Actions

Work Header

Unscathed

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

It wasn't as if he hadn't been through this whole routine before. He estimated he'd endured hundreds of post-mission checkups in his five years serving on Atlantis, but today, right now, he really couldn't handle this one.

He supposed it could be because, unlike normal check-ups, this one was the cherry on the cake following an abduction. Then again, it might have had something to do with the way Ronon and Teyla were watching proceedings, tense and brooding, their sense of guilt hanging thick in the air. Or it could even have been the almost constant nervous chattering of McKay at Doctor Keller's shoulder as she took note of his vitals while doing her best to concentrate on the task at hand.

It could have been, but he didn't think so.

It wasn't them - it was him.

Something felt...off.

Sheppard reclined on his allotted infirmary bed, gritted his teeth, and did his best to let the attention and the claustrophobic sensation of the dusky blue walls pressing in wash over him. He answered whatever questions weren't rhetorical, dodged those he could avoid without arousing any concern, and followed Dr Keller's instructions to the letter. Normally he might mess around a little, exchange banter with the ever-paranoid and almost constantly mortally wounded McKay, but today he wasn't in the mood for any of that. Today he wanted this over with as soon as possible so he could get cleaned up and fill his stomach with a proper meal...or yesterday's leftovers - hell, he didn't care, just so long as it was edible and there was lots of it.

Maybe that was all he needed. Food...and a couple of Buds.

Hopefully that would fill the empty feeling gnawing away at his insides.

As Keller did her best to field Rodney's quick-fire questions, plus his whining about a bruise he'd managed to acquire on his elbow during the rescue, Sheppard wearily slid his gaze towards Ronon and Teyla still standing sentinel at the foot of his bed. Brows puckered, expressions grim, they both looked back at him in worried silence. He supposed he should say something pithy, toss them a casual one-liner to put them at ease, but he just couldn't muster the enthusiasm for any kind of witty exchange. Which wasn't like him. He gave them a quick smile - the longest he could hold - and hoped it would suffice to satisfy their apparent need for reassurance. He'd give them more once he'd rested...and eaten.

Rather than continue to look their way he turned to face the monitor to his left recording his vitals in real-time, second-by-second updates. Figures constantly changed, digital graphs fluctuated and none of it meant that much to him. Sure, he understood the basics, but he'd never had time to learn what the actual data meant. He hoped none of it was giving away the inner turmoil he felt even now that he was back in familiar territory. That wouldn't help his campaign to get out of here sooner rather than later.


Absently scratching at his arms, Sheppard mused about how much he needed to shower and pull on some normal clothes again. He'd been forced into an outfit with the texture and odour of a hessian sack at some point during his abduction, and now the coarse fibres chafed his skin to the point of distraction. He felt like a junkyard dog riddled with fleas. Not surprising if he'd been wearing them for the past six weeks, he supposed...not that he could remember much about it. In fact, the only reason he knew he'd been gone that long was because Rodney insisted on repeating the fact whenever he expressed his disbelief at his remarkably unscathed condition. So far he'd done that at least a dozen times...and counting.


'Well, Colonel. I can honestly say you're in relatively good shape considering how long you were gone,' Dr Keller said with more than a hint of pleasant surprise. 'Just like you said, your scans show no physical injuries, your blood work is clear and your vitals are all within expected parameters.'


'It doesn't make sense,' Rodney protested, questioning her judgement. 'He was held captive for six weeks by those people and you're saying he doesn't have a scratch on him?'


Sheppard was pretty sure he was covered in scratches as he clawed at a hard to reach spot between his shoulder blades.


'That's right, Rodney,' Keller replied loudly, shooting him a warning look. 'And I for one am very happy to say he has an almost clean bill of health.'


'Almost?' Teyla asked, the concern in her expression now apparent in her question too.

'Well, he's mildly dehydrated, plus he's lost some weight and some muscle mass, but it's nothing we can't fix,' Keller was quick to reassure her. 'Everything else is exactly as it should be.'

 

'Which makes no sense,' McKay insisted. 'The Traveller faction that took him supposedly kills people for the sheer fun of it.' He turned his attention to Sheppard directly now. 'So, why are you still alive...and unharmed?'


Before Sheppard could even respond, McKay found himself on the sharp end of his girlfriend's tongue. 'Rodney! Why can't you just be happy the colonel is back home and safe?' she said, glowering at him as she adjusted the feed into Sheppard's saline drip.


'Well, of course I'm happy,' McKay replied, rolling his eyes. 'I'm just saying...it doesn't make sense.'


'You said that already,' Ronon grunted, folding his arms and giving him a steely glare that Sheppard figured even Rodney had to understand meant he should shut up. 'Twice.'
Apparently he didn't.


'Well it merits saying again,' Rodney insisted. 'Everyone we asked for help told us he'd be dead before we found him and yet here he is...good as new. There has to be a reason.'


'Dr Keller is right. We should celebrate John's good fortune rather than question it...again,' Teyla prompted, with more than a hint of impatience as she, too, tried to fry him with the heat of her glare.


Rodney, typically, rolled his eyes. 'I already said I'm happy. Do I have to keep saying it?'


'It would be preferable,' Teyla purred, in that soft yet threatening manner she adopted whenever her buttons had been adequately pushed.


Not wishing to suffer through any more of this debate, Sheppard took the opportunity to request his discharge. 'So, I can go?' he asked Keller, giving her his best puppy-dog eyes just to ensure she agreed.


'Whoa! Hold your horses there, Colonel,' Keller replied, patting the air. 'I said you're physically unharmed, but like I said you've lost weight and you're dehydrated. The scans also showed you haven't eaten or drunk anything recently. I want you in for twelve hours observation at least while I get you fed and watered and make sure it stays where we need it to be.'


'Twelve hours!' he groaned, falling back against his pillows.


'You've been imprisoned for six weeks - what's another twelve hours in the grand scheme of things?' Rodney chirped, rocking back on his heels as if that comment should somehow cheer him up.


Keller gaped open-mouthed at her far-from-better half as if she couldn't quite believe how tactless he could be. No one else looked surprised at all. 'Okay, Colonel,' she relented, as if spurred on by Rodney's tactlessness. 'Make it six hours, and that's my final decision. You manage to eat and drink and keep it down during that time, and you're a free man...as long as you agree to come back twice daily for checkups until I'm satisfied you're fully recovered.'


Six hours? He wasn't happy about it, but it was doable. 'Deal,' he agreed, before she could change her mind.


'Okay, people. As much as I know you're glad to have him back the colonel needs some rest. You can see him later once he's discharged.'


She gestured toward the door and without argument, his team began filing away, Teyla pausing long enough to ask, 'Will you be joining us in the mess hall for your evening meal later, John...if you are able?'


Though he didn't really relish dealing with the barrage of questions they no doubt had for him he knew accepting would please her. So with a quick, 'Sure,' he settled back on the bed and tried his best to relax...and not scratch until he bled.


Marie arrived with a fresh set of scrubs as soon as his friends had departed. He wasn't about to turn them down if it meant getting out of his stinking prison garb.


'So, six weeks...' Keller said, as he hopped off the bed and tried hard to cover the wobble his weak legs couldn't prevent. 'What did you do all that time?'


He pulled the scrubs to his side of the bed and shrugged, 'Not much.'


'Not much?' she half-laughed, looking puzzled. 'They held you for six weeks and didn't do anything?'


Realising how crazy that sounded, all he could do was shrug again. 'What can I say...I guess they lack imagination.'


She smirked, giving him a knowing look. 'I get it. You can't say anything until the debriefing.'


He offered her a smile in return but didn't answer. The truth was, he couldn't remember much of anything about his time with the rogue Traveller faction, which meant that when it happened it would be one of the briefest debriefings ever.


'I'll leave you to get changed. I take it you have no objections if I have those clothes incinerated?'


'Be my guest,' he told her as she drew the curtain around his bed to give him some privacy. He stared down at the soft clean scrubs a while, rubbing the fabric in his fingers. All he really wanted was his own clothes, but these would do for now. When it came to ridding himself of his current garb he was grateful for any small mercies.

oooOOOooo

It was the utter cold and callous disregard with which the man viewed him through the bars of his cell that Richard Woolsey found most disturbing. This Tareb struck him instantly as the type of man who could cut your throat and watch you die as easily as others could watch a round of golf on TV...and with less than half of the emotional investment.


He squared up to the man and set his jaw, trying his utmost to look no-nonsense and unfazed. 'I understand you were the one responsible for taking my military commander prisoner for the past six weeks.'


Tareb eyed him with something now resembling mild amusement, a faint smile made all the more menacing by the dim light and contorting shadows of the brig. He made an obvious show of looking Richard over from his boots to the top of his lightly perspiring head before fixing on his eyes. 'Military commander? Not much good if he's taken prisoner so easily.'


Woolsey noted with a slightly creeped-out feeling that the man had the palest grey eyes he'd ever seen. It was as if they looked right inside him, stripping away his veneer of calm and revelling in the discomfort hiding beneath. 'My understanding is that eight of you ambushed him. The odds were somewhat stacked against him, wouldn't you say?' Woolsey countered, rising to Sheppard's defence. 'What did you want from him?'


The man shrugged with an irritating air of nonchalance. 'The pleasure of his company.'

The comment was followed by a feral grin, one that challenged Woolsey to question him on the reply.


'Somehow, I doubt that,' Richard responded, keeping his tone non-confrontational even if his words were more challenging.


Tareb remained unmoved. 'Then why don't you ask him?'


And in that one question Tareb had highlighted Woolsey's main problem with the whole incident. Colonel Sheppard appeared to have next to no recall of events during his incarceration. He knew he had been held in a cell, that water and food had been restricted so he was kept hungry and thirsty, but other than that, he had no idea how long he'd been there and reported no other mistreatment. And although Dr Keller's report supported that account, something about this man and the resistance Major Lorne and the rescue team had met when boarding his ship, told him this Tareb wasn't the type to simply take a man prisoner and pay for his upkeep with no personal gain to be had.


'He's asking you,' he heard the major say from just behind his left shoulder.


Lorne had been quite insistent on accompanying Woolsey for this initial questioning session, as if he thought Richard himself not impressive enough to convince the man to talk. And perhaps he was right. Men with reputations like Tareb's didn't respond to measured diplomacy. But since that was the only tool at his disposal Woolsey had to hope he somehow nagged or bored the man into cracking. He could already tell there was slim chance of that with what little information they had to go on.


'Two of your people who were injured during the retrieval of Colonel Sheppard are not responding well to treatment. Is there anything you would like us to do for them...anyone we should contact before -'


Tareb rolled his eyes and walked away from the bars, chuckling. 'We don't indulge in sentimentalities. We're fighters. Death is all just a part of life for us.'


'Pretty final part,' Lorne pointed out.


Their prisoner halted in the shadows at the rear of his cell, peering back over his shoulder and regarding them both for a moment. 'You think you understand the true value of life and death?' he asked, his lip curled into a sneer. 'Hiding here in this vast city of the Ancestors with all its protections?'


Richard shifted his position just a little and jutted his jaw again, trying not to show how that comment affected him. He had often lain awake at nights thinking of how easy it was for him to give orders and send good people out into dangerous situations while he remained cosseted in the warm embrace of Atlantis. And while he had faced some challenges himself during his tenure as commander, the risk had been minimal compared to that faced by the teams that ventured through the 'gate.


Tareb tilted his head in a way that reminded Woolsey of a bird of prey eying its next kill. 'We face death every moment of every day. Never knowing when the Wraith will strike at us. Struggling to find food. Living on a ship that threatens to fail at any time...' He broke off there, a grin slowly spreading on his embittered face, light glinting off his exposed teeth from the gloom. 'I don't fear you pampered wretches. And I have nothing to say to you.'


So he turned his back on them and said nothing more.


Woolsey inwardly sighed. He hadn't really expected compliance from the man, but he worried now that getting any information from him was going to be far harder than even he had anticipated. He dipped his head toward the doorway to signal for Lorne to follow him out, stopping just outside the doorway. 'Do you think there's any chance he didn't compromise the colonel in some way, Major?'


'Gut instinct...he's done something. But for the life of me I can't figure out what,' the major admitted, his expression turning pained. 'Colonel Sheppard seems fine...a little off maybe, but he's generally in good health. The thing is...everyone we encountered during the search told us these people were bloodthirsty criminals. Why ambush him if they had no agenda?'


'My feelings exactly,' Woolsey agreed, peering back into the room at their recalcitrant prisoner. 'But what purpose did they have for him?'


'It's a failing Lantean vessel. A strong gene bearer like Sheppard would come in pretty handy, I imagine.'


'And yet they made no attempt to persuade him to help them?' Woolsey shook his head, feeling a frown pucker his brow. 'I'm not convinced.'


'Maybe we should treat this Tareb guy to a bit of the same they gave Sheppard. A few more days in the brig without food and water might persuade him to be a little more honest with us,' Lorne suggested.


Though he knew he should rebuke the man for even suggesting it, Richard couldn't help but huff out a laugh. 'Much as I agree with your sentiments, Major, I'm forced to abide by the requirements of the Geneva Convention.'


'We're a long way from Geneva, Mr Woolsey,' Lorne reminded him. Woolsey knew a flicker of horror must have registered on his face when the major shrugged and added, 'Just saying.'


'I'll bear that in mind,' he said a little more curtly than he'd intended to.


The major gave him a grim smile and headed away. Woolsey watched him go, hoping life in Pegasus never pushed him to the point where such thoughts were commonplace for him too.

oooOOOooo

He didn't know exactly how long he'd been standing there in front of his mirror, face half-shaved, water dripping from his hair and chin, but the steam in his bathroom had almost cleared and the rivulets of cold water trickling down his back were chilled enough to raise goose bumps all over his damp skin.


The debriefing had been...well...brief, just as he'd expected. Richard had looked somewhat nonplussed when Sheppard had reported no mistreatment other than a shortage of food and water, but even that hadn't been used in any way to break him down. The faction, his so-called cut-throat kidnappers, had asked nothing of him. He'd seen very little of them...at least nothing impressive enough to recall. In fact, he'd realised as the meeting went on, he had very little recollection of his time with them at all. And perhaps he should have taken that more seriously, but the lure of a shower and his own clothes had been just too strong to prolong the meeting any further. He'd glossed over the questions Richard raised, insisting he was fine and was ready to resume normal duties as soon as Doctor Keller gave him the all clear. All he'd actually wanted was time alone to get his thoughts in order to see what he could remember. He hadn't meant to mislead anyone...not intentionally. He'd figured he just needed more time.


The shower had been just as good as he'd hoped, relieving the tension in his weak and achy body, washing away the smell of his long incarceration and soothing the irritation from the coarse garments he'd acquired at some point during his time with his abductors...though when that had been he wasn't quite sure. He knew he'd been wearing his uniform when he was taken - he did vaguely remember the ambush that had left him struggling at the bottom of a pile of heavy, stinking, flailing men determined to pin him down as he'd made a last-ditch spurt for the Stargate. And yep, he'd definitely been wearing his uniform then because he distinctly remembered those said stinking men tearing his weapons and TAC-vest away as they'd flipped him over onto his back and stuck him with a syringe full of sedative. But at some point they'd relieved him of it. Another lost memory; another thought sinking like a heavy stone in his stomach, joining the near landslide of dark thoughts weighing heavily inside him.


But only now, as he stood in front of the mirror two strokes into his shave, did it strike him as odd that not only did he not remember losing his clothes, but he also didn't remember shaving while he was a prisoner. Not that that fact in itself was what had him confused since personal hygiene was rarely high on the list of priorities while being held captive by cut-throats. It was more the fact that his face had no more than half a day's worth of stubble growth. He could damn well grow a full beard in two weeks, but here he was staring at a face with nothing more than a five o'clock shadow to show for his six weeks of absence.


It didn't make sense.


Rodney's similar protest repeated in his head, and that feeling of 'offness' he'd had since returning to Atlantis grew, lurking at the periphery of his consciousness with an ominous and overbearing sense of oppression. If he couldn't remember shaving when he clearly had, and quite recently too, what else wasn't he remembering? He'd allowed his relief at rescue to lull him into a false sense of security, choosing to believe his lack of recall was merely because he was exhausted and his stay with his captors had been so uneventful that the days had simply merged into one another. Now he wasn't so sure. The fugue seemed to go far too deep for that to be the case.


Sheppard knew he should tell someone, but every time he thought of mentioning it a knot of nausea tied up his insides, bringing with it a sense of foreboding that made every fibre of his being scream to just leave it alone. He didn't know if he dared shine a flashlight into those particular shadows just yet, afraid of what he might find. It was most likely nothing, just confusion due to lack of food and drink, but he couldn't be sure. He'd been given some water and a sandwich in the infirmary to prove he could keep it down, but that was all, and his stomach was now literally cramping with hunger. The last thing he needed was some shrink misdiagnosing him with PTSD because he was hypoglycaemic. He blinked at his reflection, unable to repress the smirk that thought brought to his face. Rodney's hypochondria was apparently rubbing off on him. It wasn't like he hadn't gone hungry before with no lasting ill effects. He was stronger than that.


It was more likely, he decided, that he'd been drugged with something insidious and undetectable that would allow his memory to come creeping right back up to date once it had cleared his system. Yeah...that was probably it. It had to be. It would explain the 'offness' he still felt...the sensation of being fractionally detached from his own body that drugs afforded you along with all the other ways they screwed you up and got you hooked. Sure, Keller had said his blood work was clean, but that didn't mean anything...not if his captors had been smart. There were plenty of Earth drugs that were hard to detect, it made sense that Pegasus would have its fair share too.


Unfortunately, just when he thought he had all the answers Sheppard noticed something else, something that turned his supposedly clean blood to ice in his veins. About to continue his ablutions, he stopped with the razor just millimetres from his jaw and leaned in toward the mirror, looking at his neck. There was something different about it. The scar from the Iratus bug, faint as it had admittedly been after almost five years, was missing.


Right on cue, he experienced a flashback; in the ambush he'd been shot, straight through his right hand. The bullet had disarmed him, though he'd lost very little time in swiping up his fallen gun and using his left to hold his attackers at bay. But yes, he definitely remembered the jolt and sudden burst of fiery pain that had seized him, even if he'd only faltered for just a few seconds. He dropped the razor into the sink, examining his hand and flexing it to test for pain or weakness. Nothing. It worked perfectly. It was as if it had never happened, but he knew it had.


The miraculous healing went further still. On examination, the many and various scars he carried on his body, the marks that told of his journey to becoming the man he was today, all of them were gone. He blinked hard a few times, wondering if he just wasn't focusing right, but no, they were gone. That didn't make sense either. How could that be? Had those rogue Travellers done something to heal even those harmless reminders of his past struggles? And if they had...why? They had a reputation for brutality well known amongst the natives of the Pegasus Galaxy...what would be the point of healing him to that extent? They'd asked for nothing in return...


Realising that thinking endlessly about questions he couldn't answer would drive him nuts he finished up his shave, certain his team would be knocking on his door soon if he didn't show his face. He could pin on a smile for a while. Placate them. Keep them sweet until he could figure out what all this meant. Perhaps it really was nothing to worry about...perhaps the faction members really were that sweet...


...And perhaps Santa Claus was real, too.


The gravity of the situation hit him like a freight train. The meal would have to wait. Something was wrong and his conscience wouldn't allow him to ignore it any longer. He had to go back to Woolsey and tell him what he'd found. He might have been compromised and he couldn't put Atlantis at risk.

oooOOOooo

He was right. There was no sign of the various scars Sheppard had gathered over his several years of service on Atlantis. Not to mention the many marks he carried from combat back on Earth. No medicine she was aware of could make scar tissue miraculously vanish that way, and Jennifer couldn't help experiencing a flutter of excitement as she examined his previously blemished skin. This was a seriously advanced form of medicine these people were practicing. She had to know more about it.


Barely able to contain her glee, she glanced over at Woolsey first, where he stood at the foot of Sheppard's bed flanked by a pair of armed marines, then met the curious hazel-green eyes of the colonel himself, letting his shirt fall back into place. 'Well...I don't know what to say, Colonel. You're right. The scars are gone.'


Instead of looking pleased, Sheppard's expression tightened. Something about this was clearly making him anxious. But then, if she had little to no memory of events for the past six weeks she supposed she would be on edge too.


'At least we know they didn't mistreat you,' she offered in hopes of cheering him up.


'Yeah...I guess.' He looked distant suddenly, lost in thought.


Troubled.


'Is there anything to suggest foul play?' Woolsey asked, clinical as ever.


She shook her head. 'Like I said before, there's nothing out of the ordinary...except for the missing scars.' She cast her gaze across the two armed men standing either side of him. 'So I'd say the guns aren't necessary.'


'It could be a little early to make that assumption,' Woolsey countered, not willing to relax just yet. 'If it's all the same with you, Colonel, I'll leave the armed detail in place for now.'


'If you hadn't suggested it, I would have advised it anyway,' Sheppard told him, matter-of-fact.


Jennifer looked from one to the other of them, unable to suppress a grin. 'You two are taking this way too seriously. 'You get healed. Period. Nothing else is out of place.'


'Still, better to be safe than sorry,' Woolsey insisted. 'Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some requisition orders to catch up on.'


He left, the two armed Marines withdrawing to a more discreet distance but remaining in view.


Sheppard, once again, sank into contemplative silence.


'What're you thinking?' she asked, gently pressing him to talk.


He didn't speak for a while, but a multitude of emotions flitted across his taut features and darkened those bright eyes of his. She could see him composing his thoughts and emotions before finally answering. 'I'm thinking...if they can heal my old scars that well, what else did they heal?'


She blinked back at him...the thought never having crossed her mind until he mentioned it. But he was right. If they could rid his body of ancient scar tissue, anything could have been done to him in his six weeks of absence. And suddenly his apparent amnesia adopted a whole new portentous undercurrent...


'I...I don't know,' she stammered, mind racing for something encouraging to say. 'But right now other than very mild malnutrition and some muscle atrophy, you're in perfect health. Let's focus on that for now. Huh?'


Sheppard stared back at her a while, a bleak smile gradually twisting up his mouth, though the look in his eyes remained haunted. 'Yeah...sure.'


'Well, Colonel...I can't find anything that suggests you've been compromised or that you pose a danger to anyone else. I'm happy to release you to your quarters for some rest and relaxation. I've worked up a suggested diet program for you to follow to gradually get your weight back where it needs to be, and an exercise programme to help rebuild your muscle tone. We'll soon have you fighting fit, Colonel. And with any luck that memory will come back, too.'


Again he just looked at her for the longest time, an almost panicked glaze coming across his eyes. Then he jumped down off the infirmary bed and walked past her, muttering, 'That's what I'm afraid of.'


She watched him leave with a heavy heart, the marines following tight on his heels. Right now, she had to admit she was a little afraid of that too.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Sheppard passed a fitful night despite the lull of Atlantis' embrace. Whenever he tried to sleep his head filled with flashes of images, fragmented and alien, bursting forth with such speed and ferocity that he felt as though his head might actually explode. But try as he might to grasp those fragments and piece them together to make sense of them, they faded and were lost as quickly as they appeared each time he stirred from his dreams.

In the end, at 0400 hours, he gave up on sleep entirely and instead pulled on some clothes and went for a walk to help clear his head.

Since Keller's tests had shown nothing of concern, Woolsey had relented about the guard detail only a few hours after posting them. Apparently, Woolsey felt a twenty-four hour guard posted at his door did not best reward six weeks of imprisonment. Sheppard hoped their faith in him wasn't misplaced. He'd had no murderous yearnings and no great desire to sabotage the city, so there was nothing to suggest it was. But something was amiss; he knew it even if he couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was yet, and he couldn't shake the feeling that any time now the other shoe would drop.

The corridors were quiet as he walked; only the steady hum of Atlantis kept him company as he made his way through the maze-like passageways of the great city. He'd missed the connection he shared with her, the sense of strength his bond with Atlantis gave to him. He might not remember much of his time in the hands of the Traveller faction, but he did remember the emptiness eating at his core in that dank cell each time he woke up in there. And he remembered waking up there a few times...though not enough times to cover the whole forty-three days he'd apparently been incarcerated. He also remembered a weird sense of detachment...like he wasn't quite fully there in his own body, but rather floating somewhere close by it. He'd felt...disconnected, and though his return to the safety of Atlantis had helped him to feel more like his old self again, he still had the underlying sense that something wasn't quite right.

And so his travels brought him to the brig. He stood outside the entrance to that room a while, the two marines stationed at the door no doubt wondering why he was loitering there at such an unholy hour. But he had to see him...had to see the man who had held him prisoner for six weeks. Perhaps then he would remember something. So with a nod of acknowledgement to the two guards he entered the cell room without speaking a word.

More guards watched over Tareb within the room. Their stances tightened in formal recognition of his rank as Sheppard walked into view, but with a casual wave of his hand, he silently ordered them to relax. There was no need to stand on ceremony for him. He'd never required that of those under his command.

Behind the thick bars of the cell, Tareb came into view. He lay sleeping soundly, seemingly untroubled by the circumstances he found himself in. His ship was now in their possession, and McKay and Teyla had joined a team of scientists and technicians aboard the vessel attempting to gather clues to piece together what might have happened in the past forty-three days, and before that too. Apparently, from the way he gently snored away the night-time hours, Tareb wasn't too worried about that. Maybe there really was nothing to find. Perhaps he really had only been kept drugged up and underfed and that was why he couldn't remember anything. Except, of course, he was sure his troubling dreams had been trying to tell him something else...something he couldn't remember now no matter how hard he tried.

Tareb stirred, shifted, sniffed in a deep breath, and lifted his head to look directly at him. An odd smirk broke out, and a glint appeared in his pale grey eyes. Nausea struck Sheppard hard in the guts, that expression awakening a sense of panic somewhere deep inside him he refused to acknowledge. 'Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. To what do I owe the honour of this visit?' Tareb asked.

Sheppard forced on a crooked smile, adopting a relaxed stance. 'Just wanted to check you were comfortable...and apparently you are.'

'It's by far the nicest cell I've ever been in,' Tareb joked, sitting up now and swinging his feet off the bed. 'I'm only sorry we couldn't offer you the same hospitality during your stay.'

In some dark and suppressed recess of his memory Sheppard heard an agonised scream. The sick feeling in his gut swelled. He felt sure the voice had been his.

'Yeah well, I guess living in space all that time means you guys have gotten used to roughing it,' Sheppard shrugged, keeping it casual, showing none of the turmoil churning him up inside.

'Well, at least you're still in one piece,' Tareb grinned. It wasn't a friendly smile, but something bordering on feral, akin to a mad dog baring his teeth before pouncing.

That was the point at which Sheppard knew the bad feeling that had been gnawing away at him since he'd been discovered and freed was founded. Tareb was laughing at him...hiding something from him. They'd done something to him, something bad...perhaps something hidden that would go off like a time-bomb when they least expected it...when they all finally relaxed and allowed themselves to believe he really had just got that lucky this time.

'Well...I won't keep you from your sleep...you're gonna need it,' Sheppard told him, bluffing it out, hoping Tareb felt at least an iota of concern at his words. But nothing registered on the man's face, not even a flicker of self-doubt, and Tareb just gave some kind of cocky salute and lay right back down again, rolling onto his side and seeming to fall straight back into his slumbers.

Sheppard trudged back out into the corridors, none the wiser for his little tête-à-tête with Tareb...at least not beyond a now undeniable certainty that he didn't know jack about what had really happened during his time on board the ship. He considered heading back to his room to make another attempt at sleep, but just the thought of it made his head pound so hard he knew it would be pointless. Instead, he wandered up toward the balcony area where he always had his quiet times with those who shared command – Elizabeth, Carter, and now even Woolsey. Much as he'd thought he would rather chew his own arm off than have Woolsey in charge when he'd first heard the news he was taking over, Sheppard had found himself warming to the guy and almost enjoying their chats. The man had a sharp mind. He could get to the crux of things in a way no one he'd met before could. So perhaps he would find a way of drawing information out of Tareb. Or, more likely, they would never know what Tareb had done or what he had wanted unless his own memory decided to supply him with some answers.

He had the distinct feeling that in this case, ignorance really might be bliss.

oooOOOooo


Rodney wrinkled his nose in disgust as he examined the control panels aboard the impounded Traveller ship. The place was disgusting. A film of greasy dust and oily fingerprints coated everything to the point that he was forced to pull on a pair of latex gloves to examine the consoles for fear his breakfast might revisit if he didn't.

It was a Lantean ship much like the Aurora, and would once have been a thing of beauty, but the current crew had spent so long butchering, splicing and reconnecting systems to make her work without Lantean input that now she more closely resembled Frankenstein's monster than any Roman goddess. But they had made her work. Clearly these men had been living aboard the vessel for some years and were here to tell the tale.

Living but not cleaning.

Rodney hardly dared to think about the level of germs he was likely breathing in.

This ship definitely needed a woman's touch.

He closed his eyes and fired up the console he was sitting at, accessing the ship's database, searching for files that might give a clue as to what had been happening on board the vessel for the past forty or so days. They'd had little time to examine things when rescuing Sheppard, but now Lorne had flown the craft in to dock with the city they could take as much time as needed to carry out their investigation...and perhaps fix this baby up so they could use her themselves.

Feeling someone hovering at his left shoulder he looked up to find Teyla loitering just behind him. 'Have you found anything useful yet, Rodney?' she asked, a hint of weariness in her voice.

Though irritated, Rodney vaguely remembered her mentioning something about Torren having her up most of the night teething so he opted for a gentler response than he at first felt like voicing. 'Not yet, but then I've hardly had time to read anything yet.'

'There must be something in their records to show why they held John for as long as they did. These people are not renowned for their hospitality. If he was of no use to them they would have disposed of him weeks ago,' she reminded him, as if he needed the encouragement to work harder.

'I know, Teyla,' he grunted through clenched teeth, 'and perhaps if I got a few moments of peace I could find something –'

'These men are rogues...criminals...living on instincts and fighting to survive. I doubt they methodically log everything they do aboard this vessel. Perhaps we should be investigating them using other means.'

Rodney spun his seat around and looked up into her intelligent brown eyes. Teyla made a good point. In fact, though it pained him to admit it, Teyla always made good points. These men were a million miles away from the kind of people he was used to dealing with. Why had he ever thought they would keep a detailed log of their underhand activities that could be used to incriminate them should it ever be discovered? 'What would you suggest?' he asked, figuring he needed a more...primitive intellect to help him understand the faction's mindset.

'Whatever the reason they held John incarcerated here, I believe they will keep it hidden. But perhaps there is something on this ship they needed his assistance with...something we are yet to discover.'

'Lorne's had people searching this ship since we took it over. They didn't find anything weird or even vaguely interesting on board this pile of crap,' Rodney whined. 'My best guess is they wanted Sheppard to fly the ship for them. Must've heard about him from the Travellers.' The thing had been rigged to run on basic systems, they might even be able to power up hyper drive and weapons with some effort, though not as easily as someone with a strong ATA gene. Which was where Sheppard came into the equation, he supposed.

'And yet John has no recollection of them asking him to fly this vessel.' Teyla's gaze now burned deep, reflecting her insistence that his view of the situation was far too narrow.

'He has no recollection of anything,' Rodney pointed out, not seeing how her comment was relevant.

'Yes, it seems Tareb and his men have gone to great trouble to ensure anything they did to John is hidden...even from him. But I believe there is something else...something deeper...'

Suddenly an idea popped into Rodney's head. These people were like space pirates. Maybe there really were things hidden on board this vessel...Hidden so well a standard search would never find them.

'Ships schematics,' he breathed, spinning around and typing frantically into the laptop he'd wired up to the console in from of him.'

'What?' Teyla asked, leaning in on the console to get a better look at what he was doing.

'Ship schematics. I need to study them, and I need Lorne here. He's been leading the search of this place. He can tell me if something doesn't look right.'

'What exactly are we looking for?'

'These guys are pirates. So it's likely they have smuggling compartments aboard this ship. And maybe it's whatever they have hidden in those that'll tell us what they were up to.'

A faint smile brightened Teyla's face as he looked at her, and she nodded, radioing for Lorne as he began his search for the ship's schematics. Finally, after hours of futile searching and wondering he finally felt like they were onto something. And hopefully whatever those bastards had concealed on this ship would help Sheppard piece the past six weeks back together. Deep down, Rodney hoped that was all they needed to do to get the gloomy colonel back to his contagiously likeable self again.

oooOOOooo


It was hot. Not just an uncomfortably sticky heat, but the kind of heat that made you feel like you couldn't catch your breath. Sheppard sat at the back of his cell, leaning on the metal wall at his rear as he stared out through the bars holding him prisoner. A steady pulse of pain just above his right brow reminded him of the blow that had finally taken him out of the fight, not that he'd ever really stood a chance against eight of them. He tentatively touched the tender spot finding the golf ball sized lump he'd been sporting now greatly reduced. Well, that was something...not much, but definitely something.

He'd been here for two days now, and other than a minimal amount of water he'd had no other sustenance. What was the rule? Three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air and you were worm food. So by that rationale he had a few days yet. They were giving him just enough water to keep him alive. But with no food and an infection raging in his wounded hand he was weakening. And maybe that was the point...

Which had him wondering why they needed to do that?

One thing he did know was he was aboard a space ship – Lantean design, Aurora class, if he wasn't mistaken. But from the way systems appeared to have been jury rigged around him, he figured it wasn't under the command of Lanteans anymore.

The door to the brig opened, brighter light filtering in from the corridor beyond it and silhouetting the person approaching so his features were impossible to discern until he reached the bars.

The man, grubby faced with the most piercingly pale grey eyes Sheppard had ever seen, got right up to the bars and grinned at him.

'Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. It's an honour to meet you.'

Sheppard narrowed his eyes, not moving from the spot he'd slumped in. 'And yet it took you two days to come see me,' he drawled, trying not to sound as croaky as his burning thirst had left him feeling.

'I've been busy,' the stranger smirked. 'A ship like this doesn't run itself.'

Sheppard waited a moment to see if the man would give up his name. When he didn't he decided to just come out and ask him. He wasn't in the mood for making up names today. 'So...you know who I am...do I get your name?'

The man regarded him a while, as if considering whether giving him that information might be a mistake. Then he relented. 'I'm Tareb of the Travellers...well, at least I was once. Perhaps you've heard of me?'
Had he ever. In recent months they'd come across a couple of planets where this particular branch of the Travellers had set their ship down. He hadn't heard anything good about them. The words brutal, savage and barbarians were the descriptors that sprang to mind right now. Which didn't exactly bode well...

'So...Tareb. Since you already know who I am I'm going to assume that you know who my people are and what they're capable of. Might be best if you set me down on the nearest habitable planet with a Stargate and we'll forget any of this ever happened.'

The man's smirk broadened and Sheppard's heart sank. He hadn't really believed the guy would go for it, but any slight hope he'd harboured evaporated now.

'I'm afraid I can't do that, Colonel Sheppard. You see, we need your help.'

Unable to hide the eye-roll that reply evoked, Sheppard huffed out a laugh, shaking his head. 'Don't tell me, you want me to initialise dormant systems on your ship.'

Tareb shrugged. 'Not really. We bypassed the need for Lantean genetics a while ago. Although if you feel so inclined, we wouldn't refuse.'

Something else Sheppard had learned about this Traveller faction from the planets they'd visited was they had once been part of the Travellers he had met previously, but had broken away from them over a decade ago, choosing a more violent route to sustaining their population. And he'd thought Larrin's threats to dump him out into space were bad enough. Shame they hadn't thought to share their ability to butcher and rebuild Lantean ships with Larrin and her cronies, especially since it appeared they still had contacts within their original fleet. Could have saved him a lot of trouble...and punches.

'So if not my genes...what do you want?'

'You're a pilot, yes?'

Sheppard met and held Tareb's intense stare. He considered lying, but this man looked sharp enough to know a deception when he heard it. Besides, it was less of a question, more of a statement of fact. 'Yeah.'
'We have a long journey to make, and we think you're just the man to take us there.'

Again, Sheppard shook his head. 'Not gonna happen, chief.'

Tareb appeared momentarily thrown by the term, then rallied, drawing himself up straight and snapping his fingers. At that sound two goons came into the room and stood at his shoulders, both throwing Sheppard a very convincing glower.

Though their arrival was another sign of how grim his situation was, Sheppard didn't consider backing down. He'd been up against more and bigger men before. 'That's nice. You brought friends to the party,' he quipped.

This time, Tareb didn't smile at all. Neither did either of his companions.

Tough crowd.

'You haven't even asked us where we want to go,' Tareb said, tone now flat and devoid of any emotion.

'Doesn't matter,' Sheppard told him, matter-of-fact. 'I'm not taking you there.'

'The thing is, Sheppard,' Tareb began, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had descended on the room, 'If you're not going to help us, you're surplus to requirements. So, perhaps you'd like to rethink your stance?'

Sheppard allowed his gaze to slip from one to the other of the trio standing in front of him. He had no doubt this was about to turn ugly, but they needed him, so it wasn't like they could do him too much damage. They would more than likely work him over to try to persuade him to change his mind.

'Sorry,' he shrugged, trying to keep it casual. 'But once I've made my mind up...'

Now Tareb conceded a lop-sided smile. 'I'm sorry to hear that.'

He deactivated the cell door and the three of them stepped in. Sheppard licked his dry lips, pushing up from the floor with the bars still pressed at his back that left him no retreat, feeling the surge of adrenalin flood his system in anticipation of the attack he knew was coming. If he could take these men down and get to auxiliary control, he might be able to take over the ship, just as he had with Larrin. Then he'd fly the damned ship all right, just not anywhere these hoods wanted to go.

When they pounced, they acted as one. Sheppard landed some blows, good punches with his left at least that if he was fighting just one assailant would have done enough damage to get him free from their grip. But with three of them pummelling him into submission and catching hold of his swinging limbs, not to mention taking advantage of his damaged hand, they soon overwhelmed him and forced him onto his knees, pushing his head down until his chin hit his chest.

A second later he felt a sharp jab in his neck. They were taking blood? Like Larrin and her people had? But they already knew he had the gene.

'Don't make any sudden moves, Colonel Sheppard. Right now I have a syringe of carrodim, the most potent poison in this quadrant of the galaxy.'

So not blood, just more threats. 'What're you planning to do with that?' he asked, his voice raspy through his constricted airways.

'Hopefully nothing. Consider it a bargaining chip,' Tareb chirped merrily. 'All you have to do is agree to my terms and the syringe goes straight back into my pocket.'

Wincing at the mounting pain in his shoulder, Sheppard took a moment to form his next question. 'So...you gonna...tell me what...your terms are?'

'I think I'm more likely to gain your agreement if I don't,' Tareb teased, pushing a little harder so he gained a strangled cry of pain from Sheppard.

'Not gonna happen,' Sheppard told him again through clenched teeth.

'I thought you might say that,' Tareb almost chuckled. 'And I suppose you won't be moved from that standpoint?'

'Not in your lifetime.'

'Or yours, it seems.'

A burst of cold flushed through the vein in his neck, soon mingling and warming through his blood. He seriously hoped that was just water...

It took only a few moments longer for him to realise it wasn't as he experienced a tingling sensation in his fingertips that didn't feel totally down to the grip his captors had on him.

'That was just a small dose...non-lethal. So far...' Tareb advised him. 'If you agree to do whatever I ask now, your body will fight off the effects in a day or so.'

Was it him, or did the room just get a few degrees warmer? Nope, it was the venom working its dark magic on him. But not a lethal dose, so he had to guess they definitely needed him alive and more than likely wouldn't take this too far. 'Sorry, but I make it a rule not to work with murdering marauders.'

Another cold sensation assaulted his veins.

'When I say rule...it's more of a guideline really,' he joked, feeling the sting growing around the puncture site. Oh, this wasn't good...

'So you agree?'

Sweat began to bead on Sheppard's forehead and run down his face, dripping onto his shirt. 'Now don't go putting words in my mouth...'

Tareb squatted in front of him so that he could look him in the eye, making him wince as the needle point twisted in the already severely reacting skin at the entry wound. 'The carrodim in your system is at a dangerous level, but can still be treated with anti-venom. One more push on this syringe and you are facing a lethal dose that I cannot guarantee can be reversed. So why don't you save yourself a lot of trouble and anguish and agree to work for me?'

'Because you're an immoral bastard and I have no intention of helping you rape and pillage your way across the galaxy,' Sheppard told him, issuing the challenge. If Tareb needed him so badly he was prepared to threaten his life to gain his cooperation, that had to give him some leverage in this situation, didn't it?

Tareb laughed softly, shaking his head. 'You're a fool, Sheppard. You still haven't even asked me where we want to go.'

'Don't need to,' Sheppard grunted, gritting his teeth at the searing pain now raging from his neck down into his shoulder and chest. 'If you're asking, I know I won't agree to it.'

'Because you're so much better than me?'

Sheppard could see the mixture of humour and hatred dancing in Tareb eyes when he asked that. And yes, he supposed that was how he felt. He'd killed people, sure he had. But never for fun or personal gain.
'Yeah, that's right,' he told him, willing to take the risk.

Another surge of cold surged through the heat in the left side of his neck, followed by more stinging. 'Let's see how superior you feel when you're losing control of your bodily functions, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard.'
'Wow, full name. I must be in trouble now!' The syringe was withdrawn and now dangled empty in Tareb's hand. He'd delivered the full pay load? Crap! He'd thought he might play it safer than that, but apparently his captor was a gambling man, just like he was.

Before he could say anything else Sheppard felt his chest tighten and his temperature began to soar. Tareb's heavies let go of him and he fell forwards onto his hands, finding he had only just enough strength in his arms to stop himself landing on his face.

Tareb loaded his syringe with another vial, reaching out to lift Sheppard's chin to be sure he had his undivided attention. 'This is the antidote,' he told him, speaking slowly and clearly as if he thought he was talking to an imbecile. 'If I administer this to you within the next twenty minutes, you might get lucky and suffer nothing more than some unpleasant side-effects and a slow somewhat uncomfortable recovery. Any longer than that, and your insides will begin to liquefy and your brain will more than likely pour out of your nose.' He cocked his head a little, grinning like he thought he'd just delivered the winning blow. 'Feel like changing your mind now?'

The room began to list around him, his muscles twitching as Sheppard forced himself back on his heels to try to focus on Tareb as an equal, not some quivering, fawning, blurry-eyed wreck. 'Nope. 'Fraid not. So if you really need..my help I guess you'd better...just go ahead and give me that antidote anyway. There's still...a chance you didn't just shoot yourself in the foot.'

Tareb rose, then dropped the syringe on the floor and stamped on it, grinding it into the metal floor, rendering its contents unusable. 'It doesn't work that way, Sheppard. Time's up.'

His vision began to darken at the edges, a trickle of blood escaping his nose and tracking its way to his lips. 'Looks that way.' Pain thumped at the back of his eyes, hammering incessantly now. Maybe his brain really was going to pour out of his nose. So Tareb was an honest man after all.

'You had your chance,' Tareb growled, signalling with a tilt of his head that it was time for he and his burly friends to leave. They left in unison without looking back, closing the cell behind themselves and leaving him in the dim brig to contemplate his fate.

His dad had always said his smart mouth would be his downfall one day, Sheppard mused. It was a shame he wasn't around to see how right he was...

 

'Sheppard?'

He suddenly realised Ronon was looking at him across the dining table, brow crumpled with concern. 'Huh?'

'You okay?

He was in the mess hall? As the new situation he found himself helped the sense of panic churning within him to subside, Sheppard's heart rate began to return to normal. 'Sure. Why wouldn't I be?'

Ronon sat back and folded his arms, giving him a questioning look. 'You didn't answer my question.'

Sheppard looked down at the plate of bacon and waffles in front of him, wondering when he'd picked them up. Apparently Ronon's question wasn't the only thing he didn't remember. What was wrong with him? Had he completely lost his short term memory? No, he realised, that wasn't it. He remembered things from earlier, even remembered meeting up with Ronon, but then he'd become so lost in thought he'd gone on some kind of autopilot mode after that, and now even the daydream he'd just snapped out of was gone, too.

'I'm sorry...what?' he stammered, trying not to give away how shaken his daydream had left him.

'I asked if you remember anything yet.'

Sheppard picked up his coffee, at least he assumed it was his coffee because he didn't remember ordering that either, and took a big mouthful, wondering how to answer that. He was certain he'd just remembered something, and a sense of fear and resignation sat heavily on him, telling him whatever he'd just recalled wasn't good, but now, back in the reality of the Atlantis mess hall, he couldn't remember a single second of what had only moments before filled his thoughts. 'No...nothing,' he told Ronon, pushing the sensation back into the shadows of his mind where it belonged.

His friend continued to look at him a while longer, then pushed his seat back from the table and got to his feet. 'Gotta go. Woolsey wants me there when they question Tareb again.'

Sheppard raised his eyebrows in surprise. 'You and Woolsey big buddies now?'

Ronon didn't react to the question, just grunted out a 'No,' before swiping up his tray and heading off.

It wasn't much of an answer, but that was Ronon for you. In all honesty, Sheppard was glad to be alone. He felt uncomfortably sticky under his uniform, the nightmarish interruption to his breakfast having left him more shaken up than he liked to admit even to himself. For a second he felt fragmented...as if he was somehow just observing himself going through the motions of what had previously been daily life for him...as if he wasn't actually there. Panic struck him. What if this wasn't real and the lost daydream was? What if this was his mind's way of dealing with the horrors he was enduring, feeding him images of home and friends in the hope of helping him to survive? Was that why he felt so desperate?

He glanced around him. One or two people at nearby tables appeared to have noticed his agitation, peering at him and whispering to each other as they pretended to continue their meals without pause. So were they really talking about him, or was this just paranoia brought on by lack of sleep?

He decided there was only one way to find out. Bone deep weary now, he snatched up his tray and took his untouched meal back to the counter to be disposed of. Food wasn't as important to him as sleep right now. If he could just get a few unbroken hours he knew he would start to feel better. He was home and safe now. Nothing else could go wrong. So why didn't he truly believe that?

oooOOOooo

"So, Mr...Tareb. Have you reconsidered whether you have anything to tell us about the abduction of Colonel Sheppard?' Woolsey asked the scruffy and somewhat pungent man sitting opposite them.
This time, he had chosen to question Tareb in a room other than the brig, most likely the reason he had asked Ronon to accompany him since there were no bars to separate him from his violent captive.

Tareb gave them both his customary 'punch me hard' smile. 'I'm not sure what it is you want me to say, Mr Woolsey. We're just a bunch of men doing our best to survive in a harsh galaxy.'

'So you intended to use Colonel Sheppard to assist your bid for...survival?'

Ronon noted the slight pause before that final word in the question. Woolsey wasn't buying Tareb's story, and neither was he.

'I told you already...Colonel Sheppard was just a guest –'

'— who would use up valuable resources needed to sustain your already struggling ship's population. You can see why that might be hard to believe,' Woolsey was quick to counter.

Ronon couldn't suppress a smirk. The man might look naive and ineffectual, but his mind was as sharp as one of his many concealed knives.

Unfazed, Tareb merely shrugged that off. 'What can I say? I'm generous with what little I have.' He cast a casual glance around the room then. 'This is an impressive place you have here, Mr Woolsey. Perhaps you could be generous and allow me and my people to remain here under your protection since we treated your Colonel so well.'

'I wouldn't call mild malnutrition and dehydration treating him well,' Woolsey told him, leaning a little further over the table. 'I wonder how things would have been if it had taken us longer to find him.'

As usual, Tareb treated the question with mild amusement. 'We would have fed him when he needed it.'

'Our scans showed his stomach was completely empty when we brought him in. I think we can both agree that's going beyond feeding him when he needed it. And then of course, there's his loss of memory.'

'Really? That is troubling,' Tareb replied, a strange glint in his eyes. 'I can't imagine how that happened.'

Ronon didn't need Woolsey's smarts to know that was an out and out lie. This man clearly knew a lot more than he was telling them. Talking wasn't going to break him down. Men like Tareb only understood one thing...and that one thing happened to be Ronon's speciality. He curled his lip into a sneer, and for the first time Tareb did a double-take when looking his way. So he wasn't as immovable as he would have them believe Ronon realised, a thought he took great comfort from.

'Then perhaps you can explain how you managed to return Colonel Sheppard to us minus many of the scars he has carried for years?'

Ronon watched Tareb's face. Only the slightest twitch of his left eye gave away his discomfort at that question, that and the millisecond delay it took for him to answer that than he had any previous questions. 'I'm
sorry, but I'm going to have to disappoint you, Mr Woolsey. We have no such medical advancements. Perhaps it was something done to him before he came into our company.'

Now Woolsey leaned back in his seat, sighing in the way a parent might when trying to make a child confess to lying. 'Do you know how many advanced races we have encountered in our exploration of the Pegasus Galaxy, Mr Tareb?' he asked, folding his arms to match Ronon's pose.

Tareb shrugged in response.

'Almost none.'

Tareb just blinked back at him, still refusing to engage.

'You shot him in the hand,' Ronon now added, speaking for the first time this meeting.

Tareb tilted his head. 'Really? I don't recall that.'

'You disarmed McKay and used his gun to fire on Sheppard, shot him in his right hand to stop him firing. That was when the others overpowered him.'

Tareb's expression hardened. Perhaps he'd imagined in the chaos that no one had noticed. 'You're mistaken.'

'No I'm not.'

'If that's the case,' Woolsey intervened, 'that certainly points to you having treated him in some way, because he certainly has absolutely no sign of the injury now. Why don't you tell us how you did it? Information like that would certainly be of value to us...and it might make us look more favourably on your request for asylum here.'

Tareb continued to stare Ronon down, not wavering as he replied. 'I said he was mistaken.'

Ronon broke into a ferocious grin, letting Tareb know he understood that the question had shaken him. 'Why don't you let me talk to this guy? Half an hour and I'll have your answers for you,' he promised Woolsey.

Another micro change in Tareb's expression registered before he could hide it from Ronon. A flash of fear. He wasn't so confident when threatened with pain. Bullies like Tareb rarely were.

'I don't think we need to resort to that just yet, Ronon,' Woolsey said smoothly, playing along. 'I'm sure Mr Tareb will realise cooperation is a much better choice for him before we get to that point.'

Though Ronon knew Woolsey would never agree to give him and Tareb some alone time, Tareb didn't. Woolsey might be right, just the thought of facing him alone might be enough to loosen his tongue. It was another one of those smart moves he was beginning to admire Woolsey for. Although he seriously wouldn't mind showing Tareb what he thought of him.

'Well, Mr Tareb, we won't keep you any longer,' Woolsey announced, rising from his seat. Ronon followed suit, glaring down at their prisoner. 'I'll have my people escort you back to your cell...give you some time to think. Perhaps you'll remember something useful.'

Woolsey called for the marines outside the door to come in and take Tareb away.

Once he was gone Woolsey met Ronon's gaze. 'He's wavering.'

'Yeah,' Ronon agreed.

'Hopefully we've done enough to get him talking.'

'Wouldn't count on it.'

Woolsey looked genuinely puzzled. 'You don't think so?'

Ronon shrugged. All he had to base his assumptions on was how he felt himself. When challenged he closed down, dug his heels in, grew more determined to hold out no matter what. Tareb might react the same way. 'I wouldn't.'

'So what would you suggest?'

Ronon looked down at him and smiled. 'You already heard my suggestion.'

Richard tugged his jacket straight, looking suddenly uncomfortable. 'Yes...well...let's hope it doesn't come to that.

He left the room, and Ronon left too, watching the little man head back to his office as he took a different route toward the gym. He might not be allowed to have it out with Tareb yet, but there was plenty of equipment down in the gym just waiting for a pummelling. He could get some practice in while he waited for his time to come.

oooOOOooo

Lorne hadn't spotted anything unusual about the schematics of the Lantean ship, so they had decided to all have one more walk through the entirety of its vast structure to see if anything looked or felt amiss.

Teyla tried to ignore the churning in her stomach that warned her something was very wrong aboard this vessel. The stories of what Tareb and his men had done to simple village folk on planets they had visited kept running over in her mind, and so she put the bad feelings down to that. These men were vicious and without sentiment or mercy. They took what they wanted no matter what the cost.

'You okay, Teyla?' she heard Lorne ask as they stood on the bridge.

She smiled and nodded. 'I am fine...just thinking of things I have heard said of these people.'

'Yeah...I know. I keep thinking about that too.' Lorne ran his hand over a control panel, rubbing his thumb across his fingertips and grimacing at the sensation. She understood what he was thinking. Everything here was disgusting. It was a far cry from the normal beauty and almost clinical cleanliness of Lantean design. 'I guess Sheppard got lucky.'

'It would seem that way,' she murmured, but her instincts told her otherwise. She couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was that was bothering her so much, but she'd been haunted by a feeling of dread ever since boarding the ship to rescue John. Even finding him relatively unharmed hadn't helped to lift it, and now, searching through the poorly lit, badly wired corridors that feeling began to grow.

'Nothing here,' Rodney barked, completing his scans. 'Let's move on.'

Teyla sensed that Lorne wasn't too happy with McKay giving commands that way, but he kept his mouth shut and let Rodney do his thing. He was the only one capable of spotting the most minor anomalies in the scans that might point to something unusual and worthy of further investigation. Better to allow him to keep focussing on that than to aggravate him with a debate about chain of command.

They scoured their way through several more areas before arriving in the stasis chamber. They paused there a while, looking around at the various stasis pods lining the walls while Rodney carried out more scans.
'Still no life signs,' he told them. 'If anyone's in these pods, they're not about to pounce on us.'

'That's good to know,' Lorne responded, shining the flashlight from his P-90 up to the highest level. 'Suppose we ought to check 'em though. Could be some Ancients stored away in some of them.'

As Teyla looked up to the highest tier she got a strange feeling, a tingling cold spreading through her spine. 'This ceiling seems lower than the others,' she said, more to herself than anyone else.

'Yes, it does,' Rodney agreed, scanning the ceiling area above them. 'I'm picking something up...power signatures...not Lantean...something else.'

'On the Aurora I am certain there were more stasis pods reaching up far higher than this,' Teyla added, growing in confidence that her first observation was correct. 'Could it be that Tareb's people have put in another level in this chamber?'

'Perfect place to hide something you don't want anyone to find,' Rodney mused, scanning the room again. 'I'm reading an anomaly in power levels over here.'

He approached a cluster of the pods, waving his handheld device over them and then, polishing up the glass with his sleeve. The pod was empty...and it wasn't a pod. Teyla could see now that this particular "pod" was nothing more than a facade...a copy to fool them into thinking this was just like all the others. A flurry of activity from their team revealed more pods in that vicinity just the same, nothing more than a facade covering...covering what?

'There has to be something...ahhh, here!'

Teyla couldn't see exactly what Rodney did, but in the next moment the false pods were sliding back into the wall and revealing an alcove complete with a ladder leading upwards. He stepped back, flapping his free hand in the direction of the opening. 'After you, Major.'

'Of course,' Lorne huffed, drawing his side arm and beginning to mount the rungs.

Teyla followed his cautious ascent up the narrow passage. Thankfully it was only short and they were soon emerging onto the upper level.

The lighting up here was even worse than on the lower level, and a lot of work had been done, rigging power from disused pods into other pieces of technology she certainly didn't recognise from their time aboard the Aurora.

'Huh...that's odd,' she heard Rodney say as he climbed up behind her. 'That certainly doesn't belong here.'

'What is it?' Teyla asked.

'Not sure,' Rodney murmured as he looked it over. 'But it has an Asgard feel about it. Just gimme a few minutes to figure it out.'

While Rodney carried out his examinations, Teyla and Lorne looked around at the pods lining the walls. Again, that icy chill shivered its way down Teyla's spine, the sense of anticipation almost crippling her. All of her life she had been able to sense danger, particularly the Wraith, but other things too. She was blessed with heightened senses...or perhaps cursed with them she now realised as her chest began to tighten. 'Something is not right here,' she whispered to Lorne.

He was clearing the glass of a pod just to her left, and from the corner of her eye she saw a slight jerking motion that told her he'd seen something repugnant.

'I don't wanna interrupt you there, McKay, but I think you may be right about the Asgard connection.'

Both Teyla and Rodney closed on his position to see the contents of the pod. Inside was an Asgard...a badly mutilated Asgard.

Rodney gasped.

Teyla had no words.

'Now I know Sheppard got lucky,' Lorne breathed.

'How could they do such a thing?' Teyla asked, but there was no answer they could give that would ever make this acceptable. She wondered if the Asgard was actually still alive or dead and being preserved, but Rodney answered the question before she could ask it.

'I'm not getting any signs of brain activity,' he announced, studying the pod's readouts. 'I guess they just didn't find time to dump the evidence yet.'

'I wonder what other "evidence" we'll find in these pods?' Lorne said as he moved on along the row, wiping away the frost formed on the exterior of the glass.

Teyla crossed to the other side of the room. That same icy feeling she had become so familiar with since boarding the ship shot icicles outward now from her spine so her whole body chilled. She supposed it could be the proximity to the pods that was giving her the chills, but the broiling nausea now churning in her stomach told her otherwise. The first pod she examined was empty, as was the second, but as soon as she approached the third she could see from the darker shade of the chamber that there was someone inside. She steeled herself, taking a deep breath to compose herself for what sight might meet her eyes.

But nothing could prepare her for what she found. She stumbled back, her hand clasped to her mouth as she gasped, 'How can this be?'

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Cold.

That was the first thought that registered in Sheppard's mind as he began to rouse from what felt like a drug induced slumber.

He realised why when he woke to find himself looking up at a metallic ceiling, a similarly metallic floor pressing into his back. As his gaze drifted downwards he spotted the bars of a Lantean brig and immediately knew his situation had not improved. The faction still held him captive.

He lifted his head a little way, a sickening weakness gripping him and forcing him to let it fall back to the floor. What the hell had they given him?

He felt weak as a kitten, but not nearly as pretty.

Okay, so he needed to get upright and moving – work the toxins out of his system faster from whatever crap they'd pumped into him. With more effort than he knew it should have taken, he forced himself into a sitting position, slumped against the rear of the cell. Out of breath and disturbingly feeble, there he remained while he tried to muster the strength and enthusiasm to make it upright. Nope, that wasn't happening. Leastways, not any time soon.

This was becoming an all too familiar feeling now. What the hell were they doing to him? The last thing he remembered was Tareb's two friends with a length of metal piping each beating the crap out of him. He'd passed out gagging on his own blood, certain he'd lost several teeth from a blow to his face. But here he was, completely fine other than the all-pervasive weakness currently incapacitating him...and the uncomfortable hunger and thirst he didn't even dare hope they would ease. He had to have been here for days now...maybe a week...without his watch and with the amount of time he'd spent unconscious he had no real way of knowing. They had to be giving him nourishment of some kind because otherwise he would have been dead by now. There were tiny marks on the inside of the crook of his elbow so he figured they'd done it intravenously while he was out. But that did nothing to kerb his hunger pangs. He supposed that was probably the point.

Determined to get himself going, he pushed up with his legs, allowing the bars behind him to support his rise. Using them to gain his balance, he was able to stand and shuffle a few feet, feeling like a toddler taking his first, tentative steps before grabbing hold of them to steady himself again. He hated to think what the drugs they were using on him would do to him in the long term...or whatever clever medical stuff they were doing to put him back together again. Healing like this wasn't normal, and maybe if it had just been once it wouldn't matter, but this was his sixth time waking up this way. That couldn't be good.

Feeling braver he let go of the bars and crossed to the front of the cell. It wasn't easy but he did it, and just being able to do it made him feel a little stronger. He could handle another visit, especially if they kept piecing him back together again. No lasting damage. No sweat.

Of course, that didn't assuage the adrenalin surge that accompanied the sounds of footfalls heading his way. He backed off to the middle of the cell and stood tall, waiting for his captors to enter.

As always Tareb was the first to arrive, wearing his usual smug smile. Sheppard looked forward to the day he could knock it right off his face. Worryingly, his two cohorts appeared to be carrying something big and heavy. It was a crate.

'So, what's in the box, chief?' Sheppard asked, refusing to let on how concerned the thing had him.

'All in good time, Sheppard,' was Tareb's frustratingly enigmatic response.

The thugs dropped the heavy crate to the floor, then, without missing a beat, advanced on him. He swung a few punches – he had to make it look like he was at least trying to put up a fight – but the two of them were huge and far stronger and soon overpowered him. They lifted him bodily from the floor and slammed him against the bars of his prison, winding him and leaving him slumped in their grip.

When the pains in various parts of his body subsided enough for him to think about anything else he was already strapped to the bars at the wrists and ankles, the bindings giving him absolutely no room for movement. He felt oddly off-balance. Good thing he was tied to the bars or he would have been on his face. Then he wondered if he'd really just thought that and just how messed up was his life for a thought like that to even cross his mind?

While Thug One broke open the crate, Thug Two slipped a knife from his belt and advanced on Sheppard, making short work of the shabby clothing they'd been dressing him in for the past several days and leaving him clad in only the boxers he'd arrived in. As it all fell away to be kicked into a corner, just what had been hidden in the crate came into sight. It was some kind of bulky looking generator if he wasn't mistaken. He doubted they were about to hook him up with in-cell TV, so that meant only one thing. This was their latest method to gain his compliance.

It didn't take a genius to figure out what was going to happen once Thug One unreeled a long wire with exposed filaments and strode his way over to him, thankfully wrapping the wire around one of his wrists and not the area of the anatomy he'd thought he might choose. Not that it would matter much once the fun really started; the Taliban had tortured him with a car battery just the same way, only they hadn't been so shy about where they'd put those filaments. It had been a full three months before he could pee again without his eyes watering.

Tareb picked up a pretty evil looking probe which Sheppard imagined had the electrode that would form the connection attached to the end of it. Thug One flicked a switch and a deep hum filled the cell, charging the air with static that danced painfully on his skin and agitated his follicles. So, not starting gentle then?

Tareb strolled his way, giving him a cocky smile. 'You know how this goes by now, Sheppard. I'm assuming I haven't just wasted all our time getting this set up.'

'That depends on the result you're looking for. It's a waste of time since I'm not gonna help you,' Sheppard asserted for the...hell, he had no idea how many times he'd said it now. He'd stopped counting a while back.

'You might change your mind,' Tareb teased. He rubbed the side of the probe along Sheppard's right arm, making that charge a little stronger. His muscles twitched involuntarily but this was mild compared to how bad it would get. He didn't try to fool himself for a second about that.

With only a minute twist of his wrist, Tareb suddenly unleashed the full charge. The electricity coursed through Sheppard's torso from that point to the wires touching the skin of his left arm, causing him to convulse so violently he cracked his head hard on the bars as his back arched in reaction. Tareb held him there for what was probably a lot less time than it felt like then finally pulled the probe away.

Sheppard sagged, what little strength he had found instantly zapped away from him. He panted through the pain as the last of the charge exited his body, ignoring the little childlike voice inside him telling him to give up right now.

When he managed to prise his eyes open Tareb was staring at him with a questioning look.

Sheppard thought about asking if that was the best he could do, but thankfully had the self-control not to. It had hurt like hell and he didn't want any more of it than Tareb felt was necessary.

'Hurts, doesn't it?' the smug bastard chirped, rubbing the barrel of the probe over Sheppard's stomach and grinning as he twisted away from it.

'Stings a bit,' Sheppard conceded in a voice more of a gasp than a clear joke.

Another twist of the wrist and the end was jabbed right into his solar plexus, stealing his breath as all his muscles contracted and he thrashed against the bars once again. He remained there, locked in position, unable to move or even cry out. His only reaction was a deep growl from somewhere deep in his throat. He hadn't even known he was capable of making such a guttural noise.

Tareb released him from the current and once again he turned boneless, hanging from his restrained wrists. His fingers buzzed with charge still. His breathing, this time more ragged, scraped in and out of his burning lungs, strained from holding his breath. Okay, this was bad. The power was a lot higher than anything the Taliban had used on him. He was sure he could smell burning hair.

'Still stinging?' Tareb asked, walking out of the cell door.

Sheppard couldn't see him but he could hear him, and he sensed his presence at his back, just before the surge of current returned to ravage his body again.

Every muscle contracted against its invasion, and his head once again cracked against the bars so hard he was sure he had to at least be splitting skin. That noise erupted from him once more, tearing his throat to pieces with its ferocity. And then it was over and he wilted, almost too weak to catch his breath.

'What about now?' Tareb rasped in his ear.

'Little lower please...got an itch...' Sheppard panted, stifling an almost hysterical burst of laughter so he hoped it merely sounded mocking. At least that was what he was going for.

A split second later the current surged from his groin up through his body in the most intense wave of pain he'd ever felt. He gritted his teeth so hard he felt sure he'd broken some...again.

He felt ready to explode by the time the probe was pulled away again.

'Better?'

'Lower back...I meant my lower back...' Sheppard sputtered, his vision greying. He hoped he was going to pass out...but a splash of water brought him straight back to alertness.

Water...oh, this was bad...this was very, very bad.

'Let's make this interesting, shall we?' Tareb rubbed what had to be the side of the probe down his back, the tingling ten times more pronounced this time with the added conduction of the water. Sheppard squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth ready for the inevitable strike.

'You know, this is nothing personal,' Tareb told him, drawing an unwelcome similarity to the last bastard who had tortured him for gain. 'I actually admire your determination.'

Sheppard wondered if he could bring this session to an end by enquiring what they wanted. He could let them think they were making ground, while all the time he would still have no intention of complying. But he stopped himself short of asking the question. If he knew what it was that they wanted, then at some point when he was at his most desperate he might begin to rationalise it, and make himself believe that no matter what he was being asked to do, it might not be so bad. No, he wouldn't ask, because he wouldn't help these criminals to make their lives in any way easier at the expense of someone else.

'Screw you!' he spat out between grunted breaths, and instantly the power was turned on him in full. This time he really did scream, and he convulsed so hard his limbs felt like the bones might actually fold in on themselves. The air was filled with the sounds of the current cracking and fizzing through him, and his whole body fell into a violent shuddering that he had no hope of stopping; it felt like he would actually shake himself apart. His chest began to hurt like his heart might explode. He became conscious of wisps of steam rise from his body, evaporated by the heat building inside him. Again, he wondered about asking what they wanted...just asking...but then convinced himself it was the start of the slippery slope down to capitulation. He couldn't do it.

Tareb pulled the probe back, entering the cell again and punching him hard in the jaw. Sheppard didn't care about that. He could barely feel it past the agony still rippling its way through his muscles and the remaining throb in his chest that might just be heart failure. Tareb could hit him as much as he liked. He didn't give a damn about that as long as he stopped with the electrocution.

'What is wrong with you, Sheppard?' Tareb yelled in his face. 'We're only a handful of people. How much harm do you think we can do?'

'With me... at the helm... of a Lantean vessel...I don't even...wanna...think about it.'

Another punch, this one registering a little more as his body shook off the current. 'You stupid bastard, Sheppard. Is it really worth dying over?'

'Better me than someone else,' Sheppard insisted, meeting the cold gaze of his captor's freakishly pale eyes.

Tareb tensed as if he'd been shocked himself, his lip twitching into a sneer. 'Have it your way,' he growled, then he jabbed the electrode straight into Sheppard's left temple.

He was grateful the pain was so short-lived...

Sheppard woke still experiencing painful tremors throughout his body. It took a few moments for him to realise he was safe in his room on Atlantis. As his familiar walls and belongings filtered through to him he began to relax, the spasm gripping his body immediately lessening with the release of tension.

He lay still a while, allowing his breathing to return to normal to stave off the inevitable dizzy spell that would come with rising too soon. Once he felt more normal, he sat up and swung his feet to the floor, checking his watch. Two hours had passed since he'd taken to his bed and the sleep had done him some good. He felt a little more...together. Not a whole lot different, but he could feel the change. Food, water and sleep. That was the key to his recovery.

He headed to his bathroom, slipping off his shirt and t-shirt to wash up ready to start the day afresh. A splash of cold water washed away the after effects of whatever nightmare he'd experienced. That was all it was, a nightmare after all – just his brain's way of filling in missing time...or reliving it while keeping the trauma away from his conscious thoughts. He'd heard the brain could do that when the truth would prove too much to handle. And of course it couldn't dream up a sexy brunette knocking on his door with a pack of ice cold Buds to mask the truth instead. That would be too much to ask.

He reached for his towel, burying his face in it and taking a moment to enjoy the fresh smell of the soft fabric. In the six weeks he'd spent with the faction he'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be clean. It was certainly good to be reminded.

He was so lost in the sensation that when he took the towel away from his face and saw the four armed marines behind him reflected in his mirror he almost jumped right out of his skin.

'Is there a problem, fellas?' he asked, turning to face them.

The marine closest to him tossed him his T-shirt. 'You need to come with us,' he said, flat and efficient. His gun hand never wavered.

Sheppard instantly noticed the lack of reference to his rank; it was unusual for his men to omit it. 'You gonna tell me what this is all about?' he pressed, tugging on his shirt.

A pause.

Then the instruction was repeated again. 'You need to come with us.'

He didn't question them a second time.

oooOOOooo

Dr Biro took her time as she prepared to carry out the autopsy Mr Woolsey had asked for with immediate effect. She washed up, careful to ensure every protocol was followed and every respect was given to her charge. Her diener, Milner, was at her side, similarly readying himself for the procedure. They worked in silence. Neither of them had any words to fill the sombre void.

And for Dr Biro, that was very unusual.

Not one to normally struggle with small talk...complex talk...talk of any nature in fact, Dr Biro had a reputation for verbosity. But today, every word stuck in her throat before it could pass her lips.

A glance in her diener's direction was enough to say she was ready to head through to theatre and begin. A simple nod was the silent answer he gave in response.

At the table she took a deep breath and grasped the zipper of the body bag, carefully undoing it to reveal the sad contents. Milner assisted her to free the body from its confinement and lay it out, such as it was, on the examination table. Then he gently lifted the head and slipped in a support to hold it in position as they worked as was normal procedure.

Biro tried to remain objective as she took in the various mark on the face, torso and arms. Some were recent, some older, all of them told a story of brutality she wasn't used to seeing here in the city. The worst things she'd seen out here in Pegasus were the dried up carcasses of Wraith victims, aside from the terrible damage suffered by Carson when he had been blown up by the tumour he'd removed from Dr Watson. But at least his injuries had resulted in instantaneous death. This poor soul had suffered far more. She couldn't comprehend the lack of empathy required to exact such brutality over and over again.

Without need for instruction, Milner collected a body block and positioned it under the torso to enable easier access to the body cavity once the necessary incisions had been made and the front of the ribcage removed. To be honest, it was easy to make an educated guess at the cause of death just looking at the cadaver before her, but this had to be done correctly. Everything needed to be logged and evidenced to build a case against their prisoners. They couldn't make any assumptions.

Biro picked up her scalpel from the tray of medical implements at the side of the table, taking it to the front of the right shoulder joint where she would begin the first cut. For the first time in her life she hesitated. She'd never had difficulty detaching herself from the fact the body on the slab was once a living, breathing being, but today was a day for firsts, she realised. The body before her had been so mistreated, it seemed wrong to add further injury. In her imagination she saw the eyes open and given her a look that said, 'Haven't I suffered enough?'

She shook that feeling off. She never felt anything other than enthusiasm for pathology...for being here in Atlantis...and as horrible as the task ahead of her was, she had to find that joy again. If not the job would become unbearable.

She sniffed in a sharp breath, looked up and gave her diener a smile. 'Okay...shall we begin?'

'Yes, Dr Biro,' he nodded, looking relieved to have the silence broken at last.

Biro set the blade to the skin and began a verbal report of her findings for Atlantis to record to her database. 'Victim's name is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Caucasian, male, aged forty-two years...'

oooOOOooo

Ronon took hold of Tareb's neck in just one hand and squeezed hard, watching without joy as the man turned red, then purple, then blue...his eyes bulging, tongue lolling from his mouth. The man clawed at his arm, but Ronon felt nothing but the necessity to see this act through to the end, an end that came too late to help his friend...

It was this vision that stayed Ronon's hand as he sat across the table from Tareb once again in the interview room. This time, he had not been invited to join Woolsey for this session of cat and mouse, but he had insisted on being there anyway. Tareb was devious. He'd proved that in their previous meetings where he had given no hint of what they might find on board his vessel. There was no way of knowing what the man was capable of, and Ronon meant to be there to deal with whatever Tareb threw at them next.

'We've been examining your ship,' Woolsey began, tone flat, giving nothing away.

Tareb showed a momentary flash of concern, but schooled his features back into casual disregard almost immediately. 'I hope you haven't damaged it.'

Ronon clenched his fists tightly on the tabletop between them. He wanted to do damage...but not to Tareb's ship.

'No, we haven't,' Woolsey assured him, again giving Tareb no cause for concern.

Ronon felt his muscles spasm and twitch, they were so taut. His body began a low tremble driven by a fury he could barely contain. His breathing grew sharp and angry. Tareb glanced his way, then nervously licked his lips. Though he knew Woolsey wanted to play this cool, Ronon dearly hoped Tareb was afraid, at least of him if not the situation he was in.

'Interesting vessel,' Woolsey continued without acknowledging the exchange between the two men accompanying him. 'Lantean design. I take it that's why you wanted Colonel Sheppard on board and went to so much trouble to capture him.'

'I told you before...we bypassed the Lantean genetic recognition systems. We had no need of your Colonel Sheppard. We've done just fine on our own so far.'

'Had?' Woolsey asked.

Ronon, too, had picked up on Tareb's use of the past tense. A wave of nausea rose up within him, one of many he knew he would have to endure. Sheppard was gone, and much as he wished the man would swagger in through the door with one of his witty one-liners, that was never going to happen. Sheppard was gone, and nothing Ronon could do could put that right. A fact he knew was going to drive him crazy for weeks and months to come.

Realising his focus had slipped, Ronon snapped his gaze back to Tareb and curled his lip, earning another anxious look from their prisoner. It brought him no joy.

He felt nothing.

He was numb.

'I imagine it's a very complicated process to bypass Lantean systems,' Woolsey mused, leaning back in his seat as if trying to see Tareb more fully. 'It would take intelligence far greater than most people possess to manage it.'

Tareb narrowed his eyes. 'Are you doubting my word?'

'Not at all. I was just wondering if you might have had a little help with your...improvements.'

There was a definite pause, but then their prisoner fronted it out. 'So you're saying we're too stupid to carry out the alterations ourselves?'

To Ronon's surprise, Woolsey dropped the diplomacy. 'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying, Mr Tareb. We found the Vanir you were holding on your ship. It seems he wasn't treated quite as well as you led me to believe your guests usually are.'

Tareb blinked at him, letting that statement fully sink in. 'We did have to persuade him to assist us,' he admitted.

'Yes,' Woolsey demurred, 'And yet you told us you didn't feel it necessary to persuade Colonel Sheppard to help you?'

Ronon watched the man grow steadily more uncomfortable with the way the questions were going, sating his need for revenge by visualising squeezing his neck in just one hand until it snapped like a brittle branch.

'With the ship working as we needed it to, there was no need to persuade him to assist,' Tareb clearly lied.

'So why did you kill him?'

And there it was – truth laid bare.

Stark.

Real.

And once again Ronon felt the bile rise in his throat. For just a second he knew his glare lost its edge. But only for a second. He would hold it together for Sheppard.

Tareb's lips quivered up into a sort of frightened smile. 'Excuse me?' he half-laughed, as if having trouble comprehending the question.

'Oh, I don't mean the man you presented us with when we boarded your ship,' Woolsey explained. 'He's still very much alive. I mean the Colonel Sheppard we found apparently tortured to death, whose remains you were preserving in one of the stasis pods along with the Vanir.'

Tareb was silent, eyes darting between Ronon and Woolsey as if he was gauging whether he could spin another web of lies and salvage the situation. Then his face split into a manic smile, eyes watery with near hysteria as he stared at Ronon, seemingly knowing he had nothing left to hide behind. 'Oh, that Colonel Sheppard,' he sniggered, laughter catching in his throat. 'I'd quite forgotten about him. But then I didn't mastermind all this. If you want to know what really happened, you need to go talk to the man who has taken his place. All this was his genius plan.'

oooOOOooo

Sheppard paced the brig. He had been free for a sum total of twenty-one hours, that was all, and now he was back on the wrong side of a set of Lantean bars again.

And nobody would tell him what was going on.

He'd stopped asking the SFs on guard duty for answers. Neither of them had as much as blinked when he'd asked them, pleaded with them and even yelled at them, and now his throat was sore, his heart was heavy and he remained none-the-wiser. Apparently he was in big trouble and he still had no idea what he was supposed to have done.

And so he paced...

As he walked, he tried his darnedest to piece together what had happened on Tareb's ship. He knew he'd seen some answers in his dreams, that he'd woken scared and dripping with sweat for some reason, but as with many dreams clarity was lost the instant he woke and the fog surrounding the images continued to thicken the more awake he became. Whatever he'd remembered was lost to him again. It was like trying to grasp water; it all just slipped away from him no matter how hard he tried to hold onto it.

As he made the return trip towards the front bars he realised someone else had joined his guards.

It was Teyla.

Glad to see a friendly face, it took him a moment to realise just how pale she looked and how puffy her eyes were. Had she been crying?

'Teyla...what's wrong? What's happened?'

She stared back at him, and he realised now that although there were hints of tears in her eyes, her jaw was set and her gaze was steely. Anger had replaced whatever sadness had earlier reduced her to this state.

'Teyla?'

'I thought I needed to see you...but perhaps this was a mistake,' she hissed, her pretty face adopting an uncharacteristic scowl.

'Wha...?' He gaped back at her. 'Why are you being like this? What am I supposed to have done?'

'Do not pretend not to know.'

'Who's pretending, Teyla? I –'

'How is it that you know my name...all of our names?'

Again, for a moment all he could do was stare back at her, wondering what she meant. He laughed at the absurdity of it all. 'I know I have some memory loss, but I can still remember that much.'

'He would not have given up such information freely...do you possess some kind of mind probing technology?'

The thought that something had happened to Atlantis in his absence, some exposure to a drug or weird alien microbe that was screwing with their brains popped into his head. It was like Lucius all over again; him against the rest of the crew. Only this time he was behind bars with no means of getting out. 'Are you feeling okay?'

'Or was the torture so unbearable he simply had to talk?'

Tears glistened in her eyes again, and a single tear trickled down her cheek. She shook with anger – anger apparently aimed at him. 'Torture? Who am I supposed to have tortured? Teyla...I swear I have no idea what you're talking ab –'

'Do not use my name. We are not friends.' she growled, those tear–filled eyes now aflame. 'Just because you wear his face that does not make you John Sheppard!'

He blinked, letting her words sink in. She didn't think he was John Sheppard? Then who the hell did she think he was?

'I knew something was wrong the moment we saw you, but I allowed hope to override my instincts.'

'Teyla...it's me...'

'No...no more lies. You are not John Sheppard because I found him...or what is left of him...aboard the Traveller vessel.'

Cold enveloped his body as if he'd been dunked in a deep freeze. 'What's left of him?'

Teyla lifted her chin, the look she gave him even colder than the ice sheathing his spine. 'John Sheppard is dead. We know that. So you can drop the pretence and tell us what you hoped to gain by infiltrating our population.'

Dead?

No, he was right here standing in front of her. Couldn't she see that? But then...Sheppard thought about all the strange feelings he'd been experiencing since his return, that sense of being...detached. And the fact all of his scar were missing. He'd known deep down that wasn't due to some act of kindness. But he still felt like himself...just a little off. He was here...he was real. Whatever John Sheppard they believed they had found had to be fake...didn't he?

Sheppard backed away from the bars, edging into a corner where he sat down before his weak legs let him down. Teyla's gaze burned into him the whole time, losing none of its ferocity even as he sank to the floor, overwhelmed by the news she had delivered so coldly.

'Teyla, I swear –' he tried again, only to be cut off before he could finish.

'I will not listen to your lies. You will tell us what your plans for us were and then you will be tried for your crimes. Confessing now might make Mr Woolsey consider a more lenient punishment. That is the only thing you have control of now.'

Sheppard desperately tried to remember something from his time aboard the Traveller ship that would explain all this...something that would prove to Teyla once and for all that despite the oddness of his behaviour and appearance he was one hundred per cent John Sheppard. But trying to recall anything was like looking into a bottomless void. His memory was nothing but a dark, cavernous hole, gaping and seemingly empty, but with the promise of terrible horrors lurking in its murky depths.

'I...I can't remember anything,' he whispered, only just loud enough to be audible. 'But I know who I am, and I am John Sheppard.'

He hadn't imagined it possible, but Teyla's expression hardened still more, seething hatred twisting her mouth into a sneer. 'Very well. If you insist on maintaining this pretence I make no apology for what punishment you will be dealt.'

Punishment? Denial of his true self, rejection by his friends, these were punishment enough in his opinion. He doubted it could get any worse.

And then Ronon appeared in the doorway, body taut with fury, and he realised just how wrong he was.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

He still couldn't figure out what the device was. What was wrong with him?

Rodney let his head fall back with a sigh. He knew exactly what was wrong with him. His friend was dead. And for possibly the first time in his life he couldn't do anything to bring him back. They'd had near misses, and Sheppard had cheated death so many times it had seemed he was genetically crossed with a cat. But Rodney had seen the evidence with his own eyes – something he dearly wished he could un-see – and now it was indelibly burned into his memory, destined to haunt his dreams for years to come.

Sheppard was gone. And he'd gone in a manner so horrific Rodney had thrown up his breakfast and not even been able to think of eating since. He couldn't imagine ever facing food again.

Stop it!

He forced himself to look back at the data readings again and try to make sense of them. Perhaps he should call on Hermiod...no...he wasn't ready to admit the little guy was smarter than him just yet...even if he did sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that he might be...

'Rodney...you know, I could probably do this without you,' Zelenka said, speaking up and interrupting his thoughts.

Rodney lifted his eyes from his tablet screen and blinked back at him a few times. He knew a comment like that would usually rip a lightning-fast put-down from him, but he just didn't have the energy or the will to formulate a sentence, let alone a witty come-back. 'Huh?'

'You've had a terrible shock...perhaps you should be resting.'

The sympathy on Zelenka's face almost reduced him to tears right there and then, but Rodney fought it back and set his jaw. 'No...I can do this. I just need to run a few more tests, gather a little more data. I almost have it cracked.'

'All of which I can do,' Zelenka pointed out, taking hold of Rodney's tablet and trying to ease it from his grip.

McKay just tightened his grip. 'I said I can do this,' he insisted, his knuckles white with determination to hold on to the device.

Zelenka let go with a sigh. 'I'll take a look at the device itself...see if I can figure a way to activate it.'

'Nononono!' Rodney gasped, grabbing the back of his shirt with his free hand while still hanging on to his tablet. 'Don't activate anything!'

Again, the sympathy in Zelenka's expression was crippling. Rodney felt his heart crack. But he wouldn't let the feelings out, terrified if he started to mourn the flood of emotions would be too much to bear.

'I doubt we will find anything worse than has already been discovered,' the Czech said softly, hands clasped in front of him as if that was the only way he could resist touching the Vanir device.

'Well, maybe not,' Rodney croaked, stopping to swallow away the lump rising in his craw. 'But I don't want to find out this machine is what caused...' He couldn't even finish his sentence, the memory of Sheppard's body making his dry heave and cutting him off. He took a deep breath and composed himself. 'We just need to figure out what this device does and if it's safe...let's try not to add to the body count.'

After they'd discovered Sheppard's body, Woolsey had made it their priority to examine the Vanir device before the search of the ship continued. He wanted to be sure it wasn't going to do something catastrophic before he allowed more people aboard to assist in the potentially mammoth task of checking every pod and cataloguing and collecting what lay within them. The section was now being guarded by Lorne and his team while they ascertained the functionality of the alien device. It didn't seem to be weaponised, which was an immense relief since Rodney really didn't feel like being ripped to shreds in an explosion...he cursed himself again for thinking that thought and the images that returned along with it. What had they used on Sheppard? A chainsaw? Did they even have those out here in Pegasus?

Stop it!

With another deep breath he forced that to the back of his mind again and scrolled through the data. It didn't make sense. All he could glean from it was that it was some kind of databank of genomes, but it looked far too complex a device to simply be some type of information store. There had to be more to it than that. And if he wasn't mistaken, some of the readings he'd taken suggested the machine contained biological materials, too. And that was what had him worried. It might be nothing more than a glorified casket for another of the faction's victims...or even the cause of Sheppard's traumatic death. He really didn't want to find out who else they had taken apart on this ship. He glanced up at the dozens of pods surrounding him and shuddered. This place might be a futuristic cemetery for anyone who'd got in the faction's bad books. How many more victims lay yet undiscovered?

The mere thought of what might lie within the machine's confines made him retch involuntarily again. Nope, he was definitely never going to be able to eat again.

'You got anything yet, Docs?' Lorne asked, his face grave as he approached them. He looked odd without the glint in his eye Rodney was so accustomed to seeing, but he supposed even the major had to have been affected by the remains they'd found. Hardened war veteran or no, it could never be easy to see a friend and colleague treated that way. 'Err, well, I can tell you what it isn't...' he offered.

'That's a start,' the major urged, fixing him with an expectant stare.

'It's not a weapon,' Rodney told him, seeing an instant release in the tension grasping Lorne's body.

'That's good news,' the major said, his voice flat and without even a hint of the relief he clearly felt. Briefly Rodney wondered how long it would take for them all to feel normal again because a humourless Lorne was just too weird to contemplate.

'I believe if we activate it, that would help us to understand it better,' Zelenka piped up now, and Rodney threw him a scowl that belied the fear the idea awoke inside him.

'So, do it,' the major told him, looking between the two of them as if puzzled as to why they hadn't done it already.

'Dr McKay does not wish to do it.'

Okay, so now Rodney understood what Zelenka was doing. He couldn't act without Rodney's permission because he was Chief Science Officer. He wanted Lorne to overrule and give him permission to do the work Rodney wouldn't let him carry out.

'McKay?'

It wasn't exactly a question, but Rodney knew Lorne was looking for an explanation. 'We don't know what we might find in there.'

'But you already said it isn't dangerous,' the major pointed out.

'No but –'

Lorne grabbed his sleeve and pulled him aside. 'Look, McKay. I understand where this is coming from, I really do, but we have to clear this ship so it can be fully examined and we can't do that until we work out what this machine is all about. If activating it can tell us that, we have to do it.'

McKay swallowed hard and gave a feeble nod.

'You don't have to be here,' Lorne added, his voice lower now. 'Don't you have to go check something out some other place?'

'Er...yes...yes...I need to head up to the bridge to collect a log of recent destinations,' Rodney agreed loud enough for the others to hear, grateful for the chance to save face Lorne had presented him with.

He tapped at his tablet as he left the room as if carrying out some vital work as he moved. One of Lorne's team instantly tucked in behind him, there to protect him from any hidden and yet undiscovered bad guys. The creepy sensation he'd been labouring under lifted the moment he left the stasis chambers behind him, but sorrow quickly seeped in to fill the gap that sensation had left behind. After carrying out a few cursory checks, he slumped into the command chair and dropped his head into his hands, no longer interested in concealing his grief. He didn't care who saw his pain. He just could not keep it in anymore.

He heard the marine move away to the door, hanging back, giving him the space he needed to get his thoughts into some sort of order. It was still hard to believe Sheppard was gone. He hadn't allowed himself to absorb it...didn't even know if he could. How had things gone south so quickly on that fateful mission? The truth was, he had a nagging feeling he was to blame for the fact Sheppard hadn't made it through the gate with the rest of them.

The day of the ambush had been one like many others. A peaceful trip to a village they had helped to rebuild after a Wraith culling almost a year ago. They'd done the same thing dozens of times before, mostly without mishap or drama, even though they always knew they could never take any trip for granted. Sheppard had been in good spirits, playing baseball with the local kids, a game he'd taught them on a previous visit, and, of course, he'd flirted with a particularly pretty girl who'd brought them all refreshments after their exertions. And later on they'd all enjoyed an impressive meal by Pegasus standards. As follow-up missions went, it had been an enjoyable one, if a little low-tech for his tastes.

And then, on the way back to the 'gate, the firing had started.

Great pulses of energy just like Ronon's gun had thumped through the air, shaking his body and leaving his eardrums reverberating so painfully he'd been forced to squat and cover his ears, dropping his gun in the process.

Sheppard had been out in front, but had obviously seen him stop so returned for him, dragging him up and hauling his sorry ass toward the Stargate. He'd shoved Rodney in the direction of the DHD while he, Teyla and Ronon had laid down cover fire. So he'd dialled the address and they'd all made a run for the 'gate...but Sheppard hadn't made it through. First he'd been shot, straight through his right hand. That had forced him to release his P-90 and go for his side arm, not easy when reaching with his left. But he'd managed it and was still a way better shot than Rodney despite the fact it wasn't his dominant hand. The ambush had been launched with the colonel only meters from the 'gate and, with the rest of them under heavy fire, and no way had those guns been set on stun, they'd been forced to throw themselves through the Stargate's gaping maw just to survive.

'McKay, we opened up the device...I think you're gonna want to see this.'

Lorne's voice broke off his sobs instantly. Whatever was inside couldn't be too bad if Lorne was calling him back. He'd been panicking over nothing.

'I'll be right there,' he barked back, bouncing up from the chair and sniffing back tears as if they'd never happened.

As he passed the marine on guard duty he snapped his fingers and ordered, 'With me,' to which the man said nothing but automatically fell in step behind him as he had done on the journey down there. Rodney told himself it was out of respect for him, not because his orders were to watch the helpless scientist.

Back in the oppressive atmosphere of the stasis room, Rodney clambered his way up to the hidden level, cautiously poking his head in to judge whether to go any further. 'What did you find?' he asked from the safety of his quick exit route.

Zelenka looked pale and disbelieving, never a good sign, and Lorne...Lorne looked dazed, as if someone had just punched him in the face. The man ran a hand back through his hair, then swiped it down his face, shaking his head. 'I dunno, Doc. You tell me.'

He pointed to the device, an invitation for Rodney to examine its contents. Warily, McKay rose the rest of the way into the chamber and edged over to the open device, peering inside with trepidation and a slight queasy feeling as if he was about to see the device's exposed intestines.

He gasped.

He blinked a few times.

He stepped back and almost fell, through the opening he'd just entered by, but Lorne was there to stop him.

Inside the device was John Sheppard, totally at peace and as naked as the day he was born. He looked as if he had just fallen asleep there.

'Is he...is he...' Rodney's mouth and his brain had somehow slipped out of sync. He couldn't form the question.

'He doesn't have any brain activity,' Zelenka told him softly, resting a hand on his shoulder as Rodney moved forward to take a better look at him.

'But his body is functioning,' Lorne quickly added. 'This machine seems to be doing everything required to keep the body healthy – food, oxygen –'

'Even electrical impulses to stimulate muscle development,' Zelenka picked up again. 'But there is zero brain activity.'

'But...why...' and then Rodney had his Eureka moment. He knew what the device was and he knew what Tareb and his men had done. 'We have to contact Woolsey. We've made a terrible mistake!'

oooOOOooo

There was a look in Ronon's eyes that told Sheppard he was in big trouble and no one was about to intervene. He glanced up at Teyla, saw the cold indifference with which she watched the huge Satedan enter the room with clearly murderous intentions, and knew there was no point in appealing to her. Whatever Ronon did to him would have her blessing. What the hell did they think had happened that they could turn on him this way?

'Ronon...buddy...there's been some kind of a misunderstanding.'

Ronon sneered and began to circle him. They'd done this dance a hundred times in the gym, but never before had Sheppard been in genuine fear for his life. Ronon was a big, mean bastard, but also a fiercely loyal friend who knew when enough was enough when they sparred. He rarely drew blood, and when he did it was more often than not because of a mistake Sheppard made himself.

'There's no misunderstanding,' Ronon growled, pressing in ever closer with each rotation. 'You're not John Sheppard. That's all I need to know.'

Sheppard raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. He had no desire to get into a fight with his friend. For one thing he didn't want to hurt the man, and for another, he knew which of the two of them would come off worse at the end of it. 'I am Sheppard. I swear. Don't you think Keller would have spotted something if I weren't?'

'I dunno...you were pretty convincing. You even had me fooled for a while.'

'I'm not fooling anyone. I am John Sheppard.'

The sudden punch connected hard, snapping his head back and leaving him staggering. For a second he thought he might pass out, but when his butt slammed into the floor it brought him back with a jolt. He sat there, staring up at his friend, blood flowing from his nose, so stunned he couldn't even think about getting back to his feet.

Ronon helped him with that dilemma by hauling him up by his shirt front and slamming him into the bars. His hot breath right in Sheppard's face came in short, angry pants. He was just waiting for an excuse to strike him again. Sheppard clamped his mouth tight shut to prevent himself firing off one of his customary wisecracks. He was in no shape to take Ronon on when he was in full health; in his present state the Satedan would probably snap him like a twig.

'Why did you come here looking like Sheppard? What do you want from us?' Ronon demanded.

Sheppard licked his lips, nerves leaving his mouth dry. He fixed his eyes on Ronon's, seeing the fury burning deep in them. There was nothing he could say that the Satedan wanted to hear. Ronon had already made up his mind that he wasn't John Sheppard. But he was. What could he do to prove that to him?

'I don't know what Tareb told you –'

'He didn't have to tell me anything. I know you're not Sheppard because he's lying in our morgue.'

A sick panic surged in his gut at those words. That was the second time one of his team had claimed to see his dead body...and then he thought about his own body, the new improved one minus all the bumps and scrapes. What if he wasn't John Sheppard after all, because something sure as hell wasn't right here?

'I don't know what's going on, Ronon,' he told him, keeping his eyes locked on his friend's to persuade him of his sincerity. 'And I'm not gonna say you're wrong because clearly you're convinced you're not, but I am John Sheppard. I have all my thoughts, my feelings, my memories—'

Ronon jerked him away from the bars and slammed him against them again, thudding the back of his skull against the solid metal surface. Stars blinked in and out of view for a few seconds as he laboured under the pressure of Ronon's body weight leaning into him. 'Prove it!'

'Prove it?'

Another jerk and his head collided with the bars again. 'I said prove it, not repeat the question.'

Ronon's weight against him was becoming excruciating, cutting off his oxygen and making it hard to concentrate on anything other than catching his breath. Sheppard thought about what he could say that might evidence the fact he was who he said he was, reeling off the first things that popped into his mind. 'Your name is...Ronon Dex. You were...ranked a...specialist in the...Satedan army before...the Wraith culled your planet...and destroyed your home. Now you're one of only –'

'You could have hacked into personnel files for that. Tell me something only Sheppard would know.'

Something only he could know? Dammit, they'd had hundreds of conversations, well, he'd talked and Ronon had offered up the odd word or two, but nothing that was so outstanding he could remember it in detail. There had to be something more memorable. They'd had...moments.

'Time's up,' Ronon hissed, shifting his grip to his throat and squeezing.

And that's when it came to Sheppard, the one moment they shared that had meant so much to the two of them.

'When the Wraith...had you hopped up on enzyme,' he wheezed, hoping Ronon could understand him. 'We brought you...back here and you...you were still addicted. You hated us...wanted us to let you go back to the Wraith...or kill you –' He tugged at Ronon's thick fingers, trying desperately to get a few gasps of air so he could finish his story. 'When you got through it I...I brought...you...your sword...to show I...trusted you.'

The look on Ronon's face changed from fury to confusion in an instant. But he didn't think to let go, and Sheppard was losing consciousness. The last thing he heard was Woolsey ordering Ronon to stop before his mind phased out and he felt what little strength he had left completely abandon him...

oooOOOooo

Waking alone once again in his cell, Sheppard balled himself up tight in a corner and hoped no one came too soon this time. He was hungry and he was thirsty, but that was preferable to the previous several times his captors had visited him. He couldn't give in to their demands...wouldn't give in...and the tortures they'd employed had grown steadily worse and more violent as their patience with him wore ever thinner.

Where was rescue? Why hadn't anyone come for him?

But he knew why. They were a moving target. It was hard to pin them down. The Travellers were adept at staying off the radar to keep themselves safe from the Wraith. These guys had to be just as good if not better. Rescue was going to take time. Probably more time than he had before Tareb and his cronies returned with their demands again.

An involuntary shudder shook through his body and he curled in on himself even tighter, as if making himself small would render him harder to find. He remained there, gently rocking, for an unidentifiable length of time, possibly minutes, possibly even hours, but then the all too familiar sound of approaching footsteps broke the enveloping silence and he knew it was time to put on the front and face his captors down once more.

Tareb led in his two henchmen as he always did. They crowded in at the bars, Tareb wearing the same smug smile he always did now. He knew he was getting to Sheppard no matter how hard he had tried not to show his fear. Sheppard rose unsteadily to his feet. He didn't know what these creeps were doing to him, but every time he thought he was dead for sure they would put him back together and the whole process would begin again, slowly unpicking the strands of his sanity until now he was beginning to doubt the reality of any of this.

Maybe this was just a nightmare. He had already had it pointed out all too painfully by the Sekkari A.I. that he had a habit of torturing himself after all.

'Good to see you awake, Sheppard,' Tareb drawled, those pale eyes drilling into him. Sheppard felt as if they were stripping away his layers of bravado, exposing the shaken soul beneath.

'Wish I could say the same,' he quipped, forcing on his own cocky smile. He had nothing else left in his ammunition. He couldn't talk his way out, fight his way out, or even beg his way out...none of those things would mean a damned thing to Tareb. All he could do was keep refusing to comply and hoping his people found him soon. They had to find him soon...didn't they? It had been weeks now..hadn't it? He couldn't really recall how long it had been, all he knew was he'd spent almost as much time unconscious as he had in agony and wishing he could be unconscious again. But he had to stay strong, even if they beat him mercilessly and woke him up again a hundred times over. He couldn't let even one innocent die because he had broken down. He didn't think his conscience would let him live with that.

'My friends and I were wondering if you were feeling any more inclined to listen to our term?' Tareb asked.

Sheppard raised his chin, watching a momentary flash of disbelief cross the faces of those three men gathered on the other side of his bars. 'Can't say that I am.'

Tareb stared a moment longer, then lowered his head, shaking it as he chuckled into his chest. 'Why do you persist in this stubborn refusal to even hear our request, Colonel Sheppard?'

'The same reason you keep asking me to listen,' he replied somewhat enigmatically. He didn't have a firm reason why if he was honest, only a gut instinct that told him these men were up to no good and nothing they said would be something he wanted to help them with.

Tareb lifted his head, then allowed a smirk to break out. 'That mouth of yours get you into a lot of trouble, does it?'

'Hard as this is to believe, it sometimes gets me out of it...too...' Sheppard stammered to a halt as the man at Tareb's left shoulder pulled something resembling a small chainsaw out from behind his back and gave it a buzz.

Suddenly, words eluded him.

The other heavy now stepped forward and deactivated the cell door, granting the three of them access to their prisoner. Still no words came, but the urge to scream was almost too strong to suppress. They'd done terrible things to him over the past...however long it was...but this...no way...he couldn't do this.

There was a beat of calm, a second of utter silence, and then they pounced. Struggling for all he was worth, Sheppard landed a few good blows before he was pounded into submission. Before he knew it he was pinned, wrists and ankles, clothes torn, face throbbing and his mouth filled with the taint of blood. But still he came up short of begging. He thought about the types of people he had met in the months previous to this...women and children, the elderly, people who were vulnerable and weak who had endured the attacks of this faction and lost loved ones to them. He kept a picture of one pretty little girl he'd met at the forefront of his mind, the one with the saddest eyes he'd ever seen...the one who had lost her mother only two days before. He could do this...he could do this to spare children like her the heartache of growing up without a mom the way she would...the way he had.

Tareb's face appeared upside down above him, grinning fiercely. 'I don't think you're taking this seriously, Colonel Sheppard. You will take us where we want to go, even if it takes several lifetimes to convince you. We can be patient. We've waited six months already to track you down and get you here.'

The heavy with the mini-saw gave it another rev, just for added effect. Not that he needed the seriousness of his current predicament emphasised in any way. He was up that certain creek without a paddle, just as he had been too many times before.

'My people will find me long before you change my mind,' he grunted, teeth gritted as he strained against their grip. But he was going nowhere; they had him beat.

'So you keep saying,' Tareb scoffed. 'The thing is, Sheppard, what you have apparently failed to grasp is that I don't need all of you present to fly this ship. There are parts of you that could be...removed...to help you change that mind of yours a little faster.'

The saw revved again.

Sheppard's throat instantly dried. He seriously doubted that whatever medicine the Tareb had used to heal him on the previous occasions would help him grow back limbs. He hoped to God he was hallucinating again, just like with the Sekkari, even if his propensity for imagining himself minus a limb or two was deeply disturbing.

Tareb pressed down harder on his pinned wrists, just to prove this really was happening. Tareb's reputation had been spelled out to Sheppard very clearly by a number of Pegasus locals in recent months. Sheppard knew he wasn't kidding; if he continued with his refusal to assist he was going to lose something...and not just his mind which had been his biggest fear on waking. That young girl's tear-stained face popped into his head again. Maribeth...that had been her name. He'd tried to cheer her up by giving her his flashlight and telling her the story of the Princess Bride...at least an abbreviated version. And even though he'd earned a smile, those huge eyes had told him of the pain she just couldn't shake. Fuelled for the fight he said, 'I guess you don't hear too well, Tareb. I said it's not gonna happen.'

He felt a surge of panic even as the words left his mouth, his mind immediately shifting to contemplation of which part of his anatomy would be departing first. At some level he was still hoping this wasn't real, even though his rational mind told him it was and he should agree to whatever they asked for and spare himself a world...no, a universe of pain.

'So where shall we start?' Tareb mused, as if reading his thoughts. 'We need your hands...and your arms of course. And then there's your head...we still need that...not to mention all those vital organs to keep the useful bits going.' The man's gaze hardened, the revving of the saw filling Sheppard's head along with the thumping of his heart. Tareb leaned right over him so his face was so close it was all Sheppard could see. 'So that leaves us with your legs. They're only good for running...and you're not going anywhere, Sheppard.'

The buzz changed, slowing and deepening as if the saw was suddenly working harder. It took only a second longer for Sheppard to realise that the teeth were already through his pants leg and tearing at the skin on his shin...

'I do not know how to feel,' a soft female voice whispered nearby. 'Is it possible he really is John? Or have they merely made a physical copy and inserted another consciousness within it?'

Sheppard blinked his eyes open, the nightmare instantly gone even if a sense of unease still lurked in his mind. He lifted his head a little off his pillows to look at the group of people gathered there at the end of his bed. They were so deeply engrossed in their discussion that none of them noticed he was awake. He dropped his head back down and closed his eyes, deciding to listen in.

Now he was properly conscious he felt the restraints at his wrists, thankfully the soft leather type used for medically restraining patients, not metal cuffs. They grounded him...made him feel like he was actually there not just imagining it. He felt tethered to his body in a way he hadn't felt since his return. It had almost felt as if he was separate from it and could float away at any moment until now. But he couldn't stay anchored this way forever...or could he?

'Well, I know he's been a little...off...but he's essentially Sheppard, right?' Rodney offered tentatively. 'Jennifer says his delta waves match up to what we have on record for him.'

'Hermiod told me the download hadn't been fully completed, as if it had been done in a hurry when they realised they might be boarded,' he heard Jennifer pipe up now. 'The data was still mostly retained in the chip in his brain – the filaments were connected with the areas of the brain required for him to function properly, but the information was one step removed from being in his actual brain.'

'Explains why he's been acting weird,' Ronon grunted, eloquent and succinct as ever.

And it did. So his memories and personality had been stored in a chip in his brain and were not actually in his brain. No wonder he'd felt so detached. Then he paused. But why had his consciousness been uploaded to a chip? What set of circumstances had led to that being necessary? Did his mind have to be removed from his body when the healing process Tareb had carried out on him took place? 'How can we know for certain that it is John in that body, and not someone else as Tareb has suggested?' Teyla asked.

Someone else in that body? What the hell? Enough was enough. He couldn't just lie there in silence any more. 'That body? It's my body, who else would be in it?'

All heads snapped around in his direction, and Keller was quick to rush to his bedside and reassure him. 'Don't get yourself upset, Colonel. We'll have all this figured out in no time.'

He cast a look around the group, each of them wearing expressions that flitted between wariness and shame. 'Don't get upset? Last I recall, my friends want me dead. I think that's worth getting a little upset over.'

Woolsey approached the other side of his bed, grim-faced and clearly nervous. 'We believe we know the reason you don't remember anything, Colonel.'

'Great...so tell me,' Sheppard insisted, looking around at all of them, seeing the mistrust still lighting their eyes.

'How do we know it's him?' Ronon said again, reminding Woolsey to practice caution as he shifted his stance to glare at Sheppard over his folded arms.

'He did know about your sword, Ronon,' Teyla responded, her eyes also fixed on Sheppard as if gauging his reaction. 'You said yourself that was a private moment. Only you and John knew about it.'

'So tell us some other stuff,' Rodney piped up. 'Stuff only Sheppard would know. Prove to us you are who you say you are.'

'Why are you doubting me?' he demanded, 'Don't I at least deserve an explanation?'

'Depends,' Ronon said, and that was all he said.

Sheppard sighed and rolled his eyes, wracking his brain for things he could say only each individual and himself might know. 'Uh...Teyla...when the city went into lockdown and we were stuck in Rodney's lab I was scared you would go into labour...and you let me feel Torren kicking. You took hold of my hand and put it right over where he was doing it so I could feel it too.'

A brilliant smile lit up her face, and tears, this time of happiness, moistened her warm brown eyes. 'That is true. I remember it well.'

'Okay...that's two for two,' Rodney announced. 'So what else you got?'

Sheppard shifted his focus to Woolsey. The man looked sheepish and swallowed hard. He was hugely private, just as Sheppard was. He wouldn't relish the idea of a confidential conversation being made public. But Sheppard had to do this...he had to make them believe.

'After we were put on trial for crimes against the Pegasus Galaxy, you confessed to me that you bribed Kelore to help gain our freedom.'

Now all eyes were on Woolsey. 'Well, it became clear to me very quickly that those people weren't going to listen to a purely reasoned argument. I merely...sweetened the pot, so to speak.' He ran a finger around his collar, something Sheppard hadn't noticed him doing so much lately since he'd grown more used to his uniform. He doubted it was the clothes making him uncomfortable now.

Rodney cracked a lop-sided smile. 'You sly dog!'

'Well, I for one am very grateful that you took whatever measures were necessary to free us,' Teyla smiled gently, dipping her head to him.

'Yeah...me too.' That was as close to a thank you as Ronon was likely to get.

'One last go, then,' Rodney said, facing him now. 'And I have the perfect thing.'

Of course Rodney would want control of what might come tumbling out of his mouth. They'd shared a few private moments in their five years together, times where Rodney had confided in him his fears and desires, with seemingly little understanding of how much trust he was putting in him not to share. Rodney had so few people skills Sheppard had just accepted his need to talk about just about anything from time to time with someone he clearly thought might now spill the beans. He waited to see what Rodney asked him to remember.

'When I was sick with that parasite in my brain and I was losing my mind...the night I came looking for you and you took me out on the pier for a drink...what name did I call you? The one when I pretended not to remember your real name.'

Sheppard remembered it well. Two hours of heartbreaking conversation, with Rodney struggling to string sentences together and trying to persuade him to say goodbye while he would be able to remember who Sheppard was. And he'd refused, because the thought of losing his friend had been too difficult to acknowledge even for a second. He smiled at the memory of those moments they hadn't really discussed since that day, glad he'd refused to say his farewells. He was the eternal optimist, and his hope had paid off. 'Arthur,' he grinned. 'You called me Arthur.'

'Yes!' Rodney cried, punching the air. 'He remembers.'

'Is it possible Tareb's people had access to Colonel Sheppard's memories and could be using them to fool us?' Richard asked. He was playing Devil's advocate and Sheppard didn't blame him. Of everyone here, he was the one best set to look at this analytically rather than emotionally. They had formed a good working relationship over the past year, but they didn't share the close bond he had with his team. That slight distance gave him an essential clarity the others might struggle to achieve.

'Even if they could, how would anyone else know which memories were attached to which moment? The thoughts of the human mind are chaotic unless you have some way of pulling them together, a chronological recall of the sequence those memories occurred in. Who else would have that sense of order but Sheppard?'

Rodney was grinning from ear to ear, true mad scientist style. Then, out of the blue, he flung his arms around Sheppard and pulled him into a crushing hug right there where he lay propped up in bed. Feeling awkward about the uncharacteristic show of affection, Sheppard croaked, 'Need to breathe, Rodney!

'Sorry! Sorry!' Rodney let go and stepped back, still grinning.

'Rodney is very happy you are not dead,' Teyla explained, lifting Sheppard's hand from the mattress and holding it tightly between hers. 'We all are. And we are sorry for doubting you.'

'I don't get it...why did you think I was dead? Why did you think I might be someone else? And who the hell is this body in the morgue you all thought was me?'

'That is a long and rather gruesome story, Colonel,' Woolsey told him. 'And one best kept until you're stronger.'

Oh, no. They couldn't drop breadcrumbs like that and not finish the explanation. 'What? Wait...no...you can't keep me hanging on like this!'

Keller gently but firmly pressed him back to his pillows and made him focus on her. 'I agree with Mr Woolsey, Colonel. You're staying here under observation until morning. Then, and only then, will I make a decision on whether or not you're ready to hear the truth.'

'But...'

'Doctor's orders,' she insisted.

He relaxed under her hands; throwing a fit over this wasn't going to win her over. Playing the good patient just might. 'Okay.'

'Now, if you don't mind, I'd like you all to give the colonel some space so he can get some rest. I think he's been through quite enough in the past couple of days, don't you?'

Looking shame-faced, his friends began to file out, wishing him well as they left. Teyla was the last to leave, still clinging to his hand even as she took her first couple of retreating steps. 'We are so very sorry for how we treated you, John. I am glad we were wrong.'

Unexpectedly, she advanced again, touching her forehead to his and grasping so tightly onto his shoulders it bordered on painful. It felt to him as if she thought if she let go this might not be real. He didn't complain – just let her do whatever she needed to feel better.

'All right, Teyla. I have to insist now,' Jennifer softly interjected, easing her away.

A stray tear spilled down her cheek as Teyla straightened, nodding her understanding. 'Of course. I will visit later, John. If that is all right?'

'It's already late, Teyla, and you're exhausted. Go rest. Spend some time with Torren,' Jennifer suggested, clearly a mild warning that Jennifer didn't want to see her in the infirmary again before the morning,

Teyla nodded again and hurriedly left, sniffing back more tears. John watched the door, feeling bad to let her go in that state.

'You think I was too hard on her?' Jennifer asked, apparently reading the expression on his face as she began to undo his restraints.

'No...you're right, we both need the rest,' he croaked, trying to clear his throat.

Jennifer tossed him a sympathetic smile. 'How about I get you some ice-cream for that throat?'

'That would be good.'

She patted his shoulder and headed out to arrange it.

Sheppard relaxed into his pillows, flexing his hands to get rid of the last vestiges of the pins and needles nagging at his fingertips. He really wanted to know what the others knew now, and morning seemed an eternity away right now. The black hole at the centre of his memory was driving him nuts. Maybe once they'd told him what they obviously thought he might struggle to handle all the pieces of his memory would fall back into place...for better or worse

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

It didn't matter how long he stared at the photograph, Sheppard still couldn't quite believe it was true. But the evidence was there in a full-colour, seven-by-five print. He was dead...kind of. At least his body was.

'Dr Biro believes that particular body is your original due to the bullet wound in your hand. Your team reported they believed you'd been shot in the right hand as you were firing with your left when last seen before the ambush.'

Sheppard flicked a brief glance up to Woolsey and nodded, his gaze immediately falling back to the photograph. Not many people got to see how they would look dead. Unsurprisingly, it didn't make him feel all that special.

'What happened to him...me?' Sheppard corrected, confusing himself now.

'Poison apparently. A cyanide-type toxin to be precise. You'll notice the discolouration of his...your skin. That's typical in cyanide poisoning.'

Sheppard felt a little better that Woolsey was struggling to know how to address the body too. That feeling soon evaporated when Wolsey slid another picture across the table toward him.

'This one appears to have been garrotted to death, most likely slowly...to give you a chance to talk.'

A slice mark dug deeply into the bruised skin of the body's throat...his throat. He absently rubbed at his neck, flinching at the bruises he came in contact with. Ronon's grip had been painful enough; he didn't like to think how painful the cheese wire Tareb must have used would have been.

'If I'm still me, and at some point I was in these different bodies, why can't I remember any of this?' he asked as yet another picture wended its way over to him.

'We've spoken to Hermiod about the whole cloning process. He believes that the final download of your consciousness may not have completed correctly or perhaps specific memories were deliberately blocked. They've done this before if an Asgard died as the result of a traumatic death and memories of it were felt to be "detrimental to their future performance" – at least I believe that's how he put it.'

'Convenient,' Sheppard murmured, looking at the third picture he'd now been handed. He recognised the signs... 'Electrocution too, huh?'

'Apparently so, yes,' Woolsey nodded.

'Those are the only ones Jennifer agreed we could show you today,' Rodney told him, casting slightly nauseous glances towards the two photos he'd set down on the table already.

'That good, huh?' he quipped.

'Tareb and his men certainly lived up to their reputation for barbaric cruelty,' Teyla said, a noticeable quake in her voice. She reached out and took the picture from him, turning all three of them face down in a pile so he could no longer see them. 'I believe you have seen enough for now.'

He resisted the urge to ask her not to mother him, knowing her intentions were good. 'So...how many in total?' he asked.

'You mean cloned bodies?' Rodney clarified. Sheppard nodded. 'Sixteen used and two more yet to be occupied.'

'You mean I have spares? Cool!' he joked, although he was half-serious in case of future life-changing injuries.

'We're not sure it would be ethical to keep them, Colonel. It's rather too much like playing God for my liking,' Woolsey advised him. 'They're still on board the vessel in the stasis pods for now until we decide how to...deal with them.'

'Don't the IOA want them handed over for experimentation?' Rodney sniped, making no attempt to hide his disgust at the thought, or of Woolsey's previous associates.

'I'm sure they would, but they don't know about them and I intend to keep it that way. The last thing we need is for someone unscrupulous to gain access to Colonel Sheppard's body with the levels of ATA gene he possesses. No, I think we'll respectfully dispose of them, just as we will all the other fallen cloned bodies and the colonel's original body too.'

A lump rose in Sheppard's throat. The word fallen touched him in a way he hadn't been expecting. He had no memory of the events that had led to his transference from his sixteen previous bodies, and so it had been relatively easy to detach himself from the reality of their deaths. But he had a fair idea they'd been sacrificed because of his refusal to carry out Tareb's wishes, whatever those wishes were.

A gentle squeeze of his hand told him Teyla had noticed the change in his mood. He squeezed her hand back, offering up a weak smile. For the moment he chose not to speak, certain his voice would fail him.

'Hermiod has offered to complete the download process whenever you're ready to, Colonel,' Woolsey continued. 'He believes that will help you to feel more aligned with your new body.'

'You just need to give it a few bumps and scrapes,' Rodney, told him, giving him a grin. 'It's like new sneakers...they always look out of place until you get them a little scuffed up.'

'Yeah...maybe you're right,' he huffed out, with a laugh. His mother had always hated the way he'd insisted on running out in the gardens as soon as he had a new pair as a little kid, but Rodney was right. They never felt right until they looked lived in.

'I'll take you sparring,' Ronon offered, with the customary twinkle in his eye he got whenever he offered to take Sheppard on. It was a far cry from the look he'd given him yesterday when he'd tried to strangle him, and damaging as a sparring session would undoubtedly be, he knew it was Ronon's way of making up for his misjudgement.

'Thanks for the offer but you already scuffed the shoes, buddy,' he reminded him, pulling his shirt away from his neck.

'See, you'll be back to your old self in no time!' Rodney chirped, happy with his theory. 'Teyla should give you a turn with the Bantos rods, too.'

'Perhaps it might be better if Colonel Sheppard breaks his new body in a little more slowly,' Woolsey suggested. 'But seriously, Colonel, as soon as you feel well enough just let me know and I'll have Hermiod come over and fix things for you.'

'Will do. And will completing the download return my memories?' he asked.

'That's not certain. Hermiod says it will depend on the reason for the loss of memories, if it was a deliberate act to remove them, they may be gone for good.'

'That might not be a bad thing,' Rodney said, to himself rather than addressing the comment to Sheppard.

Sheppard couldn't help but agree. Sixteen torturous deaths in six weeks. And it occurred to him now that they had no way of knowing whether there had been more bodies the faction had already got rid of. That was more than he even wanted to think about. And he'd thought he was just waking up with a drug-induced hangover every day. 'Has Tareb told you what he had in mind for me yet?' he asked, shifting the focus a little.

'No...in fact, since he learned we've exposed his lies he hasn't spoken a word,' Woolsey told him. 'It seems he now believes silence is his best defence.'

'He's pleading the fifth, huh?' Sheppard muttered.

'I'm afraid so.'

'Well it would be pretty hard to make excuses for sixteen murders,' Rodney scoffed. 'Even Sheppard can't annoy someone enough to warrant that!'

'Yes...quite,' Woolsey said, with an uncomfortable throat clearing sound.

'Thanks, Rodney. That's means a lot to me,' Sheppard half-laughed, trying to put him at ease.

'I'll make him talk,' Ronon suddenly offered, changing the subject.

It still didn't make Woolsey any less perturbed. His face crumpled with concern and he politely declined. 'Thank you, Ronon, but I think Tareb would most likely be incapable of any kind of speech by the time you finish persuading him. And we do need him to talk.'

'Why?' Rodney asked. 'We have plenty of evidence of his crimes. We can put him away for the rest of his life, and his men, too...if they live.'

'I would still like to know what drove them to do what they did.' Woolsey told him. 'Whatever nefarious deed they had in mind, I'm willing to bet it was something big if they were willing to kill Colonel Sheppard sixteen times over to make it happen.'

'Could we please stop bringing that up?' Sheppard asked plaintively. He was already having a hard enough time dealing with his feelings on the matter without it being slipped into the conversation at every turn.

'I'm sorry, Colonel,' Woolsey immediately apologised. 'I realise this is very difficult for you, but this whole situation has my curiosity peaked and I need to know we've got to the bottom of it before I can let it go.'

'What about the others in the crew. We have a couple still alive in the infirmary. Perhaps they would be more willing to talk,' Teyla suggested, ever practical.

But Woolsey shook his head. 'It seems they are more afraid of Tareb than they are of us...and no doubt with good reason. We'll get to the crux of this, Ms Emmagan...it may just take a little time.'

Of course, there was one obvious way of retrieving the information that no one was suggesting, and it hung like the Sword of Damocles over Sheppard's head. He hoped no one cut that thread, because he really didn't want to go through that unless it was absolutely essential.

'Colonel, I think we've taken enough of your time now,' Woolsey announced. 'You look exhausted. I recommend you take some rest and I'll keep you apprised of any developments.'

Sheppard took that as a sign Woolsey probably wanted to discuss the very thing he'd just been thinking about without upsetting him with it. He graciously accepted the invitation to leave and made his way back to his room.

Other than a bruised larynx and a general weakness, something he intended to remedy just as soon as he found himself in the right headspace, Dr Keller had told him he was well enough to return to his own room on the understanding he submit himself for monitoring each day until she was certain the cloning process hadn't left his physiology unstable. He well remembered how ill Carson had become only a short time after his rescue from Michael's lair. Did he have that to look forward to? What if the treatment Keller had devised for Carson didn't work for him and he ended up in stasis for years? Then again, on the upside, he would at least get a nice long rest...

oooOOOooo

After two hours lying down and staring at his ceiling, Sheppard finally gave up on trying to sleep. He was tired, but the thought of what he had been through...at least the few things he knew about it...weighed heavily on his mind and left him unable to relax.

What he really wanted to do was pummel the life out of Tareb, but protocol meant he wasn't allowed to. The man had taken so much from him; his life, several times over, felt like the least of it. His sense of identity was fragmented. Nothing of the horrific things he'd endured remained in the forefront of his memory, somehow blocked from coming out in the light of day. But worse than that, he felt like a copy...nothing more than a facsimile of the man who once bore the name John Sheppard.

He dragged his weary carcass into his bathroom, and leaned on the sink for support as he forced himself to look at his reflection. He hadn't been able to look at himself since learning the truth about what had happened aboard Tareb's ship, afraid to compute what he was actually looking at. Now he stared, long and hard, forcing himself to take it all in. Gone were the blemishes left by his life, but it was still essentially him, wasn't it? He held all the same memories he had always harboured – apart from the past six weeks, of course – so didn't that still make him "him"? That weird feeling of somehow being perched on his own shoulder and not quite inside himself definitely wasn't helping. He was going to have to take up Hermiod's offer of help, uncomfortable as he always felt dealing with the little creep. He just had trouble accepting that a race with supposedly superior intellects didn't even get the importance of clothing...

He filled the sink with cold water and splashed it on his face, hoping to fully wake himself. He hated being caught in that half-awake, half-asleep feeling. He needed to be one or the other, and since sleep was eluding him, awake it was.

The sound of someone at his door interrupted him. Towelling his face dry he headed over to it and opened it up, finding Teyla on his threshold. She gave him a sympathetic smile that made his stomach sink to his boots.

'Hey...' he said by way of a welcome.

'May I come in?'

'Yeah...sure...'

He stood aside and let her pass, watching her walk tentatively a few steps into his room before turning to face him, wringing her hands.

'I wanted to apologise...'

So that was why she seemed so anxious. He put up a hand to stop her. 'You already did, Teyla. And I accepted, remember?'

She gave him another tight smile, but the sadness in her eyes counteracted any hint of happiness. 'I do...but I am not sure I deserve such consideration.'

Sheppard walked past her and sat down on his bed with a sigh. 'I can't imagine what it was like to find...those bodies,' he said, feeling an involuntary shudder pass through him at the thought of those photographs again. 'If someone had done that to you, to any one of you, I would have wanted to kill them, too.'

'But you did not kill anyone...I jumped to conclusions...I should have known it was you and not trusted what Tareb said.'

Sheppard shrugged, too tired to do any more than that. 'You were upset. It isn't easy to see things rationally when you think you've lost someone you care about.' He knew that was true. He'd lost too many people he'd cared about in his life.

'Perhaps...' she said distantly. 'But at a time when you needed me most I let you down. I cannot easily forgive myself for that.'

'Then I guess you're lucky I can,' he told her with a smile.

She returned it with one of her own, a warm, genuine smile, not the sickly sympathy she'd offered him before. This one suggested she felt a little lighter than she had on entering. 'Indeed I am,' she replied, with a nod. She sat down beside him now. 'Have you thought any more about Hermiod's offer of assistance? I know it is a lot for you to take in, but if the download can be correctly completed and you can feel whole again –'

'If,' he said, picking up on the key word in her comment. 'I don't know if I can ever feel whole again. John Sheppard...the original me...he's lying dead in the morgue. Just a damaged corpse taking up room in a chiller drawer. I know I have this body, and to all intents and purposes it's pretty much the same thing, but...it isn't me, is it? I'm just a copy.'

Teyla reached out and grasped his hands now. 'Look at me, John,' she insisted. He did, even though he found the intensity of her stare hard to hold. 'Our bodies do not make us who we are,' she told him earnestly. 'They are only the vessel to carry us through the journey of life. What makes us who we are, what makes you John Sheppard, is what you hold here,' she touched the fingertips of her right hand lightly to his temple, 'and here.' This time she moved her hand to his chest and laid it over his heart, leaving it there. 'Always remember that. No matter what anyone does to your body, they cannot truly reach you if you do not let them into your heart and mind.'

He felt the vague warmth of her touch sinking through his clothes, warming his skin. He hadn't even realised how chilly he was until then. He felt like a walking ghost...cold and hollow. He needed that help...no matter what else it might bring.

A little embarrassed by Teyla's emotional encouragement he freed his hands from her grasp and walked to his window. She stayed where she was, but he could feel her gaze locked onto him. 'Are you all right, John?'

'Yeah...yeah,' he said, repeating it as if that might help him really feel that way. He turned around, seeing that sympathy back in her eyes. 'You're right, Teyla. I am still me. I just need to get used to the fact that I'm continuing my journey in a new vessel. It's like getting a new car...I just gotta figure out all the controls.' He knew Teyla wasn't familiar with Earth vehicles, but she seemed to understand anyway.

'Exactly...or a new Puddle Jumper. You have said before they each have a unique personality...you just have to get used to them.' She paused, a slight frown marring her pretty face. 'Not many people have a chance to begin again in a completely new body. Your scars are gone, but the memory of the journey that caused them remains. It is not such a big change really.'

'No...I guess not,' he agreed, and before he could even acknowledge what was about to happen Teyla joined him and tugged him into a tight hug. He tentatively returned it, conscious of the feelings he had harboured for her for so long. She seemed to have no idea of the effect her touch had on him, and he forced down the urge to fully engage in the embrace for fear of doing something he might regret.

She pulled back and smiled up at him, tears sparkling in her warm brown eyes. 'I must go now, John, but I would like to be there if you decide to go through the procedure. Will you allow that?'

'Sure...I could use the company,' he told her as she slowly slid her hands down his arms, holding onto his hands for a second to give them a squeeze before stepping back.

'I have to go. Amelia is looking after Torren for me, but she is joining Ronon for lunch and I fear my son might...what is the Earth saying...cramp their style?'

Her use of such a casual phrase brought a grin to his face as she left, and he realised that was probably the first genuinely happy smile this body had ever produced. It was a weird thought, and set him off thinking of all the other "firsts" he had yet to come...maybe this wasn't all bad.

oooOOOooo

'Okay, we're ready to power it up...now.'

Rodney fired his index finger toward Hermiod and Sheppard swore the little alien rolled his eyes. Of course, the fact they were completely black made it hard to tell, but he definitely sighed and muttered something alien and decidedly curt under his breath.

Never-the-less the Asgard powered up the cloning machinery and everything surrounding Sheppard thrummed into life. He could literally feel the power vibrating through the metal around him. The Vanir cloning device had been removed from the ship and reassembled in the Atlantis infirmary to prevent Sheppard from having to return to the place of his incarceration. He hadn't asked for that to happen, but had found out that Keller, with the backing of his team, had demanded it before she would even consider allowing the procedure to complete the download of his memories. He was pleased she'd done it, though a little surprised to find out Rodney had been equally enthusiastic about it. He was busy enough without having the extra work of setting up and reconfiguring the power supply to the device. But apparently he'd been willing to accept the responsibility without protest on this occasion. Apparently even Rodney could be selfless sometimes.

'Please keep perfectly still, Colonel Sheppard,' Hermiod told him in that oddly emotionless tone of his.

Sheppard stopped himself from nodding in automatic response, figuring it was best not to piss off the creature since he was the one poking around with his memory chip...particularly since this particular Asgard seemed to lean towards crabby at the best of times.

Sheppard closed his eyes and let Hermiod do his thing. He was planning to key into the memory chip and copy the data contained in it to see exactly what had and hadn't been done correctly before attempting to complete the download procedure. It all sounded so simple...until he thought about the fact it was his mind the little alien was tampering with. One wrong button pressed and the whole lot could be gone. He didn't relish the thought of diapers and spoon feeding until he learned how to do everything for himself again.

A small, warm hand gripped his, and he knew it was Teyla lending him her support. He opened his eyes to see her smiling down at him. 'It will all be all right,' she promised him, as if sensing his nervousness. 'Hermiod has a great deal of understanding of the Vanir cloning process.'

He again resisted the urge to nod and simply closed his eyes, trying to completely relax. Only seconds later he felt an odd tingling inside his head, as if tiny little electric shocks were passing through his brain. It wasn't painful...not really. Just very, very strange.

Hermiod worked in silence, even when Rodney began firing questions at him about the data he was apparently drawing from Sheppard's mind. Sheppard shut Rodney out, too. He couldn't cope with one of Rodney's rants right now; he needed to stay calm.

Sheppard remained very still and tried to think pleasant thoughts, but the only images that popped into his head were those damned photographs. He really didn't want to think about them right now. If Hermiod tinkered around enough with that chip in his head he'd soon be seeing his actual memories in the full glory of moving pictures. A feeling of cold dread filled him; he wasn't sure he was ready for that.

'I have identified the coding used to lock out your memories of the past six weeks,' Hermiod suddenly announced in his usual impassive manner. 'It's rudimentary at best, barely holding back the memories. I believe the only reason your mind hasn't bypassed the lock out is the barrier created by the technology itself. If I download your stored personality and memories to your brain I suspect the blocked data remaining in the memory chip will become accessible over time. I feel certain your subconscious will find a way to bypass the coding eventually.'

'Ok,' Sheppard drawled, letting that thought sink in. He'd never been afraid of dying...not exactly. But to have memories of dying painfully time and time again – that was something else entirely. Could anyone ever really be ready for that?

'If you would prefer, I can rewrite the coding to ensure those particular memories remain locked into the memory chip. That way, they will not download with all your other stored data, but they will remain there should you ever choose to view them in the future.'

Now that sounded too good to be true. Sheppard allowed his gaze to drift to Richard, standing at a discreet distance to his left. He looked to him for guidance, which Woolsey immediately picked up on despite the question being unspoken.

'The decision is entirely yours, Colonel,' he told him, walking a little closer now. 'I cannot imagine what you went through on that ship, and I certainly would never insist you have to endure the memories of it if there is another choice.'

Sheppard almost cried with relief to hear those words. If Richard had ordered it, he would have gone through with the full memory transfer, but if he was being given the option to refuse, he wasn't going to turn it down.

'Lock 'em down,' Sheppard told Hermiod.

The little alien dipped his head in acknowledgement of the instruction, and did his thing. In moments the code was rewritten and the download was underway. Once again, Sheppard closed his eyes, this time forced to by the strange bombardment of images and emotions completely overtaking his mind. No longer did he feel detached, in fact, quite the opposite. His feelings as so many memories, both good and bad, unfolded and found their way fully into his brain, threatened to overwhelm him. He felt a tear break free and run down his temple, and Teyla's grip on his hand tightened.

'Are you all right, John?' she said softly.

He sniffed his emotions back and nodded. 'Yeah...yeah...it was...yeah. I'm good,' was all he could scrape together. In all honesty there were no words to express the overwhelming download of himself he'd just experienced. It was amazing and horrific all in one great whirl and though he was glad he'd done it, it was an experience he hoped to never have to repeat.

And then he felt...whole.

Well, not whole exactly, because the big "holes" in his memory were still palpable, but he felt more complete than he had since awaking that final time in the Lantean ship's cell. He blinked his eyes open to the bright light of the infirmary, and began to smile.

'Whoa...I'm back,' he breathed, cautiously sitting up so as not to dislodge any of the cables and electrodes attached to various parts of his head and body.

Teyla grinned broadly. 'You were never truly gone...only watching through a veil. Now the veil has been lifted and you can fully be with us again.'

'I guess that's one way of looking at it,' he agreed, looking around at everyone surrounding him. His nerves had prevented him from realising just how many people had been there to observe his reintegration, but now the room seemed crowded to the point of being uncomfortable.

'So...the procedure is complete?' Woolsey asked, turning to face their Asgard companion.

The alien blinked his huge black eyes at him, and replied flatly, 'The procedure has been successful. Colonel Sheppard can now be disconnected from the instrument, though I recommend observation for at least twenty-four of your hours. I have never reintegrated someone after a prolonged download. It would be wise to ascertain it has not caused any...complications.'

'Complications?' Sheppard inwardly cringed. Nobody had mentioned the possibility of complications before. Why hadn't he thought to ask?

'This is a highly advanced piece of technology, Colonel Sheppard, so the chance of your memories having degraded is minimal. I do not foresee any problems, but it is always wise to practice caution,' Hermiod told him, matter-of-fact.

Jennifer began unplugging him from the various machines he was linked to. 'All right, everyone. I think this has been a taxing experience for the colonel, so how about we all give him some space for a few hours so he can rest and gather his thoughts...so to speak...'

She blushed at her choice of words, and mouthed the word "Sorry", but it was actually exactly how he felt. At the moment it was as if all of his thoughts and memories were tumbling around in his head, randomly coming to the forefront and bringing with them emotions as real as the moment those events had first occurred. It was reducing with every passing minute as they settled into their appropriate chronology; all he needed was time for them to play out and fit themselves back into the compartments he usually stored them in.

Ronon gave him a hardy clap on the shoulder and told him he would catch him later, needing no further invitation to leave. But Sheppard caught the pained look in his eyes in that brief exchange. He still felt bad about what he'd done even though he'd told him not to. There were bridges to rebuild there, and Ronon wasn't the easiest person to deal with when it came to those kinds of things. But they'd get there. They always did.

Rodney casually remarked that he was glad he was feeling better, as if he was recovering from nothing more serious than a common cold. But then, Rodney had never really questioned the validity of who he was in the way Teyla and Ronon had, so he supposed to him this wasn't such a huge thing. He shuffled out beside Hermiod asking myriad questions about the process and the technology that he was glad not to have to fend off himself.

As everyone else other than the medical team departed Teyla remained there the longest, still clutching his hand as the worst of the emotional tidal wave passed and he fought against the backwash to stay close to shore. She seemed to instinctively understand how difficult that had been, despite his best attempts to keep his reactions concealed.

'If you need anything, just let us know,' she said with the gentlest of smiles, then in complete contrast pulled him into the tightest hug they had ever shared. And he felt it...really felt it. He was one with his body again...at least this version of it. And that meant he could at last begin the long journey to make it his own unimpeded.

oooOOOooo

Tareb glared in furious silence from the other side of the cell bars, at if they were locked in some bizarre staring match. Richard quirked an eyebrow, and simply said, 'I'm not sure what you hope to achieve by maintaining this silence, Mr Tareb. We are already aware of the barbaric crimes you have committed again Colonel Sheppard and the Vanir you took on board your ship. You will never be free again.'

Tarek didn't break, merely sneered at Woolsey's attempted to lure the information out of him.

'Imprisoning me is a mistake...one you will surely live to regret.'

'That sounds like the empty threat of a man with nothing to lose,' Woolsey countered, hoping to wipe the smile off his face.

It didn't work. 'Funny, I was thinking just the same thing about you.'

A little taken aback, Woolsey blinked at him, then huffed out a laugh, shaking his head. 'I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that even now you would insist on keeping up this false bravado. Your reputation does somewhat proceed you. But you've lost this time, Mr Tareb. We've confiscated your ship, which will be handed over to the Travellers at their earliest convenience, and both you and your two remaining crew mates will remain incarcerated here until we arrange a hearing to try you for your crimes.' Woolsey allowed his expression to grow grim, holding Tareb's glare with an uncustomary level of self-assurance. 'I wouldn't expect to taste freedom any time soon, if I were you.'

Tareb remained silent a moment or two longer, but a worrying smirk broke out on his untroubled face, 'We'll see, Mr Woolsey. We'll see.'

Woolsey felt his blood chill in his veins. It suddenly occurred to him that all this time they had been assuming Tareb and his men were working alone. What if that assumption had been wrong? What if there were more ships involved with this faction?

Gripped by anger and a healthy dose of fear, Woolsey channelled his inner warrior and came back with some fighting talk of his own. 'You have until the end of today to start talking, Mr Tareb. After that, I can't guarantee our continued hospitality.'

He turned abruptly and left, hoping his sudden and unexpected threat might actually make Tarek consider co-operating. If he didn't, Woolsey wasn't happy with the alternative direction he might be forced to move in.

oooOOOooo

A gentle chime at his door woke Sheppard from his slumbers. He'd been released from the infirmary after a further six hours of observation, but the process of downloading his consciousness had left him so drained all he could do was crawl into bed and sleep it off.

Standing slowly and shakily, Sheppard shuffled to the door and opened it to find Carson standing on the other side of it.

'Oh...hey, Doc,' he yawned, scratching at his cowlicks.

'I just got back from M4L 337 and heard what happened. How're you feeling?'

Deciding this wasn't the kind of conversation to hold in his doorway, Sheppard stepped back and gestured for Carson to enter. 'Well, if anyone's gonna know the answer to that question, I figure it's you,' he quipped, letting the door close and wobbling his way back over to his bed. He dropped down onto it with a weary sigh and stretched out again. 'Please tell me it gets easier.'

'Still weak, eh?' Carson sympathised, pulling over a chair. 'Aye, well, you have to remember those muscles are all new and other than whatever electrical stimuli the Vanir have built into their cloning device to build up muscle strength they've barely been used. Give it time, you'll get there.'

Sheppard nodded, swiping his hand down his face to rub away his sleepiness. 'Ronon's already offered to whip me into shape...Teyla too.'

Carson raised his eyebrows and huffed out a laugh. 'I think that might be pushing it a little too hard. Strengthening work first. A little walking...some swimming. Then maybe we can look at more sado-masochistic regimens.'

That made him smile. Maybe sparring was a little ambitious right now...especially since he couldn't hold his own against either of them even on a good day. 'Yeah, you might be right.'

Carson watched him silently for a moment, his eyes roving all over his face. 'To be frank, it's not your physical well-being that has me most concerned. How are you really feeling?'

And that was the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Sheppard hadn't allowed himself to think too deeply about how he actually felt about everything that had happened to him. The photographs had graphically shown him how brutally he had been treated and his blemish-free body told him he was only physically a copy of the man who had gone out on a mission, only to be abducted by Tareb and his men. But, now Hermiod had helped him, his mind was telling him he was the exact same John Sheppard who had first stepped through the Stargate to Atlantis a little over five years ago.

But he wasn't...was he?

'How did you feel when you found out you were a clone?' he asked Carson without even answering the man's question.

Carson blew out a puff of breath, rubbing the back of his neck. 'Well, it was a wee bit different for me. I mean...I was a copy, but you...you're the one and only John Sheppard, aren't you? Your body may be new, but your mind is still the original.'

Sheppard nodded, understanding the difference from Carson's perspective. 'Did it feel weird when you found out the other Carson was dead?'

'Aye, lad. Weird's one way of putting it. I felt bereaved...but I was grieving a part of myself. Not that he'd ever really been part of me, but up until the moment when Michael cloned me, we'd shared a life...at least the memories of that life. Och, I'm not explaining this very well, am I?'

Sheppard looked around his room, at all the trapping of his former life, and suppressed a sigh. 'Yeah, Doc. I think you nailed it.'

'You feel bereaved, too?' Carson asked, his blue eyes filled with compassion.

The photographs popped back into his mind, as they did so regularly now. He'd died sixteen times over at least, and for what? No one seemed willing to say. So yes, he felt bereaved. Bereaved and confused by the seeming needlessness of it all. Everyone had told them Tareb and his men killed for the pure fun of it. Had the Vanir cloning device just given the means to have even more fun with him?

'Yeah...I guess,' he nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to make sense of it all. 'I feel like...I feel like I've lost part of myself, too. That body...my former body...we'd been through a lot together. And the final chapter of that is missing, so I don't even know how it felt to lose it.'

'That might not be a bad thing,' Carson pointed out. 'I'm pleased I can't remember being blown up...not that it happened to me, of course. That was the other me. The real me...' Sadness crept into his expression now, tears glistening in his eyes. 'The worst thing is that my poor, wee mother had to bury me...or rather him. But here I was all the time...still alive after a fashion.'

It was then Sheppard realised his body couldn't be sent home for burial. He was still alive so how could his body be buried back on Earth with the appropriate recognition? That was a hard idea to wrap his head around. Atlantis was home to him now, but he'd always imagined he would finish his life's journey back on Earth. Richard had said there were things they needed to discuss once he was feeling stronger. He supposed what would happen with his previous bodies had to be one of those things.

'So, does it get easier?' he asked again.

'You reach a point of acceptance,' Carson said with a nod. 'Just like with any bereavement there's a range of emotions to work through, but you'll get there. Give yourself time. It's still very early days.'

'Yeah...it is,' Sheppard agreed. He felt weak as a kitten, and his head still ached from the information dump Hermiod had unloaded on him. But that had only been a few hours ago. It still felt like things were finding their rightful places in his mind. Perhaps expecting to get his head around all this so soon was far too much to hope for.

'You know the one thing that really helped me come to terms with what had happened and who I was?' Carson asked, breaking through his thoughts.

He looked the doctor's way, seeing the sadness now replaced by a smile that appealed to his ever-present if somewhat battered sense of optimism. 'What?'

'You people,' Carson grinned. 'Sure I got a few odd looks from some of the folks around here for a start, but you and your team, the people I felt closest to, you never questioned me. 'You welcomed me back with open arms and never once made me feel like an inferior copy.' The smile slipped away, and now the doctor's expression grew grave. 'I know you have trouble opening up, John, but now is not the time to keep things to yourself. Your friends...we all want to help you. Let us in and I guarantee this process will be a lot easier for you.'

Emotions welled within him, and now Sheppard was the one battling to hold back tears. He'd never liked burdening other people with his problems, but he had the feeling this one might be just too big to handle on his own. He bit his lip and gave a feeble nod, the most he could manage without crying like a baby.

Apparently understanding his struggle, Carson rose and clapped him on the shoulder. 'You've got a lot to mull over. I'll give you some space.' He headed for the door, hesitating as it pulled back to let him out. 'Give it time, John. Don't expect too much of yourself too soon. And if you need anything, you know where I am...at least for the next few days.'

Carson left then, the door sliding silently shut as he departed. Sheppard kicked his feet up and slumped out on his bed, exhausted and drained and now struggling to keep his emotions in check. Sleep called again, leaving him wondering how long it would be before his energy returned to his former state or if it ever would. This was a new body, an as yet untested quantity. What if he never felt the same as he had before?

Despite his worries, sleep claimed him quickly, bringing blissful relief to the troubles in his still disorganised mind.

oooOOOooo

The next morning, Richard trudged into the conference room with a heavy heart. This was one request he had hoped to avoid, and he knew how hard it would be for Colonel Sheppard to comply, although he didn't doubt for a moment that he would. Protecting Atlantis and the people who lived and worked there was always his priority. This time would be no different.

'I regret to inform you all that Mr Tareb continues to be...uncooperative,' he began once everyone was settled. 'We are still none-the–wiser as to what Tareb and his band of merry men were planning to do with Colonel Sheppard.'

That was rather more diplomatically than he felt like saying it. Tareb's refusal to admit to anything...even things they knew to be true, was the most infuriating thing he'd come across since his ex-wife...in fact, he realised, she had a habit of doing the exact same thing, though not on such a life-and-death scale.

Sheppard sat exactly opposite him at the board table looking pale and undeniably fragile. Even considering asking him to endure any more than he had already been through seemed unthinkable, yet the risk to the city was potentially so serious that he couldn't afford not to.

'It would appear that Tareb might have some kind of backup plan for just the kind of situation he currently finds himself in,' Richard continued, looking around at everyone gathered there – Sheppard's team, Major Lorne and both Doctors Keller and Beckett. 'He isn't saying anything, of course, but his behaviour – his over-confidence – has me worried. We need to know what he had in mind and if anyone else was involved, and we need to know now.'

'Wait a minute,' Keller interrupted, a disbelieving half-smile on her face. 'Am I right in thinking you're asking Colonel Sheppard to unlock the final parts of his lost memories?'

Woolsey swallowed the lump in his throat. 'Yes, Doctor...yes, I am...and I really wish I didn't have to but we're running out of options.'

He turned his attention to Sheppard while everyone else protested against the idea. Sheppard just stared directly back at him, apparently accepting of the idea as if at some level he had expected this would happen. Woolsey had really hoped they could convince Tareb he had no choice but to speak to them. Now, the fact Tareb didn't act like a man cornered and with nowhere left to run, had finally forced Woolsey's hand.

'You're worried the city's at risk?' the colonel asked, monotone.

Woolsey nodded. 'I am.'

'Then we don't have a choice,' Sheppard replied, sounding resolute in the face of what had to be a frightening prospect. 'Get Hermiod back here and let's do it.'

'No!' Keller shouted loudly enough to make them all start. 'I can't support this! Colonel Sheppard isn't well enough to deal with the stress of knowing everything that Tareb and his people did to him.'

'Jennifer's right, Mr Woolsey!' Carson quickly added, supporting her. 'Maybe in a few weeks, but right now...no. This is not a good idea.'

'I wish there was another way,' Woolsey sighed, 'but I believe the threat could be imminent. We may not have the luxury of a few weeks.'

'There is another way,' Ronon insisted, raising his voice above the others and silencing them in an instant.

All eyes fell on him.

'Gimme one hour with Tareb. I'll have your answers.'

Woolsey felt himself blanch. That was, indeed, the other way to handle the situation, but it was the one method he had been hoping to avoid at all costs. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sheppard slowly turn his way and when he let his eyes drift to meet his, he saw the same conflict he felt himself reflected in them. They were the good guys...they weren't supposed to stoop to such levels. They were meant to remain above reproach. Yet he wanted more than anything to spare Colonel Sheppard any more pain. The man had endured more than any man should in one lifetime at the hands of Tareb and his colleagues.

Woolsey noticed that even the two doctors now exchanged furtive glances. Of course, they could not be heard to condone such a course of action, but he could see they too thought it might be something to consider.

Eventually, Teyla spoke up. 'Mr Woolsey's hands are tied by protocol and procedure. He cannot give such an order, Ronon. You know that.'

'Everyone turned a blind eye when we thought Sheppard was one of them,' Ronon reminded them. 'When we thought he was the guy who had given the order to kill Sheppard the guards on the door let me walk right past them. Tareb did kill Sheppard...and just 'cos he's sitting here with us now, it doesn't change that fact. He killed him sixteen times over, so just turn a blind eye again and let me do my thing.'

Woolsey was at a loss for words. Ronon was right; he had been allowed in and had almost killed Sheppard with his bare hands, and he hadn't ensured an order was in place to prevent that. He'd felt guilt for that ever since, and to have the truth of his lapse of judgement laid bare to everyone here was more than a little embarrassing. But worse than that, was the fact Ron on was correct. How could he deny the man the opportunity to prevent his friend more suffering after everything Tareb had done?

'I didn't hear him say anything,' Lorne finally piped up. 'Never saw anything either.'

Rodney, though he looked incredibly uncomfortable, thumbed Lorne's way. 'What he said.'

'Guys...' Sheppard's slightly croaky voice broke the moment. Woolsey was glad to have the focus off him if even only for a few seconds. It would give him time to think. 'Mr Woolsey can't make that call. You know that. If the IOA ever found out it would give them all the ammunition they need to get him out of here. They've already tried once.'

Sheppard's support touched Woolsey deeply. He'd never assumed that Sheppard was actually happy with his presence there; they were so very different it seemed impossible that the colonel could actually like him. And he knew right there and then that he couldn't put Sheppard through another moment of torture. If he ever wanted those memories back, it should be his choice to make. He couldn't and wouldn't force him to recall them.

'Major Lorne,' he announced, drawing together the file of data he had spread out on the table before him. 'I believe the guard detail on Mr Tareb might be better deployed elsewhere, either in the city or on one of the planets we are currently assisting after recent cullings...I'll leave it to you to decide where is best. Now if you'll all excuse me I was up rather early this morning and I think I'll retire for the day. If we receive any new information from or regarding Mr Tareb, be sure to notify me.'

And with that he picked up his folder and left. Though he knew all eyes were pinned on him he didn't look back...and oddly rather than feeling the guilt he had expected to arrive with turning a blind eye, Richard found himself feeling strangely liberated.

Perhaps he had been posted in Pegasus for too long after all.

oooOOOooo

Tareb tried not to look at all perplexed when the two guards at the door of the brig suddenly left. He had no doubt there were cameras on him, and that his captors were waiting for some tell tale sign of anxiety they could seize upon to make him talk, but he had no intention of giving them that satisfaction.

All he had to do was sit tight and wait and rescue would come.

So he stayed exactly where he was sitting, bored but confident. This incarceration was just a minor setback in the grand scheme of things. These people thought they had it all in hand. That the situation was dealt with. But they would soon learn their mistake.

These people were soft, cosseted like children. Their overconfidence in this city and their insistence on following procedures made them sloppy. By the time they realised that he would be long gone.

Footfalls echoed at a distance outside his cell room. Slow...steady...heavy. He listened, calculating that they were coming in the direction of the brig. It couldn't be that weakling Woolsey. He couldn't possibly make those solid, self-assured sounds.

He watched the now empty doorway, not too worried at this point. After all, there were a lot of people living in this great city, and a lot of places for people to go that might lead them past this room.

But the footsteps didn't go past the room. They gradually grew louder and clearer until he saw a long shadow cast across the floor from the light outside in the corridor...a sizeable shadow with long ropes of hair...

Tareb felt his throat dry, the disappearance of the other guards now taking on a more ominous undertone.

The one they called Ronon took a few steps into the room and stopped again.

Their eyes locked.

This was the one man Tareb feared on Atlantis. Ronon was not like the others. He had a feral fury burning inside him that was barely contained. But he worked for the others, and somehow that made him hold back.

It took a moment for Tareb to realise the huge man was carrying something – something bulky rolled up tight under his arm.

Very slowly, Ronon began to walk towards the cell door.

'They must be desperate for answers if they have sent you in,' Tareb bluffed, unconsciously backing off a step as Ronon keyed in the code to open the door.

'No one knows I'm here,' Ronon grunted, his eyes still on Tareb as the cell door opened and he entered. He stayed in the opening, his bulk blocking even the slightest chance of escape.

'I already told your leader I won't talk.'

'Don't need you to.'

Ronon set the roll under his arm down on the floor and with a quick flick of his wrists it unravelled to reveal its contents. Even from that distance Tareb could see knives, hatchets, saws, syringes, electrodes and other familiar instruments. At the centre of it sat a thick pile of papers, which Ronon now picked up and began to peruse.

For several long seconds the rustle of pages turning was all that punctuated the silence hanging between them.

Unable to bear it any longer, Tareb asked, 'What is that?'

Ronon glanced up at him, quirked an eyebrow as if a little confused by the question, then appeared to catch on. 'This? Autopsy reports. Sixteen of 'em.'

Tareb had never heard the word autopsy before, and his bafflement obviously showed as Ronon then chose to elaborate.

'Sixteen bodies...sixteen different causes of death. Makes for a lot of paperwork.'

Tareb clammed up. There was nothing to say to that.

Ronon spent some time flicking through, his facial expression changing minutely from one page to another, his eyes apparently skimming the information rapidly and picking out words that left him angrier with each turn of the page. Eventually, he tossed the papers aside and scowled at Tareb.

Tareb involuntarily inched away...just a little.

'So, where d'you wanna start?' Ronon grunted, squatting down and picking up implements one at a time, turning them over in his thick fingers.

'Wh...what?'

'Sixteen torture methods...you get to pick which one we start with.'

'You...you won't do that. Your people don't have the stomach for it!' Tareb challenged. Though his words were strong he couldn't keep the nervous quake from his voice.

'They don't...but I do,' Ronon quickly assured him. He finally appeared to choose his first torture implement, then straightened up, turning it a little so the lights caught the edge of the knife blade. 'Don't worry...I won't kill you. Not straight away.'

'What do you want to know?' Tareb blurted out as Ronon walked toward him. Before he knew it the bars were at his back, barring his retreat.

'This isn't about information,' Ronon growled, bearing down on him, his bulk looming over him. 'You killed my friend...sixteen times, then tried to turn us against him. Now you're gonna pay.' Ronon brought the blade up between their faces, enabling Tareb to catch a glimpse of his pale and terrified expression in its smooth surface. 'You got a favourite eye?'

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

Woolsey walked quickly into the conference room, took up his seat and pulled a sheet of handwritten notes from his folder, laying it square on the table top in front of him.

He cleared his throat and began without any further ceremony. 'It seems Mr Tareb has experienced somewhat of a change of heart and has taken it upon himself to share with us the details of his plans.'

Everyone tried their hardest to look surprised. Sheppard slid his gaze in Ronon's direction, catching sight of the almost imperceptible smile that accompanied the raising of his eyebrows. Nope, he was never going to win an Oscar.

'Apparently the vessel we have impounded isn't the only one in the faction's fleet,' Woolsey continued, clearly more comfortable now he was getting down to the information itself rather than glossing over how they had acquired it. 'Some months back they stumbled across a Vanir outpost on a planet in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. They ambushed the Vanir and imprisoned them, taking control of both them and their ship.'

'Meaning that somewhere out there, there's a ship with Vanir tech and more of Tareb's people at the helm,' Rodney clarified, looking decidedly green.

'Precisely,' Woolsey nodded. 'Which is a rather disconcerting thought in itself. But what's worse than that is that if they have a Vanir vessel, they are most likely in possession of what we would call Asgard beaming technology.'

That made Sheppard sit up and really pay attention. 'Does Tareb have a sub-cutaneous transmitter?'

'Yes. And its removal has to be one of our priorities. I'll arrange it with Dr Keller as soon as we're finished here.'

'If they have such technology, could they not beam any one or all of us from the city?' Teyla pointed out.

'And that is what has me most concerned. If that ship is on its way here, we need a way to spot it and protect ourselves against the chance of it beaming anyone out of this city. They planned to head for Earth, and they planned to use Colonel Sheppard to pilot them there. We have no reason to believe that plan has changed. We cannot allow a crew of...villains to hold Earth to ransom.'

'So we have to remove Sheppard's transmitter, too,' Rodney blurted out. 'If they have a Vanir ship then they may have more cloning technology aboard and they –'

'Could start all over again,' Sheppard finished for him.

Rodney nodded, his eyes huge like a terrified child. And once again Sheppard was thankful that he had no true memories of what he'd been through.

'They can cloak to approach, but I ramped up the shields after our previous encounter with the Vanir, so the ship can't just pass through like it did before. But I recommend we keep the shield up while we figure out a way to track them.'

'And do you have any idea how to do that?' Woolsey asked.

Of course, Rodney had already figured out an answer...he'd probably been thinking about it ever since his abduction by the Vanir. 'They're powered by neutrino ion generators...I can devise a way to track their emissions to help us locate them if they come calling. Their shields are weak. A few well placed drones should take them out.'

'Then that's your goal for today, Dr McKay. Can I suggest you begin work on that now?' Woolsey asked.

'On it,' McKay barked, pushing back from the table and leaping from his seat so fast he left it rolling across the floor.

'You want me in the chair? Sheppard asked.

Looking pained, Woolsey politely declined his offer. 'I'm sorry, Colonel. I intend no disrespect, but I feel it would be wiser to have someone in full health controlling it. Major Lorne –'

'Yes, Sir.' And now Lorne was out of his seat and gone too.

Frustration kicked in. Sheppard balled his fists on the table top and growled, 'I can't just sit on my hands with all this going on. Give me something to do.'

'I'm sorry, Colonel. But you've not yet been declared fit for duty,' Woolsey reminded him. 'The best thing you can do is take it easy and recover. Perhaps we have weeks before the other ship shows up and by then you'll be back in command of the troops, but until then I can't ask you to perform any duties.'

Sheppard pressed his lips together hard to stop himself saying something he would regret. When he had enough control over his response he said, 'If that ship shows up, you're gonna need all hands on deck.'

'Yes...all fit hands,' Woolsey agreed. 'If I give you a role to play and you are unable to fulfil it, that may hinder our performance.' The conflict Woolsey felt played out clearly on his face. He wanted to give Sheppard something to do; it was obvious he knew Sheppard would normally be their 'go to' guy for manning the chair, but he couldn't risk something going wrong. And he was right. Much as Sheppard wanted to be at the forefront of any fight coming their way, he couldn't fully trust that his body wouldn't let him down. His head still ached, and his thoughts drifted with the effort of trying to compartmentalise the more distant memories still finding their correct places in his mind. In that condition he couldn't swear to be one hundred percent focused.

'You're right,' he reluctantly admitted, allowing his body to relax and his anger to dissipate. 'Lorne has military command and I'm just a patient until further notice.'

He didn't wait to be dismissed, knowing his part in the meeting was done. He left the table so those remaining at the briefing could receive their orders, exhausted by the worry of the past few hours, but knowing rest wasn't on the cards. This new information Tareb had given them, if it was true, meant they were in danger of imminent attack, and although a Vanir star ship wasn't a huge threat to a city like Atlantis, he couldn't help but feel there was just a hint of a chance Tareb might slip through their fingers until the damn thing was located and the threat neutralised.

oooOOOooo

Against all his natural instincts, Sheppard made his way to the infirmary. It was his least favourite place in the city, especially since he'd spent way too much time there since his posting began laid up and bored out of his skull. But today he knew the people there were the only ones who could give him advice on how best to get himself back to full fitness, and he wasn't satisfied with the diet sheets and gentle exercises they'd recommended so far. He needed to push himself harder – within safe parameters. The last thing he wanted was to make himself worse and set his recovery back even further. But there was no way he could be satisfied with a gentle stroll and an extra pancake at breakfast. He needed something more solid.

Carson was the first doctor he came across, sitting in his office deeply focused on his laptop. 'Carson, I need a way to get fitter and stronger fast.'

The Scot lifted his eyes and smirked. 'Aye? Well, if I had the answer to that little dilemma I reckon I'd be a millionaire!'

Sheppard sighed and rolled his eyes. 'I'm serious, Carson. Walking? Swimming? That's kid's play. I can go for a run, right?'

'Och, yes. No problem,' Carson drawled, leaning back in his seat to regard him. 'I'll just follow on so I can scrape you up off the floor when you collapse, shall I?'

'It's just running, Carson.'

'Sit down, John,' Carson replied, obviously about to give him a lecture.

'I don't need to sit down –'

'You look bloody awful, now sit down before you fall down,' the doctor ordered.

This time Sheppard didn't argue, just flopped down into a seat on the opposite side of Carson's desk and waited for the sermon.

'I understand this is hard for you, John,' the medic empathised, his bright blue eyes full of compassion. 'But you have to remember that physically you're not the man you were six weeks ago. This body is still developing; strength, circulation, metabolism, pulmonary function – they're all way down on where they were before those bastards took you prisoner. Right now, expecting to perform to the levels you were capable of before your abduction is like asking a wee five-year-old to run a marathon.'

Sheppard couldn't stop the physical sag Carson's words induced in him. 'Thanks for that, Doc.'

'All right. So that was a slight exaggeration,' Carson conceded, holding up his hands in surrender. 'But you get the idea. What you're trying to do is the equivalent of running before you can walk.'

Jennifer's head popped in around the door. 'Sorry to interrupt, but he's on his way, Carson.'

'Right you are.' Carson rose from his seat and rounded his desk in one fluid movement. 'Let's get that little bugger out of him and make sure he stays put.'

Realising they were talking about Tareb, Sheppard followed them out to see Ronon and a couple of marines marching the man into the infirmary, no longer dressed in his own, grubby, tattered leather clothes, but rather in a fresh set of BDUs. He didn't look too beat up, just a little knick below his left eye, but otherwise unscathed. The man's pale eyes flicked up to meet Sheppard's only briefly before darting to the floor and watching his own feet as he was directed to a free bed in a far corner of the ward. Sheppard wondered if it was embarrassment that he had talked so readily under Ronon's persuasion that made him avert his eyes...whatever form that had taken. No one was officially acknowledging it had happened so it hadn't been discussed.

Sheppard came to a halt at Ronon's side and watched as Tareb took a seat on the side of one of the beds.

'Right...this should only take a moment,' Carson chirped, adopting his most pleasant if slightly forced tone as he wheeled his trolley of medical implements to Tareb's bedside. 'Let's have that shirt off, then just a small incision and it'll all be done.'

Tareb looked puzzled, then it occurred to him what was happening. 'You plan to remove my transmitter?'

'Aye, that's right,' Carson confirmed, picking up a syringe Sheppard assumed was loaded with a local anaesthetic. 'Shirt off then.'

Tareb leapt off the bed and pushed him back so hard both Carson and his medical implements were sent spilling. 'I did not consent to this.'

Ronon was in there in less than a second, bodily lifting the man off the floor and depositing him flat out on his back on the bed. 'Don't need you to. Now lie still.'

But Tareb was having none of it, and he began struggle. His only means of escape was about to be taken away from him, and he wasn't going to let it go without a fight.

oooOOOooo

Rodney was just finishing up the reprogramming of the city's sensors when he was contacted by Zelenka from the Traveller ship.

'Er...Rodney. The ship's engines just fired up.'

For a second or two Rodney froze, his over-worked brain confused by the statement. 'Say again...'

'I said the ship's engines have fired up...all systems are coming online.'

Rodney rolled his eyes. 'What did you and your herd of Neanderthals do?'

'We didn't do anything, Rodney. We were just data collecting. No one was interfacing with anything that should cause the ship to power up. Oh no...'

The low utterance of those final two words had Rodney instantly at panic stations. 'What...what's wrong?'

'The ship has instigated some kind of lockdown. All doors leading to the bridge have sealed shut and systems are not responding to our instructions.'

'Override them!'

'We're trying!' A stream of what had to be Czech obscenities followed, none of which Rodney could decipher even after all the years they'd worked together.

'Dr McKay –'

'Not now!' McKay snapped at Chuck, who had turned his chair to face him.

'It's important.'

'I said not now!' he barked again. 'Zelenka, I'm coming over there. Keep working on shutting down the engines.'

He jumped from his seat and bolted toward the door, but Chuck called after him.

'We detected a hyperspace window opening one mile west of the city.'

He faltered to a halt. 'What? When?'

'A few moments ago...that was what I was trying to tell you.'

'Crap!' Rodney gasped, starting up in a sprint again. 'Alert Woolsey and Major Lorne that the other ship is here.' And then it struck him; its arrival and the Lantean ship powering up had happened at the exact same time. That couldn't be a coincidence. They needed to get that ship powered down. He tapped his ear piece as he headed for the dock. 'Sheppard!'

oooOOOooo

One stray arm broke free and landed a hook on Sheppard's jaw, knocking him on his butt just as Rodney's voice screeched in his ear.

He bounced right back up, though his brain took a couple of seconds longer to catch up with the movement. 'Little busy right now, Rodney,' he gruffed, catching hold of Tareb's flailing arm and pinning it to the bed as Ronon and the other two marines held down just about everything else.

'Jennifer! Sedative!' Carson yelled adding his weight to the battle to control their prisoner. But Tareb was unfeasibly strong now he thought his chance of freedom was slipping away from him. Another arm broke loose and the next thing they knew there was a crack and one of the marines slumped. In the chaos they'd misjudged the situation and he'd managed to grab a side arm from the man's holster.

Suddenly, a circle opened up around Tareb, everyone backing up.

When Carson tried to edge toward the fallen man, Tareb fired a shot at his feet, keeping him at bay.

'For God's sake! I just want to treat him!'

'Stay exactly where you are,' Tareb warned, beginning to inch his way toward the door. 'You can treat him once I'm out of the room.'

'Sheppard...The Vanir ship is heading this way and the Lantean vessel just fired up of its own accord. We might need your ATA gene to shut it down.'

What? How the hell was all this happening at once? Sheppard focused on the situation unfolding in front of him, unable to leave if he wanted to. 'Tareb...put the gun down,' he told him, holding his hands up to show he was unarmed. 'We have hundreds of armed men in this city. How far do you think you're gonna get?'

Eyes wild with panic, Tareb refused to lower the weapon. 'We'll see, shall we?'

'Sheppard, will you answer me? Zelenka says the weapons systems are powering up...Oh G—'

A resinous boom shook the entire city, silencing Rodney in an instant. Another crack and the second marine fell; Tareb, having seizing the advantage during the distraction, had taken him down. From the corner of his eye, Sheppard saw Ronon reach for his weapon. Another round fired, and the big man dropped too, felled where he stood.

Sirens blared out through the city, electronic devices flashed in and out as systems re-routed to channel emergency power to vital infirmary devices. And in the midst of the strobing lights, Sheppard saw Tareb make a break for the door as a bolt of energy from Ronon's gun struck the wall just behind where he had been standing no more than a second before.

Sheppard darted over to Ronon, seeing blood pouring from a wound in the Satedan's thigh even as the big man tried to rise. 'Nonono! You stay right there!' he warned, using all his strength to hold him down. 'This is serious. Carson?'

Beckett was at his side in a flash. 'Oh, bloody hell! Right. Jennifer, some help please!'

'Gotta get Tareb,' Ronon grunted, trying to push up again.

'Well, you can't do that if you're dead. And if you don't let us treat you, that's what you're going to be in less than five minutes,' Carson barked, not mincing his words.

Ronon stared at him in disbelief. 'What?'

'He's hit your femoral artery. If you don't stay here and let us get this under control you'll bleed out in minutes,' Jennifer iterated, making it clear the Satedan had no choice but to stay put.

The frustration and fear in Ronon's expression was all too clear, and Sheppard dearly wished he could stay with him, but he was needed elsewhere. 'I gotta go. You got this, right?'

'Yes...absolutely,' Carson nodded. 'But where are you going?'

'I have a ship to power down,' he told him, snatching up Ronon's gun and sprinting for the door. And if he found Tareb en-route, then all the better.

'Don't do anything stupid!' he heard Carson call out after him. He couldn't resist the grin that one engendered. Right now, that was like telling him not to breathe. He wasn't fit for duty, so pretty much anything he was about to do had to be classed as stupid.

He activated his ear bud. 'Rodney. What's happening?'

Silence.

'Rodney!'

'Yes...yes I'm here! Zelenka says the ship fired on our weapons systems.'

'The chair room?'

'Yes, the chair room.'

'Crap!' Sheppard changed channels. 'Lorne! Major Lorne, please respond!'

Nothing.

Sheppard staggered to a halt, leaning against the wall. His lungs were already burning and his legs felt leaden. Adrenalin had kept him going until now, but he couldn't expend any more energy until he'd figured out his best next move.

'Major Lorne...this is Sheppard. Please respond.'

All that met his ears was silence.

And then it struck him. He knew what would happen next.

He tapped his earpiece. 'Mr Woolsey. Evacuate the upper levels of the control tower. They're gonna take out the shie—'

A thump in his arm sent him lurching forward, Ronon's weapon skittering off across the floor away from him.

'Don't move, Sheppard,' he heard Tareb shout from behind him.

He could hear both Woolsey and McKay calling to him over the earpiece, thankfully followed by Woolsey giving the order to evacuate. He raised his one good arm in surrender and turned. 'Any moment now a dozen armed men could come round that corner and take you down.'

'I think they're all a little busy with the ship problem, don't you?' Tareb drawled, his smile beyond smug. 'We have your personal beacon signal on record, so once that shield's down you and I will be out of here.'

Warm trickles of blood ran down Sheppard's arm and dripped from his fingertips to the floor. It wasn't a bad injury, he'd had worse in the past, but with this body already so weak he didn't like losing blood. Every drop spilled gave him less of a chance against this guy if he decided to try to take him down.

'I can't allow that to happen,' he told Tareb, taking a couple of steps toward him. 'Not now we know what you have planned.'

'You'll have no choice,' Tareb warned him, firing a shot at his feet.

There were eleven shots left in that gun. Sheppard doubted he could get him to waste all of them. He needed to get away from Tareb and onto the Lantean ship before it did more damage.

'There's always a choice. You didn't get my agreement last time, and you won't if you take me again.'

He took another step, and another bullet buried itself in the floor in front of him.

Ten left.

Time was wasting. He needed a different strategy.

He backed up again, taking himself closer to the gun he'd dropped.

'You were close to breaking, Sheppard,' Tareb called to him. 'You're a tough man. I'll grant you that much, but everyone has their limits. If we give you back those memories we suppressed you'll fold, I guarantee it.'

That was enough incentive for Sheppard to know he had to act. One more corner-of-the-eye glance to ascertain exactly where Ronon's gun lay and then he lunged for it. He jerked as a bullet ripped through his side, hot pain following after a few moments of shocked numbness. But he grabbed the gun never-the-less, rolled onto his back, flicked it to kill mode, then fired.

New body or not, his aim was good enough. Tareb dropped where he stood just as a second thud shook the city, one much closer to his position this time.

They'd fired on the shield generators.

He tried to move, but the bite in his side floored him. He groaned, tentatively lifting his head from the floor and hitching up his shirts to check the damage. It was a through-and-through, which was good, but it was bleeding heavily – not so good. He knew he didn't have any option but to move despite the agony it caused him. If he lay here they would beam him up and he would be left wishing he'd at least tried.

'Rodney...sit-rep...' he gasped, rolling onto his knees and left hand, struggling to get to his feet.

'Err...still no contact from Lorne, but the shields are still holding...for now. One more hit and they're gone though. Zelenka says he thinks the ship can only fire one drone at a time, and it takes time to build power and override the Lantean protocols again. He's managed to lift the lockdown, but he can't power the ship down. We have literally minutes to stop them before it fires on us again. Where are you?'

'Heading to a transporter,' he grunted, trying to keep his voice as normal as possible but knowing it was weak. 'Gonna head to the...chair room. See what I can do.'

'You're not gonna fire on the ship? We have people in there!'

'Not that ship...no.' He stumbled and fell, crying out as he hit the floor. He lay there a while, his shirt now soaked with blood and wet against his skin.

'Sheppard? Sheppard...are you hurt?'

Gritting his teeth against another excruciating assault on his damaged nerve endings as he forced himself up he managed to pant, 'It's just a scratch...Rodney. Nothing to...worry about.'

'Oh, God! Are you dying...for real?'

'Where are you...Rodney?' Sheppard asked, trying to distract him as he slid his body along the wall, allowing the structure to support him.

'I'm at the docking bay...the ship's leaving. I'm guessing they plan to take it with them once they have Tareb...and you.'

'Yeah...well...they're...gonna have a little trouble...locking on to...Tareb's transmitter.'

He fell against the transporter door and waved a bloodied hand over the controls, tumbling in as the doors drew back. He hit the floor with a solid thump, dazing himself and sending the pain in his side spiralling to entirely new levels. Again, he lay there a moment, frozen rigid by the anguish of his condition and knowing he didn't have the strength to do what needed to be done. Or at least that was what everyone had told him.

Maybe he just needed to prove them wrong.

He rolled to his knees again and reached up to the frame of the city map, hauling himself up high enough that he could tap his destination and set the transporter in motion.

When the doors opened again, he dragged himself all the way up to his feet, turned, and managed a sum total of three steps before his legs failed and he face-planted once again.

He lifted his head to assess the situation. The corridor up ahead of him was wrecked. A drone had clearly ripped through it creating a brief but powerful explosion, and now small fires, debris and sparking cables dotted the scene all around. The door to the chair room was no more than fifty feet away. He could do this.

Via a mixture of walking, crawling and scrambling Sheppard made it to the doorway, stopping there a moment to survey the scene beyond it. The drone had torn right through the room, but had detonated in the corridor, so everything outside of the blast area, just a few meters over the threshold, had been spared from the flames. Through the smoke and dust he could see Lorne still sitting in the control chair, his face covered in dust and dark red blood oozing from a gash in his forehead. It looked like he'd been ready to operate the chair, which still glowed beneath him, but he'd been knocked out by falling debris at the moment of impact.

So if the chair was active, he could still defend the city if the shield failed.

Sheppard literally threw himself forward, knowing he had little strength left in him to cross the smoky, sparsely lit room. He collapsed at the foot of the chair, toxic fumes now filling his already struggling lungs. It made the agonising effort all the harder as he reached up with his left arm and tugged at Lorne, trying to topple him from the seat.

He couldn't budge him.

'C'mon!' he gasped, so close to his goal he couldn't believe he would fail.

But his grip slipped from Lorne's clothing and his arm dropped along with the rest of him to the floor at Lorne's feet.

He could feel the life literally ebbing out of him, as the breath rattled in and out of his lungs. All he'd had to do was sit in the chair and stay conscious for a few more minutes and he couldn't do it. He was dying, he knew that, and as he stopped struggling the pain left him completely, so all that remained was the regret that he hadn't been able to protect the city because Tareb had left him physically lacking when he'd been most needed...

..Sheppard sat up with a gasp, batting away the cloth covering his face. Where the hell...? What was...? Huh?

He was sitting up, buck naked, in a stasis pod.

On a ship.

On the ship?

Okay, so maybe dying hadn't been so bad after all.

A shocked whimper from behind him let him know he wasn't alone, and he turned to find a young female member of Rodney's science team standing behind him, clutching her tablet to her chest and half covering her eyes.

'Is this ship still under outside control?'

'Uh...y...yes...Yes, Colonel,' she stammered. 'Dr Zelenka has managed to open the doors to the bridge again, but he can't override the weapons system and we can't leave.'

From scrambled thoughts Sheppard plucked out his last conversation with Rodney. The ship had to build up enough power to override Lantean controls. He doubted it could continue to do that with an actual Lantean at the helm.

Snatching up the sheet he had thrown off onto the floor, he half-climbed, half-fell out of the pod while wrapping it around himself. He didn't have time to worry too much about modesty. He needed to get to the bridge.

Sheppard stumbled his way along the passageways, frustrated to find this body even weaker than the last one...at least before it had taken fire. But of course it was. It was fresh out of the pod. It hadn't even had the benefits of the few days of good food and walking his last body had enjoyed.

Several times his shaky legs gave way, but he pushed up again. This wouldn't kill him. This would only make him stronger.

It seemed to take an age to make it, but eventually he spilled through the door to the bridge – breathless, perspiring and ready to drop. It hadn't killed him, but it had pretty much wiped him out.

With one last push off from the doorway he lurched over to the control chair and fell into it just as the ship fired again at the higher level of the control tower where the shield generators were situated.

Sheppard concentrated, touching the control panels around the seat, screwing his eyes shut and demanding the systems obey him. At first he felt the ship push back, an alien presence pervading the programming that tried hard to force him back out of the systems, but in the end the natural connection he possessed with Lantean technology won through. The ship purred inside his mind, waiting for his command.

A voice interrupted his thoughts. 'Colonel Sheppard? Where did you...where are your...how are you...?' Zelenka picked his jaw up off the floor as sudden realisation struck. 'What did you do?'

'No time,' Sheppard barked, gripping his sheet as he jumped back out of the chair and swayed over to another panel, activating the targeting systems. 'Any moment now the city's shield is gonna fail, then that Vanir vessel will drop its cloak to try to locate Tareb and beam him aboard. I wanna make sure they get a nasty surprise.'

Everyone present turned to look out of the windshield, seeing Atlantis' shield flicker a few times, then fall away.

Sheppard brought up a HUD, the radar readings showing nothing in the vicinity of either them or the city. 'C'mon,' he murmured, battling to keep his mind focused on the job as his freshly animated brain began spooling unbidden through the memories downloading into it.

And then it happened. The Vanir ship revealed its position, the HUD displaying it, then a moment later informing him that the ship was powering its weapons against Atlantis.

'Gotcha!'

Sheppard unleashed everything the Lantean vessel had, dozens of drones zipping through the air toward the Vanir ship at almost lightning speed. Although the cloak was gone and the shields were raised they proved no match for the sheer onslaught of Ancient drones piercing its body, tearing it apart before their eyes. The hull broke into several pieces and fell out of the New Lantea skies, landing harmlessly in the ocean below it.

Sheppard returned to the command chair to the collective sigh of relief of Zelenka and his science team. Despite his utter exhaustion he brought the ship fully under his control and set it into a descent that had them smoothly docking with Atlantis once again only moments later.

Apparently listening to someone in his earpiece, Zelenka started to smile. 'Yes, Rodney the ship is powered down now...no...no...I didn't fix things. We had a little help.'

oooOOOooo

Rodney leaned in the doorway to the chair room, holding back a scream as he drunk in the sight of Sheppard's lifeless body, lying in a pool of his own blood.

Teyla arrived beside him, having received the call from Rodney that he feared Sheppard was hurt and needed their help. She, too, faltered to a halt. 'John!'

She pushed past Rodney, who stood helplessly by as Teyla checked first Lorne and then Sheppard for signs of life.

'What do you mean, help?' he choked out to Zelenka, almost unable to breathe from the shock of his find. They'd lost and found Sheppard too many times in the past few weeks for it to end this way.

'Dr Beckett...Dr Keller,' he heard Teyla cry. 'We need you in the chair room immediately. Major Lorne has suffered a head injury and John is...I am attempting to resuscitate him.' She was desperately trying to get some kind of output from Sheppard's body even as she spoke. 'Rodney! Help me!'

But Rodney was too busy listening to Zelenka's reply. 'Colonel Sheppard is aboard the ship. He established control of all systems and destroyed the Vanir vessel.'

It took even Rodney's considerable brain several seconds to compute what Zelenka had just told them.

'Sheppard's...aboard the ship?'

Teyla's head snapped around in his direction. 'What?'

'Yes, Rodney. He is here. He uploaded to one of the cloned bodies in stasis aboard the ship. I take it...'

Zelenka didn't finish the question, just left it hang between them.

'Teyla...you can stop. Sheppard's on the ship...he's alive,' Rodney blurted, laughing the words out in relief.

She laughed along with him, almost hysterical as she looked down at her bloodied hands. 'Thank the Ancestors!'

In the control chair, Lorne began to stir. Teyla sprung to her feet as he groaned and tried to feel what was wrong with his head. 'I will stay with the major, Rodney. You go to John.'

Rodney nodded and began to run. He was no John Sheppard or Ronon Dex, so running wasn't his natural state, and he'd already done a fair bit of it to get first to the dock and second to the chair room, but he dug deep and found the energy to propel his legs on.

The external door of the ship had opened by the time he got there and several of the science team were already scurrying down the ramp back towards the control tower. He pushed through them without regard. All he could think of was getting to Sheppard and seeing him with his own eyes. Seeing him alive might help expel the sight of his dead body from his mind.

When he ran in it was Zelenka's face he saw first, and he immediately registered the worry etched across it. Oh, that couldn't be good.

'Sheppard?'

Sheppard didn't respond. Rodney could see the back of his head in the command chair, but he didn't turn toward him at all.

As he rounded the seat he couldn't hold in the gasp that forced his way out of his lips.

'He was fine until he brought the ship into land,' Zelenka explained, peering at Sheppard over his glasses. 'Then the colour just seemed to drain from him...and he began to shake...I can't get him to say anything.'

'Oh, no,' Rodney breathed, worried that there was something wrong with the new body he'd transferred into. 'Sheppard?' He clicked his fingers in front of Sheppard's face, trying to get some kind of response. Sheppard just kept on staring straight ahead, trembling from head to toe, perspiration beaded on his skin, pale as snow and non-vocal.

'D'you think he's having a seizure?' he asked the Czech.

'I don't know, Rodney.'

'Or maybe the body wasn't finished...and his organs are failing!'

'Rodney...this isn't helping!'

Suddenly Sheppard blinked a few times, gulping in huge, deep breaths as if breathing for the first time in minutes. He appeared to be surfacing from his catatonic state.

'John?' Rodney ventured, tentatively testing for a reaction.

After a few seconds of darting to and fro, Sheppard's eyes finally met his. The sheer pain and fear the look conveyed left Rodney speechless.

And then Sheppard said, 'Download...complete...'

A surge of nausea welled in McKay's stomach. 'You got your memories back?'

All Sheppard could manage this time was a nod.

'Oh, my...' Zelenka murmured.

Suddenly, McKay's brain snapped back into operation. 'Radek, get help.'

'Of course.' The little man hurried away to do that, exiting the bridge as he called for a medical team, leaving McKay and Sheppard alone with the privacy he apparently felt they needed.

McKay leaned on the consoles in front of Sheppard, and did his best to maintain eye contact as he said, 'We'll get you through this, John. I can't imagine what those memories must be like for you, let alone getting them dumped on you all at once, but you're a strong man. You can get handle this.'

'He said...he said they almost broke me,' Sheppard stammered, his fingers gripping the arms of his chair so hard it looked like he might actually rip them off. 'He was right.'

'But they didn't...and you're still here. That's what's important, right?' Rodney encouraged, forcing himself to reach out and grasp Sheppard's shoulder despite the lack of clothing and his personal discomfort at that close contact. 'You live to fight another day and all that.'

Sheppard just closed his eyes and visibly shuddered, shaken by the power of whatever memories were bouncing around inside his head.

'I'm here for you, John,' Rodney told him, squeezing his shoulder to ground him. 'Just like you were there for me when I was sick, I'm here for you now.'

Sheppard nodded, emotional and weak. He folded over, dropping his head into his hands and began to shake even more. It took a moment for Rodney to realize what was happening. He was crying, not just fighting back tears, but full on sobbing. He'd never seen Sheppard this way. He didn't know what to do.

It was with huge relief that Rodney saw a medical team rushing in, and he stepped back to let them take over. He wanted to be more helpful, but what did you say to a man who had died sixteen excruciating deaths...no, make that seventeen? He'd died again just now, saving the city. Sheppard had used Tareb's own stolen technology against him, and this time his resurrected self had dealt the death blow to the faction's plans.

There was a kind of justice to that. He would have called it Karma if he believed in that kind of thing.

Perhaps it was time he did.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

It was the next morning before Sheppard began to rouse to the familiar sensation of sedatives blanketing him in their shielding embrace, protecting him from the harshness of reality after a sound night's sleep.

For just a second his mind cast him back to the cell on Tareb's ship and panic seized him, but then the steady, rhythmic beeping of medical equipment filtered through and he remembered all that was behind him now.

He was home.

He allowed his eyes to open to the bright new morning light streaming in though the infirmary windows, letting everything that had happened yesterday sink in.

He'd died again...and when he'd awoken this time everything had come flooding back in on him. It had been too much. He remembered crying...a lot. He couldn't even put his finger on exactly why he had cried. Relief? Anger? Fear? Maybe all of them. He still wasn't sure. His mind was a mess. He couldn't get a handle on anything churning around in there.

He rolled onto his back and tried to push up against his pillows, finding his arms weak and next to useless. He sighed and accepted that this was as upright as he was getting for now.

'You okay?'

Ronon.

He looked over to his left to see his friend lying right there in the bed next to him, giving him a smile.

'How's the leg?' he asked, remembering how much blood the man had been losing when he'd left him behind yesterday.

'S'fine,' Ronon replied. 'You gonna answer my question?'

Sheppard pondered a while, still too fuzzy to really comprehend the thoughts his mind was conjuring now he was awake again. 'Dunno,' he replied, the only honest answer he could give.

Ronon nodded as if he understood and left it at that. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke up again. 'Nice job yesterday.'

Sheppard managed a brief smile. 'Thanks.'

'Guess it was okay for you to bleed out, but not me?'

Sheppard glanced over at him, seeing the humour sparkling in his eyes. 'To be fair, that wasn't the plan. Did you get your gun back?'

'Yeah.' Another pause. Then Ronon reached over to his nightstand and lifted it up. The metal was covered in blood spatters and the wrappings around the butt were imprinted with a partial bloody handprint. 'Needs cleaning.'

That gem made Sheppard laugh. 'Yeah...sorry about that.'

Ronon just looked his way and gave him a wicked grin.

'So...you know what damage we took?' Sheppard asked, looking for anything to take his mind off the unwanted memories of his incarceration. They were dancing at the periphery of his thoughts now, and he needed to fill his head with something else...anything else...to keep them at bay.

'Shield's still down...McKay's working on it.'

'Any casualties?'

'Lorne has a concussion. Other than that nothing worse than bumps and scrapes.'

Relief flooded through Sheppard. 'We got lucky.'

'We got you,' Ronon replied, matter-of-fact.

Embarrassed to have his friend place so much value on him, Sheppard looked away, staring down at the bump under the blankets where his feet were.

'Are we good, Sheppard?'

Confused, he looked Ronon's way again. 'Huh?'

'You and me – are we good?'

'Sure,' Sheppard nodded, wondering why they wouldn't be.

'I did try to kill you.'

Oh yeah, there was that. 'And if it wasn't for you we wouldn't have known anything about Tareb's plans, so I think you made up for that.'

Now it was Ronon's turn to look embarrassed. 'When I got tortured and turned on you, you never held it against me,' he mumbled into his chest. 'Even when I tried to have you turned into a Wraith Worshipper you never gave up on me.'

'I knew that wasn't something you would do if you were in your right mind,' Sheppard told him. 'That was the enzyme talking, not you.'

'I should have trusted you, not Tareb.'

Ronon finally looked over to him and Sheppard locked eyes with him, holding his gaze in earnest. 'This was different, Ronon. There was a body...' he choked on that final word and dropped back against his pillows, closing his eyes.

'I'm glad you killed that bastard,' Ronon said simply.

So was he. 'How'd you get him to talk?'

There was a distinct glint in Ronon's eyes, and he couldn't hide his smirk. 'Told him I was gonna give him a taste of his own medicine. Barely had to lay a finger on him...he just caved in.'

'Pity...' Sheppard mused. He'd have been a little happier if Tareb had suffered even a degree of what he'd put him through.

'He peed his pants.'

Okay, so maybe that humiliation made up for Tareb's lack of pain. Sure explained the change of clothes.

Another voice now broke into the conversation...or current lack of it. 'Colonel Sheppard...I thought I heard your voice,' Dr Keller called, heading over from her office. As she reached his bedside the smile she'd been wearing on approach shifted to a look of professional concern. 'How are you feeling this morning?'

'Uhhh, kinda woolly,' he said, scratching at the back of his head and yawning involuntarily.

'That'd be the sedatives we gave you. You were pretty distressed when you were brought in last night. We thought it best to let you sleep.'

He nodded, and a momentary memory of agonised torture popped into his head, the buzz of the mini saw echoing around in his skull. 'I think that was a good call,' he told her as he did his best to keep his breathing normal.

'I'm gonna put you on a course of anxiety meds for the time being...and I want you to submit for a psych evaluation so we can get you whatever help you need.'

He nodded, accepting everything she said without question. It went against his very nature to take that kind of help. He was strong...stubborn even...and self-sufficient. He'd had to be after his mother died because his dad had pretty much withdrawn from family life after that. But right now the screams inside him, not just the sounds of his memories, but of his own mind telling him that this was too much and he couldn't deal with it, were beyond anything he'd ever experienced. And he would do whatever it took to silence them.

Something must have shown in his expression because Jennifer instantly reacted in full doctor mode.

'I'm gonna get you something right now,' she told him, rubbing his arm. 'You know...this is probably gonna sound like a pathetic platitude, but time really is a great healer. It's gonna take a while, but gradually, day by day with help, these feelings you have now will get more and more distant until one day you'll realise you're okay.'

He knew in his heart she was right, but that day seemed a long way off as he looked back at her, seeing the gut wrenching sympathy she didn't dare fully express.

'Teyla and Rodney wanted me to let them know when you woke up. Are you up for a visit?' she asked as she turned to leave.

He looked over at Ronon. The big guy was frowning at him, clearly worried by his behaviour. And normally this would be the point when he would put on a front and make out everything was fine...do the small talk thing and put everyone at ease. But not today. He was tired and his chest was cramped with nauseous anxiety that was making it hard to breathe. Today he couldn't be everything they needed him to be. He wondered if he ever would be again.

'Maybe after those meds,' he said quietly, and she nodded, exchanging a look with Ronon that he interpreted as an instruction for the Satedan to keep an eye on him before she headed off to fetch his medication.

Sheppard lay back against his pillows and closed his eyes, concentrating on slowing down his heart rate and keeping his breathing even. He didn't like the idea of relying on meds, but this body still felt alien to him, like a horse that needed breaking. Normally he had total control of his emotions, but with his physical strength at such a low ebb and his mental state still in turmoil he knew he needed whatever help he could get until he could regain his control.

Unexpectedly, he felt the touch of a heavy hand on his shoulder. He snapped his eyes open to find that Ronon had slid out of his bed and was now gripping his shoulder, looking down at him with more compassion than he thought he'd ever seen on the Satedan's face. 'You'll beat this, Sheppard.'

Struggling not to break down, Sheppard pressed his lips into a grim smile and gave a sharp nod. Then he rolled onto his side, breaking the contact and praying Keller didn't take too long. He wanted to be cushioned from the memories of what Tareb had done to him, over and over. One day he might wake up and be okay, but that day wasn't coming any time soon, and not knowing when it might come made his torment all the harder to bear.

oooOOOooo

He hadn't even realised he'd fallen asleep until he felt a tug on his hand and snapped awake again.

Two big brown eyes peered up from the side of the bed at him, and a playful giggle brought a smile to his face. Teyla picked Torren up so Sheppard could see him properly.

'I am sorry, John,' she apologised, bouncing her son on her hip. 'Jennifer said it was all right for us to come and see you. If I had known you were sleeping –'

'Don't worry. It's fine. I told her you could come.'

He tried to push up against his pillows, but once again failed. Teyla quickly deposited Torren on the edge of Ronon's bed and assisted him, helping him lean forward while she rearranged his pillows to prop him up into a sitting position. 'Is that better?'

'Much,' he told her, glad for the change of position. It made him feel less...vulnerable.

'I spoke with Carson earlier. He believes firing up the chair may have drained you of what energy was stored in your body from the cloning process and that has left you very weak. You should start to feel stronger soon...with rest and nourishment.'

'That's good to know.' And by nourishment she meant something crappy like soup and water for a start, when what he really wanted was a huge beef steak with a side of fries. His stomach grumbled at the thought of food, and Teyla gave him a sympathetic smile.

'Jennifer said she was organising some food for you. You must be famished.'

'You can say that again,' he grumbled. Earlier he hadn't been able to even face the thought of food, but right now he felt like he could chew his own arm off if he didn't get something soon. That had to be a good sign.

'You seem much calmer today,' Teyla told him, picking Torren up and placing him on the bed beside Sheppard now. The little boy immediately turned and wrapped his chubby arms around Sheppard's neck, nuzzling into his cheek.

Teyla tried to pull him away, but Sheppard gestured that it was fine. There was something comforting about the unconditional way Torren treated him, just exactly as he would have treated him had none of this horror ever happened.

'He has missed you,' Teyla said softly, her smile almost splitting her face in two.

'Missed you too, little guy,' Sheppard whispered, hugging the little boy to him as hard as he could.

'I wanted to thank you for what you did yesterday...If you had not acted I believe the faction might had done far more damage to Atlantis than they did. Many could have died.'

She stroked her son's head and Sheppard knew exactly what she was thinking. She couldn't say it, but she'd been afraid she would lose Torren. The fact she hadn't made his burden just that tiniest bit easier to carry.

'I was just doing my job,' he insisted, and it was true...except he'd been relieved of duty at the time. But when had that kind of thing ever stopped him?

'You'll be glad to know we have the shield back up and running so no more bad guys can come a-calling,' a very smug-sounding Rodney announced as he arrived at the infirmary. He faltered a second, his smile slipping, then continued his journey to Sheppard's bedside. 'Wow. You look like crap!'

'Gee, thanks McKay. I can always count on you for a compliment,' Sheppard quipped. It was weird, but somehow McKay's treatment of him made him feel more normal, too. Perhaps it was the way he treated him no differently, just like Torren. Sympathy had never been a big deal to Sheppard. What he needed was for people to treat him as they always had.

As Torren began to play with Sheppard's saline feed, Teyla carefully plucked him away, extricating the tube from his chubby little fingers as she did so. 'We can all count on him for an honest opinion, that is certain,' Teyla agreed. 'Whether we want it or not.'

'You say that like it's a bad thing,' Rodney snorted, hopping up on the edge of Ronon's bed.

The big guy looked annoyed and nudged him off again. 'You're not looking so hot yourself, McKay,' he gruffed, straightening out his sheets.

'Well some of us have been up all night saving the city from potential attack,' he retorted, back to looking smug again.

'Some of us don't take so long about it,' Sheppard pointed out, making both Ronon and Teyla grin.

'Yes, yes, you saved the day again,' McKay admitted with a dismissive flap of his hand. 'But some of us don't have the advantage of being in two places at once.'

'Rodney!' Teyla gasped, but Sheppard didn't mind. Rodney was just being Rodney, and there was nothing wrong with that.

'You're just jealous that I get to start out in a new body...again,' he jibed.

'Well, of course I'm jealous about that!' McKay admitted. 'Mind you, if someone ever clones me a new body I hope they make it a few pounds lighter. He patted his stomach and looked wistful, as if considering whether it might be possible to do. 'Not everyone is blessed with your lightning metabolism.'

And that lightning metabolism was still crying out for food. Thankfully, Carson now appeared carrying a tray.

'Just thought I'd stop by with a little sustenance.'

'Oh, thank God!' McKay groaned, trying to take the tray. 'Soup...is that it?'

'Step away from the tray, Rodney. This isn't for you,' Carson warned, tugging it free from Rodney's grasping fingers. 'If you want food you know where the mess hall is.'

When the tray landed on his knees, Sheppard did his best to look grateful, but it really wasn't going to fill the cavernous void in his stomach.

Carson obviously picked up on his disappointment. 'You keep that down, Colonel and we can try something a little more substantial. Small steps just like last time, remember?'

'Small steps,' Sheppard nodded. He remembered the routine. It had only been a few days since he'd been through it with his last body.

'You look exhausted, John,' Teyla said, scrutinizing his face as he took his first mouthful of food. 'Rodney and I will let you rest now. We will visit again later.'

Rodney looked a little dumbfounded. 'We're leaving already? But I only just got here!'

With a slight roll of her eyes, Teyla took hold of his arm with her free hand and steered him away. 'Since you are so hungry and tired I thought you might welcome a meal and some sleep.'

'Oh, yes...true...' He let her tug him along a few steps, then turned to peer back over his shoulder. 'Nice job yesterday, Sheppard. It's good to have you back.'

Sheppard sipped in another spoonful of soup, feeling it slowly warm his throat. He was cold again, colder than he should have been on such a mild day. Keller had explained it was to do with his poor circulation in his previous body so he supposed it was the same thing this time. The soup was certainly helping.

'Chicken soup...cures all ills,' Carson quipped as he checked Sheppard's stats on the various devices he was hooked up to. 'Not really, of course, or I'd be out of a job.' He stopped tampering with the equipment and looked down at Sheppard. 'Take this slowly, John. You're a strong man...inside and out...but you can't fix everything overnight. I know you'll get there if you're patient with yourself.'

And at this moment, with the slight protection of the medication he actually felt like he could do this. There was a long road ahead of him, a road littered with pitfalls and setbacks, but he was still John Sheppard, still the same stubborn, hard-headed man he'd always been. He would get through this because he was too mulish not to. If he didn't, Tareb would have won. And in John Sheppard's version of Pegasus, the bad guys didn't win.

oooOOOooo

Ten weeks later, Sheppard found himself standing on his brother's doorstep at what had once been their family home. The look on David's face when he opened the door to him was priceless, but he welcomed him in and hurried him through to the guest reception room, ordering Marcie, his house maid, to bring them both some coffee.

The room was just as he remembered it, with one wall almost entirely made of windows that allowed the sun on this glorious spring morning to bathe them both in warmth and light. It felt so relaxing that the tension that had been knotting his shoulders all the way to the house instantly released as he picked a spot close to the windows to sit down and bask in the beauty of the view of the gardens.

'So, to what do I owe this honour?' Dave asked, sitting in the armchair opposite him.

'I had some leave...thought I should stop by,' Sheppard shrugged, keeping it casual. It wasn't the whole truth. He had a very specific reason for being there, especially today, but he couldn't share it with David no matter how much he wished he could.

'That's nice,' Dave said with a smile, sitting back to regard him shrewdly from his seat. 'So why the leave? Vacation or illness?'

'Vacation,' Sheppard lied, holding eye contact and conveying that his brother should drop the subject in that single exchange.

Dave clearly didn't believe it, but as was his way, he accepted that Sheppard didn't want to talk about it. 'Have you lost a few pounds?'

Sheppard looked down at himself, grateful that David hadn't seen him ten weeks ago. Putting weight on had proved harder than he'd thought. His body, new and still finding its levels, had suffered from an alarmingly fast metabolic rate that Dr Keller had eventually helped him bring under control. So now he was gaining, but he still had a way to go.

'Been out in the field...food supply was slow. '

Another lie to protect Dave from the truth...a truth it had taken him ten weeks of therapy to really come to terms with, and he still wasn't certain he had a complete handle on it. The nightmares came thick and fast every night, but at least during the day the flashback were much reduced and no longer as debilitating as they had been. Keller had been right; time was softening their impact. He'd worked through the lows and now the only way was up.

'Where exactly were you posted?' Dave quizzed, thanking Marcie as she arrived and deposited the requested refreshments on the coffee table between them.

Sheppard waited for her to leave, snatching up a cookie from the plate beside the coffee pot. 'You know I can't discuss that with you,' he reminded his brother.

'Oh, that's right...it's classified,' Dave nodded, tossing him a wry smile. 'Not sure who you think I would tell.'

'If you don't know, you can't tell anyone. Temptation removed,' Sheppard mumbled around a mouthful of crumbs.

Dave picked up the plate of cookies and offered it to him. 'Take another one...you look like you could use it.'

'Thanks.' He wasn't about to say no.

'So...' Dave said, watching him with a hint of concern as he ate. 'Where are you staying?'

'I booked a hotel room...at the Bedford.'

'Nice...but we have a dozen rooms here,' Dave reminded him, looking somewhat disappointed that Sheppard hadn't even thought to ask.

'I'm only in town for a couple of days...I didn't want to impose.'

'John...this is your home as much as mine. I know you agreed to let me move in, but dad left it to both of us, remember?'

Sheppard shrugged, sipping his coffee. It was good and strong, just how he liked it. Marcie hadn't lost her touch. 'I'm hardly ever here, it made sense for you to have the place.'

'And I told you that you would always be welcome.' Dave looked serious a moment, and let out a deep sigh. 'John...you're my brother, my only remaining close family. Did it occur to you I might actually enjoy spending some time with you?'

Sheppard dropped his gaze to his cup, watching the steam curling up from the surface of his coffee a moment while he thought up the best response to that. 'Sorry, Dave. I didn't think.'

Dave sighed in a way that reminded Sheppard of their father's constant disappointment in him. 'That's okay. I guess when you get as used to taking care of yourself as you are you forget to think about others.'

The snipe was uncalled for, but Sheppard let it slide. Dave's ego had always been fragile – a side effect of spending too much time in their father's overly critical company. He understood how that felt. His shoulders were broad enough to take his brother's guilt trip.

'Next time I promise I'll let you know I'm coming. We can hang out a while. This was all a bit...last minute. I didn't want to turn up expecting a place to stay without running it by you first.'

David's expression softened and he shook his head, huffing out a sad kind of laugh. 'You're my family, John. There's always a place here for you. I thought I made that clear after Dad's funeral.'

'Yeah...you did,' Sheppard conceded. 'I just didn't want to make any assumptions. As he finished his coffee his eyes drifted to the family portrait hanging on the wall behind his brother, painted so long ago in happier times when his family had meant everything to him and his memories of times spent together were only happy ones. 'There is another reason why I'm here today.'

David assumed a "here we go" kind of smirk. 'Yeah, and why's that?'

'I want to borrow the key for the mausoleum. Since I'm home and it's mom's birthday tomorrow I figured I could take her some flowers.'

Dave blinked at him as if he was having trouble deciphering what he'd said. 'Flowers for Mom?'

Sheppard looked back at him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. 'Yeah.'

'But you haven't been there for years,' Dave reasoned. 'Why now?'

Sheppard shrugged as if it was no big deal. 'I'm here. It's her birthday. It just seemed like the right thing to do.'

Dave just stared at him a while longer, then rose from his chair and left the room without another word. When he returned a couple of minutes later, he carried a bunch of keys and was busy twisting one free.

Once he'd slid it off the ring he held it out toward John. It was big and chunky, not like the usual door key. There was no mistaking this was for the family mausoleum. Just as he was about to take it from him, Dave closed his fingers around it. 'Stay for dinner first.'

There was a kind of pleading in his tone that he would never express outright, but Sheppard heard it all the same. He smiled and nodded. 'Sure.'

With a grin, Dave relinquished the key. 'You can keep it,' he told him. 'I have another one. That way, next time you come I'll know you're here because you enjoy my company, not just to ask me for a favour.'

That said he headed off to let Marcie know they had a guest for dinner. Sheppard looked down at the hefty, ornate key in his hand, rolling it over and gauging its weight. Tomorrow he would be one step closer to that closure everyone told him he needed to find.

One step closer to feeling at peace with what had happened to the physical body his brother had grown up with.

oooOOOooo

Sheppard drove to the mausoleum early the next morning, as soon as he knew the cemetery gates would be unlocked. Originally he had planned to make this an unfussy affair, a trip he would make alone, but as soon as his team had got wind of his plans, they had all insisted on accompanying him. They rode along with him in silence now, taking in the sights and expensive housing lining the route.

There was no need for words. Nothing anyone could say would ever be adequate for an unenviable situation such as this.

As he turned into the decorative cast iron gateway Sheppard felt a cold shiver pass right through him. The last time he'd been here he'd stopped by after his father's funeral, having missed the ceremony itself thanks to a rogue replicator. He'd almost felt the disapproval oozing from the sarcophagus surrounding his father's casket as he'd said his private goodbye's before heading back to Atlantis on the Daedalus. His dad had always said he couldn't be counted on to show his face when it mattered, and that had simply proved his point.

Slowly following the driveway round the cemetery, the mausoleum loomed into view. It was bigger than he remembered and seemed to glow in the sunlight like a beacon guiding his way. Not that he could ever forget. He drew up outside the broad stone stairway and looked up at the iron door protecting his family's remains. The word 'SHEPPARD' was carved in huge serifed letters in the gable end above it, something that made the place look all the more ominous as he stared up at it and contemplated what he was about to do.

'Wow...that is impressive,' Rodney cooed from the back seat. 'I know you said your family had money but...just wow!'

Sheppard peered back at him where he sat beside Ronon in the rear of the car. His eyes were huge as he stared up ant the Romanesque facade of the building. Apparently the McKay family didn't reside in any such luxury after their deaths. Ronon, however, was fully focused on him, silent and intent on his role in this process.

'John, are you ready?' Teyla asked from the passenger seat.

He nodded and took the pot she had been keeping safe for him, opening the car door to climb out as the others did the same.

In the distance somewhere he could hear shovels hitting dirt, the gravediggers preparing for yet another life lost. You live, you die, and for others life goes on. Unless you were John Sheppard. He was in the unique position of having died but now having a second chance...or in his case an eighteenth chance. And he was okay with that. It had taken ten weeks of struggle and talking and tears and anger, but now he was finally beginning to accept what he had lost.

Acceptance...the final stage of bereavement, or so his psychologist had told him.

He walked up the stone steps, the others falling in step behind him at a respectful distance. Clutching the pot to his chest, he delved into his pocket, pulled out the key, and slid it into the lock, feeling the mechanism disengage with a satisfying clunk as he pushed the heavy door back and made his way inside, knowing the others would follow without invitation. They had insisted on being there; they wouldn't stop now.

Inside was as carefully crafted as the outside of the monument. Each of his families' bodies had its own stone sarcophagus surrounding the casket, each with their name and the dates of their birth and death carved in beautiful script at one end. His grandparents rested side by side on the left of the chamber, his uncle next to them with a space waiting for his wife, Sarah, who was as yet still alive and thriving in Vegas, having found a new zest for life once out from under the shadow of the Sheppard family name. Then next was his father's resting place; his mother's sarcophagus was situated beyond that, closest to the right hand wall.

'This one,' he said to Ronon, and the two of them crossed toward where his mother lay.

Behind him, he heard Rodney give an appreciative whistle. 'Wow, I've had apartments with less class than this place.'

'They probably cost less to build, too,' Sheppard assured him. There was no point in playing it down. When the Sheppard family did burials, they did them in style.

Ronon pulled out the crow bar he'd been concealing and began working on the heavy stone lid of his mother's sarcophagus.

'Be careful, Ronon,' Teyla called over to him. 'It would be a pity to break something so magnificent.'

The Satedan gave a grunt as he levered the heavy cover stone and shunted it across a little way, revealing an opening at the corner just big enough for them to see inside. Sheppard paused a moment, realising he hadn't been this close to his mother since the day of her burial. It made him hesitate as memories of that day rushed over him.

'You all right?' he heard Ronon ask, his voice breaking through the fugue that had descended on him.

'Yeah...fine...Could you guys give me a minute?'

Of course Teyla instantly responded, taking the bouquet Rodney had been carrying and setting it down on top of Sheppard's father's sarcophagus, then grabbing Rodney's arm before he could even think of questioning why and pulling him out of the door.

'We'll be right outside,' Ronon told him, patting his shoulder as he passed and left him to do what he had gone there to do.

A sigh shuddered through him as he looked down at the polished oak casket within the stone covering. He reached in and laid his hand on the surface, the wood cold beneath his palm. 'Hi, Mom,' he whispered, feeling the first sting of tears as he spoke. 'Long time, no see.'

Of course, all he heard was his own voice softly echoing back from the white walls, nothing more. His mother was long gone. All that lay here was her body; nothing of what had made her the special woman he'd loved so much remained there. They had buried an empty vessel, left behind when his mother's spirit had continued its journey into a world where bodies were a hindrance, not a necessity. And that was how he'd finally come to terms with the disposal of all the bodies they'd retrieved from Tareb's vessel. They, too, were only empty vessels and no longer a necessity. So he'd asked for them to be cremated and the ashes scattered in space.

All except one.

His original body.

The other cloned bodies had been made in Pegasus, and belonged to Pegasus. Now they would be forever part of it. But his original body...well, he'd always imagined it would be buried here with his family. Now, even though he was still very much alive, it still seemed like the right thing to do.

So he put the urn in the opening, setting it down in the corner at the head of his mother's casket. She had carried that body inside her for nine months – it had at one time been part of her. Now it was back with her once again.

'Thanks for the loan, Mom,' he said quietly, resting his hand on the casket again. He looked back over his shoulder at where his father's remains lay. 'You too, Dad. Sorry I didn't look after it, but...well, you know me...always getting into scrapes.'

A tear slid down his cheek and dripped onto the wood, marring the smooth surface. He sniffed more tears back, trying to keep them in. 'Anyway, I don't want you thinking I wasn't grateful, 'cos I was. And it was a good body...got me a long way in life. But then I ran across this guy...' He stopped. They didn't need to hear that. 'Anyway, the important thing is I've got a whole new body now, so I wanted to bring this one back to you. This is where it belongs.'

That said, he sat down on the stone plinth beneath his mother's sarcophagus and dropped his head into his hands, letting his emotions surface and consume him. His psychologist had told him it was good for him to let things out, but it wasn't something he found easy to do. Yet here, in this place invested with so much sadness and regret, he found his outlet. And it came pouring out of him in a way he hadn't ever thought possible.

He didn't know how long he sat there like that, but when the tears eventually dried up he realised his soul felt so much lighter that he could actually see a way forward now. This had been the closure he so badly needed. It really felt like the horrors of his incarceration were finally behind him and he could move beyond it all.

Scrubbing his eyes dry with his sleeve, he headed to the door and called for Ronon to come help him put the lid back in place. Soon his whole team were back in there with him, Rodney and Teyla watching as Ronon helped Sheppard slot the lid back into its correct position.

Teyla had collected the bouquet from where she'd left it atop his father's sarcophagus and now passed it to him. She was crying, and she slipped her arms around his neck to hug him. He realised then, as he saw Rodney rub at his reddened eyes and Ronon cleared his throat to cover his welling emotions, that this had been almost as hard on them as it had on him. But from now on things could only get better, he was certain of that.

For all of them.

Teyla stepped back, took hold of his free hand, and dipped her head, waiting for him to touch his forehead to hers.

'Are you ready to return to Atlantis now?' she asked, sadness still marring her pretty features.

'No place I'd rather be,' he told her with a grin.

So he let go of her hand, set the flowers gently onto the lid they had so carefully replaced and said, 'Happy birthday, Mom.'

oooOOOooo

They emerged back out into brilliant sunlight, the air crisp and clean compared to that of the musky mausoleum. Sheppard sucked in a deep lungful of it, allowing it to cleanse him and take away some of the sadness as he expelled it again in a long sigh.

As he locked the mausoleum door and pulled out the car keys, Rodney piped up, 'I'll drive!' and since he was probably in a better state for it than he was, Sheppard tossed him the keys.

'I hope you drive better than you fly a puddle jumper.'

'Much better,' Rodney promised him. 'But you remember the way back to the hotel, right? I might need directions.'

Sheppard raised his eyebrows, as the others shook their heads and climbed into the back seat of the car. And McKay said he was always getting lost.

'What?' Rodney complained. 'I didn't pay attention on the way here. My mind was on other things.'

'It always is, Rodney,' Sheppard pointed out, dropping into the passenger seat and relaxing with a sigh.

As they left the cemetery he felt like a huge responsibility had been lifted off him. His former body, the one gifted to him by his parents, was exactly where it should be, lying in the embrace of his family. Now, in his new, Pegasus-created body he felt Atlantis was his real home more than ever. He couldn't wait to get back there.

'So...how're we gonna scuff those shoes of yours?' Rodney asked as they pulled out of the cemetery gates and back out onto the highway.

It took a few moments for Sheppard to understand what he meant, then he recalled the discussion around the conference table back at Atlantis, the one when he'd still been in the body previous to this one. He smirked. 'If I could have hung on in the last one, I would have already started. Two bullet holes...that was a pretty good scuff.'

'I could shoot you,' Ronon offered from the back seat. 'Somewhere that won't kill you,' he added quickly.

Sheppard huffed a laugh out, shaking his head. 'Thanks for the offer, buddy, but I figure there are already several bullets out there in the Pegasus Galaxy with my name on them. It's only a matter of time.'

'And there are still plenty of undiscovered Ancient technologies out there, I bet,' McKay added with a lop-sided grin. 'Activating those is bound to blow up in our faces from time to time...hypothetically speaking...or not.'

'Or Teyla could give you a session in the gym with her Bantos Rods,' Ronon suggested, his grin pure wicked joy as Sheppard peered back over his shoulder at him.

Teyla though, merely rolled her eyes. 'I wish to play no part in this "scuffing the shoes",' she told them. 'Although, since Torren has grown some teeth, he does take great pleasure in biting people. You could babysit him for me...that would surely add to your scar collection.'

'You too, Teyla?' Sheppard choked out, feigning hurt while unable to hide his smile.

'You know what...we could call Todd. Get him to give you back your feeding scar.'

Everyone fell silent and stared at McKay. He glanced Sheppard's way, then checked his rearview mirror to judge Teyla and Ronon's reactions. 'Too much?' he asked sheepishly.

'You do seem to be taking just a little bit too much pleasure in all this,' Sheppard told him, but he couldn't help finding it funny all the same.

The rest of the drive back to the hotel was dotted with light-hearted suggestions for his possible appropriation of damage harking back to former mishaps. Ronon and McKay took the lead, coming up with ever more comical and sadistic ways they could rough up his shiny new body, while Teyla did her best to act disapproving. But, of course the conversation never touched on anything Tareb had done to him. Even McKay wasn't tactless enough to make light of that.

Sheppard just left them to it, listening to the growing competition to devise ever more insane and unlikely ways in which he could do himself harm. Ten weeks ago he wouldn't have been able to sit through this. He'd come a long way, and much as he hated to admit it, he knew he would never have done it alone. Sometimes, letting people in really was the right thing to do.

A two week trip aboard the Daedalus awaited them all, another two weeks for him to get back in shape and return fighting fit to resume his rightful place as military commander of Atlantis. Okay, so maybe that was a little optimistic, but he was getting there, one small step at a time. Tareb might have shaken him, might even have brought him close to his limits of endurance, but he was still here. He was John Sheppard through and through, and he could accept that now that all the others were finally dealt with. And so what if the scars he carried now where deep in his psyche and not on his skin for others to see? They still told the story of this, the latest leg of his journey through life, a life he now fully understood was as much his as it ever had been.

The Pegasus Galaxy had taken its very best shot at him.

And still he remained unbroken.

THE END