Chapter seven: Through the door
The door was locked. "Hey!" Sheppard hammered on it. "So much for trust." He listened. Still nothing. "I thought we were allies."
Then there was the matter of the test. Don't like the sound of that.
He sat on the bed. His headache still pounded, and he pressed his fingers to his brow, and lay down for a while with his eyes closed. It made no difference. He had no idea if Carrick was watching him closely, leaning forward with those long fingers pressed together, or if a bored minion was sitting in front of a bank of screens, idly checking on him only every now and then.
Perhaps the test had already started. Perhaps something about the way he was lying on the bed was being noted down and used as evidence against him. When he winced at his headache, when he drummed his fingers, when he opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling, that could make the difference between a pass and a fail. He could feel his heart beginning to speed up; perhaps Carrick could see even that. He swung himself off to bed, and went to the bathroom. The cold water on his face helped a little. He drank several cupfuls, hoping it would help ease the headache. He doubted it would. He feared it was in for the duration.
There was nothing to do afterwards but return to the bed. Perhaps it's not so big a deal, he told himself. Doesn't make much difference, really. Ever since those first furious exchanges with his team, every word he had said and every action he had made had been done on the assumption that an enemy was watching and making notes. Every single thing he did, however small, could make the difference between success and failure, between life and death. It wasn't usually the big things that led to a spy's cover being blown, but the tiny things, the things that they did unconsciously.
He was surprised how hard it was. He had thought himself a master of masks. Life was about playing a part: the cocky flyboy who could fly anything; the laidback commander; the honest soldier, good at what he did, but not too hot in the brains department. When things touched him deeply, he hid them behind a stoic mask, and told no-one. He had expected this whole game to be little different. His main concerns had been about Rodney, whose thoughts revealed themselves in words before he had even finishing thinking them, and whose feelings could be plainly seen on his face and even in the way he moved his hands. Rodney would find it hard to live the lie after he had gone, but for Sheppard it was just another part to play.
But it feels wrong, he thought. Dishonest. Difficult. It was almost as if playing a part had somehow become alien to him, after all. It felt wrong to have to think about every word and make sure that it supported the image he was trying to project. It shouldn't be hard, but it was. What had changed?
He rolled onto his side. He felt exhausted from the confrontation with Carrick, but far too tense to sleep. Perhaps he would walk up and down the room, or exercise, or hammer on the door. What would they expect him to do? What would support the image he was trying to present?
I don't know. I don't know.
He was entirely alone here. There was no Ronon to fight beside him when it all went south. There was no Teyla to guard his back, and assure him that he was not alone. There was no Rodney to conjure something up from the empty air and save the day. There were memories of the three of them, though, full of hatred and shouting. Not true, of course. Just an act. He knew that. With every rational part of his brain, he knew that. It's just that they weren't here, and he was playing a part, so I'm not even here myself, not really.
Crazy. Stupid. Lack of sleep. He sat up, and leant forward, forearms resting on his thighs. When the door opened, he sprang up and was halfway across the room before he stopped himself. Don't attack. Don't attack. Stop. Wait.
It was not Carrick, anyway, and not the torturer, either. The minion slammed down a bowl of food on the table, glaring at Sheppard with open hostility. Sheppard clenched his fist tightly, but managed to keep his voice light. "Run out of burgers, and having to make do with dog food? The last hotel was better."
The door gaped open, showing an empty corridor. Perhaps this is the test. He breathed in and out, shallow and light. Whether I'll run. Just one guard. An open door. No restraints. No attempts to hurt him. What would John do – the man who felt betrayed by his friends, who had accepted an alliance with an enemy out of heartbreak and desperation? Would he run?
Sheppard stood there, frozen. The man left. The door closed. He heard the key turn in the lock.
He didn't think that he had actively chosen not to run. Rather, he had stood there frozen, and failed to choose. The two were different. The two were so very different. It worried him, as if in this mass of lies he was losing himself.
Rodney still thought of them as meetings of the conspiracy. A dark lair would be more appropriate than this small side-room, he thought. As he went to the meetings and as he left, he felt as if he had a target painted on his back.
It was a very long time since Atlantis had felt so unsafe. Since Kolya, and the weeks that had followed that, with the dreams…
"All is going to plan," Sam declared, her arms resting on the table. "Ronon has confirmed that Colonel Sheppard has made contact with the target."
"Fat lot of good that is." Rodney spoke before he had intended to. All eyes turned to him. "I mean…" He waved his hand uselessly. "We can't follow him. We can't search for him because we might bump into Carrick and blow his cover. We can't have anyone know we're worried. They have to think there's a rift."
"Yes." Oh, but Sam's voice was cold. He wanted to hate her, wanted to scream at her for being unfeeling, but enough sense remained to tell him that she was nothing of the sort. She was the leader. Sheppard had been just as firm in the face of Rodney's objections.
Teyla's hand moved slightly towards his on the table. Rodney snatched his away.
"Doctor Zelenka has identified how our traitor is communicating with the enemy," Sam continued. Radek blushed, and pushed his glasses up his nose. "You, Radek and Rodney, are most likely to be able to discover who they are. I must remind you that you can't let them know that they are under suspicion."
"We know this." Rodney slammed his fist into the table. "We're wasting time talking about it."
He didn't know why they had these meetings. He remembered Teyla saying that there were only seven people they could trust on Atlantis. Maybe the others liked clinging to the people they could trust. Maybe it was some stupid group hug sort of thing. Rodney had no time for that. He felt… He just felt…
"I must also remind you –" Sam's eyes moved to Ronon, who glared hotly at her. "– that gossip is only to be expected. Colonel Sheppard went out of his way to encourage it. We will all hear things that we don't like. We can't react to them. Everything has been documented. Stargate Command knows the truth. Everything will be made clear in the end and there will no long-term damage to Colonel Sheppard's reputation."
"Shame he's probably going to be dead," Rodney muttered.
"I am in contact with Colonel Caldwell," Sam said firmly. "The Daedalus is in position. If Colonel Sheppard activates his transmitter, we will contact the Daedalus and they will be at his location as soon as possible." She looked at Rodney, her expression softening. "There's an escape route, Rodney. He's going to be okay."
"Lots of things can happen in 'as soon as possible,'" Rodney said miserably. "I know; it normally happens to me. You can go from alive to dead within seconds. And he's stubborn; you know what he's like. Stupid. Likes to play the hero. If things start to go wrong, he'll try to bluff his way through it. He won't activate the transmitter until it's already far too messed up to get out of. The Daedalus will be retrieving a corpse."
"Don't say that." It was Ronon who shouted it, Ronon who launched himself at Rodney.
Rodney pushed his chair back, struggling to his feet. "Get off me, you barbarian."
"Rodney!" That was Teyla. Then she placed her hand in the middle of Ronon's chest, and spoke his name equally firmly. "This is not helping Colonel Sheppard."
"You designed the transmitter, Rodney." Sam was still calm, just as Sheppard had been when he was proposed the crazy plan. "You know it will work."
"Yes. Well…" Rodney sat down again. "A miracle of technology, actually. Very hard. Do you know how difficult it was to combine Ancient and Wraith technology like that? A Wraith subcutaneous sub-space tracking device and an Ancient 'on' switch, activated by the ATA gene… It's a work of genius. One of a kind."
There was a ghost of a smile on Sam's face. "And it won't let Colonel Sheppard down. He'll get through this, Rodney, and so will we."
But I'm not there! Rodney wanted to shout. I'm not there with him! He needs me. I save his life as often as he saves mine. What if it's my turn, and I'm not there?
He turned his head to one side, and as he did so, he saw Ronon and Teyla, sitting side by side, and he knew that their thoughts were exactly the same.
For some reason, it made him want to hate them.
The third time they brought him food – and each time he told them in no uncertain times how disgusting it was – they failed to lock the door behind them.
Sheppard stood there; looked at it; walked to it; tried the handle. The door opened.
Was this the test? Dammit! he thought, almost saying it aloud. He was so damn tired of questioning everything, wondering if this was the test Carrick had spoken of. Bet there isn't a test after all, he thought. He's playing with my mind.
He still stood, though, the door slightly open. Should he leave? Was that what Carrick…?
To hell with it. He had signed up for this. He was playing a part, yes, but the part was based on himself. Presumably their traitor had been feeding Carrick tidbits of information about him. Probably knows my whole life story by now. The person he was pretending to be was bitter and ready to betray his friends, but he was still John Sheppard. He was not a man to turn his back on an open door.
He pushed the door open and stepped into the hallway. There were no guards outside. The minion who had brought his food was just turning a corner at the far end. Sheppard started to walk. Where? he wondered. He knew how to find his old cell, of course, and knew how to find the Gate from there, but they didn't know he knew, because he'd been playing drunk at the time. Wheels within wheels. Lies within lies.
He choose a random direction, and set off. Like the irrepressible explorer who left his own galaxy just to find out what lay on the other side of a wormhole. His knee still hurt, but far less than it had done, and his limp was slight. He could probably walk without any limp at all if he wanted to, but he saw no reason to try. As he walked, he made no attempt to hide the fact that he was studying everything that he saw. Perhaps, he thought, the secret was just to play himself. Well, except for the fact that I've just thrown my lot in with a gangster who wants to take over my home and kill all my friends. There was less chance of making a stupid mistake, that was for sure.
There were no windows in the hallways. He passed several open doors, and peered into several empty rooms, but saw no natural light. Classic underground base, huh? He saw little sign of people, either. Perhaps Carrick's organisation wasn't as big as he was trying to make out. Of course, Carrick claimed to have many bases scattered across the galaxy, so maybe all his eager little minions were busy preparing for Operation Capture Atlantis somewhere else.
The architecture… Now, that's interesting… He had noticed it when they had dragged him from the Gate, but had been a bit too busy thinking of other things to pay much attention to it. There was a vague Ancient feel to the architecture, coupled with Genii-style brutalism. And those two really don't go well together. He wondered quite how old this base was. Had it been built by the native people long ago, with a few friendly Ancients on hand to give home makeover tips? Or had an industrial society taken over an existing Ancient base and cannibalised parts for their own stark idea of aesthetics?
Not that it mattered, he thought. Except…
He had passed three sealed doors in a row, with no visible key hole. He moved on impulse towards one, paused for a moment, almost thought better of it, then passed his hand over the panel to the right of the door.
Nothing happened. "Oh well." He shrugged. "Worth a try."
He reached an intersection. Which way to go? "Shame there's no coin to toss." He said that out loud. As he did so, he studied the corridors to the right and left. Was that sound coming from the right? There were more locked doors there, too, and locked doors meant secrets. He shrugged, in a it's all the same to me fashion, and headed right.
A man stepped out of a door. Sheppard stiffened, then let out a cautious breath. "Hi."
The man said nothing.
"I'm the new recruit," Sheppard told him, "I guess. Since we'll be working together, what about telling me your name?"
"I'm John Sheppard."
The man stared at Sheppard coldly. He was almost as tall as Ronon, but Ronon's eyes had never been that cold.
Sheppard shrugged. "Only trying to be polite."
The man's hand went to the weapon at his side. He had the sort of face that was made to appear on a wanted poster, even down to the scar on his cheek. I guess Carrick got you from Central Casting, Sheppard thought.
As he walked on, it suddenly seemed less funny. The guy had been too stereotypical, as if he had been planted there deliberately to intimidate Sheppard. He resisted the urge to turn round. He was sure that the man was staring after him; he could almost feel it, like a blade at the back of his neck. He tried to carry on walking normally, not to show his sudden tension, but he was suddenly aware of the pain in his knee, and the fact that although it wasn't hurting as much as it had done, he was still limping, and that would make a difference if he had to…
No, he told himself. Don't think like that. It's just your imagination.
There were two of them round the next corner, standing side by side. They were angled slightly towards each other, and it could have been that they were idly talking in the corridor, and just happened to be blocking it with their bodies. Sheppard's step faltered, even though he really didn't want it to. No, he thought. Not backing down now. Brazen it out.
Even if they had been talking, they were silent now. Both of them watched him approach without the faintest glimmer of a smile. "Hi," Sheppard tried again. "I'm new round here. John Sheppard."
One was of medium height, but with muscles that would have made even Ronon drool with jealousy. The other was wiry, with eyes like beads in a narrow face, and a knife at his belt. Neither made any attempt to move to one side. Their eyes never left him.
Shall I? He hesitated. No. To hell with it. "Excuse me, guys." Smiling disingenuously, he walked between them, though he twisted his body sideways to avoid jostling them. Stupid, he thought, but not suicidally stupid. He was close enough to hear the wiry man's breathing, as if he had recently been exercising. He braced himself, ready to react to the first glimmer of an attack. He was ready to roll out of the way, ready to make a play for wiry guy's knife. He heard his own footsteps, one, two, three… a slight hitch between the one and the two. No knife sank into his back.
This is not funny, he thought. It took him a while to get his breathing back under control. These people had been planted by Carrick to test his reaction, he was sure of it, or maybe just to freak me out.
No, perhaps it was nothing, he told himself, as he paused to study an open room, where a table was strewn with unidentifiable parts. Perhaps he was reading too much into everything. It was easy to do so, he supposed, when you were living a lie yourself. When your every action was done with a thought to how it would appear, you tended to see deception and trickery everywhere. Just because he was playing a game, it was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Carrick was, too.
He carried on walking. When someone emerged to watch him from the shadow of a doorway, he said nothing, just walked past with a smile, a nod, and a look of unconcern.
Nothing happened. Once again, nothing happened.
No, he thought, it's not my imagination. Carrick was playing a game. He had proof of that, what with the charade with the torturer and the talk of a test. The worst mistake that Sheppard could make was to assume that Carrick was honest. Nothing happened by chance around here. Every single thing was a potential trap.
The question was, when would that trap be sprung?
He bit his lip, thinking. The other thing he knew was that he was at a disadvantage here, and Carrick was on his home territory. If Carrick wanted to spring a trap, then that trap would be sprung, and there was nothing Sheppard could do the stop it. Might as well find out everything I can, then.
He remembered where the Gate was. Time to find it, then. He kept his walking casual, and when decisions had to be made about direction, he made a show of choosing at random. He wandered in and out of open rooms, and when things inside looked important, he studied them openly. So sue me, he thought. Behaviour like this was not incompatible with the role he was trying to play, and he sure as hell wasn't going to play docile.
No-one else appeared. Once, though, he heard the sound of voices behind a closed door, and thought that, very faintly, he heard the sound of someone getting armed for combat.
Another room held shackles and a patch of dried blood. Despite every instinct urging him to be cautious, he knelt down and touched the blood, rubbing the brown flakes between his fingertips. He thought of his own missing men, presumed taken by Carrick. Had one of them died here? Would he…?
Footsteps outside. He sprang to his feet, knee protesting, but the footsteps were going the other way, fading away into silence.
He pressed his hand against his chest, then lowered it, remembering that he was being watched.
The blood was itchy on his fingertips. Got to take him down, he thought. This has got to work. He won't take any more of mine. He won't. He will not. I won't let him. But his limp was worse now, and his headache was returning. It was easy enough to play a part when he was walking in an empty hallway, but to do the same in front of Carrick… To live it faultlessly as he piloted an Ancient ship to attack the only place that had ever truly felt like home…
He wanted to do an all-out assault now; just steal a gun and shoot Carrick dead, and take the consequences. He wanted… No. No. Got to play the part. Got to lie. Got to… got to forget who I am, and hide what I feel…
He wiped the blood clean, then curled his hand into a fist. Ahead was the Gate, although of course he wasn't supposed to know that. It was invisible behind a pair of heavy doors. As he approached them, a guard stepped out of a side room. This time there was no mistaking the fact that he was blocking the way.
"Hi." Sheppard tried it one more time. So it failed the last few times. Hey, I'm an optimist. "I'm new round here."
"Can't go through here," the guard said. So this one talks! We have progress. "Carrick's orders."
He was probably an idiot to persist, but to hell with it! "Carrick's orders for me in particular? Because things have changed. I'm one of the gang now."
"No-one leaves without his say so."
Sheppard made a mental note. No-one leaves. That meant he now officially knew that this was the way out, and not just through a memory he wasn't supposed to have. Okay to say it in polite conversation, then.
"Fine," he said. "It's no big deal. I was just…"
He heard the footsteps too late to do anything but whirl round. Carrick himself was there, almost silent on soft-soled shoes. His pet torturer was even quieter, and the only person who made a sound was Sheppard's old friend Scarface from the hallway.
"Colonel Sheppard," Carrick said, with smile. "Please come with me, if you would."
"I have a choice?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course." Carrick spread his hands. "A man always has a choice – whether to act one way, or whether to act… the other."
Sheppard hesitated only for a moment. The way he saw it, he had no choice. John and Carrick had an understanding, after all. "You're the boss," he said, with a self-deprecating smile.
Carrick led him the same way Everard had taken him that first night. Sheppard followed, no longer able to stop himself limping even if he tried. He thought he should be saying something, but his mind had gone blank. If this was for real, he would have found words, but there were too many layers of deception here. Damn, he thought. I'm really not good at this.
They paused outside a door just short of the room Sheppard had spent his first night in. Carrick nodded. Scarface reached inside his jacket and pulled out Sheppard's own pistol. He handed it to Sheppard. Sheppard was taking it, hand closing around it, before he had consciously realised that he was moving. It felt right to feel it in his hand, and what did that say about him now, that it could feel that way?
"I just need you to do one little thing," Carrick said.
…could raise the gun, point it at Carrick, and murder him before anyone could do anything to stop him.
"There is a man inside that room," Carrick said. "I need you to kill him."
…could barricade himself inside a room, activate the transmitter, and wait for the Daedalus to bomb the whole place back into the Stone Age.
"Call it a test of sincerity, if you like."
…could go in there and kill one man, and see this game through to its proper end.
Carrick unlocked the door. Sheppard walked in. As the door closed behind him, the man inside looked up. He was chained to the wall, and his face was black with bruises. One hand was shattered, and he was gaunt with hunger and desperation.
But he was already smiling. He was already stirring with the hope of rescue. "Colonel!" he said. "You found me."
end of chapter seven
On to chapter eight
Note: As usual, feedback is greatly cherished. Please feel free to point out typos, Britishisms (though not in spelling), mistakes etc. I've been making my weekend updates progressively earlier each day in the hope of shifting to a first thing in the morning update (UK time) from now on. This just works better for me. When I post after work, it always seems to end up taking over the whole evening. Here's hoping I don't start to oversleep…
It does, however, take me longer to format for LJ than for ff.net (accursed italic coding!), so there might be days when I manage the ff.net update in the morning, but the LJ one has to wait until I get back from work.
On to chapter eight