Chapter six: Cards on the table
"Rodney." The voice only slowly penetrated. If I ignore it… "Rodney. Doctor McKay."
He looked up. "Yes. What is it?"
Radek was twisting his hands nervously. He looked at Rodney, then jerked his eyes sideways, contorting his face ridiculously. "What?" Rodney snapped. "Are you going into convulsions?"
Radek repeated the performance, then pushed his glasses up his nose with an urgent finger. "Not here," he mouthed.
Oh. Oh. So that was Radek's way of acting furtive. Of all the stupid, over-dramatic, suspicious-looking performances… Rodney stood up and followed him, fuming. He had to physically bite his lip to keep himself from launching a tirade, and he felt as if he was bubbling over. What if someone saw you? What if the traitor saw you? What if he tells the enemy? What if Sheppard dies because of you?
They reached a small inner room; closed the door. "What was that about?" Rodney let the words pour out, hissing them harshly because even now, oh God even now, even here he couldn't speak freely. "You couldn't have looked more obvious if you'd gone round with a placard saying 'Look at me! I'm being super-secret!'"
Radek raised one ineffectual hand. Oh, but Rodney hated him sometimes! He was surrounded by fools! "Listen. Rodney…"
"Do you know the stakes?" Rodney demanded. "Do you? Sheppard's life…"
"I have proof," Radek blurted out.
"What?" Rodney demanded. "And now he's talking nonsense. We should never have included you in the first place. I advised against it, but did they listen? No. It was Sheppard. Sheppard was the one who wanted you to be involved. He said he trusted you; can you believe that? How many times have you stood beside him when your life is on the line?"
"I have, actually." Radek looked pugnacious. "You, Rodney, are unpleasant man, but I understand why and so I forgive you."
"Oh, how gracious of you," Rodney sneered. "I'm touched."
Radek's face went uncharacteristically still. "You are not the only one who worries." Then, still quiet, he said, "I have found proof that we have a traitor. I have found evidence–"
"What?" Rodney shouted. Seeing Radek's eyes flicker to the door, Rodney forced himself to lower his voice. "Why didn't you tell me," he hissed, "instead of prattling…?"
Radek opened his mouth, then shut it again. He raised his hand, finger outwards, then withdrew it with a visible effort. "Somebody sent out sub-space transmission," he said. "Burst mode. Very cleverly done. Almost impossible to trace. I wouldn't have found out if I hadn't known to look."
"When?" Rodney demanded.
"The last one was sent two hours ago," Radek said.
"That means…" Rodney snapped his fingers. "That means…"
"That our traitor is a scientist," Radek finished for him. "A clever one."
A scientist. And Rodney had searched and searched to find out how the leak was happening, and hadn't been able to… And now Radek had… He wanted to smash his hand into the door. The tiny room was stifling. There was just him and Radek, and outside the door, circling like a vulture, watching like a hawk, listening like… like a… Who cares what it's like? An enemy, out there, watching us. One of mine. And I couldn't… I didn't…
"What shall we do now?" Radek was twisting his hands.
Rodney paced; to the wall, and back again, only four paces across. "Nothing," he said. "Don't you understand? We can't do anything. We can't let him know that we know. We have to let him carry on sending his messages. If he doesn't… If he stops…"
"Then the enemy will know that something has gone wrong and might kill Colonel Sheppard."
"Yes." It came out before he could stop it. "No. No. Maybe." He took a deep breath; expelled it. It made no difference. "Shut up, Radek. Just stop."
"But at least we know." Radek looked almost gentle. Sympathetic. Pitying. Rodney hated him. Oh God… And he wanted to be able to swim through the anger and the worry, to surface, to say 'thank you.' "We know how it is happening. We know that it is happening, and that all of this… the fighting… it was necessary. In time we will find out who."
"And we won't be able to do a thing about it." Rodney felt incredibly weary; he hadn't slept properly for days. "Our traitor's going to think that he's won. He thinks that he's doing this and we don't know. He's strolling around secretly laughing at us, feeling smug. He thinks he's cleverer than me. One of my scientists, using one of my labs, sending out a message, thinking that I don't know…"
"Is it an affront to your pride that you feel?" Radek's voice was sharp. "Is that the worst thing for you?"
"Get out," Rodney said, but even that lacked force.
"No," Radek said quietly. "I know that it is not. And so, once again, I forgive you."
When Radek had gone, Rodney shut the door and leant against it, closing his eyes.
He never wanted to leave. His lab was full of traitors and enemies, and every bright corner now held shadows.
He still had feeling, although even that was muted. When the knife touched the base of his throat, it felt like the faintest prick. He tried to move his head, tried to see. Was it digging in, sinking in, carving out flesh? He couldn't move; could only lie there, breathing. It didn't hurt much. Did that mean…? Did that…?
"Yes," Carrick said. "I can have you tortured. I can break you… and you might think that you are not the sort of man who can be broken, but I assure you, Colonel Sheppard, that all men break eventually, under treatment such as I can give you."
With a stupendous effort he managed to move his lips. "Why?" The sound was so faint that it was as if he was broken already.
"I can hurt you," Carrick said, "until you will promise me anything to stop the pain. You will join me and take my orders, even if those orders are to slaughter everyone you ever held dear."
"Go," he forced out, "to…. Hell."
Perhaps the paralysis was lessening already, for the pain was worse. It was still only a fraction of what it could be, he feared. He could be dying, bleeding out from a paring knife jabbed into his throat, and he wouldn't know.
"Or…" Carrick stepped back, out of the small field of Sheppard's vision. The torturer rose and stepped away, too. As he did so, Sheppard saw the knife in his hand. The tip of the blade was red, but that was all.
The pain was slight, then, because there had been no injury – no injury at all. Sheppard managed to move his head enough for him to look at his chest. There was no blood there. If he strained desperately, he could see a small patch of redness, blurry from being on the very fringes of his vision. It was about the size of a penny.
The torturer returned, bending over near his head. Arms grabbed him – Sheppard felt them as little more than a gentle touch – and everything lurched as his eyes told him that he was being lifted; his body, though, felt very little. He saw his legs trailing uselessly, booted feet kicking limply in an attempt to take his weight. Then he was deposited on the chair, his arms falling limp to his sides. His head would have lolled, too, but he concentrated every scrap of his will and managed to keep it upright. Carrick sat opposite him, slightly flushed and breathing fast.
He gets off on it, Sheppard thought. If it wasn't for the fact that he needs me, he would have tortured me to death, and loved every minute of it. His thoughts seemed to be shaping themselves into words far more than they normally did. Is this what it's like in McKay's mind? he wondered. The words he said out loud had to be carefully constructed lies, and it was as if his mind was desperate for a place where he could speak freely. Or speak at all, he thought, although sensation was coming back a little more with every minute. Might even be able to fight them soon, or beat him with a sarcastic quip.
None of which, he reminded himself a moment later, is of the slightest use right now, given the fact that I'm as weak as a newborn baby, and there's a sadistic madman across the table, and a pet torturer glowering against the wall.
"However," Carrick said, folding his hands and resuming his mask of the polite aristocrat, "torture is best reserved for a certain type of man. I am aware –" He sounded regretful. "– that you are not the kind of man who responds well to coercion."
"Damn straight." It was hard to force the words, but he managed it. Once he had done so, the next words came easier. "Last guy who tried to torture me… I escaped. Killed his guards. Killed him, too, later." He concentrated on curling his hand, on practicing movement. It was hidden by the desk. "Last woman, too. I… hijacked her ship."
He thought he saw anger beneath Carrick's mask. He wants to take it as challenge; wants to break me where they failed. His hand was curled in a fist now, and he coiled his muscles, ready to act if he needed to. "A man like you, Colonel Sheppard…" Carrick said. "You are driven by loyalty, and not by fear. If your loyalty is won, you will die for a cause. If that loyalty is betrayed…"
John would show emotion at that, surely. He pressed his lips together, and averted his eyes.
"Yes, Colonel Sheppard," Carrick said. "I will lay my cards on the table. I know who you are. I know that you come from the city of Atlantis. I know that you are a commander in the military there. I know all this. My man Everard knew all this before he approached you in the bar."
Sheppard hoped that his face correctly showed both surprise, and an attempt not to show that surprise.
"And I know, too, that you left Atlantis under a cloud. You fell out with your former friends, fighting with them publicly. You were heard to say that you hated the lot of them. Some people think you had some kind of breakdown. Others think that your friends – led by Colonel Carter, perhaps – are involved in some plot, and that you were the only one who realised it."
Sheppard sat there struggling to regain his movement. Careful, he thought. Can't show… He concentrated on breathing, and then on Carrick's face and body language. Got to learn to read through his lies, he thought. The man was clearly relishing all this. It's his big revelation scene, after all. Perhaps Sheppard should be gaping gratifyingly, but he knew that John, however surprised he was by what he was hearing, would be careful to keep that hidden.
"How do I know this?" Carrick said. "Not from what you said yourself. You see, Colonel Sheppard, I have my own way of seeing into the City of the Ancestors. Since talking to you this morning, I took steps to verify your story."
This was it. This was it. Sheppard sat up straighter. The after-effect of the stun had almost completely worn off now. He considered pretending to be worse affected than he was, but presumably Carrick knew how long an effect it usually had.
"Why did you do it, Colonel Sheppard?" Carrick asked mildly. "I know what I have heard. But I know, too, that you are an intensely loyal man, and that you have often risked your own life in order to save your team-mates and colleagues. I know what I heard, but it smells wrong. Why would you suddenly want to leave? Why did you go from being prepared to lay your life down for your comrades, to ranting against them in a public bar, saying you wanted to bring them down?"
This was it. Play crazy. That's what Rodney had wanted him to do. Crazier than normal, anyway. "Oh, ha ha, Rodney," Sheppard had said. He had considered it, though. A bit of babbling here, some talk about hallucinations there. Make them think he'd cracked under stress. Someone like Carrick wouldn't care; he'd just use him. "It could work," he had admitted grudgingly, some time later. "Of course it'll work," Rodney had squawked. "My idea, remember?" But Sheppard had shaken his head. He could play crazy on Atlantis, but doubted he could maintain the act when in the hands of the enemy. Some patterns of behaviour were just too instinctive.
It was Ronon who had come up with it in the end, though.
"I…" He dropped his gaze, and struggling, biting his lip. Then John's mask shattered, and real emotion came pouring out. "It was Elizabeth," he whispered. "Doctor Weir. She and I… We were…" I'm sorry, Elizabeth. "We were…" He couldn't say the rest of it. Not all of his emotion was feigned. "But she's gone. We had to leave her behind. I…" His nails were digging into his palm, the pain driving away the last of the fog left from the stunner. "I wanted to go back for her. I needed to go back for her. But Colonel Carter…"
He struggled, as John made a valiant attempt to put the mask back on. Carrick just watched.
"She wouldn't let me go." Anger? Yes. Anger was good. He slammed his fist on the table. "I asked and I asked… Always some lame excuse, and I didn't even have command over my men any more, because she was there. She blocked everything… Oh yes, she lied, of course, saying it was beyond her control, or that the plan was a suicidal one and wouldn't work. But it was all about power, you see. If Elizabeth came back, Carter would be out. She can't bear for that to happen, so she blocked me. She turned everyone else against me. I tried to convince my team of what she was like, but they wouldn't listen. Ronon tried to leave, you know? Teyla… I don't know what she's doing, but she keeps sneaking back to her people, far more than she used to. Rodney doesn't care; he wanted to lead Atlantis himself, you know? And it's his beloved Sam. He wants her to like him."
"So it is all for love?" Carrick's smile was mocking.
Some men… They'll do anything for love, Ronon had said, speaking up for the first time in ages, after Sheppard and Rodney had argued themselves in circles. "Knew a man once," Ronon had gone on to say, "who killed his best friend over a woman."
Rodney had snapped his fingers repeatedly. "Yes yes yes! He's onto something there. A crime of passion. People except you to be irrational if you're in love… Well, no, perhaps don't expect you to, but they understand. Whether it's jumping on couches or taking scissors to your lover's clothes or going out and getting horrendously drunk…"
And so John, the man who had left Atlantis after falling out with all his friends, was in love with Elizabeth Weir, and heartbroken. Not that they had said any of this in the staged arguments. It was too close to reality for all of them, too recent, too raw. Things might have been said that would have hurt for real, and that could not be recovered from. Instead, they had fought about safe things – things that had never truly been an issue, or things that had already been securely healed.
Even then, the things that had been said were hard to forget. When a friend screamed hatred at you, their face twisted with malice, it was hard to forget the image, even when you knew that the words were staged.
"Yes," he said now, raising miserable eyes to Carrick's steady gaze. "Or no. That was what started it. It's gone too far now. Things have been said. Let's just say: people have shown themselves in their true colours, that's for sure."
"And you want revenge?"
How was it possible that Carrick couldn't hear the sound of his heart racing? "Not revenge," he said. "I don't know what I said when I was drunk, but, sober, I'm not that petty. No, I want Elizabeth back. I want an Atlantis that will go looking for her. I don't want Carter and Rodney and the others dead. I just want them out. Let them go back to Earth after they… after they…" He let his voice crack with emotion. "I trusted them and they…"
"They betrayed you," Carrick said.
"Yes." He said it like a revelation. "Yes. They betrayed me, and they betrayed Elizabeth. Petty. Power-crazed. I thought they were better than that… Atlantis could be something great, but they're just in it for themselves. They don't feel it, not like I do. They should be out there fighting our enemies, not just sitting there like… like a dragon on a hoard. I…" He sucked in a rasping breath. "I don't know what I want. It's all mixed up. But Carter and McKay and… and all of them back on Atlantis, now that Elizabeth's gone... Smug and gloating about the power. It's not right. I don't want them hurt, but I want them gone."
Carrick stood up; walked to the door. That's it, Sheppard thought. I blew it. He's going to… He thought about failsafes. It seemed so comforting in the lab, but now he saw that there was no safety at all. If the torturer had sunk his knife in just a few inches deeper, Sheppard would have been dead hours before any rescue could come to pluck his body out.
"Colonel Sheppard…" Carrick put his hand on the door. Then he turned round slowly, and headed back to the table, though not to sit. Leaning on the back of the chair, he said, "I will lay my cards on the table."
Didn't you already do that? Sheppard thought. He wondered how many of the words the two of them had spoken in this room were true. Perhaps none of them, he thought. Perhaps nothing Sheppard said was ever really true. Every single day of his life was about wearing masks, of a sort. This was different only by degree.
"I lead a group of people," Carrick said. "This is just one of our bases. We are split so that our enterprise can still continue even if an enemy should manage to destroy one of our bases." Oh look, Sheppard thought. A veiled warning. How nice. "I have… plans," Carrick said. "You see, it came to my attention some years ago that the City of the Ancestors was once more active. One of my men has even seen it. You might know him, Colonel Sheppard. He served under Commander Kolya once, before you brought him down."
Oh, crap. "Kolya," he said. "My old buddy."
"However, it has also come to my attention that despite its great resources and infinite power, it is failing to prevent the Wraith from culling innocent worlds. Moreover, they set the Wraith on us in the first place."
Huh, he thought. Best not tell him the truth about that.
"In my eyes," Carrick said, "and in the eyes of many, these people are not worthy to be entrusted with the stewardship of Atlantis."
And you are? Even John, consumed with bitterness and sorrow, would surely be sceptical of that. "You want to take Atlantis for yourself," he said, careful to give the words no particular inflexion. Then he let the sarcasm through. "Purely for magnanimous reasons, of course."
Carrick spread his hands. "Who doesn't want power? Who doesn't look at something precious in the hands of another man, and know that they want it? Yes, Colonel Sheppard, I want to take Atlantis for myself."
So it was out in the open. It was strange quite how real the emotions felt. He gripped the arm of the chair to stop his hand was trembling with the urge to kill this man, to strike out, to scream that Atlantis would never be in the hands of a man like this, that Sheppard would die first rather than let it happen. Rodney, Teyla, Ronon and the others, going about their life in the city, while this man plotted…
"You seem shocked," Carrick said. "I will tell you more. I know that Atlantis requires a special gene if it is to be used properly. I know, too, that the ships of the Ancestors require that gene. I have one of those ships." He looked Sheppard full in the face, his meaning plain.
"You want me to fly the ship," Sheppard said, with an air of dawning realisation. "In the market, you said. Something you need…" He let out a whistling breath. "I see."
"I want you to help me take Atlantis."
Sheppard breathed. To hear it stated like that… But this is what he had come here for; this was what he had fought and lied and pretended for. He had to say yes. But John wouldn't say yes so quickly, surely, no matter how betrayed he felt.
He covered his eyes with one hand, shielding his throbbing head. "If I help you get Atlantis," he said, "you'll let everyone go back to… go back home? You won't kill them?"
"Of course," Carrick said. And of course it was a lie.
He pressed his hand tighter. "You'll let me use the resources of Atlantis to get Elizabeth back?"
"If that is what you wish."
His headache stabbed into his eyes, and sent sharp tendrils of pain down even to his chest. Elizabeth… Not everything was feigned. Oh God, not everything was feigned.
"Then I'll do it." He spoke the words as if they were being dragged from his throat with hooks. He kept his face covered, though. John was hiding his self-loathing. Sheppard was… No, he didn't know what.
Carrick walked to the door, and stopped with one hand on it; Sheppard saw this blurred through the cracks between his fingers. "Of course," he said, as if it was an after-thought, "I will need further proofs of your sincerity. There will, of course, be a test."
I thought that was the test, he thought. He didn't say it, though.
Carrick smiled. "You thought that was the test?" It was just a lucky chance, Sheppard told himself. He was not that transparent. He still had his secrets. "Oh no, Colonel Sheppard. The true test is yet to come."
He left, and the torturer followed him. After they had gone, Sheppard sat at the table, aware only of the rhythm of his own breathing, and the fact that they were surely watching him even now, and would probably never stop.
end of chapter six
On to chapter seven
Note: Sorry, Shep whumpers! I'm an evil tease. Promised you torture… then snatched it away again. Still, rest assured that, with the exception of some of my flashfics, I can't write a story without hurting Sheppard badly at some point. All hope is not lost.
As ever, feedback is greatly desired and will be cherished.
On to chapter seven