Author's Note: This chapter started out as, and actually does work as a stand-alone vignette, and came from an idle curiosity about what Sheppard's command style must be like. His character is so often portrayed in the series as casual and dare-I-say-it goofy, that it seems odd for him to command a large, traditional military base. Combine such notions with hearing my sister talk about her experience in the Army, a great article on "personality typecasting for fictional characters", a bad week that left me really wanting to hurt-and-comfort our favorite Colonel, and you get the results below. Enjoy it for what it's worth!
The rest of the story that fell out of the vignette demonstrates that Sheppard has many qualities that compensate for his lack of traditional military style.
Elizabeth Weir could hear the murmur of many idle voices as she neared the open door at the end of the long and beautiful Atlantian corridor. The sounds of her purposeful footsteps were drowned out by the cheerful babble, and she reached the military Duty Room unnoticed for the moment. She paused at the threshold to take in the crowded room, warm and stuffy with bodies, noisy with the chatter of excited newcomers and sedate old-timers.
The Duty Room was the "Stargate Operations" of the military base on Atlantis, and as such there were always at least a handful of soldiers and officers present either working at administrative duties or on standby alert. The Duty Room was also the main conference room for full command gatherings and the weekly command briefings. Today was the first weekly briefing after the most recent Dedalus delivery of fresh military personnel and Elizabeth was very much looking forward to watching Col. Sheppard win over a new batch of Pegasus Galaxy recruits.
As she sidled into the crowd and worked her way through the rows of chairs and desks and cabinets, Elizabeth smiled to herself in anticipation. John Sheppard was not your typical Air Force Colonel and his command style took some getting used to...or so she'd observed over her months as Expedition leader. Elizabeth herself was not your usual mission commander either, and it also often took the new soldiers some time to adjust to having so many civilians around. With its unique combination of military and scientific agendas, Atlantis itself was simply not your usual posting in any sense, military or civilian, and Elizabeth was often amazed at how their combination of unique personalities had coalesced into a cohesive, effective leadership team. And speaking of civilians…
"Elizabeth!" Rodney McKay, senior scientist and 2nd in the civilian chain of command waved frantically from a few feet away and had to squeeze himself between two bulky new Marines who didn't seem to feel the need to move out of the way for him. Visibly annoyed, Rodney stepped close to Elizabeth and threw a haughty scowl back at the two men who mistakenly thought that looking intimidating would spare them the wrath of McKay.
Deciding it was better to distract the voluble scientist than find out who could win a glaring contest, Elizabeth nudged McKay towards the front of the room and said, "So, John talked you into the Dog and Pony show, too?"
"Uh, yeah." Giving up the contest as beneath him, McKay turned away from his antagonists and actually grinned. "Wouldn't miss it actually. I've come to really enjoy the Colonel's tactics for getting these grunts to behave around here. For a career action figure, the man is remarkably adept at subtle manipulation!"
Elizabeth nodded in agreement. That certainly summed up John's style: Subtlety combined with competence and that special something that elicited deep respect and loyalty from others. "G.I. John", she thought to herself and almost giggled. Rodney's "action figure" phrase had struck her fancy. John was anything but.
Rodney and Elizabeth finally reached the front of the room where Sheppard, Ronon and Lorne were immersed in conversation, apparently going over the last details of the weekly briefing. Sheppard made a couple of notes on the clipboard he was holding then, throwing a quick roguish look at Elizabeth who was settling against the wall, he quietly cleared his throat and lazily called out, "All right people!"
Elizabeth could immediately sort out the newcomers from the seasoned Atlantis soldiers in that exact moment: Every one of the new guys remained standing around, talking and chatting -- Every soldier who'd been on Atlantis for longer than a day or two was suddenly silent, their attention focused entirely on the Colonel at the front of the room. Elizabeth grinned. It was the same every time. She exchanged an amused look with Rodney who was bouncing on his toes in eager anticipation, and even saw some of the other veterans beginning to grin too.
With a practiced roll of his eyes, and a look of mock exasperation, Sheppard tilted his head to Ronon who was still standing at his side.
"THE MAN SAID COME TO ORDER!!" bellowed Ronon. More than one young man in the room jumped and the room suddenly went silent except for the scraping of boots and chairs as everyone found a place to stand or sit.
"That's better," smiled Sheppard, still not bothering to raise his voice any louder than necessary. "First off: To our new reinforcements -- Welcome to Atlantis. You should all be in-processed by now. If you have any questions or problems with assigned living quarters, Staff Sergeant Baker will assist you. He'll be around after the briefing or during regular office hours. And no: You can't have a room with a balcony on the East Pier, so don't ask."
There was a chuckle of amusement through the room and most of the soldiers were smiling or nodding with self-conscious grins. Atlantis was a beautiful city, with enough ocean view for each expedition member to get his or her fair share. And yet, she was sure the thought of a tower suite had crossed every mind in the room at least once today.
John went on in a tone of comfortable monotony, "Second: Every new arrival on Atlantis will complete a baseline medical exam with Dr. Beckett before you're allowed offworld. The schedule will be posted along with the Pegasus Orientation training schedule, and offworld training will begin in 5 days. Lorne's team will take a group of 12 to the Alpha site, my team will take a group of 8 to Beta site." Sheppard paused to check his notes and the whispering that broke out through the room seemed a bit mutinous to Elizabeth. She caught the phrase "more training?" floating above the murmurs.
As if John had heard, and he probably had, his next words were, if possible, even more carelessly spoken, "Third: As of this moment, no matter how long you've been with the Stargate program, or how many times you've traveled offworld, your experience in the Milky Way Galaxy means exactly Zilch." The room grew silent again, thick with curious and/or annoyed attentiveness.
John ploughed on and his voice finally took on an edge, "Atlantis is 3 million light-years from Earth. The only ship we have at our disposal is the Dedalus, and that only between milk and Cheerios runs. You, me, the scientists and one measly ZPM are the only thing standing between the Wraith and this city. This city is the only thing standing between the Wraith and the way back to Earth. And the Wraith are like nothing you've encountered back home… Yes, lieutenant? You've got something to say?"
The Marine who had been shaking his head and frowning with disdain blushed a deep red, but held his ground under Sheppard's calm stare, "Yes, sir! Some of us have gone up against the Goa'uld a bunch of times, sir. And the Ori are no picnic either. Surely that experience counts for something." Several of the lieutenant's friends around him were nodding their heads emphatically. Sheppard smiled again and the lieutenant puffed up a bit, certain he'd won a point with his new C/O.
"Your previous experience can count for a lot, lieutenant: A lot of ways for you to make assumptions and get yourself and the rest of your team killed faster than you can say 'Wraithbait.'"
While the surprised young soldier's smug smirk evaporated into an embarrassed glower, Sheppard crossed his arms and rocked on his heels as he took in the group of men and women before him. His expression was concerned and sincere. "Stargate Command hand-picked each and every one of you for this assignment. To me, THAT'S what counts. That tells me that you're bright young kids who know the difference between an assumption and an observation; That tells me that your ability to think on the fly has been demonstrated; That tells me you're able to adapt to new situations. I expect each and every one of you to listen to every word that Ronon, Teyla, Dr. McKay and I say to you during your orientation because anything…ANYTHING… you learn could mean the difference between life and death."
John let the message sink in while he shuffled his papers and consulted briefly with Lorne about the next bit of business, looking mildly bored again as he hopped up onto a desk and spread out the sheets around him. Elizabeth watched the room as the new recruits squirmed or slouched or sat quietly in contemplation. Several were staring at Sheppard with openly bewildered expressions, clearly wondering if they really were seeing the same Lt. Colonel John Sheppard they'd undoubtedly heard such fantastic stories about.
"That last part is new, isn't it?" Rodney whispered in her ear as Sheppard started in next on a round of duty assignments and requirements. "The Colonel's getting a bit poetic in his old age. Personally, I liked his old line about 'Vampires vs. Snakes' much better, but the 'wraithbait' bit was still pretty good."
Elizabeth only nodded, now watching the lieutenant who'd taken the brunt of Sheppard's lesson. The man was still sulking and a little warning bell of concern went off as she saw him lean over to his buddy and exchange a nasty snicker. There was a little knot of trouble for John to unravel, she thought sadly.
"He's wrong, by the way…" Rodney was saying as Elizabeth returned her attention to the chattering McKay.
"You don't think making assumptions is dangerous?" Elizabeth whispered back in surprise.
"No, no. Not that. He's wrong about Atlantis. It's closer to 3.1 million light-years from Earth if you take into account Earth's position in the Milky Way in addition to the empty space in between."
"Oh," she said.
Once the situation briefings and assignments and command introductions were over, Sheppard waved Elizabeth over to introduce her formally to the room. From his place now leaning on the edge of the desk with his feet stuck out and crossed in front of him, John smiled warmly as she passed and simply announced to the room that "The Boss," had arrived.
Elizabeth spoke a few words of greeting and, in turn, introduced McKay to represent the scientific community to the new arrivals. Not until he had thoroughly bored everyone into a dull stupor did the egocentric scientist turn the floor back over to Sheppard who's glazed, unfocused look only mirrored every other face in the room.
"So, ah…" Sheppard stifled a yawn, "Before we hit the chow line, any questions? Anything you want to know about Atlantis or past missions? Anything you want to ask about the city? …where the bathrooms are? …anything?"
While the soldiers in the room shuffled their feet and a few innocuous questions were hesitantly raised for John to field, Rodney returned to Elizabeth's side. Glancing around at the curious troops and smirking, he leaned over to whisper again, "Wonder which question it's going to be this time!"
Elizabeth smiled back with amusement. Someone always worked up the courage to ask about one of Sheppard's more interesting adventures during his time on Atlantis. Some of the stories were taking on legendary qualities, and so THE question Rodney was referring to nearly always began with "Is it true…?"
"I'm betting on the Hive ships question again. That one seems to be gaining popularity. Although the tried and true 'Jumper with the nuke' story is always a possibility…" Elizabeth was only half listening to McKay, she was again watching the surly lieutenant who suddenly shot his hand up into the air and flashed a 'watch this' grin to his companions.
"Yeah, go ahead Lt….?" Sheppard nodded lazily at the waving hand.
"Miller, sir. Is it true (Rodney poked Elizabeth in the ribs) that you were kicked out of the Afghan theatre on Earth for insubordination, sir?"
Elizabeth sucked in her breath and frowned, and the room grew suddenly so silent you could hear the ocean lapping against the city several stories below them. Who did this snotty kid think he was?? She felt her face grow hot with anger and was within a heartbeat of chewing out the arrogant kid herself when John's soft chuckle stopped her. Every eye shifted to Sheppard who still lounged comfortably against the desk, still smiling slightly. Rodney was grinning like a fool at the prospect of a knock-down-drag-out shout-fest.
Sheppard's voice, however, was mild and more amused than angry. "Yes, Miller. That would be true. But you've already forgotten item number three: Nothing any of us have done before matters very much out here."
"But sir, don't you think following the chain of command matters?" The lieutenant spoke abruptly, almost interrupting Sheppard before he finished.
"Not when the chain of command is wrong." The soft statement sparked a flurry of shuffling and uncomfortable glances throughout the space. Certainly not the usual party line, thought Elizabeth studying John closely. From anyone else, the declaration would have seemed brash or defiant. From John, it was merely how things were.
Elizabeth had once had her own trouble with a younger Major John Sheppard who seemed to think he knew best about every situation. For them it had come down to a matter of trust. Elizabeth had given John the benefit of her trust, and he had flourished, both in his command and in his trust in himself. This was not the same John Sheppard who had yelled at Sgt. Bates when frustrated by the prickly security officer's obnoxious demeanor. And it was certainly not the same John Sheppard who had flown helicopters in Afghanistan. She only hoped that every new soldier in this room figured out quickly what the rest of them already knew: The John Sheppard sitting comfortably slouched on the desk in front of them was worthy of his command; and following his command would make the Pegasus Galaxy a safer place for all of them.
Unfortunately, the young Lt Miller seemed determined not to learn that lesson…yet. "So, you're telling us that we can just go off and do whatever we want if we disagree with you? Sir?"
"Disagree – No. If I'm wrong – Yes. I'll try not to be wrong if you'll try to trust me when you disagree."
"But you were wrong in Afghanistan. Capt. Holland still died." The little jerk sure had his details straight, thought Elizabeth.
John narrowed his eyes and studied Milller for so long that Elizabeth wondered why he hadn't just gotten up and smacked the boy already. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and dangerous, finally showing the first hint of anger, "You go tell Capt. Holland's Mother and Father that returning the body of their son to bury in Arlington Cemetery with honors was a mistake. You look them in the eye and tell them that it would have been better if I had followed orders and never even tried to save Lyle's life. You do that, and then you can tell me I was wrong. Lieutenant!"
Miller had the good sense to shut up at last. And judging by the reaction in the room, it wouldn't have been John who would have smacked the boy had he continued to argue: The rest of the men and women who weren't glowering fiercely at Miller were gazing in awe at Sheppard.
"Any more questions?" John pushed off the desk to shove his hands in his pocket, once again the epitome of casual nonchalance. "All right then. Beat it, people. Hit the mess before McKay's labrats eat all the chocolate pudding."
The new guys looked around in confusion as the seasoned soldiers began to stretch and move out of the Duty Room, chatting away in small groups of two and three. One of the more anxious of the new bunch shot a nervous look at Lorne as he was passing by. Lorne just shrugged, "He said you're dismissed." The room emptied out rapidly after that.
Elizabeth followed the exiting soldiers slowly, waiting for the room to clear enough to wave goodbye to John and let him know she was leaving. When she finally caught his eye he grinned, then with a dramatic shrug, he raised his eyes skyward and shook his head comically. Her grin warmed into a genuine smile and she nodded back with sympathy and an eye roll of her own.
"Sheppard's got his work cut out for him with that crowd." Rodney stated emphatically, catching the exchange.
"Mmm. I would have been a lot harder on that Miller kid. What was he thinking anyway!"
"I'll bet the little twerp was just doing his homework, you know: look up your boss's record to have flattery in your pocket for the right social occasion. Sheppard knocked him down a peg and he pulled out the dirt instead of the medals." Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. The observation was remarkably astute…especially for Rodney who usually had trouble noticing there was someone else in the room, much less interpreting complicated social situations.
"Let's just hope that was the end of his 'questions' for the day."
"Yes. The idiot made me lose my bet!" With a wink, McKay turned into the hallway and slouched off towards his own labs.
Elizabeth paused just outside the Duty Room door, undecided on what was next on her agenda and thought briefly of asking John if he wanted some lunch too. When she turned back to peek in and see if he was occupied, it took her a second to find him among the remaining, regular on-duty bustle. Once she did spot him, she froze in concern, hesitated for a brief moment, then quietly turned away and walked on alone.
John Sheppard sat slumped at his desk, his eyes staring vacantly into space, his mind clearly a million miles away.
Elizabeth was sure that he was, in fact, 3.1 million light-years away in Afghanistan, painfully reliving the decision he'd made then that had ultimately led him to here and now. She made a mental note to pop in on him later and find an opportunity to remind him how grateful she was that he was in the here and now. There would always be those narrow-minded individuals who would challenge Sheppard based on his past. Gratefully they were coming fewer and further between as his performance on Atlantis continued to prove that his command and philosophy worked. But it was a command founded on the force of his personality and earned respect, rather than on the force of intimidation.
Perhaps Rodney was right that the annoying Lt. Miller was only acting out because he'd been embarrassed, she thought, fervently hoping it would end there once Miller spent some time on Atlantis and under John's care.
She forced down a small, tight knot of worry. For some reason, though, she suspected that Miller might be one of those individuals who learned things the hard way.