He ran with a smooth, even stride; breathing easily.
Anger had set him on the twenty-five kilometer course, the longest of the running tracks laid out by the Marines. The path had been laid out in a seldom-used section of the city and included both indoor and outdoor landscape. He set himself a hard, steady pace, giving only enough attention to the outside world to stay on the track and not fall on the stair sections. The lateness of the hour guaranteed he'd not run into anyone. He wanted, no, he needed to be alone.
He worked to keep his mind blank, concentrating on the rhythmic pounding of his feet and his breathing. Every time a memory of the last day tried to impose itself in the front of his consciousness he shoved it to the back again and concentrated on his breathing or the ache in his right hand. This had worked in the past. He wouldn't allow it to fail this time. He would keep this up until he could return to his duties with at least a veneer of calm, good humor.
He passed the five klick mark.
The gaggle of engineers, led by McKay and Zelenka trying to talk over each other, left the conference room. Sheppard locked-down his laptop and escaped to the balcony.
Ten minutes before the next meeting with a small but loudly determined group of linguists and anthropologists (and one microbiologist with an architectural hobby). They were protesting the planned demolition of a half dozen buildings that had been damaged during the City's flight through the asteroid belt.
A team of engineers had inspected all of the questionable structures during the first week on their new world. Most had been declared reparable – ranging from 'barely dinged' to 'ugly, but fixable' – but these six were deemed a hazard and slated for razing. This group had immediately set up a squawk, tried to declare them historically relevant and demanded they be preserved. For the last three weeks there had been arguments and meetings and careful chaperoned-by-Marines visits to the buildings, first by engineers to confirm their original recommendations and then by the protesters to collect as much data and artifacts as they could before the walls were brought down. And still they hoped to save these 'irreplaceable examples of Ancient architecture, art and history' that they had successfully ignored for the previous three years.
Sheppard leaned his forearms on the balcony railing, closed his eyes and let his head hang, relishing the cool breeze blowing across the back of his neck and ruffling his hair. He hadn't thought he could miss Elizabeth Weir anymore than he had in the first few days after he was forced to leave her on the Asuran homeworld. But the last month had given him new respect for the woman and the work she had done. Their new world rotated on its axis once every slightly-less-than-thirty Earth hours, and most days it felt as if he was working every second of those thirty hours.
He was mentally exhausted: tired from the constant meetings with this department and then that one, and then both together when compromises were needed. And it seemed that no one could reach that compromise without consulting with him, endlessly. Then there were all the complaints that needed to be reviewed and handled in some manner, which inevitably led to more meetings. Endless lists of supplies to repair and run the City had to be approved and ordered. The IOA needed to be placated and cajoled; Elizabeth had been in the middle of the yearly budget negotiations when the City had packed up and left to find a better neighborhood, and the IOA didn't see any reason to put it off further. Not to mention the detailed, everyone-and-their-admin's-admin-copied reports they wanted on seemingly every breath that was taken in Atlantis. And he still had his responsibilities as battalion commander and security for the expedition. Thankfully, Lorne and the captains handled the bulk of the battalion administrivia, but there was still much that only he could generate or approve.
He had almost panicked when he'd heard that he was being considered as permanent replacement for Weir. The last three years had changed him in ways that he didn't spend a lot of time contemplating, but he knew he wasn't ready for a job that would keep him deskbound. When they'd received the word two days ago that Sam Carter had been appointed the new expedition leader he had felt nothing but relief. He would have had a noisy celebration if it weren't so obvious that McKay was nonplussed by the news. Now all he had to do was survive the next three weeks until Carter arrived. He was sure he could keep the City and her people on an even keel until then, now that there was an end in sight.
The alarm on his watch beeped to remind him of the meeting. His stomach chose that moment to remind him that he hadn't eaten since grabbing a bagel shortly before sunrise, and it was after mid-day now. Rubbing at the knotted muscles in his neck that heralded another tension headache, he headed back inside. He'd exercise some of that privilege due his rank and have someone bring him a sandwich. He wondered if the social scientists would catch the irony of the implied rudeness of him eating in front of them.
The doors slid open at his approach and he walked into the quiet bustle of Control. He spotted Kagan at the balcony railing, watching the activity down on the 'gate room floor, and waved the younger man over as he headed toward the conference room. Their paths met a few feet from the door.
"Lieutenant, would you send –"
His radio beeped for his attention. "Colonel Sheppard?"
He held up a hand signaling Kagan to wait and turned toward the conference room for a bit of perceived privacy. "Yes, Lorne?"
"Sir, there's been an... accident," Lorne said, his voice tense.
Sheppard stiffened. There had been a lot of accidents in the last few weeks as everyone worked to get the City settled on her new world. The infirmary was kept busy with sprains and strains, cuts needing stitches and a couple broken bones. But normally he'd not be informed of them, except as a line of information in the daily command staff meetings.
"What kind of accident, Major?" he asked quietly.
"The scheduled demolition in grid H6, sir. Lieutenant Calvert decided it would be a good opportunity for his men to practice a timed detonation." Lorne paused, and must have covered his mic. Sheppard could hear a muffled conversation taking place. "Sorry, sir. The countdown had started when Staff Sergeant Baczic spotted someone moving around in the building. He reported it to Calvert and then ran into the building. They didn't have enough time to stop the detonation."
He cursed under his breath. "And Baczic?" he asked, pacing the length of the balcony and then back. The bustle and noise level in Control was increasing, undoubtedly as calls went over the comm. system for emergency assistance. He stopped in front of the conference room, absently glancing in at the group milling around.
"We don't know yet, sir. He's not answering his radio and there's too much debris between us and where they think he was when it went up. We are picking up two life-signs though. The combat engineers are coming with the camero to try to pinpoint them. And a medical team's on the way."
"Do we know who was in the building?"
"Okay," he said, eyes narrowing thoughtfully as he looked back at the six people chatting in the conference room. "Let me know if you need anything. I'll be down there shortly."
Sheppard changed channels on his radio. "McKay."
There was a pause and then McKay's voice was snapping in his ear. "What?"
"I need you in the conference room."
"I'm busy, can't it wait?"
"No. Now," he said and cut the connection before he could hear any complaints. He turned back to Kagan; from the look on the man's face he already knew of the accident. "You've heard?"
"I need you to pull my calendar and cancel any meetings for the rest of the day. Tell them I'll reschedule later. I'll be going out to H6."
"I'll take care of it for you, sir," Kagan assured him.
"All right, go make sure the rumors don't get blown out of proportion." Sheppard dismissed the lieutenant and entered the conference room. His eyes swept over the group huddled on the opposite side of the room, the conference table a clear line between them and him. He plastered a smile on his face.
"Good afternoon, ladies, gentlemen." He waved them toward the chairs and walked over to where his laptop waited, but didn't sit. Once all the scientists were seated, he leaned forward and braced his hands on the table. "Where's Wiebler?"
Four of them shrugged or looked around as if surprised not to see the vociferous linguist. The remaining two were almost comical in their opposite reactions. Dr. Hebert flushed, then paled, then flushed again; all the while staring fixedly over Sheppard's shoulder and drumming plump fingers on his laptop case. Dr. Crane, who looked strikingly like his namesake, stared defiantly at Sheppard with the beginning of a sneer stretching his thin lips. Sheppard focused his attention on them.
"Please, tell me he's off working on placards for tonight's protest rally." The last rally, held outside the mess hall, had pulled in exactly eleven people, which included the six here and Wiebler, and had been a source of great amusement amongst all strata of Atlantis society.
Sweat broke out on Hebert's upper lip and the drumming picked up speed. Crane's sneer lengthened and his lips disappeared. Neither spoke.
Sheppard narrowed his gaze to Hebert and put as much menace as he could into it. "Dr. Hebert – "
"I told him not to do this thing," the pudgy scientist blurted, his Belgique accent thicker than normal. "I swear – "
"You idiot!" Crane rounded on his hapless co-conspirator who cringed away from his wrath. "He didn't have proof of anything. Now you've confirmed there was a plot. You putz." He turned back to Sheppard. "Well, what are you going to do about it, Sheppard? Slap our hands? It won't stop us. We're tired of you he-man military types telling us where we can go and where we can work. You don't have the intellectual capacity to understand what we're trying to accomplish here. We – "
Sheppard tuned him out and straightened. He looked at the remaining scientists, all of whom were looking confused and slightly apprehensive. "You four can leave. The meeting will have to be rescheduled."
Three of them leapt to their feet as if they had springs in their seats. Dr. He tried to protest, but the others grabbed her arms and hustled her out of the room. They collided with McKay in the doorway and then fled, throwing apologies over their shoulders.
McKay ignored them, as usual. "What the hell was so important, Sheppard? I'm a little too busy to come running just because the power of leadership has gone to your head."
Sheppard disregarded the provocative statement and gestured to the two scientists still at the table.
"The building in H6 that was scheduled for demolition – "
"Yes, yes. It's been hyped on the dailies for the last week and you've plastered enough warnings around to wallpaper the 'gate room. Twice." Impatient hands gestured for him to hurry up.
"There was someone in it when it blew."
The hands stilled as he gained McKay's full attention.
"One of my Marines went in to try to evacuate whoever it was. The lieutenant in charge of the demolition couldn't stop the countdown in time and the charges went off. Right now they're trying to get to the Sergeant and whoever else was in there. I suspect Wiebler, since he is the only protestor who didn't make the meeting this morning, and these two," he gestured behind him, "appear to have some knowledge."
"Well, they're idiots," McKay said. "So?"
The spark of anger that had started warming in his chest flared hotter. He pushed it down. This was not the time.
"Depending on the outcome, there will be consequences."
He ignored the indignant sputtering behind him, while McKay snapped, "Quiet, you two."
"Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to bring any criminal charges. But there will be punishment of some kind. Dr. McKay," he said, watching the flicker of surprise at the formality, "I would like you to ascertain what these two... gentlemen knew about this situation and when. I want a signed statement from both. After you've finished with them please inform Lt. Kagan and he will have them escorted to their quarters, where they will remain, under guard, until further notice."
The sputtering escalated to outraged squawking that he tuned out as he stalked toward the door. McKay caught up to him there, words already flowing, but he waved the man off. "Not now, McKay. I have to get out to H6."
He concentrated on his breathing. Even, controlled breaths. In and out. The same number of strides on an inhalation as on the exhalation.
His pace was smooth, even over the rougher terrain. He's run this track with Ronon enough times to know when to step high to avoid the knee-knockers that could send him tumbling.
A measured pace. Breathing, in and out, on the right footfalls. Regimented. Calming.
The quiet was soothing.
Keller had tried to shoo everyone back to their own quarters to wait for news. But Lorne announced his intention of heading back to the battalion offices to work on some AAR's that were overdue. And Lt. Calvert was haunting the hallway outside of medical with the rest of Sgt. Baczic's squad; possibly the entire platoon. They were Marines, they could do stealth.
Sheppard went back to Weir's office. There was always work to do. He was determined to have a smoothly running City ready to hand over to Carter, so he booted up his laptop. But he couldn't concentrate on the latest maintenance estimates. He found himself staring out the window toward the stargate, listening to Atlantis whisper in his bones.
Control was unusually quiet, even for this late in the evening. The civilian scientists – normally the noisiest component – were keeping their heads down and staying out of the way. The Marines radiated tension as they went about their tasks. Those assigned to the DHD and various sensors didn't have to disguise their usual illegal Minesweeper or Tetris games; instead they sat at their stations, holding murmured conversations and stilling whenever chatter came over the comm. Lt. Ortiz, whose platoon had the duty shift after Kagan's this month, was making frequent circuits of Control and the 'gate room floor, stopping to speak quietly to whoever appeared to need it.
This was one of the things that had drawn Sheppard to the military, something besides the chance to fly and to serve. It was the fellowship, the sense of belonging; a group of people that would care about his well-being, even if they didn't know him personally.
He turned back to his laptop and pulled up the memo form, addressing it to the IOA Disciplinary Committee and copied the myriad others who would need to be informed. McKay's memo, the signed statements from Hebert and Crane and the verbal statement (taken in the infirmary) from Wiebler were attached. Tabbing down to the subject line, he thought for a moment, rejecting several titles due to the profanity-laden verbiage. He finally settled on: Access to the Atlantis Expedition Facilities for the Purpose of Research is to be Withdrawn from Wiebler, Charles, Hebert, Bernard and Conner, Mason (he made a note to look up their titles later) Due to Reckless Disregard of Safety Protocols Leading to the Grievous Injury of Expedition Member Baczic, Marcus, SSgt USMC.
If there was one thing he knew how to do after nearly twenty years in the military, it was write an After Action Report. He was midway through an explanation of his decision to boot the three doctors out of Atlantis when his comm. clicked on.
Reluctantly, he reached up and turned on his mic. He could tell by her tone that he didn't want to hear the news.
"Yes, Dr. Keller?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel. We weren't able to save Sgt. Baczic, his injuries were just too extensive."
The sound of the ocean.
Stairs loomed and his stride lengthened, knees coming up higher as he took them three at a time. Five flights. Across a delicate bridge spanning the pier arms. And then down again.
He passed the finish sign when he reached the bottom, but he didn't slow or head toward the doors leading inside. He turned to the right and passed the starting marker again.
Sheppard opened the hip-pack and dropped in his 9mm and a bottle of water. He was zipping the case when his quarter's door whooshed open. Only one person never used the door signal.
"Go away, McKay. I'm in a crappy mood and I'm going for a run." He didn't even look toward the door, turning away to dig his running shoes out of the closet.
"I need to talk to you about that memo to the IOA," McKay began, ignoring the rebuff. "Look, I know they need to be punished. It was incredibly stupid what they did, dangerous even, but – "
Not for the first time he wished for just one damned door in Atlantis that he could slam. Still refusing to look at McKay, he pulled on the shoes, propping first one foot and then the other on his desk chair as he tied the laces.
"I'm sending the memo in tomorrow's databurst and those three are going to Earth when the Apollo heads back." He straightened and finally looked at McKay. "If I'm lucky they'll have their security clearances yanked and they'll never work for any government again. I doubt I'll be that lucky," he said bitterly, "but at least they'll be out of Atlantis."
He grabbed the pack off his bed and fastened it around his hips.
"Now, if you'll excuse me..." he gestured impatiently toward the door, but should have known it wouldn't be that easy.
McKay didn't move, the tilt to his head and the stubborn set of his mouth a clear signal of his unwillingness to budge.
"I don't understand what the big deal is," McKay said. "Wiebler and his cohorts are idiots – do you know what their doctorates are in? Believe me, their little rebellions won't amount to anything."
"What the big deal is," Sheppard murmured, sitting down slowly on the edge of his bed. Anger was a band tightening across his chest and he didn't know what to do with his hands. His fingers curled around the edge of the bed frame, nails scraping painfully against the unyielding material, squeezing until he thought the bones in his hand would shatter under the pressure.
McKay was still speaking, going on about incompetent bunglers with soft-science degrees.
The quiet command was ignored.
Sheppard surged to his feet.
"Shut up!" he bellowed, stalking forward until he was toe-to-toe with McKay and taking a perverse pleasure in the shock on the other man's face. His hands fisted and he slapped them against his thighs, growling in frustration. Turning away, he went to the window and looked out at the two moons' light reflecting off the surrounding ocean onto the buildings of Atlantis. His fist slammed into the casing and he welcomed the zing of pain racing up his arm. He blew out his breath in resignation, and rested his forehead against the cool window.
"A man is dead, McKay," he said, his voice tight. "A good man. A man who made a choice to serve as a barrier between defenseless people and whatever evil they needed protection from. He gave up a lot of rights when he made that decision. He didn't do it for money. Or to become famous. Or any material reason. He did it because he believed it was an important job, a job that needed to be done. God, Country, Corps. Semper Fi."
He turned from the window to pace, hoping to release some of the tension building in him. McKay, a neutral expression on his face, backed up to give Sheppard room to move.
"You asked what the big deal is? Why am I so insistent on Wiebler and his friends being punished? After all, the scientists in Atlantis have disregarded rules designed for their safety before. 'Accidents' have happened before because of their recklessness and Elizabeth never got this upset or did anything more than slap their wrists. I think that that attitude led to today's little 'accident', McKay, but this time someone died." He stopped and turned to face McKay. "I think – No, I know that a large percentage of the civilian population treat the military contingent in Atlantis as barely sentient irritants; they think that we spend all our time throwing up roadblocks to keep them from completing their projects expeditiously just for the hell of it. The scientists don't consider the Marines to be intelligent enough to be worthy of respect – after all, if they were smart, they'd have 'real' jobs, wouldn't they? They'd have gotten college degrees and done something important with their lives. So the scientists do their best to ignore the Marines until someone is needed to do some heavy lifting, and feel free to belittle them to their faces."
He made another circuit of the room, unable to stay still without blowing up again.
"And most days it doesn't matter. The Marines consider the majority of the civilian population to be soft and lacking in common sense and they understand the importance of being babysitters. They're free to bitch about the civilians as much as they like – in their own quarters, among themselves. But if any one of them were to speak to or treat one of the scientists with even this much," he gestured with thumb and forefinger a bare centimeter apart, "of the disdain and contempt that the scientists treat them to, to their faces, they'd be written up, stuck on a shit detail for the next month and sitting in sensitivity training classes until their asses were permanently numb. They know better. And they accept the class distinction. Are even – God love them – a little proud of it." A small, bitter laugh escaped him as he turned to face McKay. "And you set the scientists such a good example. You are... " words failed him and he waved a hand to indicate his frustration as he turned away again.
McKay was silent for a moment, a stunned expression on his face. "I... I don't know what to -."
"What's the name of the captain you submit mission requests to?" Sheppard demanded, barely waiting for the start a stammered answer before continuing. "Come on, McKay. You've exchanged at least a dozen emails with him every week for the last year. Nothing coming to you? It's Scipio. He has a doctorate in romance languages and probably speaks Ancient as well as any linguist on your team. What about Sergeant Churilla? Works in your lab doing scutwork? Familiar at all? Working on his masters in mathematical modeling. He'll probably be back in Atlantis in a few years, with his doctorate, and you won't ever remember that he used to wear a military uniform. I can easily name a dozen more off the top of my head with similar backgrounds."
He stopped, facing the window.
"You even treat me that way sometimes."
As soon as the words left his mouth he wished he could take them back. Turning, he saw a myriad of expressions flashing across McKay's face: hurt, surprise, anger, shame. The never still hands twisted in confusion; the crooked mouth opened but no words emerged and it closed with a sad droop.
"I'm sorry, Rodney," Sheppard said, the words harsh in his throat. "I shouldn't have said that. It's not really true." He sighed, running a hand over his face and around to the hard-knotted muscles in his neck. "It's late. I'm tired and frustrated. I'm going for a run."
He stalked to the door, pausing as it opened at his approach. Not looking around, he gripped the frame with aching fingers, not sure if this was the right thing to do. Finally, he blew out the breath he hadn't been aware he was holding and looked over his shoulder.
"There'll be a memorial on Friday, eleven-hundred."
Stepping into the hall, he let the door close without waiting for a reply.
He passed the ten-kilometer marker for the second time and slowed to a walk. Turning in his tracks he used the walk back to the closest transporter to cool down. His muscles were pleasantly tired, his breathing deep and even. His mind was quiet.
There was a dried-up-long-ago fountain just outside the building with the transporter. He swerved aside and sat on the edge, ignoring the decorative carvings that dug into his thighs. Pulling the water bottle from his pack, he took measured sips, tilting back his head, watching the stars and listening to Atlantis, enjoying the solitude.
The bottle dropped to the ground, splashing its contents across his shoes. He ignored it as the breath hitched in his chest.
A cool ocean breeze brushed across his neck as he leaned forward, staring at the ground between his feet, absently rubbing the aching knuckles of his right hand.
There was no sound when his shoulders began to shake.
A soldier's cross: boots, reversed rifle and helmet.
At the end of the service Taps would play and three volleys would ring out from the honor guard positioned on the balcony outside the auditorium.
The Corps thrived on tradition.
Off to one side, on an easel, was a framed picture of SSgt. Baczic in his dress uniform, taken before he'd shipped out to Atlantis. So serious. When the memorial was over the picture would be hung with all the others – starting with Sumner's – in the main hallway of the battalion headquarters.
A tradition begun too soon after they first arrived in Atlantis.
Sheppard sat in the front row, flanked by Lorne and the new chaplain, Father Timothy "I'm Catholic, but can fake Protestant" Bruce on one side and Teyla and Ronon on the other. He stared at his hands, picking at the corners of the index card with the notes for his speech. His left thumb kept probing the bruised knuckles on his right hand and he forced himself to stop.
The music ended and the chaplain stood up. Sheppard bowed his head for the opening benediction, sitting back in his chair when the others did, not really paying attention to the words. When the chaplain said his name he stood up and traded places at the podium.
He looked out at a sea of gray and black uniforms. Along the sides of the aisles a few science and medical uniforms were visible, mostly people who had served in their country's military before turning to research or had family members or close friends who served. They understood the sacrifice.
They all looked at him quietly, expectantly. Waiting for his thoughts on the tradition of service, duty and honor. He pulled in a calming breath and blew it out slowly as he raised his head to look at the back wall of the auditorium. And his breath froze in surprise.
A dozen or more blue and gray uniforms. They were crammed into a corner in the standing-room-only auditorium, Rodney McKay in the forefront.
Their eyes met and Sheppard nodded his acknowledgement.
Maybe a new tradition.
(adopted in 1967 by the Navy Chief of Chaplains for use by all faiths)
Almighty Father, whose command is over all and whose love never faileth; let me be aware of Thy presence and obedient to Thy will. Keep me true to my best self, guarding me against dishonesty in purpose and deed, and helping me so to live that I can stand unashamed and unafraid before my fellow Marines, my loved ones, and Thee. Protect those in whose love I live, give me the will to do the work of a Marine and to accept my share of responsibilities with vigor and enthusiasm. Grant me fortitude that I may be proficient in my daily performance. Keep me loyal and faithful to my superior officers; make me considerate of those entrusted to my leadership and faithful to the duties my country and the Marine Corps has entrusted to me. Help me always to wear my uniform with dignity, and let it remind me daily of the traditions of the service of which I am part. If I am inclined to doubt, steady my faith; if I am tempted, make me strong to resit; if I should miss the mark, give me courage to try again. Guide me with the light of truth and grant me wisdom by which I may understand the answer to my prayer. AMEN.