Bathed in the warm shafts of sunlight slanting through the trees, the old man toiled. Even the summers on this world were cool, but between the exertion and the rare sunshine, he was almost too warm. He'd stripped off some of his furs and tied his loose leather shirt around his waist, revealing strong arms creased with scar tissue and knotted with muscle from years of physical labor.
His arms rose and fell, rose and fell, scooping the loose soil of the forest floor with a shovel that he had made himself from wood and bone. Every so often, he had to stop to tighten the leather straps holding the handle to the shovel's makeshift blade, his hands moving deftly despite two missing fingers on the left. It was during one of these breaks that he noticed the growing chill in the air, and raised his one eye to the sky. A band of fear constricted his chest when he saw the sun peeking low and red between the trees.
He whispered a soft profanity, throwing the shovel aside and clambering out of his hole. Fear made him clumsy as he gathered up his scattered furs, knapsack, and the crossbow that was never far from his reach. He'd been so engrossed in his work that he hadn't even noticed the gathering dusk under the trees. He was not a praying man; in fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd done anything other than curse a deity. But he muttered to himself, under his breath, in fervent hope that he hadn't waited too long.
Despite his urgency, he had to pause to look back on his handiwork. He'd made a lot of progress today, but there was no telling when he'd get another sunny day and be able to come down from the hills to dig again. By that time, it might have undone everything he'd managed to accomplish, if it was so inclined. He never really knew. Sometimes, he had returned to find his efforts destroyed, while other times, everything was completely untouched -- and he had no idea why.
But there was no time to wonder about it now, not if he wanted to survive to dig again another day.
Picking up the shovel, he began to run through the trees.
He was in good shape for a man his age -- not out of choice, but necessity. However, it had been a long, hard day, and the ache in his joints grew into a dry, burning pain as he jogged down the familiar forest path. He hissed softly with each breath out, willing himself to breathe through the pain. It was going to be a restless, sleepless night -- assuming, of course, that he survived long enough to have a chance to sleep. Maybe he'd get drunk tonight. His homemade wine was harsh and dark -- matching his moods, most nights -- and had enough kick to deaden not just physical pain, but mental as well.
He had plenty of both kinds, but never enough wine.
Topping a low rise, he paused to catch his breath. The sky was awash with red and purple. He supposed it was probably beautiful, but to him, the colors meant death, because they heralded the coming of night -- and night was its domain. To his left, one of the towers was clearly visible above the trees, mocking him with its silent and inscrutable presence.
Around him, the forest lay eerily silent. He could remember when these trees rang with the calls of exotic birds, and his crude traps were rich with small furry creatures. These days, he had to hunt farther afield in order to find any sort of game at all, and the animals that he could catch were scrawny and wary, driven to the edge of starvation from constant running. Once, he had depended on the birds to warn him of its coming, because they fell silent when it was around. Maybe that was why it had killed them first.
Eventually, he could foresee a time when the only living things in the forest would be him, and the creature that hunted him.
"But it'll never get to that point if you die tonight, you idiot," he whispered to himself, and jogged down the other side of the ridge, towards the creek. He could use the running water to confuse his trail, maybe throw it off the track if it was following him.
He might be lucky. Sometimes weeks, even months went by when he didn't see any sign of the creature. It had to range far and wide in order to meet the demands of a rapid metabolism that demanded frequent, fresh sustenance. But on the sunny days, it would be nearby, because it had learned that he would be outside during the day, and perhaps it hoped that one of these days, he would be too slow returning to safety.
He wondered if it was capable of thinking on that level. Sometimes he doubted it. Other times ... he wasn't so sure.
He wasn't looking up when the sun slipped below the edge of the world, but he could tell from the sharply increasing chill in the air. Exertion helped keep him warm, but he still appreciated the warmth of the fur cloak over his shoulders.
Now that the sun was down, the creature would be abroad. He could only hope that it wasn't in this part of the forest. Wish in one hand, crap in the other, and see which one fills up first. His grandfather used to say that, long ago; and the old man's lips twisted a little at the bittersweet memory.
His leather boots splashed in the shallow waters of the creek, and he jogged swiftly upstream. He left the streambed at a little waterfall, stumbling a bit, and climbed over a field of loose rocks where he would leave few tracks.
At this point, he had a choice to make. Over the years, he'd cultivated a number of hide-holes. They weren't comfortable, but they were safe -- places where he could spend the night when darkness caught him too far from home. If he kept going up, he would come to one of them. It was closer than the modified cave that he currently called home. On the other hand, his aching joints begged for a soft bed, and his stomach growled for something more substantial than the handful of jerky that he carried in a pouch at his belt. And, at home, there was wine.
"Don't try to go home. There's no time. Use the bolt-hole instead."
He didn't flinch when the voice spoke. Didn't acknowledge it in any way. Certainly didn't take its advice. It sounded so real ... as if the speaker stood at his shoulder, as if he could just turn around and see --
A man could go mad that way.
He suspected that he was already halfway to crazy. He thought he was entitled to it, frankly. But that didn't mean he had to go gently, oh no.
"You're not real," he said, aloud, between harsh gasps for air. "And I'm not doing a damn thing you say." His voice rasped in his throat, rough and low -- his vocal cords had been damaged years ago, the larynx bruised and nearly crushed, in the same fight that had cost him the fingers on his hand.
The voice didn't speak again, and he needed no other confirmation that it was merely the product of an aged, lonely and desperate mind. It was just his subconscious voicing his own fears. But he had confidence in himself. He could make it home long before the creature picked up his trail, if it ever did.
He turned the downhill way, scrambling from rock to rock. It was faster this way, moving with gravity rather than fighting against it. All he had to do was make sure not to twist an ankle -- if he did that, his fate would be sealed. But he made it to the bottom intact, and then he ran across the pine needle carpet under the trees with a speed that belied his age.
A low mist was rising, as it always did at this time of evening. Beneath the trees, the shadows had grown deep, and he stumbled on unseen obstacles as he trotted across the rough ground.
Then behind him, far behind him, a shrieking cry rose on the cool evening breeze. It sounded a little like a hawk or eagle. But there were no birds in this forest, not anymore.
No, he thought. It had found his trail.
It couldn't track by scent -- at least, he didn't think it could. Maybe it would lose his trail at the creek. But he pushed himself from a slow trot into a run, as his creaky joints protested.
The hunting cry came again. Closer. It had crossed the creek.
No point in trying to confuse his trail now. All he could do was run. He thought he'd been at his limits before, but he dredged down deep inside himself and found a little more strength. His breath came in ragged gasps as his feet pounded the ground.
Carrying both the shovel and crossbow slowed him down. Reluctantly, he threw aside the shovel. He hated to lose it, because it was a good one and if the creature destroyed it, he'd have a hard time making a new one that worked as well. But he'd need both hands to operate the crossbow, and he had a feeling it was going to come to that. As he ran, he worked his bag of short wooden bolts around to his side where he could easily reach them.
He had fire-making supplies in his knapsack, along with a torch -- a dry stick of pine wood with a knot of flammable resin at one end. Fire would sometimes drive the creature off, though not always. But he didn't dare stop long enough to light the torch.
He was so very close. Just over the next rise.
The forest was so dark now that he almost didn't see the flicker of movement in the woods off to his right.
It was quick and sinuous, a black darting shape, here and gone in the blink of an eye. He would never get used to how fast it could move. For an instant he caught the gleam of eyes in the dark, and then he lost sight of it again.
He was reaching the end of his strength. Red spots danced in his vision, and a searing pain split his side. For a fleeting instant he wondered if he might have managed to run hard enough to cause his aging heart to fail. Of all the possible ways to die in this forest, it would not be the worst, by far.
He came over the hill, and there was the heavy wooden door that he'd built into the cliff, half-obscured by artfully placed moss and brush. In the dusk, he almost didn't see the dark shape crouching in front of it -- wouldn't have seen it, if not for the sunset's light reflecting in its eyes, turning them to twin sparks of molten gold in the darkness. It had circled around, gotten in front of him. It was waiting for him.
He could have wept. He'd lived here for nearly a year, always careful, always hiding his tracks. Now he had led it here, yet again, and he would have to find yet another place to live, yet another temporary haven that it would find sooner or later. It always did.
No time to stop, to rest. He couldn't give himself a moment's respite. He charged down the hill, pausing only for an instant to bring up the crossbow and fire.
His aim was good, but then, he'd had lots of practice. The bolt thunked home in the creature's chest. He was already reloading as it let out a shrill cry, more of anger than pain, and leaped towards him, moving so fast it seemed to flicker in and out of his vision.
His second shot went through a leg -- clean through, the bolt penetrating so deeply that it stuck out the other side -- and it stumbled as the leg crumpled under it. A shot like that would only slow it down for a moment, but it gave him the chance he needed. He dashed the last stretch to the door, dropping the crossbow to fumble with the complex bolting system that he used to ensure the creature didn't gain access to his home while he was away.
From the corner of his eye, he saw it pick itself up for another leap. But the door was open; he threw himself across the threshold, slammed the door and flung the bar down just as the creature's body thudded into the wood. The door shook, but the heavy bar held. He'd lost the crossbow, but it wasn't the only one he had.
With violently shaking hands, he began moving the rocks that he kept inside the cave, dragging and piling them until the door was nearly blocked. The dull thudding continued as the creature threw itself futilely against the door, and then that sound was replaced by the gut-shivering scraping of long, wicked claws tearing the wooden planks into dull splinters.
Instinctively he raised a hand to his face, touching the torn flesh where his left eye used to be. He knew firsthand how sharp those claws were.
But the wood of the door was solid and heavy, several feet thick, more of an airlock than a door -- and much more resistant than fragile human flesh. He listened to the muffled sounds of scrabbling, and the high-pitched whining cries of frustration. He knew from experience that it would try all night, until either hunger or the light of dawn chased it away. The amount of damage that he'd inflicted on it with the crossbow bolts wouldn't do more than just make it more determined to reach him. It would be fully healed in a few hours.
It was pitch dark in the cave, but he didn't build a fire yet. Instead, he felt his way over to the pile of furs where he slept, and dug beneath them for the object he knew he would find there. Not the wine -- though that would come later. The thing he was searching for gave him less comfort than wine, but more courage. It reminded him of the reason why he kept fighting, why he kept running, why he kept digging day after day. It was both his shame, and his salvation.
He found it, and his fingers closed over the smooth surface, pulling it out. It was a box, about as wide as the length of one of his hands, and a hand-and-a-half long. He didn't open it, just held it to his chest.
Outside, the creature snuffled and clawed at the door, shrieking its frustration.
Inside, the old man knelt in the dark room, clutching the box like a child's doll. Eventually, despising himself for his weakness, he began to cry.
"Well, this has been a waste of time. Can you say 'Complete waste of time', boys and girls? I knew you could."
Rodney's teammates didn't respond, lost in their own thoughts as the four of them slogged back to the Stargate through a drizzling rain. In lighter times, they might have responded to his incessant complaining with verbal sniping of their own -- but today, they allowed him his own method of coping, as silence was theirs. Several months ago, they had visited this world and agreed to come again at harvest time. Now they had come ... but the world was dead, culled and seared to barrenness where a village had once stood. From the grass growing up through the charcoal remnants of their wooden huts, it looked as if it had happened not long after their first visit.
While Sheppard reported back to Elizabeth through the glowing blue puddle of the Stargate, Teyla sat on a nearby rock, her hands between her knees. From his position by the DHD, Rodney cast concerned glances in her direction.
Ronon knelt next to her. "Wraith?"
She jerked, startled by his presence, and shook her head. "No. They are long gone. It is just ... I had friends here, once."
Ronon didn't answer. He knew of such things, all too well.
Sheppard turned back from the Stargate, looking for his other team members. "Well? Ready to blow this popsicle stand, guys?" His voice was a little too light and loud. This, too, was his way of coping.
After a moment, Teyla shook her head. "If you do not mind, John, I would like to stay and perform a ceremony for the spirits of the dead. It will not take long."
Sheppard looked at her tired face, and nodded. "We can wait. Rodney, shut down the --"
"No, no." She raised a hand. "I would like to do this ... alone. If you do not mind."
"I don't like leaving you alone on a Wraith-culled planet."
Teyla stood and brushed off her pants. Her hair was dark and heavy with rainwater. "There are no Wraith anywhere here. I would be able to tell. I will be perfectly safe, and this ceremony needs to be done in solitude. It is an old one of my people, meant for situations such as this."
Her teammates glanced at each other. Ronon said, "I'll stay with her."
Teyla's sigh was exasperated, but her fond look encompassed all of them. "If you must. I assure you I will be all right."
"Ronon stays." Sheppard's face was grim; clearly, he didn't like splitting up, but he'd learned that the easiest way to lead this particular group of people was to try not to force them to do things they didn't want to do. "How long do you think this will take?"
She shrugged. "Half an hour, no more."
"Okay. If the two of you don't dial into Atlantis in half an hour, we'll come back and get you. Deal?"
"Deal," Ronon said.
Still looking worried, Sheppard turned back to the shimmering gate. "Elizabeth, I'm sending my IDC now. Rodney and I are coming through. Teyla and Ronon have a little business to take care of here, so they'll be along shortly."
"Understood," her small, tinny voice replied.
Sheppard turned to Rodney, made an "after you" gesture. The scientist stepped through the gate, and a minute later, reluctantly, Sheppard followed. The light splintered and vanished behind them, leaving only the still and silent ring of the gate, standing on a small rise in the earth.
"You do not need to stay," Teyla said, looking up at Ronon.
He just lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. "I'll stay out of the way."
Teyla smiled, and, kneeling on the wet grass, she took a few small items out of her pockets -- herbs, a little candle. She had taken to carrying with her the necessary supplies for the simple form of the ceremony to lay the dead to rest. She did not have to use them often, but one time was far too many ... and this would not be the first time.
She'd just begun to enter a meditative state when the Stargate sprang to life again -- not five minutes after Sheppard and McKay had walked through it. "Damn it!" Ronon hissed, as Teyla scooped up her supplies and sprang to her feet. The two of them made a dash for the trees at the far side of the clearing.
"Why would the Wraith come back?" Teyla asked, unslinging her P90 with her back against a tree. "There is nothing here!"
"Because they're Wraith," Ronon said, and in the Pegasus Galaxy, that was answer enough.
The Stargate field stabilized, but instead of the whine of darts, there was the crackle of their radios and Elizabeth's voice spoke. "Is there a problem on your end? Everything all right over there?"
The teammates looked at each other in confusion. Teyla tapped her radio. "Doctor Weir? I do not know what you mean. We did not call you."
"I know you didn't," Elizabeth said. "But we received Colonel Sheppard's IDC and then the gate shut down without anyone coming through. We were a little worried."
Now the look they exchanged was more than confused -- it was concerned. "Dr. Weir, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay entered the gate a few minutes ago," Teyla said.
There was a brief silence, then Elizabeth said, "And they came straight to Atlantis -- they didn't dial somewhere else?"
"You think we're lying?" Ronon rumbled.
"We are sure," Teyla said, over the top of him. "The gate was dialed into Atlantis so that the Colonel could report to you, and they stepped through it immediately after. They did not have time to dial another address."
This time the silence was longer, and the worry on the other end was palpable. "I see," Elizabeth said. "I'm going to get Zelenka and some of the other scientists down here. Whatever you do, don't use that gate."
"I do not understand," Teyla protested. "My people have been trading with this world for generations. We never experienced any problems, coming or going."
"I understand that, Teyla, but obviously there is some sort of problem, and I'd very much like to know what it is. Just sit tight and we'll call you back in a few minutes. Weir out."
The Stargate's field collapsed, and Teyla, self-consciously, returned her gun to its resting position. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Ronon still held his own gun loose and ready beside his leg. She could have reminded him that there was nothing to shoot here, but this, too, was his way of coping.
"The scientists will determine the problem and find out what happened to the Colonel and Dr. McKay," she told him with considerably more conviction than she felt.
Ronon made a growling sound, deep in his throat.
The mental serenity necessary to properly conduct the Ceremony of Passage had abandoned her, and all Teyla could do was pray quietly to the Ancestors that she would not have to perform such a ceremony for her missing teammates.
"This isn't Atlantis."
Rodney was speaking as Sheppard stepped out of the Stargate. He came to an abrupt halt, staring at the mist-draped tree trunks in front of him.
"No kidding, Rodney? Really? Nice to see you're putting all those advanced degrees to good use." He swiveled around, swinging the P90 in a ready position, by habit, before he even consciously realized that he'd done it.
The Stargate they'd stepped into had been in a clearing, but this one was surrounded by towering evergreen trees, pressing close about them. It was difficult to tell the time of day; the sky -- what could be seen of it through the trees -- was flat and gray, and looked poised to rain. From the moss cloaking the massive tree trunks, Sheppard guessed that rain was not uncommon here. Great. Two rainy worlds in a row. Just my luck. The air was brisk and chilly, with an autumn-like sharpness, although the foliage was still green.
"Er ... Colonel." Rodney's uncharacteristically quiet voice brought Sheppard's attention down from the trees. He followed the physicist's pointing finger to the ground at their feet.
"Well ... that's odd."
A trench had been dug under one edge of the Stargate, probably about five feet deep; the dirt was heaped haphazardly around the gate. Sheppard could see disturbed earth around it where other holes had apparently been dug and then sloppily filled in. Some of the digging looked quite old; there were fallen pine needles drifted over it. The most recently-turned earth, however, appeared to be very fresh, maybe only a few days old.
Rodney took a couple of steps backward, nearly bumping into Sheppard. "This is great. We're on the planet of the mole people."
"I'd say getting out of here would be a nice idea."
Too worried even to argue, Rodney made a beeline for the gate's DHD, but stopped short with a small moan. Sheppard might not be a scientist, but he could certainly see what the problem was. The top of the DHD had been smashed, as if someone had beaten it with a rock -- someone insanely strong. He knew how tough the DHDs were; even bullets from an assault rifle just skittered off, unless they happened to hit at just the right angle.
"The deranged mole people," Rodney groaned. He tapped a couple of the symbols on the DHD. Nothing happened. He tapped again, harder.
"Er, McKay, I think it's broken."
"No, it's not. The damage is only superficial. You could destroy the entire top of the DHD and it would still be able to dial the gate -- granted, picking out your address would be the tricky part." He crouched down and gave a small squeak of dismay.
"What? It's broken?"
Rodney made another dismayed sound. "Oh, yuck -- snails. I hate snails."
"Rodney ..." Sheppard broke off, staring at the top of the DHD. "Rodney," he said again, in a completely different tone of voice.
"Oh yeah, would you look at this. The primary control crystal is missing. Well, that's just great. Deranged, Stargate-sabotaging mole people."
The urgency in Sheppard's voice finally penetrated. Rodney looked up at him in irritation. "You know, I'm kind of busy here--"
"Look at the top of the DHD."
"I know what it looks like, Colonel --"
"Look again, McKay."
Frowning, Rodney scrambled to his feet. He blanched, and reached out to touch one of the gouges in the mangled surface. "Is that ... er, what I think it is?"
"Looks kinda like claw marks, doesn't it?"
Rodney jerked his hand away as if burned. "That's ... bad."
"Well put. And, y'know, I'd kinda like to leave now, before we find out what can leave claw marks in a DHD. Can you fix it?"
"With what, my magic powers?" He heaved a sigh. "Not without a control crystal, I can't."
"And you don't carry a spare one with you?"
Rodney stared at him. "Are you serious? Where would I get one? I know, Colonel -- the next time we gate to a world, I'll just pull the control crystal and take it with me, so we can't dial home. Honestly--"
"McKay, you can rant later; just fix the damn DHD now."
Rodney paused for a moment, completely derailed, before setting off again.
"I told you I can't! Do you think I'm kidding around? Lying? Without the control crystal, we're totally screwed, Colonel. This isn't random sabotage; whoever disabled this thing knew what they were doing."
"So, what are our options, McKay? Work with me here."
"I don't know!" Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "I don't know why we're here, I don't know how to fix the DHD, I don't know, okay? And I hate it!"
"Well ... let's think, then." Keeping one eye on the forest, and ignoring the dirty look that Rodney sent him, Sheppard began to pace across the small patch of undisturbed earth in front of the gate. "We were dialed in to Atlantis, right? And we didn't un-dial. So we must have --" He broke off, head cocked to one side.
Rodney, oblivious, rambled on. "The wormhole jumped, yes. Obviously. There are a lot of things that could have caused that--"
Rodney's mouth snapped shut; his eyes went wide. "What?" he hissed, sidling behind the DHD. "Monsters? What?"
"Thought I heard something." For just a minute, the sound of the wind in the tree branches had seemed to resolve itself into something like words, although he couldn't make them out. Anxiety, he told himself firmly; just the human mind generating patterns out of chaos. "It was just the wind. Go on, Rodney. You said lots of things could make the wormhole jump gates; like what?"
With a final nervous stare at the woods, Rodney began to tick off on his fingers. "Well, based on the SG mission reports -- it could be gate address confusion due to having more than one gate on the destination planet, which we can pretty much rule out because we know there's not more than one gate on Atlantis's planet; we would have had trouble long before now. There's also the possibility of some kind of device interfering with the correct operation of the gate ... or a solar flare or other disturbance in transit ... or a powerful burst of energy at the event horizon of the originating gate, like a bomb --" He stopped, looked up and met Sheppard's eyes with a look of abject horror. "Teyla and Ronon," he whispered.
"Wait ... wait ..." Sheppard was still trying to catch up. "Okay, you're talking about something like -- like you guys did with the Supergate, right? Which would mean -- okay, no. No way." He tried to shut out the horrifying mental image that had just crawled into his brain: the Stargate dissolving in a sheet of flame, Teyla and Ronon's fragile bodies withering like burning paper ... "No."
After another moment of fixed horror, Rodney's face dissolved in relief. "But no, I don't think it could be that, because the energy flare would've had to have preceded us through the wormhole, and we were already in transit. I think. It's not like anybody's ever done experiments to find out what would happen to a gate team caught in the middle, but it's most likely that we would have come out in Atlantis before the gate jumped, if it was going to do that."
"Great. No bomb," Sheppard said, in a tone that left no room for argument. Teyla and Ronon were fine, and even now trying to find them. He was certain of that. Well, almost certain. "And Atlantis will have noticed that we didn't come through, so they'll be looking for us. Right?"
"Right ... but ..." Rodney waved a hand in the air in time with his racing thoughts. "But we don't know, because it's never happened with a gate team in transit -- and there's a chance, too ... I mean, it's not likely, but there's a chance, if something happened to the gate on the Atlantis end, just long enough to cause a brief instability in the wormhole but not enough to actually shut it down, not if it could re-establish a connection with another gate before the wormhole could collapse -- I don't think it's ever actually happened, but -- oh God, that means Atlantis could be gone --"
Wide blue eyes met his. "What?"
"No bomb," Sheppard said firmly.
"No bomb," Rodney repeated in a small voice.
"No bomb. And right now the folks back on Atlantis are trying to figure out where we've gone. So let's help 'em out and see what we can figure out about where we are."
Rodney cast a baleful look at the sky, some of his habitual irritability starting to reassert itself. "We're on yet another rainy planet, from the look of things. Do you realize, we've been caught in the rain on nineteen of our last twenty-two missions? Do you know what the odds are against that?"
"I can't believe that you're actually keeping track." Sheppard squatted down and peered into the hole next to the gate. It looked as if someone or something had been trying to undermine the gate itself. There were a few inches of standing water in the bottom of the hole, a legacy of the most recent rain. "What do you suppose they were doing here?"
Rodney leaned over his shoulder. "The anthropologists would probably say it's religious. That's always what they say when they don't understand something, which is most of the time." There was a world of scorn in his words. If medicine was a soft science to McKay, then anthropology was located clear out on the pseudoscience end of things.
"And your thoughts on the matter?"
"Hmm." He studied the hole, and then raised his head, frowning. Standing up, he made a complete circuit of the gate, murmuring small "mm-hm" noises under his breath. Then he stopped in his tracks, staring off through the trees, and reached into his pocket where he kept the scanner.
Sheppard was getting increasingly fidgety, watching him. He couldn't quite pin down what was making him so nervous -- well, aside from the claw marks in the DHD and the overall creepiness of the place, which should be enough to make anyone nervous. But there was more to it. Sometimes he thought he could hear sounds on the edge of his hearing, like -- whispering? But when he concentrated, there was nothing but the sound of pine needles rustling softly in the breeze.
He didn't like it. He wanted to get out of here.
"Care to share with the rest of the class, Rodney?"
"Mmm," was all Rodney said. He waved a hand at the dig marks around the gate. "Notice anything odd about that?"
"Just one thing?"
This earned him the patented McKay look of scorn. "Oh, ha. No, seriously -- are you telling me you don't see it?"
"My patience is running a bit thin, here, Rodney, and I'm also armed. Just tell me what you're talking about."
"The ditches -- diggings -- places that have been dug, whatever you want to call them ... they radiate out from the gate, like the spokes of a wheel." Rodney spread his fingers and moved them out from his chest, demonstrating.
Surprised, Sheppard pivoted in a full circle. Rodney was right: the scuffed and uprooted ground, where holes had been dug and then filled, generally described a series of straight lines angling outwards from the gate. It wasn't really something you'd notice, just looking at the individual diggings; they were scattered, sometimes a little bit off the actual line, and some of them were overgrown while others were fresher. But if you stepped back and looked at the pattern as a whole, it was pretty obvious. There were six lines -- or, depending on how you looked at it, three lines that crossed at the gate.
"Ley lines," Sheppard said without thinking. He'd had a girlfriend in college who'd been into crystals and things.
This time the scorn in Rodney's stare should have wilted the foliage. "Or something," the physicist said. He pointed along one of the faintly visible lines, his finger aimed at the woods. "What do you see?"
"Trees," Sheppard said, just to wind Rodney up. He tilted his head to the side. And then he did see it -- if you angled in just the right direction, you could catch glimpses of some kind of tower on a hill overlooking the area.
"I'm getting energy readings, too." Rodney held up the scanner -- like that helped. "So faint I can't really pin 'em down. Either the power source is almost depleted or it's in some kind of standby mode. But there is something around here generating power."
Sheppard used the muzzle of the P90 as a pointing device. "There's also something capable of leaving claw marks in a DHD. I'd say our first priority is getting off this world. You can bring back a team of scientists and --"
He stopped cold, because the nearly-inaudible whispering that he'd been hearing from time to time suddenly broke across the threshold of sound.
It said, as clear as day: "Get out of here."
Sheppard jumped, and spun around, his P90 wavering wildly across the dim, mist-draped trees. The voice had sounded so goddamned close. "Rodney, that'd better have been you."
"What? What?" Rodney demanded, shrinking back against the DHD and staring at the gun in Sheppard's hands. "Hey, could you not wave that thing around, please? Scientist working here!"
Sheppard lowered the muzzle, but continued to stare at the trees, his eyes flicking from one shadow to another. With the trees blocking what little light came down from the gray sky, plus the hanging tendrils of fog, it was impossible to make out more than vague shapes in the undergrowth. "You didn't hear something? Somebody whispering?"
"Is that a joke?" Rodney demanded. "This better not be some kind of Air Force hazing ritual -- trick the physicist and drag him to a creepy planet, start telling him ghost stories until you have him running around the woods screaming ..."
"It's not a ghost story, Rodney, and it's sure as hell not a joke! I heard something. Someone. Well, I think I did. Are you sure you don't hear something?" He strained his senses, but all he could hear now was the wind.
"All I'm hearing is the sound of you losing your already tenuous grip on --"
"Hush!" Sheppard stalked to one side of the Stargate, then the other, staring out at the forest. He hated the open, unprotected feeling of having nothing at his back to provide cover. There were only the trees in every direction, completely silent except for the swishing of wind through the pine branches. "It told me to leave."
Rodney paled slightly, but managed to keep the irritated edge to his voice, almost covering up the fear. He jiggled something on the scanner, recalibrating it for life signs. "There's no one here, Sheppard. No one but us. It couldn't be, oh, your radio, maybe?"
"It's not my radio, Rodney." But still, feeling self-conscious and trying to ignore Rodney's smug look, he tapped the control. "Ronon? Teyla? This is Sheppard. Anybody reading me?"
"Anybody other than me, that is," Rodney muttered.
No answer came. Sheppard shook his head. "I know it sounds crazy, McKay, but I swear I heard it."
"What sort of voice, then? Male? Female? Old? Young?"
It disturbed him to realize that he had no idea. He'd been able to distinguish the words, but the voice itself was ... almost a non-voice. As if it was speaking ... "Directly into my mind," he murmured.
"What?" Rodney asked sharply.
"I'm hearing a voice, Rodney, and I know I'm not crazy --"
"-- matter of opinion --"
"-- am not crazy," he reiterated with a glare, "which means something else is going on. We know that people on the verge of Ascension can do some pretty freaky things. Any Ascended Ancients hanging around here, you think?"
Rodney flicked nervous glances at the trees. "You know, I really hate to go trusting strange voices out of nowhere and all, but if it did tell you to leave ... maybe your overly friendly ATA gene has activated some kind of danger detection system, and perhaps it actually knows what it's talking about. In which case standing around speculating about it might not be a good idea."
"Well, if we can't get back through the gate without the crystal, there's not a whole lot of point to sitting around here waiting for a rescue party to show up. At the very least, we ought to look around for someplace to spend the night." Sheppard freed a hand from the P90 to reach into a pocket of his vest -- then, frustrated, dug through a couple more. "Rodney, you got paper?"
"I'm leaving a note for Ronon and Teyla, in case they follow us."
"Oh, good idea. 'Dear Ronon, Teyla or monster with huge, DHD-destroying claws, we'll be about two klicks north. Love, Sheppard.'" But he was fishing out a notebook and pen as he spoke, and handed them over.
Sheppard scribbled in large letters: WE'RE OK. CALL US. USE CHANNEL 3. -S. He used a rock to weight down the paper on top of the DHD.
"Taught you that method of hiding your tracks in commando school, did they?"
"That's going to be awfully hard to read if it rains, you know."
"Weren't you the one who wanted to get out of here?" Sheppard raised his eyes to the ominous gray sky. "Hey, you -- we're leaving now, okay? Anything to say on the subject?"
"You're talking to your mysterious voice," Rodney said flatly as they left the vicinity of the gate. Sheppard took point.
"Well, it talks to me."
"Is it talking to you right now?" Rodney demanded, waspishly.
Sheppard closed his eyes for a moment. Give him strength. "No, Rodney. It's not. All it's said so far is 'Get out of here'"
"Well, that's unenlightening. It could at least tell you something useful, like, oh, why. It's like one of those idiotic murder mysteries where the victim lives just long enough to gasp out some utterly unhelpful yet amusingly ironic message, the true meaning of which will be perfectly evident only when they've unraveled all the other clues. Is there some unwritten rule that dying people have to speak in riddles? Once, just once, can't they manage to put the useful information first. 'Bob killed me', not 'The killer is named ... gasp' ... thud."
Sheppard fought a losing battle to keep a smile off his face. "I'll remember that in case something kills me, then."
But as they entered the trees, it suddenly didn't seem funny. The mist curled around the tree trunks and hugged the ground, making the world around them soft-edged and strange. Above them, the trees rustled softly, and moisture dripped from the swathes of moss draping their massive limbs. The temperature was chilly, probably in the fifties, and the dampness made it feel even colder. An overgrown path led away from the Stargate ... and also away from the tower that they'd seen through the trees.
"Ehhhh ...." Rodney made a protesting noise like steam escaping from a teakettle, pointing back the way they'd come, as Sheppard started down the forest path.
"We can investigate later. Right now, I want to get some altitude and get an idea for the lay of the land. This is going up. Coming?"
With a final, reluctant glance over his shoulder, Rodney followed.
The trek through the woods was subdued and quiet. Sheppard strained all his senses, P90 at the ready, but the mysterious voice did not come again, and even the occasional hint of whispering had vanished. Rodney muttered complaints under his breath -- Sheppard caught mention of the cold, the damp, mold, allergies, pneumonia, etc. -- but even he kept it down. And it wasn't hard to see why. The forest was strangely, creepily silent. The only sound was the wind in the trees' branches; the snapping of twigs under their feet sounded as loud as gunshots in the near-total silence. Normally, on their travels through the Stargate, a world with such lush plant life would have had birds and small animals in abundance. Here, there weren't even very many insects.
Usually if a world had a lot of plants but no animals, there was a reason for that.
He decided not to mention this to Rodney. Seeing that the scientist's nose was buried in his scanner, Sheppard asked, "Any luck with those energy readings?"
Rodney made a vexed noise, holding the scanner in one hand while tucking the other one under his armpit to warm it up. "Nada. Zip. Still very faint, very hard to pin down. And very few life signs, either."
"Yeah." Sheppard glanced at the tree trunks surrounding them. "I'd noticed."
The path that they had been following finally petered out completely, to Sheppard's annoyance. He struck off through the forest, up the nearest hill.
"I really hope you can find your way back," Rodney grumbled behind him as they scrambled through wet brush.
"I do have some minimal navigation abilities, McKay," Sheppard retorted sarcastically, ducking under a low-hanging creeper vine.
"I hope so, because it would really suck to try to explain to Elizabeth that we spent two weeks on this planet because we lost the Stargate in a jungle."
It was starting to get dark, and Sheppard wished they hadn't wasted so much time arguing at the gate. The voice had remained silent since its outburst, but whatever the hell it was, he knew that he hadn't imagined it. The back of his neck prickled in that Afghanistan kind of way -- the feeling that an enemy was out there, somewhere, waiting to kill him, but not knowing where it would come from or how it would strike.
He kept glancing at the scanner until Rodney, annoyed, covered it up with one hand. In the twilight under the trees, the glow outlined his fingers and lit up his face in soft bars. "Quit that. I'll tell you if I see something. There's no one out here but us."
Sheppard flicked on the flashlight of his P90. He knew the light would make them a target in the dark woods, but he trusted Rodney to tell him if a life sign showed up on the scanner, and breaking an ankle in a hole in the ground wouldn't improve their situation at all.
As they climbed the hill, the towering trees in the valley gave way to small, gnarly pines and brush. Finally they emerged on top of the hill in a clearing, and Sheppard flicked off the flashlight, allowing his eyes to adjust to the twilight.
The sun had set, and the clouds were stained reddish in a direction that he presumed must be this world's west -- or east, depending on the way the planet turned. There was still enough light to see a carpet of treetops below them, cut by silver threads of rivers. Mountains arose to their right; the hill on which they stood was clearly a foothill, and Sheppard could see that it went up fast and got steep quickly. In the other direction, there was nothing but rolling hills and eventually flatland. He was able to see the top of the Stargate from up here, glimmering in the fading light in the sky, and he lightly cuffed Rodney's arm in triumph. "See? Didn't lose the gate. Nothing to it."
"Hmph," Rodney grumbled, jerking his arm away and staring at the scanner.
The one thing Sheppard could tell for sure was that nowhere, in that great forest spread out at his feet, were there any signs of current habitation. No glimmers of light, no wisps of smoke. As far as he could tell, they were completely alone on this world. The only indication that anyone had ever lived here was the tower that Rodney had seen through the trees, sitting proud and lonely atop a distant ridge on the far side of the valley that sheltered the Stargate.
No, wait. Not tower, but towers, plural. There was another one on their side of the valley, high on the slope of one of the more distant mountain peaks. And there ... turning, Sheppard could just see the top of another, barely visible over the foothills.
He couldn't really make out any details, even through his small field binoculars. They were featureless and gray, entwined with climbing vines and moss. He couldn't tell from here whether they were made of stone or something more high-tech, but they were obviously very old. The ones that he could see appeared to be equidistant from the gate and from each other.
Rodney was motioning impatiently for the binoculars. Handing them over, Sheppard said, "What do you want to bet that there are six of those things?"
"Mmm." Without taking the binoculars from his eyes, Rodney pointed with the hand holding the scanner. "Then there should be one down there, in the flat country. Assuming there's one for every ..." He trailed off, obviously stumped for terminology.
"... or whatever, then two of them would be hidden from us by the hills behind the gate -- but we should be able to see another one down there. Ah! There is. It's just that the trees are so tall on the flat land that they're hiding it. In fact ..." Rodney took down the binoculars, then put them back to his eyes, then took them down again. "Maybe I'm imagining things, but do you see anything odd about the trees down there?"
"I'm getting really tired of questions like that, McKay."
"Just ... okay, look." Rodney pointed to the most clearly visible tower. Then his finger traced an invisible line from that one, to the one that couldn't quite be seen with the naked eye. His finger kept moving, up to the one on the mountainside.
And Sheppard did see it, even in the twilight. There was very nearly a visible line in the vegetation. Inside the circle that Rodney had marked off, the trees were noticeably taller than the ones outside.
"Okay ... that's really weird."
"Aha! You see it too!"
Sheppard squinted at the tower on the mountainside, its slender shape backlit by the fading sunset colors in the sky. "I'd really like to know what the hell those things are doing."
"See, that's the weird thing. According to these power readings, I can't imagine that they're doing much of anything. Either they've already done their thing, and depleted their energy source, or ..." He looked over at Sheppard with the wide-eyed, "we're screwed" look that John was beginning to dread. "Or they're just powered down and waiting for new victims to come along."
"A few minutes ago, you wanted to go find one and figure out what it did."
"I still do! I'm me, after all! On the other hand, spending the night here isn't exactly making me jump for joy."
Sheppard looked down at the rolling forest below them. The area circumscribed by the towers was quite large; he guessed each one was about eight to ten miles from the gate. They'd have to hike all night to either reach a tower or get outside their area of influence. Heck, it might take longer, because they'd be walking in the dark through unfamiliar forest with no trails. Finding a place to hole up for the night made more sense.
As if in response to his thoughts, a fat raindrop hit Sheppard on the end of his nose. More pattered down around his ears. Rodney let out a long, pained-sounding sigh. "And here I thought it couldn't get worse -- oh!"
Sheppard looked around; Rodney was staring at his scanner. "McKay? Something?"
"I'm getting a life sign." Rodney frowned, holding the screen up in front of his face. "What the hell? That can't be an animal; it's moving too damn fast. A vehicle maybe? Except there's no energy signature..."
"How fast is fast?" Sheppard demanded.
"I don't know. Fifty or sixty kph, maybe?"
"There are animals that can run that fast."
"Oh sure, maybe, but none that you want coming towards you."
"It's coming towards us?"
"Didn't I just say that?" Rodney fiddled with the controls on the scanner. "The one thing I can tell you for sure is that it's not human, Wraith or anything specific that I know how to calibrate for. It's just fast, and alive, and making a beeline for us."
"Where is it coming from?"
Rodney pointed down into the valley where the Stargate was located. "From back there."
"Then let's not stick around here until it shows up." Sheppard gave Rodney's arm a tug, urging the other man in front of him.
"Where are we going?" Rodney demanded, clutching the scanner.
"Up the mountain. At the very least, we'll have high ground and rock at our backs."
"I don't think you realize how fast this thing is coming, Colonel!" Rodney snapped, though he was already climbing for all he was worth. "It'll be here in just a few minutes!"
"Then how about we don't be?"
As Sheppard urged McKay into a trot, the rain began falling in earnest, lowering a gray curtain over the world and making it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of them even with the flashlight. They forged their way through a band of thick brush and then scrambled up a slope of loose, drifted rocks. Pushing Rodney ahead of him, Sheppard turned back to cover the woods with the P90 while Rodney got to the top of the slope. "Where is it now?"
"Closing fast," Rodney reported from above him, over the sound of clattering rocks as he scrambled up the slope without particular care for where he put his feet.
"What's up there, McKay?" Sheppard demanded as he started to climb, dividing his attention between the unstable rocky slope and the dark woods. "Anything we can use for cover?"
"Lots of boulders," Rodney called down. "Some small trees. Colonel, it's going to come out of the woods any minute now. Get up here!"
"What do you think I'm doing?" His feet slipped on the wet rocks, sending him down to one knee with a jolt of pain.
He looked up as he scrambled back to his feet and saw, with horror, that Rodney was actually coming back down to help him. "No! I'm fine! Get back up there and cover me, damn it!"
He made it to the top without incident and ducked behind a boulder. "Now where is it?" he demanded. Rodney was crouched on the ground, one hand on the P90 clipped to his vest and the other holding the scanner.
"Looks like it veered off when it hit the edge of the woods, rather than coming straight for you. It's circling around. Sheppard, I have no idea how it can possibly be moving this fast." Rodney's words were clipped and tight. Sheppard could tell that the other man was staving off panic with everything he had, and felt a sudden rush of pride for the scientist. Rodney had come a long way from the man he'd met in Antarctica two years ago.
"Circling which way?"
"Left. Er, our left." Rodney pointed. "It's behind those rocks right now."
"Those rocks" were a series of wind-sculpted tors, black shapes framed against the darkening sky. Between the rain and the near-total darkness, it was becoming more and more difficult to see anything at all. Sheppard placed himself between the scientist and the rocks, while casting quick looks around him for anything that could provide more cover than the boulders surrounding them. He couldn't make out a damn thing in the dusk, though -- just the amorphous black forms of more rocks.
"What's it doing now?"
Rodney swallowed. "At a guess, I'd say stalking us, maybe trying to figure out what we are. It's just kind of moving around, back and forth -- Damn it, to your right!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard caught a dark streak of motion, there and gone. He swung around, trying to track on it with the P90, but he couldn't see where it had gone.
"Behind us," Rodney hissed, turning.
"We have to get to some better cover," Sheppard muttered. "Stay beside me. Try to keep out of my line of fire. And turn the screen so I can see it, dammit!" He began backing up the hill, trying to stay between Rodney and the approximate location of ... whatever it was. Rain pattered in the darkness around them. The screen of the LSD was a dancing, glowing blur in the corner of his vision; every time he glanced down at it, all he could see when he looked back towards the boulders was a purplish blot blocking out his night vision.
A sudden, high-pitched shriek shivered the air. Sheppard jumped and nearly squeezed the trigger on the P90. The sound made him think of the noise that eagles made in old Western movies -- or, more ominously, the hunting cry of Ellia the Wraith. But Rodney had said that it wasn't a Wraith --
"Sheppard!" Rodney yelled, as movement flashed in front of him and he caught the quick gleam of a pair of eyes headed straight for him at an impossible speed. His quick, reflexive clutch at the P90's trigger lit up the rocks with a muzzle flash and he caught a brief glimpse of something dark and lithe and big, dodging to one side as bullets strafed the spot where it had just been.
Sheppard released the trigger and stood in the dark and the rain, totally blind with his night vision washed out by the muzzle flash. His heart was hammering against his ribs. Beside him, Rodney was babbling, "Did you get it? Did you?"
"I don't know. Where is it?"
Rodney checked the screen. "Left. Couple hundred meters away. It's not moving, but the life sign's still strong."
Sheppard flicked on the P90's flashlight and swung the light in that direction, illuminating a thousand tiny streaks of falling rain. The light gleamed off wet rocks and the abrupt flash of two eyes like twin lamps in the dark, there and gone as the creature retreated with a hissing sound.
"It doesn't like the light," Sheppard said softly.
"Good! I wish we'd brought a jumper full of floodlights through the gate with us!"
Sheppard played the light back and forth across the field of boulders, trying to find the creature again. He caught a glimpse of fast, furtive movement across one of the open areas and swung the light quickly, in time to catch sight of a glistening wet back lined with dark stripes that might be matted hair or some kind of short spikes. The creature's head went up sharply, swiveling on a short neck lined with more of the hair or spikes, and then it raced forward with another burst of that impossible speed. Sheppard whipped the light around to follow it, and caught it in the act of going right up the side of one of the granite tors. At the top of the stone pillar, thirty feet or more in the air, it crouched down in a dark lump and screamed at them like a giant bird of prey. A crest of dark spikes bristled on its head and trailed down its back -- Sheppard swore that those had been lying down a minute ago, but now they stood up in an aggressive display.
"Jeez," Rodney whispered, mingled fear and awe in his voice. "It's like the world's biggest gecko."
There was, indeed, a lizardlike quality to its quick, jerky movements. But there was also something very wrong about it ... something about the way the legs bent, the unnatural keenness in its gleaming yellow eyes -- something that ran a fingernail down the raw edge of his taut nerves.
"I don't think it's really sure what to make of us," he said softly, backing up the slope with Rodney sticking to him like glue.
"Let's get out of here before it figures it out, then, shall we?" Rodney was obviously trying for a flippant tone, but his voice cracked in the middle.
In the circle of light cast by the P90, the creature ducked its head to one side and flashed behind the stone.
"Crap! Where'd it go? Rodney?"
Rodney sucked in a breath. "It's coming at us again. Nine -- no, eleven, your eleven --"
Sheppard fired again, blindly, in the indicated direction, and the scream that came out of the darkness was the shriek of an animal in pain.
"It didn't even slow down," Rodney gasped. "It's still coming -- shit --"
Between one heartbeat and the next, it was there -- leaping out of the rain and the dark. Sheppard caught a glimpse of jaws wide open, revealing a double row of discolored and irregular fangs. He brought up the P90 but it was just so impossibly fast. It sprang four-legged, like a leaping dog, and its weight bore Sheppard down to the ground. His gun went flying, spinning out of reach; claws ripped down his side in a blaze of pain. His head cracked against the rocks and stars burst in his vision, but still he was strangely clearheaded -- he could smell it, a musty wet animal smell with a heavy metallic overtone like old rotten blood -- he could feel the strange, unnatural heat of its body, like a furnace on top of him, flattening his chest and crushing the breath out of him -- sharp pain of claws digging into his arm -- bony spines on its body, pressing painfully against him -- he managed to get his free hand around one ankle, holding the claws away from his face, startled by the softness of the dark, velvety hair encircling its wrist -- but with one hand pinned and the other occupied, no hands were left free to protect his face, and the jaws opened over him, its rank breath washing across him, inches away --
A burst of automatic weapons fire barked in his ears, and bits of earth and rock spattered his face with a sharp sting. The creature's scream of pain was earsplitting at close range. It sprang away, the hot body vanishing as cold rain poured down onto him and burned against the wounds its claws had left behind. Sheppard gasped for air, willing his deadened limbs to move and pull him upright.
"Sheppard?" Rodney was leaning over him. "Sheppard, get up. Are you -- did it -- did I --"
"I'm fine." Never mind the hot stickiness down his side. He could move, and Rodney's damp hand helped haul him to his feet. He realized -- his brain taking its time catching up with events -- that it must have been Rodney who shot the animal ... without even hitting Sheppard. "Nice shooting," he said, and meant it.
"It's not dead." Rodney's voice shook. "I saw blood, I got it right in the back, but it's not dead. I was afraid I was going to get you too -- I didn't want to keep firing --"
"You did fine." Wincing, Sheppard bent over to feel around in the dark for his P90. "Where did it go?"
"I don't know." Quick rustle as the scanner was pulled out. "Oh Jesus, it's circling us."
Like a shark. Sheppard's fingers closed over the cold metal of the P90's muddy barrel. He staggered a little as he straightened up, lightheadedness washing over him. Keep moving. It'll pass. "All right, we're going to stay back to back, and we're going up the hill, all right?"
"Colonel, we both shot it and it didn't even slow down." There was raw panic building in Rodney's voice.
"Let me get my P90 between its teeth and we'll see how much that slows it down," Sheppard said grimly. "I'll blow its damned head off."
"What if that doesn't kill it!" Rodney's voice rose in a squeak.
"Then we'll try something else! McKay, move it!"
They moved -- back to back, guns out, creeping sideways up the wet, treacherous slope. It was full dark now, the sky just barely lighter than the dark mass of the mountain above them.
"It's staying away from us," Rodney reported breathlessly, studying the scanner. "It's on your side, maybe thirty meters off, pacing us."
Thirty meters was way too damn close, as fast as that thing could move. "We gotta find someplace to take cover," Sheppard muttered.
"There's nothing up here but rocks. Because some idiot wanted to go up ..."
"We'd have been sitting ducks in the woods, McKay!"
"We're sitting ducks here!"
"How close is it now?"
"About the same," Rodney said, and then, "Oh. Damn. Don't go any farther over this way, please."
"Why?" Sheppard twisted his head around, trying to see.
"Because there's a big frikkin' canyon over here. If we keep going this way, we're going to fall in."
Turning his head to the side, Sheppard could just see the place where gleaming wet rocks turned into a pit of impenetrable blackness in the pool of light cast by Rodney's flashlight. He realized that some of what he'd taken for the patter of rain around them was actually the distant crashing of a stream rushing at the bottom of the canyon.
Which meant they were now trapped between the beast and the cliff. Hopefully the creature wasn't smart enough to figure that out.
"So far your ideas aren't working out all that well, Colonel," Rodney said in a voice that trembled only slightly.
"Give me time here. A brilliant plan doesn't happen overnight."
"It'd better happen in the next five minutes, or I'm thinking we're going to be monster chow."
Now that they were standing still, Sheppard could hear an occasional soft click or rustle as the creature moved in the darkness, just outside the glow of the flashlights, its claws tapping on the rocks like the clicking of a dog's footsteps on linoleum.
"We could try splitting up. You stay still, I'll draw it away --"
"The hell you're leaving me alone in the dark!"
"Rodney --" With their backs pressed together, he found that he could actually feel the physicist's body language -- and right now the lines of Rodney's body were settling into a pose of solid obstinacy. "Fine. Fine. No splitting up."
Rodney relaxed just a little. "Good."
Sheppard chewed on his lower lip, straining his eyes to pierce the darkness where the small rustlings let him know that the creature was still out there, pacing, waiting. "Okay, I've got something. We'll rush it."
Rodney's body went rigid. "How is that a plan?"
"Element of surprise. It obviously doesn't like the light. We use the lights to pin it down and then we both open fire."
"The only problem with that, Colonel, is the fact that it is much faster than either of us, and also, P90 fire doesn't seem to hurt it all that much."
"Well, since you don't like any of my plans, it's your turn to come up with something." Sheppard was starting to shiver slightly as the heat seeped out of him, flowing away down his side, trickling into the waistband of his pants. The rain had died away to a light mist, but they were both soaked to the skin. If that thing doesn't get us, the weather will.
"Okay, fine, I will then. Genius at work," Rodney snapped. After a moment's silence, he said, "It doesn't like the light."
"Doesn't seem to, no."
"Might make sense, if it's nocturnal. The light might hurt its eyes. I don't suppose you have any of those interesting little devices that For-- that you military types used on Dagan to completely blind me."
"Flashbangs ... no, but ..." Sheppard grinned. "I do have a couple of flares. Rodney, I hate to admit it, but sometimes you really are a genius."
"Of course, it's possible that light just makes it furious and homicidal," Rodney muttered.
Sheppard unsnapped the pocket of his vest where he kept the flares. A flare gun would have been better, but all he had were a few of the handheld kind. Still ... it was possible that one of these might be capable of temporarily blinding a nocturnal creature, even chasing it away.
Thinking back to the single-minded intent of the beast charging at him, the way it shrugged off the P90 fire, made him shudder. No ... a flare probably wouldn't be enough to chase it away. But it might give them a chance to escape -- if they had somewhere to escape to.
He glanced over his shoulder at the ravine. But, no ... that wasn't going to help. The creature could scuttle up a sheer rock face as if it were on flat ground; they'd be at its mercy if they tried to climb down.
If only they had a puddlejumper. From now on, he was always taking a jumper through the gate. Always. If you couldn't fly to a world, then they just wouldn't go there.
"It's getting restless," Rodney murmured. "I think it's about to try something."
"Then we'll try something too."
Rodney didn't have to tell him -- he saw the rush of movement at the edge of the flashlight's radius. The light jerked around wildly as he struck a flare and lobbed it at the dark blur. The white-hot flash seared an arc into his vision as it hurtled towards the creature --
-- which leaped and batted at the flare like a cat, knocking it back towards the two stunned men. They ducked instinctively, and the flare arced over their heads and briefly illuminated the rim of the ravine before plunging down and vanishing.
Screaming in rage and pain, reeking of scorched fur, the beast sprang. Sheppard raked it with P90 fire, nearly staggering off the edge of the cliff from a combination of recoil and a clumsy attempt to dodge its charge without falling into Rodney. Shrieking, the animal vanished in the rain.
"Way to waste a flare, Sheppard," Rodney snapped, once he got his voice back.
"I didn't know it was going to do that. It's so freaking fast." He glanced over the edge of the ravine. The flare had lodged in some tree branches, where it was sparking and spitting, lighting up the treetop and the canyon floor. He watched for a moment to make sure it wasn't going to set fire to the woods, but it seemed that the branches were too wet.
Although if the creature disliked light, setting fire to the woods actually might not be a bad idea. He decided to hold that back as a last resort, though. Arson might be even harder to explain to Elizabeth than temporarily losing the Stargate, especially if there were people living here after all.
"I know, I know: 'Where is it'. I think we really hurt it that time. It's run off that way." McKay pointed with the hand holding the scanner.
"I know I got it with the P90 that last time -- got it good. I saw blood fly." Taking a couple of steps forward, Sheppard knelt down and shone his flashlight over the rocks. There were, indeed, swatches and splatters of blood, swirling as the drizzling rain diluted them. Sheppard touched a spot of blood lightly. It was warm, and charcoal black -- the word ichor came to mind. It looked a lot like Wraith blood. Is it a rule that all alien monsters have to have nasty black blood? Carson might know ...
"Um, Colonel ..." There was a slight quaver to Rodney's voice. "It's circling around. Coming back."
"What, again? I emptied half a P90 clip into it!" Sometimes the universe was just not fair. "It shouldn't be able to walk!"
"It's moving slow, but it's definitely moving."
Sheppard planted himself between Rodney and the great, unknown darkness. Playing his flashlight across the field of boulders, he caught movement between two of them. In the brief glimpses that he could get, he could see that the creature was limping badly. He'd definitely hurt it. But his attack should have blown off a limb. And he was uncomfortably aware that he was running low on bullets. He had a spare clip for the P90, and so did Rodney, but after that they'd be down to the Berettas and if machine guns didn't do the trick ...
The creature hissed at the light and darted off behind another rock with a sinuous, scuttling motion. Something about that nagged at Sheppard's memory; he felt as if he'd run into something like this before, a long time ago. He just couldn't quite put his finger on what, exactly.
"Ideas would be good here, Colonel," Rodney said between his teeth.
Sheppard teased another flare out of his pocket, just in case. Not that it had done much the last time, but now he knew better than to throw it -- at their feet, it might help keep the creature away from them, for a little while at least. "Is it possible to use the scanner to find a cave for us? Something defensible?"
"What do you think this is, a tricorder? I could maybe get some data on the composition of the rocks, but it's not like that's going to help unless you've suddenly developed a hidden talent for geology, considering that I -- oh crap."
"What?" Sheppard swiveled around, feeling Rodney do likewise.
"It went into the ravine--" Rodney began, and then the creature erupted almost under their feet -- and this time it was going for Rodney. A powerful blow smashed into his arm, sending the scanner sailing through the air; it crunched against a rock, and bits of irreplaceable Ancient technology went skittering off in all directions. Rodney let out a yell of mingled pain and surprise.
Before Sheppard could get a clear line of fire on the creature without hitting Rodney, it was gone again, vanishing into the rain and the dark.
Rodney was on his knees on the ground, clutching his arm and gasping in pain. Sheppard knelt next to him, wincing as the movement tugged at his own injury. "I think my arm's broken," Rodney stammered, white-faced.
Sheppard prodded at it. "No, I don't think so. But you'll have a hell of a bruise in the morning."
"If we make it to morning." He seemed to be getting his wits about him; his voice had begun to steady, and through the hand resting on Rodney's arm, Sheppard could feel the trembling beginning to ease. "It went after the LSD, Colonel. It figured out what we were using it for."
Sheppard hauled Rodney to his feet, shaking his head all the while. "No way. It couldn't possibly be that smart."
Rodney just pointed at the scattered guts of the LSD with his good hand. "You explain that, then."
He didn't want to try, didn't want to contemplate the idea of a nearly indestructible monster that was smart enough to understand the functions of a piece of technology it had never seen before, wielded by creatures it had probably never seen before either. "Can you fix it?"
Rodney gave him a very dirty look. "Maybe given a few days, a lab and replacement parts. We hardly even understand how these things work when they are working --"
Rodney didn't have to be told twice; he shut up immediately. Sheppard turned slowly, trying to orient on the sound he'd heard -- the click of claws on stone, not too far away.
He hadn't realized how much they'd been relying on the LSD. They were totally blind now. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Rodney had crouched down to pick up the pieces of the scanner, and he hissed, "McKay! Don't bother with that!"
"These things don't grow on trees, Colonel --"
Beyond Rodney, eyes gleamed gold in the darkness, closing rapidly on the scientist. "Duck!" Sheppard yelled, and fired over Rodney's head. But the creature anticipated the movement and dodged to one side. It was learning very fast indeed. And then what he had feared, happened -- the hammer fell on an empty chamber. He'd run out of bullets. No time to reload.
"Rodney! Gimme your gun!"
Rodney began struggling with the vest clip on the P90. It was obvious that he wasn't going to get it undone in time, and Sheppard fumbled for the spare clip in his own vest while ejecting the old one.
Motion out of the corner of his eye made his head whip around, just in time to see the creature, graceful and perfectly silent, leap at Rodney. The scientist saw it too, but his P90 was tangled up with the vest clip and pointing in the wrong direction. Rather than shooting, he let go of the gun with both hands and tried to roll away. "Sheppard!" he screamed as the beast landed on top of him, knocking him flat -- and then the cry for help turned into a scream of pain, although from this angle Sheppard couldn't see what it was doing to him.
The spare clip for the P90 slipped from Sheppard's rain-wet fingers as he tried to yank it out of his vest pocket -- too fast, too careless, too worried about Rodney; it bounced off into darkness. With a yell of frustration, he drew his 9-mil and aimed for the back of the thing's skull. It jerked its head as he fired, and his shot winged off its scalp -- but that got its attention, and it spun in a fluid, rippling motion and came at him. He fired again and then it was on top of him, all muscle and teeth and spines and rough scales with occasional patches of coarse fur. The claws burned a trail of fire down Sheppard's shoulder and back. He might have screamed; he wasn't sure. Then the ground went out from under his feet, and he was falling, locked together with the creature.
The cliff wasn't sheer, and it was covered with vegetation, slowing their fall in a series of bruising impacts. They struck and rolled and struck again. Sheppard's leg doubled under him -- Oh God, this is going to be bad -- and then the weight of the beast came down on top of him and he felt bone give way, and this time he knew he screamed, long and loud, even as he caught himself with both hands on the trunk of a tree, arresting his fall.
With his cheek pressed against rough, wet bark, he breathed deeply through the initial wave of lightheadedness. He'd broken bones before, and he knew the feeling. He also knew that he was well and truly screwed -- disarmed, injured, and, now, in an environment more favorable to his enemy than to himself. And Rodney was -- what? Hurt, dead?
He opened his eyes to a flickering, red and black world. For an instant he was completely disoriented; then he realized that he was hung up in some of the trees growing along the canyon's walls, and the flare was providing the dim illumination that enabled him to see a dark network of branches around him.
Rodney, he thought, but as he struggled to get himself upright, spurred by the need to get back to the top of the cliff, he looked up and saw the creature clinging to the treetops above him. For a moment they just stared at each other. He could see the dim flash of its eyes in the guttering light of the flare, the narrow inscrutable slits of its catlike pupils. The dark spines on its head and back bristled like the hackles of an angry dog. One of its forelegs was drawn up against its body, and black blood dripped onto the leaves below it.
"Look, I have no clue if you can understand me, but things seem to have gotten a little out of hand here," Sheppard said, staring into the flat yellow gleam of its eyes. "I realize this is your world and we're just guests here. Still, this is a bit rude, don't you agree? Why don't you go your way, we'll go ours, and we can forget all this ever happened."
It opened its mouth, the double row of jagged fangs flashing in the flare's light, and hissed at him.
"Or perhaps not."
Shrieking, it sprang down onto him. Sheppard drew his knife, the only weapon he had left -- as if he could survive hand-to-hand combat with a creature like this, but he didn't intend to die easy. The weight of its body sent them both crashing through layers of branches and into a tangle of brush. Pain exploded behind Sheppard's eyes; his vision went dark, and then came back in wavering snatches. He was going to die now -- he had to die, he couldn't even move to defend himself. But instead there was -- fire? Had he set the woods on fire after all? He blinked to clear his vision, but all he could see was flickering firelight, painting the trees in shades of orange and gold. And then someone was bending over him, a dark shape against the light of the flames. "Rodney," he whispered, gratefully.
Hands caught him, eased him out of the brush onto flat ground. "Shh. It's all right; you'll be all right." Rodney's voice was low and rough and ... wrong? Somehow Sheppard thought it seemed important that he should figure out why, but he couldn't summon enough energy to care before he passed out.
A/N: The idea of "useful information first" when someone's on their deathbed comes from Connie Willis's novel Passage, which is about researchers studying the afterlife. One of the characters is hung up on the idea that characters in books and movies always start with the least important information: "The locket is hidden in the ..." and then die before they can gasp out the important part. Perhaps Rodney's read the book.
It was growing dark in the clearing around the Stargate. Teyla had performed her ceremony for the dead, then meditated for a while, and now she was practicing katas -- she didn't have her fighting sticks with her today, so she was using a couple of suitably-weighted pieces of wood that she'd found in the woods.
Ronon had settled against one of the trees at the edge of the clearing. After cleaning and sharpening a truly alarming number of knives, he appeared to have fallen asleep. Teyla had no doubt, however, that he would wake up instantly if anything threatened.
She knew that he hated their enforced inactivity as much as she did. They'd dialed back to Atlantis once, to be told that the scientists still didn't know anything, and Weir had again reiterated her order not to use the gate. No one had heard from Sheppard or McKay since their disappearance hours ago.
So all they could do was wait, cut off from their friends on a dead world. Teyla sighed and tried to lose herself in a particularly difficult spinning maneuver.
The gate sprang to life, the chevrons locking as Ronon and Teyla both fell back into a battle-ready position. But it was only Weir's voice that came through the gate to them.
"Ronon? Teyla? I'm sorry to keep you two hanging."
"We are well," Teyla said. It was untrue, she thought; they were about as far from well as two people could be. But, as her father used to say, the branch still falls in the forest whether or not it makes a sound. No matter what Rodney seemed to believe, a thing was not made less real by complaining about it.
Rodney. Sheppard. Her chest hurt.
Dr. Weir was speaking now. "In all honesty, we're still completely stumped, and while we're trying to figure this out, we don't want you to attempt to return through the gate to Atlantis. The Daedalus has broken orbit and is headed to your location. It will be there in about two days."
"Thank you," Teyla said politely, her stomach twisting inside her. Two days in this place of death, with their friends out of reach, dependent upon dribbles of information trickling through the gate ... she felt ill. Glancing to the side, she could see her thoughts reflected on Ronon's face.
"Wait, wait, I'm not done. Zelenka is going to bring a team through in order to study the gate and DHD on your side. Assuming that he can't get your gate operational, you'll all be picked up by the Daedalus in two days."
"Is that safe?" Teyla asked. "I thought that you did not want us to use the gate."
"Not from your side, that's correct. However, all our readings seem to indicate that it's perfectly safe from our side. And your team went through without incident." She paused for a moment, then continued. "We're going to send a MALP through, just to check, and if that goes well, we'll be sending a puddlejumper with additional supplies and a science team. Does that sound all right on your end?"
"If you are certain," Teyla said. "We do not need supplies; we can forage, if need be, rather than risking other lives."
She could hear the smile in Elizabeth's voice. "Hopefully it won't come to that. Dr. Zelenka seems fairly certain that the gate is safe to use from our end. We're sending the MALP now; please stand by."
A moment later, the MALP rolled out of the gate. "It is here," Teyla told her.
"And it seems to be transmitting back to our end. We're preparing to send the puddlejumper now. Is there anything in particular that you'd like over there? We have food and survival supplies, a tent and so forth ..."
"We require nothing," Teyla assured her.
"Except getting off this planet," Ronon grumbled.
"I'm sorry." Teyla could hear the regret in Elizabeth's voice. "Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to bring you home right now. All of you."
The gate rippled and a puddlejumper broke through its glistening surface, running lights gleaming in the dusk. "It is here," Teyla said, smiling despite herself.
"Dr. Zelenka?" Elizabeth asked over the radio.
"Yes, we are here," the familiar voice said in Teyla's ear. "All present and accounted for. Ready to begin study of DHD."
Teyla smiled again, just a little. Although she did not know him well, next to Rodney she trusted the Czech scientist the best of any on Atlantis's science team -- mainly because she knew Rodney trusted him, even if he would not admit it.
Perhaps now they could find their missing teammates, and go back to the home she had not realized she would miss so much.
Most of the time, Rodney didn't mind not being a fighter. In fact, he reveled in it. His lack of combat skills -- and apparent inability to learn them -- was one of the things that set him and his kind apart from the grunts in the city. It wasn't that he hadn't tried to learn ... well, all right, maybe he hadn't tried all that hard, but he'd still put some definite effort into grasping the basics that Sheppard had tried to teach him about guns, and Teyla about self-defense, and Ronon about wilderness survival. If he wanted to be good at something, he could usually make himself good at it, so anything that he wasn't good at -- like talking to people in a non-scientific context, or hitting what he was aiming at -- must not be worth learning.
But then there were the times he hated it, and cursed himself for a failure.
Times like this.
Picking himself up off the ground, shaking, feeling the hot blood trickling down from his injured shoulder, he felt sick with more than pain. He'd panicked. Lost it. And Sheppard had saved Rodney's ass at great cost to his own. Again.
The sounds of crashing from below had stopped. He didn't know what that meant. Well, all right, he could think of one definite thing that it could mean. But he really, really didn't want to go there.
Either his impact with the ground, or the beast's with him, had torn the uncooperative, useless P90 loose from his vest. It lay near him on the ground, its flashlight still shining a steady beam across the rocks. Rodney bent over stiffly and picked it up, holding his other arm against his chest. He wasn't sure how, or even if, he could fire it one-handed, but at least that way he had some vague, laughable hope of not dying immediately.
Staring at the ruins of the LSD, he took the precious seconds to scrape up a wet, muddy handful of priceless Ancient technology into his vest pocket. It was time he couldn't spare -- time Sheppard couldn't spare -- but it might make the difference between life and death later. Maybe he could fix it, given time.
All was silent down below.
Rodney peered over the edge. At the bottom of the canyon, he could see flickering light illuminating foliage down below him. The flare? No ... it was still up in the tree. This light, a yellower and more natural glow, came from something else.
Gritting his teeth and screwing up his courage, he tried to climb down. It turned into a controlled fall -- a muddy tumble through branches that raked painfully at his face and hair. He crashed to a halt at the bottom, shaky from adrenaline and pain -- staggered from the momentum and crashed face-first into the dirt.
Raising his head and blinking, it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the light. Something big and misshapen and hairy was bending over a tangled form on the ground that he presumed to be Sheppard. The light came from a flaming torch that it held in one -- hand? Claw?
"Hey!" Rodney yelled, staggering to his feet. "Get away from him!"
The hairy thing's head snapped up, and Rodney realized to his shock that it was actually a human being. A scraggly, deformed, lumpy human being, but still definitely human.
"Get away from him," Rodney repeated, with a little less conviction this time.
The stranger took a couple of limping steps towards him. What Rodney had taken for a deformed hump on its back actually appeared to be some sort of pack, and it -- or rather, he -- was draped in rank-looking, badly-cured hides. The overall effect was more that of a mobile pile of garbage than a human being. A leather cap was pulled down tight over his head, with wisps of hair escaping from under it, and his face -- what could be seen of it, between the hat and the shadows from the torch -- was primarily a mess of scraggly beard. In the hand that wasn't holding the torch, the hairy guy gripped a crossbow as long as his arm.
After a moment, the stranger spoke in a low, raspy voice -- he sounded like a smoker in the end stages of emphysema. "Quit being an ass and help me move him before it comes back. Fire'll hold it off, but not for long."
Sheppard! Rodney edged around the old guy, keeping as much distance between them as possible, and knelt down beside the Colonel. Sheppard's face was pale in the torchlight and one of his legs was twisted under him at a hideous angle. His jacket was tattered and soaked with blood.
"Colonel?" Rodney whispered, touching his face. It was terrifyingly cold.
"What did I just say?" the mountain man rasped, looming over Rodney. "Stop carrying on like a teenage girl and give me a hand here."
With that, he hooked the crossbow onto a loop on his belt and bent over stiffly, getting an arm under Sheppard's shoulders. The Colonel was a dead weight as the old man bent his knees and hauled him upright. After staring for a moment -- who would have thought that someone who looked like a wino in the final throes of cirrhosis could be so strong? -- Rodney hurried forward and put his good arm around Sheppard from the other side. He hissed in pain as the Colonel's weight came down on his shoulders.
"I'm hurt too, you know," he protested, squirming and trying to find a position where Sheppard's arm wasn't laying across the tears in the flesh of his shoulder.
"Whiner," came the old man's harsh voice from Sheppard's other side. "It won't kill you."
"Easy for you to say --"
But then they were moving forward at a rapid pace, and it was all Rodney could do to hold up his end of the unconscious man slung between them.
Looking back on it later, Rodney saw their flight through the forest with the surreal quality of a nightmare. It was all darkness and flickering light and wet trees dripping on his head. At one point they followed a stream for a little ways; at some other point they squeezed through a crack in the rocks where they had to go single file, handing Sheppard along between them. Sheppard didn't even stir through all of this. Rodney's clothes were smeared with the Colonel's blood along with his own, and he couldn't help wondering what the rough movement was doing to Sheppard's injuries.
The old man said nothing, except occasionally to berate Rodney when he didn't move fast enough. "Oh for -- my sister could run faster than you!"
"Yeah? Well, my sister could kick your sister's ass," Rodney panted. He was quite sure it was true -- Jeannie had been a mean, scrappy little fighter in grade school. "Where are we going, anyway? Because the Bataan Death March school of travel might be fun for you, but some of us --"
"Don't you ever shut up? You see this?"
He turned his head towards Rodney for just a minute, and in the harsh light of the torch, Rodney recoiled from the mass of scar tissue that started under the flap of the old man's leather cap and continued down into his snarled beard. It covered the entire side of his face. At Rodney's reaction, something flickered in the old guy's one remaining, pale-colored eye -- sorrow, shame, anger -- and he turned his head away again quickly, hiding his ruined face in the shadows of the torch.
"That's why you shut up when I tell you to shut up, and run when I tell you to run," he growled. "You want to look like me? No? Then do what I tell you."
Rodney shut up.
During their argument, they had entered a narrow, twisting canyon, strewn with rocks and low, tangled brush. The old man stopped at what appeared to be just part of the canyon wall, and he unloaded his half of Sheppard's weight onto Rodney without a word of warning. Then he reached behind the brush and did something, and suddenly what looked like canyon wall sprang open and turned out to be a very narrow, concealed door. They squeezed inside, and the old man shut the door behind them.
They were inside a cave, or more accurately a crack in the rocks. It was deep but very narrow, only a few feet wide, and clogged with piles of furs and baskets and sticks and other crap that snagged at Rodney's feet and nearly made him pitch forward on top of Sheppard. The air reeked of smoke and a sharp rank smell that was probably all the half-rotten hides everywhere.
The old man pushed past Rodney -- God, he stank too -- and made his way deeper into the cave. The uneven cave floor rose towards the back, and Rodney could see a warm orange glow from that direction, which flared up a minute later as the old man poked some sticks into the glowing bank of coals and then shoved his half-burned torch into it as well.
"Lay him down there," he ordered, pointing to a pile of straw with motheaten furs on top of it.
There was a time to object to being ordered around, and a time to just do what you were told. Rodney lowered Sheppard down as carefully as possible. He looked fragile and broken, his wet hair dark and matted to his forehead, making his skin look even paler by comparison.
The old man pushed past Rodney again, and opened the door. Rodney looked up in shock. "Hey! Where are you going?"
"Gonna get water," the rasping voice drifted back to him. "Stop wasting my time with stupid questions," and the door closed behind him.
Rodney just opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. "And I'm supposed to do what in the meantime?" he demanded, finally, of the closed door. "Anything you have to contribute would be helpful," he added, looking resentfully down at Sheppard. Damn it, he wasn't good at first aid. In fact, he thoroughly sucked at it. His mouth twisted as he plucked at Sheppard's wet jacket and realized that he was going to have to undress him, too. Stupid Sheppard, doing the heroic self-sacrificing thing again, and leaving other people to clean up the mess. Did the man have no common sense at all?
"You're going to owe me one, Colonel." Rodney struggled with the wet jacket, peeling it back from the wounds in Sheppard's shoulder. Oh God. He felt faint. Some of those were horribly deep. "Did I say one? I meant two. Maybe three or four. I'm going to be taking this one out of your sorry hide for a long time to come. You're going to be my personal slave, Sheppard. You thought cleaning my quarters was bad?" He winced at the memory; Sheppard had gotten him back for that one, but good. "When we get back to Atlantis, you're bringing me coffee every single night I have to work late in the labs. None of our missions are going out any earlier than ten a.m. And first pick of pudding in the cafeteria is mine."
Talking helped a little bit, keeping him focused and staving off the panic and pain; he could barely move his arm, and his own uniform clung stickily to his shoulder. Still, Sheppard was so white and limp and ... dammit. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but getting Sheppard warm and dry took priority over dealing with his own injury this time.
The door cracked open; Rodney fumbled around for a gun, any gun, and then relaxed -- though only slightly -- when the old guy squeezed through and shut it behind him, carrying a couple of bundles. By this point Rodney had managed to get most of Sheppard's clothes off, aside from venturing into territory that he had absolutely no intention of crossing. Sheppard could just deal with wet underwear.
The old man knelt beside him and -- to Rodney's shock -- pushed him out of the way with the exact same sort of peremptory callousness that Rodney himself generally used on particularly dull lab techs.
Rodney received a sharp sideward glare, before the old man quickly looked away again; it was obvious that he didn't like showing his scarred face to strangers, and he'd consistently kept himself angled so that Rodney couldn't look him in the eyes, instead mumbling through his scraggly beard whenever he had anything to say. "You any good at this?" he demanded in his scratchy voice.
"Well," Rodney admitted, "not really..."
With ill grace, he moved. "And I'm sure that you have an advanced medical degree, hm?"
The old man snorted. "Funny what you pick up, living alone." One hand pointed at the fire, and Rodney noticed with a little shudder that two of the fingers were missing. "Get the fire going. He'll need to be warm, and hot water wouldn't hurt."
"I'm not leaving you alone with him."
The rough voice dripped scorn. "You'll be able to watch me every minute, and the sooner you do this, the sooner you can come back."
"Well ... fine, then." Tired and hurting and having no good comeback, Rodney stomped over to the fireplace. It was actually quite ingenious; he was distracted momentarily by the surprisingly clever design. There was a natural cleft in the rocks that had been converted into a makeshift chimney, and another crack to admit fresh air; the end result was that the natural rising of the hot air sucked most of the smoke out of the cave, with fresh air continually leaking in to keep oxygen circulating. Peering up the "chimney", Rodney saw that it twisted and turned; the fire's glow would not be visible from the outside, and the twisty channel in the rocks probably helped hide the smoke, too.
"Huh," he muttered, refusing to admit that he was a little bit impressed. He stared at the fire for a minute, uncomfortably aware that Ronon or Teyla usually tended the team's campfires. Eventually he dropped an armload of wood on the coals -- which promptly guttered and smoked a lot. Were they supposed to do that? He poked at them with a stick in the same manner that he'd seen Ronon do.
"There's a container of water by the fire," the old man said over his shoulder. "Drop some hot rocks in it. You'll find a bone scoop for doing that." After a moment, as Rodney stared nervously at the only evident piece of bone, which looked like some kind of shoulder blade and definitely not something he wanted to pick up -- "You are capable of doing that, aren't you?"
"I happen to be a genius, thank you very much! It's just that my degrees are in astrophysics and engineering, not -- caveman-ology. And of course none of that means anything whatsoever to you," he muttered, wrapping his sleeve around his hand before seizing the piece of bone and nervously teasing some of the rocks out of the edge of the fire. They hissed and crackled when he dropped them in the container of water, which appeared to be -- he looked closer -- an ugly, misshapen basket coated with some kind of dried mud. Eww.
"You done yet?"
"How many rocks?" Rodney asked, watching ashes and dirt swirl away from the rocks into the water. Eww, again.
The old man snorted. "Just bring the water over here -- genius."
Muttering under his breath about crazy old coots and no respect for clear intellectual superiority, Rodney picked up the lumpy, lopsided basket and carried it over to the pile of hides where Sheppard lay.
There was another, similar basket of water next to Sheppard, but rather than ash and dirt, it swirled with blood. Rodney swallowed, and looked away. Using a torn piece of Sheppard's black T-shirt, the old man dipped it in the warm water and dabbed at the ugly gashes on Sheppard's shoulder. To Rodney's surprise, despite his brusque manner and the general air of backwoods insanity that hung over him, the stranger's hands were painstakingly gentle as he cleaned Sheppard's injuries.
"Hand me some of that."
"That" turned out to be one of the bundles that the old geezer had brought back in with him. Rodney stuck his hand into it and recoiled from the wet clamminess. It turned out to be ... moss? He pulled out a lump and stared at it.
"Genius my ass," the old man snapped, taking the moss away from him.
"Hey -- what are you doing? That's hardly sanitary!" Rodney protested as the stranger began to pack moss around Sheppard's injured shoulder and back. "Look, let me explain to you about this little thing called microbes. They're, uh, tiny animals that -- they're magic, okay? Bad magic. They live in the dirt and make people sick, and you're -- hey, are you listening to me at all?"
The old man gave him a look of exasperation before once again turning away. "Listen to me, you obnoxious little twit. If you had the slightest clue what you were doing, you wouldn't be here in the first place. So shut up and let me help him, which you're clearly incapable of doing."
Rodney shut up, stunned temporarily into silence, and watched him continue packing the moss around Sheppard's shoulder, tying it in place with strips of leather. A flash of buried memory came to life: one of Ronon's lectures on wilderness survival, where the Runner was trying to teach him about wilderness first aid. Most of the lessons had been such highly useful things as "how to use a sharp rock to hack off your own gangrenous limb", but one of the things Ronon had told him was that moss made a good dressing for open wounds, and helped prevent infection. This had sounded so patently stupid that he'd asked Carson about it later. He could hear the patient brogue in his head: "Yes, Rodney -- ancient cultures on Earth used sphagnum moss as a dressing for wounds. It's acidic and helps inhibit the growth of bacteria. I suppose there's some specific reason why you're asking...?"
God, he wished Carson were here now, sarcasm and all. Admitting this, even to himself, added a dose of irritation to his already massive load of worry, anxiety and pain, which -- Rodney being Rodney -- led inevitably to talking. "Don't try to put the blame for this off on me, Grizzly Adams. Believe me, we didn't want to come to your soggy little planet and we'll be leaving as soon as I figure out how!"
"So you admit it's due to incompetence on your part," the old man muttered, tying the ends of the leather strap with a little more force than strictly necessary. Sheppard twitched a little, as if the extra force had caused enough pain to penetrate even into his deeply unconscious state. The old man released the strap immediately, and leaned forward to lay his hand lightly against Sheppard's face until the Colonel slipped back into a deeper sleep.
This, of course, annoyed Rodney to no end. Sheppard was his friend, and somebody who looked like Ronon's backwards cousin shouldn't have a better bedside manner than the guy with two PhDs.
"You can't blame me for us being here and you can't convince me it's my fault -- it's an accident! Besides," he added, suspiciously, "what about you, anyway? Where are the rest of your people?"
The old guy didn't answer. He finished knotting off Sheppard's bandages and moved to his leg. "Gonna need your help."
"Oh, is that a sore spot? Did they kick you out because you were too annoying?" Rodney asked snidely. It was better than thinking about the fact that he was going to have to set a broken leg in a minute here. This was far, far above and beyond the call of friendship.
"Put your hands there," the old man ordered. His scratchy voice was cold, and he kept his head down, face hidden by shadows. Rodney got the uncomfortable feeling that maybe he'd pushed just a little too far. He couldn't help thinking of the culled village they'd visited that morning -- the burned-out shells of huts, the bones lying in the streets where scavengers had dragged them. If this guy was the last of his people, then maybe he had adequate cause for acting like a caveman. It worked for Ronon, after all.
Hating this already, Rodney gripped where he'd been told to grip. The old man grasped Sheppard's leg just above the knee. Rodney closed his eyes, then opened them, then -- seeing the horrible deformation of Sheppard's leg -- decided that closing them would be better, because throwing up all over an invalid wasn't very sanitary either.
Luckily it was over quickly. Sheppard sort of woke up in the middle of it -- stirring and tossing his head, making a low keening sound in his throat that went straight to the pit of Rodney's stomach and lodged there. As before, the old guy settled him down with soft touches on his arm, his cheek. Sheppard turned his face into the old man's touch and calmed right down. The gentleness, so much at odds with the old guy's usual demeanor, made Rodney think of Carson again.
"So are you -- some kind of ... I don't know, some kind of healer or shaman or something?" Rodney was beginning to shiver in his wet clothes, despite the growing warmth in the room. He wasn't nearly cold enough to wrap himself up in one of those half-rotten hides, though. The ones covering Sheppard had hanks of hair falling out of them.
"Life's a hard teacher." The old man turned around, and reached out to grip Rodney's arm in his firm, surprisingly deft hands.
There was no sympathy in the tone, and the hands lacked the gentleness that they'd had in dealing with Sheppard's more severe injuries. Still, the old guy helped Rodney peel off his shirt, and then cleaned his gashes with rough swipes of a lukewarm rag. It didn't escape Rodney's notice that the old guy kept his scarred face averted while he did this. It was obvious that he didn't like strangers looking at him. Well, when you looked like that, it was understandable.
"Do you think this could be any more painful? You could use sandpaper, maybe?"
"Hm ... not a bad idea," the old man muttered as he scrubbed at the scratches. "There's sand in the creek; I use it for scouring dishes. Maybe it would shut you up."
"A sadist. I'm trapped in the middle of nowhere with a sadist. Ow! You do realize that I need my hands for my livelihood, right? Losing an arm would put a real damper on my career path!"
The old man looked down at his own sturdy fingers gripping Rodney's arm. Rodney, reluctantly, followed his gaze, to see that it was the hand with the two missing fingers.
"Trust me." The tone was a little bit angry, but more weary than anything else. "I've been there."
Rodney shut up, and stayed silent as he was roughly bandaged.
"I'd dry your clothes by the fire, if I were you." The raspy voice had grown even hoarser, until it was barely audible. Clearly, the unaccustomed talking had not been good for whatever was wrong with his throat.
"Hmph." Rodney was shivering in earnest now. Very reluctantly, he picked up a ragged-looking hide and wrapped it around his body so that he could shimmy out of his wet pants. "This doesn't mean that I trust you," he added as he unlaced his sodden boots.
The rough voice sounded amused, though the old guy was kneeling by the fire and Rodney couldn't see his face. "Obviously not."
"I'm McKay," Rodney said after a moment. "Dr. Rodney McKay. That's Colonel Sheppard."
The old man's only acknowledgment was a grunt. He straightened up from the fire with a lit torch, then picked up the baskets of dirty water.
"And you are?" Rodney prompted.
This just got another grunt, as the old guy nudged open the door.
"Let me guess -- they haven't invented manners on your world yet, right? Hey, where are you going?"
No answer. The old man disappeared out the door, and closed it behind him, leaving them alone.
Sheppard drifted lazily between sleep and waking. There was pain in the waking direction. Every time he floated that way, he balked at the wall of hurt and exhaustion that he found waiting for him there. On the other hand ... in a lazy kind of way, he was getting bored as hell. And curious. And worried about someone whose name he couldn't quite remember.
Rain. Running. Claws in the dark.
He wondered if it was safe to wake up.
"It's safe," whispered a soft voice on the edge of consciousness -- the same one, he was sure, that had told him to leave the Stargate earlier.
His eyes snapped open and he started to surge forward, only to fall back with a gasp as his body caught on fire.
There was a sleepy grunt beside him, then a mumbling voice. "Oh, good one, Sheppard. I guess this is why they pay you the big bucks, hm?"
Hands settled on him, warm and clumsy and gentle, pressing him down until he stopped trying to struggle. He tried to sort through his memories: Rodney, wearing a fur hat and old and sad and scarred, horribly scarred. No, wait. That was someone else, wasn't it? Things were all jumbled. Rodney was ... Rodney was ...
... Rodney was supporting him and holding a cup of water to his lips. A strange cup, with a rough-feeling edge ... he sipped from it, and then small oblong tablets were pressed lightly onto his tongue.
"Tylenol," Rodney's voice said, "and antibiotics from your first-aid kit. Take 'em. Grizzly Adams has a peculiar approach to first aid, and if you don't want to suffer from some sort of horrible alien disease, you might want to take your meds."
He swallowed. The world spun as he was lowered back onto something soft. He stared up at a ceiling that was strangely uneven, lumpy and dim. The air smelled ... thick. Smoky.
"Is something on fire?" he managed to whisper.
He heard a soft laugh from Rodney. "Yeah, Mr. Mensa. That would be the fire."
Oh. He stared at the unfamiliar ceiling and waited for things to make sense. Nothing did. But the pain faded a little, and along with it, the dizziness and nausea. He blinked. After a moment, he had to determine how much of what he remembered was a dream, and how much had really happened.
"Hey ... Rodney?"
"mmm?" Sleepy sound from beside him.
"Where are we?"
There was a silence and then Rodney mumbled, "Cave."
Sheppard shut his eyes for a moment.
"I can see that, Rodney."
"Well, then ..." sounding a little more awake this time, "why did you ask?"
Sheppard had once sworn to Elizabeth that every single gray hair in his head was because of Rodney McKay.
"McKay, I remember something with big claws jumping on me. Did that happen?"
Soft rustlings from beside him. "Yeah," Rodney said.
"I also remember you dressed up like Ronon, with some kind of freaky scar on your face."
Rodney sighed. "Er, no. That would be our host, who has currently disappeared somewhere, possibly to sacrifice chickens or look up recipes on how to cook fatted Atlantean or ... who knows."
Sheppard blinked, and got himself together enough to roll his head to the side and focus on Rodney -- a Rodney propped up on his elbow, looking quizzical and sleepy, with straw in his hair. "Rodney, where are we? What happened?"
Now Rodney looked quizzical, sleepy and worried. "The Stargate bounced us to a random planet, and a freaky lizard thing attacked us, and we were rescued by a Pegasus Galaxy version of Daniel Boone who had some kind of accident involving his face and a wood-chipper in his youth. Any of this ringing a bell?"
Sheppard thought about this. "Yes," he said, finally.
"Oh good." Rodney dropped his head back down onto the straw.
"There was some kind of fast-moving critter with big teeth."
"And you suggested that I throw a flare. Which worked like ass, really."
"Excuse me? You were the one who came up with the throwing part all on your own, thanks. I merely pointed out that you had flares. And honestly ... 'worked like ass'? Are you twelve?"
Sheppard just laughed a little, and closed his eyes again. He thought he remembered Rodney getting attacked by the creature, but if the scientist was complaining then he must be feeling all right.
He wasn't so sure about himself, though. His body felt hot and unresponsive. Cautiously he moved a hand. There was something stiff and heavy on top of him, and it smelled weird. Animal hide, he decided, running his fingers across it. He worked his hand up to the top of the hide, and probed lightly at his shoulder. Something was covering it, something rough and bulky that he couldn't quite identify. He probed harder, and sucked in a pained breath.
"What are you doing over there?"
"Trying to figure out how bad I'm hurt." Opening his eyes, he saw a dark, vaguely Rodney-shaped blur looming over him. "How bad am I hurt?"
He didn't like the hesitation before Rodney answered. "Well, your leg's broken, for one thing. And you got scratched up pretty bad. In the infirmary, with antiseptic and actual technology, it would probably be no big deal. Here, on the other hand ..."
"A broken leg is no big deal to you, McKay?" He touched his leg lightly, feeling the makeshift splinting job. It itched. He tried not to squirm, because that hurt, and the Tylenol wasn't doing much. The puddlejumper first aid kits included morphine, but not the smaller kits that they carried in their field supplies. He'd have to do something about that when they got back.
"You know what I mean," Rodney snapped. "It's nothing modern medicine can't take care of. Given present circumstances, however -- well, let's just hope the antibiotics work. Oh, and I'm hurt too, by the way. Thanks for asking."
"Damn, I forgot." In the slowly coalescing blur of his memories, he recalled hearing Rodney scream. "How bad?"
"Well, I guess you were right about the arm," Rodney admitted. "It's not broken. Hurts like hell, though. And that damn thing clawed my back and I think I'm getting infected."
"You're taking antibiotics too, right?" He had a moment's horror that Rodney had been saving all the pills for him.
"Of course I am. But we don't have very much, and it's the Pegasus Galaxy, so there could be flesh-eating and antibiotic-resistant bacteria setting in even as we speak."
Sheppard opened his mouth to comment on how reassuring that wasn't, but there was a soft click off to his left, and his hand went instinctively towards a gun that was simply not there. Rolling his head towards Rodney, he saw the scientist propped up on his elbow and looking off to the side -- and, beyond him, he caught a glimpse of a door closing.
"Yeah," Rodney said. "That would be our host. He kinda ... comes and goes." The straw rustled as he got up. Sheppard gritted his teeth and pushed himself to an angle from which he could see Rodney kneeling and inspecting what had just been left for them. "Hmm, water and a pile of sticks. For the fire, no doubt. My heart skips a beat at the hospitality around here."
"So is this guy avoiding us, or what?"
"I think we freak him out." Rodney straightened up, stiffly, with an armload of sticks. "He's obviously been living here alone since, well, his world's Armageddon happened, or whatever, and he's gotten ... strange. Actually, 'strange' hardly does justice to it. Let's just say he's gone off."
"Off? Like milk?" Sheppard felt dazed and slow. He could feel his tenuous grip on consciousness spiraling away again, and wondered if it was safe to leave Rodney alone with this guy, whoever or whatever he was.
"Sure, whatever floats your boat, Sheppard." Rodney dropped his load of sticks by the fire, and for the first time Sheppard realized that the scientist was wearing some sort of shapeless, vaguely Ronon-esque hide garment.
"Rodney, what are you wearing?"
Rodney's shoulders stiffened. "Let he who is not festooned with dead animal parts cast the first stone, hmm?" He jabbed at the fire with a stick. "And go back to sleep, why don't you. It's the middle of the night."
Sheppard did so.
He woke to an argument, a rapid exchange in low voices at the foot of his straw bed. Caught halfway between sleep and wakefulness, he thought for a moment that Rodney was arguing with himself -- the two voices spoke with the same rapid-fire, annoyed cadence -- until he woke up enough to recognize the back-of-the-throat raspiness of the second voice, and realized that their host, when agitated, could talk almost as fast as Rodney. Sheppard hadn't realized that was possible. He grinned slightly, with his cheek pressed against the straw. Rodney's ability to bring out that side of everyone he came in contact with was something that never ceased to amaze and amuse him.
"-- gone completely crazy, sitting around in your cave, eating bugs and sticks!"
"You go out there by yourself and you'll die, moron. Not that it'd be as much of a loss to the universe as you think it would --"
"Well, excuse me for wanting to get off this piece-of-shit world!"
"Believe me," the old man growled, "it's not possible for you two to want to be gone more than I want you out of here!"
Sheppard propped himself up on the elbow of his good arm. The door of the cave was open, and wan gray daylight streamed in around the bulky shape of the mountain man in his fur garments.
Rodney spoke very slowly and precisely, in his "speaking to children and idiots" tone. "Then take. Me. To. The. Stargate."
"Not unless you're suicidal," the old man snapped, "and if only we would all be so lucky!" He flung something onto the floor of the cave and vanished from Sheppard's field of vision.
"Get back here, you annoying, smelly old bastard!" Rodney yelled after him. Muttering, he spun around and froze when he saw Sheppard watching him. "Oh, quit smirking at me."
"I wasn't," Sheppard protested innocently as he did his best to wipe the smirk off his face.
"Nice to see you're feeling better." Rodney bent over whatever had been thrown onto the floor of the cave. With a grimace of disgust, he straightened up holding a small silvery fish at arm's length. "Oh, look. The breakfast of champions."
Sheppard pushed himself somewhat more upright, clenching his teeth as the movement jarred his leg and the ache flared up into sharp, hot pain. "What was that all about, anyway?"
Rodney snorted. "Crocodile Dundee -- who, I might add, has been God knows where all night -- comes waltzing in here with an armload of dead fish ... I very politely mention that I'm going to head over to the Stargate later today and wonder which direction it is from here, and he tries to order me to stay in the cave. Which, believe me, normally I'd be more than happy to do, considering what's out there" -- he shuddered -- "but I'd also like to get off this planet before both of us get gangrenous."
"I thought you couldn't fix the DHD without a control crystal."
Rodney's lopsided smile appeared. He looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Yeah, but guess what?"
"You found a control crystal?"
Rodney stared. "What? In here?" He swept a hand scornfully around the cave. "Why yes, and I also found a puddlejumper and a transporter. No, no -- I'll give you a hint -- guess what's inside a busted life signs detector?"
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "A control crystal?"
Rodney sighed. "Have I ever told you that you have a one-track mind? No, not a control crystal as such, but between all the components in the LSD that are now completely useless to us, there's a chance I could jury-rig something that might work long enough to dial the gate." He grimaced. "The problem is, I won't know if they're compatible unless I have it in front of me, and our hairy friend won't let me leave the cave."
"The thought cross your mind that there could be a good reason for that? Rodney, that creature's still out there. Assuming there's only one of them."
Rodney marched over to the fire, carrying the fish by its tail, and indifferently threw some sticks onto the coals. "This, coming from Colonel Kamikaze," he snapped over his shoulder.
Sheppard himself couldn't believe that he was actually on this end of this particular argument -- with Rodney, of all people. "The hell you're running around out there by yourself, McKay! We didn't exactly come through with flying colors the last time we went up against that thing, when we were both healthy and fully armed. That guy presumably knows this planet a lot better than we do. I'd say, if he says stay put ... then we stay put, at least for the time being."
"So you're on his side now? Figures." Rodney poked at the coals of the fire with sharp, irritated jabs of a stick of firewood. He seemed to notice, belatedly, that he was still holding the fish, and shuddered. "Er ... how do you cook these things? Just throw it in the coals, d'you think? Seems suitably barbaric."
Sheppard hauled himself to a sitting position. He swallowed as the cave swam around him. "Rodney, don't tell me that neither Ronon nor myself have ever taught you how to clean a fish?"
The sound of Rodney grinding his teeth was actually audible. "And why would I need to learn? One of you is always available for that purpose."
Sheppard sighed. "Bring it over here."
After a brief lesson in "Fish Processing 101" with Sheppard's survival knife, the fish was spitted above the coals and Rodney was scrubbing his hands in a clay-covered basket of water.
Sheppard poked a finger at the basket. The basic design was crude and ugly -- it looked like a kindergartner had made it. However, the twigs forming the basic shape of the basket did hold together, though it seemed to defy gravity by doing so, and the badly cured clay plastered on the outside was obviously capable of holding water.
"This reminds me of something."
"Lucius's gourd," Rodney said promptly, with a sour look on his face.
"Yeah. That's it. Where did that thing get off to, by the way?"
Rodney cringed. "Don't ask me. I always assumed that you took it, for blackmail purposes."
"Come on, McKay; I'm not that cruel."
"Yes you are."
Sheppard tried to shrug, but stopped with a grimace when it tugged at his bandaged shoulder. He felt hot and achy and unpleasant, and a deep pain throbbed in his leg. He settled carefully back down onto the straw, trying not to think about infection and all the things that could possibly go wrong with injuries like theirs on a planet without medical facilities. "All right, you got me. Someone made off with it before I could. I think Elizabeth might have thrown it away."
"Good for her." Rodney poked at the sizzling fish, then jerked his fingers back as hot grease seared his fingers. "Ow! Not a word out of you," he added quickly, hearing Sheppard snicker.
"Patience is a virtue, McKay."
"I'm hungry, damn it. And charred fish really isn't going to cut it for breakfast, I think." Rodney hunted for his vest in the dim cave. Sheppard heard the crinkling of a powerbar wrapper. After a moment, something sticky was shoved into his hand ... half of Rodney's powerbar.
"Chocolate? I'm touched." Actually, he sort of was. He was also somewhat surprised to find that he was genuinely hungry.
"Don't let it go to your head. I just don't want to have to drag you around the woods if you keel over. Again."
Sheppard propped himself up on the cave wall and ate his half of the powerbar while Rodney restlessly prowled the cave, waiting for the fish to cook. The scientist picked up and then set down various objects: baskets, bowls, tools. All were crudely handmade of various natural materials -- wood, stone, plant fiber, bone -- and all had something else in common, too.
"Ugly as hell," Rodney summed it up, as he turned a sloppily made wooden bowl over in his hands. At least, Sheppard thought it looked like a bowl. Sort of.
"Maybe he failed the local equivalent of home-ec," Sheppard offered, tugging lightly at a handful of scraggly fur on the hide covering his legs. Some of it fell out. "Maybe there's not a whole lot of time to make decent baskets when you spend your life trying to avoid monsters."
"He has a crossbow that looks fairly lethal." Rodney picked up one of a pile of crossbow bolts that rested beside the door to the cave. These were made with more care than anything else in the cave -- it was evident that quite a bit of time had gone into shaping and balancing them.
"If I'm bowhunting an indestructible killing machine, I'd want to put a bit of effort into my weapons, too."
"This is giving me less than total faith in his first-aid skills." Rodney cast a nervous glance down at his own, bound shoulder.
"Er, Rodney ..." The smell of scorching fish had begun to fill the cave.
"Oh, damn it." Rodney's less-than-stellar attempt to follow Sheppard's instructions at building a fish spit had caused their breakfast to slide down into the fire. He rescued it with a couple of sticks and stared at it ruefully.
"It's only burned on the outside; it'll still be edible."
"I hate camping," Rodney grumbled as he divided the fish between two lopsided bowls. "I've always hated it, ever since I was a kid. I used to loathe summer camp. The food's terrible, the sleeping accommodations are barbaric, and don't even get me started on the bathroom facilities. Never could figure out why people do this sort of thing for fun." He handed Sheppard a bowl of fish.
Sheppard tried to imagine Rodney as a child at summer camp ... a pasty, incredibly unathletic, kvetching child. "They say food tastes better when it's cooked outdoors."
"No ... food tastes better when it's prepared in an actual, sanitary kitchen, by trained cooks rather than amateurs squatting around a campfire." Rodney picked up a piece of charred fish and glared at it. "Case in point."
Under its overdone exterior, though, the fish wasn't bad. It was pale, with a flaky texture. "How long was I asleep?" Sheppard asked, as he picked out the edible bits from the blackened fish skin.
"Like, fourteen hours or something. It's the middle of the day." Rodney glanced at his watch. "Assuming their day is about as long as one of ours."
He was surprised it had been no longer. They'd spent less than a day on the planet so far. A sudden thought occurred to him and he brought his hand up swiftly to the side of his head, feeling bare skin and hair where his radio should be.
Rodney shook his head. "He's dead, Jim ... Sorry. It broke in the fall. You must've fallen on it." He touched his own. "Still got mine, though, and nobody's called us."
Sheppard grimaced. The fish and half-powerbar sat like a lump in his stomach. No one had followed them through the gate, no one had even dialed in to this world to look for them -- which meant that no one knew where they had gone. Or no one's left to look.
He tried to remind himself that no one gets left behind. There was a fierce conviction behind it, and for just a moment he wasn't absolutely, one hundred percent sure that it was his own thought. He paused -- focusing, concentrating, straining his senses -- and thought that once again he caught the faintest hint of ... something, a broken pattern that was almost but not quite words. It faded in and out like a radio signal at the very edge of reception, and then it was gone.
Sheppard closed his eyes, squeezed them shut, and opened them again, to see Rodney staring at him with undisguised worry.
"Voice," he explained, tersely.
He meant this to be reassuring -- I'm fine, I'm not in pain -- but instead, the frown line between Rodney's brows deepened. "Since I didn't hear anything, I presume you're talking about the voice in your head."
"Yeah, the same one I heard at the Stargate, I think." He grinned just a little. This shouldn't be funny, but he had to laugh, because the hairs were standing up on his arms and it was better than screaming. "It's not just in my head, Rodney. I think it's something real -- something external."
"And I can't hear it, because ...?"
"I don't know! Because of my gene, maybe?" Sheppard pushed away the bowl with the remaining pieces of fish; he'd lost his appetite.
Rodney eyed it. "You gonna eat that?"
"Go ahead." So much for all his complaining about campfire food, Sheppard thought with an inward grin.
"Have you tried talking back?" Rodney asked through a mouthful of fish.
"Isn't that supposed to be one of the warning signs that you're going crazy -- when you start answering the voices you hear?"
Rodney gave a small laugh. "What? If you really think something or someone is talking to you, how do you expect to find out what it wants if you won't talk to it?"
Huh ... he did have a point. Still, Sheppard felt highly self-conscious at the idea of having conversations with thin air -- particularly with Rodney there, listening and probably snarking merrily at every word. "Maybe we'll do that later." When I don't have an audience. "Right now ..." He started struggling with the furs covering his legs.
"Hey, where are you --"
"It's been a long night, Rodney ... I hope I don't have to explain."
Rodney looked away hastily. "For God's sake, put some clothes on! My eyes!"
With his leg sore and swollen, it turned out to be impossible to get his pants on, at least by himself -- Rodney refused to help, and frankly, Sheppard didn't really want him to -- so he wrapped himself up in furs. Leaning heavily on Rodney's shoulder and trying not to jar his leg too badly, he hopped to the door. He held their one remaining P90 awkwardly against his side, loosely gripped in his bad arm; he needed the good one to hold onto Rodney's neck.
"I'm thinking crutches would be a good idea," Rodney said thoughtfully as he opened the door, pausing to stare at its design. The thing was at least three feet thick, made from several layers of wooden planks bound together.
"Maybe Grizzly Adams has a few spare sticks laying around." Sheppard's voice was a lot more faint and breathless than he'd like. It had been awhile since he'd had to move around with an unset broken bone. He'd forgotten how much it sucked.
The world outside was much as it had been yesterday -- gray, cold, misty, damp. Through a layer of thick brush and trees, a stream was just visible, and a steep cliff rose beyond it. The air smelled wonderfully fresh and clean after the closeness inside the cave. Rodney leaned Sheppard against a tree a few feet from the cave entrance. "I seriously hope you can take things from here." His voice was hushed.
"I think I can manage." Sheppard handed him the gun.
"Hey, wait, what --"
Sheppard managed a grin, despite the pain. "Cover me."
"Oh, this is fun." Reluctantly accepting the P90, Rodney turned his back and stared up at the gray sky.
"You didn't manage to bring the other one, did you?"
"What, the other gun? I was a little preoccupied with bringing you."
"I lost a clip, too, damn it, and my 9-mil, which means we're basically down to the weapons you've got. I don't like those odds." Finishing up his business, Sheppard leaned on the tree and looked out across the creek. The forest floor was soft and damp under his bare feet. It was actually kind of peaceful here, at least when nothing was trying to kill them.
"Having both guns didn't seem to help us much."
Peaceful, that is, except for Rodney. "Way to look on the bright side, McKay."
"There's a bright side?"
"Come on, you're a genius, as you keep insisting -- how hard can it be to find the --" Sheppard paused, as he turned his head to the side. He'd just realized that they were being watched.
"What's the matter with you? Voices in your head again?" There was an element of worry in Rodney's voice as he turned around -- reluctantly. Then he followed Sheppard's line of sight.
The old man was standing in the edge of the woods, just watching them. It was the first time Sheppard had gotten a look at him in daylight. It was hard to discern much under all the furs he'd draped himself with; but Sheppard could see, even from here, the terrible scar covering the side of his face -- that, and the wistful, lonesome, almost hungry look in his one remaining eye.
Seeing them both looking at him, he seemed to shrink almost imperceptibly deeper into his furs, lowering his head to avoid their eyes. He cleared his throat. "Guess you probably want this back," he said, and pushed back the fur cloak draped over his shoulder, revealing Sheppard's P90 slung by its strap over his shoulder, the muzzle pointed forward and down.
Sheppard tensed and instinctively started to move in front of Rodney -- forgetting about his broken leg. A strangled scream of pain was startled out of him when he started to bring his weight down on it. He grabbed for the nearest tree, managing to stop himself from crashing to the ground.
Rodney appeared at his side in worried haste. "What's the matter with you?!"
"Rodney ..." Sheppard prompted through clenched teeth, clinging to the tree and jerking his head at the P90 held loosely in the physicist's hands, then at the old guy -- hopefully managing to express the concept Don't worry about me, worry about the crazy guy with the gun!
"You idiots, I'm returning it to you," the old man grumbled, sliding the strap off his shoulder. He held the gun for a moment, and Sheppard could sense his reluctance to hand it over. He also noticed something else -- the old guy clearly knew what a gun was for. He held it more or less correctly, and when he handed it to Sheppard, he started to hand it over muzzle-first, and then jumped a little and presented it stock-first.
He's handled guns before. Just not for a while.
"Thanks," he said, sliding the strap over his good shoulder. As soon as Sheppard took the gun, the old guy backed off quickly, as if the two of them had some sort of fatal disease. "There would have been another one, a smaller one. Rodney, show him your --"
"There wasn't anything else." The old man shrugged, a slight lift of one shoulder under the pelts. "There's a lot of places it could be, though, with you having fallen down the cliff."
Rodney was staring at the gun. "Damn. Look at that, Colonel."
The P90 had been savaged. Every part of it that could move or bend was bent or broken; the trigger was missing completely. There were visible scrape marks in the metal where it had been clawed or chewed. The carry strap had been bitten or torn through in several places and then knotted back together, presumably by the mountain man in order to carry the weapon.
"No particular mystery about what left those marks on the DHD," Sheppard remarked, touching one of the scrapes on the barrel.
Rodney shuddered. "Obviously it took out its frustrations on the gun when it couldn't have us."
"Or else it knows what the gun is for and wanted to make sure we couldn't use it."
"Oh come on, Colonel, it's an animal!"
"It went after the LSD, didn't it?"
They both paused, realizing that there was someone present who could answer their questions, and simultaneously looked up at the old guy. He'd retreated back into the edge of the woods. Something about him reminded Sheppard very much of a skittish wild creature, and he had to remind himself that the guy had lived alone out here for who knew how long.
"Hey, buddy, I guess I never said thanks for saving us out there. We'd both be monster kibble if you hadn't shown up when you did."
"Quite a coincidence, isn't it?" Rodney muttered under his breath. Since he was still helping hold Sheppard up, he was conveniently located for jabbing an elbow into his ribs; the air went out of his lungs in a huff.
The old guy ducked his head in a shy, pleased kind of way. "I didn't really do anything. I just wish I'd realized th -- wish I'd gotten there sooner."
"Does this happen a lot?" Rodney demanded suspiciously. "Strangers come through the gate and the monster eats them? Or is it monsters, plural?"
"Just the one. And, no, you're the first. This world's uninhabited; no one has any reason to come here."
"Uninhabited, eh? So where'd you come from, hm?"
"What? It's a valid question!" Rodney pointed in a more-or-less random direction; at least it looked like it to Sheppard. "What about those towers? Your people build those?"
"I don't know anything about the towers." The old man evaded their eyes. Despite the fact that it was almost impossible to see any expression on his face, between the scarring and the beard, he was still a terribly unconvincing liar.
"Oh really? So you don't mind if I take a little hike over and have a look at one of them, do you?"
The old man's scarred face had grown hard. "I told you it isn't safe."
"And yet it's perfectly safe for you to wander the woods," Rodney said darkly. "But I'm supposed to stay in the cave. I really don't think so! Sheppard might be content to sit here until doomsday waiting for Atlan -- for the Daedal -- er, for our friends to come rescue us" -- Sheppard glared at him -- "but I'm not exactly a do-nothing kind of guy, you got it? Look, I'm a scientist. I can fix the DHD -- that's the big round thing that makes the gate dial. You may like being stuck on this world, but we know how to get off it."
"No," the old man said stiffly. "You don't."
"Oh, really? I'll prove it!"
The old man raised a finger to point at him. "You'll stay right here until your friends come for you. If you go near the gate or the towers, I'll shoot you myself." He slapped the crossbow hanging at his belt, and turned his back, vanishing into the woods.
"Your people skills strike again, McKay," Sheppard said dryly.
"You heard him! He threatened me! Why do you suppose he's trying to keep us here, Sheppard? What's he hiding? You do realize nothing he says adds up, don't you? How do you suppose he found us, for example?"
"Yeah, for his oh-so-timely rescue. I mean, we're out there in the dark and the rain, and all of a sudden he knows right where to look? Sort of convenient, don't you think?"
"Oh, I don't know, McKay -- maybe he followed the sound of gunfire and the flares? We weren't exactly being stealthy."
"What's with you? You're just determined to trust this guy in the face of all evidence to the contrary, aren't you?"
"For God's sake, McKay -- could we continue this conversation in the cave?" The throbbing in his leg was becoming a muted roar, while his hip muscles protested the awkward, one-legged stance he was forced to adopt to keep from falling over.
"Oh. Right." Momentarily silenced, Rodney led him back to the cave mouth in a slow series of hops.
"This sucks," Sheppard muttered as Rodney helped him down to the straw pallet. "I need crutches. Get me some sticks; I can make myself something."
"What? You want me to go out there by myself with monsters and a crazed redneck? Frankly, I'm more worried about the crazed redneck!"
Sheppard nodded at the P90. "You have a gun; he doesn't. Besides, I don't think he's dangerous."
"No, of course not! Just because he threatened my life doesn't make him dangerous!"
"Rodney ..." Sheppard eased himself back against the wall, hoping to reduce the cave's spinning. He felt lousy and he really did not feel up for a McKay-brand argument right now. "There's got to be some reason why he's acting the way he is. So far, he hasn't done anything but help us --"
"And threaten me!"
"Only because he wants you to stay away from the Stargate -- which, considering that we know nothing about this world, might not be a bad idea for the time being."
Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "I can't believe you're on his side! I really don't believe that you're defending him like this! Did he slip you some kind of mind-control drug when I wasn't looking? He's got you wrapped around his finger!"
"I'm not! I just think that if the local tells you something's dangerous, maybe you ought to listen!"
They glared at each other for a moment. Rodney broke first.
"You want sticks? Fine! I'll get you sticks! And if I come back with a crossbow bolt sticking out of my chest, then I plan to say I told you so! As loudly and as often as possible!"
Rodney slammed the cave door behind him.
"Stay near the cave!" Sheppard yelled after him, then pressed his aching head against the rough surface of the cave wall. He hated having Rodney out there unprotected. He thought about going after him, but at the moment wasn't sure if he could even make it to the door without using Rodney as a human crutch. And the cave still hadn't stopped spinning.
"If you've got anything useful to add, I could really use your help right about now," he said aloud in the hopes that the mysterious voice was listening.
No answer. Even his inner voices had abandoned him.
If he's not back in five minutes, I'm going after him.
The temporary camp around the Stargate bustled with people and equipment. Zelenka's team of scientists had set up floodlights that were running off the jumper's power supply so that they could work through the night. It was now the following day and they were all running on fumes, and had mainly come up with a long list of what the problem wasn't.
Dialing the gate from the jumper's DHD worked fine. So did dialing the gate from its own DHD. Zelenka's team had brought a MALP and sent it back to Atlantis without a problem, although they were still holding off on a human test until they had examined the gate and the DHD from top to bottom. So far, though, no sign of any alterations or tampering had come to light. It seemed to be a perfectly normal gate and a perfectly normal DHD.
And it had swallowed Sheppard and McKay without a trace.
"You can't find anything?" Elizabeth's voice was tinny through the radio.
"Nothing." Zelenka sat with his back against the DHD, shoveling food into his mouth in between pauses to speak. They all knew time was of the essence; there was no telling where one-half of Atlantis's most trouble-prone team might have ended up. The far worse alternative had not been brought up, not yet.
"Is there anything else that we can do on our end to help you?"
He chewed, swallowed. "I don't think so. Right now we're just running simulations and going over every part of the gate with the fine-tooth comb." He paused for another bite, and then froze in mid-bite at the sound of a bit of commotion on the other end. "Dr. Weir?"
"Just a minute, Radek. Miko is here and she wants to talk to you."
A moment later, Miko's shy tones came through the radio. "Dr. Zelenka? We believe we may have found something."
Zelenka remembered to swallow. "Go on."
"SG-1 once encountered a situation where a solar flare from the sun diverted their wormhole. In that case, they bounced back to Earth in a different time." There was a pause; he heard Miko typing on a keyboard. "We have just now been checking the physical path of the wormhole between the planet where you are, and Atlantis's planet. It passes near several solar systems, one of which is having considerable solar activity."
Zelenka sat forward, his MRE forgotten. "Then their wormhole could have been interrupted and diverted to another gate."
"That is the hypothesis, yes."
"Radek, is that possible?" Elizabeth asked.
"It is extremely uncommon -- the timing would have to be exact -- but yes, yes, it is possible." He scrambled to his feet, leaning on the DHD. "We will need more information on that system's solar cycle before we can determine where the wormhole might have gone -- The long-range sensors are not precise enough; Dr. Weir --"
"The Daedalus," she interrupted. "Yes, I'll call Colonel Caldwell and have him change course to gather data."
"Thank you; thank you." His brain was already in motion, examining this new idea, turning it over like a newly discovered piece of Ancient technology. It was only a hypothesis, he reminded himself. They didn't know if they could even confirm it, let alone predict the path of the redirected wormhole -- not to mention the possible repercussions for the redirected gate travelers. But it was a lead, the first they'd had.
Meanwhile, Rodney McKay had decided that he hated this planet, hated the Stargate network in general, hated the SGC for sending him here (never mind that he'd volunteered), and especially hated half-crazy mountain men who resorted to threats of physical violence to keep brilliant physicists away from potentially-repairable travel devices.
This explained, at least partly, why he was now marching with dogged determination, P90 clutched in his sweating hands, along a path that seemed to be leading more or less towards the tower he could see rising above the trees in the distance.
Sheppard might think it was a good idea to stay here until Atlantis found them. Sheppard, however, hadn't had to watch his own injuries being dressed last night. He didn't have to look at himself, all pale and shaky and feverish today -- not to mention this whole, very alarming hearing-voices business. The antibiotics were helping a little, but they weren't enough and they wouldn't last long. Rodney had zero desire to sit around until both of them died of some Pegasus Galaxy microbe previously unknown to medical "science".
Something crashed off in the woods. Rodney jumped, spun in that direction, and just barely managed to avoid releasing a barrage of bullets that they couldn't afford to lose. "Hello?" he called nervously. Nothing answered. He kept walking, glancing around him with the air of a squirrel in a wide-open field.
It was daylight, with even a few rays of sun penetrating the otherwise heavy clouds. Predators didn't come out in the daylight, did they? Or was that vampires?
He'd been lucky to stumble onto this path, but not terribly surprised that it existed. Any idiot could tell that Grizzly Adams knew exactly what those towers were for, and it didn't surprise Rodney in the slightest that there was a well-beaten trail not too far from Mountain Man HQ leading straight towards the nearest one. So Grizzly didn't want him near the Stargate; that was fine. It wasn't like the old guy could possibly guard every route leading away from the cave. A backwoods bumpkin would reasonably assume that his prisoners -- er, guests -- would head for the Stargate to get offworld; didn't that make sense? Thus, he should be busy guarding that, so the tower should be perfectly safe.
The path wound along a river valley and over several hills before it began to climb steeply, going up to the tower on the mountainside. Rodney paused often for breath, his calves burning. At least it was more open up here, low scraggly trees interspersed with meadows or open fields of boulders. There were few places for anything to hide.
Sitting in an open field and noting the abundance of nature around him, he realized that he was hungry again and had left all his remaining powerbars back at the cave. And his pants were wet again from all the dampness on the bushes. His scratched shoulder hurt in a deep and alarming kind of way; he wished he'd thought to bring more Tylenol with him.
Sheppard had better appreciate all the trouble he was going to.
As he approached the tower, its magnitude became more evident. The thing was probably about fifty meters tall, he guessed, and maybe ten across at the base. It stood alone on an obviously artificial flat place on the mountainside, resembling nothing so much as a big parking lot where the ancient pavement had begun to crack and allow weeds to grow through. Rodney paused to nudge at some of the cracked surfacing material with his toe. It wasn't concrete, but a harder composite that he couldn't identify. Time and age had left a network of large cracks, solid with moss and the questing branches of infant trees.
The tower itself appeared to go straight into the paving material without even a seam. It was featureless and smooth, although as he walked towards it, Rodney could see that it was laced with a network of fine cracks that had allowed moss to take hold. It wasn't nearly as overgrown as the one in the forest that he'd examined through Sheppard's binoculars, probably due to being higher on the mountain, but it would get there eventually.
He tilted his head back, staring up the smooth column and trying to see what, if anything, was on top of it. The binoculars were yet another of the things he hadn't thought to bring, and he couldn't see any defining features at the top. It just seemed to be completely featureless, all the way up.
No, wait ... not completely. There were claw-like gouge marks in the base of the tower. Shivering, Rodney laid his hand against one of the sets of grooves, noticing how his fingers fit the marks. Four toes, spaced about like human fingers.
A very, very horrible thought occurred to him.
"You don't listen very well, do you?"
Rodney jumped into the air with a small, manly scream, and swung the P90 around. The mountain man had just stepped out from behind the base of the tower, aiming the crossbow at his head.
"What the hell are you, psychic?" Rodney demanded.
"Don't be dense. As soon as I saw which way you were heading, I took a shortcut and beat you here."
"You know, I'm getting very tired of being insulted, led around and lied to by you."
"That's funny," the mountain man sneered. "Because I'm getting very tired of trying to protect someone who's determined to get himself killed. Besides, there's nothing to find up here. Believe me, I've been trying for forty years."
"I'm sure you have, Crazy Pete." Rodney swept the old guy from head to foot with the gaze he reserved for the very dumbest lab techs. "I, on the other hand, happen to be a scientist."
"You're not the only scientist on this planet," the old man snapped. "But I think you're by far the one with the least common sense."
"What sci-- are you talking about yourself? That's the stupidest thing I ever heard! You look about as much like a scientist as I look like ... like a hog farmer!"
"Be that as it may ... I'd go back to the cave if I were you."
Rodney tilted the P90 just a little, in what he hoped was a threatening, Sheppardy sort of way. "I don't know if you've noticed this, but my weapon beats your weapon."
"That depends on how fast you can pull the trigger, doesn't it?" the old man returned quietly.
Rodney hoped to hell that he didn't look as terrified as he was. "Sheppard seems to think you're some kind of harmless old coot. Wait'll I tell him about this!"
The old man's hands trembled on the crossbow -- once, briefly; a compulsive sort of clutch. "I don't give a damn what Sheppard thinks. Believe me, for what's at stake here, and considering how I feel about you -- I'll shoot you in a heartbeat."
Rodney swallowed. "Sheppard will kill you if you do."
"That's all right. I'm not afraid of death ... not anymore." Another slight tremble in his hands betrayed him. But he didn't lower the crossbow. Keeping it trained on Rodney's forehead, he jerked his head towards the tower. "Now listen to me, you dumbass, because I'm only going to say this once. Many years ago, using that, I killed my closest friend. You want to do the same, you just keep right on doing what you're doing. Otherwise, leave the pillars alone, leave the gate alone, and just sit tight and wait for your friends to rescue you."
Staring at the old man, the P90 half-forgotten in his hands, Rodney was astonished to see a glimmer of tears in the one remaining eye.
In a low, rough voice, the old man told him, "Get out of here."
Feeling numb, Rodney began slowly backing up. By the time he reached the edge of the paved area, the old man was just a tiny shapeless bundle of furs, dwarfed by the pillar.
Rodney didn't mean to look away, but he had to look down to keep from falling on the rough ground outside the pavement. When he looked up again, the old guy was no longer standing by the pillar.
Sheppard was really going to kill Rodney this time.
When the scientist didn't come back -- taking the only radio and the only functioning assault rifle with him -- Sheppard hopped to the door, hanging onto the wall of the cave. He could move this way, but only barely. Obviously he wasn't going to be able to track down wayward scientists.
He needed a crutch.
The cave was so cluttered that there had to be something he could use. Leaning on the wall, Sheppard began to search, trying to be at least halfway respectful of the old man's personal space while digging through his things, and cursing Rodney the whole time.
This was how he discovered the box.
He wouldn't really have noticed it, except that it was different from everything else in the cave. Unlike the other household objects -- which had obviously been crafted in haste by someone who either didn't know what they were doing, or didn't really care, or both -- the box showed the same care and precision as the crossbow. It was made of polished wood, and built with obvious care by the hands of someone who'd spent a lot of time on it. The carved patterns on the sides looked almost Athosian. A man considerably more inclined to poetic flights of fancy than Sheppard might have said that it looked like it had been made with love.
It had been hidden at the very bottom of a pile of uncured hides. When Sheppard shifted them to one side, the box fell out, making something inside it rattle. Sheppard bent down and put it back on top of the furs. Rodney, of course, would have had to open it -- Rodney was just that way -- but Sheppard had no desire to do so. Whatever the box held, obviously it had some kind of meaning for the old guy. They were guests, and Sheppard didn't think that poking around through the old man's personal things was good guest behavior.
Well, any more so than he was already doing.
What kind of old person didn't have crutches somewhere around the house, anyway? Even a primitive old person?
He eventually found a couple of sticks that were long enough -- one in the firewood pile, the other being used to prop up a shelf -- and used some strips of hide to lash crosspieces to them. After hopping around for a minute to get the hang of it, he strapped his 9-mil to his leg and lurched out into a chilly, gray afternoon.
Oh yeah, he was going to kill Rodney this time. Or possibly just beat the crap out of him. Sheppard felt like absolute hell -- cold and shaky one minute, hot and weak the next, and his leg hurt from hip to ankle. Why couldn't Rodney just wait a couple damn days -- give Atlantis a chance to find them, give Sheppard time to start feeling better so that he could go along and provide backup?
There was a part of him, deep down, that kept telling him he wasn't going to get better, not on his own. The way he felt right now ... this was just the tip of the iceberg. And he knew, too, that Rodney was probably not acting on purely selfish motives. But when he felt as lousy as he did right now, anger helped keep him going.
If I were an idiot scientist with a deathwish, which way would I go?
He splashed through the stream and up the bank on the other side. Contrary to what Rodney claimed, his sense of direction wasn't really that bad. Well, okay ... maybe a little bit. He really had no clue which way the Stargate was from here. On the other hand, if he could just get high enough, he ought to be able to see the towers and orient himself that way.
Climbing out of the canyon was definitely a case of mind over matter -- matter, in this case, being his clumsy, weak, exhausted body. It terrified him how little strength he seemed to have. By the time he got to the top, he was panting and trembling, and had to stop and sit down. He leaned his forehead against a tree trunk and allowed his racing heart to slow.
Crap. Not good at all. At the current speed he seemed capable of moving, it was going to take weeks to find his missing scientist.
... unless, of course, the missing scientist found him first.
Rodney crashed through the brush separating them. "What the heck do you think you're doing? Also, you look like crap, by the way. Good God, you made crutches? And you climbed a hill on them? Are you nuts?"
The key to having conversations with McKay, especially when one was exhausted and felt like hell, was to take things in order. "What I'm doing is looking for you, Rodney. You heard me tell you not to go to the Stargate, right? Several hours ago?"
Rodney waved a hand in a "details, details" kind of way. "I didn't go to the Stargate. I went to one of the towers."
"All right, obviously I was too specific --"
"No, no, wait'll you hear all this. I met Sourdough Sam out there and he threatened to shoot me while spilling all kinds of backstory -- very interesting implications --" Rodney dropped to sit on the wet ground next to Sheppard. "You don't have a Tylenol with you, do you? Because my arm is killing me."
Sheppard could sympathize; he was about to the point of gnawing his own leg off to get away from it. Wordlessly he reached into a pocket of his tac vest and passed over a foil packet. Unlike some people, he didn't travel unprepared.
"Oh, thank you." Rodney dry-swallowed the pills, and frowned at Sheppard. "You know, you really do look terrible."
"Because I just climbed a hill with a broken leg trying to find you, McKay. Could we get to the point of your story, please?"
"We could go back to the cave first, if you'd --"
"Rodney. I don't want to move right now. Just tell me what, if anything, this little expedition got us."
Rodney continued to frown at him in a worried kind of way, but finally he started talking. Sheppard found himself distracted from his physical discomfort and drawn into Rodney's story.
"He's a scientist?" Sheppard repeated, raising his eyebrows, as Rodney reached that point in the narrative.
"Or whatever passes for it, wherever he comes from. Anyway, then he said --"
"Rodney. Do you think he's an Ancient?"
Rodney stopped talking. He opened and closed his mouth a few times. Finally he said, "Why would an Ancient be living in a cave?"
"Maybe he was imprisoned here, kind of like Chaya."
A grimace passed over Rodney's face at the name. "Mmm. Maybe. If he was, I think I can guess what he was imprisoned for."
Sheppard waited, expectantly, and when Rodney seemed caught up in McKay-brain-land, said, "Well? What?"
"Huh? What? Oh. The usual. Mad science and murder."
"Mad science?" Why did this stuff always happen to them? "And murder? What makes you think that he's a murderer?" The old guy certainly didn't seem like a murderer to Sheppard. Sad, lonesome, maybe a little bit crazy -- but not dangerous.
"Because he told me," Rodney said impatiently. "Didn't I tell you?"
"No," Sheppard said flatly.
"Well, maybe if you'd stop interrupting me ...! Okay, where was I? Right, he said he was a scientist, and then he admitted that he'd killed the others, right before threatening me with that crossbow again, and I figured at this point I should probably, you know, get back to the cave and check on you."
The corner of Sheppard's mouth twitched. "You beat a hasty retreat, you mean."
"Hey, I had a real gun," Rodney snapped, patting the P90. "I'm not afraid of him."
"No, of course not." Sheppard shifted on the wet ground, trying to find a comfortable position where sticks weren't poking him in the butt.
"Do you need to go back to the cave?"
"No, no -- not yet. Rodney, what exactly did he say? Did he actually tell you, in so many words, that he killed the rest of the ... of the Ancients, or scientists, or whoever was here?"
Rodney's lips framed the word "yes", but he left it unspoken, and then changed it to, "Sort of. Well, not quite. He said he'd killed a friend of his, and yes, he said it in so many words. Using those towers, he said, though he didn't mention how, exactly. Though I have a theory about that --"
"So the towers are dangerous," Sheppard said with grim triumph, glaring at him.
"Maybe! Who knows! And would you just listen for a --"
"And he is an Ancient."
Rodney rolled his eyes, his train of thought visibly derailing. "Oh, and how do you figure that?"
"Because he obviously knows what the towers are for? His people must have built them, McKay. And they're clearly older than the hills ... figuratively speaking ... so, QED. Ancient."
"Before you get too hung up on this theory, Colonel, I'm not absolutely sure that the Ancients built them. I just can't tell anything from the design. They're obviously tied to the Stargate, and were obviously built a long time ago, and that's about all I know. It's possible that his people stumbled onto them a long time later, and that he was part of a science team that figured out how to use them. Do you have a Powerbar? I'm starving."
Sheppard passed one over. "Remember we only have so many of those."
"Doesn't matter," Rodney said through a mouthful. "Once I fix the DHD, we'll be off this world so fast it'll make your head spin. You want half of it?"
"No." Sheppard shook his head. He wasn't hungry, and he was starting to shiver as the chill of the ground seeped through his hide clothing. But curiosity still had him in its grip -- and, unlike Rodney, he still didn't believe that the old guy seemed like a killer type, not to mention a nagging something else about the old man which he couldn't quite put his finger on. "McKay, if he's really an Ancient and if his people left him here, then maybe that's why the control crystal is gone from the DHD ... so he couldn't dial out."
"Yeah, yeah, obviously; thank you, Captain Obvious."
"Gah! Are you interested in hearing any of my theories today? Or are you too busy being an expert on things you know nothing about?"
Sheppard gave him a narrow-eyed look. "I thought you agreed with my Ancient theory."
"When did I ever say that? Although it's true that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But I haven't told you what else I found at the tower." Rodney practically quivered with suppressed eagerness -- the look of a grade-schooler who knows the answer in class, waving his hand at the back of the room.
Sheppard rolled his hand in a "get on with it" gesture. He was shaky and hurting and he wanted to go lay down; it was a lot easier to deal with Rodney's more difficult moods when he wasn't feeling like crap.
Rodney held up a hand with all his fingers splayed out, and drew it slowly down through the air. "There were claw marks in the surface of the tower that matched the ones on the DHD. The creature, obviously. But what I noticed is that when I spread out my fingers, they fit into the grooves almost exactly. That creature -- it's about the size of a human being, don't you think?"
"Are you saying he turned his friend into the monster?"
"What? No! Well ... hmm ... maybe; I hadn't thought of that. Mostly I'm saying that I think he is the monster."
Sheppard gave him a long, skeptical look. "You think he's a werewolf? Are you nuts?"
"Oh come on, it's the Pegasus Galaxy; we know human beings can turn into strange things at the drop of a hat. You, for example."
"We weren't ever going to mention that. And it's not like I could change back and forth at will. Life would have been a lot easier if I could've."
"Yes, yes, I know. But will you at least consider this? Because it would certainly explain how he found us in the rain. And it would also explain why we've never seen him and the creature together at the same time. So, he's some kind of possibly-Ancient mad scientist, he created, or possibly discovered, some sort of device that didn't work as anticipated --"
"Gee, that never happens to you," Sheppard smirked.
"Very funny, where was I? Oh yeah -- and then he turns into this monster thing, I don't know, under stress like the Hulk or when he eats after midnight or whatever, and he killed the others while he was the monster." Rodney raised one finger. "You notice how he limps around? It's because we shot him last night. Bet you a week's pay. It's impossible to tell what kind of injuries he's hiding under all those furs."
"I'd say it's a lot more likely, assuming that he really is some kind of scientist, that he designed the monster and it broke out and killed his friend." Sheppard's teeth snapped together on the last word. He was starting to shiver in earnest now.
"Come on, let's get back to the cave before you add pneumonia to the rest of your physical ailments." Rodney stood up and helped Sheppard to his feet.
The climb back down the hill was every bit as hellish as the climb up. It did have the virtue of being a lot quicker, though, and he had Rodney to lean on. The absolute last thing Sheppard wanted to see was the old mountain guy standing in front of the door to the cave, waiting for them.
He didn't look hostile, though. He was, as always, carrying the crossbow, but he had it pointed at the ground.
Rodney immediately let go of Sheppard and raised the P90.
"Come on, point that somewhere else. I'm not your enemy."
"Like hell," Rodney said shortly, not lowering the gun.
The old man rolled his single eye. "As if it's my fault that you're so stubborn I have to point a weapon at your face to get you to heed a friendly warning. I brought dinner as a peace offering." He raised the hand not carrying the crossbow; a string of small fish dangled from it.
"Yay, sushi," Rodney said without enthusiasm.
"I'll even cook."
Rodney looked as if he even wanted to argue with that, but Sheppard had had about enough. "You guys can argue your little hearts out. I'm going in."
He had to stop at the cave door, though, momentarily baffled by the locking mechanism. When he'd left earlier, he had let it close all the way behind him, and now he wasn't quite sure how to get it open again.
"Here." The old guy reached around him and did something arcane with the complicated, homemade lock. There was a click and the door sprang open. "It's pretty simple, nothing really; I just needed something that couldn't be manipulated with claws. Keep the creature out, you know, in case it ever finds this place."
As the old guy led the way inside, Sheppard gave Rodney a look that hopefully telegraphed clearly: Ha, Sheppard's theories 1, McKay's theories 0! Rodney just raised his eyes to the sky and followed them in.
"If one of you can clean the fish, I'll just get the fire --" The old man stopped in mid-sentence and froze, staring at the carved wooden box sitting on top of the pile of furs.
Sheppard cleared his throat. "Uh, sorry. I found that when I was looking for --"
The old man crossed the floor to the box faster than it should have been possible for him to move. "Did you open it?" he demanded.
"Of course not."
"Why? What's in it?" Rodney demanded.
"None of your damn business, that's what." The box vanished somewhere into the old man's clothing. "Something very personal."
"Your Playboy collection? What?"
"Just clean the damn fish!" He threw the string of fish at Rodney and stomped out of the cave.
Sheppard sighed and sank wearily down onto the nearest pile of anything that looked soft. "You know, Rodney ... considering that we might be stuck here for a very long time in the event that you two can't come to some kind of understanding on the DHD ..."
"Oh, like I'm the one who's causing the problem!" Rodney stared at the fish dangling from his hand. "And why do I always have to be the one who gets stuck with fish-cleaning duty?"
"Let's see if you remembered anything from this morning."
The fish were cleaned, the guts scraped into one of the lopsided basket-bowls, when the old man came back with an armload of wood. He didn't say anything, just kept his head down and started stirring up the fire with the practiced moves of someone who's done it a lot.
Sheppard kicked Rodney. Rodney kicked him back, but after a moment he muttered in the general direction of the old man: "Sorry."
A quick glance in his direction. "Not your fault."
"Aha, so you admit that it's yours!"
Sheppard kicked him again.
The old man covered his mouth with his hand for a moment; he might have been muffling a laugh, or a cough. When he took the hand away, he said, "We need to get those bandages changed, I guess. There's a basket of clean moss by the door. You want to help him with that, McKay, or you want to cook while I do?"
"I can do it myself," Sheppard said quickly.
"It's tougher on your own. Believe me, I know."
"Still. I can do it."
Rodney brought him the basket of damp moss and then tried to make himself inconspicuous while Sheppard unwound the bandages from his leg. Better do the easy one first; his clawed-up shoulder and back would be more difficult, because of the awkward angle.
He could see one reason why the leg hurt so much -- it had been a compound fracture. The flesh of his thigh was an ugly mess, matted with dried blood and oozing unpleasantly.
"Here." Rodney set a clay-covered basket of water next to Sheppard. His eyes were averted from the injured leg, and he kept swallowing convulsively. "The geezer wanted me to bring you this. Uh, you want me to ... er ... if you need any ..."
"Go away, Rodney."
"Can do." Rodney retreated thankfully, and hastily, to the fireside.
Sheppard clenched his teeth and began the unpleasant business of washing his injuries. Though he kept his lips closed, small sounds occasionally escaped him. He wished desperately that he was alone, and it was a relief when he heard the door open and felt cool air wash over him, and looked up to see Rodney leaving in some haste. "I'll, uh, get wood," the green-looking scientist called over his shoulder, and was gone.
Sheppard jerked when a knotted hand closed over his own. He'd been too focused to even notice the old guy approach, and he hated having people sneak up on him.
"Let me do it and it'll be over twice as fast. Before he comes back."
Sheppard reluctantly relinquished the washrag with a tight nod. Somewhat to his surprise, the old man hesitated, staring at Sheppard's injuries for a long moment as if he had to work up his nerve. Finally he attacked the business of cleaning it up with brisk efficiency. Sheppard clenched his hands into fists in the straw and gritted his teeth.
"Am I hurting you?" Although it was a little hard to tell with his raspy voice, the old guy sounded worried -- it was more emotion than Sheppard had seen out of him so far.
"No. I'm fine." He managed to keep his voice at a level tone. To distract himself, he cast around for a conversational topic. "Rodney, uh ... he told me what you told him. Out there. Today." Ouch -- good one, John.
The old man kept his head down, the hat hiding his expression. He grunted noncommittally.
"Rodney's got a big mouth sometimes. He means well, though." In the interests of honesty, Sheppard added, "Well, usually."
There was a soft snort that might have been a laugh. "What did he tell you?"
"That you warned him away from the towers, told him --" Sheppard had to pause for a moment, breathing through the pain.
" 'Sokay," he managed. "Told him you'd killed a friend with the technology here. That you used to be a scientist of some sort, a long time ago."
"Well, at least he's accurate." The old man dipped the bloody rag into the water and paused for a moment, apparently mesmerized by the ribbons of Sheppard's blood curling away from his scarred hand.
"Mind if I ask you a question?"
The old man wrung out the rag without meeting his eyes. "Depends on what the question is."
"I was just wondering if you ever hear -- voices."
There was a quick flash of the old man's eye, glittering in the firelight as he looked up rapidly at John, and then away. "No," he said, much too quickly.
Sheppard realized in retrospect what that must have sounded like. "Listen, I'm not trying to imply that you're crazy. Far from it. I keep thinking I hear someone talking to me, every once in a while, ever since I came here. I was just wondering -- honestly, I'm not gonna ask you what happened to your friend or what the technology around here does. That's not my thing. If I can't shoot it, then it's Rodney's area. But I was wondering if anything's going on that might make a person hear voices. I'd kinda like to know if I'm going nuts or not."
The old man drew a deep breath and let it out. He began to rebandage John's leg. "There is no rational process that has occurred on this world," he said finally, "that could result in what you're describing. There is no scientific explanation that I know of."
"Can't help noticing what you're not saying, though."
"I've said all I'm going to." He finished the bandages, and gestured with his maimed hand. "Lean forward. Let me get your back."
Sheppard obeyed with a glance towards the door. "Hey, shouldn't Rodney be back by now?"
The old man snorted derisively. "He's probably right outside the door, waiting until the messy part's over."
"Maybe, but it's getting late and that thing is out there --"
"We'd have heard some noise if it attacked him; he's got his gun, doesn't he? Besides, it doesn't know about this valley, and it's usually not out until dusk." The old man unwound soiled bandages as he spoke, dropping them in a basket by his elbow. "Look, I'd bet you anything that he's just sulking out there somewhere. You can go look for him as soon as I'm done, if you want."
Sheppard subsided, reluctantly, but he couldn't help bristling at the old man's words about his friend. "Not that I don't appreciate everything you've done for us, but I'd like you to lay off Rodney a little bit there, buddy. I don't think you're being fair to him."
"I'm being more fair than he deserves, for getting you two into this mess."
"Look, I don't know what you heard from Rodney about what happened, but he didn't do anything. We just stepped into the Stargate and got redirected here. There wasn't anything that either one of us did."
"He's the scientist," the old man snapped, tugging on the bandages. "He should have known better."
Aha. Suddenly the animosity between the two of them made a little more sense. Sheppard had seen Rodney behave that way, too, reserving the hardest verbal flagellations for the scientists like Zelenka that he knew could do better. He might let a Marine off with a random insult, where he'd rip one of his scientists a new hole. Because he gave the scientists credit for having the brains not to make stupid mistakes, and was doubly annoyed when one of them did.
"Still. He's doing everything he can to get us home. I'm serious. Lay off him."
"You're loyal," the old man rasped, after a moment. "But misguided. This world is a prison; the best thing, by far, is to wait for your friends to find you rather than trying to escape on your own."
It was the closest thing to actual, concrete information that they'd gotten out of him so far. This world is a prison. "Your prison?" Sheppard asked quietly.
The silence stretched long. "It is now," the old man said finally, in a flat, "end of conversation" tone of voice, and started peeling back the bandage on Sheppard's shoulder.
With some effort, Sheppard kept his mouth shut. He wasn't McKay; he understood that some things weren't meant to be pried into. Besides, the old guy was cleaning the cuts on his shoulder now, and he had to bite his lip to keep himself from gasping in pain.
"I've got a question for you, Sheppard." It was the first time the old man had called him by name.
The old man didn't speak for a few minutes. When he finally did, his rough voice was unexpectedly soft, almost shy. "It's about ... you and McKay. Mostly you."
This conversation had really better not be heading for touchy-feely territory. But the only way they were ever going to get any reliable information about what had happened here was to gain some kind of rapport with the old guy. Besides, against all reason, Sheppard liked him in a deep, instinctive way he couldn't quite explain. Without looking up, he said, "Shoot."
"If he ... did something, to you -- I mean, something really bad, like if he killed you -- would you forgive him for that? Before you died, I mean. Would you hate him for it?"
Now he did look up, startled. "What kind of a question is that?"
"A stupid one. Never mind." The old man started to get up, but Sheppard reached out, stopping him.
Refusing to meet Sheppard's eyes with his one good one, Grizzly Adams muttered, "It was a stupid question, I told you."
"This isn't about me and McKay, is it? It's about you and your friend."
The old man still wouldn't look at him. All that Sheppard could see of his face was the horrible scar tissue down one side. "I didn't ask about me," he said roughly. "I asked about you two."
Sheppard wondered, again, what had happened on this world ... what this man had done. Whatever it had been, he'd clearly spent a lifetime paying for it. And, if he was truly an Ancient, that lifetime could have been a very long time. Sheppard figured that he owed him an answer.
"Sit back down. Let me think about it."
The old guy sat. After a minute, he resumed cleaning Sheppard's wounds, while Sheppard was quiet, thinking about how he wanted to reply. He knew the answer; he just didn't really know how to say it. Finally he said, "What sort of thing are we talking about here? I don't think Rodney would ever hurt me out of malice. I don't know if you --"
The old man shook his head fervently. "A mistake," he said, in a voice dripping with self-hatred. "A stupid mistake."
Sheppard toyed with a handful of straw. When he began to speak, his voice was slow and thoughtful. "There was a planet, once ... called Doranda. Rodney and I ... well, let's just say he did come very close to getting me killed. There were some hard feelings after that, for a little while. Just a little while. Because I realized ..." Strange. He'd never talked about this. Never even really thought about it, not because he was trying not to, but like so many things with Rodney, it had all just ... happened. "There was nothing to forgive, really. He'd honestly been trying to do his best. He made a mistake and was wrong, that's all. Can't say I haven't done the same."
It felt good to finally say it out loud. He couldn't imagine ever actually saying it to Rodney's face, but he figured that Rodney knew. And saying it aloud made it -- real, somehow. Doranda was over, long since over and done. They were past it. It had never been as much of a big thing, between them, as it had seemed at the time. It was nice to finally acknowledge that.
The old man started to say something. Paused. Cleared his throat. Sheppard decided to head off any attempt to make the conversation even more awkward, trying to anticipate his next question. "Look, I don't know what happened between your friend and you. I don't know -- what you did. But, if it was a mistake, and if he was really your friend, I don't think he'd blame you for it. I know I can't speak for him, but I also know that I wouldn't blame Rodney if -- something happened. I wouldn't want him to spend his life beating himself up for something that wasn't really his fault."
"Hmph." The old man tightened the last bandage and stood up abruptly, wincing as his joints protested. He started to turn away, then hesitated, still not quite looking at Sheppard. "You know, I never ..." he began, and paused. Started to speak again, and broke off.
Just then the door opened, and Rodney came in with an armload of wood, complaining all the way.
"It's freezing out there! Hey, have I mentioned lately how much your world sucks? You know, I've been trying to think of something that would make it suck more than it already does, but I'm really drawing a blank. For example, you could set it on fire, but then it would at least be warm. The Wraith could show up, but then they might just kill off the monster for you, which would really be a public service all the way around." He stopped, looking back and forth between the two of them. "Am I interrupting something?"
"Nothing important." The old man went to stir the cooking food.
Rodney dropped the sticks in a heap and sank down on the pile of straw next to Sheppard. "You good?"
"Fine." He was glad for the dim light in the cave, because from the way he felt and the tremor in his hands, he had to be white as a sheet.
"Sure." Oh please God. Not that it would do much for the way he felt at the moment, but anything had to help a little bit. They were definitely putting morphine in the small first-aid kits from now on.
Rodney handed him Tylenol and more of the antibiotic pills -- for all the good they seemed to be doing -- and took some himself. "See, some of us take the pain pills before we start messing around with infected wounds. That's called being prepared. Hey, you over there, I need my bandages changed."
"Do it yourself," the old man retorted over his shoulder. So much for cessation of hostilities.
"Sit, and hold still." Sheppard propped himself up and started unwinding bandages. Rodney sat, but didn't exactly hold still. There was a lot of squirming and complaining.
The claw marks on Rodney's shoulder were puffy and warm to the touch, but they didn't seem to be as badly infected as Sheppard's. Small favors, at least. Sheppard supposed that his own immune system was probably somewhat overwhelmed by everything that had been dumped on it in the last 24 hours. Although considering what it had had to deal with since he'd come to this galaxy, it ought be some sort of super-immune system by now.
"Oh my g-- are you giggling?" Rodney demanded, twisting his head around in an attempt to see Sheppard's face. "You're delirious, aren't you?"
"I'm not delirious, Rodney."
"Says you," Rodney muttered, struggling back into the stiff, ragged remains of his jacket. "Oh, I want a bath. I think the first thing I'm going to do when we get back is take a very long, hot shower. And shave ... I'm probably halfway to looking like Grizzly Adams over there by now. Then I'll shower again, and maybe one more time just to make sure."
"Dinner," the old man reported.
"The second thing," Rodney muttered darkly, "is to eat actual food."
Dinner was stiff and uncomfortable, with few words spoken, and afterwards the old man disappeared through the door into the darkness outside.
"You spending the night out there?" Sheppard said, sitting upright.
"I have places," was the answer, and then the door closed behind him and clicked shut.
"That guy is seriously weird." Rodney stabbed at the fire with the broken stump of a stick. "Seriously weird." Stab stab stab.
"He's been living alone for how long after apparently being responsible for some kind of disaster? Of course he's weird, Rodney. You would be too." This world is a prison. The words hovered in the back of Sheppard's mind; he felt strangely disloyal for mentioning them, but even more disloyal to have a piece of information and keep it from Rodney.
The scientist's reaction, when Sheppard told him, was predictable. "I knew it!"
"We don't know any more than we did before."
"Oh yes we do! We know he's a criminal. We know his people took the control crystal from the DHD to keep him here."
"I thought his people were dead."
"Shut up, Colonel, I'm theorizing." Rodney began pacing thoughtfully before dropping down heavily to sit on the furs next to Sheppard. "Okay, I think we can reasonably infer that the monster's either something he created, or him, or his friend, or some combination of all of the above. Or maybe something that he found here. Hmm, I don't think we're getting very far."
"Go to sleep, Rodney. I'll take first watch."
"Oh, we're doing watches now? Why are we doing watches if you're so confident that he's on our side? Hm? Need I point out that the werewolf hypothesis is still on the table?"
"Let me rephrase that: go to sleep before I reach over there and knock you out."
Sheppard had had some half-formed idea of staying up all night, since he didn't think the pain in his leg would let him sleep, but exhaustion overcame even that. He had to keep pinching himself in the arm to stay awake.
In the dim cave, drifting near sleep, he once again became aware of the low murmur just on the edge of perception -- not quite a voice, more like the awareness of a ... a presence, something trying to get his attention. He wondered if this was what Teyla felt when she sensed the Wraith.
Teyla. Ronon. Home. His eyes half-closed, and he thought someone said his name, very far off, but insistent.
"Hello?" Eyes open again, he looked around at the walls of the cave. "Who are you?"
He thought he felt ... frustration? An emotion, but not his own. Something definitely wanted his attention. A shiver rolled down his spine, and the shadows of the cave suddenly seemed inky-deep, a perfect hiding place for the unseen terrors of childhood. Ghosts. Monsters.
Iratus bugs. His hands went, instinctively, to his arms, fighting off the unpleasant crawling sensation.
And then something clicked in his brain, his eyes flew wide open, and his hand flew to the bandage at his shoulder. He poked the sleeping lump of Rodney. Then kicked it, with his good leg. "McKay. Wake up."
Rodney made an incoherent noise. "Oh, first you want me to sleep, and then you want me awake ... stupid military thinking, changing in midstream ... Oh ..." His head poked up from under the hide blanket, straw bristling from his sleep-tousled hair. "My watch, is it?"
"No -- Rodney -- I need you to --" Sheppard couldn't get the words out; he was tearing at the bandage on his shoulder with too-clumsy fingers, and it hurt like hell, but he couldn't stop, couldn't think -- because he knew, he knew why the monster looked familiar, knew what it had been, and the only reason why he hadn't realized before was because the transformation had never gone that far in him, had never had a chance --
"Sheppard! Jesus, what are you --" Rodney's eyes glittered in the glow of the fire's fading embers, and he lunged forward, the hides falling away. His hands closed over Sheppard's, trying to pull them away from the half-dislodged bandage. Sheppard fought him with all the strength he didn't have. "Okay, okay, you're obviously delirious, which is not good, so just settle down --"
"Rodney, no. No. You have to look under the bandage. Tell me what you see." His teeth chattered, with fever or terror, he wasn't sure which.
"What? Why? What's the matter with you? Did that psycho caveman do something to --"
"No, no, not him. Rodney. The monster. It's not a monster, not really. It's a human who was --" He swallowed, swallowed hard, and forced the words to come. "A human who was injected with Iratus DNA, like I was."
"Oh. Oh." And after a moment's shocked stillness, Rodney began pulling at the bandage, muttering all the while: "Knew there was something about it, the way it moved, I should have known -- stupid -- and it got me too, you know? I don't feel any different. Do you? Oh, my God, those voices you're hearing, do you think it's related to --"
"I was hearing voices even before I got clawed." Somehow it was easier to start calming down, a little, when he wasn't the only one panicking. "And I got a good look at your shoulder, earlier, when I was changing the dressing. It's not --" Not scaly. He had to break off, bile rising in his throat at the sickening memory of the ridged blue skin on his arm, consuming him like mold from the inside out.
The monster might have been blue. Darkness and rain had leeched the color out of the scene; everything had been gray in the flashlights' glare. But it was also a different set of base stock -- a different human (or Ancient), a different Iratus bug. Maybe they didn't have to be blue.
"I need light," Rodney muttered in frustration, peering at the deep gashes on Sheppard's shoulder and back. "Can't see." He rose, stumbling to the fire and poking at it clumsily with a stick. Fire flared up, chasing back the shadows in the cave; and Sheppard shuddered, trying not to see skittering insects in the erratic movement.
"Okay. That's better. Now let me look." Sheppard obediently leaned into the light, the pain nearly washed away by adrenaline and fear as Rodney probed at his infected shoulder. "No, it's just normal skin -- kind of nasty looking, but not turning into anything." As Sheppard began to relax in relief, Rodney added unhelpfully, "Yet."
"Your bedside manner needs some work, McKay." One-handed, he awkwardly helped Rodney bandage the wound again.
"You said mine looked okay?" Rodney asked anxiously.
"Yeah, just some minor infection and stuff."
It was a measure of Rodney's worry over the Iratus thing that he didn't even react to the idea of having an infected wound. Leaning back against the wall while Sheppard tried to get the bandages as they had been before, the scientist stared off into space, thoughtful. "You know, it was just the retrovirus that was contagious before. No retrovirus, no infection; affected people can't transmit it to others. Maybe what we're seeing is the end result of the process happening naturally. Oh, God!" He sat bolt upright. "That means there are Iratus bugs on this world."
Sheppard had been trying very hard not to think of that. "Well, that certainly explains why they don't want people leaving."
"I was walking around in the jungle," Rodney said, white-faced. "In the mountains. They like mountains."
"They like caves, Rodney. You didn't go into any caves."
"Where do you think we are now, Colonel?"
Both of them glanced around the cave; Sheppard's eyes veered away from the dark shadows pooling in the corners. "Rodney, we've been here for days; I imagine that we would have noticed any egg pods or ... or chittering, or cobwebs or whatever. Those critters are noisy. And they stink."
"You remember," Rodney said cautiously. "The other cave, I mean."
"I remember a lot." Not everything; it was hazy and disjointed, like all his memories of his time in that state. His senses had been different -- sunlight was so sharp it cut like a blade; every noise vibrated his whole body. Colors had been oddly muted and blue-ish, as if his eyes saw a different spectrum, and night was as bright as day. The most terrible thing that he remembered, though, about the cave full of Iratus bugs, was the way it had felt like home and belonging and family, while Atlantis was an alien place filled with soft, fragile creatures he didn't understand.
Eventually Rodney said, "Why is it always us that gets into these situations?"
"Teyla and Ronon have their fair share. So do the other teams."
"Not compared to us. I mean, take this for example. It's like Misery and Deliverance and a B horror movie, all rolled into one."
"I admit that it's statistically unlikely." Sheppard pulled a fur on top of him and burrowed down into it. "Sleeping now." He wasn't at all sleepy, adrenaline still coursing through his veins, but he could sense Rodney working himself up to some sort of horrifically awkward attempt to be comforting, and he didn't think he had the resilience to deal with it. Either that, or Rodney was going to want to talk through the scientific implications of the Iratus situation, and he really didn't feel up to dealing with that. He just wanted to escape from all of this for a little while.
There was some rather intense silence from Rodney's direction, then: "So what do you think happened? It's obviously more complicated that some random Ancient scientist wandering into an Iratus nest."
Ah. Option B. "Dunno. Sleeping."
"I mean, how does it all go together? We've got about fifteen different mysteries going on here, and I know they're all related, but I just --" a brief pause in which Sheppard's mind filled in the frustrated McKay hand gestures "-- can't see it. Hey, why didn't the Iratus ... thing try to feed on you? Do you suppose it's never developed the ability to feed like a Wraith does? Maybe that's why it's so aggressive -- it's starving."
Sheppard wondered if feigning sleep would make Rodney go away. He found out that it didn't when a finger jabbed him in the ribs.
"Hey, I'm talking to you."
"What part of sleeping do you not understand, McKay?"
"I can't stay awake if I don't have someone to talk to."
Sheppard peeled an eye open long enough to say, "That would defeat the whole point of you keeping watch so I can sleep, wouldn't it?"
"Do we have to post a watch?"
"Excuse me, weren't you the one who was worried about this guy coming back and killing us in our sleep?"
"I'm still worried about it! I mean, we're looking at a possible genocide here."
Sheppard yawned. The pain in his leg was starting to fade as long as he held perfectly still, bundled in warmth, adrenaline seeping away as sleepiness began rushing back. Rodney was there to keep the Iratus bugs away. "How you figure that, McKay?" he murmured.
"Are you paying any attention at all? His people are dead or gone, Sheppard. He was imprisoned here for a reason, Ancient or not. So let's look at the evidence -- dead planet, mysterious machine, monster, self-described guilt-ridden scientist ... how much more evidence do you need?"
"Mmmm" was all the response he could manage.
"Oh yeah, you're doing a good job of helping me stay awake here." Something touched his arm, the light pressure of a hand, a soft squeeze before it was gone. As he drifted into sleep, he thought that he sensed, once again, that vague presence at the edge of his consciousness. It seemed ... satisfied, somehow, as if he'd passed some kind of test.
Waking was hard, and not very pleasant. Sheppard peeled his eyes open one at a time. He remembered nightmares, and drifting in and out of sleep to Rodney's rambling monologues. He felt badly hung over, only without having had the fun of getting drunk first.
"Hi there, sleeping beauty. Nice of you to join us."
Rodney was sitting with his back against the opposite wall, the P90 beside him and the guts of the broken LSD in his lap. He looked tired, bored and a little bit scared.
Sheppard managed a grunt in response. He rubbed at his eyes. "You were supposed to wake me for another shift."
"I couldn't sleep." His lying skills had not improved. "Crazy Pete came by a little while ago and dropped off breakfast. Surprise, surprise ... fish again. This time he brought it already cooked, which is a nice improvement. Please note that I managed not to mention Iratus bugs even once, which is the height of restraint for me."
"It's morning?" Sheppard ran a hand through his hair. He couldn't get his brain to work. His whole body felt hot and swollen. He fought off the urge to reach for the bandage on his shoulder and check, once again, that he wasn't turning into a bug.
"More than that ... it's broad daylight. So dark it might as well be night, though. Heavy clouds. Rain. I hate this planet. Oh, and our hairy friend says that we need to stay inside today, because the monster comes out on days like this. Sounds like an excuse to me, but hey."
Sheppard just grunted. He'd thought he felt bad yesterday, but today was about ten times worse. "Light hurts."
"What, now? Is that a symptom of --"
"For bug people," Sheppard snapped.
"... oh." Rodney blinked. "I will not touch that, either. Here's your morning meds." He dropped the pills into Sheppard's hand, and looked away. "It's the last of it."
Sheppard tapped his ear, indicating the radio. "Are you sure that thing's working?"
"Positive. Atlantis has not gotten through. I've been checking all the usual channels and I've also tried calling them, although it's possible that the hills around the valley might be blocking transmission to the gate. But surely at least one of them would think send a jumper. No ... whatever re-routed us here, they haven't been able to follow." He leaned forward. "We're on our own, Sheppard, and I don't have to tell you that getting the DHD working has got to be a priority."
"No. It's my turn to talk and yours to listen. You're sick, Sheppard, even assuming that we don't have any problems with -- you know -- blue scales and ... yeah, just taking that off the table, you've still got major problems. We both know it, so let's stop pretending. Now that the drugs are gone, it's just going to get worse for both of us. Whatever we do, we've got to do soon, while we're still healthy enough to do it."
Sheppard blinked. Things must be serious if Rodney was willing to tackle the subject head-on. "I agree, but --"
"I said I'm talking, remember?" Rodney glanced around as if expecting to find someone else in the cave. Then he reached under the LSD parts and took something out, holding it up. "Know what this is?"
Sheppard squinted. On top of everything else, his eyesight seemed to have gone a bit blurry. Not a bug symptom. Not a bug symptom. "DHD control crystal?" he guessed.
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Bingo. Give the man a cigar. And guess where it was."
"I'm not in the mood for guessing games, McKay."
"I didn't have anything else to do this morning after the psycho brought breakfast, so I've been searching his place. Oh, don't give me that look," he snapped, when Sheppard scowled at him. "You would have done the same. In fact, as I understand it, you did, didn't you? You just didn't do a thorough enough job." He pointed up, towards the ceiling. "There are some holes up there. You can't see them from below. I had to stand on a pile of rocks to find them. But that's where the control crystal was ... tucked up there, behind another rock. He probably thought we'd never look there."
"I never would have." Sheppard squinted at the ceiling. All he could see was stone. "Whatever made you think of doing it?"
Smug smile. "When I was a kid and I wanted to keep things from Jeannie, I'd hide them in the heating ducts of my bedroom. They were up at the top of the wall. I'd just pry out the grate, stick whatever I wanted to hide inside, and put the grate back on. This has given me a lifelong habit of looking for hiding places on the tops of things, because I figured I couldn't possibly be the only person to ever figure out that trick. So, check it out. The prison hypothesis is wrong; he's had the control crystal the whole time. He's been lying to us."
Sheppard closed his eyes briefly. The Tylenol had knocked the barest edge off his pounding headache, but his leg still felt like someone had shoved a red-hot poker under the skin. All he wanted was to get back to Atlantis and get some drugs ... but still ... "McKay, are you absolutely, positively sure that this is a good idea? You said that the old guy warned you away from the gate in no uncertain terms."
"Well, obviously he's lying! As I've been saying all along! Because if it was really that dangerous, he'd have destroyed the control crystal. I certainly would have. Smashed it with a rock. But he didn't, he kept it, which means that not only does he obviously know exactly the way to disable a DHD without damaging it, but he wanted to keep the option of putting it back in dialing order if he ever needed to get offworld. Which means there's no reason not to fix it and dial out. I just wanted to wait 'till you woke up so I could let you know where I'd gone."
The fact that Rodney had waited let Sheppard know that the physicist wasn't nearly as confident as he tried to sound. If he was truly comfortable with the idea of using the gate, he would have just taken off as soon as he found the crystals. Of course, there was also the small matter of Iratus bugs and Iratus-Wraith-human hybrids roaming the woods. "You're absolutely, positively sure that you want to do this."
Rodney let out a long sigh and seemed to wilt a little. "Well, no. But it beats sitting around here waiting to die."
And there was the crux of it. Sheppard could read the omitted words in the sentence: ... waiting for YOU to die.
Reluctantly, he pushed himself upright and waited for the vertigo to settle. "Just wait and let me get my boots on --"
"No way, Sheppard." Rodney's lips pressed together, his face pale but determined. "Don't. We both know I'll be a lot faster alone. A hell of a lot faster. I'll take the P90, go down to the gate; it won't take me a minute to fix it. Then I can dial Atlantis and radio for a jumper, and we're home free."
Sheppard found himself wishing that the voice in his head would weigh in on the issue -- not that it had been especially useful so far -- but it remained silent. "I don't like this, Rodney."
Rodney heaved a sigh. "Like I do? But the alternative is sitting here waiting for Atlantis to dial in or the Daedalus to rescue us, and those possibilities are looking less and less likely."
"What if he's telling the truth? What if the gate's booby-trapped? Or what if he really is a killer and he catches you? Damn it, McKay --"
Rodney's face was set in a terrified but determined mask. "Then we'll be marginally more screwed than we are now, Colonel!" Taking a deep breath, he tucked away the LSD components in a pocket, along with the crystal, before standing up. "I wish I'd been able to get the scanner working, but it's toast."
Sheppard grasped at thin hope. "So wait'll tomorrow. Fix the scanner first."
"Oh sure, and give our backwoods friend time to check his hiding place and find out that the crystal's gone. Then what? Psycho city?" He picked up the P90 and slung the strap over his shoulder, flinched as he tried to settle it in a way that didn't hurt.
"I suck at sitting still."
Rodney looked back. "Yeah, Colonel, I've noticed."
"If you aren't back in a couple of hours, I'm going to come looking for you."
"It'll take me at least that long to reach the gate."
"Fine, then. That's how much time you have. Because if it works, as soon as you get there you'll be able to call for help, and I expect to see a jumper overhead, big as life and twice as shiny. If I don't see that, I'm coming out there and rescuing your ass from whatever it's gotten itself into."
Rodney winced. "Lovely metaphor." He hesitated, looking Sheppard up and down. "And you can't imagine how much more comforting that little speech would be if the cavalry didn't look like it was about to drop dead at any moment."
"I'm still pretty far from dropping dead, McKay." Although not quite as far as he'd like.
"You better be." Rodney fidgeted, still making no move to open the door. "I'm going now."
"See you in a couple of hours." He hated this, but he also knew that once Rodney had set his mind on something, it would be a nonstop fight to keep him from doing it. And if Rodney was confident that he could get it to work ... well, he'd probably be better off saving his energy for a rescue mission if it turned out to be necessary.
More fidgeting. "Hey, Sheppard ..."
Why did the alleged genius always have to do something like this in moments like this, even knowing how horrifically uncomfortable it was for both of them? "If you die, McKay, I get your stuff."
A half-smile tugged at Rodney's mouth, easing some of the fear on his pale face. "Yeah, that's pretty much what my will says, anyway."
"You have a will?"
Rodney looked equally surprised. "You don't?"
"And you left everything to me?" He couldn't figure out whether to be touched or weirded out by that. A little of both, maybe.
"Well, except what goes to Jeannie." Rodney reached for the door, to Sheppard's relief. "I mean, who else, really? See you."
And with that, he was out the door into a sleeting wash of rain. Always had to have the last word.
Sheppard found the fish that Rodney had mentioned by the door, along with water. He wasn't hungry, but he was ragingly thirsty, so he drank and then splashed the cool water on his face. It helped a little. He crutched outside to take care of necessary business, stumping quickly through the rain with his 9-mil heavy and comforting on his leg.
Just that brief trip exhausted him. Rodney was right -- there was no way he could have made it to the gate. He felt angry and useless, and the renewed awareness of someone or something whispering at the edge of perception was both creeping him out and pissing him off. Unwilling to do nothing, but without the energy to do much, he began to strip down the damaged P90 in the hopes of getting it to work again.
A click from the door alerted him and he drew the 9-mil, then holstered it again when the mountain man came through in a hulking mass of wet furs.
"Nice weather," John remarked.
The old man snorted, and looked around the room. His body went tense. "Where's McKay?"
"Out for a walk."
"A walk where?" The voice was quick and harsh. "Where'd he go?"
"I don't know. He's bored."
"It's not safe outside. The creature ..." The old man trailed off; his eyes had gone first to the ceiling, then straight down to the incriminating pile of rocks that Rodney had used to boost himself up to the control crystal's hiding place.
It had been that way when Sheppard had woken up; he hadn't even thought to try to change it.
"You idiots," the old man hissed. "You stubborn, suicidal idiots! When did he leave?"
"C'mon, you know I'm not gonna tell you --"
He didn't see it coming. The old guy could be astonishingly fast when he wanted to be. Sheppard never knew what, exactly, he was hit with -- fist or nearby object. Whatever it was, it set off a galaxy of sparks in his vision. He didn't quite pass out, but things went very soft and hazy, and as the world slowly coalesced around him, Sheppard realized that he was lying on his side and his hands were bound behind his back.
That son of a bitch. He couldn't believe it. Rodney was right about the old guy, after all. Sheppard's head throbbed and his shoulder hurt and his leg was a steady, screaming black hole of pain.
When I get free, I'm going to KILL him.
With his head turned towards the wall, he couldn't see a thing, but he could hear rustles and muttering as the old man moved around. He caught a little of it. "... should have told the truth, should have trusted a little more, I just didn't want, I couldn't ..." The raspy voice trailed off into silence and then returned, stronger. Sheppard realized the old man was talking to him. At least ... he thought he was the target audience. "I only wanted to protect you, you know. Both of you. Didn't want you to find out, didn't want you to know. You could have waited 'til they came for you and left this world, never knowing ..."
A shadow fell across him. Sheppard closed his eyes quickly, playing dead. Fingers touched his throat lightly, finding the pulse, and then a hand rested briefly on his chest. "You'll be okay," the old man said, sounding worried and hopeful. "I didn't hit you very hard, and I didn't tie you very tight. You'll be able to get loose, just in case -- in case I don't come back."
Sheppard bit the inside of his lip to keep from reacting. Stay calm. Can't do a damn thing with your hands tied. If he was in his usual physical condition, he'd have fought. But the way he felt right now, he didn't think he was capable of overpowering a pile of pillows.
"I'm sorry," the old man went on, softly. "Please, I hope you know that. Sorry for everything. I should have told you the truth about everything from the beginning, but I couldn't ..." He swallowed noisily. "Once a fool, always a fool, I guess." His voice grew more distant as he stood up. "Anyway, I'm sorry, Colonel. And -- thanks for the -- the other thing. Earlier."
His footsteps receded, and the door clicked shut behind him. Sheppard's eyes snapped open instantly, and he began to struggle against his bonds with a desperate fury and fear.
Rodney. Damn it. Why couldn't you WAIT?
Through a silent, gray, rainy world, Rodney ran. The only sound was the slap of his feet on the wet path and the harsh rasp of his breathing in his ears.
The path that he followed went up and up, and loose rocks twisted under his feet, nearly sending him sprawling. He had to slow from a run to a fast walk, his lungs burning for air and a stitch stabbing at his side. To his left, a cliff fell away into misty depths, occasionally visible through the trees. The trees began to grow sparse as he climbed through rocky meadows, a natural pass of sorts. This was not the way that they'd taken the first time to get to the old guy's little valley. But he'd gotten his bearings off two of the towers, faintly visible through the trees and rain, so he knew that the Stargate had to be this way.
The P90 bounced against his chest, swinging by its vest clip. One of his hands was draped over it, the surface wet and slick under his palm. Water dribbled into his eyes from his rain-plastered hair. He felt crappy -- hot and achy and sick. His wounds were infected, no less than Sheppard's -- at least, he hoped that it was only infection and not the early stages of a nightmarish transformation.
Only an infection! He should be home in bed. Instead, here he was, out in the monster-infested rain.
He couldn't believe how quiet the forest was, except for the sound of his footsteps and the pattering of rain falling from leaves. When he paused to catch his breath, though, a crash somewhere off among the trees made him jump nearly out of his skin.
He almost said "Hello?" by instinct, but snapped his teeth shut on the word. It's not a monster. It's ... a deer. Yeah.
Even though he had yet to see a single deer on this world.
The monster is nowhere around, he told himself. No monster. No Iratus bugs either. You're safe, McKay. Safe.
He would reach the gate, replace the control crystal in the DHD, and be back on Atlantis by dinnertime.
No monster. No monster.
Something swished by his ear. Rodney froze as a crossbow bolt thudded into a tree just in front of him.
Raising the P90, he spun around. The old man appeared from the rain and the twilight under the trees, aiming his crossbow at Rodney's chest. For a minute, they just stood there, with their respective weapons trained on each other.
The old man was the first to speak. "Drop the gun and throw the control crystal over here, or I'll shoot you. And don't make me laugh, pretending to threaten me; you haven't got the guts."
"Oh yeah? You don't know me!" But Rodney himself couldn't help wondering if he had what it took to squeeze the trigger and watch another person's life dissolve into a spray of crimson in the rain. Even if Sheppard's life depended on it. He'd never killed a human being, and had a rather lousy track record with Wraith as well.
"Just put it down."
There was nothing Rodney hated more than being told what to do. From a deep wellspring of impotent anger, formed in childhood and nurtured ever since, he found the courage to snarl back, "The hell I will! You're trying to keep us here. If I don't get Sheppard off this world, he'll die!"
The old man made a low sound in his damaged throat -- anger, frustration. "You idiot -- if you dial that gate, he'll die anyway."
"Oh yeah? Prove it! I think it's about time for more than rumors, hearsay and faith here, Grandpa! You've been lying to us and hiding things from us since we met you. You give me some goddamn proof for any of the crap you're spouting, and maybe I'll believe you."
The old man's one intact hand was rock-steady on the crossbow's trigger. His other arm crossed under it awkwardly, as if he couldn't quite get a grip with his missing fingers, but the tip did not waver. "I know this is going to sound like utter bullshit to you, but maybe there are things you're better off not knowing."
A small, disbelieving laugh escaped Rodney. "Well, you're right about that, at least. The bullshit part, I mean." He took a slow, careful step backward and then another, never lowering the P90. Why the hell was the old geezer holding his left arm in that awkward, crooked position?
Taking a few steps to pace him, the old man kept talking in a low, urgent voice. "I know you'll never understand this. I wouldn't have understood it, when I was your age. But I deliberately kept both of you in the dark to protect you. And all you have to do, right now, is turn around and walk back to the cave, and just wait, because right now you have friends out there looking for you, and if you give them time, they'll find you. Don't make the mistake I made and try to fix everything yourself, because there's just enough you don't know that if you try, you'll screw everything up. Like -- like Doranda."
Rodney flinched violently. "How did you -- my God, what has Sheppard told you? The two of you are getting really chummy, aren't you?" A sick feeling twisted in his stomach, and after nearly three years of slowly breaking down his inner barriers, he actually recognized it: betrayal. "Whatever he told you about that, it's none of your damn busi--"
He broke off, because he'd finally realized why the old guy was holding his arm in that strange crooked position -- it was because there was something tucked into the crook of his elbow, angled so that the old man could see it without moving his head as he sighted down the crossbow. All the time he was talking, his eyes kept darting down to it and then back up to Rodney. And, as the two of them circled slowly around each other and their relative positions changed, Rodney finally got a brief look at it. Glowing faintly, it bathed the bristling hairs of the old man's beard in its blue luminescence. Its square, flat shape and size were familiar -- in fact, about the same dimensions as the carved wooden box that Grizzly Adams had freaked out about earlier. In fact...
"Oh my God," Rodney said aloud, realization running through him like ice water. "That's a life signs detector."
The old man's single eye flicked down to the device, then back to Rodney with a kind of weary, almost amused resignation. "Well, you wondered how I found you two, earlier."
"If you can use that -- you must have the gene." Rodney's jaw worked soundlessly for a moment as he carried that through to its only logical conclusion. "You are an Ancient!"
The old man laughed.
Crazy or not, the old guy hadn't been lying about tying the ropes loosely -- after some intensive squirming, Sheppard managed to free himself. The bonds were obviously just to slow him down, not to stop him. And that terrified him, because it did not bode well for the old guy's plans for Rodney.
I can't believe I trusted him. Now McKay was out there with a crazy person, while darkness gathered between the trees, bringing the monster with it -- always assuming that the old guy wasn't himself the monster, as Rodney had hypothesized. Sheppard looked down at his broken leg, frustration sweeping over him. There was no way he could catch up with someone who had two good legs.
Still, he had to try. He pulled himself up on the wall, and got the crutches under his arms. He wished the other P90 worked, but at least he still had the 9-mil strapped to his good leg.
His eye fell on something lying by the fire. He recognized it immediately -- the carved wooden box. It was lying open, the lid off and next to it, as if the old man had taken something out of it in haste and been in such a hurry that he left the box behind.
Though mostly empty, it still had something in it -- something pale that he could just make out in the firelight.
There wasn't any time to waste -- but still, Sheppard hopped towards it. Because he knew, deep down, that he couldn't catch up with them, and maybe he could figure out what the old guy was planning. Maybe there was some way that he could stop it from here.
He lurched awkwardly over to the fireside and plunked down beside the box. In spite of everything that had happened, he still felt strangely reluctant to look inside. It was private, after all, and the old guy had obviously hated the idea of anyone seeing what was in it.
Sheppard reminded himself, harshly, that their host had betrayed them and was even now hunting Rodney in the woods. It made him sick to admit it to himself, but if nothing in the box or the cave could help, then Rodney was probably a dead man. It would take Sheppard hours to cover the distance between here and the Stargate in his current condition. By the time he got anywhere near the two of them, whatever was going to happen would have happened.
He picked up the box and looked inside.
Then he went very, very still.
For a moment, he couldn't move at all.
...What's in it?
Something very personal.
Sheppard's hands had begun to tremble.
... killed a friend with the technology here...
... used to be a scientist of some sort, a long time ago.
With one shaking hand, Sheppard reached into the box.
... if he killed you -- would you forgive him for that?
His fingers closed around a piece of fabric, worn and fragile with age. Cautiously, very cautiously, Sheppard lifted it out, unfolding it with light twitches of his fingertips.
... a scientist of some sort, a long time ago...
...This isn't about me and McKay, is it? It's about you and your friend....
Its colors had faded, but time had not entirely dimmed the red, white and blue.
There was a set of dog tags under the American flag patch. Sheppard knew what they would say, what they had to say, but he picked them up anyway, and read the cruel truth emblazoned in the stark block letters.
SHEPPARD, JOHN R.
"I'm not an Ancient," the old man said.
"Oh, like hell you're not!" Rodney retreated a few more hasty steps along the path, catching himself when he stumbled over a root. "I'll have you know I've met Ancients before and haven't been impressed with a single one of them, by the way! I would ask why you haven't Ascended, but it's fairly obvious, I think. Is that why you won't tell us your name?"
"Shut up and listen for a minute."
"You shut up! I'm not going to fall for your Ancient tricks! Did they imprison you here, like Chaya? At least she was better looking!"
"Oh, for -- Was I ever this stupid?" the old man appealed to the sullen gray sky. "You're in a time loop, you fool."
Rodney stopped in his tracks. Water trickled down the back of his neck, ran off his hair into his eyes. "I'm in a what?"
The old man lowered the crossbow to point at the ground. With one hand, he gestured towards the nearest tower, just visible through the trees and the rain. "Those damn things are some kind of time machine. Don't ask me who built 'em, or how they work, because I've spent my life trying to figure that out and I still have no idea. And don't ask me why they're here, either, because I have no clue. Ancient experiment? Prison? Wraith trap? No clue. The guts of the things are locked up tight where I can't get at them, not for lack of trying, at least not with the tools I have -- which are basically rocks and sticks, and the scanner can't penetrate them." His voice twisted in scorn.
"A time machine," Rodney repeated, his throat locking up with horror as a very unpleasant picture began to emerge.
"What are you, a parrot? Yeah. It's tied into the DHD, so you can't dial offworld. If you try, it activates the trap and throws you back in time. That's why I pulled the control crystal -- to make sure no one, including me, tries to use the DHD while I try to figure out how it works and what makes it do what it does."
"But --" Rodney began.
"Shut up, I'm talking. You wanted the truth? Here's the truth, McKay. When I activated the gate, with no idea what I was doing, it reconstituted us in the past -- a process similar to what the Stargates use. But not exactly the same, because it didn't -- it doesn't --"
He broke off for a moment, his throat working until he managed to get his raspy voice back. "It didn't know what to make of Sheppard. Didn't know what damned species he was, with the -- with the Iratus DNA, whatever's left of that, and the Wraith feedings -- and that's why I think it was meant to trap Wraith, because it's the Wraith part of him that it got."
He took a step towards Rodney, his rough voice shaking. "What you get back if you trigger the machine won't be Sheppard. It'll be what he would have been if Beckett hadn't been able to reverse the transformation." Another step. "He'll be gone. Everything he once was, gone. Dead. Make no mistake. And you'll spend the next forty years trying to stamp out that lingering bit of hope that somehow, you can change him back. Trying to work up the guts to kill him before he kills you."
Rodney realized that he couldn't retreat any further because his back was pressed against a tree. "Oh God," he whispered in a voice that broke with horror. "You're me."
The rain was falling heavily outside the cave, sluicing down the hillsides and turning the quiet stream to a snarling torrent that came up past Sheppard's knees as he waded carefully across. He was soaked within minutes, although he discovered that the partly-cured hide draped over his shoulders shed the rain better than a standard Atlantis jacket would have. It at least helped keep his 9-mil mostly dry, though he wasn't sure how long the weapon would be able to fire in this downpour if he had to use it.
He paused on the other side, catching his breath. The cold water had helped to numb the pain in his leg, although it had also soaked the dressings. He tried not to think about infection, about the weakness in his limbs or the impossibility of catching up to Rodney. It had to be done, so he'd do it.
"Which way to the Stargate?" he asked aloud.
He wasn't sure whether to expect a response or not, but he got a vague sense that he should bear left. He wasn't absolutely sure if it came from some outside source, or just from his own subconscious recollections of the way to the Stargate.
So if I'm a monster in this reality ... dimension ... whatever, and Rodney's been living alone all this time, then who the hell am I talking to, anyway?
A disturbing answer nudged at him quietly -- maybe his own thought, maybe someone else's.
"Okay, no way. I am not talking to my own ghost."
There was no response, no answering sense of presence. Maybe he really was delirious. Raising a hand to his vest, he lightly touched the hard, square shape of the box through the canvas fabric, where it rested in a pocket. The dog tags rattled whenever he moved, answered softly by the jangling of the ones around his neck.
In all that great, rainy wilderness, nothing stirred, except for leaves bowing under the weight of the rain to release their burden of water onto his neck and shoulders. Trying to move as quickly as possible without putting undue stress on his leg, he pushed his way impatiently through the wet undergrowth.
Crutching through the wilderness, he tried to focus his mind away from his growing exhaustion and the stabbing pain in his leg, away from the cold seeping into his body and the ache in his shoulder. Unfortunately, the only thing to really think about was whatever set of bizarre circumstances had led to a version of himself and Rodney being trapped on this world for decades, caught in a never-ending game of cat and mouse.
Face it, John. Your life has become a B science fiction movie. Deal with it.
Alternate universe or time travel. Those were really the only options. Unless he wasn't really him, and he sure as hell felt like himself, so he just wasn't even going to go there.
Damn it, he shouldn't have taken this long to figure it out. He'd seen it, with both the alternate Rodney and the alternate Sheppard -- he just hadn't consciously admitted it to himself. The first time he'd ever seen this world's Rodney, when he was semi-conscious and half out of his head with pain, he'd known it was Rodney -- but, later, he'd rationalized it away. And he'd noticed that nagging sense of familiarity with the monster, but, again, it was so easy to not think it through, to just assume that it was a strange world and nothing on this world should be familiar ...
Seen through the lens of what he knew now, the events of the past couple of days snapped into sharp focus. The way that he trusted the old guy in the cave, instinctively, beyond all reason. The way that Rodney and not-quite-Rodney had clashed with each other, a deep-down rivalry bristling at the surface. Even the soft fur on the monster's ankle when it had held him down -- not fur, he realized now, touching his black wristband; not fur, but pilled fabric, worn threadbare after many years. Everything else must have been lost, because the creature obviously didn't need clothing. But, for whatever reason, it had never torn that off.
Whatever had happened, maybe he -- the other him -- wasn't entirely gone from the creature's mind.
That thought spurred him on, as much as concern for what was happening with the two Rodneys. One thing he knew for sure -- this world's Rodney wanted to keep them away from the DHD at all costs. And unless he'd just gone completely crazy from living alone all this time, he must have a good reason.
Sheppard had spent too much time trusting Rodney not to trust him now.
Which meant catching up to both of them before something very bad happened.
His head snapped up at a distant, shivering cry that shot a cold splinter of fear down his spine. He'd heard that before, the unearthly shriek that reminded him all too much of Ellia the Wraith's hunting cry.
"Damn it," he whispered, and tried to hurry, the 9-mil a comforting weight against his good leg.
It was like seeing the hidden picture in one of those silly, gimmicky paintings that Rodney had always scoffed at, where the sky and clouds and trees in an ordinary landscape went together to form the hidden image of a bird or horse or car. Once you'd seen it, you couldn't unsee it, and every time you looked at the painting it was all you could see.
Now that he'd seen his own features looking back at him from forty years of accumulated grime and pain, he desperately wished he could unsee it.
"Are you done now?" the older version of himself asked in that weird, low, raspy voice. No wonder he hadn't recognized his own voice, and even the cadence of speech was a little slower, more halting, after so many years of having no one to talk to.
Rodney carefully folded his hands over the P90, trying to still their telltale trembling. "Um," he said. "I don't know. Actually, I don't think so." Anger started rising in him, slow and hot. "Why all the evasion, then? Why keep jerking us around? You know how I react to being told not to do something, especially by someone with no credentials! What did you think was going to happen?"
The old man leaned back against a tree, resting the crossbow against his side while keeping the LSD where he could watch its screen; the cliff fell away into rain and mist behind him. He didn't meet Rodney's eyes. "I didn't want you to know who I was. Who we were. Either of you."
"Why, for pete's sake?"
The old man raised his head, and Rodney instinctively recoiled from the ravaged face that was undeniably his own underneath the scar tissue, beard and dirt. "Why do you think?" he asked softly. "What would you have done? All you had to do was listen to me; I'm sure Atlantis will find this world before too long and send a jumper, or the Daedalus will come and pick you up. You could have left this world, never knowing what had happened here."
"That's stupid," Rodney said flatly.
"What would you have done?" the old man repeated.
Rodney swallowed. He couldn't meet that too-familiar gaze; instead he dropped his eyes to his mud-covered boots. "So," he said, fumbling for some kind of territory that wasn't horribly personal. "You're the mole person who was digging holes around the gate, I take it?"
"The what? Oh. Don't be dense; I was trying to understand how to uncouple the towers from the DHD," his older self said impatiently. "Which would have been easier if I hadn't had to --" He broke off.
"What?" Rodney demanded, and then froze as a long shivering shriek rent the humid air -- a hunting cry, not far away.
It was pure instinct, not exactly cowardice, that made him duck behind his alternate-timeline double, placing the other McKay between himself and the source of the inhuman shriek. Old Rodney turned and glared at him.
By habit, he fell back on hostility and defensiveness. "What's that look for? Like you wouldn't have --"
"Shush!" Old Rodney looked down at the life signs detector. He tuned it slowly, staring at the screen. Rodney risked a peek.
"Oh shit," he whispered, seeing the fast-moving dot.
"Light bothers it, so it usually doesn't come out during the day ... except on dark days." Old Rodney glanced up at the heavy cloud cover.
"It? Don't you mean 'he'?"
"It," Old Rodney said coldly, "isn't Sheppard."
"I thought you just told me it was Shep--"
The bottomless pain in the other man's one remaining eye shut up Rodney the way that nothing else could have. Because it was his face, his pain ... in another life. There but for the grace... The snatch of phrase flashed through his mind.
"There," his older self whispered, taking one hand off the crossbow to point -- a quick, careless gesture that made Rodney shudder, because it was his gesture, but distorted, wrong. Maybe this was how Elizabeth had felt on Atlantis, seeing herself bowed by the weight of so many countless years.
Movement flickered between the trees, very different from the steady, ceaseless shifting of branches in the wind. In contrast to their random fluctuations, this was quick. Purposeful.
Rodney's rain-wet fingers closed tightly over the P90. He wondered, in panic-borne clarity, if it would even fire after getting thoroughly wet for days.
The movement among the trees stopped, and Rodney glimpsed a gray-blue head and shoulders, rearing out of the wet leaves: his first clear look in daylight at what the retrovirus and Ancient technology had wrought. The creature -- he couldn't bring himself to think of it as Sheppard -- had a forward-sloping muzzle with deep gill slits on either side, as if it had gotten stuck somewhere between a Wraith face and Iratus mandibles. The effect was almost doglike, until its thin lips drew back to reveal irregular Wraithlike fangs in a double row. Sheppard's dark hair had become a row of spikes that flexed and rose along its spine like a set of giant razor-sharp hackles.
Yellow eyes met Rodney's and he gasped out an involuntary "Oh, God." There was nothing human in those eyes, only hunger and a strange, burning, impersonal curiosity that was almost Sheppard's, but with all the warmth and humanity stripped away. One of the things that Rodney had first noticed upon meeting Sheppard was that when he looked at you, he really saw you -- not rank or title or gender or culture, but you. Those burning yellow eyes looked straight through Rodney as if he'd become a hole in the landscape -- a dinner-shaped hole.
The stare broke; the creature ducked away and vanished between the trees.
"Don't shoot 'til you can hit it," the old man whispered harshly, as if he'd sensed Rodney's finger tightening on the trigger. "You'll only give it your range if you miss."
"It's Sheppard," Rodney whispered back viciously. "It already knows the range on a P90!"
Old Rodney's shaggy head moved in a quick, negative jerk. "No. How many times do I have to tell you? It's not Sheppard. It doesn't think like him, doesn't remember the things that he knew -- most of 'em, anyway."
With a flurry of wet leaves, the sleek gray-and-black shape leaped out onto the path, just far enough away that Rodney didn't think he could hit it from here. No matter what the senile old ... him claimed, he didn't think that was a coincidence -- this thing was Sheppard, like it or not, and it damn well knew how far Rodney could shoot. It crouched on all fours --giving him a better view than he really wanted of its insectile, double-jointed legs -- and swept its head back and forth, studying them.
"Come on, you son of a bitch!" Old Rodney snarled.
The ridge of spikes on the creature's head rose and bristled, then flattened, in response to his voice. Rain pattered and glistened on the creature's head; droplets glimmered on the coarse dark hair, not quite dense enough to be considered a pelt, that sparsely covered the blue-gray skin of its shoulders and flanks. It crouched, the hard corded muscles of its legs -- all four of them -- flexing visibly.
When it jumped, the movement was nearly too fast to catch. Old Rodney's crossbow released with a harsh twang, but the creature twisted in midair with that same preternatural speed, and the bolt creased its shoulder and sailed harmlessly into the trees.
Through total panic reflex, Rodney squeezed off a quick burst of P90 fire that missed utterly, before an iron-hard blow sent him spinning around and sprawling in the brush. It felt like his arm had been nearly dislocated, but as he scrambled shakily upright, shaking his ringing head, he realized that it hadn't been after him -- it had gone after his gun. The shoulder strap had snapped, and even as he located the creature a few meters away, he saw it give the gun a hard blow that knocked it off the trail to vanish, spinning, over the edge of the cliff. Then it looked up at Rodney and its yellow eyes narrowed.
"Don't let it bite you!" Old Rodney called in the closest thing his hoarse voice could manage to a shout. "That's how it feeds!"
"That's how everything feeds!" Rodney's voice rose to a shriek as he evaded a swipe of the wicked ivory-colored claws. Considering the Sheppard-thing's horrible speed, it could probably have nailed him if it had wanted to; it seemed more to be playing with him, cat and mouse style, maybe just testing what else he could do.
"No -- like a Wraith! He got me once, took a couple years off, no more than that." Old Rodney's gnarled hands were a blur as he loaded another crossbow bolt. "I've seen him -- it kill birds like that, even a deerlike critter one time ... I used to find husks sometimes, but mostly he'd eat them after draining their life. I don't think he's fully adapted to feeding on energy."
"I don't need a life history!" Rodney yelled, putting a thick tree trunk between himself and the Sheppard-thing. It ducked around the tree, but he dodged the other way, like a cartoon skit; it would have been almost funny, if he wasn't running for his life. "I need help!"
A crossbow bolt skimmed the creature's neck and thudded into the tree, leaving a thin trail of black blood in its wake.
"I need better help!" Rodney protested, just before the clawed forepaws slammed into his chest and knocked him flat. He grabbed its bony forearms, trying to pry it away, but he might as well have tried to block one of Ronon's blows with a pillow; he was helpless against its tenacious, inhuman strength. The spiny, pebbly feeling of its skin was horribly familiar -- he remembered touching Sheppard's hand while the slowly transforming Colonel slept, remembered the way he'd jerked back in horror and then, cautiously, put out a finger and felt it again. On Sheppard, the weird spiny skin had been disgusting only in its strangeness, and only because it was taking his friend away from him. Here, slick with water and hot with the fierce fire of an alien metabolism, it made his stomach twist with revulsion.
From this close, he had far, far too intimate a view of the vaguely Wraithlike face with its forward-jutting muzzle, the yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils fixed intensely on him. The creature wasn't wearing any clothes, although the almost-pelt of sparse black hair extended down its sides -- apparently halfway to becoming flexible spines like the ones that trailed in a line down its neck and the ridge of its backbone. Clearly, Sheppard had taken a slightly different evolutionary path towards Wraithliness than a normal Wraith -- but, then, Ellia hadn't ended up precisely like a normal Wraith queen, either. You mix DNA in a melting pot, he thought hysterically, and there's no telling what'll come out.
The Sheppard-Wraith slid its head to the side, studying him like it was trying to figure him out. On the one hand, good, because it hadn't killed him yet. On the other hand, he couldn't avoid breathing in its musky reek, a predator smell that overwhelmed the clean damp scent of the forest. From this close, he could see a myriad of scars, fishbelly-pale against the darker skin, and even a few pinkish flecks that must be leftovers from when they'd shot it the night before -- good God, it had nearly healed already.
His breath strangled in his throat when he realized that what he'd taken for a band of darker hair on one of its ankles was actually Sheppard's wristband, faded with years.
"What are you waiting for?" he demanded breathlessly. Past the creature's spiky head, he could see that Old Rodney had the crossbow loaded and ready to go, trained on its skull, not five feet away -- there was no way he could possibly miss. "Shoot it!"
But he read the truth in his older self's face, the torment that he could see reflected in those too-familiar, time-blurred features. No matter how hard Old Rodney might protest that the creature wasn't Sheppard, he couldn't make himself kill it.
And the full realization left him sick. With his superior reasoning ability, and a virtually infinite amount of time to figure out ways to trap and hold it, his older self should have been able to kill it a dozen times over, no matter how fast it could regenerate. But he hadn't. He couldn't. It was Sheppard.
Even knowing everything he knew, Rodney didn't think he could, either.
Old Rodney's finger tightened on the crossbow's trigger, but his hand jerked; the crossbow bolt ricocheted off its skull, leaving a bloody stripe. Hissing, the creature released Rodney long enough to backhand the old man with impossible speed and strength. The blow twisted Old Rodney's arm backwards; the snap of bone was audible. The crossbow fell to the path as his right hand went limp and he staggered backwards with a hoarse cry.
Rodney thought, I am so totally screwed.
The creature gave the old man a quick look and then, blurry with speed, it crushed Rodney down to the wet leaves just as he started to scrabble backwards. He couldn't move, could hardly breathe.
The muzzle with its rows of glinting teeth darted down towards his neck, and Rodney managed to gasp out "Oh shi--"
-- before the bark of a gunshot made the creature flinch violently, much as Ellia had done when Carson had shot her. Caught by a sudden sense of deja vu, Rodney stared up at the creature's vaguely doglike profile against the leaden-gray sky, as it swiveled its impossibly flexible neck to look over its shoulder.
"Hey, Rodney, need a hand?" Sheppard's drawl was a little out of breath, but Rodney felt a sense of shuddery relief go through him -- the familiar Sheppard's here, everything's okay feeling -- along with a certain amount of irritation, because wasn't the idiot supposed to stay in the damn cave?
Knowing that he'd been Wraithified was one thing, but actually seeing the creature -- himself -- crouched on top of Rodney, about to rip out his friend's throat, brought a rush of emotion to the surface: horror, revulsion, and a blinding anger.
The 9-mil jumped in Sheppard's hands and he saw the impact in its side, as near the heart as he could get. He didn't dare try for a headshot, not with the head so very close to Rodney's head. But from here, he wasn't sure if the low-powered handgun could do much damage to its fast-healing body. The bullet certainly got its attention, at least; the spiky head snapped up and swiveled around to regard him from flat yellow eyes. He had to fight not to flinch away. Jesus, is that what I looked like? No wonder everyone was so freaked out when they saw me.
"Hey, Rodney, need a hand?"
"What do you think? And why are you here?"
Something inside him unknotted a bit; if Rodney could complain, then he was still at least mostly intact. "Yeah, good question, because it looks like you're doing just great without m--"
"Look out!" two voices shouted -- Rodney's, in chorus with that of his older self. The Iratus creature spun with snakelike speed and grace, releasing Rodney and leaping for Sheppard.
For forty years, Rodney had largely managed to avoid this -- getting caught in the open, going up against the Sheppard-creature in a one-on-one fight that he couldn't hope to win. The bare few times it had happened before, he'd come out of it damaged: missing an eye, missing some fingers, missing a few years of his life.
He still didn't know how he'd survived those early months, when the horror of what had happened to them hadn't quite sunk in yet, when he still thought he could talk to Sheppard, reason with him, bring him back somehow. In later years he'd mostly attributed his survival to Iratus-Sheppard being as confused about things as he was -- trying to cope with a radically changed body, a barrage of alien sensory input, hungers and needs that were unfamiliar and bizarre.
The overriding thing driving him was the ever-present awareness that he'd failed at his one true purpose in life, which was to understand things. The abiding principle by which he lived was the belief that all things could be broken down into comprehensible scientific maxims, and thus controlled.
But when it really counted, he hadn't done it. He'd dialed the DHD without even thinking about it, without noticing the slight differences between this one and a normal DHD. And he'd had many, many years after that to reflect on it, to figure out exactly what had gone wrong and to begin the slow process of figuring out how to undo it -- or, failing that, at least to survive until time looped back around to when he and Sheppard had been bounced from the Atlantis gate to this one, and stop himself from dialing it. Not that it would help him -- the experience with Elizabeth's older self, not to mention bucketloads of quantum theory, had taught him that much -- but at least one version of himself, of Sheppard, could escape. The alternative was that they'd remain trapped forever in an infinite cycle of guilt and death and pain. In fact, he had no clue if this was even the first time this had happened; maybe he and mutated Sheppard had killed each other so quickly in past cycles that they'd left no trace behind. This could have been going on for a very long time. An infinity.
But there wasn't even going to be a repeat of the cycle this time -- no do-over, no second chance to put things right, because they hadn't triggered the DHD and hadn't jumped back in time, and they were both about to die in front of him.
Vaguely, through the pain in his arm, he became aware that someone was shouting at him, and had been for some time. No -- not shouting; it was as if he could feel the words, reverberating through his whole body.
"Rodney! Don't let this happen -- stop me!"
It wasn't the first time he'd heard it, that incorporeal voice. He'd never dared imagine that it was anything more than a particularly vivid auditory hallucination; the alternative was even more horrific than the things he knew to be true.
"Rodney, LISTEN to me! Damn it, I know you can hear me."
But Sheppard, the real Sheppard, the fully corporeal one, had heard the voice too. And kneeling in the rain, half in shock and watching his worst nightmare unfold in front of him, knowing that this was the very worst time to go all Ghost Whisperer, Rodney did something he hadn't done since he'd been on this world. At least not when he wasn't drunk enough that he could rationalize it away afterwards.
He focused inward, and tried to respond.
After so many years of conscientiously ignoring that voice, tuning into it was like struggling through molasses. But it responded to him.
It. He. There wasn't a tone to the voice, not as such, but in some bone-deep way he could feel a kind of sardonic amusement that he would have known anywhere, and every one of his defenses against the truth crumbled like spun sugar in the rain.
"I knew you could hear me, McKay."
The creature's weight bore Sheppard down, and he screamed in pain as his leg twisted under him. The world spun around him, but still he managed to react instinctively, bringing up his hands to hold it off with an arm across its scaly throat.
Me. It's me. Over and over, he kept telling himself that, as if it was vitally important that he didn't forget, as if he could forget. Against his forearm he could feel its heartbeat, a too-rapid tattoo like the flutter of a bird's heart.
"Hi again," he said into the blank stare of those yellow predator's eyes -- hawk's eyes, lizard's eyes, with nothing human behind them.
The creature's lips curled back from its jagged teeth. Sheppard had one arm across its throat, the other gripping a thin hard wrist -- but its other arm was free, and it curled its claws around his shoulder. He gasped in pain, but it wasn't really trying to hurt him, just immobilize him so that it could curl its neck down. Saliva glistened on its fangs. All his sarcastic retorts died in his throat, because it was him, and he was slowly losing ground to its implacable strength.
A shock ran down the length of the creature's body, and it was knocked forward, its chest flattened against his for just an instant before another impact slammed into the side of its head and it rolled away. Sheppard stared up in shock, blinking rainwater out of his eyes and then blinking again at the sight of a wild-eyed Rodney gripping a freaking tree branch in a white-knuckled, muddy grip. The second impact had broken the impromptu weapon in half, though Rodney didn't seem to notice that there was only about a foot and a half of jagged wood projecting from his fists.
"You're attacking it with a stick?"
"I don't have any weapons!" Rodney gasped, stumbling backwards, his pale face glistening with rain.
"God! Get my gun!" He tried to get up, but his trembling limbs wouldn't quite work right; shock and pain and cold left him uncoordinated and weak.
"I don't know where it is!"
Damn this dense undergrowth. The P90 was probably somewhere around here too, heaven only knows where. Sheppard managed to roll to his side just in time to see the creature crouch for another leap, and as the yellow eyes fixed on him, he thought, It's done playing. It means business this time.
Forty years of denial crumbled into pieces as the man who hadn't thought of himself as Rodney McKay in many years whispered, "Sheppard? It's you, right?"
"I'm not sure." The voice was faint, uncertain. "I think so, sometimes, but I forget things. I don't know how I'm here; I sometimes know who I am, but I have no idea WHAT I am."
But Rodney did. At least, he had a guess. It was beyond anything he'd thought the Stargate could do -- but the gate on this world wasn't exactly like a normal gate. And, after all, nobody really knew how the Stargates worked. That they demolecularized a person's molecules and reconstituted them on the other side was beyond question ... but the Ancients had believed that a person was more than just the sum of their molecules. And while Rodney had never believed in metaphysics, he also couldn't deny that he'd seen things that certainly implied the Ancients might have ... well, he thought of it as discovered a kind of physics we haven't figured out yet, but the fact remained that for the Alterans, consciousness existed independently of physical form, and it was not outrageous that their technology might reflect that belief.
It was not impossible that consciousness might be transmitted independently of physical form by the gate. And if the consciousness and the body could not be reintegrated on the other end -- the possibilities were disturbing.
"I think you're a kind of ... residual pattern of your thought processes, preserved by the gate." He didn't exactly speak aloud, but his lips moved, framing the words quietly as rain trickled down his face like tears.
"I'm a Stargate ghost?"
"Oh, trust you to put it in the most idiotically simplistic terms possible." The offhand insult was habit, a habit he hadn't indulged in half a lifetime. It felt ridiculously good.
"Are you okay?" Sheppard asked him softly.
"That's a stupid question." He picked himself up, his broken arm dangling uselessly at his side. In front of him, the fight played out with the slowness of nightmare: his younger self stupidly, hopelessly, attacking the creature with a broken branch, driving it off Sheppard.
"It's going to kill them. Us."
"It's you," Rodney murmured.
"No, it's not. It hasn't been for a long time, and you know that."
With a sharp backswing, the creature knocked the younger Rodney head-over-heels, sending him skidding to the very edge of the cliff. Sheppard, the younger version, lurched forward, only to be borne down by the creature's weight as it went for his throat.
"Rodney, please." Sheppard's voice was soft in his ear. "I don't want to live like that. I don't want to BE that."
He couldn't work the crossbow with only one hand -- and his maimed hand, at that. But he still had a weapon: the knife jammed into an ill-fitting, homemade sheath at his belt. Once it had been Sheppard's combat knife, a long time ago. It had been through a lot of use since then, but he kept it sharp.
The fingers of his maimed hand curled around the hilt. His grip might not be quite as sure as it had once been, but he still had two fingers and a thumb. With a sharp tug, he wrenched the knife out of the warped rawhide sheath.
The cliff was very high; he didn't think that even the Wraith-Sheppard's inhumanly resilient body could survive a fall from that height. The only reason why he'd never done something like this in the past was because he hadn't had a compelling reason to. Even after everything that had happened to him, he was still afraid of death. But if his death was the way out, for at least one timeline's version of Sheppard and himself, then maybe it was worth it.
"Rodney--" He wasn't sure if he could truly read the fear, the concern in Sheppard's bodiless voice, or if it was only his imagination. "Rodney, I didn't mean for you to -- "
His own voice was soft, so soft he could barely hear his own words. "I don't want to live like this either, Colonel. I never did. The very least I can do is save you."
One minute Sheppard was straining against the wiry weight pressing him down into the wet leaves -- the next, something hit the Iratus creature in the side, knocking it off him.
"Don't!" Rodney's voice, from farther away, was breathless -- the wind knocked out of him by his fall -- and ragged with desperation.
There was a great snapping of branches and crashing of leaves, and the creature's high unearthly shriek cut off suddenly with a wet distant crunch. Swallowing, Sheppard sat up slowly. The rainwater running into his eyes was warm; he raised a hand to find that at some point during the fight he'd gashed his forehead, and blood was trickling down his face.
Rodney knelt on the lip of the cliff, looking down. Not quite sure where the crutches were, not quite trusting his balance on them just yet, Sheppard scooted over to the edge to join him. All he could see were treetops, hazy in the gray cloak of rain.
"I ... jumped. I mean, the other me." Rodney swallowed. "They went over the edge together."
Sheppard stared down into the mist. Nothing moved below them; there were no sounds. "Would a fall like that kill it?" The fall would certainly have killed the older Rodney, but he didn't want to think about that.
Rodney gave him a pale imitation of his usual irritated glare. "Do I look like Physics Google to you?" He frowned. "You're bleeding again."
Sheppard wiped impatiently at his forehead. "I know. See if you can find my crutches."
"Why? Oh my God, are you going down there?"
Since Rodney was making no move, Sheppard groaned and used his hands to push himself across the wet ground, feeling through the leaves. It wasn't as if he could get any wetter or muddier than he already was, after all. "If it's not dead, it'll be hurt pretty bad, and we'll never get a better chance to finish it off. Otherwise, it'll just heal and come back."
Something waved in his face; he looked up to see Rodney staring down a length of crutch at him, with an unreadable expression on his face.
"Thanks," Sheppard said, taking it from him.
"Colonel..." Rodney trailed off and looked away. "There's something you really ought to know. About ... them." He swallowed, and opened and closed his mouth without any sound coming out.
Rodney's head snapped up. "What? How did you --"
Silently, wordlessly, Sheppard opened the box and held it up so that Rodney could see the dog tags and American flag patch, nestled in the bottom. Then he tugged aside the fur cloak he was wearing to reveal the set of identical tags around his neck.
"Oh," Rodney said softly.
"I just don't know how." Sheppard went back to feeling around through the dead leaves for his other crutch and his 9-mil.
"Oh ... that. The, uh, the towers..." Rodney waved a hand in demonstration. "Time machine. Time loop. The DHD triggers them. When we came through the Stargate originally, we, uh -- jumped back in time. Maybe more than once. Maybe a lot of times."
"That's confusing." Sheppard's fingers closed over a rain-slick barrel. With a sigh of relief, he pulled the gun out of the underbrush and checked the action.
"Not any worse than Elizabeth going back and changing history so we didn't die when we came through the gate to Atlantis."
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Confusing as hell." Satisfied that the gun was as likely to fire as it could be in the rain, he tucked it against his side under the rain-shedding fur.
"What do you mean? It's basic quantum theory! Here." Rodney handed him the other crutch.
"Strangely, McKay, some of us in the room aren't physicists." Waving away an offer of assistance, Sheppard got to his feet by sliding his back up a tree. "Where's the P90?"
Wordless for once, Rodney pointed to the cliff.
"Oh, you're kidding."
Rodney scowled at him. "You -- I mean, the other you, the thing, it knocked the gun over the edge."
"Well, I guess we have to go down, then."
It took them awhile to find a route down to the bottom of the cliff, especially one that could be traversed on crutches. To keep their minds off what they might find at the bottom, Sheppard nudged Rodney into filling him in on what the older McKay had told him. He didn't bring up the voice that he'd heard back at the cave, and neither did Rodney; Sheppard had no explanation for that, but he knew he had heard it, knew that he'd felt something. And it was gone now, that elusive presence at the back of his awareness; he was equally sure of that. Maybe he'd been able to hear it because it really was him; maybe something to do with his ATA gene; maybe he'd just been the one it had chosen to make contact with. In any case, it was gone.
The path of broken trees and crushed vegetation down the side of the cliff was plain enough to follow. Sheppard gestured Rodney behind him, then realized that he couldn't carry the gun and move forward at the same time. Rodney, sighing, slipped a shoulder under Sheppard's other arm, and they cautiously approached the two bodies tangled in a heap of shattered branches, rocks and mud.
"They're, um... pretty dead, aren't they?" Rodney murmured.
That about summed it up. There was no chance, as far as Sheppard could see, that either of the two mangled bodies could still be alive, but he still checked the creature's broken neck for a nonexistent pulse. It was already growing cold in the rain. "Go see if you can find the P90," Sheppard said, slipping away from Rodney's supportive shoulder and sitting down on a log. Rodney vanished with a look of relief.
Sheppard rested the 9-mil on his knee and massaged a cramp out of his injured leg. He tried not to look too closely at the faces of the dead -- especially his own -- but his eyes were drawn to the knife buried up to the haft in the monster's side. My knife, he thought, recognizing the military-issue hilt. Black blood bathed the creature's side and Old Rodney's arm, although the wound by itself would not have been enough to kill it.
Brave, he thought. The word by itself seemed inadequate. Getting to his feet, he hopped a couple of steps closer, to close Rodney's staring eyes, and then the creature's yellow ones.
"Found it," Rodney said, behind him, and Sheppard jumped. "Hope we don't have to shoot anything soon, though." He passed Sheppard the crutches, and then showed him the P90, its stock cracked and magazine torn off by the fall.
Sheppard just grunted in response, resting most of his weight on the crutches as exhaustion began to catch up to him.
Rodney fiddled with the parts of the broken gun, not looking up. "I guess we ought to, um -- you know, bury them. Why don't you go back to the cave, Colonel. I can do this; you'd just be in the way."
"I need to be here," Sheppard said, and that was the end of that.
They buried the two bodies at the bottom of the cliff, in graves as deep as Rodney could manage to dig, with his stiff and aching shoulder. Sheppard helped where he could, but Rodney eventually shooed him out of the way; it was easier to do it on his own. After that, Sheppard went off into the woods and started locating rocks, rolling them over to the edge of the graves.
"Okay, you got me," Rodney panted, wiping sweat and rain off his face with a dirt-encrusted hand. "What the hell are you going to do, build a monument?"
"Build a cairn," Sheppard said, pushing another rock into the pile.
"A cairn. Shallow graves are something ... I've had a little experience with." Sheppard avoided Rodney's eyes. "You pile on the rocks so that animals don't get the bodies."
"Okay, first of all, that's really unpleasant, Colonel, and second, I don't think there are any animals left on this world; the other you ate them all."
"The world's a big place, Rodney." Leaning over to shift a rock, Sheppard nearly took a header into the open grave. He slid down shakily to sit with his back against a tree, his leg thrust out stiff in front of him.
"If you get pneumonia, I'm the one who's going to have to drag your ass back to the cave, you know."
"I'm not going to get pneumonia, McKay."
But by the time they laid the bodies in the graves, he was shivering and pale. Rodney glanced at him worriedly, but said nothing as they covered the dead Rodney's face with his fur cape, and then used a piece of the same to cover Wraith-Sheppard's. After a moment, thoughtfully, Sheppard laid the meticulously carved wooden box onto Old Rodney's chest, with the dog tags inside.
In silence, the two of them scooped dirt back into the graves -- in the steady rain, it was more like mud by now -- and then piled the rocks on top. When the cairns were complete, they just stood for a moment, exhausted, hungry and filthy, staring at the two forlorn piles of rocks in the rain.
"Think we should, uh ..." Rodney gestured uncertainly with one dirt-streaked hand. "Mark them somehow?"
"I don't know." Sheppard glanced at him, and despite the strain in his white face, faint humor glimmered in his eyes. "What do you want on your grave?"
Rodney glared at him. "It's not my grave, anymore than the old Elizabeth we found in Atlantis was Elizabeth."
"No, but you still know what you'd want on your grave, in case a situation like this ever ... came up."
Rodney contemplated a suitably sarcastic response, but he just didn't have the energy for it, and he let the urge bleed out of him in a long sigh. "I don't really ... I don't know. He wanted to be forgotten, mostly. He was ashamed of what he'd done."
"Rodney, he didn't do anything."
"That's it exactly. He didn't fix it," Rodney said, and he hated how small and fragile his voice came out.
Sheppard's hand tugged at his arm gently. "Rodney, you can't fix everything..." And then suddenly he was depending on that grip for most of his body weight, as his legs sagged under him. Rodney caught him.
"All right, consider the memorial service over. Cave, Colonel, now."
Later, they sat in the cave with the door open, listening to the rain patter outside. With the monster gone, there wasn't really any reason to keep the door closed, and it helped lighten the smoky oppression of the atmosphere inside. With the fire going, it was warm enough to be relatively comfortable, although Sheppard was huddled deep in a pile of furs, the intact LSD next to his hand.
Rodney poked through the contents of various misshapen baskets. "Looks like there's enough food to last us awhile ... if you can call it food. Smoked fish and, oh look, some kind of tuber." He held up the warty, misshapen thing. "At least that's what I assume it is. Maybe it's a science experiment."
Sheppard made a noncommittal sound.
Rodney set a clay-covered basket of water in the edge of the coals, looking at it with renewed interest now that he knew he'd made it. Well, not him exactly, but another him -- someone who'd been him until their paths had forked after they stepped onto this world. Sure, the basket was as ugly as Lucius's gourd, but it worked. He'd always been convinced that he could do anything he put his mind to, but if someone had actually asked him if he thought he could survive for forty years on a wilderness planet with nothing but the contents of his field vest, and with a monster hunting him ... well, he'd probably have said of course he could, but did he actually believe that? Not really, he thought, breaking the tuber into unappetizing-looking pieces and adding it to the water. And yet, he had.
"You didn't fail, you know," he said softly into the flames of the low-burning fire. "You did pretty damn good. Sheppard would have told you that, if he'd been able to."
"Talking to yourself, McKay?" came the soft drawl from the pile of furs in the corner.
"Yes," Rodney said, smiling just a little, and he got up and hobbled over to sink down onto the pile of straw next to Sheppard. Every part of his body ached; he wasn't sure if it was from infection or from the unaccustomed activity of the last couple of days. Maybe both. "You look like crap," he added, frowning down at the pale face that was barely visible under all the coverings.
" 'm fine," Sheppard slurred.
"No, no you're not." Sudden nausea rolled through Rodney's stomach, because Sheppard really could die, leaving him alone here. And he'd seen himself at the end of that: scarred and miserable, with no one to complain to, no one to tell him when he did something right.
"I don't know what the hell to do," he said, leaning back against the wall, and damn, he hadn't meant to admit that, but the words were already out. Maybe Sheppard had fallen asleep and hadn't heard.
No such luck; one eye cracked open. "About what?"
Rodney waved a hand vaguely at the cave around them. "I don't know how to get us off this world." His voice came out sharp, snappish, as it always did when he was frustrated. "I mean, the other me spent, what, forty years trying to figure out how to dial the DHD without triggering the time-jump effect, and he couldn't do it. Whatever this place was for -- and we'll probably never know, which drives me crazy, by the way -- it was obviously designed to be a prison. And we're trapped in it."
"Which is why we wait for Atlantis to find us. They've gotta be going nuts, looking for us."
"What if there was a bomb? What if there isn't any Atlantis anymore--ow!" Sheppard had worked a hand free of the covers to smack him lightly in the arm.
"Atlantis is fine, Rodney; we agreed on that."
"No, you and your stupid optimism agreed on that; I don't recall being given a vote," Rodney growled, rubbing his arm.
Sheppard just snorted, and closed his eyes. "Well, being this optimistic is hard work, so I'm going to sleep."
Rodney stared anxiously down at him. "But I'm making food. Well, it's sort of food. I'm starving. Aren't you hungry?"
" 'm hungry," Sheppard mumbled without sounding especially sincere. "Wake me up when it's done."
Rodney managed to wait all of forty-five seconds or so, before sticking a hand under the furs to make sure Sheppard was still breathing. With his hand on Sheppard's chest, he could feel small shivers along with shallow and rapid breaths.
"What?" Rodney squeaked, jerking his hand back.
"Personal space," Sheppard said faintly, from under the blankets. "Remember it?"
"I was just -- uh --"
"Rodney." Sheppard rolled his head to the side, shifting so that he could look up at his friend. Fever-bright, his eyes were still focused, intense with conviction. "Rodney, they'll come."
"I know they will," Rodney returned, a little too quickly.
"They always do. We always do." Sheppard curled deeper under the blankets, his voice growing soft as it slid towards sleep. "Elizabeth's out there. Ronon and Teyla. Radek, Carson. They won't leave us, Rodney."
"I know." Rodney's hand slipped to rest on top of the pile of furs. "I know."
It was nearly a day later, and Rodney was dipping water from the creek, when his radio crackled to life. "Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, this is the Daedalus. We're picking up your subcutaneous transmitters; are you reading us?"
"Oh, thank God," Rodney said fervently. Sheppard had been drifting in and out of sleep; he was still coherent, but feverish and in a lot of pain. "Yes, and I can't wait to hear how you found us, but right now beam us the hell out of here."
An hour or so later, he was showered and in clean scrubs, sitting on the edge of an infirmary bed while a brisk Daedalus corpsman bandaged his shoulder.
"Solar flare," Zelenka said, sitting on the chair opposite. "One in a million chance. Your wormhole was cut off from the Atlantis gate and bounced to this address. We've checked and it's not in the database; we'd never have dialed there on our own."
Rodney looked up from the laptop on his knees, where he'd been looking over the calculations that Zelenka had used to predict the new path of the wormhole and find where they'd gone. "This is ... alarmingly competent, Radek. I may have to add some duties to your workload; I think I've been underutilizing you."
Reading between the lines to the compliment underneath, with the skill of long practice, Zelenka grinned. "It is a relief to know I do not have to do your job anymore, as well as mine. Underutilized, indeed; overworked is more like it." And he patted Rodney on the arm before heading out the door, leaving him alone with Ronon and Teyla.
The corpsman had gone off somewhere and there was no one else around, so Rodney didn't mind as much as he probably should have when Ronon engulfed him in a bear hug. Rodney was pretty sure that the only reason why it hadn't happened earlier, in full view of everyone, was because Teyla had gotten to him first with one of her Athosian half-hugs, and he'd squeaked in pain when she'd put her hand on his sore shoulder. Ronon, showing remarkable restraint, had at least managed to wait until he was bandaged and doped up.
"Okay. Enough, enough. Put me down."
Ronon put him down, grinning. "We had no idea where you two went."
"Well, that makes all of us, because neither did we."
Both of them looked at him expectantly; they obviously expected a little more information. Rodney chased them off by irritably claiming exhaustion. He hadn't talked to Elizabeth yet and he wasn't really looking forward to it, because he had no clue what he was going to say.
They wheeled Sheppard in a little later, pale and asleep.
Rodney was half asleep himself, idly going over the past few days' reports on his borrowed laptop and making note of all the many things his staff had been screwing up in his absence, by the time Sheppard finally moaned and stirred out of the semi-coma they'd doped him into. Teyla and Ronon had been drifting in and out of the room -- right now they were off in the gym, getting rid of some excess energy.
"Not a dream," Sheppard murmured thickly, staring at the ceiling. "We're on the Daedalus, right?"
"Right, and we should be back on Atlantis in a few hours, where we'll be thoroughly debriefed, I imagine." Rodney looked over at him. "What are we going to tell Elizabeth?"
Sheppard blinked, then turned his head to the side, squinting sleepily. "Any specific reason why the truth is a bad idea?"
"I don't know, I just think ... never mind what I think, it probably wouldn't make any sense anyway." Rodney went back to staring at the gently rising curve of Atlantis's energy expenditures over the last few days and trying to figure out why the hell Coleman ever thought it would be a good idea to sync up the naquadah generators that way.
"For what it's worth, I agree," Sheppard said.
Rodney looked up. "Hmm?"
"About ... them. That they probably wouldn't want their story told."
Rodney laid the laptop aside, having lost interest in his calculations. "I definitely got that feeling from ... me. I mean, all he really wanted us to do was leave him alone. He didn't really want to go back. Of course, a lot of it had to do with feeling, you know, guilty and all." Rodney looked away; he didn't want to go through another round of You did the best you could, and besides, he was pretty sure that it hadn't been his other self's only reason, and maybe not even his main reason, for keeping them in the dark.
"And he was protecting me," Sheppard said. "The other me, I mean."
Damn Sheppard and his insights anyway. "Yeah," Rodney said reluctantly. "I think he was. Which brings us back to, what do we tell Elizabeth?"
Sheppard started to shrug, then winced when he discovered why that wasn't a good idea. "What do we have to tell her? We couldn't get the DHD working, we got attacked by something, and helped out by a local who got killed shortly before the Daedalus picked us up. Sounds like one of our typical missions, actually."
Rodney snorted. "Too bad Ronon and Teyla missed the fun."
"No ... not so much, really." Sheppard lay back and gazed up at the ceiling.
"Hmm." No, not so much.
Sheppard's voice was soft. Rodney closed his eyes for a minute and debated pretending to have suddenly fallen asleep. Finally he said, impatiently, to the expectant silence beside him, "What?"
This was just about the last thing he'd ever have expected to hear out of John Sheppard, for any reason. Rodney looked at him in shock. Sheppard was plucking at his blanket with the hand that wasn't strapped to his chest.
"What on Ear-- what in the Pegasus Galaxy are you apologizing for?"
"I thought it was gone." Sheppard tugged a thread from the blanket, winding it slowly and systematically around his finger. "The -- the bug thing -- you know? Rodney, on that planet, I tried to kill you. A lot. I mean, eventually, I did kill you."
Oh. That. The thought hit Rodney like a sledgehammer blow that he probably wasn't the one having the most difficulty dealing with what had happened on the planet, not by a long shot. "Er, no," Rodney said. "Technically, at the end there, I killed you."
"I'd call it self-defense, seeing how I was attacking you at the time."
Rodney snorted. "Oh, admit it, won't you? I, Rodney McKay, armed with a knife, killed you, Mr. Badass Wraith Monster black-ops military-type ... thing. I outwitted you for forty years and then killed you with hand tools."
"Okay, you sound a little too happy about that." But Sheppard's voice sounded a little less dragged-down, a little more like his usual irritatingly perky drawl.
"Face it," Rodney said cheerfully, buffing his fingernails on his blanket. "I am now officially badass."
Sheppard was startled into a laugh. "Officially, huh? Does that mean you'll be spending more time in the gym?"
Now it was Rodney's turn to laugh. "Ha! Why should I, when I clearly don't need to?"
At that point, Ronon and Teyla came trooping in, freshly showered and bearing trays of food from the Daedalus mess. They were annoyingly happy to find that Sheppard was awake -- "Hey, I've been awake for hours, and nobody commented on it!" "Shut up, McKay." -- and the conversation degenerated into a free-for-all catch-up and gabfest over reconstituted Salisbury steak and muffins. If anyone noticed that the two rescuees were a little less than forthcoming with precise details of the creature that had attacked them, or the customs of the local people who had helped them, no one commented on it. By the time the drugs started wearing off, Sheppard was mostly asleep, and the Daedalus medical staff chased their visitors off so they could rest for the remainder of the flight back to Atlantis. And Rodney could feel the horror of the planet receding to a quiet place in the back of his brain -- to be stored away with sinking puddlejumpers and Sheppard's voice saying So long, Rodney, and the other stuff of nightmares that vanished by daylight.
This story was originally begun last fall for the Spook_Me ficathon, which gave "scary" prompts to participants to build their horror stories around. My prompts were "insects" (for which I used Iratus bugs) and "a locked room" (which I mis-remembered as "a locked box" until I'd already laid out my plot, at which point I decided to go with it). Kodiak had also asked for ghost stories last Halloween, which was what I was trying to do with the Sheppard Stargate ghost. I'm not sure how much sense ANY of the science in this story makes, but hey, it's Halloween...
I contemplated doing another rewrite of the story when "Vengeance" aired, presenting a very different "look" for the end-stage Iratus transformation than I'd envisioned in the wake of "Conversion". However, I decided to go with my original idea because Michael's transformation process was fairly different from what had happened to Sheppard in "Instinct", and I can't see any reason why different end results wouldn't be possible. Besides, IMHO, a giant predator lizard-creature was a lot creepier than a giant bug...
Incidentally, the initial idea that developed into this story was to have Sheppard as an old mountain guy, stranded by himself in the wilderness for umpteen years -- sort of like "Epiphany" taken to extremes. In the end, with the plot developing as it did, I used Rodney instead. But that was the first idea.