This story was, for me, kinda dark. I'm not really sure why, especially considering the theme, I ended up writing a story about the traumatic fallout of killing people, but there you go. o.O
Heroically betaed by miscellanny. :)
Rose Period | PG | ~2,900 words
You can also read this story at my website.
The Daedelus encounters the first dead hive ship adrift less than a day’s travel from Lantea, in a region of space with only one populated planet. It’s a world of more than a billion people known to the dialling computer as P3X-778 and to Teyla, through hearsay, as Lau-Fen.
Further investigation turns up three more ghost ships within the borders of Lau-Fen’s solar system, their crews dead as if felled by disease. When they finally board one it’s a scene straight out of a horror movie, the empty hive ship echoing with the groans of vacuum pressure and the decks littered with perfectly-preserved Wraith corpses. It has that special creepiness unique to the Wraith, which makes it twice as disturbing as any horror movie Rodney’s ever seen, and he’s never been all that fond of horror movies. He’s never seen the attraction of paying to be terrified. But it isn’t a disease, exactly, Jennifer says uneasily. Not… exactly. But it bears investigation, and as a first-contact mission, of course it’s Rodney’s team that’s ordered to go.
P3X-778 is hot, and peaceful, and far too agrarian - Teyla’s word; Rodney’s is “primitive,” which gets him an elbow in the ribs - to mount any kind of defence against orbiting ships. Even in their Citadel, surrounded by miles of desert scrub, Rodney can find no evidence of anything that would make it possible - no ships, no Ancient artefacts, nothing.
But Lau-Fen, like many Pegasus worlds, has a legacy of all-but-lost learning, knowledge - and, as of two hundred years ago according to the database, a reputation for genetic engineering that would have given the Asgard a run for their money.
Lau-Fen’s monarch is hospitable in a way that makes Rodney immediately nervous, but John nudges him quiet (with the raised-eyebrow that almost always means something’s up, shut up while I figure out what it is) while he and Teyla charm their way around the royal Court, asking questions first of courtiers and then of everybody else. Through it all they’re led around by the nose by Gar Losem, the captain of the Royal Guard, a young man whose “father and father’s father” held the same position and seems barely old enough to shave, let alone command a garrison of sixty. He’s pleasant and stiff-necked and unlike his king seems to hate the Lanteans on sight, particularly when John and Teyla start getting nosey.
It only takes two days for them to discover the secret of Lau-Fen’s safety from the Wraith, the genetically-engineered children scattered throughout their population whose blood is a deadlier poison to the Wraith than the Hoffan drug. The children who are left in the ruins of the first burning village of a culling, amidst screaming people, to be found and taken away. Poison pills with arms and legs and faces and voices and parents. Brothers and sisters, maybe.
It’s the Royal Guard they’re fleeing as they hot-foot it to the Gate, and even Rodney feels sick with the implications of their discovery, suspects his expression mirrors Teyla’s white-lipped, uncomprehending disgust. John is the kind of angry that sometimes, for a second, makes him genuinely frightening to anybody but Rodney. Ronon just charges on ahead, blasting their way through until they’re clear of the city walls, pursued through the desert on something-like-a-horse-back by a half-dozen remaining guards. They’re close to the last ridge before the gate, and Ronon and Teyla are way ahead of them, when they’re run down in a cloud of dust. The captain of the guard, the same man who’s spent the last two days playing polite tour-guide, sweeps Rodney off his feet with a well-calculated kick and sends him sprawling.
Rodney doesn’t catch the whole thing, but when he finds his feet again, there’s been gunfire and a scuffle and John is bleeding and trying to get up and failing - and Gar Losem is taking aim at John’s head with something that looks a lot like an air rifle, but Rodney is horribly sure contains real bullets.
“In the name of the King, I sentence you to death, for high treason and sedition,” the man is intoning, but Rodney is reaching for his P90 even as Losem pulls back the hammer of his gun with a resounding click. The next sound will be deafening, meant to silence John, silence all of them, keep the Lau-Fen from knowing at exactly what price their safety has been purchased, again and again and again.
Rodney never knows how he manages it. Maybe Losem thinks he’s unconscious, really doesn’t see Rodney lurching to his feet - maybe he forgets Rodney might be a threat, or simply doesn’t believe Rodney has it in him to - to stop him.
Some people think they can look into your eyes and see everything there is to know about you - they never take into account things you don’t know about yourself.
What scares Rodney isn't that he can apparently shoot another man dead and sleep (relatively) well afterward, though that does give him pause when it strikes him. What scared him, still scares him, is the surge of utter negation he felt at the prospect of not firing. Of not being fast enough. The despair when his imagination provided him with the scenario of a universe in which John Sheppard died on some shitty planet where they feed babies to the Wraith, because Rodney couldn’t bring himself to shoot. What scares him, for a while, is that he found himself in a situation where not shooting a man in the back was a worse prospect than shooting him, watching his body jerk, watching him slump into the dirt and stop moving.
He still feels the twinge of regret every now and then, when he stops to think about it, when something reminds him. Maybe his hands shake, or he can't get warm, but it never lasts long, and that's all it is - regret.
Not guilt. Because whenever he stops to think about the fact that he killed a person, not a Wraith or a replicator or some other unspeakable, improbable monster but a person, he immediately remembers that that man died instead of John. That Captain Gar Losem was going to kill John. That that's why Rodney killed him.
He does occasionally spare a thought to wish he hadn't known the guy's name - that's usually when he starts breathing hard and has to take a moment.
But that's all it is - regret, not guilt. Rodney gets that there's a balance in the universe, that there's a price for every miracle he manages to pull off, even if he doesn't know about it. Including this one. He's regretful that a man had to die, but his shaking hands and his difficulty breathing are just reactionary. Biological. People die all the time and - and Rodney would rather it be someone other than John, that's all. Even if he has to make sure of it.
Sometimes when he remembers, he remembers Losem’s face. Too young. When John tried to explain it to him, hands out, palms up, earnest and still angry, he wouldn’t listen. Called them liars. Told them he had a duty.
Rodney remembers thinking with awful determination that it's not like this kid had any idea of the kind of King he'd sworn allegiance to, but sworn he had. He'd told them so, when he'd led them into the Citadel on that first day.
People make bad choices all the time. That isn't Rodney's fault.
It bothers Rodney that he had what could be considered a rather unremarkable childhood. It seems somehow unfitting that in terms of his background, his only remarkable moments were marked by a sullen, unhappy restlessness he now considers depressingly ordinary. Rodney himself was always exceptional, but never in ways that brought him any particular satisfaction, at least not for long. Rather, young Meredith McKay always found that what he knew set him apart - volumes of knowledge that made it impossible for him to imitate polite contentment the way other people did. As far as he was concerned, if being smarter meant suffering for it, being alternately ignored and exploited by everyone from his teachers to the CIA, he owed no one any false modesty. Rodney was brilliant, but he wasn’t well-liked, and he wasn’t going to be. It made for far fewer distractions.
But having had nowhere else to direct his talents - certainly not into social pursuits - his life has been rather dull, nearly a decade of concentrated study of ten-thousand-year-old alien technology notwithstanding.
The defining boundaries of Rodney's existence have long been inscribed with mathematical notation and little else. His life used to seem linear, a straight line from MIT to CalTech to an all-too-brief academic stardom to the silent magnificence that came with working on top-secret government projects. He has always subsisted at intellectually breathless heights, incomparable to the peaks and valleys he supposed made up the careers of ordinary people. It’s never been uninteresting, far from unrewarding. As a scientist, his career has been lit in vibrant Technicolor, as is only appropriate.
As a human being, his life has been depressingly monochrome.
Because even though he dismisses social interactions, friendship, and all that comes with them, as a waste of his precious time, he’s not really good enough at deluding himself to deny that he’s simply jealous. That there’s something he simply isn’t any good at, that he gave up on trying to master a long time ago. That people with half his IQ points seem to manage it without even thinking about it and that sometimes, that makes him feel so lonely that it’s like a bitter taste in his mouth.
It makes him absolutely crazy, because he likes to tell himself he's above this kind of thing, smarter than this, in control of his emotions.
It's enormously frustrating to him to discover that he's really, really not.
He's spent a long time learning how to keep people safely convinced that he’s a person other than himself. After all, being despised but respected is a lot easier than being insecure, unattractive, uncertain, to having everything show on his face whether he wants it to or not. For a while after he’s exiled to Siberia by the first person in a long time he genuinely likes, he clings to it more desperately than ever.
And then he goes to Atlantis.
And suddenly all his long-developed methods, by now second nature, are dismantled by John Sheppard, among others, telling him he's a good person. That he has passion. That somebody actually cares.
Not in so many words, of course. It's more like Sheppard coaxes him into telling himself, so that once in a while he stops responding to criticism with a haughty denial that the opinions of his inferiors can even touch him, and instead responds with a genuine, honest-to-god defence. A justification. The kind of thing he would once have scorned as a weakness - giving any sign that that it matters to him.
It made him uncomfortable for a long time - still does, sometimes. He still doesn't know how to react when Teyla gives him that rare, fond little smile, the one he's never completely sure what he's done to deserve. He still flinches instinctively when Ronon slings an arm around his shoulders, slaps him on the back, says things like "you did good," or thanks him for something. Rodney never wanted to care about people, about a place, like he cares about this place. He never wanted to be passionate - at least hasn't since he was twelve years old. It's just something that happens, sneaks in behind his ribs and under his fingernails, so that it hurts a little more every time one of his people - his people - is lost, so that it's a wrench like losing a limb when he has to leave Pegasus that first time and the relief of long-denied oxygen to set foot in it again.
So that the split-second realisation that yes, he can kill a man, an actual human being, can raise his weapon and take aim and pull the trigger because he simply cannot live with what will happen if he doesn't, leaves him rocking back on his heels for a few seconds before he pulls himself together enough to drag John's scrawny ass back to the gate, woozy but alive. Okay.
He spent more than twenty-five years bitterly reassuring himself that passion was not only beyond his reach, but overrated. As a consequence, he's clueless about how to face such a thing, let alone breathe through the pressure of it, weighing down on his chest.
Has no idea how he's supposed to react the night John comes to his room after the mission to P3X-778, in the middle of the dark, silent hours when the rest of the city is sleeping, and stands there staring at him.
"What?" Rodney demands after nearly a minute of this, during which he has mainly stood in his bathroom door, wringing his t-shirt between his hands. John surprised him on his way into the shower. He's still grimy and sweaty and disgusting from the dust-heavy air of Lau-Fen - and god, he can never stress enough how much he hates the planets with sand; he’s pretty sure he’s got it in his teeth - and all he wants to do is wash away this awful, miserable failure of a day, along with the fine splatter of dried brown blood that still clings to his arms, his hands. He imagines he can smell it, though he knows he can't, really.
And now John is staring at him, and yeah, that’s all he needs. Rodney feels uncomfortable and exposed with his shirt off but can't bring himself to put it back on. It's ruined, anyway.
"Are you okay?" John asks, finally, his face almost unreadable, at least in the language of normal, functional human beings. This is John's attempt to focus on someone else's panic rather than his own. The perhaps-unintended consequence of this is that it makes it impossible for Rodney to push the day back, diminish it to a distance, even for a while. Even for long enough for him to shower.
Rodney used to fall for this. Now he thinks it's selfish and kind of mean and it makes Rodney want to punch him.
He doesn't, of course, because that would mean giving in, letting John use him to repress his own freak-out, and Rodney's not an unselfish man by any measure and won't pretend to be.
"Of course I'm not okay. Don't ask stupid questions when you already know the answers."
"I'm not doing this today," Rodney snaps, and that's when the adrenaline or whatever it is that's been sustaining him for the past six hours - through the run back to the gate, the debriefing, everything - is just suddenly gone. He tastes the bile in his throat only a few seconds before he's turning around, stumbling to the toilet, and puking up everything he's eaten since they left Atlantis that morning.
God, he hates throwing up.
It's kind of amazing he held out this long, really.
John's hand on the back of his neck is cool, and Rodney can feel the calluses against his nape where he knows the skin is sunburned-pink. It steadies him as he pants over the toilet bowl, eyes squeezed shut.
"Fuck," he gasps, when it seems there's nothing left in his stomach to lose.
John's other hand is cold, too, fingers splayed along his ribs, but the shock is welcome. John twists around and fills a cup with water from the sink, watches him rinse and spit and drink half the glass before he puts his hand back, this time on Rodney's sweaty forehead, and Rodney lets John take his weight, just for a second. "I know," John murmurs. "I'm sorry."
Rodney looks at him, glares, really. "You've got nothing to be sorry for," he snaps, though it's a pale imitation of his usual tone. "I don't - I'm not sorry." And he means it, he's surprised to realise.
John nods, and his calm's frazzled, a little, his eyes wide. He licks his lips. But his gaze is steady. "Ronon and Teyla were too far away."
"He'd have killed you," Rodney mutters, shutting his eyes again. "There wasn't-- I'm not sorry."
John's fingers curl against the side of his neck. "But it still feels like you should be." Because yeah, of course he knows this.
Rodney lets out a long, shaky breath and sits down on the bathroom floor, letting his head fall onto John's shoulder without really thinking about it. "Tell me it gets better," he says, without much energy.
"It's not supposed to get better," John says apologetically, and the way he presses his face into Rodney's hair is strangely natural, easy, like the hot breath he huffs out against the side of Rodney's face.
"That's what I thought," Rodney says resignedly, and it's just as easy to let himself follow when John pulls him in, kisses his temple, his cheek. Kisses the corner of his mouth, eyes closed, going by feel.
Rodney turns his head, opens his mouth and lets him in.