In Abeyance

by Domenika Marzione

A company of marines coming through the gate room in full gear on the way to off-world exercises is not unlike a herd of elephants. They are big men, weighed down by almost a hundred pounds of equipment and ammunition and they fill the room's open spaces with noise and incongruity. They laugh and tussle among themselves as they check their rifles, adjust their packs, and basically exist as raucous anti-matter to the peaceful orderliness of the engineer-run control room. It is always a relief when they are gone through the wormhole; the resulting quiet is almost vacuum-like in its purity.

By induction, therefore, two companies of marines coming through the gate room in full gear should be deafening. But it's not. It's eerily quiet; the checking of rifles, the adjusting of packs, and the other preparations are not accompanied by chatter and teasing and laughter and shouted insults. Instead, it's the quiet, hard voices of the lieutenants (young men Rodney ostentatiously ignores when they are lords of the gate room) and their platoon sergeants as they move among their men. Rodney can hear bits and phrases, all assurances that their training will guarantee that this will go well, that they are all up to the challenge, and firm reminders about rules of engagement and not punishing the Malthusan civilians for the actions of the Genii.

These are the sounds of war.

There is nowhere for the marines to all fit and so they are backed up into hallways and around corners and, looking down from the railing on the concourse, Rodney thinks it looks a little like a swarm of insects or a fog -- or The Black Cloud of Death. He's still mostly numb in ways that have nothing to do with the Wraith stunner blast he'd taken to the back, but the disassociation is maybe a positive here; he doesn't have to wonder why he hopes the effect of the marines is the same as the sentient energy being.

Caldwell and Lorne are moving among the marines, speaking to some and nodding at others. Caldwell's easy to spot because of his bald head and Lorne, who should be lost among the bigger men, can be spotted by the white sling and casted arm, light against a sea of dark. Rodney can see Ronon off near the doorway, presumably near the platoon to which he's been attached. Rodney steals a quick glance at Teyla, who is standing next to him on the balcony, tensely watching the mass of humanity below.

"Do you want to go along, too?" he asks her. "It's not too late. Elizabeth can--"

Teyla shakes her head no. "I would very much like to be part of the group that rescues Colonel Sheppard," she says with a grimace. "But Colonel Caldwell is correct -- this is a military action and I am not suited to participate."

Rodney doesn't understand Teyla's acquiescence to what seemed like a curt dismissal. She's one of the finest warriors he knows, can beat the marines in stick fighting and is a far better shot than he is, and this is Sheppard, held by a people who have betrayed Teyla more than once. It must show on his face because she gives him a sad smile.

"To fight in partnership with another, there must be familiarity," she explains, "You must know how your partner will act and react to every development so that you do not impede each other. The marines have trained together and have that understanding. I do not. Ronon has fought within a group before, on his planet. All of his years of solitude have not erased the instincts to follow orders and meld into a larger entity."

He gets the surreal image of ballerinas performing Swan Lake, the background dancers moving in sync while the prima ballerina does her thing in the foreground. Maybe it's the same. Maybe it isn't.

"That said," she goes on, looking back down at the scene below, "I would give much to be able to go."

"Me, too," he admits, watching the marines get into position. Lorne is talking to Safir, who is attached to the platoon that has the rest of Lorne's team as members. Rodney's jealous, even though he knows that Safir's inclusion is a last-minute thing, that the only reason he is going is the combination of military and medical experience that makes him less a liability than a potential bonus in case they find Sheppard and the marines alive. Rodney remembers that when it was him who was being held by the Genii, Sheppard had taken Safir along to treat his wounds. With the situation reversed, Rodney'd rather Safir be there than no doctor at all, but that doesn't mean that he can't maybe wish he were in Safir's place instead.

If Sheppard were running this mission, Rodney would be going along. But he's not and he may never be running another mission again and Rodney can't let himself think about that right now.

(This is not how they'd ever thought they'd lose Sheppard. By Wraith, maybe. By machine, if it was another of those gut-wrenching suicide runs in a puddle jumper. But not at the hands of men.)

Elizabeth is standing on the catwalk between her office and the gate room, the marines posted there giving her space as she leans on the railing, looking out with an expression that is both haunted and hard. Rodney's missed almost all of the planning that has gone into this mission, either because he was sacked out in the infirmary (he left as soon as he'd been able to walk and nobody argued; the infirmary network was -- still is -- overcrowded with wounded, dead, and dying marines and they'd needed the space as much as he'd needed the relief from the pain of others) or because he was down in the labs. He was present for the briefings, but that's just the end result and not indicative of any of what has gone on before -- history written by the victor.

As a result, he doesn't know how much of what is happening is Elizabeth's decision and how much is simply her agreeing to what would happen with or without her imprimatur. This is a military maneuver and Caldwell is undoubtedly calling the shots, but Lorne is around and he's going to be on Elizabeth's side because Lorne's loyalty is to Atlantis and to Sheppard and that's what Sheppard would expect him to do. Ninety-five percent of the time, Rodney finds Lorne's St. Bernard routine annoying and an obstacle of varying difficulty. Today, right now, is that other five percent.

Radek is in the control room, supervising the DHD after having disassembled the autodialer and spending the time necessary to teach Cadman how to use it on Malthusa. The plan is to keep the wormhole between Malthusa and Atlantis open, the way the Genii did during the assault. It'll keep the Genii from sending reinforcements, allow Atlantis to maintain communication, and facilitate a hasty exit off of the planet. It'll drain significant energy from the source powering the gate on Malthusa, but better them than Atlantis's ZPM. Rodney has given the marines an extra pair of repeaters for their radios, just in case Sheppard is being held past the effective range or on the other side of mountains or whatever else could go wrong. He can't go, but he could do whatever he can to make sure those who do come back with Sheppard.

A loud whistle from the gate platform and Captain Polito, the mission commander, is drawing everyone's attention to him. Polito is Rodney's nemesis within Little Tripoli, the one who has the power to approve or deny requests for offworld missions, but here he looks nothing like the camouflage-clad Bartleby the Scrivener who quotes Ancient Greek and Latin at him while denying perfectly reasonable proposals. Polito speaks briefly and forcefully, reinforcing the mission parameters, giving a eulogy for the fallen marines, reminding the assembled of the Marines' history as liberators and fighters (complete with classical allusion), and exhorting the safe return of Sheppard and the marines still held. All in under three minutes. After he's done, the marines before him stand straighter -- hell, Rodney up on the concourse stands straighter -- and then Polito calls up to the control room to dial Malthusa, hops off of the platform to get clear of the kawoosh, and the energy level in the room expands exponentially.

The marines' passage through the wormhole is without complication or confusion even with two puddle jumpers following the ground force; they have gone through en masse enough times to have worked the logistics out. The moment when the wormhole closes behind them is an awful one and Rodney realizes he's clutching the railing hard enough to turn his knuckles white. It's done. They've gone and he's still here and he hates it.

"Come," Teyla encourages, touching his elbow gently.

He follows, not knowing where Teyla is leading him. They go down the stairs to the gate room, now empty save for Lorne, Caldwell, and the few marines left for normal guard duty. Elizabeth joins them, taking the back stairs from the control room, and the five of them stand there, not saying anything, until the stargate activates and the alarm sounds for an incoming wormhole.

The shield is up and so Rodney doesn't flinch, but it's a near thing.

"Atlantis?" Cadman's voice. "This is Beacon One checking in. We have secured the gate area. Ultio One and Two have LDed and are en route. We should have radio back to you in five."

The call signs were picked out by Polito. Ultio means 'punishment', Elizabeth had explained earlier, the Romanization of a Greek daemon of vengeance and retribution.

"Roger that, Beacon One," Captain Hanzis, up on the balcony, answers. "We'll be waiting."

Caldwell looks over at Rodney as if he's expecting a challenge on the time assessment. Rodney isn't going to make one. They checked the radios before anyone left Atlantis; it'll take a couple of minutes for the marine handling the equipment to unpack and validate calibration, but that should be it.

It takes maybe two minutes before Polito and Radner are doing radio checks back with Atlantis. Everything is going smoothly -- the UAV has been launched and Radek announces that the video feed is coming through fine, there are no Genii soldiers lying in wait by the rubble of the waystation, and the first phase of the assault is on schedule and without complication.

"Why don't you get something to eat, Rodney," Elizabeth suggests. "The mission is scheduled to take eight hours. We can't stand here and wait the entire time."

He bristles, deeply offended that he's being sent off like a child up past his bedtime. "And what are you going to do?" he snaps.

She shrugs a little helplessly. "Go back to my office and pretend to get some work done."

She's exhausted, now that Rodney takes a moment to see. She's pale and drawn and the circles under her eyes are dark bruises. He feels a tiny pang of regret for his sharpness. This is gutting him, but it's got to be killing her. Losing so many marines, losing Sheppard, losing control of Atlantis...

"Listen," Caldwell sighs. "It's pointless to tell anyone to go get some sleep, even though that's what we all need." He looks pointedly at Lorne, who is clearly in a lot of pain and too tired to hide it. "But it's even more pointless to stand around here and just do nothing, which is about all you can do from this end. Captain Hanzis has the battle management under control. As heartless as it sounds, we need to keep Atlantis functioning as normally as possible. We need to be functioning as normally as possible. So if you're not going to sleep, don't stand around here like zombies -- your radios will work all over Atlantis. Go get some coffee, go get some work done, and try to get everyone else to do the same."

After all of this time, Rodney honestly doesn't have an opinion on Caldwell. Caldwell has done what Rodney's needed him to do, more or less, and that's a positive when it comes to military officers. But Caldwell is also the source of most of Sheppard's frustration and stress within Atlantis and so Rodney tempers his indifference accordingly because Sheppard's frustrations necessarily bleed over into his own -- unnecessary missions to get out of the city, floods of suddenly-completed paperwork he has to respond to, and so forth and so on. Caldwell isn't pulling an Alexander Haig this time around, is instead emphasizing the temporary nature of his own authority -- temporary, but absolute while it lasts. At least as far as anyone's authority is absolute in Atlantis, where Elizabeth, Sheppard, Carson, and Rodney ignore each other as convenient.

"I believe the commissary is still serving breakfast," Teyla says and Rodney looks at his watch. For another hour, although everything's so screwy today, they might be doing it for longer. Or they may have already stopped. The marines scheduled for kitchen duty are probably on Malthusa.

"I could do with something to eat," Elizabeth agrees, a little hastily to Rodney's ears. "Rodney?"

Rodney nods, figuring that he might as well.

The three of them leave Lorne, already shifting his focus to the radio transmissions from Malthusa, and Caldwell and go down to the commissary. The kitchen is staffed by Life Sciences personnel when they arrive; the marines had to go, one of them explains to Rodney and Elizabeth, embarrassed. Someone has to cook. Rodney doesn't bother making a joke about Life Sciences finally making themselves useful; there's no one around who will laugh at his gripe. Carson hasn't left the infirmary since the first wounded came in and Sheppard... isn't there. Rodney makes a mental note to remember to tell Sheppard about this later.

Rodney is choking down his surprisingly good (but yet he has no appetite for) scrambled eggs when their radios chirp. They've got another KIA; Gunnery Sergeant Aguilla's body is being brought to the stargate to be returned to Atlantis.

They throw away the rest of their meals untouched.

They go back to the gate room to attend the return of Aguilla's body. It's a much less formal occasional than when they'd brought back Maguire; there are fewer people around and the room is already silent, but Aguilla still gets a flag and an escort. Elizabeth goes to her office after it is over and Rodney follows. Teyla does not, saying something about going down to the infirmary to help.

Elizabeth says nothing as he sits down in one of the chairs across from her desk. She takes her own seat heavily, tapping a key to get her laptop off standby and then flipping through open documents with a rhythm that Rodney can tell without watching is one that goes with looking and not seeing.

He closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall.

Out in the control room, he can hear the radio transmissions and the voices of Hanzis and Lorne and whichever lieutenant is the one left behind to guard the city. Caldwell is in the office he's using, the office Sheppard won't use because it had once been Sumner's for all of ten minutes. It doesn't sound like what Rodney imagined impending combat to sound like. He remembers the siege for its chaos and explosions and the grim little bubble that was him and Radek recreating the Manhattan Project in one of the back labs. There were probably quiet moments, but they're not in his memories; his soundtrack is the distant thump of detonations against the shield.

Lorne and Hanzis aren't speaking much, just asides to each other and Caldwell and the occasional order to someone else. The radio transmissions are the hardest to hear; the various channels overlap and the speakers aren't turned up very loudly. Nobody's shouting into their radios and there are no raised voices, just conversational tones and Rodney catches the odd word only. It's not very exciting -- just verifying positions and distances and observations about topography and the clouds in the sky obscuring the moon. The UAV is circling overhead and the crew for it is watching for enemy fighters through the night-vision-enabled camera attached to it. War as video game, Rodney thinks.

Elizabeth gets up from her desk and Rodney starts at the sound. She gives him a wry smile as she moves over to the small couch in the corner. It's not long enough for anyone to lie down on, but Elizabeth manages to curl herself into a small enough ball that she can manage to fit. She'll have one hell of a crick in her neck and back later on, but that'll be then. She closes her eyes and Rodney does, too.

He must have fallen asleep. He wakes to the noises he expected all along -- gunfire and explosions and loud orders. Elizabeth is gone from the couch and Rodney gets up, stretching awkwardly before going into the control room. Caldwell is there, as is Elizabeth. They are both sitting down, Caldwell by where Lorne and Hanzis have set up their command center and Elizabeth in the chair usually used by the lieutenant on gate room duty. The lieutenant himself is standing on the balcony, watching with concern and envy and the frustrated understanding that someone has to stay behind and keep an eye on the homestead.

"We've engaged the enemy," Lorne says with a small shrug when Rodney catches his glance.

"Have they...." Rodney trails off, not finishing. Lorne would have said if they'd found Sheppard and the others.

Lorne shakes his head no. "Still getting control of the compound," he replies.

Radek is on the other side of the room, waiting in case something goes wrong with the equipment. There's an empty stool near him and Rodney goes over to it, sitting down heavily.

"It's going well," Radek tells him in a quiet voice. Rodney wants to tell him that he doesn't need empty assurances, except he thinks that he maybe does and, besides, Radek might actually know what he's talking about. Radek usually only references his own military service in terms of alcohol consumed and nights spent freezing his ass off somewhere in the Bohemian mountains, but Rodney knows that Radek learned something more than how to stuff newspaper in his pants to keep warm.

Sitting on a stool literally light years away from the battle is an entirely new kind of torture. Rodney wants something -- anything -- to do, so he commandeers one of the laptops not in use by the military personnel and starts writing code. It's not important code, nothing to do with the fighting or with getting Sheppard back, but it's something to do and he's been meaning to write the programs forever except that something else has always come up.

The subroutine that will alert Engineering the next time there's a problem with the inductors before there's a rolling brown-out is five lines from completion when a voice announces that Sergeants Olivet and Francis have been found. Two more KIA and Rodney can't even type the code he has written in his sleep because it -- the realization that nobody has been found alive, that all they're doing is finding bullet-riddled bodies -- hits him like a tidal wave. His fingers are frozen, hovering over the keyboard.

Once upon a time, he was a pessimist and content in that. If you always expected the worst, then there was no possible way to be let down. But then came Atlantis and Sheppard and his stupid insistence that things would always turn out (which is and was complete horseshit; Sheppard's as much pragmatist as Pollyanna and it's a wonder his head doesn't explode from the contradictions) and now Rodney finds himself hoping and the disappointment is going to hurt.

"You've forgotten a line," Radek says at his elbow, having wheeled himself over to Rodney's side. He takes the laptop from under Rodney's idle fingers and orients it toward himself. He types as he talks. "You will make the desalinization plant blow up and then we will all have to drink the bottled water the Daedalus brings. I don't like bottled water. It tastes flat."

Rodney knows that he hasn't forgotten a line. The average teenager with Linux on his laptop could write this code. But he appreciates Radek's attempts to distract him and so he goes along with it. Besides, he drinks the bottled water. "I don't think that the added flavor from filters that have to be at least ten thousand years old is doing us any good, either."

Radek hands back the laptop. There are still five lines left to write in the subroutine and Rodney forces himself to type them. Across the room, the sounds of gunfire are almost gone from the speakers. It's calls and responses, room-clearing and identifications and the occasional shout to get on the floor, motherfucker, and put your hands behind your head. There is gunfire when the motherfucker in question fails to comply.

The subroutine gets finished, Radek making a show of reading over Rodney's shoulder and Rodney knows that Radek knows that he hates backseat drivers, but this, too, is to keep him distracted -- them both distracted -- and the next line of code begins.

There are explosions coming through the speakers, some close by and some in the background. The marines are blowing open locked doors and this Rodney remembers from his time as a prisoner in the Genii labs. The sounds echo like the footsteps of an angry giant. Of a vengeful god. He remembers wondering if he would be killed before he could be rescued. He hopes now that Sheppard and the other marine are alive to wonder the same thing because that would mean that there aren't two more bodies yet to discover.

When a voice announces that they've found Colonel Sheppard and Sergeant Hopewell, Rodney pushes away from the laptop, away from Radek and the console they've been using as a table. Whatever happens now, he wants to be on his own when it hits.

There's a collective cry of relief in the control room when whoever it is -- Rodney hasn't kept track of call signs -- announces that Sheppard and Hopewell are alive. Rodney hears what comes after -- that Sheppard is in a bad way, that someone should get Fletcher or Doctor Safir right the fuck now -- but he almost doesn't care. He doesn't want Sheppard to die at all, but he absolutely doesn't want Sheppard dying in a cold, crappy Genii prison, broken and alone.

(Not completely alone. Sergeant Hopewell counts, all the more because Rodney knows what Sheppard will do to himself on account of the four marines already dead, whom he probably couldn't have saved and will blame himself for anyway.)

The two jumpers have been held in reserve in case either air strike or ambulance was necessary. Neither has been needed, but a jumper is brought up to evacuate Sheppard and Hopewell. It comes through the stargate and stops, hovering long enough that they can see Lieutenant Eriksson as the pilot, before rising to the jumper bay. Caldwell already has a medical team waiting there. Elizabeth stands up as the jumper rises out of their view and Rodney does, too. He wants to see Sheppard with his own eyes, wants to find Teyla and tell her if she doesn't already know.

"Doctor Weir," Caldwell calls across the room. Elizabeth had been walking toward the stairs that lead both up to the jumper bay and down to Medical, but now she stops, turns, and glares expectantly at Caldwell. "Let them stabilize him first. His injuries aren't life-threatening." You don't want to see him like this, he doesn't say.

Rodney stands where he is, waiting to see what Elizabeth does. If she goes, he'll go, too. If she hesitates, he may force the issue. But she curls and flexes her hands and nods curtly, turning on her heel and going to her office. Rodney turns to look at Radek, who watches her go and then looks up at Rodney, gesturing with his chin that he should follow.

Stiffly, Rodney does. He moves past Caldwell and Hanzis (Lorne being essentially ordered to stay in his seat lest he fall over), nearly stumbling past the marines in the catwalk, and into Elizabeth's office. She's sitting on the couch, elbows on her knees and head bowed. She looks up when he comes in and he can see she's on the verge of tears.

He doesn't know what to do with crying women. Never has. So he crosses over to the couch and sits down next to Elizabeth and waits for her to take what she needs because he doesn't know what to offer.

What she needs is his hand, which she clasps between her own (very delicate, very cold) as she sobs quietly. He can't move to comfort her, even if he knew what to say -- he'd either have to take his hand back or twist awkwardly. So he reaches out with his free hand for the box of tissues on the small table next to the couch and puts it on his knee. And then he waits while Elizabeth cries herself out, fighting the urge to join her all the while.

Once the fighting is done, it takes more than two hours for everyone to return from Malthusa. There are no prisoners and Rodney doesn't ask if it's because they've killed everyone, as much because he doesn't want to know as that he doesn't care. Elizabeth takes the back route to the washroom to "freshen up", returning in time to watch most of the parade of grim marines as they trudge back through the stargate. Rodney contacts Teyla over the radio, but she already knows, is in the infirmary serving as an orderly, and has seen Sheppard. "He is alive," she tells him when he asks how Sheppard looks. "That is what matters."

It is and Rodney knows that it is, but it's also an evasion on Teyla's part and so Rodney knows to steel himself for when he does get to see Sheppard for himself.

Ronon comes through the gate and Rodney almost doesn't recognize him for a second. It's like there are three Ronons superimposed over each other. The feral Runner, the soldier of Sateda he'd once been, and the current incarnation that is part of both. He is bloodied, but Rodney doesn't think any of it is actually Ronon's. Ronon looks up and catches Rodney's gaze, giving him a quick nod, an acknowledgment and a sign of approval all at once, and Rodney doesn't know why that makes him feel better, but it does.

It's hours before they can see Sheppard. The infirmary is still just this side of chaotic and they've had to open up an annex to handle so many patients at once. (They've had to open up another morgue, too, one of the cold rooms unused since the siege.) There are surgeries still taking place, both in Atlantis and aboard the under-repair Daedalus, and while none of the marines who went to Malthusa for the rescue were seriously injured, enough are mildly so that the doctors are all still working, stripping off one pair of gloves to reveal another as they move between patients.

Rodney doesn't let himself turn away from the rows of injured marines as he follows Elizabeth, who is in turn following Caldwell to where Teyla is already waiting. Instead, he nods to the one or two who are awake and catch his eyes. It's well after midnight, the morning of the third day, and he can feel the energy that comes once you're done being exhausted and have moved on to simply being.

After more than two years (counting Antarctica) in near-constant proximity, Rodney has seen John Sheppard in almost every mood and every situation. But he's not sure he's prepared for this.

Sheppard looks both better and worse than Rodney expected. He's asleep and the vulnerability of that state makes the damage done to him look more cruel. But on the other hand, Sheppard's not awake to lie and tell them that he's okay, either. He's dressed in a hospital gown and his arms are outside the blanket, which has been folded down to his sternum. Rodney can't find anyplace on display that isn't cut or bruised or both.

"Oh, god," Elizabeth breathes.

"He actually made out like a bandit," Doctor Abelard says with an ironic shrug. "I know it doesn't look like it, but his injuries are relatively mild for someone who's been through as many hours of torture as he was."

They knew, but hearing the word said aloud -- and so casually -- makes Rodney start.

"It was done by someone who knows what they are doing -- did know," Abelard corrects himself. "Focus was on pain more than damage. Anyway, he's got a long recovery time, but it'll be a complete recovery and there should be no lasting physical effects."

Nobody misses Abelard's choice of words.

Rodney takes one of the stools near Sheppard's bed after Elizabeth and Caldwell go on a tour of the infirmary with Abelard to get updates on all of the marines. Teyla takes the other and they sit there in companionable silence. Ronon appears after a while, cleaned up, but he doesn't stay very long once he sees that Sheppard is safe. He still looks off, at least to Rodney's admittedly unpracticed eye.

Lorne comes by and stays for about two minutes before he's chased out by Doctor Clayton and told that if he doesn't go crash, she'll admit him. The captains appear in sequence, spending more time at the bedsides of their fallen marines once they see that Sheppard is settled. Rodney stops Polito before he leaves and thanks him, a motion Polito accepts with sad grace. Elizabeth returns, without Caldwell, and Rodney gives up his seat for her.

"He's going to hate all the fuss," Rodney says, more just to say something than out of genuine conviction. Sheppard will hate the fuss, with a fiery passion, but there is going to be so much else going on that he probably won't have much time to get indignant about it.

"He will," Elizabeth agrees.

Rodney doesn't want to think about how something like this will screw Sheppard up in ways that nobody can fix, that he won't let anyone fix. Rodney's not so oblivious that he's missed all of the places where Sheppard has set up barriers nobody can cross. But this is something else. It's public and it's high profile and Rodney doesn't think it's completely selfish to worry that they might lose Sheppard anyway -- to bureaucracy, to his own pain, to a chain of command that is still looking for a way to make him go away and isn't above using this gift-wrapped opportunity.

Teyla yawns, covering her mouth with surprised embarrassment. "I am sorry," she apologizes.

"We've been up for most of the last three days," Elizabeth replies with a wry smile. She stands and Teyla stands, too. "We should probably get some sleep. There's going to be plenty of work to do as a result of what's happened."

They all look at Sheppard.

"He'll be here in the morning," Elizabeth says and it sounds a little like a promise.

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28 January, 2007