It didn't take very long into his first real day of being a soldier for John to go farther from home than he ever had in his life. It wasn't particularly unexpected - up until a year and a half ago, he'd more or less expected to live seventeen miles from Dover, Delaware until the day he died. He'd been born in Smyrna, lived there all his life, and although he occasionally wondered what it would be like to go somewhere, to sail on one of those big ships he saw sometimes when he took the crops to market at the harbor, he reckoned that being in Smyrna until he died was his lot in life. John was, for the most part, a pragmatist.
But the taxes on his father's crops were getting high enough that it was harder and harder to turn a profit, and there were soldiers lodging in his sister's house three farms over, and John was good with a gun. There were things being said, that in Boston men were being killed in the streets, that something had to give. So two months ago John picked up his musket, two changes of clothes, and as much money as he'd saved in his seventeen years on God's green earth, and went to find the Delaware militia.
He was good with the musket - could take down just about anything worth eating, he'd told the major who'd been in charge of his recruitment without a hint of boasting. But meat was meat, and people were something else, the major had responded calmly, and looked him in the eye. Boy, he'd called John. Boy, are you sure 'bout this?
Then John was a man, learning how to fight the way gentlemen did, in straight lines across a field. John didn't see the point of lining up to shoot and be shot; he'd never been interested in the toy soldiers his father had given him when he'd been old enough not to chew on them, not even when his father had quietly pointed out the painted metal general, with dull yellow-painted braiding, and tried to tell him about the generals of old. But John was Private Sheppard, a seventeen year old with a musket and two changes of clothes and a pilfered metal soldier in his pocket. He wasn't supposed to question. He was supposed to line up and shoot.
And now he was going farther from Smyrna, Delaware than he'd ever been in his life. John wondered, briefly, whether he'd see it again, and whether he might manage to find his way onto one of those tall, fast ships after all.
John Sheppard was ever a fool for a lost cause.
He'd followed Lee across Virginia, across the better part of what had been, at one point so long ago that he was not really sure he remembered, the Southern United States of America. He'd fought well, honorably, been promoted by people who were now dead to a rank that didn't really matter. He'd been there at Chancellorsville, took a ball to the shoulder at Gettysburg, but come away from all the others - Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg - mostly unscathed. It disgusted him a little.
John had always known, deep down, that the Confederacy would fall. The South was gasping its last shuddering breath here at Appomattox, and it broke his heart to see, but no matter what his father had said to him as he'd left to heed the call of duty, the South was not eternal. John knew it, even if his father didn't.
It was true, of course, that the South was more than a place. Anyone with eyes to see could tell that, to John's way of thinking. It was imperfect, but he was pretty sure that there was not and had never been a perfect place in the world since Eden, and even that had had the serpent. But the South was the smell of Cook's special pecan pie, set out to cool on the sill, and the rich sound of her laughter as she tried to figure out how he'd managed to steal it. The South was the taste of a peach, overripe and sticky on a hot summer's day when he was seven, sitting in the climbing tree by the overseer's house. The South was the rustle of his sisters' skirts and the ringing of their voices as they swished by him in the garden with their beaux, flirting with sweet, lilting words. The South was the feel of his nanny's hand, cool and dark and soft against his head when he had had smallpox at age ten and nobody else would stay with him. The South was the look in his mama's eyes when he'd come back from school in Richmond, proud and sad and loving, and older than he'd ever imagined. The South was dying, but nobody would be able to say that John hadn't done his part to keep it around as long as possible.
Johnny, his nanny would say, you are St. Jude's own favored son. Johnny, Cook would say, stop worrying, there's some pie in the kitchen.
World War II.
The Luftwaffe were scary, scary bastards. That's what the RAF boys John was patrolling with called them: bastards. Those Luftwaffe bastards aren't going to get by us today, they would say. When John heard them say it, all clipped accents and Queen's English, John could ignore the fear in their voices. When they said it, it made it easier to pretend that all of them weren't scared shitless.
John had lived and breathed military since he could walk. His dad had been a general in the Great War, had survived so many of his friends and taught his son about duty and honor. And, secondarily, about going fast.
The United States Army Air Corps had fast. And while John was flying the fastest planes the damn scientists could come up with after graduating from the Academy, he hadn't ever believed that the Great War, his father's war, could be outdone. But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and their Allies mentioned that they could sure use some help if the US was inclined to give it, and so John was here, flying for the new Air Forces, going fast and wondering when it was all going to stop.
The RAF boys were fearless, John thought. With the army, the men fighting on the ground in the endless African desert or the war-ravaged French fields, there was a chance - with varying odds - that if you were injured, you could survive. A field doctor would try to patch you up, you might get attended by a beautiful nurse, maybe get shipped home to recover your health and your pride. You could see the face of the enemy and live to tell about it if you were so inclined. But when the pilots messed up, they died. John liked the symmetry of it, even if it scared him shitless - you either succeeded and lived to do it again, or you died. The RAF boys had been doing it for years now, staring the likelihood of their own fiery death in the face. They called them Goering's Girls now.
Privately, John thought they were crazy. He listened to them at night in the barracks, laughing and muttering to each other about their girlfriends - names like Lucy and Charlotte and Georgina - and always, endlessly, what they'd do when the war was over. It was a certainty - they were English, and anything Goering's Girls could throw at them, they'd wait it out. People were born, people died, and wars ended eventually.
John agreed. But he couldn't quite bring himself to call the Luftwaffe anything but the Luftwaffe, or occasionally, those scary Luftwaffe bastards. John was irreverent, but he didn't want to tempt fate. John was a strong believer in fate.
It was John's forty-third day as a guest of the Viet Cong. He didn't have anything to write with, or anything he could use to scrape a tick mark onto the wall like they did in the movies, but in the movies the jail cells all had stone walls and the people inside could find something to use to keep track of the days. John figured the tiny, scary little man standing outside the block of cells would not appreciate being asked for something to use as a chisel - if, of course, he could manage to make himself understood in the first place. This was unlikely. John knew the words for rice and beer and semi-automatic assault rifle and don't kill me in Vietnamese. He had never gotten around to learning how to say chisel, or to learning the days of the week.
It had always been a given that he'd go into the military, and military men didn't need to know how to speak other languages, his father said. If you knew English and carried American dollars, people would understand you well enough, his father said. John learned a little Spanish when they'd been stationed in Lubbock, but he'd never spoken it around his father. For a moment John tried to remember, just for an instant, when he'd used it - and for a moment a few words found their way to his lips. Esta el dia cuarenta y tres de estar en captividad, y yo no se… But the little man with the big gun banged on the door, yelled something in Vietnamese, and shot him a look that, in another lifetime, would not have been the least bit menacing.
This was not his life. This life stank of the dead Frenchman two cells down; like John's own pungent odor, having not bathed - been rained on, of course, because this was Vietnam and it couldn't go a half a damn day without a fucking monsoon pouring down from the sky - in forty-three days. John knew it was forty-three days because of the pebbles. His captors had done a hell of a job clearing the cell of anything that John could use as a weapon, but there were just enough tiny fucking rocks to make sleeping on the ground damned uncomfortable. So every day, he took a pebble and put it in the little circle he'd cleared near the back of his cage. And today there were forty-three pebbles in the circle.
It wasn't much. Not much at all. Back home he'd have a calendar with women, or cars, or women and cars, over a big bed with clean sheets, instead of a pile of fucking pebbles. But he had it, and it was something. And somehow, someday, he'd have it again. They'd find him. John knew it, deep down. They had to find him eventually.
The war against the Wraith had never been declared such, but everyone who knew about it knew that it was a war all the same. Wars could rage on for years undeclared, with the world ignoring them or overlooking them or just not caring, John knew. This wasn't like that - there were reasons people couldn't know. But he knew. It was John's war, as much as it was anyone's, and John was willing to declare it if nobody else was.
But that was the thing - this wasn't like after Afghanistan. This wasn't Antarctica, with just him and the endless fields of snow. This was his war, but other people were helping him declare it. Even when they were scared shitless - and John was well aware that all of them, even Ronon, were scared shitless.
Humans made war, John had been taught, to advance the cause of liberty, or to advance their own causes. You can be the man who advances the cause of liberty, John's father had said once, before Afghanistan and the war his father wouldn't fight, or you can be the man who advances his own causes; both is not an option. Men made war to kill each other, to take land or money or diamonds or women or salt - to take things from each other, to prove a point. Men got angry, did things to each other. That was life, John had been taught. That's the job of a soldier, John had been taught.
The Wraith made war because they were hungry. They did not care about land or money or diamonds or salt, and the women they cared about only in the way John cared about a turkey sandwich. The Wraith were an enemy John had not been taught about; his teachers could not have imagined this.
But he was learning. And so was Rodney, so was Elizabeth, so were Carson and Lorne and Zelenka. Teyla had been learning for years, and Ronon could practically teach a course on the subject. Finally, finally, this was it.
John was fighting his war, but he wasn't in it alone.