John had suffocated three times in his life.
The first time was when he was four years old. He was a military brat, always living in new towns, new houses. It was fun ... a great game. This house, somewhere in the deserts of the U.S.A., had a pool.
He was unconscious when his father pulled him out. He didn't remember much of it now, thirty-five years later -- just the way that it felt to scream for air and instead have an invisible hand clamped over his mouth, causing his lungs to collapse into bottomless holes of need ... and a terrifyingly distant kind of pain ... and the look in his father's eyes when he woke up. It was the first and last time he ever saw his father cry.
The second time was in Afghanistan. His captors played various games with their victims, including games that toyed with their need for air. Mostly singly, but sometimes together, John and the others had their faces bound with wet burlap until they couldn't breathe, or they were buried in sand, or -- worst of all for John, because of the pool -- held underwater until they broke, screaming their precious oxygen away in a stream of silver bubbles.
John chose to call all of that one time. It was easier to handle, that way.
The third time, he was thirty-nine years old and a Wraith was feeding on him. Suffocation wasn't part of Kolya's plan. It was probably too quick; what Kolya had in mind was a longer, slower sort of death. But he was gagged and immobile, and in the grip of agony he found himself throwing back his head and gasping for air, only to choke on the gag and his own tongue pressing back into his throat. Fear and pain and panic -- gasping and strangling, fighting for air only to have nothing come -- it was like the pool all over again. He woke up back in his cell, his throat and chest raw, his body aching with the years he'd lost.
The subject had come up, in a casual conversation with his team, months later. He didn't remember how it had come around to that. But somehow, they were all sitting around in the cafeteria after breakfast, talking about their least favorite ways to die.
"Disancraniaphalabulation," Ronon had said, causing all the others to look at him with varying degrees of shock.
"Er ... that's not a word." Rodney had the look of a man scrabbling desperately to get his feet back on solid verbal ground.
"It's a Satedan word."
"Meaning what?" Rodney demanded, ignoring both Teyla and John frantically shaking their heads at him. Sheppard had no idea what the word might mean, if it even was a word, and he doubted if Teyla did either. But he did know Ronon, and he really thought Rodney was better off keeping his mouth shut.
A few minutes of explanation later, Rodney pushed his half-eaten tray of food away with a look that said, clearly, he wished he hadn't asked.
"Your people are very ..." Teyla was obviously casting about for some vaguely complimentary way of describing what they'd just heard. "Very thorough," she finished lamely.
"Someone else," Sheppard had said quickly. "Please."
Rodney gave an elaborate shudder. "Suffocation," he said.
Sheppard had looked up, quickly. It was no longer entirely surprising to hear his own thoughts on Rodney's lips. The two of them did not -- contrary to what Elizabeth occasionally insisted -- share a brain. It was just that Rodney seemed to have a knack for beating John to the verbal punch. For an instant he wanted to say: That was MINE!
"Suffocation?" Ronon's eyes narrowed. "That's a sissy way to die."
"HEY!" Rodney glared back. "Why don't you say that after you've experienced anaphylaxis a grand total of -- what is it now -- four times? No, wait! Five! I forgot about the time at Jeannie's twelfth birthday party when the Fokker twins made me eat a lemon cupcake through absolutely no fault of my own --"
John somehow tuned out on the anecdote -- staring at his bagel, thinking about water and pressure behind his eyes and the feeling of overwhelming panic that went along with it -- and looked up only when Rodney smacked him in the head with a muffin.
"I said, what's yours, flyboy?"
Well, he couldn't exactly say suffocation now, could he? But nothing else held quite that terrible, visceral, hammered-home-at-age-four kind of fear. Wraith ... no, too personal. Iratus bugs ... God, no. "Burning alive," he said, quickly. It wasn't as if he had a lack of inspiration to choose from. When you got past the pointless self-indulgence of phobias, he'd seen about four dozen horrible ways to die, firsthand. That was just the number-one thing that jumped to mind. Guys covered with aircraft fuel, flinging themselves into seawater only to find that it didn't quench the flames -- yeah. It would be bad. Impersonally bad, and therefore OK to mention in public.
Rodney turned to answer, but then he just kept looking past John's head, frowning. Sheppard turned around to see tendrils of smoke creeping through the door, like fog.
After an initial, heart-stopping moment, he realized that he was dreaming. The conversation in the cafeteria had really happened, but that hadn't happened.
"Somethin' on fire?" Ronon wanted to know, standing up in a quick sharp motion.
"I guess so." Sheppard's answer was cautious. At some point this had ceased to be memory and become dream, but his dreams weren't normally this lucid. He tweaked the skin of his forearm with his fingers, feeling the quick sting. Now would be a good time to wake up.
The smoke was becoming thicker, and others in the cafeteria had begun to notice. Chairs fell over as those near the door scrambled away from their tables. The rest of John's team was standing now, and he joined them with adrenaline singing in his limbs. He could smell the smoke -- not the clean fragrance of woodsmoke, but the acrid reek of garbage fires, forest fires, burning helicopters and planes.
A couple of the Marines started into the hallway and then staggered backwards, hands over their faces. "Sir, it's full of smoke, and it's hot as hell out there," one of them called to John.
He rolled his eyes ceilingward. "I didn't mean it, the burning alive thing, okay?" Lowering his eyes, he saw Rodney giving him an exasperated look, almost masking the terror in the expressive blue eyes.
This isn't real, John reminded himself. Not real. But it sure felt real, convincing in every detail. He could smell the smoke, feel his feet on the floor and his hip pressed against the edge of the table.
Looking around him, though, he was struck by the general passivity of the other people in the room. Everyone seemed to be looking at him to tell them what to do -- including his team. None of them were passive people; at the very least, Rodney should have been alternating between panic and coming up with a plan to save their lives. That, more than anything, convinced him that it was truly a dream despite the evidence of his senses.
Meanwhile, the haze of smoke in the room had grown so thick that he could barely see the far wall. When he inhaled, it scorched his lungs; he tried to take shallow breaths, but the more he tried to do that, the harder it was to get any air at all.
I'm suffocating, he thought, in a dazed kind of shock. We're all going to asphyxiate in here.
Not real. Not real. Not --
His eyes snapped open in the darkness of his quarters. He sucked in a deep breath and lay there, gasping. He could feel the hitching of his chest, heaving up and down under the blankets, his heart pounding a runaway cadence against his ribs. For an instant, all he could do was gasp for air. He could hardly breathe, even now; it was like an elephant sitting on his chest.
Hard on the heels of this came the thought: I'm not RODNEY, for cryin' out loud...
In a way it was hardly fair, because Rodney wasn't the hypochondriac he'd once been. But still, for just an instant he could almost believe in a justified sort of hypochondria, because he knew there was nothing wrong with him, knew he'd checked out in a physical only a few days ago, and yet -- he couldn't breathe.
And he could taste smoke on the back of his throat.
In the darkness of his quarters, John sat upright, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Fire ... what the hell kind of smoke detectors did this place have, anyway? Surely it must have something ....
He swung his legs off the bed, the lights coming up in response to his mental command, and reached for his radio. "Sheppard to control room. Is everything okay up there?"
"Yes sir," the response came after a moment. "Why?"
"Because I smell smoke." It was still there, on the back of his tongue, an unpleasant oily tang.
A slight hesitation. "There's nothing on the sensors, sir."
Where moments ago he'd been trying to convince himself that his senses were lying to him, now he found that he was trying to make himself believe the opposite. Seeing, hearing, smelling things that weren't there ... he'd seen good men, more than once, go crazy that way. Sometimes when you came back from a place like Afghanistan, you took it with you.
But he'd never had anything like that happen before -- barring certain times when outside forces were messing with his mind, and then, he'd been wholly within the hallucination. He could still smell it, and he also became aware of unusual heat, prickling his arms like the light brush of a candle flame.
"Nothing unusual in the vicinity of my quarters, Sergeant? Temperature checks out?"
"Yes, sir. A steady sixty-six, the way you like it."
He preferred to sleep in a cool room. And when he moved his head, the air brushing his face was indeed cool. But his T-shirt clung to his back with sweat.
"Thank you, Sergeant. Sorry to bother you. Stay alert, though."
Quietly John prowled around his quarters, trying to locate the source of the sensations he was feeling. No specific part of his rooms seemed warmer than any other part. In the bathroom, he paused to stare at himself in the mirror. A light flush crossed his cheekbones, and he wondered if he could be coming down with something.
Still ... what kind of disease had the smell of smoke as a symptom?
The Pegasus Galaxy Forest Fire Flu, he thought, quirking a grin.
It was still a little bit difficult to breathe; he found himself becoming lightheaded just from the effort of walking around in his quarters. Definitely not normal; something was afoot, and he wasn't sure if the problem was him or the world around him. He slipped into pants and boots, and just to be on the safe side, buckled his sidearm into its customary place on his thigh.
He touched the door to his quarters, checking for heat before opening it; the taste of smoke remained on his tongue. The corridor outside was dim and looked perfectly normal. But the prickly sensation of heat on his skin had grown worse. It was almost painful now.
John walked quickly towards the cafeteria. His steps began to slow as he approached it; he remembered all too well the feeling of being trapped inside by unseen flames.
But there's no fire. At least none that I can see.
He'd expected the cafeteria to be deserted, so was surprised to see a handful of people scattered around at some of the tables. A few Marines, a few scientists ... definitely more than he would have expected to be awake at this hour. The idea of food made him slightly nauseous; even leaving aside the heat prickling his arms, he felt distinctly off. Maybe he was coming down with something.
So why were the rest of them here?
He saw Rodney and Carson at one of the tables, heads down, engaged in conversation. They looked up as he approached.
"Colonel," Rodney greeted him, and shoved a stainless steel coffeepot across the table towards him. "Join the party. Couldn't sleep, I take it?"
"No." Sheppard sat down -- carefully, because his equilibrium was still a bit off -- and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Why are you two up?"
"Restless night," Carson said, hands curled around the steaming cup in front of him.
"Nightmares?" Sheppard asked, before he could stop himself. He took a drink of coffee in the hopes that it would chase away the smoke taste, but all it seemed to do was intensify it.
Both men snapped around to look at him.
"Why do you ask?" There was a peculiar sharpness to Rodney's tone.
Sheppard regarded him over the brim of his coffee cup. "Because I don't know about you, but I know that's why I'm awake."
"Now that you mention it, I know that it was a dream that woke me up. Don't remember it, though." Carson looked away from the other two, down into the mug in front of him.
Rodney raised a hand. "Same here, but it's not as if that's -- you know. Unusual. For any of us."
Probably not, and Sheppard was no stranger to bad dreams himself. Still, the extreme tangibility of this particular nightmare left him sneaking side glances at the doorway, when he hoped the others weren't looking. There were no creeping tendrils of smoke, but he just couldn't shake the smell.
He realized that Carson was squinting at him. "Are you all right, Colonel?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"You look a bit peaked."
"Carson, it's the middle of the night," Rodney snapped. "I imagine we all look like that. Although..." Now he was peering at Sheppard's face, too. "You do have a point. He looks like he's coming down with something, actually." His chair scraped as he pushed it backwards, away from Sheppard. "And if you have the Pegasus Plague, Colonel, you can just keep it as far away from me as possible, thanks."
"Jesus, Rodney, I don't feel that bad --" Then he winced as he heard the words coming out of his mouth. And in front of Carson, too. The doctor was already standing up.
"How about a little trip to the infirmary, Colonel?"
"I'm not sick," Sheppard protested, trying to ignore the way that his clothes stung his skin where they touched. It felt a little bit like having a bad sunburn all over.
Rodney was all the way down at the end of the table now. "If he says that, then you know something's wrong. Put him in isolation, Carson, before he infects the rest of us."
Sheppard couldn't help laughing. "Now let me get this straight, Rodney -- if I say I'm fine, that means I'm sick, right? So what does it mean if I tell you I'm sick?"
Rodney snorted. "Trick question. You'd never say that. Carson, please get him out of here."
"If he does have a bug, Rodney, I'm sure you've already been exposed, along with your entire team. When I'm through with the Colonel, I'll be having a look at you as well."
"I'm fine," Rodney protested, and then glared when Sheppard grinned at him. "What?"
"By your own logic, Rodney, you just admitted that you're sick."
"It doesn't apply to me!"
"Logic? I should say not." Carson put his hand on Sheppard's arm. "Come on, Colonel --"
He broke off when Sheppard jerked his arm away reflexively with a hiss of pain. Although the touch had been soft, his skin felt scraped raw where Carson had touched it.
"All right, that does it. Infirmary. Both of you."
Above and beyond all that was a panicky jitteriness. He couldn't sit still in the infirmary; while Carson ran the results of the tests through the Ancient medical scanners, Sheppard paced around the infirmary. Occasionally he had to steady himself on the wall. Rodney glared at him.
"If I'd known half a cup of coffee was going to have that much effect on you, I never would have offered it to you."
Rodney was even testier than usual; being cooped up in the infirmary with a potentially contagious Lieutenant Colonel wasn't having a beneficial effect on him.
"It's not the coffee. I don't think." Sheppard paused; the smoke smell had intensified. He licked his lips, trying to get rid of it. "Rodney, this may sound like a strange question, but do you smell smoke?"
"Smoke?" Rodney sat bolt upright and hopped off the bed where he'd been lying. "Smoke? Are you serious? What's burning? Where?"
Sheppard held out his hands placatingly. "No, no -- nothing, I hope. I just wondered if you smelled it."
"If nothing's on fire, why would I smell smoke?" Rodney narrowed his eyes. "Wait, are you smelling smoke? Why?"
Sheppard had opened his mouth to reply -- although he had no idea what he was going to say -- when Carson came back in, paging through a datapad. "Well, the results are in. There's absolutely nothing wrong with either one of you."
"Really?" Sheppard hoped he didn't sound as surprised as he felt.
Carson gave him a long, suspicious stare. "Yes, really. At least according to the tests. No pathogens, no sign of a heightened immune response; your temperature's not even up."
Now how was that possible? He felt like he'd been standing in a bonfire. He couldn't imagine how it was possible to feel as crappy as he did and have nothing whatsoever come up on the tests. On the other hand, admitting that he felt bad would just get him stuck in the infirmary -- for absolutely no reason, if Carson couldn't even come up with a symptom, let alone a diagnosis ...
"What about hallucinations? He's having hallucinations; that can't be normal!"
"Rodney, you rat," Sheppard hissed. "You just wait until the next time you're in here --"
Carson's look sharpened. "Hallucinations?"
"He's smelling smoke where there is no smoke," Rodney reported smugly, arms crossed over his chest.
John Sheppard had a finely honed sense for when to tell the truth and when the truth would just get him in more trouble -- such as being confined to the infirmary when there was clearly nothing wrong with him that a little sleep wouldn't cure. "It's more like a bad taste in the back of my mouth. I woke up with it."
"I thought you said smoke, Sheppard."
"It tastes kind of like smoke," John said lamely.
"And you were planning to tell me this, when?" Carson demanded. He sighed. "Well, there's still nothing showing up on the scans. The only odd thing is that your blood oxygen saturation is a little low, Colonel, but your respirations were shallow when I was examining you, so that's most likely the cause. Now unless you're having other symptoms ..."
He felt so hot he could barely breathe, and his stomach kept flopping over in a very unpleasant way. The strongest sensation of all, though, was the need to be out of the infirmary -- to be -- somewhere. "Nope," he said.
Carson stared at him for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. "Fine ... for the moment, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I'll assume you're capable of acting like an adult and coming back to see me before you put either yourself or the city at risk. Rodney, I'm putting you in charge of that."
From the look on Rodney's face, he'd apparently just decided that squealing on Sheppard wasn't the good idea it had seemed at first. "What? Why me?"
"Because where one of you is found, the other is likely to be nearby. Now, I suggest that both of you try to get some sleep, if possible. Separately," he clarified, at the horrified looks they both sent him. "Somehow I doubt if the Colonel is going to drop dead in a few hours. But, Rodney, if he exhibits any strange symptoms, I want him back here even if you have to drag him."
"Oh glory, that sounds like so much fun," Rodney grumbled as they left the infirmary. "Why do I even talk to you? Every time I get near you I end up -- Hey, where are you going? I'm not finished with you yet!"
As soon as he was out the infirmary door, Sheppard turned left and set out down the corridor at a rapid trot. He had no idea where he was going; he only knew that he had to be there. The sound of Rodney's rapid footsteps behind broke him out of his momentary fugue state, and he stopped with a hand resting against the wall, confused and a little bit afraid. Where was he going, anyway?
"Your quarters are the other way," Rodney informed him, catching up.
"I know." The wall was blessedly cool under his hand, even if the skin did sting a little on contact. Maybe he shouldn't have been so quick to escape from Beckett's clutches.
A sigh of exasperation. "So why are you going this way, then? Scenic route? Hmm?"
"I don't know, Rodney!" His stomach churned, the smoke smell so strong that he thought he might be sick. Something was definitely wrong with him, something that wasn't physical -- and he tried to push back the possibility that reared its head. Not post-traumatic stress. Anything but that.
Rodney's face came into his field of vision, peering at him with a combination of annoyance and concern. "You know, if there's something wrong with you, and you don't tell me, and Carson finds out, there will be big scary needles in my future. You know that, right?"
Sheppard grinned in spite of himself. Rodney just had that effect on him. "Don't worry, I'm not planning on getting you in trouble with Carson. I'm fine."
He just wished he could believe that. The restlessness was building up in him again, a nervous tension reminiscent of the effects of too much caffeine. His skin hurt and prickled, and his hand --
He jerked it away from the wall with a gasp, and stared at his fingers. For an instant the wall had felt so hot under his palm that it must surely have charred his skin. But the hand was unblemished, unmarked, the pain already fading.
"Okay, no matter what you claim, something's wrong with you. I mean, beyond the usual." Rodney crossed his arms; he was actually tapping one foot. "Will you tell Carson, or shall I?"
Sheppard didn't answer; he was still staring at his hand, and then laid it gently back against the wall. The sensation of wrongness grew -- the shaky, stomach-churning feeling of being off that he usually got when he was coming down with a cold or flu. Only, he was becoming increasingly certain that it wasn't coming from him.
It was coming from Atlantis.
He jerked as Rodney snapped his fingers, inches from John's nose. "Earth to Sheppard! Listen, Colonel, you've got five seconds before I'm calling --"
"Rodney," Sheppard interrupted. "Why did you say that you're awake in the middle of the night, anyway?"
"Bad dreams, Colonel -- something which I'm sure you know absolutely nothing about."
"Dreams about what?"
"Nothing," Rodney snapped.
Sheppard forced himself to straighten, crossing his arms in imitation of Rodney's belligerent stance. "Were you dreaming about fire, McKay?"
The stubborn jaw unlocked and dropped open. "How the hell did you know that?"
Sheppard couldn't help grinning, partly at the look on Rodney's face and partly because he finally had a possibility for why this was happening to him. "Because I was, too. And now I can smell smoke, but no one else can. Rodney, all those people in the cafeteria tonight ... do you remember who was there? I remember seeing Lorne, and Miko, and Sgt. Price, and Dr. Parrish -- what do they all have in common?"
Now Rodney's mouth was open too. "They all have the ATA gene." The belligerent look returned. "Of course, you're the golden boy -- you've got it twice as strong as anyone else --"
"So I'm feeling ten times as crappy." At Rodney's Ah-ha! look, John rolled his eyes -- and then wished he hadn't, when the corridor did a quick loop-de-loop. "Okay, yes, I might be ... less than fine. But you heard Carson. It's not something he can fix. What do you want to bet that if he remembered his dreams, he'd have been dreaming about fire, too?"
"Atlantis isn't on fire," Rodney said, sounding less sure than John would have liked. "There's a very sophisticated network of sensors and a highly advanced halon-gas fire suppression -- crap."
"Crap? Crap what?"
"Crap, Colonel, because we know that there are parts of the city that aren't covered by the life-signs detectors. Damaged by flooding, damaged by Wraith, damaged by 10,000 years of decay. It stands to reason that other kinds of sensors wouldn't work in those areas either."
"So Atlantis could be on fire and we wouldn't know."
"Unless it tried to tell us," Rodney said. "Assuming it's capable of that."
They stared at each other, until Sheppard broke the stare because he had to cough. The tightness and congestion in his chest were getting worse. If this was Atlantis's version of a warning light, he had to say that he didn't think too much of the Ancients for putting it in the system.
"Lab," Rodney said, and he turned on his heel and took off at a trot.
"Well, that's good, right?" Sheppard offered cautiously.
It was still the middle of the night, but the labs weren't entirely deserted; a few bleary-looking scientists drifted around, drinking coffee and occasionally running into each other. Every single one of them had the gene, and none of them seemed to know why they were awake at 0300 hours.
Sheppard liked this less and less.
"It would be good, Colonel, if we didn't have every reason ... well, all right, one or two reasons, and kind of circumstantial ones, but still reasons -- to believe that all is not as fine and dandy as the sensors are showing us."
"So where are these sensor-free areas?" Sheppard leaned forward, trying to focus on the screen and not on how lousy he felt. Just the light touch of his clothing against his skin burned, and every time he moved, the half-cup of coffee from earlier sloshed in his otherwise empty stomach. He found himself noting the positions of nearby trash cans in case he had a sudden need for one.
Rodney hit some keys, and a map of Atlantis appeared on the screen, dotted with large black splotches.
"That's a lot," Sheppard said, taken aback.
"Well, those are all the areas where we've had any kind of unresolved malfunction at all. We do still get telemetry from most of them ... it's just considered unreliable."
The black areas must have covered at least a quarter of Atlantis. Sheppard's brain did some hasty reconfiguring of his security arrangements, and didn't like the picture that emerged. "Were you ever planning on sharing this information with the person responsible for the security of this city, Rodney -- namely me?"
"Oh come on Sheppard -- you know we can't trust the sensors in a lot of the city. How else do you suppose General O'Neill and Woolsey were able to hide from the Replicators for as long as they did?"
"I know that, but I didn't know it was this bad!" He scanned the screen, translating colored lines to real-life measurements. It was a lot of territory. "We can't search all of that on foot, even if we put half the Marines on patrol -- and I don't want to do that yet; I'd rather not panic anyone until we know for sure that something's wrong."
"Fire in a crowded theater," Rodney muttered. "Well, we can narrow it down to the most likely places, anyway." He touched some more keys, and the black areas shrank to a scattering of measles-like dots. "Okay, these are the worst of it -- the parts where we get no data at all, unreliable or otherwise. As you can see, the two large areas that we haven't repaired yet are the second of the southeast towers, and then this section of the wing by the north pier." He gave the telltale black blots a couple of quick raps with a ballpoint pen held between his two middle fingers. "If something as significant as a fire could go undetected, I'd guess it would be in one of those two places."
"Which one first?"
Rodney shrugged. "You pick."
"Eenie meenie miney moe ..." Ignoring Rodney's stare of mingled horror and disbelief, Sheppard went through the children's rhyme until his finger settled on -- "North, it looks like. The fates have spoken."
"The idiot has spoken, you mean. Now I just need to find someone who isn't an idiot to watch the sensors up here while I go fix things down there. Radek's sleeping, damn him. Of course, that's easily remedied." Rodney grabbed the nearest half-asleep scientist, who blinked at him with a wide-eyed, owlish stare. "Hey, Parker, head over to Zelenka's quarters and get him down here. On the double."
"It's three in the morning," the scientist protested.
"So? Hop to it! The quicker you wake him up, the quicker he can go back to sleep."
"You can't just use someone who's already here ..." Sheppard murmured.
"No, because Radek's got more common sense in his little finger than any of these other clowns." At Sheppard's surprised look, he countered, "Of course, he's obviously no me, but then again, who is? Come on."
He reached out to tug at Sheppard's arm, then drew his hand back as John jerked the arm away. "I'm coming, Rodney. Aren't you going to wait for Zelenka?"
"I can explain to him over the radio. If something's burning out there, I'd really like to know, wouldn't you?"
Sheppard didn't answer, waiting instead for the wave of queasiness to subside when he stood up. The soles of his feet tingled; he could feel the floor as if his boots weren't even there.
Atlantis couldn't scream, he thought, but it certainly seemed to be trying.
"Good morning to you too, Radek." Rodney talked as he walked, occasionally reaching out absently to steady Sheppard as he listed against the wall. Pausing, he demanded, "Are you sure you're up for this?"
"I'm fine," Sheppard retorted unconvincingly, as the corridor swayed underfoot and his stomach lurched again. He tried to move with the swaying and -- since the corridor wasn't actually swaying -- succeeded only in stumbling against the wall. The full-body contact sent a spike of pain through his head and a sudden surge of intensity in the feeling of illness that had been plaguing him. He lost his battle with his stomach and leaned weakly against the wall as he retched. At least there wasn't much to throw up.
Raising his head, he saw that Rodney had backed all the way up to the far wall. The scientist's look of exaggerated disgust startled a weak laugh out of him. "Come on, Rodney, I'm not contagious. You know that."
"I know nothing of the sort," Rodney retorted, giving the mess on the floor a wide berth. "For all I know, you're actually suffering from some sort of alien flu and have gone delusional besides. Yes, Radek, what?"
Sheppard tuned out Rodney's explanation to Zelenka as they resumed walking. Throwing up hadn't done much to abate his queasiness, and it didn't help to know, or at least suspect, that it wasn't coming from within him -- but rather, from the city around him. Occasionally he reached out to brush the wall with his fingertips, as if he could soothe the restless city with a touch.
Rodney's steps slowed, and he tweaked the scanner in his hand, swinging it slowly around in front of him. The lights were dimmer here, and flickered occasionally. "This area took damage from both the storm and the Wraith bombardment," he said, studying the scanner as he spoke. John wasn't sure if Rodney was talking to him or Zelenka, or maybe just himself. "It hasn't really been explored; we did some surveying in the first couple of months, didn't find anything interesting and generally left it alone."
A dry pulse-beat had begun to throb in John's skull, and the band around his chest was tighter. "I think we're in the right area. Either that, or whatever's wrong is getting worse."
Rodney darted a quick, worried look at him. "With the city, or with you?"
"You're absolutely sure that we shouldn't call Car--"
"Rodney, no; we're here anyway, and I don't think there's anything Carson can do to help me." Seeing Rodney swallow and raise a hand to his face, he said, "What?"
Rodney looked up at John, his eyes wide and blue. "I feel really -- odd."
"Like you're coming down with the flu? Achy, kind of queasy?"
"Basically, yes." To John's surprise, Rodney whacked him in the shoulder with the scanner. "If I'm actually getting sick because of you, I intend to throw up on you as often as possible--" He broke off, his eyes going wide. "Hey. I smell -- something. Weird."
"Yeah." He licked at his lips like a cat with a bad taste in its mouth.
Sheppard wished suddenly that they'd brought Zelenka with them rather than leaving him as their contact back in the labs. At least Zelenka's presence would be able to confirm or deny the ATA gene theory.
The few semi-functional lights in this area provided just enough illumination to show tangles of debris partially blocking the curving corridor in which they stood. Rodney flicked on a small flashlight and ran it over the wall, then cautiously proceeded ahead, stepping over a fallen and crumpled access panel. Suddenly he stopped dead; Sheppard nearly ran into him.
Sheppard's head was pounding so badly that he could barely think. "What's wrong? Rodney ..."
"My God." Rodney looked up at him. His face, bathed in the glow of the scanner and the flashlight's backwash, was pale and terrified. "I'm getting high thermal readings up ahead. I mean, off the scale. Something really is on fire."
"There's no smoke, though." But even as he said it, he realized that the flashlight's beam was visible -- and it shouldn't have been. There was smoke ... just not much.
"Damn it, damn it ..." Rodney reached out and put his hand against the wall, then drew it away with a hiss of pain. His voice was a hushed breath of fear. "Sheppard -- it's in the walls."
"What in the world is it burning?" With the headache almost making his eyes water, he couldn't wrap his brain around the mechanism of the thing.
"Electrical wiring, insulation, plastic ... Atlantis has all of that. It's not that flammable, but who knows how long something's been sparking down here. Damn it!" Rodney's head whipped back and forth, looking around them as if the city itself had turned against them. In a way, it had. He hit his radio. "Radek, it's true. We've got fire in the north wing. I don't know how extensive yet. It's behind the walls."
Sheppard could see why Rodney had chosen Zelenka as their base contact, because the voice that came back a moment later was quick and assured. "I've sent someone to wake Dr. Weir. Colonel, Rodney, what do you want me to do? Should I make an announcement?"
Sheppard sank down onto a chunk of rubble and rested his head in his hands so that he could think without being distracted by the spinning world around him. "No, don't -- the last thing we want is people freaking out before we even have a plan or know how extensive it is."
Rodney turned around, sweeping the scanner 360 degrees around himself. "This is bad -- very bad. I can't get exact readings, but I can definitely tell that it's extensive, and spreading quickly. We have got to get the fire suppression systems online before it's too big to control."
"I could try venting the gas manually, as Dr. Weir tried to do when she was under control of Phoebus," Zelenka said over the radio. "You should leave --"
"No," Rodney butted in. "Won't work. After the Phoebus thing, I personally overhauled the system. It was too vulnerable to that sort of terrorism -- a fire suppression system that can be rerouted to kill every man and woman in the city in minutes? Too dangerous. It'll only work now if the sensors actually detect signs of fire, either unusual heat or high levels of carbon dioxide and other byproducts of combustion. Otherwise the failsafes kick in and stop it."
"Good one, Rodney," Sheppard said, his forehead resting in his hands.
"Oh yes, because my psychic powers should have told me that the first time we'd ever actually have a fire in the city in two and a half years, it would be in the one part of the city where the sensors don't work!"
Elizabeth's voice cut in. "John, Rodney, report. What's going on down there? Zelenka said part of the city's on fire?" To Sheppard's ear, she sounded cautiously skeptical, as well she might; it was probably difficult to accept such an idea when the inhabited parts of the city appeared perfectly normal.
"In the north quadrant. No sensors up here; we just found it."
"How bad, Rodney?"
"Bad. We've got to stop this thing -- damn it, Colonel, get back here!"
Sheppard had risen, wavered for a moment, and was now walking forward, clambering over debris. The temperature was rising, and it wasn't an illusion this time. Still, the continuing sense of restlessness pushed him forward. Atlantis wanted something from him.
"What's going on down there?" Elizabeth demanded.
"I have no idea! Colonel!" Rodney appeared in his face and planted one hand on his chest, bringing him to a halt. "Let me put this in very simple terms for you, Sheppard." He pointed down the hall. "There? Fire." Now he pointed the other way. "There? No fire. Fire bad. Fire burn. Fire kill. As much fun as it would be to toast marshmallows over your flaming hair, I really don't have time for that right now."
Sheppard shoved Rodney's hand away; his skin was still hypersensitive. Presumably Atlantis was trying to bring all his senses to heightened awareness in an attempt to make him alert to what was going on -- and the fact that it could do that was something he didn't want to dwell on right now. "Can we fix the sensors?"
"Oh, gee, why didn't I think of that! Because I'm one man and there's, what, a couple of square kilometers of --" Rodney paused, getting a thoughtful look. "Hey, wait a minute. We don't have to fix all the sensor arrays. All we have to do is initialize one or two of them, and that should be enough to override the failsafes and allow us to flood the area with halon."
"You have a plan?" Elizabeth asked.
"We do, but it might be a good idea to have a plan B waiting in the wings." Sheppard ignored Rodney's disgruntled look. "Find Lorne -- he'll be up -- and put him in charge of scrambling some jumpers. This area's uninhabited; if Rodney's idea doesn't work, we'll hit it with drones and try to break this wing away from the main part of the city."
"That's an incredibly stupid idea," Rodney complained, sweeping the scanner along one of the walls. "Yet typical. When faced with an obstacle, blow it up."
"Rodney says it's a good idea," Sheppard translated. "We'll report back in a few minutes."
Rodney looked up from his scanner. "Zelenka! You still there?"
"Where else would I be?"
"I need you to take the fire suppression systems offline until I give you the all-clear -- meaning we're all clear. Otherwise, Colonel Sheppard and I will asphyxiate along with the fire."
Suffocation. Sheppard couldn't help a shudder that started at his toes and worked his way up through his body. The quick spasm was too much for his already unsettled stomach, and the next thing he knew, he was on his hands and knees, coughing up bile.
"Stop that." Rodney sounded distracted and annoyed. "I'm going to need your help in a minute here."
"It's not like I'm doing it on purpose, McKay!" Sheppard spit and wiped a hand across his mouth.
"Yeah, well, stop it anyway. It's making it hard to concentrate."
"God forbid." Sheppard joined him, looking over his shoulder. "What do you need me to do?"
"I need you to use that magic gene of yours to initialize a few things ... as soon as I find them and, of course, fix them. Naturally I could do it myself, but I'm man enough to admit that it would be faster if you -- aha! Oh no, wait. No aha after all. You know, this would be much easier if the components that I needed to fix weren't on fire."
The wall made an ominous groaning sound, and they both took a synchronized, hasty step backwards. "That's bad, Rodney, right?"
"Very bad," Rodney muttered, looking at his scanner. "The fire is only going to stay in the walls and conduits for so long before the heat distorts everything enough that it breaks through. Damn it, all I need is an undamaged panel that I can work on." He started walking rapidly back the way they'd come, studying the scanner all the while, then paused, taking a deep breath, and ripped an access panel off the wall.
Smoke poured out into the corridor. Rodney staggered a step back, raising his sleeve across his face. "Crap! Help me get this back on --"
Between them, they levered the panel back into place. A choking haze now hung in the hallway, and the face Rodney turned to Sheppard was white and scared. The ceiling over them had begun to creak and pop.
"Too dangerous," Sheppard said as they trotted back the way they'd come, Rodney staring at his scanner and looking for an undamaged panel. Sheppard's lungs burned from the smoke still hanging in the corridor; it was nasty, corrosive stuff. "When this goes, there's gonna be a fireball in this corridor that nothing can survive. Let's get out of here. We can try the jumper idea --"
"It won't work. Do you know how many drones it'd take to destroy this part of Atlantis?" Rodney stopped in front of another panel and stared at his readings for a moment. "Besides, the first time you hit it, you'd rupture all the bulkheads that are holding the fire back. You might just burn down the city twice as fast." Taking a deep breath, he pulled off the panel. There was smoke, but not as much.
"What if we submerge the city again? Would that do it?" Sheppard leaned over Rodney's shoulder, holding the flashlight for him as the scientist plunged his hands into the murky interior and began fiddling with crystals.
"Allow me to point out, Colonel, that the only way that would help is if we actually, deliberately flood the city, which would mean flooding the city. Drowning is just as lethal as -- aargh -- as suffocating in -- ow -- give me a hand with this, would you?"
John helped him tug free a crystal, which he then used to bridge two others. "Okay, Colonel. Turn this on."
Sheppard laid his hand over the makeshift arrangement, and thought ON as hard as he could. An instant later, everything lit up, including the lights in the hallway where they stood -- although those a little further along remained ominously dark.
Over the radio, Zelenka cursed in Czech. "I can see it on the monitors now -- and you're right, it is bad. Get out of there!"
"Of course I'm right. And what do you think we're doing, playing tiddlywinks?" Rodney struggled to get the panel back into place; Sheppard leaned a shoulder against it, helping him.
"You do realize in a minute that's going to be melted slag back there. Will it still work?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course it'll work. This corridor's sensor array is tied into the main one now. When it goes down, the system will still know there's a problem. Right now it just doesn't even know this corridor exists. When it goes down--"
The ceiling gave a long, loud groan, and Sheppard yanked on the physicist's arm. "Rodney! Explain later! Run now!"
They took two steps towards safety, and the ceiling above them blew out with a noise like a freight train.
They were both flung flat to the floor, and Sheppard rolled over and rose to his knees with his ears ringing. Blood was running into his eyes, but far more lethal were the flames licking around them, stealing the oxygen from the air and searing them with deadly heat.
"Radek!" Sheppard screamed into the headset, praying that the scientist could hear him. "Halon! Now!" He rolled Rodney's limp body over; his friend's face was covered with blood.
Dimly over the roar of the flames, he heard Zelenka say, "But you are --"
"Surrounded by fire! We can't get out! We'll be dead in seconds if you don't hit that button, Radek!"
Yelling had exhausted most of the oxygen in his lungs, but he didn't dare try to inhale more. Heavy black chemical smoke surrounded them, burning his eyes and skin; it would sear his lungs in an instant. He'd seen men survive crashed planes only to die days later when their damaged lungs filled up with fluid.
A wave of flames rolled towards them and Sheppard curled forward over Rodney, head swimming from heat and lack of oxygen. He could feel his friend stirring back to consciousness under him and thought wildly, desperately, No, don't wake up now, at least that way it won't hurt --
But the flames didn't reach them. Sheppard raised his head to see the fire die away in seconds, like a film run backwards. The smoke billowed around them, and there was an eerie hissing sound, audible now that the flames had died back.
Holding his breath, he hooked his arm under Rodney's shoulders and staggered to his feet. The corridor was nearly dark, filled with smoke and an eerie, ghostly silence after the roar of the flames. Rodney, semiconscious, leaned on him heavily. John just hoped to hell that McKay had the presence of mind to hold his breath. It wasn't as if he could spare the oxygen to tell him. The corridor swam around him; colored spots danced in his vision as he hauled Rodney into an awkward half-run. His lungs screamed for air.
"Rodney, Colonel, I do not know if you are -- if you can hear me." Zelenka's voice was faintly audible above the growing hum in Sheppard's ears. "Hold your breath if you can; breathing will not help you at the moment. I can -- yes, oh yes -- I'm picking up your life signs now. I'm trying to bring up the oxygen concentration in your area without causing the fire to flare up again. Atlantis's fire suppression systems have gone into automatic and ..." He muttered something in Czech. "You may find your way blocked by doors."
Sheppard had already discovered this. With most of the lights out, and his vision failing in any case, he plowed into the door before he realized that it was there, spilling himself and Rodney to the floor. The impact knocked the remaining air from his lungs, and he lost his failing struggle not to inhale. The lungful of air that he gasped in eased the ache, for a moment, but his head swam and he realized as he staggered back to his feet that he was on the verge of fainting. He panted desperately, knowing it wasn't helping and yet unable to summon the willpower to stop his body's instinctive struggle for air. His heart fluttered against his breastbone, a strange throbbing sensation.
"I can see you -- I -- hovno -- it's overriding my attempts to open the door." There was more, but Zelenka's words were beginning to disintegrate into a meaningless buzz in Sheppard's ears. His grip on Rodney had slipped to a fist knotted in the sleeve of his friend's jacket. Don't let go... but he couldn't remember why that was important. Black sparks telescoped his vision to a narrow tunnel, as his fingers slid across the surface of the door. He knew this feeling, knew it well. He'd first discovered it under three feet of water at the age of four.
Four times now -- four times he'd suffocated in his life. Maybe the fourth time was the charm. And when the smooth door panel wasn't there anymore, he fell, not knowing who had jerked the world out from under his feet.
"Colonel, Rodney, I have closed the door behind you. You are in a sealed section of corridor and I'm bringing the oxygen back to full saturation in your vicinity." A pause, and then a voice filled with worry: "Colonel? Dr. McKay?"
But Sheppard was beyond hearing him.
He rolled over, and gasped as the world swung queasily around him. Pressing his face against the cool floor, he breathed slowly, in and out, until things settled down somewhat. Then he opened his eyes to the welcome sight of scruffy dark hair, so coated with dust that it looked almost blond.
"Sheppard," he croaked, and coughed to clear his throat. Pain stabbed sharply at his lungs and throat. He had a horrible mental image of his lungs eaten to rags by toxic chemicals, filling with blood, drowning him -- but rather than drowning, he just coughed again, and sat up, wavering dizzily. He raised a hand to his aching head, discovering that his face was inexplicably sticky, and also that one of Sheppard's hands held his jacket sleeve in a death grip. The fingers were locked in place so that he couldn't peel them off. The rest of Sheppard, though, was utterly limp.
"Colonel? Now is a good time to wake up." He prodded at Sheppard. There was no movement, and his stomach lurched in a way that had nothing to do with his vertigo. His fingers slipped down to Sheppard's neck, pressed and then dug into the skin of his throat.
Nothing ... then a faint flutter against his trembling fingertips.
"Oh God," he whispered, a thanks or a prayer to a deity he didn't believe in. He held the back of his hand over the still lips, then bent over to press his ear to Sheppard's chest, steadying himself through another wave of dizziness. Sheppard might have a pulse, faint though it was, but he wasn't breathing.
"Hell and damn and ... this is completely unacceptable, Colonel!" Sheppard's fingers still wouldn't detach from his sleeve as Rodney knelt next to the unmoving body of his friend, planting his palm on Sheppard's forehead and trying not to think too much about what he was about to do. Carson accepted no compromises when it came to first-aid training, and it had taken an hour of yelling at each other, and finally a no-nonsense threat to revoke his gate clearance, to get him to put his lips on the CPR dummy's germ-ridden mouth, even through a plastic barrier. This was about a thousand times worse. There is not enough therapy in the world to fix me after this.
His radio crackled as he began to breathe for his friend. "Rodney, Colonel -- Rodney, please respond." Zelenka sounded frantic. Rodney could relate.
"Medical team, Radek!" Rodney yelled between gasps for air. "Now!"
"Rodney, one of your life signs is flickering in and out --"
"I know!" He could only get out a few words between each breath. "Why do you -- think I -- need Carson? -- Now, Radek!"
There was a flurry of activity on the other side of the radio connection, which Rodney ignored. The fear that the fire might recur was a not-too-distant possibility in the back of his mind, but most of his attention was consumed by the coolness of Sheppard's skin under his palm, by the slackness of his mouth when Rodney breathed for him.
Through it all he kept up a breathless, running monologue, knowing that he should save his air for, well, not passing out, but unable to help himself. When he was scared, he talked. And right now he was about as scared as he'd ever been. Between breaths for Sheppard, he babbled, a few words at a time.
"... dragged me down here without backup, that's absolutely stupid, I don't know why I let you talk me into this. Peer pressure, it's got to be peer pressure, because I never did idiotic things like that back on Earth. If the building's on fire, you better believe I'd have been at the head of the crowd running for the door. Self-preservation, Sheppard. Common sense. Not that I'd expect you to know anything about that..."
He stopped to gasp for air for a moment or two, black spots dancing around the edge of his vision. His lungs hurt and a great hand seemed to be squeezing them, pressing the air out of his chest, freaking him out for just an instant until he managed to resume breathing. It wasn't enough to shut him up, though. He gave Sheppard a couple more breaths and resumed his system -- breathe for Sheppard, breathe for himself, babble for a moment and repeat, with intermittent checks to make sure there was still a faint flutter of heartbeat. "And speaking of self-preservation, what were you thinking, dragging me out like that? When things are on fire around you and the room's full of lethal gas, Sheppard, you run. You don't stop and drag the geek. That's just stupid, crazy and suicidal ..."
He paused to force a few more breaths into the unresponsive lungs, and realized to his shock that he was crying, without even being aware of it. Hot tears left burning trails through the filth on his face. That seriously pissed him off.
"You're not allowed to die just to get out of being yelled at, you know that? Because everyone's going to. I can just imagine what Carson will have to say about all of this, and I'm sure Elizabeth will throw her two cents in, and you'll never, ever hear the end of it from me. You'd better invest in a set of earplugs, Colonel, because --"
He had to stop, doubling over in a coughing fit that ended in a wheezing struggle for breath. The horribly familiar pressure in his chest finally managed to trump his panic, and he froze, for just an instant, in utter disbelief at the unfairness of it all.
I cannot be allergic to halon. That's just completely unfair.
But that was what it felt like -- the beginnings of an anaphylaxis attack. And who knew what the hell kinds of chemicals were in the air around him? He could be allergic to anything down here. Gasping, blood roaring in his ears, Rodney fumbled in his pocket for an epinephrine injector. Oh please oh please oh please have it with me today oh thank God ...
This was all because of that stupid conversation with Sheppard the other day and he'd stupidly mentioned that suffocation was the worst possible way to die -- well, it was! -- and clearly whatever capricious fate governed his life had been listening, because that was just how things went in the Pegasus Galaxy, wasn't it? His shaking fingers slipped on the injector as he tried to twist off the cap. This is all your fault, he thought balefully in Sheppard's direction, and when he fumbled the injector for the second time, he smacked Sheppard hard in the chest.
It may well have been coincidence, but at that point, the still chest under his fist bucked, and Sheppard started coughing.
Sharp pain stabbed him in the lungs. He was suffocating still -- his body screamed for air, and when he tried to inhale, his throat closed up and he doubled over, fingers scrabbling on the floor.
"Sheppard, jeez, calm down, just calm down, okay?" Hands caught and held him, pushing him back against the floor.
He opened his eyes to darkness, lit only by a couple of flickering ceiling lights that barely penetrated the heavy haze of smoke. Relaxing did seem to help with the whole breathing thing, until he went off into another coughing fit.
As he began to recover, a hand appeared directly in his field of vision, about two inches from his nose. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Unable to get enough breath to respond, Sheppard irritably whacked it away. There was a petulant "Ow!" and then a choking sound and the next thing he knew, he was being gripped by both shoulders and Rodney was leaning over him, blocking out most of the light. His eyes were wide and terrified.
"I think I'm in anaphylaxis. I can't breathe. Sheppard, do I look like I'm swelling up?"
Sheppard stared at him for a moment, until he had to blink, his eyes stinging from the smoke in the hallway. "Rodney," he rasped, "you can't breathe because we're surrounded by smoke."
He was released and pushed down onto the floor again. Rodney's voice came from a little farther away with a screechy and breathless note of panic in it. "Trust you to make light of the fact that I'm dying after I saved your life!"
Sheppard decided that the path of least resistance was to just lie flat on his back until sparks stopped dancing around the edges of his vision and the elephant decided to get off his chest. He could still hear Rodney very vocally panicking off to the side somewhere, so apparently breathing wasn't that much of a problem. If the complaining stopped, he'd deal with it then. Meanwhile, dealing with his own inability to breathe was more of an issue.
As the unbearable stabbing pain in his lungs faded into more of a bearable stabbing pain, he realized that he was actually feeling a little better than he had been earlier ... which probably said a lot about how crappy he'd felt before. He had a splitting headache, and was vaguely nauseous from that and the smoke, but otherwise, he didn't feel that bad.
A fist hooked onto the jacket over his chest and yanked him upright. The sudden change in equilibrium nearly swamped him with dizziness and nausea. There was nothing left in his stomach, though, so he just gagged a little. Well, he'd been feeling better.
"Sheppard, I'm dying here and you don't care!"
Pushing him away, John muttered hoarsely, "I think you're all right, Rodney. Aside from the --" He paused. There was no way Rodney could possibly have not noticed he was bleeding; the scientist's entire face was covered with blood. Still, Sheppard raised a hand to his own forehead, gesturing. In the process he discovered that he was bleeding, too.
"What?" Rodney aped the gesture, and when he brought his hand away covered with blood, he went off into new, stratospheric realms of panic. "Oh my God, I'm bleeding to death!"
"You just got cut up a little when the wall blew out." Sheppard felt along his own hairline and winced when he located a few cuts. It wasn't bad, at least he didn't think so, but it was bleeding quite a bit. Considering that Rodney hadn't even noticed his own bleeding, it probably wasn't too bad with him, either.
Not that Rodney seemed to think so. Banging a fist against the wall, he bellowed into his radio, "Carson! Where the hell are you?"
"We're having to cut through emergency doors to reach you," came the voice in Sheppard's ear. "Zelenka says both your life signs have stabilized. How's the Colonel?"
"I'm fine," Sheppard said, then started coughing again.
"As you can hear, he's certainly not fine, and I'm in anaphylaxis, Carson!"
"You are?" Carson sounded, to Sheppard's ears, slightly skeptical. "What are your symptoms?"
"What do you think my symptoms are? I can't breathe!"
"Any swelling? Tingling? Itching?"
"I'm a little distracted by the not breathing, Carson!"
Carson -- showing remarkable forbearance, in Sheppard's opinion -- didn't point out that Rodney obviously wasn't having any problems getting enough air to talk. "Halon can cause bronchial spasms -- like with an asthma attack? Have you ever had one of those?"
"Of course I have," Rodney snapped.
"Of course you have," Carson sighed. "Rodney, did you inject yourself with epinephrine?"
"Yes, of course, I --" Rodney stopped, and his eyes got huge. "Carson, if I'm not -- and I did -- that's going to kill me, isn't it!"
There was a long sigh on the other end of the radio. "No, Rodney. It won't. Now, if you are experiencing a reaction, you've done everything you can do, so panicking isn't going to help, is it? Just sit down, try to calm your breathing down, and radio us if either of you experience any new symptoms."
"Like what? Is there anything we should expect to experience? Carson! I forgot to tell you I'm bleeding to death! Carson!" Rodney hammered on the activation button on his earpiece, then slumped down against the wall.
Sheppard propped himself up on his elbows, swallowing back a wave of vertigo. "They'll be here soon, Rodney; calm down."
"As if. Epinephrine makes me paranoid." Rodney jumped to his feet with a spastic movement and started pacing. "And restless," he added, unnecessarily. "Are you sure I'm not swelling? I feel like I'm swelling. I also feel like I'm having a heart attack. That's probably the epinephrine. I hope. What if it's not?" He staggered and clutched at the wall. "Oh crap, I think I'm hyperventilating," he said in a very small voice, and slid down the wall to put his head between his knees.
Sheppard sighed, and sat up the rest of the way, cautiously testing his head at each stage of altitude. He didn't throw up and the dizziness had begun to recede somewhat. He still didn't try standing up yet, though, but instead crawled over to Rodney. "You do realize that you can't hyperventilate and suffocate at the same time, right?" He laid a hand on Rodney's back, between the shoulder blades. "Although if anyone could manage it, I bet you probably could."
"Oh, ha ha," Rodney said in a small, miserable voice without raising his head. After a moment, in an equally small and miserable voice, he asked, "How are you? You okay?"
That was the thing about Rodney ... he'd make you never want to be in the same room with him again, and then turn right around and remind you a split second later why it was worth it, always worth it. "Yeah," Sheppard said, leaning his aching head back against the wall. "I'm okay."
Rodney shifted his weight against the wall, so that his shoulder tipped against Sheppard's. It might have been accidental. And they stayed that way until a team of Marines cut through the bulkhead door closing off the other end of the hallway, and Carson's people descended upon them.
"Fire..." Sheppard said, pushing away an oxygen mask that one of Carson's nurses kept trying to fix over his mouth as she settled him on a gurney. It was wonderful, blessedly clean air -- the first time since waking up in the hallway that he hadn't had to struggle to breathe. But there were a few things he needed to say. "Is it out?"
"Doc Zelenka tells us that nothing shows up on his sensors, sir," Lorne told him, leaning over him and helping the nurse push him back down. "We've got people out there right now checking for hot spots. So far, it all looks good."
Sheppard's eyes closed briefly; then, as the nurse tried to resettle the mask over his face, he pushed it away again. "How's Rodney?"
"Certainly not in anaphylaxis, I can tell you that," Carson said from the other side of the corridor.
"Which I had no way of knowing!" Rodney protested petulantly, followed by a small scuffling noise. From the sound of things, his nurse was having similar problems to Sheppard's. Neither patient would stop trying to talk.
"It's probably better safe than sorry, as my mum would say," Carson admitted. "The adrenaline won't kill you; anaphylaxis would. Though you may feel like hell for a while."
"I feel like I'm having a heart attack."
"So relax, settle down and let the nice nurse put the oxygen mask on you, Rodney," Sheppard called, pulling away his own mask to do so. Looking as if she were a few steps from jabbing him with a sedative, his nurse pushed the mask back over his mouth.
"Thank you for the medical advice, Colonel; now follow it yourself," Carson told him, bending over him. "And how are you feeling?"
Sheppard lifted the mask to say, "Surprisingly, better than earlier." Then he saw Carson's eyes narrow and thought, Oh crap.
"Didn't you tell me you felt fine in my infirmary, Colonel?"
Sheppard wordlessly pointed at the mask, giving Carson a wide-eyed helpless look that -- he hoped -- clearly indicated, Sorry, I'd love to answer your questions, but see, I can't at the moment. I've got an oxygen mask on.
"I don't know why I even bother with the two of you. The minute either of you walk through the infirmary door, I should just sedate you both on general principles." Sheppard could feel hands moving over his body, checking his limbs with speed and assurance.
There was a disgruntled noise from Rodney's nurse, followed by Rodney's petulant voice: "Carson, we saved the city!"
"Yes, at great risk to both of you!" Carson rotated Sheppard's arms; Sheppard put up with it. "Colonel, Rodney didn't perform CPR on you at all, did he?"
Sheppard felt his eyes go wide, and pulled the mask away, forgetting that he was using it for camouflage. "Did he what?"
"I just need to know if I should expect broken ribs as well." Hands moved up his rib cage. "Hold still."
"I did not," Rodney protested, emphatically.
"His pulse and breathing were stable when the two of you escaped from the fire?"
There was a slight, incriminating pause from Rodney's direction, then, "Yes."
"Rodney, it's very difficult to get an accurate medical history on either one of you when you lie to me."
"Well, his pulse was fine," Rodney muttered.
Sheppard raised his head, knocking away the nurse in the act of putting the mask back on him. "Wait, what? I wasn't breathing?"
"How long did it take him to start breathing on his own again, Rodney?"
"Does it matter? He's fine now, isn't he?"
"Oh, Rodney." Sheppard let his head fall back down against the pillow. "Please tell me you didn't --"
"No! I didn't! And I will swear to that until my dying day, and neither one of you will ever ask me about that again!"
Carson looked up at the nurse. "Just note that rescue breathing was performed for an unspecified length of time, but the patient's respiration resumed without apparent damage."
"I didn't!" Rodney said, at the same time as Sheppard's horrified, "He didn't!"
Much more firmly than the nurse, Carson slapped the oxygen mask back over Sheppard's mouth and nose. "Colonel, you're alive, so I wouldn't be second-guessing the manner in which you came to be that way. Just thank your lucky stars that Rodney pays more attention in my first-aid classes than he pretends. And Rodney ..." There were still incoherent protesting sounds coming from Rodney's direction, interspersed with scuffling with the nurse. "Stuff a sock in it."
As the gurney bore him away, Sheppard reached out and brushed a hand against the wall, trying to reach out to Atlantis. The agitation was gone; all he could feel was the usual quiet hum of the city, a warm pulse deep in the back of his brain. Closing his eyes, content that all was well with his city, he let himself drift with the movement, and finally fell asleep.