Cowards in a Brave New Galaxy

By Philote

oOo

Chapter 4: Doubt

oOo

Rodney stood, looking up at a clear blue sky. After a moment he shifted his gaze, looking down. He was standing before a familiar slab of stone. He glanced upwards again and slowly spun around, finding a circle of people standing around the courtyard.

He looked back when he heard footsteps collide with the stone steps on the opposite side of the pedestal. A man clothed in a long robe approached, and deposited his burden on the slab.

She lay still, though terrified blue eyes were wide and darting about, taking everything in. Rodney met her gaze, easily recognizing the plea for help in her eyes.

A second man joined them on the pedestal, taking a stance near her head. He gripped the two little wrists and forced her arms above her head, holding her down.

She began to whimper then, and squirm slightly. But there was nowhere for her to go.

The knife was long and sharp. Rodney stared at it as the light glinted off the blade.

The first man cut a slow, shallow cut across the girl's lower chest. She began to cry. He ignored the sound, and made an identical cut, crisscrossing the first.

Rodney snapped out of his shock then. "Hey, stop. Stop it!" His yells mixed with her screams, both sounds impotent.

The man quickly grew tired of the screams and complaints. Tired of the slow blood-letting. He raised the knife high, point down.

Then he plunged it into her chest. Once; twice.

Her blood spattered onto all three of them, onto Rodney's shirt.

When her screaming stopped, his died in his throat as well.

Over his harsh breathing, other sounds began to filter in. A soft swish of friction as the man wiped the knife clean. The girl's last breaths, shallow and pained. Nearby people, cheering.

"Rodney!"

oOo

"Rodney!"

He came awake with a start, to a sharp burst of pain in his left hand. He tried to sit up but met restraint, which it took a moment for him to identify as hands gripping his shoulders.

He clawed at his chest and looked down, expecting to see the blood, confused when there was none on his shirt and the only red seemed to be a small bit on the back of his hand.

He looked up then, long enough to identify Carson's concerned face and Atlantis' infirmary. Long enough to realize that it had been a dream, but it had been born of his memories of the planet.

"Oh God, oh God…"

He must have turned green or something, for Carson released him and then a basin hastily appeared before him. He had nothing on his stomach to throw up, but somehow the bit of bile followed by dry heaves was worse.

He was vaguely aware of Carson's continued presence, supporting him gently and softly instructing him to calm down. Long minutes later the retching finally stopped, and the basin was removed.

"Lie back for me, Rodney."

He tried to relax back into the pillow as Carson probed. As he gained his bearings, he realized that he had jerked out his IV. He began to glance around at his bedside and the rest of the Infirmary.

Carson noticed him looking. "He and Teyla went to the debriefing with Dr. Weir. And if they know what's good for them, they'll be getting some sleep before they come back in the morning."

"What makes you think I was looking for Sheppard?" Rodney snapped. He had been, of course, but he wasn't really sure why, other than that the man had said he'd be back. "I was just wondering how Ford was doing," he added.

"Concussion, fractured arm, dislocated shoulder, 3 cracked ribs that mercifully did not puncture a lung," Carson catalogued as he swabbed the blood from the back of Rodney's hand. "But he'll recover just fine. He's actually quite lucky. He was awake for a bit—concerned about you."

"Really?" Rodney asked doubtfully.

"Aye." If Carson noticed the tone, he gave no indication. "How are you feeling now?"

Rodney took quick stock of his condition. "Fine."

Carson quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Fine. My knee hurts, I feel weak and dirty and tired. Happy now?"

Carson cleared his throat slightly. "I was really wantin' to know if ye still felt nauseous."

"Oh. No."

"I might have suggested that you eat something, and then perhaps have sent ye back to your quarters. But now I think we'd best stick with the IV for a wee bit longer."

There was really no use protesting that, as he certainly wasn't prepared to keep anything down. That didn't mean he was happy about it. And when Carson started poking about for another vein to reinsert the IV, he made his feelings known.

"You voodoo practitioners just get some perverse pleasure out of puncturing skin, don't you?" He squirmed, trying to pull away, though it wasn't really a conscious action on his part. Carson forcibly held him still. Rodney was somewhat annoyed by how easily he did so. "And you're stronger than you look," he complained.

"And you're not all that pleasant to be around when ye first wake up," Carson commented as he inserted the needle.

Rodney merely grunted grumpily.

Carson rolled his eyes. "I'm going to get another ice pack for that knee. Stay put."

"Like I could get away," he groused at Carson's retreating back.

But without Carson's presence, his mind began to drift again. He shut his eyes, and promptly regretted it as images of blood-covered bodies once again filled his thoughts. He screwed up his face and turned his head to the side, forcing his breathing to slow.

He might have been drifting again, for he didn't hear footsteps returning. The cold shot through him without warning, and he gasped. "Good Lord, Carson! I'm not sure if I've told you this, but your bedside manner needs serious work!"

"I'm not sure if I've told you this, but you're a lousy patient!" Carson shot back.

Rodney snorted, trying not to grin. This was an argument they'd been having since his first little incident in Antarctica. It had involved a slight case of frostbite, his bare fingers, and water that he still swore hadn't been scalding when he first stuck his hand in it. He'd scrambled into the base hallway, screeching for a doctor, and Carson had been the first of the medical persuasion to get to him. He'd been gentle and soothing and taken great care of him. Then, once he was sure Rodney's fingers would survive, he'd blasted him for his stupid actions and lectured him about taking care of himself and using his brain.

They'd been bickering friends ever since.

He'd quickly learned that Carson had quite the protective streak. So, while his friend was willing to joke with him now, he was also looking concerned.

Sure enough, a moment later he ruined the lightened mood asked, "Would you like to tell me what happened out there?" Carson's voice was soft, understanding.

Rodney's was not. "Am I supposed to believe that Major Sheppard and Teyla didn't tell you?"

Carson tilted his head. "Not the whole story."

"You got an overview. I'm sure it was enough." Rodney turned his focus to the ceiling, essentially shutting him out.

He heard Carson sigh, and had to tighten his jaw when the doctor placed a comforting hand on his arm. "All right, Rodney. I'll drop it for now. Would you like something to help you sleep?"

Rodney allowed his eyes to shut briefly, and nodded.

oOo

Three days later, Rodney sat in his lab examining a new ancient device that had been found. He translated the writing on the side, then moved to touch different parts of the metal in sequence. He smiled triumphantly when it obediently began to hum and glow. He began making notes as he observed it.

Ah, the ability to think clearly. He had missed it.

And it had taken its sweet time coming back. He was having a hard time regaining his equilibrium after his—whatever it was he'd had. He knew what a panic attack felt like; he'd had those before. This has resembled one, but on a massive, lengthy scale.

He tried not to dwell on it. In fact, he tried not to let his thoughts drift past his work. Pesky things—like sleep and breaks to eat and people—were making that difficult.

Sleep, well, after that first night he had avoided it as much as possible. Yes, what Carson had given him had put him to sleep and kept him there. But it hadn't stopped the nightmares. It had simply locked him in them, with no way out.

Food, well, he loved food. And when he was munching on a power bar while working, with his mind elsewhere, he was fine. It was when he stopped to eat a meal that his thoughts revolted and his stomach started churning.

People, well, he was avoiding them as much as possible. Some made it more difficult than others.

Sheppard was getting on his nerves.

He knew the Major had better things to do than lounge around in his lab; knew it for a fact because the man was consistently called away on some matter or another shortly after he arrived. And yet, he kept coming back. Sometimes he just sat, talking about mundane things, trying to illicit banter. Sometimes he physically dragged Rodney to the mess hall for meals. And at the end of each day, he would show up and just annoy him until Rodney finally gave in and allowed himself to be led to his quarters.

What Sheppard didn't know was that Rodney just kept right on working in his room. He worked well into the night, until he couldn't see straight. Then he finally crashed into his bed. When he was exhausted enough, the nightmares stayed away. It was as if his brain didn't have the energy to conjure the memories.

The alarm on his watch went off, interrupting his concentration. He smacked it off in irritation, then groaned slightly as he realized why it had been set.

He had an appointment in the med-lab. He had to go back to see Carson for an injury that was really incredibly minor. The x-rays had shown nothing alarming. The slight swelling had gone down. The knee hardly even hurt anymore, unless he was poking at the bruising.

He felt his good mood dampen. Nothing against Carson, it was just that he would really prefer to avoid the Infirmary altogether.

With a put-upon sigh, he stopped what he was doing and began making his way towards the Infirmary. He was passing by one of the other labs when he overheard his name. Natural curiosity made him slow to a stop just before the door, listening.

"McKay's intelligence, while an interesting point of debate, is not the issue here."

Rodney raised an eyebrow. While he couldn't remember most of the names yet, let alone the voices, he'd recognize that condescending whine anywhere. He set his jaw and leaned closer as Kavanagh continued, "My point was that he clearly has no place in the field."

A female voice chimed in with, "Is it true, then? Was he at fault for the Lieutenant's injuries?"

"He does not know; he was not there. It is all rumor," an accented male voice interjected.

"Sure…based on the official report Sheppard gave," Kavanagh shot back.

"Sheppard blamed him?" a different female voice asked.

Rodney leaned closer, unnervingly interested in that answer himself.

"McKay panicked, and the Major was forced to spilt up the team. Ford was alone with McKay when he was injured."

"So, no one but Lieutenant Ford and Doctor McKay really know what happened. We do not know. And even if some of this is true; the field, it is not easy. None of us have been there. Perhaps we should not judge."

Who was that? The accent said it could only be the Czech, the one who's name he could never remember. Zeruka, or something. The man had just stood up for him when no one else would, he would remember that. Even if he wouldn't remember his name.

Rodney pushed away from the wall and purposefully walked on, not wanting to hear anymore.

"Rodney. How are ye this morning?" Carson greeted cheerfully as he entered the med-lab.

Rodney glared at him, his mood even worse now. "Well, I'm just dandy, Carson. And you?" he returned, his own cheerfulness entirely false.

Carson eyed him a bit warily, but ignored the tone. "Terrific. Thanks for asking. Hop up," he instructed, leading him to a bed.

Rodney had purposefully worn loose pants that would easily roll up past his knee to avoid the part where he had to strip and get into a hospital gown. He hated that part. He made a point of actually hopping, showing that he wasn't in pain. He landed heavily and the bed squeaked in protest.

Rodney ignored Carson's worried, curious look and tried for a subject outside his own person. "So…how's Ford today?"

"He'll be fine."

"Good, good."

"You know, you can see him if ye like. Maybe sit with him for a bit? I know he'd like to see you."

"Yeah, sure. Maybe later. I've got lots of work to do," he responded vaguely. He sat back, leaning his weight on his hands as Carson took hold of the leg and began gently manipulating the knee.

"How does that feel? Any pain?"

"No."

Carson eyed him. "None?"

Rodney shrugged and shook his head.

"Rodney…when you're not complaining, I start to worry."

Rodney met the doctor's concerned gaze. "It really doesn't hurt that much. It's a little sore, but there's no real pain," he insisted truthfully.

"All right." Carson released his leg and rolled the fabric back down for him before nailing him with those blue eyes again. "How did you sleep last night?"

"Like a baby," he said flippantly. But the baby remark had the unexpected effect of a flash to a little blond girl, looking like she was sleeping. He winced and shifted, suddenly quite anxious to get out of here. "Great, fine. Can I go now?" He tried to hop off the bed, but Carson blocked his way.

The Scotsman sighed in concerned frustration. Then he said, "Not just yet. Kate's going to stop by and see ye here. More convenient that way."

Rodney snorted in disbelief, because it was horribly inconvenient for her. It was, however, a convenient way to corner him.

Heightmeyer was a beautiful, smart woman. She was also a stranger. He didn't particularly relish the idea of being vulnerable in front of a beautiful, smart stranger. Hitting on her was one thing. Laying out his emotional baggage was another. Maybe some people found the idea of bearing their souls to a stranger enticing; he didn't.

So when he had seen her for the first time yesterday, not much had actually been said. Yes, he'd been disturbed by the carnage. But when it came to discussing his reactions on the planet, well, he'd pretty much clammed up and insisted he was fine.

He'd had little doubt that she'd go over his head. He just hadn't quite expected it this soon.

"The longer ye just let it stew, the worse it'll get." Carson paused and touched Rodney's arm lightly. "We're worried about you, Rodney."

Rodney sighed and settled back onto the bed. He knew he might as well get it over with. Still, the thought was reigniting his panic instincts.

Unthinkingly he asked, "Will you stay?"

Carson looked at him in surprise, but he was no more shocked than Rodney was at himself. Sure, he had what was for him an unusually strong amount of trust in Carson. That didn't mean he went around displaying it often. Or, ever.

If nothing else, the show of weakness made him quite certain that he wasn't back to normal yet, after all.

He was about to try to retract it when Carson recovered and responded, "If ye want me to, of course I will."

He was relieved by that. Still, he had to try to save his pride. "Well, you know, if you want. I mean, it would probably be good for you to have some psychological training, right? I'm sure you'll have plenty of cause to use it…"

"Totally for my benefit, of course," Carson agreed with a slight grin.

Rodney shut up and gave a curt nod. Carson patted him on the shoulder, and was perhaps about to say something more, but they were interrupted by Kate Heightmeyer's arrival.

"Gentlemen," she greeted warmly.

Rodney merely nodded in her direction.

"Good morning, Doctor. Rodney has asked me to stay, if ye don't mind," Carson said as he got comfortable in the bedside chair.

Rodney his a smirk. So terribly polite, yet so obviously not giving her a real choice in the matter.

If she was put out by this, she gave no outward sign. She just said, "Certainly, Doctor Beckett," and then claimed a stool on the other side of his bed for herself. "So, how have you been sleeping, Doctor McKay?" she began casually.

"I had no idea my sleeping habits were of such interest. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were both hitting on me," he said with a smirk. It fell flat as they both simply looked at him solemnly.

"So, not well then?" Heightmeyer interpreted gently.

He glanced between them uneasily, then began picking at the bed's blanket. "Nightmares," he admitted grudgingly.

"That's to be expected after what you witnessed. How many hours of sleep have you gotten?"

"Well I wasn't counting."

She shrugged. "Estimate for me."

"Couple," he mumbled.

"Couple as in two?" she asked.

"Last night. And at least two more the night before," he said defensively.

Carson was casting him an interesting look that was some sort of cross between concern and exasperation. "Rodney, you know better than that. Why didn't you come to me?"

He shrugged uncomfortably. "I've been busy."

Carson opened his mouth, probably to chastise him, but he glanced in Heightmeyer's direction and then fell silent, allowing her to take the lead.

"Can you function on that amount of sleep?" she asked.

"I seem to be," he shot back, with no small amount of haughtiness.

"Yes, right now you seem to be."

Rodney stared at her, simmering slightly.

She continued, "But as Doctor Beckett can attest, your body will require more. So this is not an entirely healthy habit to get into."

"Really? I didn't know that," he shot at her sarcastically.

"Rodney…" Carson began warningly.

He was beginning to feel like a child being corralled by his parents, an image he was really not all that comfortable with. He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, eyes squeezed tightly shut, then said, "Let's just cut to the chase. If you want me to sleep you've got to fix me first, right? So just ask me what you really want to know."

Heightmeyer met his eyes and tilted her head slightly. "Fine. I want you to walk me through what happened on the planet. What did you see? What did you feel?"

Well, he had asked for it. He spent a moment glancing around in vain, calculating his odds of escape. But in the end, he reluctantly began to talk. At first the words came slowly, haltingly, but once he was into the story they began to flow. He told them about the couple he'd found first, and the girl who still haunted him. He told them about how he'd gotten sick, how Ford had stayed with him, and how the Wraith had shown up. When it came to the circumstances that had led to Ford's injuries the words faltered again, but he pushed through and finally got the whole story out.

Describing how he had felt was a bit difficult. "I remember everything, but it's like I wasn't really there. Like it was a dream or something I watched from the sidelines. I went through it all in a haze, from the moment I realized I was kneeling in blood."

They had remained silent, allowing him free reign to get it all out, and he hadn't looked up at them for more than a few seconds the entire time. He had his hands in his lap, fists clinched such that his nails were beginning to dig painfully into his palms. He started when Carson reached over and grasped them gently, forcing him to uncurl his fingers before releasing him. He looked up then and met his friend's eyes. The compassion he found there almost undid him, so he looked away and finished his speech with his final, damning thought. "I made stupid mistakes…I could've gotten us all killed."

"But you didn't. Rodney, you can't dwell on what-ifs," Carson put in. "What happened was not your fault."

He snorted derisively, for he was pretty sure splitting up the team and then alerting the Wraith to their position had been entirely his fault.

"Doctor McKay," Kate redirected his attention with a bit less intensity. "Your reaction was perfectly natural for the trauma you experienced."

He heard the words; knew intellectually that they were true. But…"I thought I was ready for the field. Ready for whatever might come up, or at the very least that I could cope."

"You can never really be ready for something like that," she said softly.

"The others seemed to be. Sheppard hardly blinked."

"Major Sheppard has had years of training and experience. But his lack of an emotional reaction doesn't mean that it wasn't traumatic for him, as well. Soldiers have different ways of processing things. They can't deal with emotional reactions in the field, so they push them aside, to the backs of their minds, to be dealt with later."

He nodded slowly. "Well, my way of processing was inappropriate. And inexcusable."

"Rodney—"

"Don't patronize me, Carson. I can't be out there, reacting like that," he snapped. Then he shook his head and confessed, "The problem is, if it happened again—I think I'd react the same way. If it happened again…I don't think I could handle it."

"So what do you want to do?" Heightmeyer prompted.

He hesitated; thought for a moment about whether he really wished to say it or not. Because he knew that once it was out, he couldn't take it back.

But he thought about the village, and how helpless he'd felt. He thought about the girl, and how he saw her every time he closed his eyes. He thought about Ford, lying in a nearby bed, and he thought about the conversation he'd overheard in the lab and Sheppard's opinions on things.

And, in the end, he said it. "I'm needed much more here on Atlantis, anyway. I think it would be best if I didn't do field work…I want to quit Sheppard's team."

oOo

tbc