Rodney McKay gifted all his "plans, ruminations, essays and all the astonishing truths contained within my papers" to the nation. Sadly, the nation was less grateful than McKay doubtless expected her to be, and few papers survive. This scrap, however, surfaced last year during refurbishment work, when it was discovered being used as insulation in a loft in Lowestoft. It is a dazzling find, portraying as it does McKay's early notes on his "monstrous machine", the diving bell.
In which Rodney stands firm in the face of Duty, and the captain goes below
When Rodney had been on the Atlantis for nearly a month, Duty sidled up and tapped him on the shoulder.
Rodney had never had a very good relationship with Duty. Duty was the reason why you were supposed to listen attentively to Parson Watkins' sermons, rather than design astronomical clocks on scraps of paper hidden up your sleeve. Duty was why you had to tag along with your father to tedious meetings, when there was a whole sky just waiting for you to explore it. Duty forced you to sit at the feet of your aged grandmother and listen to her ridiculous stories of the dukes and earls and reigning belles she had once been the bosom companion of. It also had a very stern opinion on telling her to her face that you didn't believe a single word of her ridiculous lies, and was quite unbending when it came to the sanctity of her marchpane fancies.
As the sun began to sink towards the sea, and as Rodney put his finishing touches to his masterpiece, Duty decided to renew its acquaintance with him once more. "You could introduce a fatal flaw," it told him. "Make this thing a death trap."
He froze, hand on the smooth surface. Commit murder?
"It isn't murder when it's a pirate. He's put himself outside the law."
But what if Sheppard isn't the one who goes down in it? What if it's one of his men? What if it's Teyla? I can't kill a woman. And as for his men… Remember what Beckett said. They're here out of loyalty. You can't kill a man for loyalty.
"Of course he'll go down in it." Duty was quite clear on that point. "You've spent a month on a small boat with the man. If a job's really important or dangerous, he does it himself."
That much was certainly true. Captain Sheppard, the second most feared pirate in Caribbees, had placed his life in Rodney's hands. It just needed one small flaw in the design, and the captain would be dead, and Rodney would be the toast of Kingston. They'd make ballads about him back home.
"It won't be murder," Duty said, "but justice."
Rodney looked at his diving bell, huge and gleaming in the sunlight. I can't… I can't deliberately do bad work, he told Duty. Sheppard had grinned at him the night before, and told him yet again that he was a marvel. No-one else in all of the Indies could have done what he had done. I can't put my name to a flawed piece of work, he said. People will know. 'There goes Rodney McKay, failed scientist,' they will say. 'His machines kill people.'
"Designed deliberately to kill." Duty had an answer to everything. "A master gunsmith is still deemed a master even though his machines bring death. No, Rodney, only a mind of great skill can create a machine that outwardly looks sound, but which hides a fatal flaw. They will marvel at your skill and cunning, and wonder at your courage."
Rodney ran his hand over the wood. Beyond the rail, he saw a distant strip of land. He thought of all the innocents waiting there, their lives in his hands.
"Do it," Duty urged him.
Rodney remembered nights of song, and dolphins playing in the waves. He remembered evenings spent beneath the stars, when he had learnt that Sheppard knew almost as many star names as he did, but that Ronon knew different names for many of them. He remembered holding a man down as he struggled on the surgeon's slab, and he remembered the taste of cheap brandy.
You should have asked me earlier, he told Duty, folding his arms. I've almost finished. A flaw needs to be introduced right at the start and incorporated into the entire building process.
"It should have occurred to you earlier." Duty was stern. "All this time, and you never once thought it?"
A scientist has his pride. Of course he had wanted to rise to this challenge to the best of his abilities. Professional pride is far more important than mere morality.
Duty snorted in disgust. "I see bad company has corrupted you. They will have to keep a gibbet free for you at Gallows Point."
"I don't…" He swallowed. "I don't…"
Duty sauntered away, grinning with insufferable smugness. Rodney lingered with his diving bell until well past dark.
"Careful!" Rodney shouted. "Careful, you lubbers! Keep it straight!" Teams of men hauled and strained, and the diving bell rose into the air, then was slowly moved out until it was over the sea. "Lower it!" he shouted. "Steady. Steady."
The teams let out the rope, easing it over the winch, and the bell descended to the sea. It touched the surface of the water – "Keep it level! It has to be level!" – and sank slowly beneath the waves. Rodney scurried to the rail and looked over. The only thing that remained of it was a small circle of disturbed water, and the thick rope that protruded from the water.
"You called them lubbers." Sheppard's sleeves were rolled up, and he was sweating, his breathing audibly fast. He must have taken his turn on the ropes, although Rodney had not seen him there.
"Yes." Rodney watched the dwindling circle. "It seemed like a… a nautical thing to do. You do it."
"Oh." The rope was almost still. The largest thing he had ever created was down on the bottom of the sea. "It's going to work," he said. "Of course it is."
Sheppard nodded. "When I go down in it, you are, of course, coming with me." He said it almost casually.
"I am?" Rodney gripped the rail tighter. "But I can't swim." It was not quite a lie.
"You don't have to be able to swim."
"But…" The sea looked so deep and dark and utterly merciless, with wrecks and skeletons on the sea bed, as thick as snow in winter. "I don't… I can't… I… I'm the brains of the operation. I'm not the man of action. I can't do this."
"I don't have your book learning." Sheppard was looking out to sea. "I won't be able to operate your pumps and valves, which are quite exceedingly subtle and cunning."
"They are that." Rodney nodded with gratification. "But… But that's not the point. I can't… You didn't tell me I'd have to do this. This wasn't part of the deal."
"I seem to remember I took you prisoner and coerced you," Sheppard said. "There was no deal."
"Yes. Yes." And bloated bodies drifting through the seaweed, and those were pearls that were his eyes. "But… But…"
Science wasn't supposed to be like this! Science was about books and plans and libraries. It was quiet nights beneath the stars. It was designing things in theory that you never made in fact. And if you did make something, it wasn't something that could kill you. Other people, perhaps. You didn't test your potential death trap on yourself.
"You're coming," Sheppard said, still not looking at him. "Any alterations you would care to make to your design? Any… modifications, in light of this news?"
"No." Rodney frowned, shaking his head. "No." It must have been five minutes now. He opened his mouth to shout a command, then saw that Sheppard was about to give the order. He snapped his mouth shut, but Sheppard gestured to him to continue. "Bring it in," he shouted.
The men hauled, the bell rose from the ocean, bleeding water. Still dripping, it was pivoted until it was above the deck, then lowered. When it was still a few feet above the deck, a man ducked underneath and reached into its interior.
Rodney watched. Everybody watched. He could still hear Sheppard's breathing beside him, although it was almost back to normal speed.
"It's alive," the man said, holding aloft the metal cage. The rat inside it was not even wet.
"No modifications at all?" Sheppard said quietly.
Rodney shook his head. "None."
Sheppard smiled. It did not look like the smile of a ruthless pirate captain, not at all.
"Well, I guess this is it." Ronon recognised Sheppard's tension in the way he was speaking, with forced brightness, and the way he was standing, hands clenched at his side.
Ronon just nodded. For the first time in a very long time, he actually felt afraid.
The enormous lead-lined bell came to rest on the blocks that had been prepared for it. Beyond it, and beyond the rail, Ronon could see the shore, close enough to see the green of the trees. The sky was clear, but not yet blue, for it was only just past dawn. Sheppard had been impatient to start. Ronon doubted his captain had slept for even a minute during the night.
"We should name it," McKay said suddenly. "Something noble, like… like…"
"You don't get to name things on my ship," Sheppard told him.
"But I made it," McKay protested. "It's only fair…" His voice trailed away.
They all watched it for a while. "Well…" Sheppard's hands unclenched, then clenched again. "I'll go first. Leading from the front…"
Sheppard moved to the bell and crouched down, one knee and one hand on the ground, then went even lower. There was barely eighteen inches between the bottom of the diving bell and the deck, and Sheppard crawled underneath it. Ronon saw him stand up, saw his bare feet on the deck, and then he was gone.
Teyla went next. "After you," Ronon said to McKay. The scientist had protested loudly all evening to anyone who would listen, but now, for once, he was silent. Even when Ronon shoved him towards the bell, he said nothing. He just clenched his hands at his side, an echo of Sheppard's nervous gesture, and stepped forward. Then he, too, was gone.
Ronon took a breath. He went down on his knees, then lay on the deck and crawled under. It was far less dark inside than he had expected; McKay had even included a window of sorts, made of thick glass. A shelf of wood ran all the way round the inside of the bell, and the others were already sitting on it. Sheppard had evidently only just finished helping McKay up, while Teyla was fastening straps around her body. Their feet dangled just above Ronon's head, and he had to turn his body carefully sideways to avoid jostling them. Clambering onto the empty part of the shelf, he fastened the straps around his chest.
"Off we go," Sheppard said. It was not even an order, not as such, but the men heard it, and obeyed.
The bell trembled as its ropes grew taut, and then rose off its blocks. The chains rattled beneath them, attached to their weights. Ronon looked down, and saw the deck below his dangling feet. It moved further and further away, and then with a creak of ropes and a shouted order, the deck gave way to the first glimpse of water.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," McKay was muttering, perhaps unconsciously. A few seconds later, they were entirely above the ocean, suspended above the deep, held in place only by a few straps and the skill of a talkative scientist who had every reason to want to kill them. Sheppard had assured them that he trusted McKay, but suddenly his reasons felt far less convincing.
The water grew closer. "Oh God," McKay whispered. "Oh God." The weights touched first – "they're for steadiness," McKay had explained – and the base of the bell touched the waves, and the weights and the lead took it under. Water rose. It touched his toes, covered his ankles, rose to his knees. Then the light blinked out as the window went below the surface, and the yellow light was replaced with muted green.
The water reached the shelf. "Lift us up again! Lift us up again!" McKay shouted. He jerked a hand out at Sheppard, grabbing his arm. "Give the signal. Get one of the signal ropes. Let them know." But Sheppard shook his head. The water rose to their waists, and there it stopped.
"I see her." Sheppard was looking down, and his voice was strange. Ronon eased his grip on the strapping just a little, and looked down, too, seeing the dark shadows of the wreck and the lighter shapes of the reef that had claimed it. They were still moving downwards, but the water was no longer rising. They were enclosed in a pocket of air, with water on every side.
It felt like being buried alive. He was being inundated by a flood of mud and water, buried beneath it, suffocated. This was nothing he could fight. Swords were useless here. This was just him, frail and human against the vastness and heartlessness of the natural world around him.
But Sheppard needed him, and so he was here.
If only my mother could see me now. Even after so long on the sea, Teyla had never entirely grown used to it. There were times when she would stop what she was doing and marvel at the fact that the little girl who had grown up being silent in gowns and bonnets was seeing such sights as these.
Green light surrounded them, and they were breathing underwater, like the fish. She, Teyla Emmagen, was in a place where no man had been before, and was seeing things that few men had ever seen.
"Let's see how things stand." John began to unstrap himself.
"You're getting out!" McKay squawked.
"It is kind of the point."
John pushed himself off the shelf, sliding almost silently into the water. Barely a dozen seconds later, his head emerged, like the axle at the centre of the spokes that were their knees. "I've given the signal for them to take us that way a bit," he said, indicating with his hand. "It's safe for a few more yards." His wet hair shone almost green in the light.
Five signal ropes had been let down around the bell, each one marked with a different colour and indicating a different command. True to Sheppard's signal, the bell moved sideways. John held onto the shelf with one hand, nodded once, then disappeared again. "This'll do," he said when he returned.
Teyla nodded, and began to undo her straps. Beside her, Ronon did the same. "You're going?" McKay said. "You're all going? You expect me to–"
"You stay here," John told him. He dived down, and reappeared almost immediately with the end of the fifth rope. "You're responsible for the air supply. Pull on this when you need more."
"But–" McKay protested, but John was already gone. Ronon followed, with a quick unreadable glance back at Teyla. Teyla slid into the water after them, but stopped to look back at McKay. He looked quite lost, and the green light made him look sick. "It should not take long," she told him.
Then she was below the water, blinking into the changed light. Although she had only learnt how to swim a few years ago, Teyla was one of the best swimmers on the Atlantis. She felt at home in the water, as swift and darting as a little fish.
The reef was a cloudy splash of colour, and the wreck was dark. John had halted the bell for the final time just yards above the top of its hull. Broken against the reef and strewn across the ocean floor, its masts and lines were tangled. John was ahead of her, and he turned, holding up his hand. She understood the warning. Wrecks could be deadly, full of shattered spars and grasping lines.
"I'm not asking you to come," John had said, the night before. "It's–"
"Of course we are coming." She had closed her hand on his, and for once he gave not even the slightest flinch.
"Couldn't keep us away," Ronon had added.
"We know the dangers," Teyla had assured him, "but every day is a danger. This is worth it – a hundred times worth it."
But no mariner liked to see a wreck. It was like the dancing skeletons who had met the three young nobles on the road. As you are now, so were we. As we are now, so will you be.
They'd all gone. They'll all gone and left him alone. He was suspended in a bubble of air. He was going to… "No, of course I'm not going to die," he told himself sternly, then clapped his mouth shut because speaking used up air. This is my design and my work. Of course it's not going to kill me. I refuse to be one of those fools who gets themselves killed because his own work blows up in his face.
Was the air growing stale? He took a deep breath. Was it enough? Was he growing light-headed? Was it growing hotter? He scraped his hand across his face, then opened his mouth wide, wiggling his jaw and trying to clear his ears. They had stopped several times on the way down to adjust to the pressure, but he could still feel it – still feel the weight of water pressing down on top of him.
A shape approached below his legs. He pulled them in, his shoulders and head pressing against the side of the bell, and watched Ronon's head and shoulders emerge. Ronon grabbed the shelf, pulling himself to one side as Sheppard appeared beside him, and then Teyla. They all gasped in mouthfuls of air.
"It's getting stale," Rodney told them. "I'm having trouble–"
"Then get fresh air." Sheppard nodded at Rodney's signal rope.
"I… Yes. Right." Rodney tugged at the rope. The others waited, just floating heads in the water, with their bodies distorted and inhuman beneath them, as if they had become part of the water themselves. He heard a thud below them, reverberating dully. Sheppard disappeared, and reappeared after a while with a tube. The other end, Rodney knew, was attached to the weighted barrel of air that the crew had just sent down to them. "But…" Rodney began again, but they had already left him alone again.
Rodney had to stand up. He had to unfasten his straps. He had to stand precariously on the shelf – and how he wished he'd put more straps and handles on the inside of the bell! – and reach up to the very apex of the bell. There he turned the wheel – God, it was stiff! It wouldn't turn! It would never turn! – that operated the valve. He let a sufficient amount of the stale air escape, then lowered himself carefully into his seat again and let out a small amount of fresh air from the tube.
"You did it." Sheppard was smiling at him, just a face above the water.
"Yes." Rodney felt himself smile back. "It's far better than Halley's method." It should have been terrifying. No, it should have been impossible. Rodney McKay had countless strengths, but physical agility in the face of certain death was not one of them. But he had done it. He had…
Sheppard was gone again. Teyla reappeared, gasping, then went. Ronon barely seemed to breathe at all when he returned.
He should have made miniature bells, fed through tubes with air from the main bell. Sheppard hadn't asked him for those, and it hadn't occurred to Rodney to suggest them. He had seen only the problem at hand. What happened after his part was finished was not something that had ever crossed his mind at the start.
He wished they would come back. It was horrible, waiting. No, what was he thinking? Better here on a nice flimsy wooden shelf, than out there swimming through a wreck, where the fish were as big sheep, with teeth as sharp as any wolf's.
Something flickered against the window, like a moth flying in front of a candle flame. He looked up, and saw a mass of bright red fish. When he leant forward and looked down between his knees, he could see the colours of a coral reef, but muted, as if seen through a dirty mirror. There was a whole amazing other world down here, full of species that man had yet to catalogue. This diving bell was quite as miraculous in its own way as a telescope was, unlocking hidden worlds.
"I've found the door," John said, returning from his twelfth dive.
Teyla was tiring. "Is the air..?"
"Yes," McKay snapped. "I'm looking after that."
"There's a spar across it," John said, "and a tangle of lines. Help me move them. Please."
He was hiding his emotions less well than he normally did. Perhaps it was the fact that the water slicked his hair to his head, making his features more prominent. Maybe it was the tiny bubble they were in, cut off from the rest of the world. Weary, Teyla felt as if her own face was naked. Ronon, she saw, was afraid of something here beneath the waves.
"It won't take long, will it?" McKay was worrying. "I said an hour at most. I didn't calculate for more."
John said nothing. Teyla followed him into the dark.
The obstruction was gone, moved away in tiny stages with frequent pauses to grab a lungful of air. After checking that there were no more obstructions, Sheppard had signalled by rope for the bell to be moved, and it had shivered through the water, close enough to the hull for the underwater plants to trail against their feet.
The black square of the hatch lay beneath them. "I'm going below." Sheppard's smile was grim.
"I'm going with you," Ronon said, though the sight of that dark hole made him shiver with fears that he had long forgotten.
Sheppard shook his head. "I'll have a line. I want you at the other end of it, to pull me out if that's what I need. As for you, Teyla, I want you to rest for a while."
"No arguments." Sheppard smiled again. "I can see you need it."
Perhaps the air was poisoned in the bell, despite all McKay's protestations. Teyla was a swift and supple swimmer, but it was harder than Ronon had ever thought it would be to keep on diving to the limit of your lungs' capacity.
"This is for me to do." There was no smile now. Sheppard looked first at Teyla, then at Ronon, and then at McKay, and the expression was the same for all of them, as if the scientist was fully one of them, alongside the other two of them who had fought at Sheppard's side for so long.
Sheppard must have planned for this. A thin cord was already wrapped around his waist, its end coiled and thrust into a pocket. He pulled it out now, and uncoiled it, passing the spare end to Ronon.
They went into the water together. The wreck had stayed almost upright on the reef, and Ronon felt the deck beneath this feet. Then, with one last look over his shoulder, Sheppard went below.
"It's been too long." McKay chewed at his lip.
"It has been very little time at all." But Teyla, too, looked worried.
Something rumbled, like a crack of thunder heard through eight fathoms of water. Rodney jerked his head up. "Is it a storm?"
Perhaps it was the unearthly light, but Teyla looked scared for the first time since he had known her. Rodney wanted to say so many things, but somehow it didn't seem like the place to say them, enclosed here below the waves. He let out stale air, and let in new, and concentrated on that.
It had been too long. Ronon's lungs were bursting, and still Sheppard did not emerge from the darkness.
Up to get more air, or go after him? There was no time to debate. Ronon tugged on the line, and felt only resistance. Still gripping it, he pushed himself towards the dark square – a dark cave beneath the ocean, his grandmother had said, which leads to the underworld and to hell.
Through the hatch, light faded to almost nothing. Ronon felt his way along the narrow line, and found it caught on something wooden. Sheppard! He couldn't call for him. Spots danced across his eyes from lack of breath. Sheppard! Something snagged against his thigh. He reached out; groped; found a hand. And there lie all the dead, who will come surging out at the end of days, when the Lord comes again and the waters cover the sea.
The hand grabbed his; his heart was pounding, roaring in his ears. Then the hand dragged him down – and the devil reaches his out his hand, and the water will claim us all in the end – and everything within him cried out and he tried to snatch his hand away, but it held on, and with the last fragment of breath and sanity he knew that this was Sheppard, and that they were both seconds from death, and that he had to hold on.
The hand showed him a line that was caught around a foot. Ronon tore at the line, and the other hand was helping him, and there were three hands, four, and then the foot was free. Hands pushed him towards the square of murky green light. He went through it, and there above him was a dark circle, shining with an even brighter light. His chest was agony and his head was pounding, and the light and the darkness all merged into one.
"Help me." Teyla's cry filled their tiny bubble.
Rodney swallowed once, then pushed himself off the shelf, holding onto it with one hand. Shapes were moving beneath him – one, two, three. One came closer and resolved itself into Teyla, with Ronon in her arms. "Take him." She thrust him at Rodney. A moment later, she returned with Sheppard.
Ronon was heavy, even in the water. Rodney had no idea what to do, but he knew that he had to keep the man's mouth and nose out of the water, so he grabbed his chin and held it up. Ronon's heart was still beating. He coughed and spluttered a bit, then his eyes snapped open. "Sheppard," he gasped.
"Still here," Sheppard's voice said. He looked awful, though, pale even in the heat of the pressurised air. "I got stuck," he said. "Ronon saved my life. Damn near lost his own, by the looks of it."
"And he's bleeding!" Rodney cried, seeing redness in the water.
Ronon pulled himself free from Rodney's arms, and hauled himself up onto the shelf. Rodney could not suppress a gasp at the sight of the jagged tear in his thigh. Water took the blood and carried it away; on dry land, he thought, it would be bleeding horribly.
"We need to go back to the surface," Rodney said firmly.
"No." That was Sheppard, shaking his head.
"No." Sheppard disappeared again – and was the man an idiot? He had almost drowned, for God's sake! There he was, heading back to the place that had almost killed him.
Ronon snarled, and would have followed him, but Teyla stopped him, a hand on his arm. Rodney looked miserably up at his beautiful valve. It wouldn't be enough to save them, not if a stubborn fool of a pirate captain was determined to kill them all.
There was another booming rumble. The diving bell trembled. Ronon and Teyla exchanged anxious looks. Ronon pressed his head back against the wood, clearly beginning to feel the agony for the first time, then collected himself. His expression made Rodney very glad that Sheppard, and not himself, was the object of the big man's anger.
But this time Sheppard was gone for barely half a minute. This time he came back with a wooden chest in his arms. He passed it up to Teyla, then let Ronon help him up to the shelf.
Sheppard did not look like a man who had almost died just a few minutes before. He placed the chest on his lap almost reverently, then his hand rose to his throat to pull out a small key, strung on a leather thong around his neck. He pulled the thong over his head, and placed the key in the lock. It turned with an audible click.
Rodney let out a breath. The other two, he thought, were still not breathing.
There was another boom. The bell lurched sideways, then was still. But Sheppard seemed oblivious to it. He reached into the chest, touched something inside, and for a moment his expression was that of a devotee touching a relic.
Treasure, Rodney thought. Something twisted inside him, as if this sight physically hurt him. Just another pirate with his loot.
The bell lurched again. Sheppard looked up, and his eyes narrowed and his jaw set. "Are we done?" Rodney found himself asking.
"We're done." Sheppard's voice was unreadable. "I've got what I came for."
The diving bell started to ascend; one of them must have given the signal. It moved slowly, jerkily, moving for a while, then stopping. Rodney yawned and yawned again, pressing at his ears to ease the pain from the pressure change. The air had never felt so hot and stifling. To die so close to the surface… But he felt flat. Even the fear felt flat.
Nobody said anything. Rodney kept his eyes closed. So it was that he felt, rather than saw, the moment when they broke the surface. The water retreated, and soon he was free, and there was delicious fresh air surging into his lungs – such a wondrous contrast to the air in the bell – and a breeze against his bare feet.
Sheppard had got what he had come for. That meant that Rodney was free.
The bell lurched sideways, hauled above the deck. As if from some invisible signal, Sheppard and the others leapt down when it was still three feet from the deck. Rodney stayed still, back pressed against the wood. He heard people shouting. It didn't sound much like triumph, but one had to expect pirates to revert to savagery when they'd got their hands on a pile of loot.
Sheppard appeared to have left the treasure chest behind, though. Rodney unfastened his straps, then grabbed the chest, finding it surprisingly heavy. He supposed he should go and share in the triumph and bask in his share of the adulation. He didn't feel triumphant, though. Presumably this feeling of flatness came from knowing that he had assisted in a vile crime. Duty would be pleased with him.
He dropped down to the deck and crawled out. There seemed to be a lot of booted feet around. When he stood up, the chest held protectively to his body, he saw Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon with knives in hand, surrounded by a horde of dastardly rogues. The chief dastardly rogue had a feather in his hat and a scar across one eye. "Captain Sheppard," he said, with a thin smile.
"Kolya," Sheppard made reply.
end of chapter seven
In which the words "frying pan" and "fire" come to mind
Kolya, Rodney thought. Feared pirate lord, and Sheppard's personal nemesis and thorn in the side. "Oh," Rodney said aloud. "This is just marvellous."
Nobody seemed to hear him. Nobody was paying the least bit of attention to him. They had all taken their place like players on the stage at the start of the penultimate scene of the play – the one when the villain received his just desserts, and the hero triumphed, and then there was a scene of much rejoicing and probably a wedding, and then the final bow. There was even a chorus of disreputable thugs in the background. All that was lacking was the orchestra and a song.
"Here I am, emerging from almost certain death in a watery grave, and what do I find? Now I'm on a deck with not one pirate captain, but two. This really is not right. This really is not fair. This is like coming out of the frying pan to find yourself not just in a fire, but in a raging furnace."
Sheppard shot him a very quick glance. Rodney subsided, pressing his lips together. The chest in his arms was very heavy, the gold and jewels presumably packed so tightly that they did not even rattle.
"Mr Christopher," Sheppard said, "why is Kolya on my boat?"
"I'm sorry, captain." The man who answered was one Rodney had seen around the deck, although he had not known his name. He often took the wheel, and shouted orders to the sail hands. Perhaps he was the first mate, or whatever they called it. Perhaps Rodney should have paid more attention. He had lived on this ship for a month, and knew only a handful of names.
"Sorry?" Sheppard echoed. The enemy swords were close to him, holding him still. "You should have run."
"But that would have killed you." The Christopher fellow was straining against the two men who were holding him. "She came on us from behind the cover of the island, and we can't manoeuvre easily, what with the reef. The anchor was down, the sails were furled, and it would have killed you if we had–"
"You should have done it," Sheppard said, and Rodney gasped, head snapping up, at how heartlessly Sheppard could condemn his three companions to death like that.
"I'm sorry, sir. It was my decision."
"I trust you at least tried to resist?" Sheppard's voice was harsh.
"Any dead?" The harshness cracked.
"I don't know. I –"
"How touching." Kolya stepped forward, pressing his hands together. His Spanish accent was very evident, although he was conveniently fluent in English. "Mr Christopher knows my reputation as well as any other man aboard. He knows that I prefer to spare the lives of my fellow pirates."
"How merciful of you." Despite the swords at his body, Sheppard gave an insolent smile.
"Quite. I preserve the lives of anyone who consents to join me, and I can be quite… persuasive. Your Mr Christopher and his men have betrayed you, Sheppard. Oh, hear them protesting. 'It's a lie! We didn't…! We would never…!' It is easy to lie after the fact. No, Sheppard. Your ship and all its crew will join my fleet under a captain and officers of my choosing."
"No place for me in your merry band, then?" Sheppard was still smiling. How could he stand there, facing the loss of everything, and smile? He had to be utterly without a heart. Or insane. Yes, that was it. The man was crazy. And… and rash. And courageous. And as taut as a bow string, his hand clenching at his side, and his tendons visible on his neck, beneath the wet fabric of his shirt.
Kolya shook his head. "Sadly, my mercy has never extended to my fellow pirate captains. And there is no world that can exist in the mind of man where I would show mercy to you."
Sheppard smiled ruefully. "I thought as much."
It was at that point that Ronon acted, and all Hell, as they said, broke lose.
"No!" Ronon bellowed, and sprang forward. A sword came at him; he caught the flat of it on his forearm, and smashed it away. Someone lunged for his side, but he evaded them. "No!" he cried again, and other people were shouting all around him – he heard Sheppard's voice, but couldn't tell what he was saying – and he caught flashes of movement. He saw a face, and drove into it with the side of his fist. A knife skittered off his knuckles. He rolled, hand on the deck, and pushed himself up again, ducking underneath the swing of an axe.
Kolya was ahead of him. Kolya. He saw the man's chest, all tatty lace and faded velvet. Two inches in the right place was all it needed. He had his knife. Someone grabbed at his right wrist, but he wrenched himself free, and he sighted, aimed and threw, all in one movement.
But his leading leg faltered. He waved just a little, and the knife went wide. Kolya dropped to the deck, and the blade flew over his head. It hit the far side of the deck, but by then Ronon was already falling, dragged down by half a dozen pairs of hands. He screamed, bellowed; tried to push himself up again; tried to throw them off. Someone stamped on the middle of his back. A foot slammed into his injured thigh, and a scream ripped itself free from his throat. His vision wavered, boiling with pain. The foot struck again, and he saw his own hand curl into the deck, and he heard everyone shouting; everyone else was shouting.
"This one I want." Ronon saw booted feet stop in front of him, just out of the reach of his hand. "No, don't maim him. He can be tamed in time and made to fight my battles."
"No," Ronon spat. He saw blood coming from his mouth; where had that come from? "I will never call you master."
"They all say that at first." Seen from below, Kolya's face was like the face of a grinning devil carved high on a church roof. "One master is much the same as another, as long as you get your share of the gold."
"You would have to kill me before I would submit," Ronon spat.
"Ronon," he heard Sheppard say warningly, but even his captain seemed faint and far away. There was only Kolya.
"Some months ago," Kolya said, crouching down before him, "I came across a village between the mountains and the sea. It was quite ruined, drowned when the side of the mountain had come down in a storm four summers past, but the priest still ministered to his flock, such as it was. I went, of course, to make my confession, and afterwards we… talked. He mentioned a giant of a lad who turned his back on God after the cataclysm, and was doubtless now either dead or in bad company, which, needless to say, he considered far worse. This was barely half a dozen leagues from the place where you were first seen in Sheppard's company. Interesting tale, is it not?"
"I'll kill you!" Ronon swore. "I'll kill you!" None of them knew, not even Sheppard, not even Teyla. For this man, for this devil to know… It felt as if Kolya had reached into his chest and was crushing his heart.
"How are your parents, Ronon Dex? How is the sweet Melena? How is the master you promised to serve with your life? Just bones beneath the mud."
"No!" Ronon howled, but far away, as if through water, he heard Sheppard calling his name urgently; heard Teyla speaking to him; even heard McKay, who was berating Kolya and calling him an unmannerly rogue.
Ronon let out a breath; breathed in, and let it out again. "No," he said quietly, his voice like ice. That was over. They were dead and gone, and nothing Kolya said could change that. This was his life now. This was his home.
He raised his head, and looked Kolya steadily in the eyes. "I will not serve you." He spat out each word like a stone. Afterwards, he did not look away.
Kolya looked away, though. He pressed his lips together angrily, and stood up. A signal was given, and agony ripped through Ronon's thigh as another kick landed, and another, and another.
"Stop!" Teyla begged them. "Stop! Please, stop!" Blood was pooling under Ronon's leg. She watched him struggle, then watched as his struggles ceased.
Kolya held up his hand, and the beating mercifully stopped. Teyla had tried to rush forward, but arms had grabbed her. She had landed a few blows, but the enemy was far too numerous. Her arms felt bruised, her shoulders wrenched.
"I don't want him killed, after all." Kolya prodded Ronon with his toe, grimacing as if he was filth. Teyla willed Ronon to be only faking, to lash out a hand and grab Kolya's leg and drag him down, but Ronon lay still. "Still breathing," Kolya said, and then he turned to her.
"Teyla," he said, and at his smile she was sixteen again, commanded by her mother to smile and simper as men older than her father leered at her, and made lying talk of marriage. "Your story is not one I know, but I do not doubt that it will be as fascinating as your friend Ronon's."
She tried to spit in his face, but it fell short.
"So unlike a lady," Kolya sneered. "I have heard stories about women who dress themselves in a man's clothes and deport themselves as a man. I hear that as they play a man's part, they lose their female… parts. Do you have a man's part, Teyla?"
"Go to Hell!" she spat, but the hands were holding her back, and someone was breathing on her neck, ripe with ale and rottenness.
"I will find out the truth of it soon enough." He touched her face, and she snapped her head round and tried to bite him. He snatched his fingers away just in time, covering it with a laugh. "She has spirit, that much is clear. I am sure we can break that spirit, can't we, boys?"
She tried to kick, but they were stronger than her; they were always stronger. She had done everything that a man could do, and she had fought better than many of them, but she had never been able to overcome that difference in strength. She had been unable to help in the battle, and now she could not break free. The world had come crashing back again. For four golden years, she had been judged purely for who she was and what she could do, but in the world outside the confines of the Atlantis, she was defined only by her sex – as a body to be bought and sold; to be laughed at and looked down upon and dismissed.
"Bind her," Kolya commanded. "We will have our sport later."
She heard John shouting, desperate to save her. McKay was spluttering with horrified outrage, threatening Kolya with the law, saying that he could not stand by and watch, but there was nothing either of them could do.
She fought – of course she fought – but they lashed her wrists with rope, and tied her kicking feet, too. Then she was dropped on the deck like baggage. She was close enough to Ronon that she could have touched him had she not been bound, but his eyes were shut. At least he would not see it happen.
It was unconscionable. It was monstrous. It was horrible, and it was happening in front of his very eyes – in front of the eyes of Rodney McKay, who had always excused himself from the cock fighting and the bare-knuckle brawling because he did not like blood. Ronon had been beaten into unconsciousness before his eyes. Now Kolya was talking about… about forcibly taking Teyla's maidenhead, and was laughing.
All was lost. All was lost. This was all his worst nightmares – all those horrid visions that had plagued him when they had first entered the Caribbean Sea, haunt of pirates. It was every chilling story ever told at night. It was heavy black writing in chapbooks and handbills, telling their lurid stories of death and punishment.
And all he could do was clutch the treasure chest and shout words that nobody bothered to listen to. He was barefoot in a wet shirt, for God's sake. He had no weapons. He'd never known how to use a weapon. And they had swords. They were cold-hearted killers with knives and swords, and they had taken down Ronon as if he was no stronger than a dotard of four score and ten – just felled him, dragging him down like a bear in a bear garden.
Somebody should do something, he thought. Please, somebody, do something. Where were Sheppard's crew? Had they all turned traitor? But, no, surely they wouldn't. They wouldn't. They'd seemed so loyal – far more loyal than any seaman he had seen on the long voyage from England, serving within the law. So why weren't they…? Oh. He saw the men with guns, facing outwards at the edges of the quarterdeck. Holding Sheppard's crew at bay. Keeping them away. Removing them from the stage, so there was only… "Us," he whispered. "Only us."
Perhaps Sheppard heard him. Rodney had watched him while Ronon had been taken down, and had watched him while Teyla had been threatened with assault. He had raged. God! Rodney had never seen anyone so furious – positively white with it. Swords had held him back; swords and hands, and Kolya's word, which had promised him death.
"You… you won't get away with this!" Rodney shouted. He took one step forward, then another, but they were tiny steps, barely an inch.
Kolya began to turn towards him. One of the men holding Sheppard started to smile. And Sheppard took his chance. He lunged forward; and Rodney couldn't see clearly what happened next, just a confusion of bodies moving, but at the end of it Sheppard was free, a line of blood across his collarbone, but not heading for Kolya, not heading for Ronon or for Teyla, not heading for Rodney, but heading away, away from them all, away from them.
"Sheppard!" The cry tore itself from Rodney's throat without him having any conscious involvement in the decision to speak. The air was cold on his wet shirt and his feet were bare – how vulnerable you felt when your feet were bare! – and Sheppard was trying to save his own skin, and…
"Oh!" This time it was a cry of horror. Rodney retreated, back a step, back a step, back. Sheppard was down, his legs dragged out from underneath him with a rope. Men surrounded him. Rodney saw movement; he saw nothing but movement. Shoulders jerked, and legs. He saw feet. He saw a hand, reaching up. He saw blood. For a very long time – for long seconds, perhaps even a minute – he saw only that.
That was Kolya, striding forward. The mass of bodies parted, and there was Sheppard, streaked with blood, taut with pain, but pushing himself up with his hands. "A duel," his swollen lips said, and it seemed in that moment as if all else was silent, and there was nothing in the world but that word. "Your quarrel's with me. Let's end it one way or another."
No, Rodney breathed. Oh no. The man was a crazy fool. He had just been savagely beaten, and he had almost drowned not long before that. Kolya was strong and stout and fresh and surrounded by his own men, while Sheppard was wearing just britches and a wet white shirt, neither of which offered any protection at all against a sword thrust, and he didn't even have a weapon of his own.
"Not that you should care about such things," Duty whispered in his ear, "since he's a ruthless pirate himself. Let the two of them kill each other, and–"
Be quiet! Rodney shrieked silently, though he was far more rude than that. Go away!
"A duel?" Kolya raised his eyebrow. "How quaint. But if it would amuse your old-fashioned sense of honour… I always did plan to kill you myself."
Kolya nodded to one of his men, who came forward to help him remove his coat. Beneath it, he wore a thick dark waistcoat. Rodney had no idea if a waistcoat counted as armour, but he reasoned that it could do no harm. Better than a wet shirt, anyway. Kolya also, which was more to the point, had two swords.
Sheppard rose to his feet, plainly in pain, but covering it well. "He's got two swords!" Rodney called, but Sheppard gave no sign of hearing him.
He did, however, gesture lightly at Kolya's array. "But you have two long beaten swords, and I have a pocket knife." Rodney recognised the lines from a ballad Beckett liked to sing. Like all the others, it ended in blood and vengeance.
Kolya tossed Sheppard one of his swords, and Sheppard caught it one-handed. It was undoubtedly the worse of the two. Perhaps Kolya deliberately kept a broken blade for circumstances just like this, like a Florentine duke might keep poison in a chalice in case unwelcome friends came by. Sheppard unsheathed it, and tested its weight, taking a few experimental swings. "Then shall we begin," he said, but Kolya was already lunging at him before he had even finished speaking.
Rodney had never seen a duel before. He had seen a challenge issued, and he had seen the aftermath, but he had never seen the actual event, unless you counted fights on the stage of the play house. He knew that duels had their own code of honour and he knew about things like the need for seconds, but that was all.
He knew little about sword fighting, either. He had overheard the young nobles at Oxford talking about their Italian fencing masters, and they babbled words like contracavazione and punto reverso and passato and the like. It was all barbarian babbling to him. His mind was crammed with so many things, and he had always thought that he knew so much more than common men, but he realised with a sudden pang that there was so much more that he did not know. The meanest man on Sheppard's crew knew how to sail a ship, but Rodney had forgotten almost everything he had been told about boats. He knew nothing about swords, and had no idea how to defend himself, or how to defend a friend. He knew nothing. He knew nothing.
And if Sheppard was winning, or if Kolya was prevailing, he did not know. Sheppard lunged, and Rodney had no idea if it was good lunge, or if it was one to make a fencing master groan. Kolya swung; was it the swing of a master? Teyla was watching, struggling to stand. Did she know more? Ronon was stirring sluggishly, and he surely did.
Rodney didn't know. His throat was sore, and he realised he had been shouting out loud the whole time – saying what? He did not know even that. Nobody was paying him the slightest attention. Perhaps he was invisible. Perhaps he had died under the water, and had returned as a spirit who did not realise he was dead.
Kolya's men pressed forward, and for a moment Rodney could see no more than the heads of the antagonists. He bit his lip. His arms were aching, his body was aching, his back, his heart.
He remembered fights in plays – how people sprang on tables and swung from ropes. When the crowd parted, he saw that Kolya and Sheppard were locked together, gripping each other close. It was more like brawling than fencing. Then Sheppard used his feet, and Kolya used his fist. They parted. There was fresh blood on Sheppard's shoulder, and a small circle of it on Kolya's side.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't… God! How was it supposed to be? It was supposed to be about honour and… and… politeness, and… and set movements, and Italian terms. But it was about death, really. Dress it up however you liked, and it was about death. At least Sheppard and Kolya were not trying to hide it. This was real. This was real. The world of the nobles with their duels and their Italian terms was not real life. The world of his mother, with her dinners and her dances, was not real life. Rodney had disdained all this, but what had he done? He had shut himself in his room and covered pages with his thoughts and his plans, but none of it had ever stepped out of the domain of the mind. He had never lived.
"And now I'm about to die," he whispered, almost sobbing, because it seemed like the most ridiculous thing in the world, that he should have an epiphany on the deck of a pirate ship, while watching two feared pirate captains attempt to murder each other.
The crowd obscured the fighters. Rodney edged forward, then edged forward a little more. He saw Ronon looking up at him, his eyes blazing, held down only by two distracted men. He saw Teyla tearing at her bonds until blood flowed down her wrists. And Sheppard, his drying shirt sticking to his body, showing every drop of blood that was being torn from his flesh.
Rodney edged forward again. He was still holding the treasure chest in his arms. Could he bring it down on the head of a man from behind? Could he do that? Could he? He swallowed, as Sheppard gripped the rail, his head sagging just for a moment, then hurled himself forward. Kolya's crew shouted aloud. The next time Rodney saw Sheppard, his sword was bloody. His shirt was bloodier still, though. If he had wounded Kolya, Kolya had hurt him worse.
Ronon's eyes held a desperate plea. Rodney swallowed again, and moistened his lips. He gripped the chest; began to raise it.
The crowd parted. Locked together, the two captains lurched through the gap. Frozen, Rodney heard the screech of metal against metal. He swallowed again – how dry his mouth was! – and then someone grabbed him, pulling him back. A hand gripped his upper arm, and there was something cold against his throat. A sword! A tiny whimper escaped his throat. It was a sword, and Kolya… Kolya was holding him, using him as a shield.
"I tire of this game." Kolya's voice was loud in his ear. "Surrender, or I will kill this man."
Sheppard's chest was heaving, and there was little white left on his shirt. "You'll need a better bargaining chip than that," he said dismissively. "He's not one of mine. He's done the job I needed him for. I don't care what happens to him."
Rodney could not speak, he could not breathe, he could not move. The sword was cold against his throat. He felt as if he had been standing on the edge of a cliff, and the whole world had fallen away from beneath him, leaving him wrapped up in the coldness of empty space.
"Come on." Sheppard's sword was raised, gripped in his blood-streaked hand. "Let's resume."
The sword pressed against his flesh. Was that blood? Oh, God, was that blood? It hurt – it hurt so much. So cold… But Kolya's breath was warm against the side of his neck, breathing fast with exertion and perhaps with pain. "A pretty lie," Kolya said, and the blade pressed deeper, and this time it really did break through his skin; he could feel the warm stickiness of blood at his throat. His vision went cloudy and he thought he was about to faint. "I mean it," Kolya said. "I will kill him."
Rodney saw Sheppard grip the sword, his knuckles as white as bone through the blood on the back of his hand. He heard Ronon shouting, and Teyla pleading. But louder than it all was Kolya's breathing. Louder than it all was the sound of the hooves of the pale horseman that was Death, coming to claim him.
Sheppard laid down his sword. There were no words, no quips, no defiance. There was just silence.
Kolya pushed Rodney away, and advanced on Sheppard, sword outstretched. "Kneel," he commanded, and Sheppard did.
"No," Rodney whispered. "No", and he didn't know what to think, he didn't know what to do, but he only knew that it felt awful.
"Sail ho!" somebody shouted.
Kolya lowered his blade. Two of his men stepped forward, each of them putting a hand on Sheppard's shoulders, keeping him down. Sheppard did not look defeated, though. His head snapped up, and he looked keenly in the direction that all Kolya's men were suddenly looking.
"It appears to be a frigate of His Britannic Majesty's Navy," Kolya said, when he turned back. "This changes matters." He raised his blade to Sheppard's throat. "I am tempted to kill you, but your own people will give you a death far more hideous than anything I can manage. You will watch every man on your crew die a traitor's death, and then they will string you up, and the birds will peck out your eyes, and you will scream for death long before it takes you. And I have drawn your blood." He smashed Sheppard in the face with the hilt of his sword. "I have repaid the blood you took from me so many years ago."
Kolya snapped his fingers, and his men started to head for the rail, ready to swing back to their own ship. But he had one more act to perform before he left. "And I shall take the chest that this prattling man of yours is so carefully guarding," Kolya said. The chest was removed from Rodney's protesting fingers. Rodney reached after it, but the muscles in his arms felt like water.
"I took care to cripple your ship before I boarded it," Kolya told Sheppard. "Your rudder is broken, and you will not be able to escape your fate." With that, he strode to the rail.
Rodney blinked. Sheppard was on his knees, swaying as if he was barely conscious. Ronon had struggled into a sitting position, and Teyla had managed to get her wrists free. The crew rushed forward, the false Mr Christopher leading them, but Sheppard shook his head ever so slightly.
It was in silence, then, that they watched Kolya's ship leave. It was in silence that they saw the sails of British justice grow larger and larger.
"We can fight," Rodney found himself saying. "Maybe I can repair the rudder."
But Sheppard shook his head, and gave his order, and thus so easily was everything lost.
end of chapter eight
On to part the fifth