Chapter twelve: Truth
"And then," McKay said, brandishing his fork, "I said… Well, I can't remember what I said, but it was scathing and witty and clever, but of course you already knew that, because –" He pointed at his own chest with fork and finger. "– well, hello? It's me we're talking about. Rodney McKay, Ph. D."
"That's it?" Ronon had his feet up, taking up the fourth chair at their table, the empty chair that should have been Sheppard's. "That's your hilarious story?"
"Excuse me?" The fork turned outwards again. "At least mine didn't involve disembowelling goats."
"Wit," McKay said, "and panache, winning out over brute force. That's what mine's about."
Ronon swung his feet back onto the floor, and leant forward, elbows on the table. Still looking at McKay, he snatched a green leaf from his plate, and stuffed it into his mouth. "Hey!" the scientist protested predictably. "Hey, Teyla. Did you see that?"
Teyla smiled. "I saw that, Rodney."
McKay opened his mouth as if to say more, then seemed to lose the energy for it. He let out a breath, and put down his fork.
Ronon wondered whose idea it had been to stop talking about Sheppard. Nothing had been said aloud about it, after all. Sure, they talked about him when they had one of their thrice-cursed meetings, but when together, the three of them, eating, or just standing on the balcony and looking out at the ocean, they talked about anything but. He wasn't sure he liked it. This, too, was dishonesty of a kind.
The anger was almost gone, though, if he was careful. He remembered walking on a frozen lake, once, when you had to tread so softly and so gently, because of the depths that lay beneath you if only you looked. He wasn't one to analyse his feelings, but he preferred to push them out of the way if there weren't something that that would help in the situation he found himself in. Anger was good when the enemy was at hand. Anger that circled around like a caya bird, and struck out at the wrong targets…
He shifted again, flinging his arm across the back of Sheppard's chair. McKay and Teyla had been right in the things they had said in McKay's room. Ronon had almost come to hate the scientist because of the things he had said to Sheppard. It hadn't made sense. It had been foolish and stupid. Misdirected hostility got you killed.
But it was easier, he supposed, than hating himself. Your last words before any mission were important, because any mission could be your last. When you parted from your comrade and commander with words of anger and disrespect… It didn't matter that the words weren't meant. Words lingered. They weren't supposed to, but they did. It was something he had known once, had forgotten over his seven years alone, and had come to relearn after coming to Atlantis.
"The sunset is beautiful tonight," Teyla said softly.
McKay snorted, as if to say that such things didn't matter, but Ronon turned his head slowly. Beauty shouldn't have mattered when he was on the run, of course, but there had been times when he had noticed it; times when he had stood in a valley and looked up at the stars through a veil of leaves, and known that there were more reasons for staying alive than he had realised.
"Do you want the rest of my cake, Rodney?" Teyla said.
Rodney took it and took a bite. "Thanks." Ronon could smell chocolate, and saw its dark stains on McKay's fingertips. Then he looked away, back at the evening outside the window.
Ah, but the anger was still there, smouldering underneath. Not at his team. No, not at his team. That had been… misguided. The intensity of that had blinded him to other things. Sheppard was still out there, and he had to hone his anger for that. The traitor was still to be unmasked, and when the time came, there would be a confrontation. Treachery was never good. Treachery… He saw Tyre's face; clenched his fist, and looked at the sun sinking into the ocean.
When he turned his head slightly, he saw that Teyla was following the direction of his gaze. "Shall we go outside?" she said quietly.
"Not me," McKay said. "Work to do, problems to solve." He waved his hand airily, but then let it fall to the table.
Ronon thought that he needed to spar. He shook his head, and that was all.
He knew what Teyla was doing. They thought he wasn't insightful, but seven years had made him rusty with human contact, and not incapable. She wanted them to draw closer together, to take comfort in the team even though it was down one man and broken. It was sound reasoning. He had seen units go through fire and death and emerge on the other side, half its men lost, but the survivors with a bond that would stay with them until death.
Other times, though, they drifted apart, and things were never the same again.
Words lingered. There was a traitor on Atlantis, and treachery was like a virus that seeped into everything, and could poison even things that had once been whole. He looked round the mess-hall at the other people there. Once they had all been strangers to him. A few had slowly become friends, but with everyone else he still felt like an outsider. Then, ever so slowly, they had all become his own people. It was only when he so nearly left that he realised quite how much he belonged. Now they were all strangers again, one of them an enemy, and each one a potential threat. Now he had to lie to them all.
But it would pass; he knew that now. Sheppard would be back soon, and the truth would be out. Things would go back to how they had always been. It had felt bad for a while, but that was the sort of thing you had to put behind you, to focus on the reality that came after it.
"Want to spar?" he asked Teyla, suddenly not wanting to do it alone.
"Perhaps later," she said, as she shook her head, but she smiled.
Teyla stopped, stiffened, then turned with a polite smile. The young woman had her hands clasped in front of her, clearly nervous. It was hard to hold onto that smile. "You are… Jessica?" She knew her, of course.
"Yes. Yes. I…" Jessica pushed her hair behind her ear, then kept her hand there, pulling the strand out straight, then letting it spring back into its tight curls. "I've never spoken to you before. I don't…"
Teyla thought she knew what this was about. If she was right, they would have to go somewhere where no-one could overhear them. "It is a pleasant evening," she said. "I was planning to take the air. I am not accustomed to living indoors as much as we do on Atlantis." That was no lie. Ronon felt the same, she thought, and John did, too, though for different reasons. Only Rodney was like a burrowing animal, happy never to see the sky.
Jessica followed her. Only when they were outside, beneath the twilight, did she speak. "I haven't… I… It's been eating me up inside. Miss Emmagen, I…"
"Teyla." She rested her hand on the railing.
"Teyla. I…" Jessica moved to the edge, and looked out. Teyla saw her in profile, biting her lip. Then she turned even further away, so Teyla could only see the back of her head. "I saw Colonel Sheppard leave," she said in a rush. "I was inside a jumper, fixing it, when he came into the jumper bay. I heard him fight with Colonel Carter and Doctor McKay, and afterwards, I told someone. They told… Oh, I didn't mean for it to happen, but now everyone knows."
The railing was cold, and the city, and the ocean so far below. I know, Teyla could have said. We all knew. That was why it happened then, because we knew you were there. You did just what we knew you would do, what we manipulated you to do.
"I feel terrible," Jessica said. "I can't sleep. If only I hadn't said anything…"
"Why are you telling me this?" Teyla asked, knowing it was the wrong thing to say, but that all the right things were forbidden.
"Because…" She saw the hand rake through the curly hair. "I don't know. I've never spoken to you before, but you're… Maybe it's the woman to woman thing. Stupid, eh? And Colonel Carter… I know I've got to tell her, but… And you… I thought… I thought it might be easier, because you… you always seem kind, though I know you're on Colonel Sheppard's team so you're…" She trailed off; gave a nervous laugh that was closer to a sob. "I'm making things worse."
"No." Teyla moved closer. "You are not."
"I just needed it to be out in the open." Jessica was crying now. "I've always liked gossip. Just told one or two people and let them do the rest. It never mattered before. Or perhaps it always did, and I didn't know."
Teyla felt her hair stir in the cold touch of the wind. "You did nothing wrong," she said. She touched Jessica's sleeve, forestalling her outburst. "I will tell Colonel Carter, if that is what you wish, but I know that she will say the same. None of this is your fault. Remember that, Jessica. None of this is your fault."
"Not your fault," she said firmly. "You have to believe me."
Jessica scraped at her face with the heel of her hand, wiping away tears. As the last thread of light faded from the sky, she went inside, back into the city of people who had been deceived. Teyla stood there after she had gone, her jacket wrapped around her in the cooling wind. What have we done? she thought.
When the darkness was complete and stars were silver in the sky, she turned and walked through that city of strangers until she found Colonel Carter. Carter was in her office – and it was hard, even now, not to think of it as Elizabeth's – and looked up when Teyla came in. Teyla closed the door, but did not sit down; she knew the protocols now.
"Teyla." There was only a fleeting smile on Carter's lips. "What's wrong?"
Teyla had seldom exchanged words with Colonel Carter. Elizabeth had been a friend, and it was difficult… Oh, how difficult it was. Even when you had lived your life in the shadow of the Wraith, it was so hard to come to terms with loss. But Carter seemed reasonable; she had to remember that.
"We have made a terrible mistake," Teyla told her.
"Is it John?" Carter's hand gestured at the empty chair, her movements as controlled as Elizabeth's had ever been, her appearance belying the anxiety in her voice.
Teyla sat, shaking her head. "Not him, but us, the people left behind. That engineer, Jessica, came to me in tears this evening, tormented by her part in this. We made her play that part, Colonel Carter, without offering her a choice."
"Oh." Carter let out breath.
"But the wound is deeper than that. She is not the only one." Teyla thought of her own fractured team, and of the soldier who had attacked them in the training room. She thought of that Marine attacked by Ronon in the mess-hall, and how she had rebuked Ronon afterwards for defending his friend. She thought of Zelenka, trying so hard and failing so badly at subterfuge. She thought of Keller, nervous and new, but burdened with knowledge that she could not share. She thought of Lorne, forced to lie to his men, and to turn a blind eye to whispers against a man he deeply respected. She thought of a whole city lost in lies and rumours, no-one knowing who to trust and what to believe.
"It was necessary," Carter said gently. "If there is an informant in the city, he has to believe there is a rift."
"No." Teyla looked her full in the face. Carter was a good woman, she thought, but she was new to this level of leadership, and she was new to Atlantis. She could be forgiven. For her own part in it, Teyla could not. "All that was needed," she said, "was for the traitor to believe that Colonel Sheppard thought that there was a rift."
She thought of the angry words she had exchanged with John. They could have been kind, and the effect would have been the same. You are sick, John. You think we are plotting against you, but we are not. We never would.
Atlantis was like a family. When there was discord at its heart, the whole city faltered. Carter was new, so could be forgiven for not understanding. John, she now realised, had no idea that he was so valued, and had been unaware of the human impact of what he was suggesting. That left her. She should have known.
"Everyone is afraid," she said. "Trust has gone. Every man and woman out there is caught up in the web of our lies. It is our responsibility, Colonel Carter. Ours."
"But how can we backtrack?" Carter looked younger than normal, sitting at a desk too big for her.
"Tell the truth," Teyla said, "or the truth that matters here." She pressed her hand to her heart. "Tell them that Colonel Sheppard is missing. Tell them that angry words were exchanged, but they were not meant on our part, and that we are desperately worried about him, and that he will have a place here once he has received… help. Tell them that the truth was concealed from them because we feared that the news would reach the Wraith. Tell them that rumours have been spreading, but no action will be taken against those who spread them, because they were entirely understandable given the absence of information. Tell them we are sorry for hiding the truth from them. Tell them that we are united…" She let out a breath; closed her eyes for a moment. "As things stand now, I fear that if we were attacked right now, we would just crumble. But it is not too late to change that." She thought of her team, and how they had stepped back from the brink. "It is not too late for healing."
Carter was silent for a long time. She stood up, and went to the glass, looking out over the control room, to the inactive Gate beyond.
Rodney glanced round, making sure that no-one else was around. "Anything?"
Radek shook his head. He stood up, automatically assuming that Rodney wanted the chair.
"Is it…?" Rodney sat down, turned his back, eyes on his work. "Radek? I'm sorry."
Radek didn't ask for what.
"I've been… an ass."
It had taken Ronon to attack him, and Teyla to try to bring them peace. It had taken time in the mess-hall, desperately trying to pretend that things were normal and not falling apart at all, thank you very much. It had taken time hiding in his room, hiding from people who could no longer be trusted. He had let Radek handle the bulk of the work, because Radek didn't care, Radek didn't mind…; because Radek hadn't shot his friend…; because Radek had found the only clue they had, the only thing that any of them had done that wasn't just sitting around and falling apart and waiting.
"You always are, Rodney," Radek said quietly.
Rodney pushed himself down, right arm still leaning on the desk. "You don't have to agree, you know."
"An ass," Radek said. "I, too, am anxious. I do not like this subterfuge."
"Oh, excuse me, because I evidently look as if I do."
"No. Not at all." Radek seemed to be on the point of saying something else, then thought better of it, his mouth still open, his hand half raised.
Rodney sighed. It was far better that it had been just days before, but he was still tired, still miserable, still utterly sick of this. He didn't even have impossible odds to set his back against. All along, this whole thing had just been about waiting. "Go," he said to Radek. "Go… somewhere. Take a break." Radek still didn't move. "I'm not good at this," Rodney found himself blurting out.
"You are better than you think."
Presumably he thought Rodney meant that he wasn't good at subterfuge. He'd meant more. I'm not good at this… people thing. Not good at saying what he needed to say to Radek now. Not good at knowing what needed to be said in the first place. He'd drawn a gun on his closest friend, for God's sake.
"I know what you meant." Radek's hand twitched nervously. "I meant what I said."
And now Rodney had to laugh bitterly. Radek didn't have a clue. Rodney didn't have a clue. He hated thinking that he couldn't trust his scientists… but surely he'd never trusted them before, and had never really cared. He shouldn't be bothered by this. And the things he'd said to Sheppard… They shouldn't haunt him so. Someone who didn't care about people wouldn't be…
"Rodney…" Radek pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. "You–"
Rodney's radio crackled. Radek broke off, his hand going to his ear.
"Well!" Ricardo exclaimed, when Colonel Carter had finished her broadcast. "That was interesting."
Robert looked at him. "Do you believe it?"
"You're the expert. You're the one who heard it right from the horse's mouth."
He could barely remember the truth of it now. He had told it too many times, and each time people like Ricardo had been on hand to make assumptions and to recast the things he said in light of their own theories.
"Worried about him," Ricardo quoted. "He's cracked, then. Lost his mind. Gone wacko. Just what I always said."
Robert did remember some things clearly, though. The exact words had gone, but he remembered how defeated Colonel Sheppard had looked as he had left the lab, and how McKay had looked after him with an expression that belied all his earlier angry words. "I think it's true," he said, and for the first time, perhaps, he tried to imagine how Colonel Sheppard must have felt, sick and paranoid, but managing to alienate everyone who most wanted to help him.
"You're in the clear, then." Ricardo slapped him on the back. "You heard the woman. Now will you stop moping around as if you killed your grandmother's dog?"
…and leaving McKay's lab looking lost and defeated, then being rejected by the rest of his team, and confronted by Colonel Carter. It was one thing to stop the gossip on Atlantis, but Colonel Sheppard was still out there somewhere, far away from home. Colonel Sheppard had no idea who Robert was, but Robert still felt as if he had played a part in the man's disappearance.
"No." He stood up decisively, as things felt clearer than they had felt in days. "I want to help them find him. I want to help bring him home."
"Listen to them!" Chris exclaimed to no-one in particular. So they were still on about their precious Colonel Sheppard. "Worried about him! Of course they are."
Men like Sheppard got everything – just sat back and people brought him everything on a plate. He had the rank, and the adulation of the masses. He had beautiful women like Teyla Emmagen fawning over him, and men like Ronon – a barbarian, which was why he didn't know any better – giving him their respect. What did the man need to do for them to realise the hollowness of the façade? He'd stolen a jumper and walked out on them, and still they were worried about him, still they were desperate to get him back!
Atlantis was a place of seething rumour and distrust. Sheppard had left, but the powers that be had done nothing about replacing him with a proper commander. Colonel Carter was just a figurehead, of course – a scientist at heart, despite her title. She'd lied to them all… Well, that at least he could understand. The brass always lied. It was when they tried to act like your friend that you had to worry.
He hadn't hated it on Atlantis at first. It was hard to remember now, but in those first weeks, it hadn't seemed too bad. He had been predisposed to dislike Sheppard, but had been willing to be proved otherwise when he saw the man in action. Then he had overheard the fight between Sheppard and his team, and everything had gone to hell in a handbasket from then on in. He'd been ostracised. He'd been attacked in the mess-hall, for crying out loud!
And now Colonel Carter was putting out another official lie. Well, he was out of it. Let them destroy themselves for all he cared. He was through with them. He'd obey when he had to, and go where they told him to, but beyond that, they'd have nothing from him. Nothing.
Radek was exclaiming something. Rodney supposed he ought to be feeling more than he was. Sam had just made clear that they were no longer supposed to act as if Sheppard was their enemy. They were allowed to act worried.
Too late, he thought. If she had done that days before, it could have made such a difference, but they had moved onto other things now. The damage had already done.
No, he had to admit, a moment later. The damage was already healing. And now he had been given the licence not to lie any more, not about the way he was feeling, at least. That, too, could only be good. If only they could uncover the traitor, then everything would be all right again. No, if only Sheppard would come back…
He paused for moment. No, it was really good. To be free to show his concern…
"I wonder what's happened?" Radek looked anxious.
But the radio had been silent of other messages, meant just for the conspirators alone. Not that they entrusted such things to the communications network. It was terse summonses to meetings, with everything that mattered taking place behind closed doors.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm going to…" He stopped; looked at Radek; thought for a moment. "We should go…"
Then he saw it. He grabbed his computer closer, stabbed at keys, checked, double checked…
"What?" Radek squinted through his glasses over Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney lowered his voice. They had spoken so freely, but now… but now… "Another transmission." He jabbed his finger at the screen. "Right now. Just this moment. I only saw it because I happened to be looking."
"What does it say?"
It was encrypted, of course, but he couldn't even muster a sarcastic retort. "That's not the point," he said. "He's there right now. Our traitor." Radek swallowed, and looked around anxiously. "Yes, right," Rodney said. "He's going to be wearing a black cloak and be creeping up on you right now. He's not here."
Rodney was calling up what he needed. "Three places where you can send transmissions of this type. Here, of course. The Control Room–"
"He wouldn't be there," Radek said. "Is not–"
"And the secondary communications suite." Rodney jabbed a finger at the screen, where a single life-sign showed in the suite. "And there, my friend, is our traitor." With that, he headed for the door.
"We… we're not going?" Radek trotted along behind him. "We are not supposed to let him know–"
Was the man an idiot? "He doesn't have to see us. I can be sneaky. We just… Radek." He turned towards him. "We'd know, Radek."
They'd know who the traitor was. Everyone else would be off the hook. At the moment, all his scientists were people who wore the face of a monster beneath their smiling mask. Once he knew a name, they would become human again. Just to know who he could trust…!
"We'll know," he said again, and suddenly Sam's announcement seemed to make all the difference in the world. They only had to play a part around one person. They didn't have to lie about Sheppard, or at least not much. They'd still be worrying about him, of course, but that was an old, familiar feeling. Atlantis would feel like home again.
They had almost reached the communications suite when it exploded.
end of chapter twelve
On to chapter thirteen
Note: I'm being rather whumped by this story myself. Although I'd finished it before I started posting it, I'm doing quite a bit of editing as I go along, so probably shouldn't ever have aimed at a daily posting schedule. What with editing, formatting etc., I'm probably spending around four hours a day on this story, on top of working full time. Then there's all the emotional stress of it. I'm a very anxious writer – though, really, I'm sure that most writers are – and am doing a lot of worrying about people's reactions, and precious little sleeping. I feel very overwhelmed, as if nothing exists in my life right now but this story.
I'm not entirely sure why I'm telling people this, since I have no intention of taking a break from posting. I will still keep up with the schedule, because the thing I need most right now is for it to be over. However, I think my general anxiety and overwhelmedness found its way into some comment responses over the last few days, for which I apologise.
Actually, I might change the schedule a bit, in order to reach the ending quicker. I might not be able to manage this, since I've got a very busy weekend coming up, but I might post two parts in one day sometimes, one in the morning and one in the evening – maybe today, perhaps tomorrow, and maybe on the final day. Don't expect this, though. The realities of getting a second chapter ready could easily prove too much.
(I should add that I loved the actual writing of the story; it's just the stress of posting one part a day that's whumping me.)
On to chapter thirteen