Chapter eight: The test
Sheppard was incapable of moving. "Colonel," the prisoner said again, his voice wavering.
Got to… Got to… He was seeing through a fog. He was standing at the centre of a maelstrom. Outside was Carrick, grinning, gleeful, doubtless listening to every word, and there was a gun in his hand, and…
"Sergeant." He forced the word out; made himself move; made himself crouch down beside the man. "Are you…?"
"They beat me a bit, but I'll live." Sergeant Manning tried for bravery. Emulating me. Trying to live up to his idea of what I expect of him.
"Looks like they did more than beat you." The words tasted like ashes.
"Not for a while now, sir. They've left me alone for the most part."
Four weeks. It had been four weeks since Manning had been taken, the first of the pilots to disappear. Four weeks a prisoner.
"Sir." Manning grabbed his arm with a hand that was swollen and twisted and marked with fading bruises. "I don't know how much you know." He lowered his voice to an urgent whisper, hoarse as if with too much screaming. "Carrick – that's their leader… He's planning an attack on Atlantis. He wanted me to fly them there, but I refused. I said no, but they… But they…"
"It's all right, sergeant." Sheppard could hardly see. He touched Manning on the shoulder, and his voice seemed to come from a long way away, as if he really was two people after all.
"But you…" Manning stirred desperately, pawing at the ground, struggling to get up. "You don't understand. He knows all about us. He knows that you… you're the best pilot, the strongest gene… If he finds you here…" His eyes darted from side to side. "You have to go."
Not without you, sergeant. That's what Sheppard should have said. Instead, he sat there silent, while the gun felt like a lump of ice in his hand, spreading cold right through his body.
When Manning moved, Sheppard saw the marks of old injuries through his torn clothes. His body was emaciated, and chains rattled whenever he moved. Four weeks, he thought. Four weeks. He had been a prisoner himself, and knew the fierce hope that came from the sight of rescue. And I have to… I've got to…
Of all the things he had ever done, of all the things he had ever had to do… He felt paralysed, his lips physically incapable of uttering the sounds he knew they had to make. But Carrick was outside the door, listening to every word. There had to be cameras watching every last flicker of expression on his face. He had managed to scream his hatred at Rodney, managed to insult Ronon and Teyla, managed to rant to a crowded bar about how he hated the only people in his life who meant anything to him. He could do this. He had to.
"Where are the others?" Manning asked. "Why aren't you…?"
"Here's the thing, sergeant…" He looked away, knowing that he could bear many things, but he could not bear seeing the expression on the face of the man – one of his own men – he was betraying. "You've been away for a long time. Things have changed."
"Changed?" Even hearing it was horrible.
"Colonel Carter's making changes. Everyone else… everyone else went along with them, but I couldn't. They wanted to… I couldn't… It wasn't like the Atlantis I was used to. It wasn't what Elizabeth had fought for. They left me with no choice. One by one, they turned against me. I left, and then Carrick… He…" He couldn't say any more. Oh God, please, no, he couldn't say more.
"Sir?" Manning sounded so very young. "I don't understand."
Sheppard didn't care what people thought about him. He never had done, and he had always known this about himself. Let the brass think he was a maverick and a liability. Let his enemies think he was a smartass. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.
So wrong. He had been so completely, so utterly wrong. He didn't care what his superiors thought, because he had been so sure that he was right and they were wrong. His enemies were his enemies, and it didn't matter if they despised him, because he sure as hell didn't like them much in return. But some things were pivotal to everything he did and everything he believed. You look out for people under your command and under your protection, and their safety comes first at all costs. You leave no man behind. For one of his own men to believe that he no longer held this principles sacred…
No, worse, to have to pretend to be the sort of man who no longer held those principles sacred…
"I've left Atlantis, sergeant," he forced out, so very aware that Carrick was listening to every word. "I've already told Carrick that I'm helping him."
"What? You… You…" Manning pressed himself against the wall; Sheppard saw this only vaguely, still unable to look at him fully. "No. No. No. No. No. I don't believe it. You. You wouldn't… You couldn't…"
"It's not how you think it is." He had to say that much, at least. "It's for the best. Atlantis… No-one's going to get hurt. No-one's going to die. It's for the best. It really is."
He didn't mean to look; really didn't mean to look. But he did, and he knew that the horror on Manning's face would stay in his mind for the rest of his life. It was like looking into a mirror, except that his own face in the mirror could never show such a thing, but could only show a lie.
There was nothing he could do. He couldn't wink, and couldn't give the smallest signal in word or deed to tell Manning that this was all an act. He had no choice but to break a tortured man's heart. If he gave any clue that this was all an act, he had no doubt that Carrick would kill Manning on the spot. To give him the slightest chance of survival, he had to betray him.
"But…" Manning's hand was opening and closing convulsively. "You. Not you. I'd believe it of anyone, but not you."
Sheppard could barely feel his hand, as if the ice block that was the gun had frozen his entire arm. He had let that ice into his voice. He had to, but he could not. "Everything's going to be fine, Sergeant, I promise," he said softly. "This is the best way. This is the only way. It'll all be okay. No-one's going to hurt you any more, I'll make sure of that. You have to trust me."
He stood up. As he did so, Manning seemed to notice the pistol for the first time, although Sheppard tried to hide it. His eyes widened. Sheppard couldn't bear to see the moment when realisation dawned. He turned his back, but he could still hear the rattling of chains, still hear the sound of a man in agony struggling to comprehend the collapse of all his hopes.
Kill him, Carrick had commanded. Carrick had talked about a test, and this was it. If Sheppard killed Manning, Carrick would be satisfied that he was sincere. The plan would be back on track. If he refused, then that was it. Everything would have been for nothing. More pilots would be taken and would suffer as Manning had suffered. Sooner or later one would yield. Helping by the traitor inside, they would launch an attack, and it might even succeed. Hundreds would die. Atlantis would fall.
To kill one to save many. Sheppard looked at the pistol, so small, so sleek, so innocent. One bullet was all it took. One tiny movement of his finger, and a man's life would be snuffed out. Just one man, already broken. One man for many.
He thought it sounded as if Manning was crying.
He thought of the towers of Atlantis crumbling. He remembered Kolya in the Gate Room, dragging Elizabeth towards the Gate. He thought of Rodney cut down at his post, and Ronon and Teyla fighting to the bitter end. He thought of many men like Manning dying as they defended their city.
One for many.
He could still see Manning's face as he heard Sheppard's lies. He thought of all he had said over the years about putting your own men first, about never leaving anyone behind. He saw all the people he had killed, lying dead because of something he had chosen to do. He thought of the taint you always felt afterwards, even when the death had been necessary. He thought of lies, and wrongs done in the name of something good, and what that had led to, both on his own world and on others.
There was no choice to make. There never had been any choice. He had known that the moment he had walked through that door. No, he had known that the moment Carrick had given him the gun.
"Sir?" If Manning had been crying, he was no longer crying now. Sheppard dared to turn round, because he couldn't hide from this, not now and not ever. If he was going to see this thing through, he had to face up to what he was doing, and never look away. "Has Carrick asked you to kill me?"
Sheppard was frozen, unable to say a word.
Manning didn't plead. He said nothing at all, just looked Sheppard in the eye and didn't look away. If you kill me now, those eyes said, it will be less painful than what you have already done to me.
And Sheppard knew it, and knew that if there was any justice in the world, he would be damned for this for ever more.
Jessica had been working late, and the mess-hall was almost deserted. She took a table in the window, where she could look out at the twin moons across the ocean, and imagined flying there, skimming over the sea in one of the jumpers she had worked on. She wished she could step through the Gate and go… somewhere. For the first time since she had arrived on Atlantis, home was often in her thoughts, tinged with longing.
When she heard someone approaching her table, she focused on her food. She worked late for a reason. Losing myself in my work, she thought. 'Hiding' would be more appropriate.
The steps slowed. She saw boots; a gun. She swallowed her mouthful too early, hurting her throat. She had worked alongside the military for years, but had never been quite so aware that the people around her were armed.
The soldier sat down opposite her. She didn't know his name, although his face was familiar. The Atlantis expedition was small enough to know everyone by sight, although, as now she knew, large enough not to know people properly, even if you thought that you did. "You're the one who saw Colonel Sheppard leave," he said.
She nodded, then coughed, her throat still sore. "I didn't mean… I told…" She had only told one person, but that person had told another, who had told another… Then she had had to tell everyone all over again, because the story had grown in the telling and become even more shocking than the truth. Few people believed her at first, and some had been openly hostile. Then Colonel Carter had made her announcement…
"Relax," the soldier said, but he didn't inspire confidence. He looked edgy, and his expression was grim. "I just want to hear the truth, that's all. Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were."
She had heard how Chris Hudson had been attacked in the mess-hall for talking. The scientist who had overheard Colonel Sheppard's fight with Doctor McKay walked around looking haunted and troubled. Jessica just avoided people and hoped that no-one would notice her. Colonel Carter had walked past her once, and her heart had started to beat so fast that it had hurt. Colonel Carter had announced a false reason for Colonel Sheppard's departure, not knowing that Jessica knew the truth. "I didn't meant to!" she had wanted to blurt out. "I wasn't thinking." Of course Colonel Carter had to conceal the truth. She had the morale of the expedition to consider, and wouldn't want the Wraith to discover that Colonel Sheppard, who had killed so many of their number, was no longer with them. If only Jessica had kept quiet…! If only she had thought…!
So far everyone had been discreet. Colonel Carter didn't know that everyone on the base already knew the truth. But one day she would find out. One day she would know that Jessica had been the one to talk. Jessica would lose her job. She'd be sent back home in disgrace, but the damage she had done would last forever.
"I don't want to talk about it," she said now. "I wish I hadn't said anything in the first place."
"We needed to know the truth," the soldier said. "If you hadn't happened to be there…" She saw his hand as it rested on the table; saw how it tightened into a fist. "Look," he said. "People are saying things. You know how rumours spread. I want to find out how much is true, that's all."
The truth was less extreme than some of the stories, she supposed. She glanced around to make sure that no-one else was listening, then started to tell him. It was already hard to remember details, as if every time she told it it slipped further from the truth, and shaped itself around the words she chose to use, rather than the words Colonel Sheppard and Colonel Carter had said.
She was starting even to doubt the truth herself.
Carrick's face was expressionless as Sheppard left the room. "Is he dead?"
Sheppard looked at him. "Don't you know the answer to that?"
Behind him, through the door, Manning started shouting. The words were cracked with betrayal and desperation, and muffled by the thick door. He knew there was pleading there. Perhaps there was denunciation, too. Sheppard had given what reassurance he could before leaving the room, but to Manning it had to seem empty.
Sheppard gave half a smile, papered over the void inside. "Guess you do now."
Carrick's eyes narrowed. Beside him, the torturer took half a step forward. Scarface locked Manning's door. All the while, Sheppard held the pistol ready at his side. Inside, he sought what was needed, and wondered if the Daedalus would come quick enough to save him if he activated the transmitter now.
He wondered why he didn't try.
"It's like I said," he told Carrick. "I'll help you take Atlantis. I've already said that. I also said that I don't want anyone hurt. I want them to be sent back home. You agreed to that, and then you do this. That man in there… None of this was his fault. He wasn't even there when everyone turned against me. I can't kill him. Even if it hadn't been him in there, but someone else, I wouldn't have done it. I'm not a murderer. I never said I was."
"So you refuse to kill him?" Carrick's voice was a knife at the base of his neck. Sheppard remembered being pinned down and helpless as a paring knife pressed into his flesh, while Carrick watched with eyes shining.
To hell with it, he thought. He had made his decision, and he would stand by it. Some things were too important to compromise on, even for the sake of a charade that could save lives. Leave no man behind, he thought, sure as hell doesn't mean pushing one of them out the hatch.
He had felt as if he was beginning to lose himself, but this was part of him that he could not ever lose.
"Yes." For the first time since he had known Carrick, he spoke with everything that he was, with no masks and no lies. "He's one of mine. I'm not going to murder anyone, but if you think I'm going to murder someone under my command…"
"Someone who was under your command." Carrick's expression gave nothing away.
"That's my affair," Sheppard said, "not his. He is innocent. He will not be harmed."
Carrick exchanged an unreadable look with the torturer. "You realise what this means?" he said. "This was my way of testing your sincerity. You will recall that I suspected that this was all an elaborate charade on your behalf? You could have convinced me otherwise, had you killed him. Are you sure you will not reconsider?"
"Not a chance," Sheppard told him. He felt better than he had felt for days. He had felt as if he was losing himself, earlier. He had stood and watched an open door, and done nothing. He had taken a gun, and gone into a room, and not said a word against it. The strain of playing a part had suppressed things that should never have been suppressed. But somewhere beneath the layer of masks, John Sheppard was waking up. If he was going to die now, at least he was doing something that felt right inside, and not playing games.
His pistol was ready; he wouldn’t go down without a fight. If it was going to end, then it was going to end, but it was better than selling his soul, better than having the blood of one of his own men on his hands. But it was not in his nature to play the martyr, either. "It doesn't make a difference," he said. "Manning's innocent. I won't kill him. It doesn't mean I'm not with you. I already told you I didn't want anyone killed. As long as you don't hurt him, I'll help you, but I won't murder anyone in cold blood. It's not who I am."
Carrick held out his hand. "Will you give me the weapon?" His tone was silky, like a request, but it was an order, of course.
Sheppard bit his lip. The choice in Manning's cell had been no choice at all, but this was real. If he refused to hand over the pistol, then he was accepting that this game was over. He might be able to take Carrick down before they killed him. Perhaps the Daedalus would come in time for him, and perhaps not, but at least it would come, and maybe Manning would get out. But the plan would have failed. Chances were they would kill Manning anyway. Everard would take over from Carrick, and the whole thing would start again. They had bases on many worlds, and Carrick was not the only one with brains.
But if he handed over the gun… There was a chance, a very small chance, that Carrick accepted what he said. There was a chance that Carrick's need for his help outweighed any doubts that he had. There was a chance that this thing was still on track. If he handed over his gun, he would be defenceless, but perhaps, at the same time, he would still have a chance, and Manning with him.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Carrick's hand reached towards him, palm upwards. "The gun, please."
Ronon liked to lose himself in sparring. When things were bothering him, he always felt better after he had "beaten the crap out of someone," as Sheppard liked to say. "Usually me." Problems usually started with people. When you were sparring, they became just the enemy. You had to focus on them and treat them as a mass of signals that indicated how they were going to strike. If you let yourself get bothered by things, your enemy won.
Teyla's stick came at him unexpectedly low. He countered, but she was faster, bringing the stick around for a blow that knocked him to the ground. "You are distracted," she said, standing over him, breathing fast.
He rolled onto his back, and sat up. "We'll go again."
"Then I will win again."
Snarling, he sprang to his feet and started to attack, not waiting for her to acknowledge that she was ready. She countered, though. His next blow was harder, and soon he was snarling, panting, almost bellowing.
She slipped away; held up her hand. "Ronon…"
His stick slammed into the wall. She had dodged, he noticed, and stood there, sticks ready. "Ronon!"
For a moment, he had really wanted to hurt her. He recoiled, but the fury was still there, and he smashed the stick into the wall again, but that did nothing at all to make things better. He had almost hurt Teyla deliberately. It had come upon him without him realising it. If she hadn't… If it had been anyone other than Teyla, with her quick reactions…
He might have hurt them.
He might not have regretted it.
She did not reproach him, but he knew her well enough to know that she was angrier than she looked. "This has to stop," she said. "There is Rodney lashing out at everyone, and you–"
"You know why." He threw the stick away, and heard it smash into the far wall.
"No." She shook her head. "I know the situation is difficult; I do not understand this rift that appears to have opened up between us all."
"There is no rift."
"Really?" She raised her eyebrows.
"I hate the situation, that's all. All this lying…" He wanted the stick again; wanted to hold it; wanted to fight. The worst thing was having to walk away. People went silent as he approached, and he knew it was because they were telling lies about Sheppard. He had to pretend he didn't care.
"It is necessary…"
"I know that," he snarled. "I'm not stupid. I know…" He took a deep breath. "Know I shouldn't have punched that man. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Where I come from, people fight for their friends. But –" He could see that she was going to interrupt. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"And you think that I like it?" Her voice was low and deadly. He remembered that voice. He had heard it used against Sheppard, heard it utter hateful things.
He had to get away. Perhaps to run, to lose himself in the pounding of his feet, in physical exertion.
The door opened behind him. "Go away!" he bellowed.
"Ronon." Teyla's voice had changed utterly.
Ronon turned round slowly. Nothing, not even fury, could dull old instincts.
"Stop right there," the gunman commanded. "I'll shoot her if you make a move. I mean it."
Sheppard looked at Carrick's hand, then at his eyes that held so many secrets, and his mouth that told so many lies.
He tightened his grip on the pistol, but there was no comfort in it, not now. Since coming to Atlantis, he had seldom been unarmed. Unarmed was being helpless. Unarmed was watching events spiral out of control. Unarmed was being a prisoner. Unarmed was being unable to protect.
If he refused to hand over the gun, the whole charade was over. If he handed it over, if he made himself powerless, then there was still a chance.
No, he thought. He had no option. This whole thing had been a wild chance right from the start. He had shouted hateful things at his friends, and had bad-mouthed people he respected. Now he was placing himself utterly in the hands of a sadistic man. It was the only way to save his people from harm.
He handed it over, leaving himself powerless. He opened his mouth to demand Manning's safety, and that was when they stunned him. The last thing he saw before they dragged him away was Carrick's impassive face as he held the gun in his hand.
end of chapter eight
On to chapter nine