The light was different on New Lantea. John wasn't sure what it was about the planet: different spectrum of radiation, maybe, or different angle of sunlight, or something. He hadn't realized it until seeing the familiar rooms of Atlantis bathed in the light of Earth's sun -- the office that had been Elizabeth's; his quarters; the mess. It was a strange and subtle sense of wrongness that had haunted him while days on Earth turned into weeks.
But here they were; they'd been back for a couple of months now, and as he walked into the mess to find his team, the warm golden light lapped over him with a sense of rightness as deep and profound as the sense of dislocation on Earth.
The mess was about half full, and John idly tuned in to conversations in half a dozen languages as he picked up a tray. Scanning, his eyes finally settled on a table near the window, where Teyla had her head together with Keller, laughing over something Torren was doing in her lap. Rodney, next to Keller, had his own head bowed over his laptop, typing away with cheerful industry. Ronon was nowhere to be seen, but he always kept weird hours and they didn't have a team mission scheduled for days.
It was a cozy, domestic scene. It should have made him happy, to see his team so content. And, in a way, it did, but ...
Torren babbled happily; Teyla's laugh, the bright laugh that she used to give so rarely, reached John across the mess hall.
They might be back in Pegasus, but things weren't back to how they had been, before Torren was born, before Rodney and Keller, before Ronon and Amelia, just ... before.
John's warm lazy sense of contentment had completely evaporated. He reached for a muffin, and considered, for a moment, taking his tray back to his quarters.
But he'd faced down Wraith and Replicators, Kolya and rogue Asgard; he could, damn it, face the spectre of his team turning into a bunch of domestic homebodies. At least Ronon hadn't deserted him ... yet; they'd beaten the crap out of each other in the gym only yesterday. He still had to concentrate not to limp on his left ankle (ow), but he'd given Ronon a bruise all down one side of his face and he was still inordinately proud of that. And then Ronon had left for a date with Amelia, which John was still trying not to think about. They'd probably have very pretty, very scary, kickboxing babies.
Aside from that, he hadn't seen any of his team outside missions in ... weeks, maybe. Where were they all the time these days? But John knew ... they were spending time with their families. Like people did. Normal people.
Again he considered just taking his tray back to his quarters rather than trying to make polite small talk under what had become increasingly awkward circumstances, but Teyla had seen him and now Keller was waving at him, and, damn it, now he'd made eye contact and there was no escape. John skulked his way over, and sat down across from Rodney. Torren immediately started trying to crawl into his lap.
There was a time when he'd been able to have lunch without a toddler shoving sticky fists into his crotch, but he made a game effort to roll with it. "Hi, guys," John said as he tried to return Torren to his mother's lap without accidentally pushing him onto the floor. Teyla would probably disapprove of that, and then she'd kick his ass. Besides, Torren was awfully cute when he wasn't being a pain in the ass. John had liked him a lot better before he could move under his own power, though.
"You're having waffles for lunch?" was Rodney's greeting, as he squinted suspiciously at John's tray over the top of his computer.
"I like waffles," John said, feeling his hackles rise. "And they still had some left over from breakfast. I'm not passing up a second chance at waffles."
"It wasn't a serious question, Sheppard; I don't care what you want waffles for."
"Good morning, John," Teyla said smoothly, over the top of Rodney's protest.
Torren, meanwhile, had suddenly become fascinated with John's waffles -- apparently he recognized the word; who knew? -- and was in the process of trying to pull the plate down into John's lap so that he could get a better look. John discovered that he needed one more set of hands than he actually possessed in order to prevent burgeoning disaster.
"Oh, Torren, do not do that," Teyla sighed. "We have talked about this."
Teyla, John had noticed, seemed to have some kind of idea that simply explaining to Torren the required behavior would result in this behavior occurring. He wasn't sure if this was an Athosian thing, a first-time mom thing, or a Teyla thing, or hell, maybe most one-year-olds could understand and follow complex instructions; it wasn't like John had a lot of experience in that area.
"Here, I'll take him," Keller said, and reached around the end of the table so that Teyla could hand her the squirming toddler, freshly pried out of John's much-stickier lap. Torren seized a double fistful of Keller's hair and tried to climb her shirt. "Ow! Whoa, easy, little guy." She was laughing now, and Teyla was -- God help us all, John thought -- actually giggling.
John looked over at Rodney, seeking commiseration since the women had plainly fallen under some kind of child-induced stupidifying spell. Rodney, however, was gazing at Jennifer and the baby with a look of baffled, melting affection. It was a wonder the sap didn't just ooze out of the whole tableau all over the table.
"What's the matter, McKay? Biological clock ticking?" John said, and then wanted to kick himself, because like everything he'd tried to say to Rodney lately, it didn't come out as friendly needling; it came out sharp, abrasive. Plus it skirted a little too close to things he was trying really, really hard not to think about.
Now everyone was looking at him -- Keller confused, Teyla measuring, and Rodney downright hostile. "You know what?" John said, looking down at his tray where the waffles had been dragged halfway off his plate. "I need, uh, napkins. And more syrup." Tray and all, he made a beeline for the mess line, where he obtained more syrup and then, looking around to make sure no one was watching, attempted to flee.
And almost ran into Rodney, heading him off at the pass.
"I, uh, paperwork. Just remembered." John juggled his tray and tried to duck around his best friend into the hall. Rodney let him, but followed, close on his heels.
John was halfway expecting Rodney to say What's WRONG with you? -- he could see it on Rodney's face, and honestly, he had no idea what to offer in his defense. Instead, Rodney said, "The oceanography station resupply run -- are we still doing that this afternoon?"
"What?" John stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Yeah. Fifteen hundred. Why?"
Rodney's stare was challenging. "Jennifer wants to come. She hasn't seen much of the planet, except what's outside the window, and she'd love to get a look at the reef." The defiance dropped away to a sort of hurt, uncertain look. "Is that all right?"
"Of course it's all right," John's mouth said, on autopilot.
"Oh. Well. Good, then." A little of the hurt lifted from Rodney's face, but he still looked unhappy. "So, um, see you then?"
"See you then." John almost added And apologize to Teyla for me, would you? but then he wasn't really sure why. Besides, he'd see Teyla at some point soon. He could say it then. And he would, damn it.
Rodney gave a crisp nod and vanished back into the mess.
Resentment settled into a hard knot in John's belly. He hadn't spent time with Rodney alone, just the two of them, playing video games or watching bad sci-fi or any of the other things they used to do, since -- since -- well, in weeks, anyway. He'd been looking forward to the afternoon as a bright spot in an otherwise fairly blah week. They'd fly around a little, joke a little; maybe he'd give Rodney a flying lesson to keep those skills sharp. It would be like it used to be.
And now there would be Keller. Just like every time he tried to do anything with Teyla, there was Torren, or she had to cancel because she and Kanaan were doing something together.
John ate lunch in his office and idly poked at overdue mission reports. Sometimes, when Rodney knew John was doing paperwork or eating alone, he'd show up to rant about a minion or to show John some cool Ancient gizmo he'd found in one of the labs.
He didn't do that today.
Jennifer arrived early to the jumper bay in the hopes of having a little time to talk with Rodney. She hadn't had a chance to say more than two words to him at lunch, between Torren's distraction and then the odd scene with Colonel Sheppard, and after that he'd been drawn back into the labs immediately. Catching alone time with Rodney generally required advance planning.
The jumper bay bustled with scientists in blue and charcoal jackets, loading crates of supplies into one of the jumpers. In all of Atlantis, the science department had benefited the most from the trip to Earth and subsequent return journey, because they had been able to load the department with everything they could convince the IOA or private investors to pay for, no longer limited by cargo space on the Daedalus. The brand-new oceanography research station on the planet's far side was a consequence of that. According to Rodney, the problem wasn't finding scientists willing to spend a few days at a time under a thousand feet of water and out of touch with Atlantis -- the problem was keeping them all from taking off for it immediately.
She lent a hand, helping drag the last crate into the jumper's cargo hold. Rodney tossed her one end of the cargo netting and they strapped it down. "No, Roscoe," she heard Rodney say on the far side of the pile of equipment. "For the last time, no, I'm not swapping out personnel yet unless Zawadzki and Wong want to come back for some reason. It's not, contrary to what you apparently think, actually more productive to keep training new people on the equipment rather than leaving the people who know what they are doing to collect data. Besides, don't you people have a submarine now? Go play with your submarine."
By the time that Jennifer got her end tied down and ducked around the heap of crates, the bay had emptied out and there was just Rodney, sitting on a crate and checking off items on his tablet computer. Perfect, she thought -- just the two of them, Sheppard hadn't shown up yet; no better time for what was probably going to be an extremely awkward conversation.
How did you say to your boyfriend, "I think your best friend doesn't like me, and I don't know what to do about it"? She wasn't even sure if it would help to say anything; maybe it would just make things worse. But someone had to bring it up, because things kept getting tenser, and the last thing she wanted to do was act like a wedge between Rodney and his friends.
As she approached him, though, she saw that his shoulders were slumped, his mouth curved sharply down at the corners. By now she'd had a lot of experience at reading Rodney's moods, and he looked tired and profoundly unhappy.
Maybe this wasn't the right time. Jennifer sat down next to him and leaned her shoulder against his. "You okay?"
"What? Yes, of course. Fine, fine." He made a show of tapping off the rest of the list on his tablet, then accessed his email inbox.
Jennifer patted his arm. Rodney brought up his hand and curled his fingers into hers, an automatic gesture of affection and trust, one that sent a soft flush of warmth through her. But his head was still down, fixed on the screen, and she took the hint and left him there, wandering into the cabin of the jumper.
She hadn't spent much time in the jumpers at all -- just relatively short trips from one place to another, generally with other things on her mind. It was shut down, of course, dark and quiet. The panels and crystals of its dashboard were faintly luminous in the light filtering in from the windshield.
Is it me? she thought unhappily. Maybe it was just a personality conflict. Maybe if she tried a little harder to make small talk with him? She'd tried to be polite to Rodney's friends; she liked Rodney's friends, including Sheppard. But of all of them, Sheppard was the one she didn't really know. Ronon was, well, Ronon, and she and Teyla had been friends for awhile now. But Sheppard ... she couldn't tell what he was thinking, behind his mask of a face. Sometimes he scared her a little. Maybe he knew that? Maybe he didn't like it?
Also, her dating experience was pretty limited, so maybe she'd made some faux pas already. She'd had one steady boyfriend in college, and two steady girlfriends, but her relationship with Rodney had already outlasted any of those. In fact ...
Good God, I'm in a serious relationship. Her knees went weak. Jennifer wasn't sure what, if anything she could safely lean on, so she sank onto the edge of one of the seats, clasping her hands between her knees, very carefully not touching anything.
Neither of them had brought up the possibility of moving in together, but in one or the other of their two sets of quarters, she'd been waking up with Rodney's tousled head next to hers more often than not. Jammed together on a too-narrow bed and yet somehow failing to annoy each other ... Is that what love means? she wondered. Casual words of love had come easily to both of them at the very beginning, but looking back on it, Jennifer thought that I love you was probably code in people-who-don't-have-much-dating-experience lingo for "I like you and want to get to know you better". Well, she knew him a lot better now and she still liked him. Was that love, then?
"I think you're in my chair."
Jennifer jumped and sprang up, almost falling on top of the dashboard but managing to catch herself at the last minute. Colonel Sheppard had come up behind her as silently as a cat. He was wearing aviator shades, and kitted out in tac vest and dark fatigues. He looked like a commando. She couldn't read his face at all; he might as well have been a statue.
"Sorry, sorry." She scrambled out of the way so that he could sit down. He just stood there for a moment, looking even more like a statue, then moved around her and took his seat.
Twisting his head back to look over his shoulder, he called into the back of the jumper, "Rodney, sometime today?"
"Because shouting at me makes me move faster," Rodney snapped from behind the pile of crates. Jennifer wondered if it was her imagination that there seemed to be more of an edge to it than in the usual friendly barbs that he shot at Sheppard. There was definitely no doubt that he was stiffer around Sheppard lately. And she couldn't remember the last time that he'd gone off to spend an evening messing around with toy cars in the lower levels of Atlantis. She wasn't exactly tracking Rodney's every movement and didn't think he'd appreciate her trying to micromanage his time, but she made a mental note to maybe nudge him to spend a little more time with the Colonel, if he wanted to.
Rodney bustled up to the front of the jumper, started to take the shotgun seat and then paused and looked back at her. "Hey, you can see a lot better from up here. You want the good seat?"
Jennifer hesitated, looking at Sheppard's stiff shoulders and thinking about spending the whole flight sitting next to someone who obviously did not want much to do with her. But she was a big girl, and it wasn't like he'd pull out his gun and shoot her or anything. She hoped. "Yeah. Sure."
She and Rodney traded places. She couldn't help sneaking a peek at Sheppard. He was doing some kind of pre-flight thing, but she'd spent enough time watching Rodney pretend to be busy to avoid "stupid" questions to know what it looked like. From this angle, the sunglasses didn't completely obscure his eyes, but all she could see was that he looked distracted and tired.
For a moment, Jennifer wondered if maybe she ought to suddenly "remember" an appointment in the city. Let the boys work out their problems, she thought. She'd just been thinking that some time alone together would be good for them, after all. And this might be a good opportunity.
But damn it, she hardly ever got to go anywhere and she wanted to see this really cool reef that Wong Xiaopeng, one of the oceanographers, had told her about. And it would be stupid to miss out on a fun little trip out of the city just because two forty-year-old men were acting like middle-school boys.
Perhaps spending time together would be good for all three of them. They'd either work out whatever was causing the rift or kill each other trying.
A chill passed over her. She really wished she hadn't had that thought.
As the jumper rose out of the launching tower, Rodney hunched over his computer and finished composing an email to Coleman explaining what was wrong, wrong, wrong with her plan for optimizing the city's diagnostic functions.
The glittering sea of New Lantea spread out to the horizon beneath them, brilliant under the midday sun. Rodney squinted at it past Jennifer's shoulder. How could Ronon and Teyla stand riding back here? You couldn't see a damned thing. He hoped his chivalrous sacrifice had been appreciated.
Seeing Jennifer's head swiveling as she took in the view made him soften a little. As the jumper rose above the sea, she gave a gasp of delight and pointed. "Look, dolphins! Or ... something like it," she added more softly, glancing a bit shyly in John's direction.
"Really?" Rodney stood, setting his computer in the empty seat, and gripped her seat back so that he could see out. Small white shapes broke the gleaming surface of the water, faintly visible beneath a fine patchwork of altocumulus clouds. The jumper was very high now, so whatever it was down there had to be huge. Whales, maybe? Did this world have them too -- Sam's very distant cousins? "Hey, Sheppard, take us down a little."
John didn't say anything, but he maneuvered the jumper lower. Getting a better look, Rodney saw that the animals were more like manta rays: flat creatures with fins or wings spread out to either side, breaking the surface and then diving back in.
Rodney realized that he was grinning. He glanced sideways at John, and saw that the corners of John's mouth had relaxed and even curved up a bit. Jennifer was laughing and leaning forward over the jumper's instrument panel.
John circled the jumper back around. The alien mantas were even bigger than Rodney had realized -- some of them had to be a hundred meters long. John dipped the jumper down and and then up, mimicking the darning-needle rise and fall of the creatures' huge, rippling bodies as they leapt in and out of the sea. With the inertial dampeners on, there was no nausea-inducing sense of motion, just breathless exhilaration. For a few minutes they danced with the aliens, and then John pulled the jumper up into the brilliant sky.
Rodney glanced at John, and saw John grinning back at him. Jennifer gripped his hand, too breathless from laughter to speak. And for that moment, it was good -- he was happy, and they were happy, and there was a shared euphoria in the jumper's cabin that lasted as they climbed through the ceiling of scattered clouds towards the upper atmosphere.
Sinking back into his seat and trying to take a more practical and professional tone than Alien sea life! Whee!, Rodney said, "You think they're any threat to the city?"
"I doubt it," John said, his voice lighter than Rodney had heard it in awhile. "If they do try anything, we can just hit them with a drone or two."
"Well, that's the typical military solution, isn't it?" Rodney scoffed, just as Jennifer gave a shocked gasp and a horrified, "Oh my God, ew."
And just like that, the tension was back, a ten-ton weight pressing down on them and smothering any further attempt at conversation. The luminous horizon of the planet rolled beneath them as John circled at orbital level and sought the point to dive back down and take them to the research facility.
No one said anything until they broke through a cloud layer over the world's night side -- heavy clouds, on this side of the planet, burying the dark ocean in a soft cotton fist. The first person to break the silence was Jennifer, who drew a breath as if she had to steady herself and then said in a brightly cheerful tone with a note of grim determination underneath, "So! Colonel! What do you, uh, what flavor of cake is your favorite?"
There was a moment's startled silence, and John said, somewhat nervously, "Why?"
Rodney saw Jennifer's shoulders hunch up. "Oh, ah, I guess we work together and you're Rodney's friend and all, so I thought I ought to get to know you better?" Injecting a brittle modicum of cheer, she added, "Mine's German chocolate."
Rodney clenched his teeth. He couldn't just leave her hanging out there by herself, but any and all species of cake seemed to have deserted him. Finally he managed to think of one. "Ice cream cake," he burst out, causing both of the others to jump and glance back at him. Rodney stared stubbornly straight ahead, at the jumper's running lights casting a moonpath on the dark water in front of them.
"That's not a flavor," John said. There was some irritation in his voice but, mostly, amusement ... at Rodney's expense. Well, a snarky John was better than a sulking John.
"Yes it is," Rodney shot back. Sometimes you just had to keep going, even if your argument made no sense. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! he thought.
"Ice cream cake is awfully tasty," Jennifer said, still in that same brittle, bright tone. The smile on her face -- the side of her face towards Rodney, at least -- looked more like a frozen rictus; apparently she, too, had decided that the only way out of this conversation was straight ahead and through.
John didn't move for a moment, then gave his head a sharp shake like a dog with a flea in its ear, and brought up the HUD. "Looks like we're there; I'm taking her down. Ready for submersion."
Water lapped over the jumper's forward screen. Rodney's hands locked into fists, the blunt nails digging into his palm; he forced them to uncurl. That initial moment never seemed to get any easier.
"So," Jennifer said after a moment, and Rodney closed his eyes in despair -- Please, not cake again; just shoot me now. There were definite advantages to having a girlfriend whose social skills were in some ways almost as bad as his own -- namely, she seemed to understand and sympathize when he stuck his foot in his mouth up to the knee -- but then, there was the obvious disadvantage, too.
But at least this time, it wasn't cake. "The ocean on this planet is a lot shallower than Atlantis's last planet, isn't it?" Jennifer said. "I think I remember that from one of the briefings."
Now give her a polite answer, damn it, Sheppard, Rodney thought, glaring at the back of John's head, and for once, John obliged him. "Yeah; I couldn't give you average depth and all of that, but the research station is about a thousand feet down -- actually more like nine hundred -- and it doesn't get much deeper than that. Definitely within the jumper's tolerances."
The jumper's hull picked that moment to groan ominously. "Can we not talk about this particular subject right now?" Rodney said loudly.
Jennifer twisted around in her seat. Rodney saw her mouth open, the honestly baffled look on her face before the realization hit and her mouth rounded in an "O".
But, of course, she hadn't been on Atlantis when the jumper had gone down. She didn't go ahead and ask, so she must have read about it in his medical file or heard from someone else, because he was pretty sure they hadn't discussed it. It wasn't exactly a day in his life he enjoyed reliving ... especially not in realtime, with all the special effects. His mouth had gone dry and he could feel that a cold sweat had broken out on his back, prickling under his uniform.
"There's the reef," John said, and Rodney sighed in relief.
The jumper's light swept over a wall of brilliant white coral. Rodney's breath caught. He vaguely remembered from the oceanography department's reports -- inasmuch as he'd paid attention to them beyond rubber-stamping their request for a research station -- that the reef was over three thousand kilometers long and a couple hundred meters high. It certainly loomed over the jumper, rising above them and falling away into the gloom; in the darkness, with no other reference points, it seemed like the only thing in the world. The shadows from the jumper's light, rippling across whorls and encrustations considerably larger than the jumper itself, made it look as if it was moving.
"Station should be around here somewhere," John said. "We're right on top of it."
The seafloor was intermittently visible below them, appearing and vanishing in the darkness. The inexorable march of the coral was visible in places, creeping across the ridge of bedrock that -- according to the oceanographers -- made this particular place a good stable location for the reef to grow for the last hundred millennia.
"You've been here before, Rodney, right?" John said, flicking a glance over his shoulder.
"Not very often." The accidental discovery that some of Atlantis's individual wings and labs were detachable and submersible had led to the idea, a couple of years ago, of dropping some of them to the ocean floor for research purposes, but they'd had no good way to move or retrieve them. On the return flight from Earth, the oceanographers and marine biologists had talked Rodney into approving a couple of drops before they landed the city -- one at the reef, another near one of the poles. The polar station hadn't survived its landing, but the reef station had landed intact and had been made into a comfortable little dwelling area over the weeks they'd been back on New Lantea. Rodney had flown out a couple of times to make sure all the ATA equipment was initialized and to reassure himself that they weren't just growing hydroponic marijuana and having orgies on the IOA's dime. Not that he really cared as long as they also took ocean samples, but there were reports to be filed. Also, it was pretty cool down there, not that he'd admit it --in spite of the bad memories conjured up by the descent.
"We're probably close enough to reach them by radio." John leaned over for the radio toggle. One problem with the research station was that interference from the water, as well as the small matter of being on the other side of the planet, meant that the researchers were cut off from contact except via puddlejumper. They kept asking for a subspace transmitter, but Rodney thought that was a bit extravagant for a department studying jellyfish and seaquakes.
"Research Base Nautilus --" Rodney was not responsible for the name "-- this is Jumper One. You guys down there? We've got your supplies. Jumper One to Nautilus, come in." John looked over his shoulder at Rodney, shrugged and tried again. "Jumper One to Nautilus, come in."
Nothing answered but static. A cold ripple of fear curled in Rodney's stomach. Couldn't the Pegasus Galaxy give them a break just once? "Are you sure we're in the right place? Maybe we're at the wrong part of the reef."
He could almost hear John rolling his eyes, but the HUD came up again. "There," John said, pointing. "That's us. This ..." Another dot popped up, no doubt at a mental command; it was overlapping the other dot. "That's their coordinates. We should be practically sitting on them."
"Uh, guys," Jennifer said in a small voice. She was pointing through the glowing lines of the heads-up display to something beyond it. "What's that?"
John carefully maneuvered the jumper down to hover above the coral formation that Keller had pointed out. Yeah ... the reef might be lumpy and irregular, but that was a suspiciously angular section sticking off it, all right. As the jumper's light strobed across it, occasional glimmers of glass or plastic were visible.
"It's buried in the reef," Rodney said in disbelief. "No way."
"Yes way," John said absently -- hey, he'd grown up with a sibling; some habits were too deeply ingrained to break. He flew across the lumpy formation and then made a big loop to come back and hover over it. Seeing it from different angles, there was no doubt: the reef, like a giant calciferous amoeba, had engulfed the research station.
John cleared his throat. "So. Blow a hole in the side, or see if we can dock with it?"
"You want to go in?" Rodney's voice rose into his high, squeaky, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me register.
Keller's hand shot up in the air. "All in favor of going back to the surface and calling Atlantis?"
"Me!" Rodney said. "Two to one, Colonel; you're outvoted."
"This isn't a democracy," John retorted, disgruntled. Much as he hated to admit it, though, they had a point. He'd scheduled four hours for the trip, just to account for any unforeseen difficulties in loading specimens (there was no telling what the scientists would want to take back; last time Lorne had told him they'd tried to stuff a giant squid into the cargo hold). So if they got in trouble down here, it'd be a while before Atlantis sent anyone out to see what was going on. At the very least they needed to alert home base that there was a problem before going in.
"Seriously, we'd be total idiots to --"
"I'm going up, Rodney," John said shortly, and of course, because the Pegasus Galaxy hated them, the jumper picked that moment to give a tremendous jolt and shudder, and listed to one side.
"Oh god, now what?" Keller clutched at her seat.
John found himself fighting with the controls. Damage reports flashed on the screen, flickering off and on, as he tried to figure out what was happening and avoid slamming into the wall of coral that veered in and out of his field of view. Whatever had hit them, it'd taken out one of the drive pods -- he didn't know if it was completely gone or just not responding, but in any case, the jumper kept trying to go in circles. They were losing altitude, sinking towards the coral-covered seafloor.
"Oh shit," Rodney said, and John glanced over his shoulder at him, because that wasn't a What the hell happened? sort of oh shit, but rather, I know what happened and it isn't good.
Most of the jumper's interior lights had died, leaving a cold glow from the instrument panel that made Rodney's face look gray. "I think that was the spear launcher."
"We had to give them something to defend themselves!" Rodney protested. "You saw the size of those manta things. There's some really huge fauna down here. It was just in case something came nosing around --"
"You built a harpoon gun capable of taking out the drive pod on a jumper?" He could feel sweat breaking out across his back as he wrestled with the controls. He heard Rodney start to answer, and interrupted. "Never mind! Just -- fix it! Get me power!"
And if Rodney was right, then someone inside the facility had shot them -- which could be good (because it meant there was someone still alive and functional inside) or very bad (because shooting at jumpers when they showed up to rescue you wasn't a good sign).
"Move," Rodney told Keller, and, as she started to stand, wrenched her unceremoniously out of the way in typical "manhandling the minions" style; he slid into her seat so that he could reach the jumper's dashboard ports with his laptop leads. The wall of coral veered past the forward port again, just as Rodney raised his head from the computer. "Sheppard!"
"I know! Shut up!"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Keller clinging to the back of Rodney's chair, trying to keep her feet in the shuddering jumper. "Can -- can I help?"
"Just sit!" John barked. Trying to control the jumper was a nightmare; with one pod inactive, he had to fire the other in short, directed bursts, like trying to keep a canoe straight with one paddle on one side of the boat. The only silver lining was the way the water buoyed them up; they were still sinking, of course, but in the air they'd be dropping like a brick. "Rodney! Can we get shields? Anything?"
"Working! Not helping!"
Their one working drive pod clipped the coral; the jumper teetered wildly. The inertial dampeners had gone out along with almost every other non-essential system. John heard the scrape and crunch of the crates shifting in the back. The jumper swung around and smacked the wall of coral headfirst. Something went crunch, and an explosion of sparks blew from one of the conduits overhead.
"Sheppard," Rodney said in a small voice of utter horror. A crack had sprung into existence at the edge of the forward viewing port, a small silver line in the barrier between life and death.
"Get in the back," John said. He felt oddly calm, almost like he was floating -- the feeling of choices narrowing, telescoping down until there was only one thing left to do. "You too, Doc. Shut the door. If this goes, you should be fine 'til Atlantis sends another jumper. I'll see if I can land this thing."
"No," Rodney said. In the glimpse of him that John could spare, he saw Rodney's eyes round as saucers, his face white. "No, no, no. That's what Griffin -- No. I'm staying here. Jennifer, get in the back and close the --"
"No," Keller said, in a voice made breathless by fear, and reached forward to grip Rodney's arm.
"What's your plan, Sheppard?" Rodney yelled at him. "Sit here 'til you drown?"
"Docking with the station, if I can," John said between his teeth, wrestling the jumper straight as it tried to go into a spin.
"You can't! There's nothing to dock with! It's all covered --"
"Busy here, Rodney!" The little silvery crack had brought along its buddies; the corner of the windshield was webbed with them now. "Get in the fucking cargo bay! That's an order! You're just distracting me, damn it!"
He could do it; he could, he had to, because there was no other way. If he left the cockpit, the uncontrolled jumper would rip itself open on the coral and and everyone would die for sure, but he didn't have time or attention to try to explain that to Rodney. One of the drone bays was still active. He'd blow the coral off the docking area, wedge the jumper in. All he had to do was line it up --
With a loud, terrible snap like a small-caliber gunshot, the crack lengthened across the entire windshield.
"You know what? This -- this -- you remember that story you told me about pilots who don't bail out and keep trying to fix their planes until they -- Well, that's what this is!"
Focused on the controls, John had tuned out Rodney's high, panicked babbling until big square hands laid on his arm and he was wrenched backwards. The nose of the jumper kicked up. For a moment, they were pointed at the surface, almost a thousand feet above them. The jumper began to roll, going over with slow, inexorable grace.
"Jennifer, help me!" More hands on John's other arm, and it was too damn much, because they were falling, falling over backwards, the whole jumper rolling towards an impact that would shatter it, and the damned civilians were going to get them all killed.
John lashed out, clipped someone with a glancing blow, heard a yelp. If he could just get back to the controls, there was still time -- Then the jumper turned end over end, a slow underwater ballet, and gravity got hold of them all, sent them tumbling in a mess of knees and feet and elbows, landing with a bruising impact on top of the pile of crates. Raising his head, John saw Rodney for a moment, struggling to stand up, silhouetted against the light of the dashboard controls. The windshield was a solid web of cracks now. If John had had a gun in his hand, right at that moment he'd have shot him -- in the kneecap, at least. Then Rodney slapped the bulkhead door controls and the door slid shut, plunging them into utter blackness.
John knotted his fists in the cargo netting as gravity shifted nauseatingly around him. Someone or something tumbled across his legs, leaving a white-hot explosion of pain in its wake. Somebody yelled, though John didn't think it was him. He felt the jumper bounce off an obstacle, felt the shriek of tearing metal like a ripping sensation through his whole body.
With a final crunch, they stopped rolling.
John didn't move for a moment. He was dangling, his arms locked into the cargo netting and his feet shoved through it and braced against the crates, his head swinging free. His left leg -- the same one Ronon had done a number on yesterday -- hurt like fuck. He could feel his hair brushing against something else, possibly the ceiling if his internal orientation was correct. He was pretty sure they were upside down, but in the utter, oppressive blackness, it was hard to tell. Water dripped on the side of his face. He licked it and tasted salt. There was a small feminine cough in the darkness, and some rustling noises. Rodney cursed and then there was silence for a moment.
Light flickered suddenly -- flat blue light. "Old trick I learned," Rodney said from somewhere out of sight, in a small, shaky voice.
John slowly oriented himself on the shapes around him. He'd been right; the jumper was upside down, and also canted at a steep angle. The crates filled most of the available space. John let himself slide down gently onto the ceiling -- ow, ow, ow -- avoiding a couple of equipment cases that had come undone in all the shaking around. The forward bulkhead door was above him, buckled slightly inward. Water glistened along the seam and a wet spot was spreading down the ceiling. Okay, that can't be good.
The light came from the other side of the pile of crates, which -- thank God -- seemed to be holding steady in the cargo netting for the time being. John could hear Rodney and Keller's voices; he couldn't make out what they were saying, except for the point when Rodney's voice rose in a sharp "Ow!" and Keller said, "Sorry, sorry!"
"Everybody okay?" John called.
After a brief silence, Rodney snapped, "No! My arm is broken!"
Keller cleared her throat and said, a bit diffidently, "Colonel, could you get my medical kit, please? I think it's over where you are. At least, it used to be. Nothing's in the same place now."
John found the case in the mess around him. The puddle under (above?) the door had grown noticeably. He stuck both his legs straight out in front of him, using the uninjured one to brace the other, and slid under the crates dangling from what used to be the floor but had become the ceiling. He tried not to think about the netting giving way.
There was a little more space on the other side, in front of the jumper's hatch. Rodney had his computer in his lap; it was, of course, the source of the glow. Naturally he'd rescued the laptop. John wasn't even surprised. Rodney looked pale and drawn; his right arm was cradled against his chest while he attempted to type clumsily with his left.
There was more water down here, a small puddle collecting against the ramp door. John tried not to think about the implications of that.
"Med kit," John said.
Keller rose stiffly from where she'd been crouched next to Rodney, favoring her right side. As he handed her the kit, he saw a bruise purpling on her cheek. "Looks like you caught your face on something, Doc," he said, trying for levity that he didn't feel.
She looked away. "Your fist."
Oh. John had grown up believing very firmly that you weren't supposed to hit girls; apparently five years of sparring with Teyla hadn't quite beaten it out of him. Of course, rather than an apology, what emerged was: "I thought you were Rodney."
"Oh, because that's so much better," Rodney said darkly.
For a moment or two, all three of them just stared at each other, pallid and monochrome in the laptop's glow. Eventually Keller opened the medical case, propping it up against Rodney's thigh, and lowered herself painfully back to an awkward crouching position. "Rodney, let me see that. I can't wrap it if I can't see it."
Rodney uncurled reluctantly. "Whatever you did before? Don't do it again." As she leaned to pick up a roll of bandages from the med kit, Keller sucked in her breath, and Rodney added anxiously, "Are you sure you're just bruised? What if you have a punctured lung?"
"I'm the doctor here, aren't I? It hurts like a, um, really painful thing, but it's not dangerous, I don't think." Over her shoulder she said to John, "Are -- are you hurt, Colonel?"
"Knee's messed up." He'd been surreptitiously probing at it, trying to figure out just what exactly was messed up. The whole knee area was a hot ball of pain. He wasn't even sure if he could walk on it.
"Nice," Rodney said over the top of Keller's head. "Next time, let's try to land the jumper without rolling it down the hill."
On some level, John knew that it was just Rodney being Rodney -- scared, hurting, and reacting the only way he knew how. There were times when John would have just served back the volley and kept going. But he was in a hell of a lot of pain himself, and did Rodney really have the nerve to go there, after blatantly disobeying a direct order? "I was trying to land it, McKay! You don't pull a pilot away from the controls, ever."
His voice was low and dangerous even to his own ears, but so was Rodney's. "I do when said pilot is trying to run a suicide mission for no reason."
"You call trying to save your life and hers 'no reason'?"
"I do when you're -- ow! Jennifer!"
"Sorry," Keller said, not sounding sorry. John was pretty sure she'd given Rodney's bandage that last yank on purpose. His lower arm was now splinted and wrapped.
"Medical license from Cracker Jacks," Rodney muttered, but the corner of his mouth twisted in something that was almost a grin, and Keller had a quirky smile on her face when she cuffed the shoulder of his good arm. It was obviously a private joke, and that pissed John off even more. The last thing they needed in this situation was a pissy pilot, so he bit his lip hard enough to taste blood -- or maybe he'd split it in their tumble. "That water's getting deeper," was all he said.
Rodney struggled to his feet, with a little help from Keller. "Thank you for that succinct statement of the obvious." His look promised This isn't over. "I have, as you know, dealt with this sort of situation before, which I am attempting not to dwell on, but at least it makes solving the problems easier. Since we're not drowning already, the water must be coming in through microfractures in the hull, and the only thing to do is to crank up the pressure in here to keep the water out -- which means we need power. I need to get hooked into the conduits ..."
Still muttering to himself, interrupted by an occasional "ouch!" when he forgot and tried to lean his weight on his injured arm, he clambered around the other side of the crates, leaving John and Keller in near-darkness.
John leaned over to dig some flashlights out of the emergency gear strapped to the ceiling cargo units. He tossed one to Keller. It sailed past her head and splashed in the water.
"Sorry," Keller said. "I'm not good at catch." She bent over with a grunt of pain and picked it up, then just stood holding it. For a moment the two of them stared at each other. She had a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look, and the bruise on her cheek was deepening to a rich purple.
Frustration wrestled with guilt. John couldn't figure out if he owed them an apology or if they owed him one. Both, probably, he thought, but damned if he was going to be the one to make the first move when Rodney didn't even trust him to fly the fucking jumper.
Finally, Keller said, "So, how about that knee?"
Jennifer's ribs still hurt like hell when she breathed or bent over, but as she'd said to Rodney, she was pretty sure it was just bruising. Almost sure. Nearly, very nearly a hundred percent sure. The pain wasn't sharp or stabbing or sudden, just annoying, and she was definitely going to be feeling it for a few days at least.
Sheppard watched her while she cut his BDUs away from his knee, which was already starting to swell. His eyes were dark and closed off, and she couldn't read his expression at all, so she just kept her head down and focused on the injury.
"Is McKay all right?" he asked, and she glanced up at him, but his face remained unreadable.
"It's a clean break of the lower ulna. As long as he doesn't do anything careless, it ought to heal up fine. As for you ..." She prodded delicately at the purpling, deformed joint. "You definitely overextended the joint when you fell, Colonel, and your kneecap's dislocated. I'm going to relocate it for you. It'll hurt, but it'll hurt a lot less now than if I wait 'til things have a chance to swell up. Please try to relax. I'm going to give you a little shot to relax the traumatized muscles ..."
She went ahead and talked through the procedure, as much for her own benefit as his. He gave a low, harsh groan as she repositioned the joint, and his hands locked into fists. On the other side of the crates, Rodney was muttering to himself; Jennifer realized that she found it a comfortable and soothing soundtrack, and fell silent while she bound the Colonel's knee and shook out a cold pack.
"I can't tell without getting you under a scanner if you'll need surgery, but it's definitely bruised and unhappy." She sighed, strapping the cold pack to his leg with a loop of the bandage. "I would tell you to stay off it and keep it elevated, but I know what the chances are, so just ... try not to put too much weight on it, okay? Don't do anything that hurts."
He didn't say anything, just took the Tylenol she gave him and then limped carefully around to join Rodney on the other side of the crates, hanging onto the cargo net rather than resting his weight on his leg. She could see that he was in pain, but she wasn't his mother, and she was in pain too.
Jennifer rested for a minute, sitting with her legs braced against the sloping floor and listening to Sheppard and Rodney's monosyllabic conversation from the other side of the crates -- mostly consisting of terse commands from Rodney for tools or more light with the flashlight, interspersed with short monologues that didn't seem to require a response. Sheppard said almost nothing.
There didn't seem to be anything she could do without getting in the way, and Jennifer was afraid to ask, afraid to push against the fragile truce. Instead she busied herself picking up items that had come loose and fallen out of the cargo containers. Her side ached and she could feel her eye puffing up a little; she touched her face where Sheppard had hit her.
Trying not to think about those last terrifying minutes just meant that it was all she could think about. What she really couldn't get out of her brain was John's single-minded focus, the scary intensity with which he'd been glued to the controls. If we hadn't dragged him away, he really would have stayed there until the windshield broke, wouldn't he?
And maybe he could have docked the jumper, like he said. Rodney certainly seemed to think not, but the Colonel was the expert, wasn't he? Maybe Rodney was wrong; maybe they were in this situation because Rodney hadn't let Sheppard get them out of it.
Jennifer got the jumper restored to order and then, thinking about it, dug into the emergency gear to see what was there. What they really needed was SCUBA gear, but shockingly enough, it didn't seem to be included. There was a life raft, for all the good that would do them under a thousand feet of water.
She found some backpacks, so she laid them out and began parceling out emergency supplies between the three of them, just in case. The medical stuff would go in her pack, of course --
Something clunked loudly on the jumper's hull, and the whole ship shuddered. Jennifer dropped the bottle of Betadine in her hand; it fell with a plop into the puddle, which she couldn't help noticing was over a foot deep now, gleaming in the flashlight's beam.
There was more clunking, and the jumper shuddered again. Sheppard said on the radio, "Wong, Zawadzki, Dixon -- that had better be you guys."
There was no answer, but the jumper jolted and lurched and suddenly toppled forward, flattening out. Jennifer fell, cracking her chin on a tool case. Ow. Just great, another bruise for her collection.
She got to her feet, clinging to the cargo netting as the jumper continued to jerk and sway, and stumbled around to the other side. Rodney had a mess of conduits and crystals dragged out and spread all over the place, tangled up and rearranged now that the jumper had reoriented itself. "Damn it, Sheppard, don't step there!" he was saying as she caught sight of them.
"I think we're being dragged," Sheppard said instead of answering. A P90 had materialized in his hands; he must've got it out of the storage containers.
"Grapples. The station has grapples for hauling in large specimens. That must be what's got us." Rodney grabbed hold of the cargo net with his good hand, then looked up and saw Jennifer. She would, she thought, probably always be a sucker for the way his face softened whenever he looked at her. Rodney wore his heart on his sleeve. It was one of the first things she'd noticed about him, though it had been awhile before she'd come to see it as a virtue and eventually one of the things she loved most.
Sheppard was scowling at him now, though Rodney didn't seem to notice; with his arm hooked into the netting to the elbow, he'd clumsily manhandled the laptop so that he could hunt and peck carefully with the tips of his injured arm's fingers. His face was firm and intent, focused on the computer with single-minded purpose. Jennifer pulled herself to them hand-over-hand on the nets, and tried to ignore the way that Sheppard looked at her before covering with his usual laid-back flyboy face. He really doesn't like me. What did I do?
"Yes!" Rodney crowed, just as the jumper powered up with a soft hum. The lights came on, causing shadows to dance crazily through the cargo bay as the jumper swayed and jerked in its progress towards wherever it was being taken.
"Can you break us free?" Sheppard said.
"Break free? What if this is us being rescued? Do you really want to fly back to Atlantis with only one drive pod?"
"So why can't we raise them on the radio?" Sheppard demanded, and tried again. "Nautilus, this is Jumper 1 ..."
The jumper jolted once more and then stopped moving.
"Wong, Zawadzki, damn it, come in; Lieutenant Dixon, that's an order, soldier," Sheppard snarled into the radio, and clenched one hand on the P90 briefly into a fist. He leaned on the wall to take the weight off his bad leg. Jennifer bit back on the urge to tell him to sit down; she doubted it would be taken well.
Something banged into the jumper's hatch.
Jennifer flinched violently.
The banging came again, several times at regular intervals. "That -- sounds like a person out there," Rodney said. His face was pasty. He glanced quickly, helplessly at Sheppard. Jennifer saw Sheppard start to move a hand in Rodney's direction, but it fell back to rest on top of his gun. Rodney looked like he needed something, though, so Jennifer sidled in his direction until she could slip a hand gently onto the shoulder of his injured arm.
"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Are we still under a thousand feet of water?"
"I -- of course we --" Rodney turned his attention to his laptop again, while whatever was knocking on the jumper did it one more time before falling silent. Raising his head, Rodney said, "Okay, either the censors are malfunctioning or there's breathable air out there."
Sheppard stared at him. "Which, Rodney? Because there's kind of a crucial difference!"
"I don't know, Colonel, because all the instruments that I could use to tell for sure are completely inaccessible at the moment! But I do know what this says!" Rodney held up the tablet one-handed and waved it around. "See? Air. We're in some kind of large open space full of air. I would say we're inside the research facility if it were possible, which, oh wait, it is."
The banging seemed to have stopped entirely. Jennifer realized that her whole body had gone tense, waiting for it. She moved a little closer to Rodney.
"No one opens that hatch," Sheppard said.
"So we just sit inside here waiting for rescue while our rescuers stand around outside, chatting about what a bunch of paranoid idiots we are?"
"Live paranoid idiots," Sheppard said, "and yes. I want to make definite contact with whoever or whatever is out there before we go opening any doors to it."
Jennifer thought that actually sounded pretty smart to her, but she wasn't about to open her mouth and take sides in the middle of this, especially when she felt Rodney bristle against her.
"This is payback for the suicide run thing earlier, isn't it? You just can't handle that I was right and you were wrong and I saved your life over your objections, so now you're going to overrule anything I say, even if it means sitting wet and miserable in the jumper for hours until we figure out what the problem with the radio is."
Sheppard's face was drawn and gray. The Tylenol didn't seem to be doing much, but then, Jennifer had no doubt he'd spent the whole time standing on his injured leg. "You're not stupid, Rodney, and I know you're not stupid -- so sit down!" he barked, as Rodney made a move towards the back of the jumper. Rodney, startled, went down by pure reflex, dragging Jennifer with him. "Are you really willing to risk our lives in order to be right?"
"That's not what this is about," Rodney said sullenly.
"Then act like a grown-up and stay there."
"What is your problem?" Rodney demanded, glowering up at Sheppard from the floor. Jennifer sat in a frozen huddle, trying to be small and overlooked, while their anger electrified the air around her. "You've been a complete asshole for months! You're avoiding me, you're avoiding Teyla, you hardly say two words when we're out in the field except to give somebody an order -- I thought it was just Earth, but it hasn't gotten any better since we got back, and I know I'm bad with people -- and petty, and arrogant, et cetera -- but the thing I really want to know is --"
Jennifer never found out what Rodney wanted to know, because just then an eardrum-shattering WHOOMPH! shuddered the air around them. Sheppard was knocked onto his ass; he gave a harsh yelp of pain. Jennifer found herself on top of Rodney, who made small whimpering sounds beneath her. There was dust all over her clothes; the air was full of smoke.
Jennifer looked over her shoulder. The sliver of hatch that she could see past the crates was bent and twisted, with artificial light streaming past it.
"Ow, ow," Rodney whispered, and she rolled off him with a mumbled, "Sorry, sorry, sorry."
Rodney swallowed and pushed himself up with his good arm. "You okay?" he asked her. She nodded, and he turned to Sheppard, who was struggling painfully to his feet. "Look, Colonel," Rodney said in a ghost of his usual triumphant crow. "The hatch is open, and no drowning."
"Look, McKay," Sheppard retorted in the same singsong tone. "C4. A sign of friendly intent if I ever saw one. You two -- stay here."
He edged past them -- it was difficult in the narrow space -- and around the end of the pile of crates, P90 at the ready.
Damn Rodney anyway, John thought darkly. Trust him to pick the middle of a crisis to have some kind of emotional meltdown. Anger kept him on his feet and pushed the pain back to a hot knot at the edge of his awareness.
The jumper's ramp was a twisted mess, hanging half-open. Blue-white light streamed through the gap, the color of the lighting in Ancient labs the galaxy over.
And on the other side ...
"Zawadzki," John said warily. The marine scientist was standing about fifteen or twenty feet away -- a tall guy, with dark blond hair knotted back in a short ponytail. Even with the view partly obscured by the door and the dust still hanging in the air, John could see what he had in his hand: the military-issue M9 that all the civilians carried, pointed at John.
"Come out," the scientist said, his voice a low slurred monotone. He sounded drunk or maybe drugged. "Now."
John shifted the P90 so that it was plainly visible. "Don't think I want to do that. Sorry."
Zawadzki didn't say anything, just shot him.
It felt like being mule-kicked in the chest. John was already dropping and rolling; he slammed into the floor, counting shots in a kind of dazed calm: three, or was it four? ... a fifth pinged off the ramp before Zawadzki stopped firing. John didn't feel any pain, from either the fall or the shots, not with all this adrenaline pumping him up like speed in a junkie's veins. If he was lucky, the bullets had hit the vest; he'd have bruises but nothing worse. If he wasn't lucky ...
He heard Rodney's ragged shout of, "Sheppard!" and wanted to tell the idiot to shut up and stay hidden, but there was no air in his lungs and all he could do was lie on the floor for a few vital seconds, pressing his forehead to the cold deck plating, gulping helplessly for oxygen.
Rodney saw John go down like a ton of bricks, and for a minute he just couldn't believe it, couldn't make his brain function. That had been Zawadzki out there, hadn't it, so why? Something was wrong -- really, truly, badly wrong. And -- Sheppard.
He didn't have anything but his sidearm on him. He drew it anyway, very awkwardly with his left hand. All he could see from here were John's boots and his lower legs, but the boots were moving -- sort of feebly and uncoordinated, but moving. Rodney let out a breath and nudged Jennifer behind him as he stepped forward, his throat dry and tight.
"Rodney," Jennifer whispered in a high, scared voice.
"Shhh. Stay here." Because no way he was leaving John out there alone, possibly injured -- he refused to allow himself to contemplate other possibilities, but his brain went there anyway: dying, dead.
The jumper's twisted and broken ramp was too low to provide much cover (though it did seem to be blocking Zawadzki's line of fire on John where he lay on the floor; thank goodness for small favors) but high enough that getting in and out was going to be a bitch. Past the twisted metal, Rodney could see the interior of the research base's small jumper bay. It was big enough to accommodate two or three jumpers, or, more often, one jumper plus piles of crates containing supplies or specimens. Normally when one of Atlantis's supply runs came out here, there would be neatly organized crates and canisters stacked next to the big loading dolly. Instead, the bay was a mess -- crates scattered around, puddles, tangled messes of seaweed and the occasional small flopping fish. It looked like they'd brought the jumper in without waiting for the airlock to cycle fully. The automatic systems would have taken over at that point and pumped the water out.
Zawadzki was about five meters or so away from the jumper, making no apparent move to approach. He swung his weapon to point at Rodney's face; Rodney, swallowing, stopped in his tracks.
"You are Doctor McKay," Zawadzki said. His voice was flat, and weirdly slurred on the consonants. There appeared to be something on the back of his head, something light-colored, like the hood of a sweatshirt pushed slightly back, although he was wearing a normal science-division uniform. Whatever it was, it was visible when he moved. Rodney wished he could get a better look at it.
"And you're not Zawadzki," Rodney snapped. "What are you? Clone? Replicator? Doppelganger? Don't we have enough problems already?" He had to keep talking because if he didn't, then he'd have to think about the fact that John wasn't getting up, and a crazy person or possibly a homicidal alien entity had a gun pointed at him. His arm throbbed against his chest, a dull distracting pain.
"You will be very useful." It came out all one word, no breaks between; the slur was getting progressively worse. "Step out of the jumper and come with me."
Rodney swallowed again. "And if I don't?"
"You will still be useful dead." Still no inflection in that flat voice, still no expression on the face of the man holding the gun on him.
"Oh. Um. Since you ask so nicely." Stall, he thought; stall 'til Sheppard gets up and saves us all like he always does. Except that John still wasn't getting up. "What do you need me for?"
"Come out immediately or we will kill you and then make use of you."
Okay, that was all kinds of bad, and the implications of that we weren't pleasant either, since no one else was visible in the jumper bay. The slur was so bad now that Rodney was having a really hard time understanding him. "Um," Rodney said. Stall! his brain screamed at him.
And then a flurry of things happened all at once. Zawadzki's finger tightened on the trigger. Rodney had enough time to think I'm going to die, but his body wouldn't move -- he was frozen, staring down the barrel of the gun. Then something heavy slammed into him, smacking him into the side of the jumper; from the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of John coming up off the floor, gun swinging up, before the world whited out briefly in a blinding sheet of pain.
"Rodney -- Rodney!" Jennifer's voice was saying. Her warm body was the soft weight pressing him into the wall, and as he blinked sweat out of his eyes, he realized that he'd only lost a couple of seconds. His ears were still ringing from the deafening sound of the P90 being fired in this small enclosed space, though he couldn't consciously remember hearing the gunshots. His broken arm throbbed mercilessly.
John was more slumped against the wall than actually standing, but at least he was up. Smoke from the burst of P90 fire hung lazily in the air. And Zawadzki ...
... was still standing, despite the blood soaking his uniform. The trigger of the gun in his hand clicked without effect as he continued trying to fire at them. He must have emptied it; Rodney had a vague awareness of bullets pinging off the bulkhead around him when Jennifer had thrown herself into him.
He could see that John had gone for Zawadzki's legs first, then torso. The biologist's uniform hung in red tatters. But he hadn't fallen, even though his kneecaps had been chewed to meat.
Jennifer made a choked sound against Rodney's chest. He forced down a surge of nausea.
"Great," John said, his voice strained. "Zombies. The one thing we haven't had yet."
Realizing at last that the gun wasn't doing anything, Zawadzki -- or the thing that looked like him -- lowered it and started towards them, limping heavily on his damaged legs. His torso twisted with every labored step, which meant that Rodney got a much better look at the elusive flashes of white on the back of his head. It was coral, cupping the back of Zawadzki's skull.
John took careful aim and put a neat bullet hole in the middle of Zawadzki's forehead. This time Jennifer's choked sound was a little louder. The only effect, though, was that he fell to all fours, but continued to crawl towards them. The coral wasn't just on the back of his head, but all down his spine, on top of -- or burrowed into -- his uniform. Patches were visible on the backs of his thighs as well.
Oh God. Not good.
John reached up and slapped the release for the jumper's hatch. Nothing happened. "Push!" he barked at Rodney and Jennifer, and threw himself against it.
"You want it open?" Then Rodney realized what he was trying to do, and joined him in pushing at the hatch. With a shriek of tortured metal, it came free and fell on top of Zawadzki with a wet noise that Rodney knew he'd be hearing in his nightmares for months.
There was a short silence; then Rodney said, a bit shakily, "Okay, that was ... horrible."
Jennifer swallowed audibly, and pointed at one of Zawadzki's arms, poking out from under the hatch. It flopped feebly. "Um, he's still moving."
"I suggest getting the hell out of Dodge," John said. He leaned heavily on the wall, his face white. "How big is this facility, McKay?"
Rodney turned to answer and got a good look at the wet dark stain all down the side of John's uniform and leg. "Jesus, you're bleeding!" he blurted out instead.
"I noticed," John said dryly. "And once we're somewhere defensible, I really need to do something about it. But the jumper's not that place. I'm guessing you know the layout of this place a whole lot better than I do. Where can we go?" Each sentence was bitten out in a flat series of rapid words. Rodney knew him well enough to tell that he was feeling like warmed-over shit. And there was blood where he'd fallen on the jumper's deck, a lot of it.
Jennifer spoke up, faltering at first but with growing confidence. "Let me put a pressure bandage on it while we talk."
John cast a glance at the feebly flopping, but still trapped, Zawadzki-thing. Then he yielded to her ministrations, sliding down the wall until he was sitting on the jumper's deck. She unbuckled his vest and began to pull away his shirt. Rodney looked away and tried to concentrate on remembering the blueprints he and Zelenka had pored over when they had planned the separation of the research wing from the main part of Atlantis. "Uh. The facility. It's pretty big; it used to be a section of Atlantis, after all. There are three levels --" He looked back, saw red all over Jennifer's hands and hastily turned his attention to collecting his computer gear. "There's a control center on the third level; otherwise it's all labs, storage and personal quarters. Way more space than three people need, but we had to detach it in one piece." On his laptop, he pulled up the wireless connection to the research facility's mainframe. Since the power was on, hopefully the computers would be up too -- and they were. "Hang on, I'll get the schematics. Do you really think leaving the jumper is a good idea?"
"I can't see what good staying with it will do us right now. It's not watertight and it couldn't fly even if it was. And we can't shut the door. McKay ..." Reluctantly, Rodney dragged his eyes away from the screen, back to John's pale face. Despite his pallor and obvious weakness, John held Rodney's eyes with his own as he went on speaking, softly, urgently. "Find us a place we can defend."
Jennifer whistled softly between her teeth. "We need more than that. Colonel, it looks like at least two bullets hit your vest. You've been winged by another across the hip -- that's where most of the blood's coming from -- and ..." She tilted her blond head up to look at him. "Another one got you in the abdomen under the vest, and it's still in there. Slapping a bandage on it is a stopgap measure and nothing else. We have to get you into surgery. Rodney, are there medical facilities here?"
Rodney's mouth opened and closed a couple of times before his brain came back online. "Yes, yes. Second level, far side of the main research lab. It's not very well stocked, though. We didn't have anyone here who was trained in more than basic first aid anyway --"
"Rodney. Can I operate?"
"I think? I don't carry around every shipping manifest for every lab in Atlantis in my head!"
A damp-sounding rattling came from underneath the jumper's ramp, and it shifted slightly. "We can make plans somewhere else," John said. "I'm thinking the sooner we move, the better. If he's got buddies, we don't want to sit here waiting for them."
Jennifer, who had been wiping her hands on a towelette, gave the ramp a very uncomfortable look and then raised one hand to wave back into the jumper. "I started making packs earlier. Survival stuff. We, uh, got interrupted before I could finish."
The look that John gave her was thoughtful. Appraising. "Not a bad idea," he said. "Get 'em and let's get moving."
"Weapons?" Rodney said hopefully.
John shook his head. "Have to go through the crates to get to the rest of our ordnance, what little we brought. Take too long to get it out. Just grab the packs and go."
Jennifer squeezed into the jumper's cluttered interior. Rodney knelt next to John and showed him the screen. "Out the main door of the jumper bay, there's a set of stairs that goes up to the big lab above us. Medical section is behind that."
Up close, John looked even worse. His face was chalk-white and drawn, and when he reached for the computer screen to manipulate the view, his fingers trembled slightly. Rodney managed not to complain about the smear of blood that those long, slim fingers left across the glossy surface. John saw it, though, and winced; he tried to scrub it away with his thumb. "Sorry."
"It's not like it's never had blood on it before."
John's eyes dropped away. "Not about that," he said stiffly.
"What the hell are you apologizing for? I'm the one who --" Rodney broke off and cast a quick glance in Jennifer's direction, but she was still rummaging somewhere out of sight. This was about the closest to being alone that they were likely to get in the near future, and if John was about to -- well, clearly he was going to be fine, because he was John, but if ... "So," Rodney said quickly, before he could lose his nerve, "I guess you've kind of noticed I'm an asshole sometimes."
John was startled into a hoarse bark of laughter. "Only sometimes?"
"I hate you," Rodney said automatically, the urge to apologize deserting him. And then he stopped again, because he didn't mean it, of course, and John always knew that he didn't mean it, but ... what if he didn't know that anymore? "Sheppard," he said, and heard his voice crack a little in that way he hated so much.
John didn't speak, but after a moment he raised his eyes to Rodney's again. He looked tense, and painfully vulnerable, as well as deeply, achingly tired. While getting shot in the gut would probably do that to anyone, Rodney couldn't help thinking that the network of fine strain lines around his eyes wasn't new. John had been carrying the weight of the world -- or at least of Atlantis -- on his shoulders for a long time now.
Rodney floundered for words and, as usual, the slippery little bastards deserted him right when he needed them. Then Jennifer was back, carrying a pack in each hand. "I shifted stuff around," she said, handing one to Rodney. "I don't think the Colonel should be carrying anything."
Rodney's knees popped as he straightened up. With Jennifer's help he got the pack on -- they had to unbuckle and then rebuckle the right strap to get it past his sling -- and then, between the two of them, they got John on his feet. Even with an arm slung around Rodney's shoulders and his other side braced against Jennifer, he was so wobbly that he kept nearly overbalancing them. His free hand gripped the P90 so tightly that Rodney halfway expected him to leave prints in the metal.
Getting down the ramp was bad, partly because it kept wobbling but mostly because he knew what was under it. But crossing the floor was worse -- he felt horribly exposed, and he couldn't spare his one good hand to hold his gun, because he had to use it to hold up John. At least the jumper bay wasn't large.
Jennifer palmed open the door, and the three of them stared in shock and then horror at what was on the other side.
Coral. Pearlescent white and pale gray, choking the stairwell, climbing the walls in graceful drifts like a flood of soap bubbles frozen in place. There was no way through; the stairwell was completely blocked.
"Shit," John rasped.
"Coral doesn't grow that fast," Rodney protested weakly. "It just doesn't."
"Obviously it does here," Jennifer said. She looked across John at him, her eyes wide and blue. "What now?"
"There's more than one way in and out of this room. Zladowzki wasn't wet, so he must have come in somehow."
"Zawadzki," John murmured.
"Whatever!" Rodney closed his eyes; he'd put away the laptop in his pack, but he summoned up the schematic behind his closed lids. "There's a maintenance access door on the other side of the jumper."
They about-faced and made their way back towards the jumper, as fast as possible, which wasn't very fast. As they did so, the floor trembled slightly underneath them.
"Rodney," John said. "What's that?"
"I don't --" But then he did know, and he could feel the blood draining out of his face. "It's the airlock cycling."
"That's very very bad!"
The threat of imminent drowning was enough to urge all three of them into a stumbling run. At any other time it would have been funny in a stupid slapstick way, Rodney thought, like a three-legged race at a county fair. But there was nothing funny about this.
Jennifer palmed the controls for the maintenance door. Nothing happened. Underfoot, the steady trembling grew more pronounced.
"Oh, no no no." Unwinding his good arm from around John, Rodney yanked the cover off and pulled the middle crystal.
"It's locked. It's just locked. It'll be open in a minute," Rodney chanted, as much to convince himself as the others. He bridged the crystals and, wonder of wonders, the door slid back, revealing not a mass of coral but a narrow corridor. "Thank you!"
They hauled John through the doorway. Jennifer turned around and Rodney heard her gasp, "Oh my God!" above a sudden rumble growing quickly to a roar. Then the door slammed shut and left them in the harsh glare of the maintenance corridor lights.
They all leaned against the wall for a minute, getting their breath back. "Well, so much for that jumper," John said finally.
"It was already toast anyway." Rodney wet his dry lips. "I'm not thinking that was a coincidence."
"It does seem a bit ... convenient," John agreed, slumping into them; most of his weight was on Rodney now -- actually about two or three times what the man actually weighed, from the feel of it.
Rodney groaned. "So there's someone else still alive, or ... undead in here, and they just tried to drown us. Which means they're in the control room. Great."
"How much control do they have?"
"Effectively unlimited," Rodney said, letting his head drop back to thump against the wall. "Anything that we could do with Atlantis, they can do with this place. Well, except move it under its own power, which wouldn't have been possible even before it was covered with crystal. But if they know how to work the computers, then they can do anything else -- suck out all the air, drop the temperature to a hundred below zero, track us using the life signs readouts. Although ..." He tried to snap his fingers. "Ow. There's one thing that may work in our favor. No one here was -- is a computer scientist or engineer. There's two ocean biologists and one of your Marines. Unless whatever zombified Zladow -- Zawadzki knows more about computers than the staff did, they ought to be limited to the basic functions."
John's voice sounded noticeably weaker, and Jennifer frowned. "Let's move, shall we?" Rodney said, and they started the three-legged-race act again, making slow progress down the corridor. "Well, opening and closing the airlock, as we just saw. Basic temperature controls and sanitation. But there are failsafes to prevent anything dangerous -- turning the air temperature up to the boiling point of water, for example. It'd be pretty idiotic, even for the Ancients, if you could kill yourself by accidentally typing 300 into the temperature control box instead of 30, after all. You'd have to bypass the failsafes in order to make it do anything lethal that it isn't designed to do, and I doubt if Wong and Dixon know how."
"So if it's them up there, Rodney, what can they do?"
"Track our life signs, unfortunately. I think I may be able to prevent that, but I need to sit down with my computer somewhere in order to do it, so until we can stop, we'll have to put up with the knowledge that they know we're here. And they can lock the doors, which is probably what they tried to do back there, but I can bypass it pretty easily."
John cursed under his breath. "Rodney. Left top pocket of my vest. LSD. Shoulda thought of it sooner."
"Better late than never." They stopped for a moment while Jennifer fished it out and settled it into John's hand on top of the P90. The fact that John hadn't even tried to get it out himself wasn't lost on Rodney; it was probably taking all the strength he had just to keep himself upright.
The LSD showed no life signs other than their own, so they made their torturous way up a flight of metal stairs to the second level. The coral did show up, or at least there were amorphous patches of something that was probably the coral -- none near their location, thank God. What he wasn't seeing, though ... Rodney stopped in his tracks at the top of the stairs, causing the others to stumble.
"What now?" John mumbled. He sounded sleepy, which was probably a very bad sign.
Rodney freed his good arm again, and gently took the LSD from John's fingers, trying not to notice in the process how cold those fingers were. He expanded the search area just to make sure. "I'm not picking up life signs for Wong and Dixon. Or Zawadzki, for that matter. The only life signs in here are us, and the coral." He looked nervously at the top of John's bowed head. "I think Zawadzki was probably already dead when you shot him, Colonel."
John's only response to this was to sag into Rodney's shoulder a little bit more. Rodney couldn't tell if this was relief or resignation or just John coming to the end of his strength.
Jennifer spoke up; she'd been silent for so long that it was a little startling to hear her voice. "Which way?"
"Oh. Just a minute." The corridor at the top of the stairs ran both ways, curving gently. If he was remembering the diagram correctly, it would partially circle the second level and end near the back of the main lab. The other way dead-ended at a spot they'd had to seal up when they prepared the module to detach. "Right. I think."
"Correct me if I'm wrong here, Rodney," John slurred into his shoulder as they started walking again. "But if we aren't picking up life signs, then we don't have any way to check for zombies ahead, right?"
This time it was Jennifer's turn to stop in her tracks, while the others stumbled into her. "That's a really bad thought."
"But this is worse." Rodney, wincing, lifted his broken arm enough to nudge the LSD with his fingertips. "I'm seeing coral on the display ahead of us. A lot of coral."
Jennifer's face was white in the harsh lighting. "Keep going?"
"Do we have a choice?"
As they rounded the gentle curve of the corridor, Rodney's foreboding grew -- and his worst fears were confirmed when they hit another long straight stretch. At the far end, a frozen tide of coral surged from floor to ceiling. Investigative tendrils had crept along the walls, like ice creeping across a shallow puddle.
"The whole place is filling up with coral," Jennifer said, staring at it. "Or whatever it is."
Despite his pain and fear for John -- not to mention the rest of them -- Rodney's curiosity got the better of him. "Hold him for a minute," he said, and offloaded John onto Jennifer, then took the LSD and approached the coral.
"Be careful!" she called after him. "If it can control people's brains -- we don't know how fast it can move, or how it got Zawadzki."
"Oh please," Rodney shot over his shoulder. "I'm the soul of self-preservation; you know that." But he still had to force himself to approach the last few steps.
Up close, the LSD was able to discern subtle gradations in the overall diffuse glow of the coral on the small screen. Rodney had never seen anything register quite like it. On Earth, coral was formed from the shells of small organisms, but this had to be something quite different; he wished briefly that he'd bothered to read the biologists' enthusiastic reports. The patches of brighter and dimmer glow made him think of false-color infrared photos. Pursuing a hunch, he used the LSD to find an area of brighter glow, and looked closely at it, leaning in cautiously until his face was only a couple feet away.
This close, the thing had a smell, a faint musty odor, a little bit salty and a little reminiscent of mushrooms.
There was also a noise, a very slight crackling and popping. Rice Krispies, Rodney thought inanely. He squinted at it, then mentally marked a crack in the wall, closed his eyes briefly, and opened them again.
It was definitely moving. Not fast, but perceptibly.
Rodney beat a hasty retreat. "So, good and bad news," he said to Jennifer's expectant face. "Which do you want first?"
John stirred, raising his head. "Talk, McKay."
"Okay, right. The coral, or whatever it is -- it's moving. Growing."
"We knew that," John said with weary impatience.
"Yeah, but it's fast. So fast you can watch it, if you have the patience for it. Kind of like watching paint drying, which, by the way, I tried one time when I was a kid, and you actually can -- okay, I know, not the time, not the place. Anyway ..." He brandished the LSD. "I can tell where it's growing by the brighter and darker spots. It looks like some areas are active and others are inert. And ... here ..." He indicated a particularly bright spot, then another. "I think these might be Wong and Dixon, based on the fact that there are only two of them. This one here has definitely moved since I first noticed it. They're registering as coral, not human, but we can track them."
"And they can track us too," Jennifer said.
"Yeah, I'd really better do something about that." Rodney looked over his shoulder at the coral. He was pretty sure it wasn't going to surge, and even more sure that the LSD would alert him if it did, but having that at his back was creepier than he wanted to admit. He felt as if it was watching him. "Uh, since we can't get through that way, can we get away from it?"
"Gladly," Jennifer said with feeling.
John groaned as they began the trudge back up the corridor. "So, no infirmary."
"Not right now. I'm sorry, Colonel." Jennifer met Rodney's eyes over John's head. "Is there somewhere we could stop, Rodney?"
The idea of stopping in the middle of the corridor, exposed in both directions and with the coral crawling their way, didn't sound like a good idea. Rodney closed his eyes and summoned up the diagram again. "There are some closets and various access corridors branching off this one. I'm not sure ..." They passed the top of the stairway; Rodney tried not to imagine a zombie jumping out of the opening. "Okay. There."
This access corridor was just a short hallway connecting the main maintenance conduit with one of the minor labs, but there were doors on both ends and neither had coral behind it, according to the LSD. Rodney locked both doors and added his personal override code -- it was still possible to unlock it, but only one of the command staff or someone well versed in Ancient technology hacking could have done it. Then he helped Jennifer ease John to the floor.
"His color's really bad," Rodney said, touching John's cold face with the back of his hand. John's eyes were closed; he was breathing rapidly in short shallow gasps.
"If we were on Atlantis, I'd be rushing him into surgery right now," Jennifer said bitterly, opening her pack. "Hauling him all over creation is pretty much the worst thing for him, too. Rodney, we need options."
"Wait for help?" Rodney offered hopefully, attempting to work his way out of his pack one-handed. Eventually he got himself twisted far enough out of the straps that he could retrieve his tablet computer, which was what he needed.
John spoke in a low voice, without opening his eyes. "Same thing that happened to us'll happen to them, unless we can get a message to them. And they might not be as lucky as we were."
"This is lucky?" Rodney muttered, tapping into the wireless network.
"We're alive, aren't we?" Jennifer said, but her cheerfulness sounded forced.
Rodney entered his pass code. The computer network at the research station was just a smaller version of Atlantis's, which meant that he didn't need to hack in a back door; he could just march through the front door, because he had keys to everything in the place.
"Do you think they'll notice you doing that?" Jennifer asked, peeling back the blood-stiff shirt from John's side.
"Maybe, but it's not going to do them any good. Even if they realize I'm in here, which they might, I don't think they have the knowledge to be able to stop me."
Disabling life sign detection was a trivial matter of a few keystrokes. Locking them out of the system entirely, without also locking himself out, was going to take longer. After shutting down their access to the spear gun -- at least this way they couldn't capture any more jumpers, at least not easily -- Rodney pulled up the schematic of the whole station. He placed the LSD on his knee and compared the two, trying to figure out which areas were infested with coral. It wasn't easy -- the resolution on the LSD was terrible, and trying to make it work in three dimensions had always been difficult, so he basically had to make educated guesses about which levels the coral infestations were on. But, hello, genius. After ten minutes or so, he had at least a general idea of what shape they were in.
Bad shape. Very bad shape.
Speaking of which ... he looked over at Jennifer and her patient. John's face was beaded with sweat and knotted with pain. "How is he?" Rodney asked quietly.
"Conscious," John said, but he still didn't open his eyes, and his voice was a ghost of his usual drawl.
"I want to give him morphine, but I'm worried about his vitals crashing, not to mention the problem of moving him without a stretcher if he can't walk under his own power. And he needs an IV, and ... a lot of other stuff I don't have." Jennifer's shoulders slumped. "Good news?" she asked after a moment, gesturing at the computer.
God, did he ever wish he had good news. "I don't know. The main lab is pretty much taken over with coral. So is most of the third floor; it's possible that the reason why we haven't seen Wong and Dixon yet is because they're trapped in the control room. But a lot of the second floor, where we are, is still clear, and most of the first floor, as far as I can tell." He tapped the screen. "And we have this."
"And we have what?" Frustration and weariness made Jennifer's voice ragged.
"Uh, sorry. There's an emergency escape pod, one thing we made sure the station wouldn't be without. On the inside, at least, it looks like it's coral-free, and since the launch chute is on the ground floor, the way to it should be clear. No way to tell what's outside -- there's so much coral around us that I really can't distinguish one section from another. As much coral as there is on the outside of the station, it's possible that it's completely covered. But it may not be, and even if it is, we might be able to break through."
"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go!" Jennifer started to scramble to her feet.
Rodney caught at her leg. "Wait." He jerked his head at John. "Think about this for a minute. Think about what being in the pod is going to mean for us. We have to go down the stairs and across most of the length of the station in order to get to it, and if the jumper bay is still flooded, we'll need to detour around. It's going to be a long walk for J -- a long walk. And once we're there, we'll be stuck. When the pod launches, it'll head for the surface automatically, and there we'll sit until we miss our check-in and Atlantis sends a jumper. Inside, it's smaller than the cargo hold of the jumpers -- about the size of a minivan, if that."
Jennifer had gone still as he spoke; now she folded slowly back down. "But we're pretty close to the infirmary, right? Can we get to it?"
Rodney nodded slowly. "I think so. It's attached to the main lab, and the LSD's resolution is so terrible when it's zoomed out that I can't tell which of the many little rooms around the main lab are coral-free and which aren't. But the coral on this level is really patchy, and I think there's a good chance that we can get over to it. The only way to find out is to try, I guess."
"And if we do get there," she said, talking herself through it aloud, "we have no way of knowing what kind of surgical supplies they'll have."
"Er -- no. Short of going through every shipping manifest for everything we've hauled out here since we dropped the research station into the ocean." Rodney scowled at the screen. He knew that guilt was irrational under the circumstances, but still ... "The biology department handled the outfitting for the station. I have no idea what they've got. If it were offworld, I could pretty much guarantee that it would be outfitted with a basic surgical suite if at all possible, but on the same planet, with Atlantis just a short jumper ride away ... I have no idea."
Jennifer reached out and stroked Rodney's arm. "Even if it's not what I'm used to, I can pretty much guarantee it'll have better resources than I do here. At the very least, I can get an IV in him. That'll buy us some time."
"Assuming we can get there. Assuming we don't run into Wong and Dixon, and that prolonged exposure to the coral doesn't do to us what it did to Zawadzki." Rodney scrubbed his good hand over his face.
"Brain coral," Jennifer said.
Rodney lowered his hand from his face. "What?"
"It controls their brains, right? So I've been calling it brain coral in my head." Jennifer shrugged, and a small snorted giggle escaped her, half hysterical and half genuine. "We've got to call it something, after all."
"Brain coral. I like that," John said quietly.
"You would. Puddlejumpers. Honestly." Rodney raised his head. "Hey, you are awake."
John's head moved against the floor in a nod, and he opened his eyes a slit. "Yeah. I've been listening. I don't think trying for the infirmary is a good strategy. Escape pod's our best bet."
"Right, that sounds like something you'd say, so we'll take it under advisement and then forget it." Rodney was going for breezy, but desperation twisted his words and it came out bitter instead, even to his own ears.
John glared at him, as best he could while flat on his back. "I know you think this is some kind of martyr thing, Rodney, but I'm thinking rationally here. I know my own limits. I can barely move, sure as hell can't move fast, and running all over the station on the off chance that we might be able to find medical supplies is pretty much beyond me right now."
"He's right," Jennifer said.
"Why are you two suddenly teaming up against me? What is this -- you only get along when it's my ideas that are getting shot down?" Rodney stood up and began to pace; despite his weariness and the pain that the movement caused to his broken arm, he couldn't sit still -- his skin felt too tight to contain the thoughts and emotions churning inside him. "So, so, so -- I'll go. How about that? I'll go to the infirmary and see what it's got, and try to get an idea of whether or not we're going to be able to launch the pod. Then we can figure out which way to go."
John's face screwed up and he curled his fingers against the floor, pain visibly sweeping over him. "I don't like splitting up," he said after a long moment's silence, once his face had smoothed out again.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Rodney said. "You know I'm right. I'm way more mobile than you are. And it -- it's not like there's any serious danger, right? Wong and Dixon are trapped in the control room, and the coral moves so slowly that you could outrun it."
"You don't know any of that for sure," John said, his voice steady but so low it was barely audible. "It got Zawadzki somehow. I don't think he just lay down and let it grow over him like moss on Sleeping Beauty, do you?"
Jennifer's lips echoed an incredulous Moss on Sleeping Beauty?
Rodney gestured wildly with his good hand, feeling the other twitching painfully as it wanted to follow along. "Maybe he did, who knows? Maybe this incursion, whatever it is, happened at night. It's not like they would have posted a guard. Maybe by the time they knew what was happening, it was too late." He could feel himself about to burst from the certainty, the absolute rightness of his decision. Also, if he gave himself time to think, raw panic would come crawling up over his resolve, and he couldn't let it. "Look, in the time we've been arguing about this, I could've been all the way to the infirmary by now. Let me do it, all right?" He stopped pacing and knelt down by John's head in a quick motion. What he was about to say would bare him to the quick, and fury surged up in him -- at John, at the situation -- for forcing him to say it. "Let me save your life, you stupid, stubborn bastard. I'm not going back without you and you know it, John, so let me do the only thing that gives us half a chance of all getting home alive."
John looked up at him, eyes slitted half-shut and foggy with pain. But he was still doing that thing he did, that thing they did, where an entire conversation could go on without words. And finally he said, "You call me stubborn. Pot. Kettle. Doc, you have my sincerest condolences." His eyelids closed, and he murmured, "Radio check. Stay in touch."
Jennifer tapped her radio. Rodney jumped at the squawk of static in his ear. "Ow!"
"It works," Jennifer said unnecessarily.
"Gee, thanks. I think I'm deaf now." Rodney rubbed his ear and then gave John a quick, awkward pat on the shoulder before climbing back to his feet. "I'm going to lock the door, but you can override it with your command codes, either of you. I'll have my computer with me, but if you pull off the panel cover, you can tap out your code on the crystals in Ancient." He grinned briefly at their startled looks. "Yeah, we kinda -- just figured that out by accident a couple of weeks ago. Cool, huh?"
"P90," John mumbled. "Take it." He fumbled with the vest clip until Jennifer took it for him and clumsily helped Rodney clip it to his own vest.
"We've already seen how effective this is," Rodney retorted, but it did make him feel a little better to have it with him. Jennifer helped him take his pack off -- no point in hauling around the extra weight -- and slipped his laptop into the carrying case on his vest. Getting it out one-handed was going to be a bitch; this whole broken-arm thing really sucked.
Rodney checked the LSD. Nothing outside either door, and the coral didn't seem to have approached any closer, at least not noticeably. "Looks like the coast is clear. I'll check in every few minutes."
"If you find IV supplies, please bring some saline back with you?" Jennifer said. She was still fussing with his laptop, settling it more securely in its place; he could tell that it was nothing more than a stalling tactic. She didn't want him to leave any more than he wanted to go. "I have a sterile needle and tubing in my med kit; what I don't have is anything to put through it. Plasma would be even better if they've got it."
"Saline. Plasma. Check." Rodney dipped to kiss her, and tried to pretend he was the brave action hero, stealing a peck from the girl before rushing off to defeat the villain. But somehow it turned sloppy and desperate, and then her hands were cupping his face and his hand was knotted in her hair. Her grip on him was so hard that her fingers were probably leaving bruises -- sensitive skin! -- but he was pretty sure he'd pulled some of her hair loose, so maybe that was fair.
"Come back," she whispered against his lips. "Bring supplies. Save him."
"Stay safe," he whispered back, for her ears only. "Do what you do. Take care of him."
He felt her lips curve in a smile, and then she let go and he let go, and she stepped back.
Rodney overrode the lock, and opened the door onto a small storeroom with sheet-covered equipment looming like ghosts in the dim glow of minimal emergency lighting. He didn't look back, just let the door close behind him and set the lock with a few rote keystrokes.
Action heroes never look back.
But, God, he felt so alone.
The door closed behind Rodney. Jennifer fought back an extremely unprofessional urge to burst into tears. Instead, she knelt by her pack and opened the med kit. "Colonel, I'm going to give you morphine now. I can tell you're in a lot of pain and it's only going to get worse."
His fingers curled into fists and then uncurled. She thought at first he hadn't heard her, but then he said softly, "I need to be able to walk."
"I know. It's going to be some time before we're going to try to move you, though, and your body's reaction to pain is just going to make shock more likely. If you pass out or don't have the equilibrium to walk, then we'll rig a stretcher." How, she wasn't quite sure. Maybe she'd ask Rodney to bring one from the infirmary.
"Jennifer?" Rodney's voice was soft in her ear. "Are you reading me?"
"Loud and clear," she said, striving for a soothing and confident tone. This is what being a dispatcher must be like. Or staffing a suicide hotline. "Where are you?"
"Stuck in a maze of idiotically designed Ancient labs," Rodney's testy reply came back, and Jennifer grinned in spite of herself. She saw a slight smile on Sheppard's lips too. "I'm avoiding the main lab, so this might take a little longer, but I ought to be in the infirmary in just a few minutes."
"Stay sharp," Jennifer said, and then bonked her forehead lightly against the wall. Stay sharp? That's seriously the best you can do? She wondered if signing off with "I love you" would have been too much. Probably, and the moment was past now anyway. But, yes, she did -- more at that moment, she thought, than ever before.
She emptied an ampule of morphine into Sheppard's thigh, and watched his knotted muscles slowly begin to smooth out. The depressant would make shock more likely, though. If only she had the facilities to get an IV in him. "I'm about to touch your chest, Colonel; don't worry," she said, and reached into his shirt to pull out his dog tags, checking the blood type. O+. She was A+, so, well, no dice. She wondered what Rodney's was. Hopefully it wouldn't come to that, though. Trying to perform a field transfusion ... she'd never imagined anything like that in med school, that was for sure. Though after you've performed emergency brain surgery with a power drill, everything else should be easy ...
"I'm going to take your pulse now." His wrist was cold, much too cold, the heartbeat fluttering weakly under the skin. She continued the steady, quiet commentary as she checked his temperature and BP -- keeping him informed, never startling him. None of the results were good, but she hadn't expected them to be. Sheppard was a man in a slow downhill slide, and the only thing that could reverse it would be a modern surgical suite. "The morphine should be taking effect now. How are you feeling?"
"Good. Floating." He matched her slow, calm tone. She could see his eyes moving beneath the thin skin of the lids, but they didn't open.
"Let me know if --" She checked herself on the verge of rattling off a list of side effects that could occur, and settled for "... if you're uncomfortable or have any new symptoms that you feel I should know about."
"Thirsty," he murmured.
Jennifer dug a canteen out of her pack. "I'm hoping to have you in surgery soon, so I don't want much in your stomach if I can help it. But dehydration is the last thing you need to worsen the hypovolemia." She cupped her hand under the back of his skull to lift his head, and held the canteen to his lips. "Small sips."
The need to know what was happening with Rodney made her jittery. Easing Sheppard's head back down, she stood and stretched, then began going through a few simple moves that she'd learned from Teyla. Both she and Ronon had given Jennifer lessons over the last year -- Ronon's pertaining more to fighting, while Teyla's were exercises to clear the mind and stretch the body. It was calming.
"I'm in the infirmary," Rodney whispered into her ear, and she jumped.
"What do you see?"
There was a silence, and she was just about to ask again when he said softly, "Um, it's not good."
The past few minutes had been ones of heart-pounding terror for Rodney. He'd always sucked at this sort of thing; he'd always been the first one captured in capture-the-flag, the skinny kid who ducked away when the soccer ball flew at his face. He didn't do danger.
And yet here he was, his nose inches from the LSD, creeping through a maze of eerily still and silent labs. Some were empty, or being used to store spare equipment. Some had abandoned experiments in progress. One contained tanks with various aquatic life in them -- several tanks had dead fish, and others displayed red warning lights. They obviously weren't being tended anymore. A slow tide of coral was creeping into the room, smothering the lower tier of tanks. Rodney, shuddering, gave it a wide berth.
It took him a moment to recognize the infirmary as anything other than yet another lab. The tipoff was the high and narrow bed in the middle of the small room, with shelves containing neatly stacked boxes behind it. Coral had spilled into this room, too, lapping over the shelves and the glass-doored refrigerator next to it, a frozen wave with a sharp-edged alien beauty.
He really, really did not want to touch it.
"What do you mean, it's not good?" Jennifer asked in his ear.
"There are medical supplies, but the coral's gotten to them." He couldn't help whispering, as if it could hear him. "I don't know how much I'm going to be able to salvage, and I really don't think it's a good idea to do surgery in here."
"Do you see any saline? Plasma?"
"Plenty," Rodney said grimly, staring through the refrigeration unit's glass door. "The only problem is getting to it." Steeling himself, he took the few steps separating him from the refrigerator and the coral melting gently over its top. One entire side of the refrigerator -- unfortunately the side with the handle -- and the top third or so of the door were completely covered, with long runnels of coral trailing down towards the floor.
This stuff was seriously, seriously not normal.
A few exploratory tendrils of coral lapped gently around the refrigerator handle. The door might not be completely frozen shut; he still didn't know how brittle the stuff was.
"Rodney?" Jennifer said over the radio.
"I'm going to try something. Stand by." Rodney took a few short quick breaths, as if preparing to lift a great weight, then reached out and gripped the handle firmly. He grasped it in the most coral-free part that he could see, but the side of his hand still brushed against the stuff -- and he felt something, a sharp tingle like a static electric shock. Surprise made him jerk his hand away. He could still feel it, tingling on his skin, the same feeling as the pins-and-needles when a limb fell asleep.
This is how they got Zawadzki. But John needed these supplies, and Rodney was afraid to try to break the glass; what if he destroyed the very things they needed so badly? Clenching his jaw, he pulled out the tail of his T-shirt and wrapped it around his hand, then grasped the handle again. He still felt the tingle, but at least it was slightly attenuated. Then he gave the door a hard yank.
He may as well have been jerking on a handle superglued to a boulder. After struggling for a few minutes, he gave up -- the stuff might look brittle, but it wasn't. In fact, it seemed to have a little bit of give to it, just enough to make it resilient but not enough to bend it and wiggle the door out of its implacable grasp.
Frustrated, he stepped back, breathing hard. The musty smell of the coral was stronger now, bitter on the back of his throat. Rodney swallowed several times, trying to clear the nasty taste from his mouth, and took a few more steps back. He began absently to unwrap the T-shirt from his hand. It seemed to be hung up on something. He looked down.
"What?" Jennifer said immediately into his earpiece. "Rodney, what?" But he couldn't answer her; he was too busy trying to rip the tail of his T-shirt off. He had to curl his hand back at an extremely awkward angle -- having just the one hand to work with -- but desperation-fueled brute strength finally won out, and it parted with a rending of fibers. It was still, however, stuck to his hand.
No, not really stuck. Pinned. The fabric of the shirt was laced with small, fine filaments of the coral material. Several of them penetrated fully, piercing the skin of the side of his hand. There was no pain, just the tingling sensation.
All he wanted to do was rip it off and fling it as far from him as possible, and he couldn't, because he didn't have another hand to do it with. By instinct, he started to wipe it against his leg, then forcibly checked himself and scraped it against one of the shelves. Most of the fabric tore off, but some of it stayed, fastened on by a web of broken filaments.
Panting rapidly, in a state of abject terror so severe that he'd gone straight through panic and reached a hazy sort of calm, Rodney raised the affected hand in front of his eyes. He squinted at it. There was no pain; he hadn't even felt the contact when he'd raked his hand along the shelf edge. The affected part of his hand, a narrow patch of skin about two inches long, seemed to have no sensation at all. Up close, he could see that the skin looked white and dead where the filaments had penetrated it. And it had visibly grown in the minute or so since he'd first noticed it, the filaments spreading out to interlink with each other. As Rodney stared in a daze of horror, he watched a small bump form on the side of his hand, just above the ingrowing filaments and just below the knuckle of his little finger. Before his wide eyes, the tip of a filament popped up through the skin, so small at first that it was hard to see with the naked eye, but thickening and reaching for the next nearest even as he stared.
This ... this is how it got Zawadzki. The coral that Rodney had glimpsed had been on the scientist's head and back. Would anyone have even noticed a small patch of it growing in the middle of his back? How long would it have taken before anyone noticed? Until it penetrated his brain, his internal organs?
What is it doing inside me right now?
Jennifer was still saying his name, and at some point she'd been joined by a hoarse-sounding John. "McKay, what's going on?" John said, as Jennifer said, "Rodney, please, answer us!"
"I -- I --" Rodney swallowed hard, his mouth so dry that the effort raked his throat. "Wait a minute, please," he managed to say, and they both fell silent. Their trust in him, combined with his terror, brought tears to the corners of his eyes -- and a slowly growing fury welled in him, beating back the panic.
They're depending on me. I'm not going to die here, like Zawadzki, a puppet controlled by alien mold. I'm not. I'm not. I'm not!
Another tendril's tip popped out of his skin, just above the other one. The skin between them was white, numb, dead. Rodney stared at it for a moment more, and then, very carefully, shaking only a little, he used his thumb and forefinger to carefully grasp the hilt of the knife at his belt. Along with the pistol, John insisted that all the civilians carry certain survival equipment as part of their field kit. Rodney had never been more glad for it.
Making every effort not to allow the infected part of his hand to brush the rest of him, Rodney drew the knife and transfered it to the hand of his injured arm.
He could tell already that this was going to suck beyond his capacity to imagine it.
Using his teeth and the fingertips of his infected hand, he wriggled his arm out of the sling. It hurt a lot, but, he suspected, that pain was nothing compared to what he was about to do.
"Guys," Rodney said, his voice trembling just slightly. "I just found out the hard way, do not touch the coral. Stay away from it, no matter what. It, it, it starts growing into your body if you touch it."
He heard Jennifer's breath catch, and then there was a brief silence over the radio before John said, in a voice as gentle as Rodney had ever heard from him, "What part of your body, Rodney?"
"My, my hand." Rodney laid his hand carefully on the next shelf down. It was just about the right height. He shifted his grip on the knife; it was incredibly difficult to hold the knife with any kind of strength, when the pressure of the muscles tugging on his broken arm bones twisted them agonizingly.
He heard a sniffle and realized, with a new kind of horror, that Jennifer was crying. Presumably he wasn't the only one whose mind had gone instantly to Zawadzki. When she spoke, though, her voice was calm. "How bad is it, Rodney?"
"I -- I'm about to find out." He swallowed thickly and added, "I might scream. Don't ... please don't be alarmed if I scream."
"Hell, Rodney, at this point I think I'd be screaming my head off," John said. His voice, soft though it was, sounded deceptively light; you had to know him pretty well to hear the fear and concern underneath. Rodney could hear it clear as day.
He brought the knife down. The thought occurred to him even as he did it that he was in a room full of medical supplies -- he should have used a scalpel. But the time it would take to search for one was time that he didn't have.
He bore into the skin with the tip of the knife. He felt it, a shivery spasm of pain, and blood sprang up bright and vivid along the edge of the blade.
Jennifer was crying quietly, tears slipping down her face to be lost in the tangled hair curling on her shoulders. But when she spoke, her voice was smooth and even. John, watching her from his position on the floor, thought bizarrely of a guy he'd served with in Bosnia, a pilot who'd been talking another, younger, inexperienced pilot through a difficult landing under fire. A round of sniper fire had got the older guy in the chest, but he'd kept talking, kept talking -- and that younger pilot never knew that the words were being spoken into his ears through blood bubbling up in the veteran's lungs, until the wheels touched down and the radio went dead.
It had been the first time John had attended the funeral of a friend who'd died saving his life. It wouldn't be the last.
"Tell me what's happening, Rodney," Jennifer said, through her tears and the gaping hole in her chest -- which John could actually see, which meant that the morphine had him in its grip. He blinked and the vivid hallucination was gone, but the tears remained.
Rodney gave a low cry, then a gasp. "I'm cutting it off," he explained, between sharp intakes of air.
Jennifer's face blanched white. "Your hand?" she breathed.
"Just the, the infected part. It's not bad ... some -- some skin along the side. I don't know how deep it's gone until I --" He moaned, and then cursed in a low, miserable monotone. "This would be so much easier if I had two fully functional hands," he said in a voice that broke at the end. "Or even one."
"Rodney, Rodney, wait." Jennifer was on her feet, shoving items into her pack. "Wait! I'll come to you."
"Don't!" Rodney said sharply. "It's not -- I can't wait for you, okay? No time to wait. I can watch it growing. It grows faster on a human being. I think it's f--" His voice broke again. "Feeding. Well. That's really interesting." There was an analytical quality to his voice now, with a certain amount of shuttered hysteria in it. "The parts I've scraped off are still growing. That's really creepy looking. Anyway, stay with Sheppard. By the time you got here, it'd be over one way or another anyway."
John swallowed hard, and reminded himself that throwing up while lying flat on his back, drugged half out of his mind, would be a very bad idea.
Rodney cursed again over the radio. Jennifer had paused with one hand resting on the door lock. She looked over her shoulder at John, clearly torn by her conflicting responsibilities.
John swallowed again just to make sure that he wasn't going to throw up when he opened his mouth. "Hey, Rodney."
"Busy," Rodney said. John could hear that his teeth were clenched.
"How many physicists does it take to change a light bulb?"
There was the briefest of pauses, then Rodney said, "What?"
"Don't --" John had to pause to cough. His throat was so dry that talking hurt. "Don't you have a guess?"
"It's strangely -- Ow! Fuck! -- strangely difficult to concentrate on grade-school humor when I'm performing home surgery without anesthesia, C-- Colonel."
"I -- I have a guess." Jennifer's voice faltered and then got stronger. "One to screw it in and -- and ten to write papers taking credit for it."
"You've obviously heard that one before," John said. "Hey, Rodney. How many quantum physicists does it take to change a light bulb?"
"I really hate you both so much right now."
"None," John said. "It can't be done. If they can find the socket, they can't find the new bulb."
"That's such a blatant misunderstanding of Heisenberg's theories --"
"Rodney," Jennifer said. "How many astrophysicists does it take to change a light bulb?"
"I'm not going to want to hear the answer, am I?"
"Three," John said, "plus or minus seventy-five."
Jennifer laughed. It sounded a bit strained and quavered on the edge of tears, but it was an actual laugh.
For a minute or two there was just the sound of Rodney's harsh breathing, then he said, "How many pilots does it take to change a light bulb? One -- he raises the bulb into place and then the -- the world revolves around him."
"Aww, Rodney, nice of you to notice."
"How many Dadaists does it take to change a light bulb?" Jennifer said. "Fish."
John tried to raise his head to frown at her. The tightening of his stomach muscles sent him back down, gasping. "That's the punch line?" he managed after a moment.
"Sure, it's -- Dadaism is -- Look, it's not funny if you have to explain it!"
"None of these are funny anyway," Rodney said archly into John's earpiece. "Light bulb jokes are not funny by definition."
"She laughed, "John said, pointing at Jennifer, although it took his morphine-lagged brain a moment to realize that Rodney couldn't see that.
"I did not!" Jennifer protested. "Well, all right, I did."
Rodney rustled around on the other end of the radio, then said, "Are those all the jokes either of you know? That's pathetic, really. I've been insulted by far better."
John tried to settle himself more comfortably on the floor. "Did you hear about the physicist, the engineer and the mathematician ..."
When all was done, the damage wasn't actually any worse than he'd occasionally gotten from burning himself on something in the lab, and nowhere near as bad as flaying his hands trying to lower Jennifer and Sam down from the mining chamber on what he'd mentally dubbed Hell World. Disinfecting it had hurt worse than cutting it, even with Jennifer anxiously talking him through it. It was trying to do it with his broken arm that really sucked -- well, that and the squirm-inducing awareness of what he was doing to himself.
Once he got it bandaged, the pain was down to a dull stinging, though his wrist and arm throbbed miserably. He stared for a moment in morbid fascination at the coral spreading slowly and inexorably across the blood on the shelf.
"-- and then the physicist says, 'I've got your solution right here. It's mathematically perfect and works every time. The problem is, it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum.'"
Jennifer giggled through the radio. Rodney flexed his hand, and tried to push back the fear that he'd missed a microscopic bit of coral filament, that even now it was reproducing under the bandage, creeping up his arm ... "How many doctors does it take to change a light bulb?" he said.
"Only one, but she needs a nurse to tell her which end to screw in," Jennifer said. "Come on, Rodney, I went through medical school; I don't think there's a medical joke I haven't heard."
"What's the difference between God and a surgeon?" Rodney asked, checking the LSD. As he'd suspected, the brighter areas corresponded to more intense regions of activity; his own life sign overlapped a spark that was nearly as bright as the amorphous areas he assumed were representing Dixon and Wong.
"The difference is that God doesn't think he's a surgeon," John said promptly. He coughed and cleared his throat. "So, Rodney, how's it going?"
"Okay," Rodney said absently, looking at the LSD. Hmm, that wasn't right. Maybe he was wrong about those bright areas, because one of them was in a significantly different place than it had been.
Or maybe what he'd been wrong about was Dixon and Wong being trapped in the control room. Because that bright spot was definitely on the move.
"Could I get a break just once?" Rodney snarled at the screen.
Two voices over the radio said, "What is it?" and "What, Rodney?" in unison.
"Oh nothing, just that I think I'm about to have company of the zombie sort." His voice rose on the last words.
"Get out of there!" John said.
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" He glared at the refrigerator. Desperate times, desperate measures. The glass was almost certainly safety glass, so he doubted if he could break it with the limited time and resources that he had, but there had to be a cutting torch around here somewhere.
"Rodney, anything that we need, you can go back for later," Jennifer said. "Or I could go instead."
Rodney didn't bother dignifying that with a reply. He'd seen what John had looked like; he knew how urgent the situation was. Performing surgery in here was pretty much out, though, even without the zombies, which meant he needed to bring Jennifer the supplies that John so desperately needed. He ducked into the next lab over, and finally luck smiled on him; there was a row of boxes, neatly labeled, and one of them contained a couple of the Ancient laser cutters that they'd found all over the place in a storeroom back on Atlantis. Well, laser was really the wrong term for what the Ancients had used but that was what Zelenka had named -- Okay, damn it, Rodney, focus!
He checked the LSD again to see how much time he had, and froze. "Uh, guys, it's not headed for me; it's headed for you."
"Us?" Jennifer had just seated herself again by her patient's side; now she scrambled back to her feet, heart pounding. "Oh, oh, that's not good."
"The door's locked," Rodney reminded them over the radio. "They can't open it."
"Are you sure of that?" Sheppard asked.
A short silence. "Well, no, not really."
"Besides, if they have weapons, they can shoot out the lock. And we know they know how to use C4." Sheppard was feebly trying to push himself upright, his face white and beaded with sweat. Jennifer knelt beside him, sliding her arm under his shoulders. His voice was a pallid ghost of its usual self when he asked breathlessly, "Which door, Rodney?"
"Okay, well, near as I can tell on this thing -- and keep in mind the resolution's absolutely terrible beyond about twenty meters or so --"
"Rodney!" Jennifer said, just as Sheppard said it too. They glanced at each other.
"Right." Rodney's voice firmed up. "It looks like it's approaching the door I left through. The way back -- out into the maintenance corridor -- ought to be clear."
"Then we go that way." Jennifer picked up her pack, looked ruefully at Rodney's. She couldn't handle both packs and the Colonel too, though. "Rodney, will you be able to get to us with the, uh, whatever it is in the way?"
"There are a bunch of different ways to get anywhere in this place," Rodney said, sounding distracted. "Seal the door behind you. I'll go around."
"You hear something?" Sheppard said.
"Me?" Rodney asked over the radio.
"No, not you. Shhh."
Jennifer shushed; she even held her breath. And the Colonel was right -- she did hear something, outside the door leading into the labs. A muffled thump, then a scraping sound. It repeated, and then again. Thump-drag. Thump-drag.
Her imagination, fueled by long-ago horror movie marathons back in her freshman days, was playing out in excruciating detail every possibility for what lay beyond that door. She did not want to see what Dixon and Wong had turned into.
"Move," Sheppard whispered.
With Sheppard leaning heavily on her, holding his nine-mil in one hand, Jennifer opened the panel next to the door as Rodney had said. And there she balked, trying to remember the Ancient alphabet. Learning some basic Ancient had been required for all ranking individuals in the city, but trying to remember it with a horror-movie nightmare outside the door ...
Thump-drag. It was close now. Jennifer forced herself not to look over her shoulder; the doors were both opaque, so there was no way to see what was beyond either one of them. She couldn't figure out if that was a mercy or not.
"Here," Sheppard murmured, and he leaned to tap on the crystals. When he finished, the door slid open soundlessly, revealing a thankfully empty corridor beyond.
Jennifer helped him through, and locked the door behind them. Without warning, Sheppard raised the gun and shot the door's control box. Jennifer almost jumped out of her skin, and had to scrabble to catch him and keep him from falling. "A little warning next time?" she gasped.
Sheppard fired a couple more shots into the door frame, warping it against the door and holding it in place.
"What's going on?" Rodney demanded through the radio connection. Jennifer heard something crash and clatter in the background.
"We're in the maintenance corridor," Sheppard said. "Don't think we're going back that way."
"Keep going, then," Rodney said. "The infirmary's a loss, so I guess it's going to have to be the escape pod or nothing. Let's meet there."
"The jumper bay's full of water, McKay, or have you forgotten?"
"Then don't go that way," Rodney said impatiently. "Look, I'll direct you. For starters, go back down the stairs where we came up, and turn the other way, away from the jumper bay. Like the corridor above, that one curves partway around the station; it's a bit of a walk, but it'll get you most of the way to the escape pod, and should be coral-free if my readings are accurate."
"What about you?" Jennifer said. "We destroyed the control panel and damaged the door so it won't open."
"There are several ways down, like I said. Just -- move! Are you moving?"
"We're moving." They were descending the stairs even as she spoke, one painful step at a time. Sheppard's breathing had roughened; he grasped the railing with a white-knuckled hand, and she could feel the tension of his other arm around her. "Rodney," he said hoarsely. "Does this place have a self-destruct?"
"Ooh." Rodney sounded thoughtful. "I don't know. I'll have to take a look once I can sit down with my computer. Which, need I remind both of you, isn't the case at the moment." Something else clattered, and Rodney made an Ah-ha! noise. "I've got your plasma right here! Should I bring supplies for, for --" He swallowed, loudly audible through the connection. "For surgery? I should note that a lot of it is ruined -- covered with coral or impossible to reach without touching said coral, something I would really, really like to avoid."
"I'll give you a list," Jennifer said. It gave her something to concentrate on -- something less terrifying than Sheppard's labored breathing and frightening pallor, or the echoing memory of that dragging sound beyond the door.
Rodney started packing a box, but then he found a canvas bag which made a better container. Bringing the pack would have been an excellent idea after all; damned 20/20 hindsight. He kept checking the LSD, and worried at his lip until he tasted blood when the brighter glow, after a bit of milling in the corridor where John and Jennifer had been, started in his direction.
He was pretty sure that no one in the control room could use the facility's life signs sensors at the moment, unless they were much better hackers than he'd given them credit for. Which meant, unfortunately, that it must have become aware of him in another way. Rodney glanced nervously at the rust-stained bandages on his hand. It stung viciously whenever he flexed it, and as he filled the bag with Jennifer's requested supplies, he kept eyeing the shelf of painkillers wistfully.
Okay, the glowing thing was definitely moving towards him, so he'd better be moving too -- and all he wanted to do was get as far away as possible. Rodney slipped into the neighboring lab, then through to another one. This place really was a maze. He skirted the crew quarters, balked at one point by a wall of coral shutting off the main hall through the middle of the facility.
"Rodney," Jennifer said softly through the radio, making him jump. "We've reached the end of the maintenance corridor. Now what?"
"Really? Already?" It felt like he'd been sneaking around in here for an eternity. His shirt was stuck to his back with clammy fear-sweat. Carrying the bag with only one hand meant that he'd have to drop it in order to use the P90. The diffuse glow of the whatever-it-was had entered the vicinity of the infirmary and then begun what was apparently aimless wandering -- it didn't know where he was, but Rodney had no doubt it was trying to find him. He hit another coral-blocked dead end and retraced his steps with growing desperation.
"Rodney?" Jennifer said.
"I really need to get the Colonel somewhere he can lie down."
Awareness of John's situation was enough to snap Rodney out of his growing panic. "Okay, there should be a door around you somewhere for a storage bay, which is ..." His eyes dropped to the LSD, which he'd tucked into his sling where he could see it. "Oh damn." The diffuse glow was nearly on top of his own life sign. Rather than continuing the way he'd been going, he palmed open the door to a set of crew quarters and locked it behind him. The room was dark and unused -- but there was nowhere to go. What had once been a window with a view of the ocean was now completely covered with coral; at least it was on the outside, not the inside.
"We're in the storage bay, Rodney," Jennifer's voice informed him.
The glowy dot was retreating rather than following him, moving in a different direction. Thank God. Still, just to be on the safe side, Rodney whispered into the radio. "Go through the door on the other side. There are only a couple more rooms between you and the --"
Over the radio, Jennifer gave a sudden sharp yell that was abruptly cut off.
"Jennifer! What? Jennifer? Sheppard?"
When she opened the door that Rodney told her to open, a wall of water cascaded through, smacking her in the face, knocking her and the Colonel off their feet. Gasping, Jennifer staggered to her feet and slapped the door control. It slid shut, leaving her standing in an ice-cold lake up to her knees.
The sound of John coughing snapped her out of her startled fugue. He was on his hands and knees, his injured leg thrust out awkwardly behind him, trying to struggle to his feet without much success. Jennifer helped him up, and he slumped against her. "Sorry," she gasped.
"For God's sake ..." Sheppard muttered, and Jennifer realized after an instant's indignation that he wasn't talking to her. He reached up and slapped his radio. "Rodney, settle down. We're okay." He coughed again, sounding nothing at all like okay.
Radio. Hers was gone. Jennifer looked around wildly, but there was absolutely no telling where it had gone; in the black water, it could be anywhere.
"Colonel," she said, steadying her voice with a massive force of will, "I've lost my radio. Could you tell Rodney about the water, please? We need to know how to get around it."
"Hang on a sec," Sheppard said -- to her or Rodney, she wasn't sure. He fumbled with his tac vest and took out an object that she belatedly realized was a flashlight. After several unsuccessful attempts to turn it on, he passed it to her. The combination of adrenaline's aftermath and the cold water was making her start to shiver, but Sheppard felt cold even to her half-frozen fingers, and he was trembling violently against her.
Jennifer flicked on the flashlight. In its beam, the water was only slightly cloudy, swirling with a diffuse sprinkling of silt or other contaminants. And her earpiece was plainly visible, near her left foot. A brief comedy of errors ensued as she tried to bend down to pick it up without dropping Sheppard; eventually she leaned him against the wall so that she could bend over.
Sheppard cocked his head, obviously listening to Rodney on the radio. "McKay thinks they're flooding rooms to try to kill us. He's gonna try that locking-out thing he wanted to do earlier." Sheppard coughed. He sounded awful, and Jennifer wished she dared stop long enough to check his bandages; the water soaking his uniform made it impossible to tell if he was bleeding again. "Says give it a minute and you can open the door."
Jennifer got the earpiece situated just in time to hear Rodney say "-- should have done this in the beginning; stupid not to, I guess."
Her knees went a little weak; she hadn't realized how much of a lifeline Rodney's voice had become for her. "I just didn't expect they'd be able to do anything, well, smart," he rambled on. "Okay, that's got it. You should be able to open the door safely now."
Bracing herself, Jennifer hit the door release. It slid back; a slightly higher and, if possible, colder wave passed through the water around their knees, but they weren't knocked off their feet. The room beyond was huge, and the water gave it an eerie, post-apocalyptic air. Most of the lights in here were out, and they didn't come on. The few remaining lights flickered in moonpath reflections on the black surface of the water.
At least there wasn't any coral in sight.
"So now you're in the main storage area -- kind of a warehouse -- behind the jumper bay," Rodney said. "There's a door along the back wall that leads to the launching facility for the escape pod. It's actually right next to the jumper bay; you went around the back way."
Jennifer was so turned around by now that it could have been on the moon for all she knew. Stumbling under Sheppard's considerable weight, she helped him wade through the knee-deep water. Small items bobbed past them -- a calculator, a rubber glove. It was a gut-twisting reminder that three people used to live on this station, three people who were almost certainly dead. Well, mostly dead.
Sheppard had stopped talking; he staggered along, clinging to her, moving first one foot and then the other in an impressive exercise of willpower. Jennifer tried not to think about what all the activity was doing to his injured knee. He'd be looking at surgery for that, too. But not on this station, thank goodness.
Concentrating on Sheppard, she nearly ran face-first into the opposite wall. "Rodney? We're here. There's a gray door -- is that the one you mean?"
"How should I know what color it is? The escape pod bay should be right beyond, though."
"No water?" she asked nervously.
"No water," Rodney reassured her.
Jennifer hit the door control before she could lose her nerve. The space beyond -- a long, narrow room with a high ceiling -- was blessedly dry, at least initially; the water around their feet surged forward, spreading rapidly but lowering as it did so. Jennifer took a step inside, drawing Sheppard with her, and then stopped with a gasp of dismay.
"What?" Rodney demanded.
Long sprawling rivers of the stuff ran down the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, giving Jennifer the creepy feeling that it was going to fall on her head. To her left, the room was clear; to her right, though, the coral humped up in frozen ridges until it completely blocked the room, floor to ceiling.
"Well, don't touch it! Don't even brush against it! Can you get to the escape pod?"
"I don't even know what it looks like --" Jennifer began, but then she saw what was obviously it: a round porthole-like door in the wall with an instrument panel beside it. Coral lapped at the wall around the door, and partially covered the instrument panel. The door itself, however, was clear.
"I see it, Rodney," Jennifer said, and swallowed hard. "I think -- I think we can make it. Where are you? Can you get down here?"
"I'm on my way, believe me; I want out of here as much as you do."
"I don't know if that's possible," Jennifer muttered under her breath. She gave Sheppard a gentle shake. "Colonel, can you hear me? We're going to have to move very carefully now. There's a lot of coral here, and Rodney says we can't touch it."
Sheppard made a soft sound, which she decided to take as acknowledgment.
The water had spread out and receded until it was only a few inches deep. Jennifer played the flashlight across their path, checking for coral underfoot; most of the lights were out in this section, too, leaving enough to see by but not with any degree of great accuracy. There were patches and runnels of coral on the floor. Carefully she avoided them, leading Sheppard with her.
At the porthole door, she stopped and stared at the instrument panel. There was a single large button at the bottom of it, free of coral, and a green light. Jennifer pushed it, and the door rolled back.
She could have collapsed with relief as lights came up on an entirely coral-free space within. As Rodney had said, it was smaller than the cargo hold of a jumper -- about half the size, actually. There was a single bench along each curving wall, covered with what looked like gray vinyl, and cargo netting overhead holding packages and cases like the emergency equipment in the jumpers. It wasn't even high enough for Jennifer to stand up in, let alone Sheppard. But it was safe. She had to contain herself from rushing across the threshold with a sob of joy; instead, she helped Sheppard inside and turned around to locate the door control. Nothing had ever sounded sweeter than the thunk of the door rolling shut, locking the coral outside.
After easing Sheppard down onto one of the benches, Jennifer explored quickly. It didn't take long to explore a place that could be crossed in three short strides. Opposite the door was a small instrument panel and a porthole with thick glass showing a straight gray tunnel, fading quickly into darkness in front of them. It, too, seemed to be coral-free, at least the part that she could see.
Jennifer slipped the pack straps off her arms and dropped it on the floor. She sank down onto the bench opposite Sheppard with a long sigh. "Rodney, we're in the pod. Get down here and let's get out of this place."
"If I could click my heels and make it home, Dorothy, I'd have already done it," Rodney groused. However, just knowing that the two of them were safe -- for certain values of "safe" -- eased a tremendous weight off his shoulders that he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying.
Which left him with plenty of problems of his own. He was starting to worry that there wasn't another way down, not with that sprawling mass of alien coral sitting in the middle of the second level like an obscene octopus, thrusting its tentacles down hallways and into labs. He'd wandered all over the second floor, through the infirmary several times, searching for some route that wasn't blocked, and come up empty. Adding to his nervousness, the coral in the infirmary had spread a little more each time he'd passed through.
And all the time he was playing dodge-zombie with the other life sign. At least it didn't seem to move very fast.
"Hell with it," Rodney muttered. Jennifer and John might have blocked the door into the maintenance corridor, but he'd just have to figure out how to get it open -- genius, hello! -- because it didn't look like he had any other options. The labs had plenty of raw materials for various forms of door sabotage.
Dividing his nervous attention between glancing over his shoulder and down at the LSD, Rodney hurried through still, silent rooms. This place was creepy. He took a wrong turn, came upon yet another coral-blocked corridor, hissed with frustration and backtracked. He was tired to the bone, shaky from adrenaline, hungry and cold -- and he ached with the urge to call Jennifer and John, just to hear another human voice. "I don't do this whole lone hero thing," he muttered to himself, under his breath. But they'd made it to the pod; they were all right, and he needed to stay quiet, escape notice.
All he had to do was get down to the level below, for goodness sake. It shouldn't be this hard. There wasn't even anyone shooting at him. Compared to some of the places he'd been offworld, this ought to be a cakewalk.
"Oh great," Rodney murmured, watching the bright spot move down the corridor that he was pretty sure, even given the lousy resolution on the LSD, was right where he needed to be. It was definitely searching for him. It kept circulating between the hall where John and Jennifer had been, and the infirmary, with occasional side trips in other directions. But mostly it could be found in those places.
Which meant that for him, lingering in any of those places was a bad idea. Though hopefully he wouldn't have to. Rodney paused for a moment to rest his aching hand, lowering the bag to his feet. He watched the life sign move -- well, moving wasn't really how it looked on the LSD; it was more like a hot spot flowing from one part to another of the ambient glow of the coral. In any case, it was headed for the infirmary now, which meant that this was about the best window of opportunity he was going to get.
A few turns later, he had to backtrack again. All these labs looked more or less the same: mostly-empty rooms with the odd box of equipment or dust-covered console. The research station was far larger than necessary for the number of people it was currently accommodating.
No. He really was in the right place, because it was right next door to the lab with the big machine for analyzing sample cores, and that meant ...
Rodney stared at the door leading, he was pretty sure, to the access corridor where he'd left John and Jennifer. It was dotted with small patches of coral, some of them already growing together and merging like puddles of water. Such a small amount of coral wasn't enough to register on the LSD yet. But ...
But it hadn't been there when he left.
Shuddering, he approached slowly. There was a patch of coral right on top of the panel that would open the door, sprawling gently off to either side. He didn't dare touch it.
But there were other ways. Rodney let the bag drop to the floor again, and fumbled around one-handed through its contents until he found the Ancient laser cutter that he'd used to cut his way into the medical cold storage locker. These things had an extremely limited range of functions -- they could only penetrate to a depth of about a half-inch -- so he probably couldn't cut through the door with it. But he could cut off the coral.
Rodney had had his hands close to a lot of unpleasant things in his five years in the Pegasus Galaxy. He'd built nuclear bombs; he'd had his hands buried in naquadah generators. But holding the small tool over the patch of coral, with mere inches separating him from a fate he didn't even want to contemplate, was pretty high on his list of Things I Never Ever Want to Do Again.
It worked, though. The coral sheared neatly away. It took several passes to get enough of it that the active part of the doorplate was visible.
Rodney glanced at the LSD. It showed the space beyond the door to be empty -- at least empty of anything that showed up on an Ancient scanner.
It also showed the bright spot heading back in his direction at a good clip. The pit of Rodney's stomach turned to ice. Well, he'd been speculating on the idea that the coral was some sort of group intelligence -- not necessarily sapient, but capable of communicating between its different parts. The fact that touching the coral in the infirmary had apparently gotten its attention was a big clue, but this pretty much confirmed it. While it didn't seem to have sensory organs, it was definitely aware of damage to any part of itself.
"Not now, McKay," he muttered to himself, channeling his inner Sheppard.
He could run. Come back later. But that would give the coral time to regrow, and he'd just have to cut it off again, leading to the same problem.
Acting quickly before he could change his mind, Rodney reversed the cutter and tapped the door control with the butt of it. The door slid back; he realized that he'd tensed up, but the room on the other side was empty. Though not entirely empty of coral. There were little patches on the walls in here, too. One of the packs lay crumpled against the wall, speckled lightly with pale dots of coral.
Rodney stepped in, turned around and swore softly to himself. The door controls that would enable him to close the door behind him were even more overgrown with coral than the ones on the other side. Which led to a new line of speculation -- if that moving bright spot on the LSD was in fact Dixon or Wong, then wherever it touched, it appeared to start a new patch of coral growing.
But the important thing was that he couldn't close the door to protect his back.
He glanced at the LSD. Not only was the first bright spot closing on him, but the second was on the move now, too. At least Sheppard and Jennifer's life signs were comfortingly bright, stable and stationary.
Rodney turned around. The door that he needed to open, the one they'd sealed shut, looked normal enough from this side. It just didn't open when he palmed the controls. (Well, tapped them with the butt of the laser cutter; he wasn't taking any chances about microscopically tiny coral patches.)
Looking up at the door frame, though, he saw the problem; it was warped and pocked with bullet marks. That was definitely typical of John -- never use a flyswatter when a sledgehammer would do.
Rodney shuffled the bag of medical supplies in front of his feet so that he could kick it through as soon as the door was open. That bright spot was closing much faster than he'd like. He clumsily unholstered his gun and tucked it into his sling next to the LSD. Then he started working on the door with the laser cutter.
The benches weren't long enough for an adult to lay down, so Jennifer got Sheppard settled on the floor, as close to comfortable as possible, with his feet elevated. His vitals were scaring her -- his BP was negligible, his pulse thready and fast.
"McKay?" Sheppard murmured, without opening his eyes.
"He's coming. He'll be here soon." Jennifer found an emergency blanket in the supplies overhead. "Colonel, I'm going to get some of these wet things off you, all right?"
As she slit his shirt with her scissors and peeled it back, Sheppard cracked an eye open. "How'm I doin', Doc?"
"You're going to be just fine," she said firmly, with assurance she didn't feel. As she'd feared, the bandage around his abdomen was soaked through with fresh blood. She left it in place and bound another on top of it. Hurry, Rodney. I don't know how much time he's got.
"I oughta be out there, damn it," Sheppard murmured, while she cut his pants to get them over the swollen mess of his knee. "If Rodney needs help -- you go, okay? Take my gun."
"Rodney's doing fine." She hoped. "We're all going to be fine, Colonel. You. Me. Him."
She got him settled and gave him more sips of water, then got up and went to the instrument panel of the pod to see if she could figure it out. Doing something, anything, was better than just sitting there.
The controls seemed fairly straightforward. If Rodney didn't come back, she was pretty sure she could operate it. But it won't come to that. He's coming. He'll be here.
If he's not, I'll go get him.
She sat back down beside Sheppard, folding her legs and trying to make herself comfortable. She could tell that he was awake from the tension in his shoulders and the tight muscles of his jaw. Come on, Jennifer. Don't just let your patient lie there in pain. Say something.
"Marble," John said quietly.
Jennifer jumped. "What?"
"My favorite kind of cake. Marble. You know ..." John moved one finger in a rotating motion. "With the swirls."
Rodney would have known the right thing to say to that, would have had some kind of snappy insult to make John laugh. But Jennifer couldn't think of a single thing that wouldn't sound flippant or insincere. "That's -- good; I always liked marble cake too. Would you -- would you like another half-dose of morphine?"
He nodded, and she broke it out and injected it without speaking.
The silence hung heavy and awkward between them. There was no Rodney, right now, to run interference. I'm sorry, Jennifer wanted to say, but she shouldn't have to apologize for dating someone she liked. Rodney was a grown-up, capable of making his own decisions; it wasn't her fault if his best friend had issues with her.
Still, her awareness of Sheppard's physical situation was painfully acute. He really might die here, a thousand feet below the waves. They all might. And the idea that they might go to their graves with this strange, awkward tension between them was suddenly intolerable to her.
"I know you don't like me much," she managed finally.
Sheppard blinked, and looked up at her with dazed, sleepy hazel eyes. "I -- what?"
"It's not really a secret, I guess. I just wanted you to know that I --" She stalled out, because what did she want to say? She wasn't sorry for what she had with Rodney. But she was very sorry that what she had with Rodney appeared to have hurt Sheppard and driven the two of them apart. The more time she spent with both of them, the more sorry she was. She just didn't know what to do about it. "To know that I didn't mean --" she tried again, and stalled again, frustrated.
Sheppard sighed, long and deep and weary. "It's not ... Look, Doc, I don't want you to think --" He fell silent, then tried again. "It's not that I don't like you, Doc. It's that ... See, the thing is, I don't -- I don't --" He broke off, cursed softly and smacked a fist against the floor.
"I'm listening," Jennifer said quietly after a moment, and busied herself tidying the contents of her medical kit, even though it didn't really need it, so that he wouldn't feel as if she was staring at him. She wasn't always the greatest at interpersonal stuff and she knew it, but this was one thing she'd had experience with: giving a patient space to talk about embarrassing or personal issues. It was easier if you didn't make eye contact.
Without the morphine, she doubted if Sheppard would have gone ahead and said anything, but the extra relaxation was apparently enough to get him over the hurdle. "I don't know how to do this," he said, so softly she could barely hear him.
"How to do what?" Jennifer prompted quietly, after a moment, neatly sorting ampules of painkillers. She watched him in quick glances out of the corner of her eye, still very deliberately not making eye contact, and saw that he was staring rigidly at the high, dark ceiling.
"This -- I don't --" He turned his head her way; she saw it through the pulled-out strands of her own blond hair hanging down as she bowed her head over the medical kit. "I don't know how to be around you and Rodney as -- as, as, that," he said in a rush, and then kept talking, as if he was afraid that he couldn't stop or he'd never get started again. "As, as a couple, I mean. I've never been -- I mean, I don't know, if I see you sitting together in the cafeteria, should I sit down? If you're talking to each other, should I say anything? Are you gonna get pissed at me if I drag Rodney off to play video golf? I don't know when to stay or go, I don't know what to say, I'm, it's just -- you might not have noticed, Doc, but I don't really, I don't do people all that well."
Jennifer cleared her throat to head off a burgeoning and entirely inappropriate laugh; it had been awhile since she'd heard someone so neatly combine understatement with a statement of the totally obvious. After a moment she started to make a cautious "Mm?" sound, but Sheppard was already talking again.
"It's been that way since, I mean -- the guys I served with, when they got married, it was pretty much the end, right? They moved out of barracks, they had a new set of friends, new worries about kids and schools and stuff like that ... We didn't have anything in common anymore. And that's just how it works. With Nancy, there wasn't -- it wasn't -- I couldn't do the single thing, I couldn't do the married thing, I just don't --" He flapped a hand around for a moment, then let it fall to his side. After a moment, he said in the smallest and most plaintive voice she'd ever heard from him, "I don't know how to do this."
Jennifer was pretty sure that the whole thing was the longest speech she'd ever heard John Sheppard make in one go. For a moment she was quiet, feeling balanced on a razor's edge. As a child, she'd spent long summer hours coaxing deer and squirrels to take food from her hand in her family's semi-rural backyard, and this was not too different -- the breathless sense of anticipation, the fear of remaining still too long and the knowledge that any move she made might be the wrong one. Finally she said, "Teyla -- Teyla and Kanaan, they're married, right? Or however it works with Athosians. They've been together for a while now. And you still hang out with --" She'd started to say "... with them", but she broke off, because actually, Kanaan didn't spend much time around Teyla's team. It was pretty much just Teyla and the boys, with "the boys" occasionally including Torren now as well.
Sheppard snorted a small, miserable laugh. "Yeah. You got a look at how well that went at first. How well it still goes." After a short silence, he said, "Besides, it's Teyla. She's ... Teyla. She does all that emotional stuff really, really well. She knows when to ... and when not to ... She compensates for everything I don't ..." He trailed off, and when Jennifer looked at him, she saw that his eyes were screwed shut, crinkled up into tiny wrinkles around the corners.
"Are you in pain, Colonel?" she asked gently.
"I'm not feeling much of anything." He hesitated and then went on, bitterness curling under his words. "I think these drugs of yours are messing with my head, Doc. Don't listen to any of my babbling, all right?"
"I think the drugs just let you say things that should have been said a long time ago." Jennifer shifted closer, and very cautiously laid a hand on his wrist. He flinched. She curled her fingers so that he could plainly see that she was taking his pulse, and held up her watch in front of her eyes, but she just watched the seconds tick over without bothering to count. With her gaze on the watch, she said, "You know, if couples want to be alone, Colonel, they have places to go be alone. When they're out in public, they just want the same things that either of them wanted when they were single: to talk to people, to hang out with their friends, to be treated as individuals rather than a matched set of Barbie and Ken dolls. People in a relationship are still just the same people you knew before, with all the same hobbies and stuff. In fact, having our single friends get weird around us when we aren't used to it is -- is kind of weird for us, too."
She hesitated, waiting for a response from Sheppard. After a moment his eyes uncrinkled and he looked up at her, squinting a bit as if his head hurt him. Otherwise his face was impossible to read. She gave him her best reassuring, the-patient-is-going-to-live smile. "So, if Rodney and I don't want our friends around, we'll go somewhere private, okay? If you see us sitting in the cafeteria, please, sit down with us. If you want to get Rodney alone for an evening and play video golf, or whatever it was that you two used to do when he was single, then please do; I'm sure what he wants most in the world is for you to treat him like you always have, not like some new and different ... Mr. Jennifer Keller, or something."
That made him laugh a little, as she'd hoped. It still sounded kind of unhappy, but not quite so abjectly miserable. "And this, uh, discussion ..."
"Never happened," she assured him with more cheer than she actually felt.
Sheppard's face seemed to unkink and uncrumple just a little more. He wasn't smiling at her, but he didn't seem quite so huddled in on himself as he had a few minutes earlier.
"You've never really had friends who were married, then, have you?" she asked, making herself comfortable on the floor.
"Only when I was ..." He let his voice fade away, then said after another pause, "Nancy and I did stuff, you know, with couples. It wasn't the same."
Jennifer imagined a younger John Sheppard, believing wholeheartedly in marriage as an institution entirely separate from singlehood, separating a person irrevocably from their past. It was easier than she'd expected to imagine him trying to reshape himself to be that person -- not John Sheppard, Air Force pilot, but John Sheppard, husband. She hadn't even known he'd been married, but he would have been miserable, she thought, struggling in a role he didn't know how to adapt to.
Does it change you? Jennifer wondered, looking down at her own hand, resting on her ankle. Everything changes us, I guess. She didn't feel any different as Jennifer Keller, Rodney McKay's girlfriend, than as Jennifer Keller, Head of Medicine of Atlantis. But three years ago, she would have considered both of these roles equally impossible for herself. Two years ago, she'd almost fallen off a rope bridge and had been -- she had to admit to herself now -- a bit of a liability to Teyla while they were on the run in the wilderness. Okay. More than just a bit. But then, one year ago, she'd been in a similar situation, and she'd fought a Wraith and performed field surgery, and she hadn't even been all that terrified. Well, she'd been scared, all right. But not too scared to function.
We all change, every day. This isn't any more of a change than anything else that's ever happened to me ... or to Rodney. She wondered how to tell Sheppard that. In fact, speaking of changes, maybe it was time to stop calling him Colonel and start calling him by his first name, like a friend, not a co-worker.
Jennifer drew a breath, nerved herself. "John," she began, and looked down at him to discover that he'd relaxed into apparently genuine sleep or unconsciousness.
Unless he was faking to escape from the conversation. Would he do that? What am I thinking, of course he would.
Jennifer nudged him gently; he didn't stir. His pulse was ... not great, but not life-threatening, and he was breathing evenly, so she let him sleep. She felt a small smile tug at the corners of her mouth. All right, maybe first names were too big a step. Small steps, she thought. One at a time.
We're not okay yet. But maybe we're getting there.
She looked at the door of the escape pod, frowning. And where the heck is Rodney?
A cutting torch would have made this a hell of a lot easier. Rodney muttered under his breath about Ancients and safety protocols as he shaved off bits of the doorframe, trying to free the stuck door. There was probably a way to modify the little device to produce a stronger, hotter cutting blade, but he didn't exactly have time to go delving into the guts of the only cutting tool he had.
Rodney glanced over his shoulder at the open door. The place was so quiet that a thump somewhere out in one of the neighboring labs made him flinch violently, nearly cutting his hand. A flush of cold sweat washed over him. That sound had been pretty damn close.
Straining his ears, he didn't think it was his imagination that he could hear something moving. Even though what it sounded like was the dragging mummy-type footsteps of every badly animated monster in every B-grade horror movie ever.
"I hate this galaxy," Rodney whimpered, "hate it, hate it, hate it," and then finally, finally the door yielded to his attentions and jolted a few inches, then stopped.
"Oh come on!" He hit it as hard as he could with the palm of his hand. It shuddered about halfway open and there it stopped again.
Well, maybe he'd fit through. No, check that -- he'd have to fit. Rodney put the laser cutter between his teeth -- he didn't want to drop it back into the bag in case he needed it -- and picked up his bag of supplies.
Something scraped against the wall just outside the door.
His mother always said that curiosity would kill him one of these days ...
Rodney looked over his shoulder.
It was white, shapeless -- after all that buildup, there wasn't really shock at first, because he couldn't quite figure out what he was looking at. The thing looming in the doorway looked like an ambulatory hunk of coral. Then the shape began to resolve into something vaguely humanoid and Rodney realized, with an ice-cold wash of dawning horror, that what he was looking at was a human being -- Wong or Dixon -- so buried in coral that nothing of the original person could be seen. He had no idea which of them it was.
Rodney heard himself make a whimpering noise. The laser cutter fell from his mouth and clattered on the floor, but there was no time to pick it up. He kicked the bag through the opening into the corridor beyond, and drew his pistol out of his sling. Not that it would do any good against something that was massively armored and, if it was like Zawadzki, wouldn't be slowed down even if he managed to shoot its head off.
At least, unlike Zawadzki, this one didn't have a gun. Probably couldn't carry a gun.
Then it scraped through the door into the room and Rodney screamed and dove into the gap -- where he stuck. "Oh no, no, I'm not going to go like this," he moaned, struggling to free his injured arm. The pain made him lightheaded; it was like one of those dreams where you just can't move, like swimming in syrup, as the shambling coral thing dragged itself towards him and Rodney threw his whole weight into getting away.
He fell through at last, dropping the gun in an effort to catch himself and not fall on his injured arm. He went to hands and knees -- well, hand, anyway -- on top of the bag of medical supplies; something crunched and wetness spread through his fingers, but Rodney was too busy scrambling away to even care.
The control panel on this side was shot to hell -- John, again, no doubt -- so he just got up, grabbed the bag and ran. At the top of the stairs he glanced over his shoulder (stupid morbid curiosity again) to see some sort of coral-covered appendage waving through the gap, like the claw of a giant crab.
Could it pry the doors open? Probably, if it had the wit to do so. Rodney pounded down the stairs. Was it worth risking the shortcut through the jumper bay? Maybe the water had receded, with all the doors Jennifer and Sheppard had opened -- but no, no way, not if he ended up being trapped between drowning and a shuffling coral monster. He fled down the corridor in the other direction, retracing John and Jennifer's route. Puddles splashed underfoot, getting deeper.
There was a deep, muffled thud behind him. It must be through the doors -- and had possibly just fallen down the stairs, he thought, stifling a hysterical laugh at the mental image. He'd left the gun lying upstairs, and John would probably glare at him for that, but it wasn't like it did any good against the zombies anyway.
The water was ankle deep now. It seemed that Jennifer hadn't closed any of the doors behind her -- because she was leaving the way open for him, or maybe just because she was too busy with John and trying to get to the escape pod to bother. But in any case, it gave him an extra edge in speed, not having to stop or even slow down. His lungs were on fire and every jarring step sent a bolt of agony through his arm. Even if he'd been able to stop long enough to free his good hand to tap his radio, he wouldn't have the breath to talk anyway. He'd just have to hope that John and Jennifer were waiting for him and that nothing was between him and the exit and --
Rodney skidded into the corridor that he recognized as the one where the escape pod ought to be. His boot slid across something rough under the water and a yelp of "Shit!" escaped him when he realized that there was coral underfoot here. He had to stifle a completely crazy urge to rip off his boot and throw it as far away from him as possible. Stumbling around in sock feet would be a fantastic way to end up having his feet amputated.
But there it was -- the round porthole door of the escape pod. And there were the controls -- covered with coral. Rodney stopped for a moment, mind completely, temporarily going blank with dismay. But obviously John and Jennifer had managed to open it. The coral was still spreading. He raised the hand holding the sack and whacked himself in the ear with his fist to activate the radio. "Jen -- Jennifer?" he managed to gasp. "I'm outside. Open the door."
"Oh Rodney, thank god," and the door slid back. Rodney threw the bag through -- Jennifer staggered back with a yell as the wet mass of it smacked her knees, but Rodney was in too much of a hurry to care. He kicked off his boot, then the other for good measure, and scrambled through. A voice too deep to be Jennifer's gave a startled, hoarse shout, and Rodney realized he'd just stepped on John in his damp sock feet.
"Sorry. Sorry. Damn. Ow. Jennifer, close the door, close it, close it now!" Rodney tripped over John again, trying not to step on anything vital, and staggered into Jennifer, who caught and held him until he was steady(ish). At any other time he'd just want to melt onto her, but right now, getting away was a bigger priority. There was no room in here to maneuver, though. Rodney stepped over John's head, ignoring the weak "Hey!" from underneath, and took a quick look at the controls. He'd never been inside one of these pods, but he'd helped Zelenka design them, way back in their second or maybe third year when the oceanography department got serious about exploring underwater.
Zelenka had been adamant that the controls should be simple and easy to use, sending Rodney's diagrams back to him covered with slashing red pen marks. At the time, it had led to a number of arguments which usually started and ended with Rodney insulting Zelenka's intelligence, but he had to admit now -- to himself, if not to Zelenka -- that when one was terrified and exhausted and being chased by zombies, having a big red LAUNCH button did come in handy.
He hit it. The pod jolted and began to move, picking up speed. Rodney started to turn away, and then spun back around as the pod slowed down. "Wait, what, no, this just never ends!"
Jennifer staggered to lean over his shoulder, resting a hand on the wall to keep her balance on the swaying floor. "Rodney, what's going on?"
"I don't know!"
They came to a complete stop in the tunnel, which was blocked by a blank gray wall that must be the hatch leading to the ocean outside. The small screen on the control panel contained one of Zelenka's user-friendly and thus completely unhelpful error messages: Error. Door failed to retract.
"I know!" Rodney muttered, tapping on keys in the hopes of finding out something more useful. But he could guess the problem. The exterior of the station was largely covered with coral, including, apparently, their exit.
Rodney heard a muttered conversation behind him between Jennifer and John, which seemed to mostly involve John trying to get up and Jennifer attempting to make him lie still. "Hey, Rodney," John rasped, and Rodney looked over his shoulder to see John propped up shakily against one of the bench seats, looking at him with glassy eyes. "Are there any weapons on this thing?"
"Why would there be -- wait, wait, wait." Because that had been one of Zelenka's ideas too, hadn't it? Rodney searched the controls and there it was: a sonic gun to repel sharks -- or the alien equivalent -- plus a single explosive charge to deal with anything that wouldn't take no for an answer. "Um, wow, yeah, I guess we do."
John grinned at him.
"Shut up. But we only have one shot." He took a deep breath and slid the cover off the button. "If this works, it'll blow the hatch and we'll be out."
"If it doesn't work?" Jennifer said.
"Decompression and death." Zelenka, you sneaky little Czech bastard, don't fail me now. Rodney hit the button.
The muffled WHOMP! shook the pod. Then they were accelerating again, and burst out into dark water to the sound of a soft cheer from Jennifer and a short, raw laugh from John.
The pod wobbled dizzyingly before the tiny maneuvering thrusters kicked in and stabilized them, and they began, slowly, to rise. Rodney realized that he was holding his breath, but they continued rising smoothly through the water. As the reef fell away below, he let out a long, long sigh, and sank onto the nearest bench seat, next to John's head.
John looked up at him, upside-down, and smiled, crinkling his eyes at him. "Nice job, McKay."
"Yes, well ... nice job on the whole not dying thing." Rodney slumped against the side of the pod.
"Will you lay down now, Colonel?" Jennifer lowered him back to the floor of the pod and began to set up an IV.
"Some things got kind of ..." Rodney waved a hand. "Smushed. I sort of fell on the bag."
"I noticed, but at least I can get the Colonel stabilized." Jennifer smiled as she hooked up a bag of saline. "You got back just in time, Rodney. Colonel Sheppard was just about to go after you."
"It wouldn't have been a bad idea," John mumbled.
"Except for the whole not walking thing."
Her tone was more affectionate than irked. Rodney wondered when they'd started getting along. Or maybe they'd been getting along the whole time and he'd worried for no reason. He really wasn't that good with people ... Slumping back against the wall, Rodney closed his eyes.
Soft rustlings and a brush against his leg alerted him to Jennifer sitting down next to him. "Let me see your hand."
Rodney reluctantly uncurled it. Jennifer gently unwound the filthy mess of his clumsily applied bandages. Rodney hastily looked away from the seeping wounds. "Any sign of coral?" he asked anxiously.
"Not at all. Though, after I get you fixed up, it might be a good idea to check ourselves all over."
Rodney started to spring up off the bench, and she pushed him back down. "I said after."
He did feel better once she was done, with clean dry bandages, a fresh sling for his arm and the warm muzziness of painkillers seeping into his veins. Then Jennifer stripped off his jacket and ran her palm over his back. "Mmm, nice."
John cleared his throat loudly from the direction of the floor.
Jennifer jumped. "I thought you'd fallen asleep." She finished a cursory examination of Rodney, while he slid his hands under her jacket and then down her legs, brushing her down while examining her visually.
"All clear," Rodney said, "but maybe I better make sure," giving her torso a quick, gratuitous once-over with his hands. Jennifer giggled and pushed him away.
"You're fine, too. And I've already had a chance to look the Colonel over." Jennifer slid back down to kneel next to John's head; Rodney bent over them both.
"How are you feeling?" Jennifer asked.
John blinked at her. "Thirsty. Kinda cold."
"I'm starving," Rodney put in.
"I wasn't talking to you," Jennifer said, while John huffed a soft laugh. She curved her fingers around his wrist. "We're still in for a bit of a wait 'til Atlantis gets here, Colonel; you just rest, and try not to move too much; let's see if you can manage to retain any of the blood that you still have left after running all over creation."
John quirked an eyebrow at her. "Nice bedside manner."
"Right, Colonel, because that works so well on you."
Okay, they were definitely getting along better. Rodney wondered if maybe he'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in some kind of mirror universe, only instead of everyone being evil and having goatees, this was the mirror universe in which everyone got along.
Sudden warm light flooded the pod. Rodney tensed up for a moment, wondering what the Pegasus Galaxy had in store for them now, and then recognized the slant of afternoon sunshine. The pod had broken the surface, and began to rock gently on the waves.
"Oh dear," Jennifer said. She'd paled a bit. "Is it going to do this the whole time?"
Rodney squinted at her. "We're on top of the ocean, so, probably. Are you okay?"
Her pallor had assumed a greenish cast. "I really hope there's some anti-emetics in the meds you brought me."
Rodney closed his eyes. This was going to be a long wait.
Jennifer had learned shortly after assuming the Head of Medicine mantle that the infirmary turned into Grand Central Station when Sheppard was in it. For a private guy, he certainly seemed to never have a peaceful moment, with a steady rotation of teammates that refused to leave him alone. At one point she offered to kick them out if they were bothering him, but he just smiled at her sleepily and said, "Aw, keeps 'em out of trouble, Doc."
Four days after his surgery, he finally had a little more color than the sheets and was sitting up while Rodney regaled anyone who'd listen with the results of his research on the coral lifeform that nearly everyone on Atlantis had taken to calling brain coral. At the moment the audience other than Sheppard consisted of Jennifer, halfheartedly pretending to be busy with routine work, and Ronon, who was sharpening a knife and did not appear to be paying attention.
"There's a whole section on it in the database." Rodney gave Jennifer a sharp look that she pretended not to notice; he, at least, had refused to adopt her name for the thing. "It's a life form that creates sporebearing pods capable of traveling through deep space, which is how it seeds new planets. Normally it's very slow-growing -- this one's probably been here for millions of years -- but when it enters its reproductive cycle, things speed up."
"Wait a minute," John interrupted. "So what you're saying is, out of millions of years, there's this one brief window when --"
"When it's lethal to be around it, yes, and of course that's when we built a research facility on it; isn't that the way our luck goes?" Rodney said briskly. "Though it's possible that the presence of the facility stepped up its life cycle and triggered the reproductive phase. Anyway, it's not really sentient per se. It borrows native animal life as part of its reproductive cycle -- trust me, you do not want to know the details, though I've had a rather more intimate look at it than I'd like -- and basically uses their brains, bodies and so forth. If it hadn't got the researchers, it would've been using fish, and would have been just about as smart as a fish."
John frowned. "So, I'm guessing there wouldn't be paperwork if we killed the sucker?"
Rodney shook his head. "No, it's not any more of a -- a person than your average barnacle. The Daedalus will be in orbit in a few days. I will have you know that I hate myself for saying this, but I think a military solution might be in order."
"In the meantime --"
"In the meantime, there's nothing we can do, is there? It looks like the escape pod's clean of -- spores." Rodney shuddered. "It's probably spreading into the ocean and there's nothing we can do about that, but first of all, it's half a world away from us, and second, we were looking into possibly relocating to another oceanic planet anyway. The longer we stay in one place, the likelier that our enemies will find us again. We might just step up the move a bit. Zelenka and Chuck are working on getting a list of possible candidates." Rodney grinned. "We might even try something different than ocean this time, now that you're better at landing this thing. Chuck found a really nice uninhabited grassland world a few systems over."
"Funny," Sheppard retorted, "I was just thinking that it's about your turn to fly her."
"What? No way! I mean, not that I couldn't, of course." Rodney backpedaled hastily, casting a helpless look in Jennifer's direction. "But I'm going to be very busy running some tests on the wormhole drive. Very busy."
He was saved by the bell just then, when Teyla came in with Torren in one arm and a brightly colored, quilted bag slung over her other shoulder. "Hello, John. You are looking well." She nodded to her other teammate. "Ronon."
"What, no hello for me?" Rodney inquired, dropping into a chair.
"I just saw you at breakfast, Rodney. But, if you wish it, hello." Teyla reached a hand into her bag and came up with a small flat box. "Here is the item you wanted from your quarters, John." She tossed it into his lap.
Both the other men looked over his shoulder. "Grand Theft Auto. That just figures," Rodney sighed.
"I'm going to need to borrow your laptop, Rodney."
"Oh good. As if I'm not, oh, I don't know, using it to keep the entire city afloat." But Rodney handed it over before the complaint was done leaving his mouth.
"You want to play too, Teyla?" John asked, slipping the disc into the computer's drive.
Teyla smiled politely. "Not today, I am afraid; Kanaan and I are taking Torren to New Athos to see his age-mates this afternoon, and I must finish some paperwork first."
John's face became slightly fixed. "Gotcha. No problem."
Rather than leaving, however, Teyla sat down on the edge of John's bed. Torren babbled and reached a pudgy arm for the computer; Teyla shifted the child to the other side of her body with practiced ease. "John, there is something that I have been meaning to speak to you about. I had meant to wait until Torren was a little older, but recent events have made me think I should probably be more forthright."
Now John's whole body had gone stiff. "Yeah?" he said noncommittally.
Rodney gestured at the door. "Hey, I think I better check on one of my --"
Teyla reached out a hand to stop him. "Rodney, wait. This concerns all of you. Ronon as well. But John more so than anyone else."
No one was looking in Jennifer's direction, but regardless, she promptly made herself very busy sorting a tray of retractors. If John ever suspected that she had been talking to Teyla about things he'd told her in confidence, he'd probably never confide anything in her ever again. But ... how could she not? Lack of communication was the problem, not the answer. And confidantes didn't come much more confidential than Teyla. Not that she'd revealed anything specific, just ... dropped a few hints that John had been feeling left out of the team's activities lately. Teyla had picked up on her hints so quickly that Jennifer was pretty sure Teyla had been having similar thoughts herself.
"In any case," Teyla went on, "I know that I have spoken to you of my people's customs regarding childrearing, but I doubt if you remember much of it since, at the time, your face had the look that it gets when you are pretending to listen and privately contemplating new things to do with the puddlejumpers."
"I wasn't!" John protested.
"John. I have seen you at many harvest festivals."
"No, I was listening, I can prove it. When was this conversation again?"
Teyla sighed. "The point is that among my people, a boy traditionally learns the skills and occupation of his mother's family, so it is usual for most of his teaching to be done by his uncles -- his mother's brothers. It is a very important responsibility. In many ways, a child's uncles, particularly the eldest, are as important as his father to his upbringing, if not more so."
Jennifer glanced over. John had frozen up with a blank expression.
"Normally," Teyla went on smoothly, "this education would not begin until the child is older. And most of the skills that Torren will need to learn here on Atlantis are things he is too young for anyway. But since we live on the ocean, I would very much like him to learn to swim as soon as possible." She leaned forward, her face going soft. "And I would very much like him to learn it from his uncles, as is proper and traditional."
"Um," John said, still blank.
Rodney just looked confused. "Teyla, you have brothers? All these years, you never told us!"
Jennifer resisted the urge to slap herself in the forehead, thus losing her air of plausible deniability. Why no, of course I'm not listening.
Though a vaguely nonplused expression crossed Teyla's face, she apparently decided to ignore Rodney. "John, you are Torren's sif-uncle -- usually the mother's eldest brother, and the one --"
"Uh, I don't actually think he's older than me," Rodney interrupted in a faint voice, slowly catching the clue bus.
Teyla gave him a flat look, and he shut up. "He is the leader of the team, is he not? Just as the eldest is the leader among a group of siblings. According to tradition, Torren bears the name of his mother's eldest brother --"
"Oh!" Rodney said, light dawning over his stunned look. "That's why you named him after Sheppard -- it's tradition, right? I always thought ..." He trailed off when she continued to stare at him. "Okay. Right. Go on."
"There is little else to say," Teyla said with a small shrug. "John, you are not only an integral part of my life, but you will also be the most important male figure in my son's life. Along with Rodney and Ronon, of course," she added, glancing up at them. Rodney looked caught between irritation, terror and smugness -- his face as easy to read as a large-print book. Jennifer felt a smile tug at the corners of her lips. Since Teyla had already been interrupted enough, she managed to stop herself from teasing them: Poor kid. He's doomed!
Ronon seemed to recover first; he reached out and chucked the kid under the chin. "Good thing I got a throwing knife all picked out for him, then. It's just like the one my grandmother gave me for my first lessons."
"And you were how old at the time?" Rodney challenged.
Jennifer buried her snicker behind a file folder, and decided to give them a bit of genuine privacy, retreating to a farther vantage where she could keep an eye on her patient without being able to overhear the conversation. When she glanced up again, it looked as if the boys had become engrossed in the video game, while Teyla paid polite attention. Another glance in their direction found Teyla leaning over to rest her cheek against the top of John's head before rising and starting to leave. At the door, she made a sudden turn and headed for Jennifer's end of the infirmary.
"Oh ... Jennifer? I obtained the ... item that you requested. Sergeant Kinley had one. I hope that this is what you had in mind?"
Jennifer glanced quickly over at the guys as she took the glossy magazine from Teyla. They seemed to be absorbed in their game, but you couldn't be too careful ... "Into my office," she whispered with a conspiratorial grin. "You can help me pick one out."
With the office door closed, Jennifer spread out the magazine -- R/C Car Magazine -- on her desk and began to flip through, paying special attention to the ads and reviews.
Teyla placed Torren on the floor with a small box of toys that Jennifer kept for her infrequent child patients, and then leaned over the magazine by Jennifer's shoulder. "I really do not see the appeal of this particular activity, I'm afraid."
"Neither do I, to be honest, but you never know until you try, right? There must be something to it, or the Colonel and Rodney wouldn't enjoy it so much."
"What about this one?" Teyla's finger fell on a sleek, pink Corvette. "That is a traditional color for women among your people, isn't it?"
Jennifer's lip curled. "Nahhh, too girly. I like this one." She pointed to an ad for a black and yellow monstrosity.
"Clawmonster 3000," Teyla read dubiously.
"And there's a coupon!" Jennifer reached for a pair of scissors. The Daedalus would be arriving soon; all she had to do was wait through a round trip for her order to arrive. Oh, and she'd have to remember to add a couple boxes of marble cake mix to the commissary order, as well.
"You are actually buying that." Teyla had her Earth people are crazy face on.
"Don't be silly -- I'm buying three. I wouldn't want the boys to start out at a disadvantage." Jennifer cut out the coupon, and couldn't help the grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth. She was still new to this whole relationship thing, but if love took nurturing and work, then friendships must be likewise. And if Sheppard was willing to meet her halfway, then it was the least she could do to learn a few new skills in order to put him at ease.
Besides ... why let the boys have all the fun?