Note: This is the first of today's chapters. The final chapter will follow early in the evening (UK time) and then we're done.
Chapter sixteen: Robbed
Chris felt the bullet hit him. He struggled to hold onto his gun, but his hands were weakening. He fell to one knee, and for a moment felt as lost as he had felt in his first active engagement, with no idea what was going on.
Sheppard was down; he saw that much. He didn't think he had shot him, though; didn't think he'd shot at all. The man beside Sheppard, in the tattered remains of an Atlantis uniform, was crouching over the colonel, holding a gun on Chris… No, not on Chris. On somewhere just behind him. "I'll kill you," the man was saying, his voice cracked and broken. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you." He fired the gun, but he cried aloud, almost sobbing, at the same time as the gun fired. "I won't let you hurt me again. I won't let you hurt him."
Chris groped for his gun again, but pain stabbed through his right arm. He'd been shot! He'd been shot! He'd known it before, but he hadn't really known it. He snatched his hand back, unable to bear to move it. Then he found Sheppard's eyes on him. "Stay down," Sheppard said, but he himself was dragging himself up, crawling over to Chris's side, picking up his discarded P90. "Stay down," he said again, unmistakeable command in his voice.
Chris obeyed. Light streamed out of the ship behind them, cutting through the night. It showed Chris the slickness of blood shining on Sheppard's front, and the drawn pallor of his face. It showed him redness and dirt in the folds of his knuckles, but also showed him how he gripped the gun. He saw his jaw set, he saw the way he held his head upright, determined not to let it fall.
"No!" he heard the other man scream, and then a shot, and then another shot, and another, and another, and then the click click click of an empty gun, as he carried on firing again and again.
Ronon dragged himself upright. He was shot in the leg and the bicep, but that meant nothing. Sheppard was dead, and Teyla… Teyla…
He turned around, raking the air with the barrel of his weapon. Teyla was caught in the grip of one of the enemy, who held her with his arm around her throat, his gun pressed to her brow. "Drop your weapon," the man said, "or I kill her."
"Big man with crazy hair," the man said. "I know who you are. You're the Runner."
"You Carrick?" Ronon's eyes narrowed. He saw only the arm around Teyla's throat, and the eyes of the man who held her.
"My name's Everard," the man said, "and I'm the man who's going to kill you."
Sheppard would make a joke about the way he said it; Ronon heard it very dimly at the back of his mind. He saw Teyla's struggles, saw her struggling to breathe. He saw the enemy. He could shoot him, perhaps, but even if he killed the man instantly, there would be time for him to kill Teyla.
He had lived for years, never laying his weapons down, never giving in to a threat, never giving up on a fight.
"I. Will. Kill. Her," the enemy said.
He thought of the traitor locked in that room. He thought of times with his team in the mess-hall. He thought of how furious he had felt, how dirty, at the thought that he had been forced to betray his friend. He had been alone for so long, but now he was not. Friendship counted for more than pride. It counted for more than anything. The loss of Sheppard had almost driven his team apart, but they had found each other again, and Ronon refused to lose them.
He laid down his weapon.
"Now!" Rodney shouted. "Now! Sam! Tell Caldwell… Tell them… Now! Do it now!"
It felt like a miracle. It had been none of his doing, but that no longer seemed to matter. They had done it. He had no idea how it had known to come, but come it had. The Daedalus was here. They were saved.
Manning had run out of ammunition. "You got him?" Sheppard managed to say.
Manning sank slowly to the ground, as if the last of his strength had left him.
Sheppard knew he was clinging to consciousness only by a thread. He turned round – but it was closer to falling, really – and saw Carrick's body. Then everything shimmered white, and his enemy was gone. His sluggish mind didn't understand at first, but then he knew. He knew.
A dark shadow slowly moved across him. In its sudden cold, he found he could cling on no longer. Manning and Hudson were safe.
He let himself go.
Teyla twisted in the enemy's grip, and slithered free. She fell to the floor, gasping, then sprang up again, her eyes blazing.
The enemy ignored her. "I have taken a dislike to you," he said to Ronon.
Ronon readied himself to fight. Even unarmed, he was far from defenceless. He had weapons, fists, and he would never give up, never…
"Ronon," he heard Teyla gasp.
He blinked. The enemy shimmered, and disappeared. Ronon bellowed, and smashed his fist into the wall.
"What happened?" Chris asked, when he could speak.
The man in the tattered uniform ignored him. He was slumped on his knees, still holding the gun, looking shattered. "I killed him. I killed him. He's dead. I think he's dead. Is he dead?"
There were just the three of them now. Chris couldn't move his arm, but the other two were hurt worse than he was, he thought. Colonel Sheppard looked dead. Serve him right, Chris thought, but the thought had little force to it, not any more. He had been unable to hold a gun, and Sheppard had crawled to his side, and had crouched above him, his body broken, but fire in his eyes. Nothing laidback there. Nothing joking or arrogant or empty. He had commanded, and Chris had obeyed.
The other man seemed to fall in on himself. Then he, too, seemed to see Sheppard for the first time. Chris could see the moment when he decided to pull himself together, because he had to. It was not something he had ever seen before, not quite like that. It was not something he would ever forget.
"Have you got bandages?" the man said. "Colonel Sheppard, he…" He pointed. His arm was bleeding, too, Chris noticed, and his skin was sweaty and covered with old bruises.
"Yes." He swallowed. "Yes."
He had come here to kill the man. Hell, he still didn't know…
"Help me with him." The man seemed to holding himself together only by sheer determination. No, Chris thought, it was not the first time he had seen it. He had seen it only minutes before, in another man.
He needed the things he had been feeling over the last week. He needed them, because what would he have without them? With one hand, feeling as if he was lost in a dream, he helped the man. Colonel Sheppard was still breathing.
"He was undercover," the man said, "the whole time." He blinked, shaking his head. "I'm Manning. Nick Manning. I… I don't know you. You're new? Has it been that long?"
They didn't shake hands, though; it wasn't that strange. But their eyes met briefly, as they knelt on either side of Colonel Sheppard's body, both working as best they could.
"We need help," Manning said. "Got a radio?"
Chris shook his head. He had thrown it away when he had started to go in alone to bring Sheppard to justice and show everyone just how wrong they had been. That certainty had left him, like water flowing from a pipe. What did he have left when it was gone?
He had only wanted to belong. He remembered that suddenly, remembering arriving on Atlantis. They hadn't embraced him instantly. That meant that they were at fault. It hadn't meant that he had gone about things badly. No, they were at fault, and then they had turned against him… He had been right to feel what he had felt, he had been right. Undercover, Manning had said. A pack of lies. No wonder he'd…
"There's one in the ship," Manning was saying, "tuned to the right frequency. Colonel Sheppard used it to talk to the Control Room after he'd summoned the Daedalus. Tell them… Tell them to come quickly. Colonel Sheppard… I don't think he's… Just come quickly. Tell them to come quickly."
You're not an officer to give me orders. Chris might have said that, too. He couldn't see Colonel Sheppard moving at all. He wondered who had shot him. Chris had wanted to, he knew that, but there was all the difference in the world between wanting something and actually doing it.
"I don't want to leave him," Manning said, with all the heartbreak and certainty of blind and absolute loyalty.
Chris should have hated him. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet, and scrambled into the ship. He didn't want to see anyone, he thought, not for a while. But he found the radio – there was no much blood in there, so much blood! – and he did what he had to, and he was answered.
Rodney jabbed at the radio. "Are they gone? Sam, are they gone?"
The person who answered was not Sam. "Doctor McKay? Your suggestion worked. The Daedalus was able to use data from our lifesigns detector and it has now finished beaming all non-Atlantis personnel to the holding cells or to its own brig."
There was no sound of triumph in the man's voice, though, as it relayed its stilted words. "What is it?" Rodney asked. "Did lots of people die?"
"Casualties are still being assessed," the voice said, "but Colonel Sheppard…"
Rodney started to run for the transporter.
The enemy had been stolen from him. Someone was hovering around him, trying to get him to sit down, trying to let them treat him. As if Ronon could sit…! He had been days spoiling for a fight, robbed of the chance to strike a blow. He'd killed several, but not enough. Not enough.
"Ronon." Teyla's voice was hoarse. "Let them do their job."
And Sheppard was dead. And there were people around him being taken away on gurneys, as medics shouted orders around them. There was blood on the floor, and his weapon was at his belt again, but no-one would tell him where Carrick was, and the one called Everard had been snatched away from him just as he had been about to fight him.
He snarled, almost smashing Teyla's hand away, but stopping himself just in time.
Teyla just looked at him until he stopped and looked at her, too. "I feel the same," she said. Her voice was low and fierce. "I wanted to hurt them, but that would not have brought John back."
"We were winning," he snarled. He was sure now that they had been. Once the radios had been restored… No, perhaps even before that. These people were worthy fighters even without their technology.
"A victory is still a victory, no matter how it is gained," Teyla said. "There would have been more casualties if it lasted longer. Perhaps you. Perhaps me."
Lorne had said something over the radio, but beyond that there were only whispers. The Daedalus had beamed the enemy away in small groups, and they were all locked away. But not out of Ronon's reach. He would find them. He would find Carrick and…
"Death is not undone by more death," Teyla said.
Ronon almost responded furiously to that, but something told him that she was trying to convince herself of it as much as she was trying to convince him. He smashed his fist into the wall. The young medic tried to grab his arm. "I'm good," he told her. "Go treat somebody else."
"You are making her afraid of you," Teyla said when the young woman had gone, but there was a slight smile on her lips.
He wasn't quite sure why he said what he said next. "It's not the killing. I know what they say, but it's not true. Don't particularly like killing, but you have to do it. I've seen people who liked it too much. That's not me. It's not having something to fight, that's what's bad."
He saw Teyla nod slowly. It was in the hands of the diplomats and the leaders now. He knew how it would go. Carrick and his men would be taken to a planet without a Gate, and left to live. Sometimes killing was better. It wasn't because you liked violence, just that it was necessary. It was an ending for everyone. It was always better to have an ending. When the enemy was snatched away from you before you could bring that ending yourself…
"He killed Sheppard." He smashed his fist into the wall again.
Teyla nodded again, her eyes shining with tears and vengeance. She understood. He knew she understood. She might try to talk him down or try to calm him, but at heart she was not much different from him. She understood. Sheppard had understood, too.
He looked at them all, some trailing off unharmed, some injured, some lying still. "They won't believe the truth about him," he found himself saying. He had seen how these people worked, and how reluctant they were to speak ill of the dead. Colonel Carter would tell everyone the truth about Sheppard, but deep down everyone would suspect it was just a lie, an attempt to give the man honour in death. They'd remember that he had brought the enemy to Atlantis. That part they would never forget.
"I think you are wrong." Teyla touched his arm. "They were very reluctant to believe ill of him, despite the evidence we presented. I think they will believe, because they want to believe. John is well liked here."
"And dead." Anger was easier, and more loud. There were worse things beneath it. "Dead, because he left – because he made us say we hated him." It was not even a warrior's death, with honour and a farewell. The things that had passed between the two of them would never be forgotten, even though the whole thing had been a lie. The last time you saw a person alive remained forever in your memory, as if burnt there with flame.
He started to walk, his injured leg screaming beneath him, and then Teyla was there at his side, supporting him with her deceptive strength. He could not bring himself to refuse her aid. Anyone else, perhaps, but not her.
She did not ask where he was going. She did not need to. Sheppard's body was out there, and he was going to bring it back, and if anyone dared try to make him stop… He had not been able to kill for his friend, and he had not been able to undo the words he had said, but he could bring him home.
But then even that was stolen from him. A voice spoke over the radio. They had Sheppard, they said, in the infirmary. Ronon had shouted aloud before he heard the rest of it, and realised the truth. He had not been robbed, after all, but granted a gift.
Sheppard was still alive.
Nobody would tell him anything. There were people working everywhere. Every bed was full, and there were people on gurneys in the hallways. "How many didn't make it?" he heard someone ask, and Rodney had to bite his lip to keep himself from answering that it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all. Because of course it mattered, but nobody could tell him about Sheppard, and perhaps he was selfish, but that mattered more.
He tried to sit down, but they moved him on, telling him he was in the way. He leant against the wall, and they told him to wait outside. What right did they have? He was the head of science, and… and… he supposed that medicine was a science, or sort of one, and that meant…
And he's my friend! He didn't quite manage to say that out loud, though.
Sheppard was in surgery, in a closed room behind curtains, and they wouldn't let him into it, even when he shouted in a voice that once upon a time had had his minions running, before they had grown used to him, or perhaps he had been tamed.
Someone shooed him into the hallway outside. Someone else led him by the arm, and he shook them off, but found himself going, anyway. There Teyla found him, and Ronon, who was covered with blood and limping.
"What happened to you?" Rodney asked. "Seriously, that looks bad."
"I'm fine," Ronon said, and, really, Rodney could almost hate them – men like Ronon and Sheppard, who got themselves hurt, and made you worry about them, because they refused to worry about themselves. They actively sought trouble. They didn't care about the people they left behind.
"How is John?" Teyla asked him.
"They won't tell me. I mean, what's wrong with these people? They know who I am. They know we're his team."
"They are busy."
"It shouldn't stop them," Rodney said. "Aren't these people supposed to be trained in bedside manner and keeping family informed? Uh… friends, I mean. Friends."
"They will tell us when they have time."
"Well, you know something, Teyla? That's not good enough. We've been waiting days to find out if he's still alive. We've been sitting here, twiddling our thumbs, waiting. And how he's back, and he still won't let us see him."
"It is not–"
"Yes. I know," he shouted. "It's not his fault. But it feels like it. Yes, yes, I'm petty, okay? I never claimed to be a good person. Because right now, I don't even care what happens to him. He. Left. Us."
Teyla touched his arm, and that felt like the worst thing, because it was as if she understood, when he didn't even understand it himself – how you could be terrified for somebody, but furious with them, both at the same time.
They had been waiting for over an hour when Colonel Carter made her announcement.
Ronon had finally allowed the doctors to tend to his injuries, though he had done so while sitting on the edge of the bed, as if ready at any moment for action. Rodney had finally run out of energy, and was slumped in exhausted defeat. Teyla waited for news, and focused only on that. If she let her focus slip, she was not sure what would come in and take its place.
"Today Atlantis fought off a major attack," Colonel Carter's voice said. Teyla watched the doctors in the infirmary glance up, then resume their work, listening. "I am sure you will be as pleased as I am to hear that there were no fatalities, although there have been many injuries."
Teyla let out a breath. It had looked bad, but battles often looked worse when you were in them. Although hampered by the lack of radios, their defence had been in place. Many of the enemy had fallen, she knew. Of the ones she had seen, several had Genii weapons, some had slow and clumsy firearms, but the rest had been armed with stunners, some evidently taken from the Wraith, and some of an unfamiliar design.
"You did well today," Carter said. "We owe a debt of gratitude to those who worked to repair our damaged systems and to those who were involved in our defence."
Teyla saw Rodney's eyes on her. Then Ronon shrugged off the last touch of the doctor, and limped from the bed to join them. Together, the three of them left the entrance to the infirmary and moved somewhere quieter. She had no idea which one of them led them, but knew only that she wanted this.
Colonel Carter continued. She told them everything, or as much as she could. The traitor was not named, though she told them that the enemy had had an agent in the city. "For this reason," she said, "we had to keep certain truths from you, because we knew that everything that was said could reach the ear of the enemy."
It was coming. The team – the three of them who were left – moved closer. "Many rumours have been spreading about Colonel Sheppard," Colonel Carter said. "I can now tell you the truth."
She told it all. She told them about their growing awareness of a threat to Atlantis, and of the pilots and soldiers who had died. She told them how John had volunteered to go undercover in an attempt to bring the threat to an end. She told them how a rift had been feigned, and how they had all had to lie, in order to ensure that Carrick learnt what they wanted him to learn. She apologised for that, too. "The last few days have been difficult for you all. The misinformation that we had to spread contributed to that, and I apologise."
And Teyla was glad. Some, she thought, might consider that Carter should not have apologised, because to apologise was to admit an error, but Teyla believed otherwise. Damage had been done. By admitting to that, perhaps they could help heal that damage.
Carter went on. She told them how John had brought the enemy towards Atlantis in order to gather Carrick's entire scattered organisation into one place, and here, too, she was honest, admitting that the ship should never have reached the city itself. Carrick had almost outwitted them, but in the end they had prevailed.
"There have been many lies told," Carter said, "because we had no choice, but what I say today is nothing but the truth. Colonel Sheppard was acting under orders the entire time, and anything that implied otherwise was a deliberate act designed to deceive the enemy. There is proof of this in writing at Stargate Command–"
"They shouldn't need proof," Ronon said, interrupting what came next.
"They should not, and many of them will not," Teyla said, because she knew that so many of the people of Atlantis had been so resistant to believing anything bad about John. "But trust has been eroded over the last few days. Some may need it."
Colonel Carter finished, and from the infirmary and beyond there came a sudden buzz of talk. Teyla realised that she had no desire to hear what they were saying.
And there was still no news on John.
So that was the truth. Jessica had made her way to her quarters, and was sitting on the edge of the bed. That was the truth.
A small part of her told herself that she should be angry. She had been beating herself up about this for days, thinking that she had been disloyal to Atlantis, but all along she had been serving the plan. All that pain for nothing!
But it had been necessary, Colonel Carter had said. An enemy agent on Atlantis? Who could that have been? Her own words, reported through the enemy, had helped the plan succeed.
Perhaps it had been worth it. Relief was the main thing she was feeling, she thought. No more worrying that she was going to be fired. It felt good, too, to know that Colonel Sheppard was still on their side. And she'd played her part today, helping fix the damaged systems, and she'd been in danger – though, really, she hadn't realised it at the time – and had faced a crisis and emerged on the other side.
Perhaps everything was going to be okay.
And soon as one set of rumours was laid to rest, another set started. An enemy agent on Atlantis? Ronon Dex had spoken too loudly. Several people had seen who he was dragging away, and the news had spread.
Robert was one of the first to hear. So it was Ewan Cameron! He remembered sharing a table with the man not long after Colonel Sheppard's departure, and remembered Cameron questioning him. To think that everything he'd said had been passed through to the enemy!
But a traitor…! It had felt horrible and incredible to think of Colonel Sheppard leaving Atlantis in anger, but to think a man so close to his own age – a man who might have become his friend – selling secrets to the enemy…
It felt worse, in a way, than it had felt after Sheppard had left. The colonel's departure had made Atlantis feel more dangerous, but Cameron's defection left it feeling tainted. There but for the grace of God… What sort of a galaxy had he come to live in, if people like himself could betray them all!
Chris found himself in an adjacent bed to the man called Manning. He wondered if he should say something, but just as he was wondering, Manning spoke. "Have you heard them say anything about the colonel?"
Chris shook his head. After he had spoken to the control room on the radio, the three of them had been beamed almost instantly to the infirmary. A doctor had taken one look, and had hurried Colonel Sheppard away.
He had no idea what to think about things. Colonel Carter had spoken, of course… All lies, he had thought. Covering up with lies to try to keep his reputation.
But he couldn't forget the way Sheppard had looked as he had dragged himself to Chris' side, covering him with his gun. Half-dead, but still carrying on. Protecting Chris. Coming back for him.
But if what Carter said was true, then Chris had been used. He'd been set up to hear the fight he had heard, and set up to tell it. As a result, he'd been ostracised. If he ended up hating Sheppard, then Sheppard only had himself to blame. He doubted they'd spared a single thought for people like Chris, their fall guys. Perhaps Sheppard wasn't the joke Chris had thought he was, but he was still…
"Did I kill him?" Manning asked. "Did I kill Carrick? I thought I had, but did you check on him? Was he really dead?"
His voice had changed. Chris hardly knew him, but looking at him now, he could hardly recognise him as the man who had been worrying over Sheppard just a moment before. "The guy outside the ship?" Chris asked. "I don't know."
"I hope I killed him." It was still in that altered voice. Then he changed again, and looked away.
"Carrick told us he was dead," Ronon said.
No need to ask who 'he' was. "Maybe he is," Rodney said. "They're not telling us anything. If Carson was here…"
But he wasn't. Carson had gone, because he was selfish and stubborn and had insisted on removing that tumour by himself, without a thought as to how his death would affect Rodney. Elizabeth was gone, running out on him before he could stop her. Now Sheppard was gone – probably going to die - and he'd forced Rodney to participate in that ridiculous charade, so their last words were in anger.
He saw someone leaving the infirmary with a smile. "God!" He almost slammed his fist into the wall, then remembered how much caveman gestures like that could hurt. "They think we've won."
Enemies in the holding cells. A traitor – one of his own hand-picked scientists. And Rodney hadn't been able to do anything much during the attack. He'd been useful, and… and Sheppard was gone, and why weren't they telling him anything? Why weren't they telling him anything?
It felt like failure. And the whole stupid plan had been Sheppard's. Failure, and it was Sheppard's fault. All his fault, and now he was being so selfish as to die.
end of chapter sixteen
On to chapter seventeen