hook above him, to memories, to his dream.
It was hard to swallow even that. His hand tightened on the edge of the tray, and he wanted to put it down, to push it back through the door, to defy them. If he accepted food from their hands, wasn't that one step on the way towards being broken?
He let out a breath. No. That was fool's talk. You were either broken, or you weren't. If he refused food now, it was only because of meaningless pride. The proud man was the first to go under. A survivor did what he had to do, and accepted the small humiliations that were necessary in order to keep him alive for the moment that mattered.
The more important issue, of course, was whether the food was drugged, but he reasoned he had no choice but to risk it. Hunger was beginning to be a real problem, and hunger led to weakness. If he refused to eat, he was as good as drugged, anyway.
"I'd rather have had a cheeseburger," he said, as he raised the meat to his lips, ignored the touch of blood on his wrist, and kept his eyes stubbornly turned away from the hook throughout.
Swallowing was difficult, though, and afterwards – for far too long afterwards – he kept imagining the numbness and dizziness of poison or drugs. He sat stiffly on the bed, and told himself that he was fine. Then, when enough time had passed that he was sure he had no physical symptoms, he remembered that not all drugs had an immediate effect. Some were cumulative. Some were irreversible.
But if they came again with food, he would eat it. He had no choice.
They called themselves diplomats, but Ronon knew soldiers when he saw them. He eyed their guns, and thought that it was very possible that the wound in McKay's thigh had been caused by a weapon such as these. He himself had brought every weapon that he normally carried into the field, and he would not give them up without a fight. This was a peaceful meeting, Colonel Carter had insisted, but Ronon had his own thoughts about that.
Ten men had met them at the Gate, to match their own party of ten. "Follow closely where we walk," they said. Ronon was sure that their smiles were not matched in their eyes. "There are traps between our city and the Ring. We are much troubled with bandits."
"Bandits," McKay echoed. "Right." He was walking on crutches, struggling through the soft ground, with its carpet of leaves. Ronon had refused to step through the Gate except on his own two feet. The injury from the trap still hurt, but he refused to limp in front of these people, who were enemies until proved otherwise.
Teyla moved close to him. "Are you remembering this route?"
"Of course," Ronon told her.
It was no longer raining, but the ground was softer than it had been on their previous visit, showing that the rain had lasted for a long time. The sky was leaden and grey, making everything flat, and reducing visibility. Ronon looked for clues and marks that would indicate a safe route. In between that, his eyes scanned the trees, ready to respond emphatically to the slightest glimmer of a weapon.
"Wait." Teyla nodded back behind them, where McKay was struggling to keep up with them. Ronon slowed. He had no objection to bringing up the rear. He preferred to be behind an enemy, than to have that enemy watching his back.
"I don't like this," McKay said, as he caught up. "I nearly died, just over there. And Sheppard–"
"You chose to come," Ronon pointed out.
"Yes. Yes, I did," McKay said. "I couldn't do anything else, could I?"
"We feel the same," Teyla said. Ronon turned his attention to the way the enemies walked, and drew conclusions about how they would fight.
McKay said nothing for nearly a mile. After that, the trees grew thinner, and the ground grew clearer. Clear paths were visible, and the terrain began to look like a place where people would live, rather than a killing ground. Far ahead, the trees thinned completely, and Ronon narrowed his eyes at the sight of movement.
"Rodney, you need to rest," Teyla said.
Ronon turned to look. McKay's face was flushed with effort, and sweat beaded his brow. "I'm fine," he said. Even his voice was strained.
Ronon remembered when he had almost despised the scientist, thinking him a coward. Not so long ago, really. He also remembered a time when these people had seemed like temporary companions, to be left without a moment's regret if better, older friends came along.
"Lord Dareon awaits you at the city border," he heard one of the enemy tell Colonel Carter.
They left the trees entirely. The city started not far from the tree line – tall buildings of dark stone rising abruptly from the coarse fields. A few people were travelling on distant roads. Their own path led straight to an archway that connected two buildings that were clearly defensive. Ronon narrowed his eyes at the high windows, but saw nothing to suggest the presence of weapons. Well concealed, then, he concluded. A dozen other buildings offered hidden vantage points over where he stood. I don't like this. He echoed McKay's earlier comment. But, as with McKay, there was no other place that he could be.
A short man was standing in the shadow of the archway, leaning heavily on a stick. "Colonel Carter," he greeted them, smiling expansively, but then the smile faltered into quick regret. "Ah, but you have people with you who suffer from my affliction. I apologise with all my heart for the necessity of walking this far. Vehicles cannot approach the Ring. It is a necessary sacrifice to protect us from bandits and the Wraith."
"Yes. Well. A chair would be good right now." McKay was drooping on his crutches.
"Come to my audience room," Dareon said. "Then you can rest all you like."
McKay's head sank even lower. Teyla moved to his side, steadying him with a hand on his back. "No." McKay's head rose with the suddenness of a darting snake. "I'm not going anywhere with you until you tell us what you've done with Sheppard."
It was all the signal he needed. Ronon tore his weapon out of its holster, and pointed it at Dareon's head. "Rodney!" Teyla hissed. "Ronon!" But she, too, raised her gun, and stood there, fierce and protective as she covered both of them.
"You say it was bandits," McKay shouted, "but he isn't anywhere else. I don't have an affliction, I was shot, and by one of your men, I'm sure of it, and look, there are their guns, and Keller said it was a bullet like an old-fashioned revolver, just like those, and Sheppard came here, and he didn't come back, and here you are with all this talk of welcome and let's be allies, and how convenient it is, but we won't be bought off." His crutch slid sideways, and he fell to the ground, but didn't seem to notice. "We're not taken in by your… your smiles and your… Well, we're not. We're not leaving without Sheppard."
Colonel Carter had been calling McKay's name throughout. Dareon had a frozen smile on his face; Ronon saw it down the barrel of his weapon. His guards, the so-called diplomats, had trained their weapons on Ronon, and he could sense the soldiers, armed and watchful behind him. "I will kill you," Ronon swore, "if you have anything to do with what happened to Sheppard."
"He does!" McKay's voice was high and shrill. "Of course he does."
Ronon's hand did not tremble. "Where. Is. He?"
"Ronon!" It had been drilled into him since he was a young man that he should obey without thinking a tone like that, but a commander had to earn the right to his obedience. Colonel Carter was not Sheppard, and she was not Weir. He saw only the eyes of his enemy, frozen in their false smile.
"This is not the right way, Ronon." And Teyla, at least, he would listen to, for she had earned his respect, and never tried to command him.
He narrowed his eyes. He imagined this man's false smile exploding in a torrent of blood. He saw himself fall beneath the guns of this man's guards. The soldiers behind him were Sheppard's men, and they would avenge him, but even if they killed many, they would be lucky to escape alive. Then he remembered that last, hurried farewell to Sheppard, as McKay lay bleeding in the killing grounds. Keep him safe, those eyes had said. This was Ronon's task, while Sheppard had gone on alone.
Even so, it felt like a defeat to be lowering the gun. When Carter started her urgent apology, it felt a little like mourning the death of a friend. "They're both recovering from injury," she was saying. "They're worried about Colonel Sheppard, as are we all."
"I understand," said the lying, smiling villain. "I can only say as I said before: that I offer my people's most profuse regret for what happened to your friend on our soil. We have lost many of our own to bandits over the years. Terrible. Terrible." He shook his head, a look of sorrow plastered on his face. "I understand your anger and your need to blame someone. I have seen many times over the years, in others, robbed as you have been robbed. For my part, I forgive you." He turned to Carter. "Let us put this behind us. However, I am sure you will understand if I ask that these people – McKay, did I hear you call him, and Ronon? – are escorted back to the Ring immediately. Negotiations such as these are not the place for ones so raw with grief."
"Of course," Carter said. She looked at Ronon just once, but Ronon didn't know her well enough to read what she was thinking. He hadn't always been able to read Weir, either, but at least he had trusted her.
Sheppard thought the footsteps were overdue, but, really, he had no way of knowing. Time stretched out into an eternity. When he thought that hours has passed, he suspected it was only minutes. There were no windows, and never any change to the constant white light that left no shadows.
He had spent hours – days? – staring hungrily at the gap under the door, looking for changes of light that spoke of distant windows, listening for sounds that spoke of a pattern of night and day. Not once in all that time had the light altered. Except when the footsteps passed, there was only ever silence. The feet by his door were the only shadow ever cast on the threshold of his room.
He tried to count time. He drummed his finger on the side of the bed, using all the words he had ever learnt for measuring out the seconds. One, two, three… He remembered playing hide and seek as a child. Ten, eleven, twelve… He remembered basic training, and years spent in various war zones. Two hundred, two hundred and one, two hundred and two… He counted down to take-off, and flew amongst the stars, as free as a bird. One thousand… Two thousand…Three…
Seconds slowed. His hand grew stiff from the drumming of one finger, pain shooting across its back. He slowed to nothing at ten thousand, and had to start again. He reached six hundred, and was fairly sure it was accurate, but he had no way to mark it off. He wanted to fence out those six hundred seconds, to mark it at either side with a peg, so ever afterwards he would know that a length of time this long was ten minutes. But as soon as he stopped counting it, it slipped away. The next ten minutes were uncounted, and he had no idea when they passed.
Prisoners were supposed to carve a count of days into the stone wall of their cell, or mark it off with a finger-mark of their own blood. He had never understood that before. If you were forgotten and dying, did it matter if it had been forty-seven days or forty-eight?
It mattered. He leant back, resting his head against the wall. It mattered terribly. It mattered… No, not more than anything else, but it was "certainly up there in the top three," he said, completing his thought out loud.
He wanted to imagine the pattern of day and night in the life of Atlantis… But, no, even that was meaningless. They were on another planet, for God's sake. Even if it was dawn here, it could be the dead of night on Atlantis. While his captors slept, his friends could be rising to greet another day, strapping on their weapons, and searching for him.
He was beginning to wonder what they would find.
Meals still came. He had eaten four now, after that first one. Four times, feet had come to his door. Four times, a plate had been pushed through. Once he had shouted, a pathetic attempt at humour. Once he had threatened them. Once he had sat there in stubborn silence. Once he had bitten his lip and kept from saying things that should not be spoken aloud.
He thought there was no regularity to the meals, but perhaps they were coming with clockwork regularity, but his own perception was expanding and contracting until he had no idea even how long a second was.
He tried to count… No, no, he'd tried that already. He lay back and stared at the ceiling, and made himself see numbers there. He did powers of two until the numbers were too long to say. He listed primes and calculated square roots. Time passed, and he had no idea how long it had been, but at least it had passed quickly… Unless it hadn't passed at all. Maybe it had been only an hour, only twenty minutes, only five.
Food always came after his hunger had become painful, but the meals were never quite big enough, so even that gave him no clue. Normally, he thought, he would begin to feel hungry some five or six hours after a meal, but when the meal was too small, and he had been so hungry before it that he had felt dizzy…? Seven hours between meals, perhaps? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? Sometimes the hunger merely cramped in his stomach, but other times it made his head spin when he stood up.
He pressed his hand against his side, wondering if he could feel the weight falling off, if he could feel the hours pass in the sharpness of his ribs. He stared at his nails, wondering if the white tips were growing, turning into claws. He ran his hand through his hair, and wondered if it felt longer, running through the webbing of his fingers. His chin… Ah, yes, his chin…
He stood up; made for the bathroom, his hand grasping at the door frame, grasping at the sink, holding it with both hands. So it was one of the times of dizzy hunger, then. His head sagged for moment, but then he drew it up, and stared at the stranger in the mirror. Was that three days' growth? Four days'? He brought his hand to his face, masking it. Stubble pressed against his palm… and then he was laughing into his hand – a strange laugh that he didn't recognise as his own – because the stubble on his chin gave him the safest, most reliable way of measuring time, when light and hours and science had betrayed him.
Back to his bed, then, staggering, almost falling. He knew he had read once how much a human hair could grow in a day. Whenever he needed to know how long had passed, he could pluck out a hair, measure it, and… And then he was laughing again – or heaving silently, really, without sound – thinking of prisoners in stupid medieval movies, white beards down to their feet.
No, he thought, the laughter cutting off as if with a knife. He wasn't that far gone, not yet. No laughter, no words, no wondering, no counting. The footsteps would be here soon, and he would tense up again, readying himself for the fight, and relax again in slow and tiny shivering increments when they walked away again, leaving only food.
Teyla was unable to find Ronon anywhere, but Rodney she found in the infirmary. "Your leg…?"
"I've suffered a relapse, yes." He flapped his hand angrily, pointing at his leg. "Too much walking, and I shouldn't really have bothered, should I? Oh no! I should have stayed in this nice, warm bed, getting better."
She touched the back of his hand, because she knew what he really wanted to say. She was about to speak, when Rodney stiffened in the bed. She saw fear flicker briefly in his eyes, and then his face settled on defensiveness and anger. It was Colonel Carter. Teyla touched Rodney again, taking hold of his wrist, and held it. Her eyes met Carter's briefly. I am staying, she meant.
"That didn't help, Rodney." Carter remained standing.
"Didn't it? How terrible! Because - oh yes! - I was trying to help you as you sold Sheppard's life away for a… a… a… a mess of potage."
"That isn't fair–"
"Oh? Oh really?" Teyla could feel Rodney's pulse running swiftly at his wrist. "You took your time getting back. Do you have your alliance now? Are we to look forward to a rich supply of tava beans and woven pot-holders? Have you given them lots of C4 and thirty pieces of silver and a pound of Sheppard's flesh?"
Carter moved to the far side of Rodney's bed, and sat down. Her face was hidden as she walked, but she seemed composed once she was there. "The talks proceeded well. They have a lot of knowledge about this sector, and that's the sort of intelligence that we need. Their technology is more advanced that it might appear at first glance–"
"Technology?" Rodney threw back at her. "I don't care if they've got a field of ZPMs. What about Sheppard?"
Teyla knew Rodney well enough not to have to look at him. Carter, on the other hand, was someone she barely knew. She watched the other woman now, and saw the softening in her face that greeted Rodney's words. Rodney missed it, she thought, and when Carter spoke again, there was little of it in her voice. "Rodney, they deny all involvement in Colonel Sheppard's disappearance."
"And you believe that?"
Carter hesitated. Watching her, Teyla saw in her a leader, torn between what she had to do, and what she would do if she was free. She had seen the same thing in Elizabeth at times, and she had felt the same herself. But she did not remove her hand from Rodney's wrist. Perhaps this was not a confrontation in which she had to take sides, but her loyalty had been given, even so.
"Not entirely," Carter said at last, "but I don't disbelieve them, either. We have to consider the possibility that they're lying; of course we do. But this, I believe, is the best way to get the truth. We're in a perilous situation here, and we can't go round accusing people without evidence. We can't take a jumper through the Gate, and that weakens any military advantage that we could have had, and remember that it is true that someone dialled out just after Colonel Sheppard disappeared. These people have a wide net of allies across this sector, and if we antagonise them for no reason–"
"No reason?" Rodney tried to sit up, his wrist jerking free from Teyla's hand. He stopped with a gasp of pain, and fell back onto the pillow.
"I've been given this role," Carter said firmly, "and with it comes responsibilities." How tired she looked, Teyla realised. She doubted that Rodney saw that, either. "I did what I had to do to gain a foothold on their world, from which we can search. It was the only way. At least now we can come and go, and if he is there–"
"You've condemned him."
"No," Carter said, and No, Teyla thought, but she knew the delicate path that had to be walked in diplomacy. Ronon saw things in terms of a fight, and Rodney always needed to be seeking answers, but sometimes the true way was a slower way. Carter's eyes seemed to rest on Rodney's wrist, where Teyla's hand once more lay. "Sometimes things can be won with diplomacy that can't be won any other way," she said.
"Too bad you're not Elizabeth, then." Rodney shifted on the bed, his face twisted with misery and pain. "At least she knew how to play that game. You're just… just stumbling in the dark."
We all are, Rodney, Teyla thought. Holding Rodney's hand, she shouted for Keller, but she made sure that her eyes met Carter's as she did so. The other woman looked quite alone as she sat on the hard chair at Rodney's bedside, and even more alone as she stood up and left the infirmary. Teyla wanted to say something, but she was not quite ready for that, not yet.
Seven meals had come. He was just eating the seventh when the footsteps returned, slow and heavy.
He didn't start to his feet, not immediately. He dropped the half-eaten chunk of meat back on the plate, then very carefully laid the tray down on the bed beside him, although the person outside drew ever closer while he did so. Did that mean he was already beginning to break? No, he thought, it meant that he was still holding onto his sanity. Food was scarce, and only a fool wasted it.
He was still quick enough when the food was safely down. His skin trembled with readiness. His aching muscles quivered with expectation. Now. It's going to be now.
For days? weeks? footsteps had only come with food. That first time had been the only exception. Footsteps meant food; food meant no more footsteps until hunger was clawing again at his belly, and he had drifted in an everlasting eternity of counting and white light and snatched dreams.
This was wrong. This was change. Change meant - hooks, blood, pain. It meant the test. It meant an ending.
It's going to be now.
The steps slowed.
Please be now.
He swallowed, his mouth dry. The steps started up again. He yearned after them, straining to hold onto them, but they went all the same.
"Stupid," he told himself, a very long time later.
End of chapter three
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