Chapter five: Face to face
It was several hours before they came for him. By that time, Sheppard no longer needed to feign a headache. He wondered how long it had been since he had last had anything to drink. His mouth was dry, and it felt as if all the tissues of his body were arid and shrivelled, craving liquid.
When he heard the footsteps outside, he stood up, sliding up the wall to avoid having to put too much weight on his injured knee. "Is that room service?" he called out. The footsteps stopped. Four people, he thought. "I'd like water – a big glass. Oh, and any chance of using your… facilities? There's only so long a guy can go without…"
The door opened. Behind him, the wall was cold against his palm, but already warming. It was not Carrick this time, but the leader of the men who had brought him from the bar. Sheppard wondered whether to recognise him or not.
"Colonel Sheppard…" the man began.
"Yeah. About that…" Sheppard frowned. "How do you know my name?" There was no point in denying it, of course. Asking the question, though, might result in useful information about quite how things stood in this double-dealing charade of his.
"You told me last night," the man lied. Sheppard looked at his strong hands, and remembered them holding a club, bringing it down. He won't remember it in the morning.
"Oh." His frowned deepened, and he brought his hand up to his brow. His headache was growing more real with every second. "I guess I had too much." Ha! A classic Sheppard under-statement, he heard in Rodney's voice. "I don't normally drink that much." He plastered a making-the-best-of-it smile on his face, brazening it out, refusing to show fear. "So, how's about returning the favour? If you told me your name, I've forgotten that, too. In fact… Can't really remember…" He tugged at his lip with his teeth, as if racking his sodden memory. "You're vaguely familiar… Something about being my new team. Friends." He gave it another long pause, but the man remained silent. I'm babbling like Rodney, he thought. "This looks more like a prison than a place you put friends, and that other man… Is he your boss or one of your…" He almost said 'minions', but stopped himself.
"My name is Everard," the man said at last.
"Everard." Sheppard gave a little wave. "Hi."
"These men –" Everard gestured at the impassive thugs behind him. "–will take you somewhere more amenable."
Which meant nothing, of course. It could mean a proper room with a bed – and water! Please let there be water! – or it could mean some hideous torture chamber. These inter-galactic warlords did so like their irony. "Didn't want me puking on the furniture," Sheppard said. "That seems… fair. You put me in the drunk tank. I'd probably have done the same to me, too."
Everard watched him, a faint hint of a cruel smile on his lips. Sheppard swallowed. "I think that Carrick guy's the boss," he said. "After all, he's using you as errand boy here."
The smile vanished as the barb hit home. A little tension here, perhaps? Sheppard thought. Some power play I can exploit? Alternatively, he thought, he had just managed to piss off someone who could very well be second-in-command to the manor who had already killed several of Sheppard's people. Perhaps not so clever, John.
"Just as long as there's water in my new room," he said.
Everard pointed at the door. "My men will take you." There was a slight but unmistakeable stress on the first word.
He could resist, of course, but he felt it would be counter-productive. Quite apart from anything else, it would probably result in him having the crap beaten out of him, what with his knee and the whole outnumbered four to one thing. He let great trepidation show on his face, though. The person he was pretending to be had seen little sign of friendliness, and was bitter and furious and heartbroken about having been driven out of Atlantis, even though he tried to hide it with bravado and smiles. He had no idea what these people wanted from him, and his hosts had shown him a distinct lack of welcome. He was desperate, and perhaps these people really could offer him a home and a purpose, once they'd all got past this initial distrust. Or perhaps they just wanted to kill him.
Walking hurt horribly, and he cried out at the first step. "It was a rough bar," he said in explanation. "Can't remember the guy who did this, but I bet I paid him back."
Everard smiled. Sheppard understood that smile, and hated him.
When they reached the hallway, though, Everard stayed behind, and it was only the three thugs who escorted Sheppard to wherever it was that he was going. No attempt was made to restrain him. All three had weapons at their sides, and it would be a matter of moments to grab one of them and…
No. He shook his head mentally, squashing those instinctive patterns of thought. So this was a test, he realised, after half a dozen more painful steps. They were presenting him with a chance to escape, just to see if he took it. It wouldn't be proper escape, of course, because there would be no way out of this complex; they'd have made sure of that. Would the man he was pretending to be try to run, he wondered. Would they be more inclined to believe his cover story if he showed spirit or if he showed trust?
He had no idea. You're right, Rodney, he thought. This is harder than it looks. It was like a chess game with its bluffs and double bluffs, but instead of rules you had the infinite complexity of human nature.
The thugs walked along silently. Do you guys know you've been chosen as bait? Sheppard wondered. You're here because you're expendable. Neither answer was reassuring. If they knew, then Sheppard had placed himself in the hands of fanatics. If they didn't, then Sheppard was in the power of a man who treated his own people as disposable. And here I am trying to join the company.
They reached a door. Sheppard wasn't sure if he had made a reasoned decision not to try to escape, or if he had just decided to sit back and let things unfold. Strategy or apathy? His head pounded horrendously, and if only he could have something to drink…
They pushed him inside. The hand on his back was not violent, but with his knee, it was enough to make him stumble even so. Carrick was there, he saw, as he righted himself. Carrick, and another man, wearing black.
Sheppard hadn't thought it was possible for his mouth to get more dry. He swallowed, but there was nothing there. The man in black stood with his arms folded, a large case at his feet. Everything about him shouted 'torturer.'
"I didn't do anything." Chris speared a lump of unidentifiable meat. "I just told people what I heard. I don't see why I should be treated like a criminal for it."
"People need a scapegoat." Kurt nodded sagely. He seemed to fancy himself as more deep and intelligent than the other Marines. Chris didn't really like him, but at least the man was willing to be seen with him in public. "They'll get over it."
Chris chewed his mouthful and swallowed it. It was tough and unpleasant. He was willing to bet that even the kitchen staff were out to get him. "It's the unfairness of it all, that's what I can't take. I overheard something. It wasn't even private; they were shouting loud enough for anyone to hear. I told it to people exactly as it happened." Or almost exactly, but who didn't indulge in harmless exaggeration when passing on stories? "They were willing enough to listen at the time. Hypocrites!"
"They're scared," Kurt said. "I've been here longer than you. It's a frontier station. People who've been here a long time… It's like family. And now Daddy's disappeared, perhaps after losing his mind, and Mommy and the aunties and uncles might have had a hand in it."
"That's nothing to do with me," Chris stated.
"Perhaps not." Kurt looked as if he was humouring him. "You know how it is: people need someone to take out their feelings on. Colonel Sheppard's not here, and the other leaders… Well, you can go marching up to Colonel Carter and give her a piece of your mind, can you? Hence you. Easy game. New, as well, with a habit of pissing people off. Like I say, it'll wear off if you concentrate on being nice."
"I don't care." Chris impaled another mouthful, peered it at, and put the fork down on his plate. "I'm going to put in for reassignment. This isn't how I thought it'd be - on Atlantis, I mean."
"Rats leaving the sinking ship, huh?" Kurt looked disapproving. "Bailing out at the first sign of trouble."
"It isn't like that!" Chris slammed his fist on the table. "None of you gave me a chance. A frontier station, you say, like a family… Well, you sure as hell don't let newcomers in. Why do you think I passed that story on in the first place? Because at least then people would listen to me. They sure as hell weren't listening to me before. It's a closed circle, no-one new allowed in. It's worse than the girls at school."
"Maybe if you'd tried to understand the way we do things around here, then people would have let you in." Kurt's voice was cold. "You went around with your nose in the air, sneering at everything that didn't accord to the manual and wasn't like the way things are done back home. You expected things to be the same out here. They're not. They can't be. There's the Wraith…"
"This place is a joke!" Chris cried. "There's scientists – civilians – giving us orders; I've heard the way Doctor McKay talks to people, and you lot just take it – Marines who could take him out with their hands tied behind their backs. Protocol's non-existent. I've never seen anyone salute, and then there was Colonel Sheppard… Lounging around with McKay, so laidback, making jokes… That's not how an officer should behave."
"I think you should quit there," Kurt said warningly.
"No." Chris saw no reason not to tell it as it was. He had to carry on talking, he had to, or the misery would be too much. "He was a joke, waltzing off on pleasure trips off-world. And his record…? You think I don't know about his record. Well, my brother once came across him in Afghanistan. He disobeyed a direct order, and now he has the nerve to stand over us and expect us to obey him? And you know what makes it worse? You all seem to love him. You all believe the hype and think he's a hero. A commanding officer shouldn't be a hero. Heroes get people killed."
"You'll feel differently," Kurt said, "if you stick around long enough to have your life saved by…"
"You know what? Chris said. "I don't care. I'm sick of the lot of you. I just said what I heard, and now it's my fault? Well, let me tell you something. It's all Colonel Sheppard's fault, and I for one am glad he's gone."
"Chris…" Kurt stood up; backed away from the table.
Chris stood up, too, pushing his chair back. "No," he said, jabbing his finger. "You know what? I'm through with the lot of you. I don't care who hears me–"
He had only the slightest warning, but not nearly enough. He had a perception of movement behind him, the sound of feet… and then he was grabbed by the jacket, hauled backwards, and… The pain was enormous, like a wall of shining redness coming down across his vision. He fell, lost his grip on everything for a moment… and blinked to see chair legs and a fallen table; the ceiling above him; and pain, huge pain in his jaw.
"No!" someone else was shouting. "Stop!" It was loud at first, then fainter, hissing quietly and urgently. "Stop." Or perhaps he was fainting, drifting further away from consciousness. He knew he should struggle to his feet to defend himself, but his head hurt, and fringes of darkness danced at the edge of his vision.
"Stop!" he heard again, and he struggled up into a sitting position, blinking. Ronon Dex stood above him, boiling over with fury, his fists clenched and ready for another attack. Chris blinked again. Kurt had backed away. Teyla was standing beside Ronon, speaking to him. "Stop it. Ronon, stop it. Now." She dared touch his arm, and Chris saw him quiver with the urge to throw her off, but then he saw Ronon let out a long breath, and lower his fists.
"Ronon," Teyla said again. Still with her hand on his arm, she led him away, and the big man followed, looking for a moment almost lost.
"What was that all about?" Chris tried to say it, but his jaw screamed in agony. He struggled to his feet, sank into a chair, and rested his forehead in his hand.
Yeah, run away, he remembered Ronon saying. Don't bother coming back. Ronon hated Sheppard; why, then, would he defend him? Natives, he thought. Crazy, the lot of them. To think he'd admired the man! There'd be a complaint about him, too. And where were the doctors round here when you needed one?
Teyla led Ronon to the nearest balcony. She wanted to go somewhere more secure, but she could see Ronon quivering with fury beside her, and feared he would snap and do even more damage, shouting things in public. She was unsure how long she could stay silent, too.
As soon as they were there, she shut the door behind her. "What was that about?" she demanded.
"You heard him," Ronon snarled. "He was saying things about Sheppard. He's a pathetic, snivelling, puny…"
"That does not matter." She spat out each word separately. It was windy out on the balcony, and her hair lashed at her face.
"But he said–"
"I know what he said." Ronon gave a wordless sound, almost a snarl, and moved away from her, to lean on the balcony edge with both hands. Teyla took her place beside him, and spoke more gently. "He was merely saying the sort of things we manipulated him into saying."
She saw Ronon's hand tighten on the edge. "I hate this. To stand by and listen to someone bad-mouth a friend…"
"We have to endure it. I, too, have had to listen to–"
He snapped his head around, his expression fierce, as if he was doubting her, as if he thought less of her for not reacting as he had done.
"I wanted to react as you did," she confessed. Her hands had burnt with the desire to snatch up her sticks and silence the petty ignorant people like Chris Hudson, who knew nothing. Teyla Emmagen defended the people she cared for, and that was that, whether the threat came in the form of physical danger or words. "I knew I could not."
Ronon said nothing, but turned away, to look out across the ocean. Far below, she could see the white tips of waves on the grey and undulating mass of water. The wind was rising, and the sky was darkening. She could never forget the great storm, when John had gone to extreme lengths to save Atlantis. Ronon had not been there then, of course. Standing at the railing, staring out to sea, he looked like part of Atlantis, as if he had always belonged there.
"He was the one," she said quietly. "That man, Chris Hudson… He was the one Colonel Sheppard chose to overhear our fight. That is why–"
"He told everyone I hate Sheppard," Ronon said, turning his face even further away, so that all she could see was his hair, and even his words were nearly snatched by the wind. "Told him I don't respect him. Told him I think he's…" He stopped, or maybe the wind took his last words so that even Teyla could not hear them.
"He told people exactly what we wanted him to tell them," Teyla said, "and everything he says now…" She let out a breath, wishing she could feel angry with Ronon, but she understood, of course she understood, and if he had not lashed out at the man, perhaps she might have done so herself. "Ronon, if somebody on Atlantis is really telling this Carrick know everything that happens, we have to act as if every word people like Chris Hudson says is true. If we hear it, we have to ignore it, and just walk away."
"Yes. Lie." Dark clouds were rolling in from the horizon, and above her, pale birds were struggling to keep flying in the wind. She thought of John, his wings clipped, his spirit dimmed by the need to play a part. How many millions of miles of space separated him from her, as she stood here beneath the sky?
"Carrick has to think there was a genuine rift between us all," she said. "If we do not play our part well, Colonel Sheppard will pay the price."
She did not say the rest of it. She did not need to, for Ronon knew. By his actions in the mess-hall, there was a chance – a small chance, oh please - that Ronon had written Colonel Sheppard's death warrant.
The room had furniture; that was something. There was a bed, with pillows and a blanket; a table with two chairs; a small chest of drawers. Yeah, so I can lie on a nice comfy bed while they rip my guts out and dangle them in front of my eyes. I'm sure it'll be a real comfort. There was even an additional door, slightly open, showing…
"Is that the bathroom?" Sheppard asked. "I could really use a…"
Carrick inclined his head, moving his hand in a 'go ahead' gesture that was clearly universal, from polite earth society to the underground lairs of galactic gang leaders.
Sheppard retreated; shut the door. There was no lock. What can I…? No. Stay calm. Take things as they came. It wasn't over until it was over. By his own admission, Carrick needed him; had he meant to reveal that fact quite so early? They needed him alive, with a mind that could think. His ATA gene wasn't something that could be extracted from him and used when he was dead. They needed him. Of course, they might decide that they preferred him as a broken slave, flying their ship because he'd do anything, anything, to stop the pain.
It won't come to that, he said firmly.
First things first. The bathroom – oh blessed relief – had water. It splashed out cold and clear when he worked the handle of something that looked like a small version of an old-fashioned water pump. He let it fill the bucket beneath it, then cupped it in both hands, and splashed it on his face. His headache peaked eagerly, responding to the cold. He scooped up water again, and drank, feeling as if every cell of his body was reaching out its hands and basking in the water. And if that was drugged, then it's all over for me, anyway.
When he was done, he surveyed the clinical hole in the floor that was presumably the toilet. The unlocked door glowered maliciously from behind him. Beyond it was Carrick, his enemy, and a man whose profession was causing pain. He couldn't… Oh, God, he couldn't…
"Got to," he told himself, almost speaking the words aloud, but not quite. He did what he had to, and let out a shaky breath when he had finished. God, but a man was vulnerable when he was unzipped! If the torturer had come in… Of all the tortures he had seen and imagined, some things were too horrible to…
More water. It was cold on his face, trickling down into his collar. He pressed his lips together, taking that precious liquid into his mouth. He had known all along that torture was a possibility, although of course he hadn't told McKay or the others. Torture was simple, too; there was no deceit when you were screaming. There were none of these lies within lies, these layers of masks, this constant struggle to decide how the person he was playing would react and what he should say.
He returned to the main room, and smiled a smile that was paper pasted onto a heart of ice. He smiled that way because he thought the man he was playing would look like that, but it was real, too. "That's better," he said.
Carrick gestured to the empty chair. "Sit."
Sheppard pulled the chair out; it grated noisily on the harsh grey floor. Sit, he thought. Not a promising start. Regular guys said things like 'sit down' or 'take a seat.'
Carrick folded his hands on the table. "I wish to resume our earlier conversation. Needless to say, my suspicions still stand. I have need of someone like you, and here you are. The thing is, do I take it when it is offered, or do I treat it as something too good to be true, and get rid of it?"
Sheppard shifted, leaning back in his chair, hearing the wood creak. "You know what they say: never look a gift horse in the mouth."
Carrick gave a barely perceptible nod. The torturer knelt and began to unfasten the clasps on his case. Sheppard tried not to watch him. He told himself that the slow movement of those long fingers was not fascinating.
"Perhaps you have come here to trap me," Carrick said. "Well, there are ways around that. I can break you." He said it mildly, as if he was discussing possibilities for dinner.
"I… uh… prefer not to be broken, as a general rule," Sheppard said. Both clasps were open now. The case opened a rift into blackness. As pale hands opened the rift further, silver gleamed inside. "I'm quite attached to this body, you know."
Carrick smiled. One long-fingered hand vanished into the blackness. Got to say something, Sheppard thought. Something real. All this fencing… That's Colonel Sheppard talking, fencing with an adversary. The person I'm playing… I need a name for him. John? The shrinks do not get to hear about this when I get back. John doesn't have a clue what this is all about. He'd be asking… Dammit, he should have asked before now. Unless he's doing all this out of bravado to cover the fact that he doesn't have a clue what everyone's talking about.
"I don't know anything about any trap," he said. "My friends betrayed me, I got kicked out… Got drunk; probably said some things. I woke up here and you say I've got something you need."
The hand emerged from the blackness, gripping a paring knife. Tugging his gaze away from it, Sheppard saw relish gleaming in Carrick's eyes. It was veiled an instant later. Sheppard was not the only one wearing masks, it seemed. A thug and a sadist, for all his manners.
"Maybe you're telling the truth," Carrick said. "Maybe you're lying. There are ways of finding out. Truth, or lie, there are ways of binding you..."
The torturer stepped close. Unlike Carrick, his eyes were dead, like dull metal that didn't reflect. The knife gleamed. Closer, it came; closer, closer…
"Like hell I'm going to sit back and let this happen!" Sheppard was on his feet. He didn't care… John, Sheppard, anyone, everyone… Nobody would sit and do nothing when they were being tortured. They hadn't bound him. They couldn't force him. He snatched up the chair; used it like a shield. He jabbed the leg into the torturer's stomach, and suddenly the man's eyes weren't so dead, after all. He twisted round, and his knee screamed at the movement, and his headache peaked, but adrenaline was pumping, and slight pain didn't matter; all that mattered was escaping that knife, was about fighting with everything that he had before they could hurt him.
He never saw the stunner until its beam struck him. He fell to the ground. Although he remained conscious, he couldn't move; couldn't do anything but stare upwards at the two pairs of legs that took up position on either side of him, at the two faces that looked down at him, as if he was a bug beneath their feet.
end of chapter five
On to chapter six