There are some things that do not require words.
You do not need words to smash your fist into your captor's face, to pin a guard against the wall, to smash at his head until he, too, is wordless. You do not need words to claw a knife out of a blood-stained fist, to wrench a gun out of a holster, to snatch your possessions from the hands of dead men. Your feet make sounds, and the gun roars in your hand, and the enemy screams, but you do not need words to hear them.
You do not need words to kill.
When the bullet tears into your side, you do not need words to arch in pain, and you can hit the ground, roll, and be up again, all without making a sound. The enemy makes enough noise for the two of you. When the gun cracks again, wavering as your hand is wavering, the enemy falls. His death is noisy. Yours, if it comes, will come without a sound.
You do not need words to run.
It does not take words to resolve to live. It does not take words to place one foot in front of the other and walk, as blood flows out in silence, and the drugs steal quietly through your brain. It does not take words to fall, to struggle to rise, to fall again; to lie still in the rasping sand and the silent sun.
You do not need words to die.
Some things, though, cannot be done without words. For even the most private of men, there comes a time when words mean everything.
"Colonel?" Rodney's voice, faint and tinny. Sheppard opened one eye; the other was clogged with sand. "Colonel Sheppard? Come in. Come in, Colonel. Are you there?"
It was far too late to crack a smile. His ear piece was a dark speck in the sand, already half-buried. With a gargantuan effort, Sheppard moved his hand, his fingers drifting sideways across the sand, like a drugged crab. By the time his fingers reached the ear-piece, he knew he lacked the strength to do anything more.
"Colonel?" Rodney's voice was high with panic. "He's not answering. Oh! Oh no. This means…"
"It can mean many things." Teyla. Two out of the three. Then silence for a while. No Ronon.
Fear for his team gave him the strength to move one finger, flicking the sand away from the ear piece. The wind took most of it and blew it into his face, but coughing was an impossibility.
"What was that?" said Rodney. "Did anyone hear…?"
Sheppard tapped the ear piece.
"…a noise. Is that you, Colonel?"
He tapped it again, flicking it with the back of his finger.
"It doesn't prove anything. It could be some dumb animal who thinks the radio's a tasty lunch."
The faint smile felt like a fissure on his face. Even tinny and barely audible, Rodney was still Rodney. The sun-drenched haze above him seemed to take shape and show him the expressions and gestures that went with the words. Still smiling, Sheppard tapped out the opening bars of the theme for Star Wars. It felt appropriate, for some reason.
"What was that? Did anyone hear…?" The voice grew louder, more urgent. "Is that you, Colonel."
You sound like a broken record, Rodney. Sheppard gave one tap.
"That doesn't prove anything. Are you Sheppard? One sound for yes, two for no. No, wait! One could be an accident. A dumb animal could do one. Two for yes, three for no."
He gave two taps.
"Oh God. Thank God."
"Ask him if there are enemies there." Ronon. Sheppard almost faded away entirely as relief coursed through him. They were all safe. That meant he could…
"Is he injured?" Teyla asked.
"Oh, yes, of course there's a language that allows him to convey complicated messages in clicks, and - silly me! - I forgot to bring my dictionary along with me today."
Morse code, Rodney? Sheppard thought. Reality was clearer around him again. Too much concern, he thought, and he would have slipped away entirely.
"Oh. There is. Morse Code. Well, colonel, I'll have you know I was never a boy scout. I never saw the point of that rugged survival stuff. Besides, it clashed with computer club."
Sheppard tapped in a vaguely rhythmical way meant to convey some sort of insult. "Rodney…" he heard Teyla say warningly.
"Oh yes. Back to business. Are there enemies there? Is that why you can't talk? Are you busy sneaking up on someone? Oh! Have we just blown your cover?"
Pick a question, Rodney. Sheppard gave one urgent and pointed flick, and Rodney gave an impatient sigh. "Very well. Are there enemies? Ronon'll be overjoyed if there are. He's not killed anyone in hours. Hey, don't look like that. You know you're chomping at the bit ready to rush into action, guns blazing."
When silence finally fell, Sheppard tapped three times.
There was a pause, as if Rodney was struggling to remember what the question had been. "Well, that's something. Are you injured? Though I don't know why I'm bothering to ask. Of course you're injured. The not speaking thing, and all."
Sheppard tapped twice. His finger paused on the point of adding a third tap, but then he let it fall. He could not lie. Words were not black and white. Words offered the chance for all shades of truth and falsehood beneath what was said. He could under-state, mislead, distract. This was stark: yes or no; black or white; truth or a lie. There was nowhere to hide.
"Oh God. Badly?"
He did not answer that. He couldn't move, and his one-eyed field of vision was limited, but the blood had now reached the expanse of sand that he could see.
"What happened to you?"
I'm teaching you all Morse Code, he thought, when I get out this. He stressed the when.
"Where are you?" growled Ronon.
Sheppard moved his other hand, an inch, two inches, three… He couldn't feel his arm, but dimly felt the movement across his body. His brain told his fingers what they needed to do. He had no idea if it had worked until Rodney gasped, "Listen! It's louder. Can you hear…?"
"Sounds like waves," Ronon said. "Ocean's over there."
So they were coming. Drained by the effort, Sheppard closed his eyes. One eye was covered with sand, and the other naked to the blazing sun. Even with his eyes closed, he could see the difference. His awareness of the ear-piece beneath his fingers was fading, and he clutched at it with all the strength he possessed. A rope to an anchor. It became everything that he had. It became everything that he needed.
Faintly he heard them still talking, like buzzing flies. He twitched his finger sporadically. I'm still here, it meant. Perhaps it also meant, you're still there.
He had no idea why his captors had done this. Right at the start, with the last vestiges of his dying voice, he had asked them. "I think you guys weren't paying attention in Torture 101. A prisoner who can't talk… Kind of misses the whole point, don't you think?" Damn stupid words to say, if they were to be the last words he would ever speak. Turned out he was wrong, too. When you couldn't talk, you couldn't break, and that meant there was no possibility of it ever ending. It was torture for no purpose at all, just because they enjoyed it.
At the same time, though, there was a strange comfort on it. No need to struggle to keep from screaming. No need to torment yourself with the fear that it would get too much, and you would blurt out things you shouldn't. It was simple pain, with no strings attached. It was like clicks on the radio, like the sea and the sand. Light or dark; pain or no pain; black or white; yes or no.
The voices on the radio grew more urgent. Sheppard snapped open his one eyes. He flicked the microphone; flicked again. Then he heard the sound of gunshots. They were strangely doubled - high and thin on the radio, and lower in reality, a fraction of a second behind.
His team was close. His team was in danger. No! Sheppard thought. Go away! Leave me! But he had no words. He had no words! He tapped at the radio, three clear taps. No, it meant. No.
The gunshots continued, along with the sound of Ronon's blaster. Rodney was babbling. Ronon shouted orders, but Sheppard couldn't make out what they were.
No! Sheppard screamed. He had never tried so hard to make a sound before. He hadn't tried to scream when they hurt him. He hadn't tried to find words to say as he killed them. He had accepted the forced silence. At times, he had even drawn comfort from it. There was no need to falter over the rights words to say. There was no need to worry that your words had shown more of yourself than you wanted them to.
But even now, when he needed words so badly, they failed him. His friends were walking to their deaths, and there was nothing he could do to stop them.
Forcing his numb fingers, he turned the radio off, hoping they would read that as a farewell and turn away. But not being able to hear them was an impossibility. And of course they wouldn't leave him. Stubborn, insubordinate, infuriating, over-confident… Brave, loyal, wonderful… and the best friends he had ever had, or ever looked to have, coming so unexpectedly in a place he had never thought to find them.
The gunshots were closer. He tapped once, twice - Yes, it meant; Yes, I am glad to have known you - then sank into the darkness.
The very last thing that vanished was the feel of the radio beneath his fingers. It shone in the darkness like a silver light, and then that, too, was gone.
He woke to whiteness and to three faces around his bed.
Moistening his lips, he tried for a word of greeting, but no sound came out. He shifted position, and the pain made him moan, but that, too, was silent.
"It won't last," Rodney assured him. "A few days, perhaps, if you can believe Dr Oh-yes-it-really-is-a science."
Teyla smiled. "Rodney is already planning how to tease you mercilessly once you are on your feet. He was most triumphant at the thought that you would be unable to answer back."
Rodney's eyes held a different message. None of them looked as if they had slept for far too long.
Sheppard felt sleep already returning to claim him. "I suppose one of us should go and get Carson," he heard Rodney say.
He opened his eyes one last time, and moved his hand until it was resting on the sheet. Looking them all very deliberately in the eyes, one after the other, he raised his finger and lowered it four times.
"Four?" He closed his eyes to the sound of Rodney's protest. "What's four supposed to mean? Two was yes and three was no, but four? Four? You'd better wake up, Colonel, and tell us what that was supposed to mean."
No, Sheppard thought, as he drifted towards sleep. There were some things that did not require words.
Some things, in fact, were all the better without them.