Losing Time

Season/spoilers: "Critical Mass" tag
Rating: PG13
Genre: Drama, character study
Disclaimer: These guys belong to MGM. I only play with them.
Note: Contains a brief appearance by one of the OCs from "Killing Frost" -- but you don't need to have any familiarity with that one to understand this one.

They'd cornered him on a loading dock. There had been four of them. Obviously, he hadn't been counting them at the time -- in fact, at the moment the ringleader's eyes flashed gold, a part of his brain had simply shut down, and all his calm, practiced self-defense moves had somehow become a wild struggle to escape. But later, with nothing else to do but think, he replayed that night over and over in his mind. It was that or go mad. With the exquisite care of a chess master arranging pieces, he set up the players -- four Goa'uld sympathizers, one actual Goa'uld, one Air Force Colonel -- and ran through the event, time after time. He needed this information for the report that he fully intended to write whenever ... if ever ... he was capable of writing reports again.

There were no words for the experience of becoming a passenger in his own body, forced to watch events take place without being able to affect them -- forced to watch himself act in ways that ran counter to a lifetime's ethics. In a just universe, that moment of blinding pain when the Goa'uld burrowed its way into his brain would have been followed by oblivion. But Steven had never believed the universe to be a just place. A moment of pain followed by a lifetime of hell ... that was about in keeping with his overall view of the world, really.

Screaming, in the real world, had a certain built-in limitation to it. You could only scream so long before you went hoarse. Inside his own head, however, he soon found that he could scream until he either got too bored to continue, or, worse, lost some time. That was how he thought of it -- losing time. Maybe it was akin to sleep, but it reminded him more of an alcoholic blackout, and it terrified him. Sometimes he'd just zone out, coming back to awareness in a different place, sometimes on a different day. It happened when he became extremely agitated, or when the boredom grew too extreme, or -- most alarmingly -- sometimes for no reason at all.

He theorized after a while that most long-term Goa'uld victims probably spent most of their time in that fugue state. Maybe some of them went crazy, gibbering quietly in a corner of their own mind, and maybe some continued to rage for many years, but most probably just faded softly into that beckoning darkness. Going gentle into that good night, he thought, and wanted to laugh, but was too afraid to give in to the urge -- afraid that laughter, like screaming, might be impossible to stop until the darkness took him away for a while. Afraid to take another step on the path towards the welcoming arms of madness or voluntary oblivion.

Being on Atlantis was actually a relief compared to watching through his own captive eyes as the goddamn Goa'uld strode around his ship, his Daedalus, acting as if it ran the place. On the other hand, his frustration levels went through the ceiling as he watched their bumbling attempts to unravel what really should not have been much of a mystery at all. He wanted to grab Elizabeth by the collar and shake her, screaming, "You idiot! How can you actually believe it's me?"

But she didn't see it, and Sheppard didn't see it, just as his crew on the Daedalus hadn't seen it -- even those who had worked with him for years. And that was the first time that it hit him, really hit him, how isolated he was. It wasn't something that normally bothered him. He wasn't a lonely man; he liked his life. Still, it did make a man re-evaluate himself when an alien entity could be in possession of his body for weeks without anyone noticing. He'd never thought to ask himself the question: If I turned into a pod person, would anybody notice it wasn't me? Probably something that they should all be asking themselves these days, with Trust agents everywhere, but maybe having a worm in your brain was something that you always thought would happen to the other guy and never to you.

But now he was the guy with the worm in his brain, and nobody noticed a damn thing wrong ... which probably said a lot more about him than he wanted to admit. And here he was, stuck with nothing to do other than speculate on the sorry state of his social life -- well, that and fantasize about smacking around the Atlantean command crew for being a bunch of idiots. Of course, he wanted to do that on a regular basis anyway.

When he wrote up his report on this, he was damn well going to mention that Sheppard should have noticed something wrong. By God, he'd get a black mark -- well, another black mark -- slapped on that young hotshot's permanent record if it was the last thing he ever did. He'd always thought that Sheppard, for all his flaws and inability to follow orders, did have one major thing going for him: he was smart. And now look at him. Couldn't reason his way out of a wet paper bag. Come on, kid, he wanted to say. This isn't rocket science here. One of us is a pod person, and which of us is acting like one, huh? I'll give you a clue: it isn't YOU, at least I don't think so, although I'm starting to wonder.

Oh hell, who was he kidding? He wasn't going to write a report on this situation, ever. In the grand scheme of things, he'd ended up as one of the victims, not one of the heroes. He'd betray his country, his planet, his species ... and sometime soon, but probably not soon enough, he'd die. And Sheppard was, frankly, doing the best he could in an increasingly surreal situation. All of them were.

They hadn't mentioned alien invasions and piloting spaceships when he'd been in the academy, that was for sure. This was the stuff of pure science fiction -- hell, the Internet had been science fiction, when he was in training camp. As a curious teenager, a military brat with a lot of free time and a fascination for distant and exotic places, he'd devoured Heinlein and Clarke novels, never dreaming that he'd one day be living one. There were times when he still thought this must be the most exciting era to be alive in human history.

Walking around with an alien parasite in his skull wasn't really one of those times.

His father, his grandfather, and all the other career soldiers in his family had had wars of their own -- real wars, wars fought with tanks and guns, not wars in which your friends and colleagues walked around like puppets, with vacant eyes and snakes nesting at the base of their brains. A few months ago, during furlough on Earth, he'd gone to see his father in the nursing home up north. They'd sat in a warm, sunny reception area and talked about inconsequential things. His father wasn't doing too well physically, but his brain was still sharp, and after a lifetime of serving his country he understood full well the concept of classified, understood without asking that there were things Steven couldn't talk about. Only now, facing a slow and inglorious death under an alien sun, Steven wondered if it really mattered all that much. So what if he chose to give away a few state secrets to a ninety-year-old man who was probably one of the most discrete individuals on the planet? It would have been nice, just once, to talk about this stuff to one of the few people in his life who might not be too jaded to marvel at it.

Steven found himself wondering what story the military would give his father and the rest of his family -- his grown, distant kids; his older sisters who lived down in Florida. Would they come up with some sort of explanation to satisfy whatever thin curiosity his family could muster? Or would his death remain a question mark to the civilian world, as most of his life had been?

After all of that, being tasered was a relief, really. It hurt like hell, but it also hurt the goddamn parasite.

Sometimes salvation comes in a flash of white light.

He woke up in the Atlantis infirmary feeling like hell, and the first thing he saw was, regrettably, Sheppard. He could really have gone all day -- hell, all year without that.

But the expected snarky comment never materialized. Sheppard just looked at him with an unreadable expression in his green eyes. Then Beckett and the Daedalus doctor, someone new who'd been assigned while he was under Goa'uld influence -- he thought her name was Ling -- descended on him with needles and questions like "How many fingers am I holding up?" And somewhere in the middle of all of that, it hit him, really hit him: He was free. There was no puppet-like sense of his body moving without him, none of the familiar horrible invasiveness as the alien consciousness rifled through his memories with no more care than he might have for a handful of paperwork.

He started to shake and couldn't stop. Dimly he was aware as one of the doctors slipped something into his IV to calm him down, and as the warm numbness spread through his veins, a new sense of panic overtook him -- it was so like the feeling of losing time in the hold of the Goa'uld.

"It's all right." Small, strong hands were prying his fingers loose from the edge of the bed -- the Daedalus doctor, Ling, whose first name he couldn't recall. "It's all right, sir. You're all right."

The thought occurred to him, finally, through his exhaustion and disorientation, that this wasn't a situation in which his subordinates needed to see him. He looked up to order Sheppard out of the room, only to find that the Colonel had vanished ... perhaps having seen what he'd come to see.

His superior officer breaking down like a child.

He lost time again, but in a different kind of way than when the Goa'uld was in control. As the fuzzy-edged world gained clarity again, he realized that Beckett was sitting on the edge of his bed, checking his monitors. When the doctor noticed Steven's eyes on him, he offered a reassuring smile. "Well, it's good to see you back with us, Colonel. Your vitals are looking well. We'll probably have you out of here in a day or so."

Back in charge of a bunch of people who'll probably never willingly take orders from me again.

He didn't realize he'd said it aloud until he saw Beckett's face change. After getting so used to his inner voice being completely disconnected from his outer voice, it appeared that it was going to take a little time to learn to unconsciously censor himself again.

Beckett didn't say anything for a moment, just looked back down at his datapad and went on entering numbers. When he'd finished, he laid it aside and looked up at Steven.

"You do realize that nearly half the people on this station, and I imagine quite a few on the Daedalus, have been in your shoes, don't you, Colonel?"

Steven snorted bitterly. "Used as a meat puppet by an alien for months? I hardly think so."

The doctor's brows went up. "You don't think so? Let me remind you who keeps track of the medical records for the personnel in this place, Colonel." He began ticking off on his fingers. "Teyla's been possessed by a Wraith, Rodney had Lieutenant Cadman in his head for a couple of days, the entire staff of the botany lab nearly had an orgy under the influence of mind-altering pollen, Lorne's team came back through the gate about a month ago with everyone's minds swapped -- took ages to sort that one out -- and don't tell me you've forgotten a certain incident not too long ago involving our military commander." He stopped, pressing his lips together; the Iratus incident was obviously still weighing on his mind.

But Caldwell hardly noticed, the infirmary and everything in it washing out in a blur. It wasn't losing time, not really -- more like going back in time. Because he'd just realized what that odd, unreadable look in Sheppard's eyes had been. Empathy. He wasn't even sure if Sheppard knew it had been there, and for his own part he'd seen it so rarely that it had taken him this long to recognize it. But it had been there.

"Colonel?" Beckett had finally noticed Steven had stopped listening to him.

"I think I'd like to sleep now, Doctor. If I could."

Beckett nodded, and patted him on the arm; Steven endured the unwanted familiarity, figuring it was the least he could do considering what these people had done for him lately. "Sleep well, Colonel. Just call the duty nurse if you need anything. Carol and I will be back to check on you in the morning."

Carol. That was the name of the doctor he couldn't remember. He'd certainly have his work cut out for him in the days to come, familiarizing himself with months' worth of events and personnel records that he'd missed -- and also winning back all the hard-won respect that he'd lost.


And in the meantime, his life and his mind were his own, and he could close his eyes without the fear that whatever made him himself would slip away while he dreamed.

"Doctor," he said as Beckett turned to leave, and when the doctor looked back over his shoulder: "Thank you."

The doctor's smile was quick and unexpectedly shy. "Well, I had a good deal of help, and I think you'll be needing to toss in a good bonus for Hermiod -- whatever sort of bonus an Asgard would want."

"Team effort, yes, I know." A wave of his hand dismissed the objection. "I meant all of you. But ..." Damn it, he didn't know why it was so hard to say. But some part of him asked, softly: If this happens again -- God forbid -- do you want to be the man who can be replaced with a pod person without anyone noticing?

Beckett waited.

"Thanks," Caldwell said finally. "Seriously. Thanks."

The doctor just nodded, smiled again, and turned away.

Caldwell settled back against the pillows and let himself drift away into a space where time wasn't lost -- only put aside. Hell of a lot to do tomorrow. But for now, the world could wait. He owed himself a damn good night's sleep.


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