Chapter three: Will you walk into my parlour?
Sheppard stumbled as they led him from the bar, tripping over the small step. Immediately hands tightened on his arms, gripping him painfully. He tried to regain his footing, but failed, letting his knees sag. For a moment, all of his weight was dangling from those merciless hands.
"Ground jumped out at me," he mumbled, then tried for a laugh. "It's good now."
They continued forward, and it quickly became necessary to find his feet. When he was up again, they hemmed him in with the bulk of their bodies. His right arm was seized and dragged over the brawny shoulder of one of his new acquaintances, and his hand was firmly imprisoned. A few stumbling steps later, the same was done with his other arm. The third man followed close behind, and Sheppard felt that uncanny tingling at the back of his neck that told him that a weapon was being discreetly trained on him from behind.
So that's how it is, then.
He kept his footing until his new companions slowed, clearly nearing their destination. Then he tripped, his head lolling forward. They didn't pause even for a moment, but carried on, dragging him between them like a dead weight. When they stopped at some kind of vehicle, they hustled him in bodily, flanking him on the narrow seat, their hands on his arms as firm and effective as handcuffs.
"It hurts," he decided to say. The gunshot wound on his upper arm throbbed nastily, and there was more truth and weakness to his words than he would have liked.
The leader took a seat on opposite him, and gave a brief nod. The pressure eased just a fraction. "We don't want you to hurt yourself," the leader said. "That's all."
"That's good, then." Sheppard let his head loll forward. Then the vehicle started up, and he went with the slight backwards pressure and let his head fall onto the shoulder of one of the men beside him. The front of his shirt was still damp with the disgusting liquid that apparently passed for saleable alcohol round here – smells worse than the chemistry lab on a bad day – and the smell seemed to travel straight up his nostrils to the back of his throat. He swallowed hard, but then the foul taste travelled to his stomach. The things I put myself through, he thought, then had to admit that McKay might have some choice things to say about his sense of priorities, if he thought this was the worst thing he had done or was likely to do in this whole affair.
The vehicle travelled on. Sheppard kept himself very still, but the only sound was the faint noise of whatever it was that powered the vehicle, and the heartbeat of the unmoving man whose shoulder he was lying on. No-one said anything. He considered starting to snore, but thought better of it. Chances were, they wouldn't risk spilling their plans even if they thought he was asleep. That sort of thing only worked in the movies.
Instead, he opened one eye, keeping his focus blurry. The windows had been obscured with dark screens, shutting out all view of the outside world. The perception of movement was too slight to offer him any clues about what direction they were going. His pistol was still in its holster at his thigh, though, which was comforting, but it was also wedged up against his guard's leg, so drawing it could prove a problem.
He risked a glance at the leader of the men who had captured him, and found himself looking directly into a pair of considering grey eyes. It was a struggle to fight instinct in that moment. He let his eyes close again, though, and let his head sink lower on the chest of thug number one. "Where we going?" The thug's jacket was coarse against his lips.
"Somewhere safe," said the leader, "where you can sleep it off. We'll talk more in the morning."
"That's good," he mumbled.
"Don't know why you bother." It was strange to hear a man's voice from so close, to feel the growling vibration of words against his cheek. "He's pathetic." The man sneered the word with a currently-sober man's contempt for a man who was embarrassingly drunk.
"I wouldn't be so sure," the leader said, with a voice that was like a chill finger on the back of Sheppard's neck, urging him to run, to run, to fight. "This one is more than he seems."
Sheppard concentrated on breathing – in, out; in, out – and keeping his muscles slack. He could feel the gun now, pressed between an enemy and himself. There were precautions and escape routes and fail-safes, of course, but none of them would be even the slightest bit of use against a knife between the ribs in a windowless vehicle far from home.
The vehicle slowed, then stopped. He heard the sound of a door opening. But not here, he thought. Must be a separate driver's cab. So there's another person here, maybe two. Faintly, he heard a wormhole surge into being. He stirred, and it was not entirely feigned. Going off world? It was to be expected, of course, but he had hoped to do it on foot. A trail of breadcrumbs could be left, then, for those who knew what to look for. Damn, he swore, covering it with a groan.
The vehicle moved, and the wormhole claimed him. Just before it took him, he wondered what the effect of Gate travel was on someone who was as drunk as he was supposed to be. He groaned loudly on the other side, and acted as if he was going to throw up. Thug number one pushed him away in disgust, so his head snapped back, striking the high back of the seat. "Ow!" he cried reproachfully. "That hurt."
"I can only apologise." There was mockery in the leader's voice, he thought, but I'm too drunk to notice.
"Yeah," said the other thug. "We're your friends. "
Team, he remembered. They had used the word team, back in the bar. Even more than the performance with the Ancient device, that had been the thing that had made him agree to go with them. "My team?" he said. "You're my new team? I had a team. Would have died for them, but they turned… mean. Don't like me now. I… I miss them." Tears? No, tears would be going too far. Don't think I could manage them, anyway. He couldn't remember when he had last cried. Years ago, perhaps, while things that could have wrung tears from a different sort of man remained inside, pushed out of the way, safe… Forgotten.
"We'll get you a new team," his captor said placatingly. "We are your new team."
"Good." Sheppard smiled stupidly. "I'll go anywhere, do anything… Just want people… a team… Want to belong. Like to look out for people. An' they… They threw it back in my face. Would have done anything for them. Hate them now. Hate them."
You're replaceable, he remembered. Run away. Don't bother coming back. And Carter with her cold commander's face, that he had seen before on other commanders. Rodney with his face screwed up, firing blindly…
The vehicle entered another wormhole. Sheppard emerged from it with a creeping sense of disquiet. He hadn't noticed. He hadn't noticed the sounds and clues that suggested another transit. Two worlds had gone by unmarked. Two worlds away now from a place where he could be safely traced. Not that it matters, he reminded himself. But still… But still…
"Don't think I'm drunk any more," he said with a smile. "Feel perfectly sober."
Looks were exchanged. He pretended not to see them.
The vehicle stopped almost immediately, and the leader got out. Sheppard was dragged out after him, and had to grit his teeth to keep himself from crying out when a hand closed on his gunshot wound. Damn you, McKay, he thought. You had to have the final word.
"Where are we?" he mumbled, looking around, squinting. They were inside; that much was plain. Underground, perhaps? An underground garage? It's got that Genii underground bunker chic going, that's for sure.
"Home," they told him.
He frowned. "This isn't home."
"It is now."
So you're working from the book of villain clichés, then? He had to bite his lip not to respond. It seemed as if suppressing his natural urge for flippant retorts was going to be one of the hardest things about this whole game. Best not tell McKay, he thought, as they dragged him on his stumbling way through bleak hallways. He’ll never let me hear the end of it.
His head bowed, he watched every turn, and committed each doorway to memory. The further they went, the more he saw touches of the Ancients in the architecture, fusing with the bleak human style in a way that should have looked incongruous, but didn't. By the time they stopped at a bare room, he thought he could probably find his way back to the garage. Not that it mattered. They pushed him into the room, and he landed heavily; it took an enormous effort of will not to cushion his landing, but to land as a dead weight. His shoulder struck first, and his head impacted afterwards. Reeling from that, he saw the club too late. It smashed into his knee, and enormous pain exploded outwards, driving out all rational thought.
He wanted to curl over the pain, but some instincts couldn't be denied. He rolled over, pushed himself up, brought up his fists, coiled and ready to defend.
"What d'you do that for?" a voice said. Enemy! his body screamed at him.
"He'll have forgotten about it by morning."
Forgotten. Forgotten. Yes, I'm drunk. Stupid. He let out a breath. Very slowly, he uncurled his fists. He let his shoulders relax in slow and agonised increments. With a small sigh, perhaps of defeat, perhaps of triumph, he slumped sideways and fell beneath the waves of pain that issued from his knee. Even when they took his gun from him, he didn't stir. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
"I don't want him mobile," the leader said – my new friend. How nice! – "in case things look different in the cold light of morning."
They left then, leaving him alone on the cold floor of a bare grey room. But the pain was not so great that he couldn't hear the sound of the door being locked. A prisoner, then, he thought. Of course.
The news was all over Atlantis. Of course, people knew not to talk about it when the wrong people could hear it, but that had never been known to stop gossip before, and never would.
As bearer of the first firm reports of the great rift that had opened up between Colonel Sheppard and the other leaders, Robert had suddenly found himself the centre of attention. Few people had believed him at first, but then fresh news had spread from other sources. Sheppard had had a huge and violent fight with Ronon and Teyla in the gym. Sheppard had… Oh, God. It was still so huge, so unbelievable. Sheppard had hurled insults at Colonel Carter and had stolen a jumper and left Atlantis. Doctor McKay had shot him, for God's sake.
That was when things had changed. The gossip had suddenly became real, and no longer harmless. If it ever was, he thought. Colonel Sheppard had left Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard had left Atlantis.
Robert was distracted, barely tasting his food. "Of course, we know what the official line is," he heard his friend, Ricardo, say, gesturing with his fork. "Sheppard's gone off on some classified mission, very hush-hush. Think it's true?"
"Of course it's not true." That was Ewan Cameron, a physicist in Zelenka's department, usually silent. "I mean, there's everything… What Rob here heard. That engineer, Jessica…" He swallowed. "I mean, it can't be true. Can it?"
"Course not." Ricardo was still stabbing with his fork; Robert saw it only vaguely. "It's a cover-up. Best case scenario: Sheppard cracked. Worst case: he's sold out to the enemy. But they can't tell us that, can they? Morale, and all that. It would make the leadership look bad, and we can't have that, not with Wraith and Replicators and God knows what beating a path to our door. Cue lame cover story. And it is a lame cover story. Know how I know?" He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. "I saw Zelenka coming back from off-world. When I asked him where he'd been, he looked terrified. Stammered some ridiculous lie, of course, but I did a bit of asking around, and I know where he'd been, and what he'd been doing."
He looked around the table. "What?" Cameron obliged him.
"Harvesting Gate addresses," Ricardo said. "Trying to track down Colonel Sheppard. They don't have a clue where he's gone either, you see. It might be all calm on the outside, but inside it's all panic. They might have had this falling-out, but they still want to get him back before he does any damage."
There were only the three of them at this table, and the tables nearby were deserted. Two days before, Robert had been at the centre of a crowd. Now, many people subtly shunned him, especially the soldiers. It was as if he, as bearer of the first report, was to blame for the whole thing. Perhaps I was, Robert thought. He remembered the sight of Sheppard walking so dejectedly out of McKay's lab. He had felt tawdry even then. "If I hadn't said anything…" He hadn't meant to say it aloud.
"Would still have happened," Ricardo said. "Not your fault."
If Robert was avoided, that young Marine, Hudson, was openly shunned. Initially the soldiers had listened to Robert's news as avidly as anyone else, although most of them had been firmly of the opinion that the whole thing was clearly McKay's fault. All that had changed. Most of the soldiers were fiercely loyal to Sheppard, and in an instant the thing had gone from harmless gossip to tragedy. They had lost their commanding officer – because, oh yes, hardly any of them believed the cover story, even though they nodded and pretended to believe it when in the presence of their officers. Robert's harmless gossip had become ghoulish reports of the breakdown of a once-great man.
"But I still shouldn't have said anything," he persisted.
If he hadn't said anything, then perhaps Hudson wouldn't have said anything, and that engineer, Jessica, would have kept silent about what she had seen. At least Sheppard would have his dignity preserved in the eyes of his men. After all, it was quite understandable that a man who had been through the things he had been through would crack in the end. He was indefatigable, constantly putting his life on the line to save others. He had been tortured repeatedly by the Wraith, for God's sake, if the reports were true, and had just bounced back and kept on going.
People had breakdowns sometimes. Robert's uncle had had one, and so had a colleague in his first job. All Robert had done was to make the breakdown public, and ruin any chance Sheppard had of ever coming back from this.
"I wish I hadn't," he said. Atlantis felt more dangerous without Sheppard there, as if the colours had gone out, to be replaced with grey, and grasping black shadows.
Sheppard had slept in the end, despite the pain in his knee, despite the knowledge that they must surely be watching him. Awake, he could maintain the pretence. Asleep… Well, he had no idea how he looked when he was asleep.
There were dreams. Afterwards, he could not disentangle them from memories. McKay had shouted in both of them, and had shot him… No. No point in lingering on it. Everything that had happened had happened because it had to happen. Better far to think about the future, and to prepare himself for what was to come.
He sat up, moaning loudly at the pain in his knee, and dragged himself towards the wall until he was leaning against it. He didn't think anyone had entered his room while he had slept. His sleep pattern had been forged in combat zones, and he always slept through noises that didn't matter, but woke in an instant if a noise indicated a threat. There was a thin strip of light under the door, and a smear of light on the ceiling that could have been a very weak bulb. It was enough to show him the camera, though. Hello, guys. He fought the urge to wave with his fingers and speak a flippant greeting. He was supposed to be hungover, after all.
Could he stand, he wondered. No, best not to try it. Best to sit here and look miserable. Still, he bent his knee experimentally, and pain stabbed right up to his throat. He tried again, easing it more slowly. It hurt horribly, but he was fairly sure that it wasn't seriously damaged, only bruised. Hurts like hell, though. He bit his lip. Pain alone could be enough to cripple someone when it mattered. He could stand if he had to, and walk if he must, but run…? He doubted it.
Time passed. His stomach was an increasingly emphatic reminder that he hadn't eaten for far too long. Hadn't drunk much, either, since you couldn't count all those shots of vile and unidentifiable spirit that had found their way onto his clothes or the floor at his feet. Of course, it would be reasonable to expect that his stomach was churning, after all that drink. They'd be expecting him to be throwing up by now.
Not going to oblige, I'm afraid, he thought. There's such as thing as asking too much. He moaned, though, and pressed his head into his hand. A weak head, but a strong stomach.
After a while, he almost dozed; caught himself with a jolt from a scene of strangers swarming over Atlantis, and McKay screaming at him in fury as he died. He clenched his fist, fingers digging into his palm. Stay awake. Stay alert.
The door opened not long after that. It was not the leader from the night before, but another man, tall and lean, with a face that might have been called aristocratic on Earth. His deep-set eyes surveyed Sheppard. I'm hungover, Sheppard reminded himself, but not stupid. Not weak, either. He clambered to his feet, pushing himself up awkwardly to avoid bending his knee. When he put his weight on that leg, the pain was almost enough to floor him, but he set his jaw, and remained silent. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The man spread his hands in the sort of gesture a politician might make. "It is too soon to say that I am your friend. Let's just say that I am not yet your enemy."
Sheppard had spent days wondering how to play it. As close to himself as possible, he had decided. McKay had disagreed, of course, pointing out that Sheppard was supposed to be bitter and furious and betrayed and heartbroken. "Shall I just wear a false moustache and speak in an outrageous French accent?" Sheppard had finally snapped and asked him. No, McKay had admitted. "It's just that…" "McKay," Sheppard had interrupted firmly, "unlike you, I didn't win a serious drama festival award when I was a kid. If I play myself, I'm least likely to get it wrong."
Not the moment had come, though, all the preparation flew through the window. He hesitated just a moment, then took a breath. To hell with it. I'm winging it.
"See?" he said. "Much as I'd like not to have made another enemy, that doesn't really help." But he pressed his hand to his face and closed his eyes, wincing from the pain of an imagined headache, and perhaps from a pain inside, desperately hidden with light words.
"I am Carrick." The man's smile looked almost genuine. "Some of my men found you in a bar last night, a very rough place. You became… attached to them. They brought you here so you could sleep it off in safety."
"That's good." He raised his head, wincing at the light from the hallway. "Thanks, I guess."
Carrick's eyes were sharp, like blades. They wanted to pin him. Since he had entered, Sheppard realised, Carrick had not once taken his eyes off him. "You are welcome," he said. This time the smile went no further than his mouth.
Sheppard shifted, letting out a slow breath when he had settled his leg in a new position. He supported himself behind with a hand on the wall. Should I lay my cards on the table, he wondered, or wait for him to bring the subject up</i>? "So why…?" He stopped, letting the words be cut off by a moan at the pain in his knee. He'll have forgotten about it by morning, he remembered. "I guess you saved my life. Someone attacked me. My knee… I…" He smiled bravely, making the best of it. "I can't remember anything, I'm afraid. I've had a rough few days."
"I know." Carrick gave no signal that Sheppard could see, but two henchmen entered behind him, and took up positions on either side. One was as large as Ronon, and both were heavily armed. "You said."
"Did I?" He brought his hand up, scratching his neck awkwardly. "Here's the thing… I say things when I'm drunk – things that should stay secret, and to people I shouldn't. It doesn't mean anything."
"Oh, but it does." Carrick stepped closer. Sheppard eyed the distance, factored in his knee, and decided that there was no chance of escaping alive, even if he tried to grab Carrick to use as a hostage. "You said your people had cast you out. You said you had no home any more. You said you wanted a new home."
Sheppard swallowed nervously, letting his eyes move from the weapons to the bare walls and finally back to Carrick's grey and merciless eyes. "You think this is it? You're offering?" He made a valiant attempt at a smile. "It doesn't really look homely. And you'll forgive me if… Like I say, I say things when I'm drunk."
"People do." Carrick's eyes were unwavering. "People say things indiscreetly, that get heard by the right people."
"I don't know what you mean." He felt the wall at his back now.
"No." Carrick's voice rose fractionally at the end, as if he was asking a question. He turned away, though, and Sheppard felt it with a relief that was almost physical. He fought the urge to relax. He fought the urge, too, to ask questions. That would come in time, if it came at all.
"I am not a stupid man," Carrick said, without turning round. He placed his hand on the far wall, showing knuckles that were marked with scars. "Here I am, in the market for one thing. And then what happens? A man goes into a crowded bar where I am known to have…eyes, gets drunk enough to be noisily indiscreet, and shouts to anyone who'll listen that he has this thing that I need."
There was nothing that he could say. All he could do was prepare for a fight, or for death, when it came.
"Perhaps it is a happy coincidence." Carrick still had his back turned. That deadly regard was better, Sheppard thought. If you couldn't see your enemy's eyes, then you couldn't predict where the attack was going to come from. "But I have to consider that it is a trap."
"A trap?" He echoed it quietly.
"Yes." Carrick turned at last, but his face was now unreadable. The henchmen stood there as impassive as robots. "It would be a fine trap, would it not? You go out with some sad tale about having been cast out by your friends, and rant about how you want to get revenge on them. My men pick you up, and offer you just that chance. Using your… gifts, you quickly become indispensable, and learn all our secrets. Then you activate whatever escape route you have planned, and let your friends wipe us out."
Sheppard could feel his heart racing. To squawk his innocence, he instinctively felt, would be the worst possible thing to do. "That isn't true," he said. He made his voice low, suffused with despair that was barely concealed. "My friends… They aren't… Not any more." He lifted his arm. "They shot me. They drove me out."
"Did they?" Carrick headed for the door. His henchmen went before him, and stopped in the hallway, their weapons trained on Sheppard. "That's what I mean to make sure of, Colonel Sheppard."
end of chapter three
On to chapter four