Attrition




Attrition

Atlantis was sleeping. Outside the sea was glassy-still, eerily quiet, rising and falling against the east pier without even a whisper. The world, nameless still, Elizabeth realized, breathed gently. On the horizon, a low band of clouds blotted out the stars and the wispy glitter of the "western arm" of the Pegasus galaxy arced directly over Elizabeth's head, bowed along the curved surface of the sky. Under her hands, the deck rail was cool. Her fingers were aching from gripping it so hard.

Straightening, she wiped her eyes on the backs of her wrists, stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, head bowed low, swallowed the sound that rose up in her, pursed her lips against it. No more, now.

In the control room, Grodin was still at his station, his hands in his lap, face drawn in the cool glow of the data crystals on the panel. The status screen on the wall behind him was crossed by rows of silently marching symbols and a slowly shifting haze of colour. The meaning of life, or an Ancient version of a screen saver. He looked up when she passed by and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm going," he said with a wan smile. "Soon as Mitchell comes. She needed..." His hands came up and rested on the crystals, ready to do something purposeful. "She needed a little more time."

"Sleep well," Elizabeth said, more a wish than an order.

"You too."

If wishes were horses....

There was a murmur of voices in the mess hall, a bright, sharp burst of laughter and a low chuckle that ended in something more tenuous, slightly broken. Leaning in, Elizabeth watched the small gathering of people at the far table as all five of them raised their glasses. "To Peterson, then," Popinov said. "He was kind of a bastard, and I'm fucked but I miss him, anyway." Her wrists were so thin, Elizabeth thought as she watched her drain her glass. Birdlike. Fragile. And the four others, techs, someone from the engineering corps, Bhatti from medical, they looked small sitting around a table in the echoing hall, the windows dark behind them, their glasses in front of them, empty.

No more, now.

Hunching her shoulders as she walked, Elizabeth tucked her fingers into the front pockets of her jeans and tried not to feel the ache along her spine. In the transporter she rolled her head slowly left then right, but the muscles wouldn't loosen the grip on her bones. She'd have to stand straight, then, a little longer, until they would let her go.

The doors to Sheppard's quarters were opaqued, but she could hear the even thudding of a ball against the wall. She kept going. Rodney's lights were on.

"Yeah," he called when she knocked. He was at his desk, laptop open, still in his uniform. "What's wrong?" he asked when she stepped in, his eyes concerned, but sunken, too dark.

She held her hands up. "No crisis. I was just--" She let her hands fall and looked around his room. It was neater than she'd expected, except for a crumple of clothes at the foot of the bed.

"Just?"

"Making rounds, I guess. Walking the decks. Battening down the hatches." Her hands found their way back into her pockets. "Why are you still up?"

Rodney looked at her for a long moment and she could see him deciding what to tell her. Finally, he sat back and pointed a finger at the lpatop screen. "It's Dumais's. She's got some important data on here. I was transferring it." His gaze flicked over Elizabeth as she sat down on the chair at the corner of the desk and tucked a foot under her. "Actually, there's some... personal stuff on here. Letters to her family." Laying a finger on the touchpad, he highlighted a few more entries and dragged them. "I was putting them on disc. For when we get back to Earth." His fingers resting on the keys, he blinked slowly and his mouth tightened to a thin, downturned line. "I didn't read them."

Elizabeth shook her head. "Of course not."

He nodded. His jacket was still done up to his neck. As close to dress blues as they came here on Atlantis.

"Did you know her well?" she asked.

His one-shouldered shrug seemed to collapse him just a little more into the curve of fatigue. "Yes. No. She was kind of hard to get know. Quiet. Sort of prickly." The corner of his mouth turned up and his eyes grew a little brighter. "She had a really dry--actually, arid--sense of humour. Wit like monofilament wire." The smile widened. "Could slice you in two and you wouldn't even feel it until you fell apart." The smile disappeared. "Keen."

Elizabeth squeezed his arm. "I'm sorry, Rodney."

"Me, too," he said, his voice low and thin. He put his hand on hers for a moment and then let it fall to his lap. After a long while he said, "You know, before I came to Atlantis, I'd been to three funerals in my whole life. One of them was for somebody I'd only talked to on e-mail. First time I saw him he was in a box." He wrinkled his brow into a bemused frown. "Looked nothing like I pictured,either."

"Oh?"

"Well, for one thing, he was a guy." He raised his chin and the smile was back for a second. "Meredith. I was sure that was a woman's name." He laughed with her and this time the smile took a little longer to fade, but it did. "Since I've been here I've attended four funerals. Two of them were mass--" Ducking his chin again, he leaned forward and highlighted the last of the entries in Dumais' personal file.

Rodney blurred as Elizabeth's eyes prickled again with tears. She felt washed out already, scoured, hollow. "We have to do better," she asserted, but it came out as a whisper. Her fingers were aching again where they gripped her elbows. "I do."

He looked up at her, alarmed, and surprised her by not looking away when he saw the tears pooling in her eyes. "You do a good job, Elizabeth. Nobody could anticipate what we've had to deal with."

She nodded and the tears didn't fall. Her neck crackled when she looked away. Rodney's gaze lingered on the side of her face. The laptop whirred as the files were transferred and then there was a click as the disc drive popped open. Around them, Atlantis was sleeping. Down the hall, Major Sheppard was still throwing a ball against the wall. In the mess hall the wake was probably still going on against the high, dark windows, the curve of the sky. In the Gateroom, the gate stood, empty.

"Here,"Rodney said, and laid an envelope on the desk in front of her. He'd written "Dumais" on it in his precise block letters. "You keep this until we get back to Earth. And you can tell them all that some of us were heroes."

Unfolding from the chair, she picked up the envelope. It was thin and not heavy at all. "Especially you?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"That goes without saying," he replied. As she turned to go, he added, "But you will say, right?"

"You write it out and I'll commit it to memory," she promised.

"Good. Sleep well."

"You, too."

"Like that'll happen," he muttered as the door slid shut.

If wishes were horses I'd ride to the moon.






THE END



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