Chapter One: Wilderness Survival 101
When you become isolated or separated in a hostile area ... your evasion and survival skills will determine whether or not you return to friendly lines. ...
You can do without food for several days; water, however, is essential.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
Cold, thirst, and an itch he couldn't scratch drove him out of darkness, to the sharp bite of a rock digging into his arm, to the rich smell of earth and growing things and the chill of a wind tugging at his hair. Wrong, all wrong. There shouldn't have been grass and dirt and sunlight stabbing into his eyes as he peeled them slowly open. There should have been soft fluorescent lights, the smell of metal and plastic, the murmur of the ocean on the edge of hearing.
Wrong. But he didn't know why he expected plastic rather than grass, any more than he knew his name.
He blinked his eyes, staring up at the pinpricks of two small suns -- one with hints of gold, the other pure white -- in a washed-out, pale blue sky. Thin wisps of clouds trailed their fingers across his field of vision -- his mind supplied the word contrails and something in him twisted in a sudden fierce joy and pain, a sudden urge to rise up and touch the sky. He tried to catch at that strange sensation, but it was gone.
He was still thirsty and cold, and as he tried to move, suddenly hurting as well: a sharp pain like a pitchfork stabbed him between the shoulder blades. He sucked in his breath, clenching his teeth, and closed his eyes until the pain subsided. Then he continued to roll slowly over, expecting it this time, bracing himself for it. A part of him insisted that he should lie still until he could determine what had hurt him and how badly. A more insistent part, however, demanded that he find out where he was and whether anything else was about to hurt him more.
The first rush of pain had been the worst, and though it still hurt abominably, he could sit up and look around. He was in an overgrown, apparently abandoned field, sloping gently down to a row of evergreen trees about a hundred yards away. The broken line of a wooden fence, moss-covered and falling down from neglect, wound through the tall grass and weeds to vanish at the edge of the woods. There was no other sign of human habitation. Tall mountains rose on the far side of the trees, and, turning his head with a grimace of pain, he found them on all sides -- a fence of soaring, snow-capped cliffs, some so near that he could see the silver threads of waterfalls down their sides, others blue and hazy with distance.
The only sign of life he could see was a wide-winged bird soaring against the distant peaks of the mountains. It resembled some sort of eagle, but it had to be huge, bigger even than the condors in the mountains of his childhood.
He tried to grab at that memory, but again, frustratingly, it skittered away. In its place, though, came a sense of desperate urgency. There was something he had to do. Someone he had to find. And he wasn't doing it by laying here in the grass.
With the urgent feeling came a rush of fear. He knew he wasn't safe. Someone had hurt him, and he knew deep down that they'd be back to hurt him again. He had to get out of the open, get to the shelter of the trees. And find water; his dry throat ached enough to give some serious competition to the stabbing pain at the top of his spine.
Shakily he got to his feet, wincing, trying not to pull at the wounded muscles in his back. He could tell from the feeling that it was a healing injury rather than a new one ... maybe a few days old? He didn't know why, but he realized that he was a man who knew wounds, knew what they felt like and how to deal them to others. If he met the people who had done this to him -- a flush of hatred ran through him, startling with its intensity. They had done more than just hurt him. He would kill them if he found them, with his bare hands if necessary.
His hand had gone instinctively to his leg at the thought, touching only the bare cloth of his pants leg. There should have been a gun strapped there. He felt naked without it, defenseless. All the more reason to get to the woods.
As he started to walk, he realized that the only tracks in the long grass were the ones he was making as he left the little nest where he'd awakened. Startled, he looked around. The grass should have shown a trail easily, but there was none. It was as if he'd fallen from the sky.
Limping at first, he found that it got easier to move as he warmed up and shook the bloodflow back into his cold, stiff extremities. His shirt caught on the wound on his back as he walked, making him flinch. It wasn't going to be easy, since he couldn't see it, but he had to figure out how badly he was hurt. First, though, he needed to get out of the open, and he needed to find water.
At least that last part, he figured, should be easy in this high country -- mountains, especially green mountains with trees, always had streams. And sure enough, he could hear the sound of rushing water as soon as he entered the trees. Stumbling occasionally, supporting himself on the craggy trunks of the evergreens, he found his way to a small brook twisting between moss-covered banks. Careful of his back, he lowered himself to his knees and dipped up water with his hands. It was so cold it numbed his fingers, and he closed his eyes, luxuriating briefly in the cool wetness that soothed away the burn in his dry throat.
Thirst slaked, he turned his attention to taking an inventory of himself -- his injuries, weapons and so forth. No gun, but he already knew that. He discovered himself to be wearing a set of gray military fatigues and a flak vest with pockets, somewhat dirty and bloodstained but basically intact. The pockets were mostly empty, but he did come up with a few things of varying degrees of usefulness: a clip of ammo for the gun he didn't have; a waterproof case of matches; an object similar to a fat laundry marker, naggingly familiar though he couldn't immediately figure out what it was; a compass; string; a simple first-aid kit; a peppermint candy; two powerbars. The sight of the sugar-rich food made his mouth water; now that he wasn't so desperately thirsty, he found that he was very hungry as well. He forced himself to put the nutrition bars away. No telling how long he'd have to survive on them.
He was pleased to discover that he had a boot sheath containing a knife -- a large, wicked-looking one. Another sudden flash of memory: someone with knives, someone with a LOT of knives, telling him always to have knives hidden on his body. His unknown enemies, whoever they were, had taken his gun and they'd taken the knife he always wore at his belt, but they had left the one in his boot. Whoever that person with the knives was, he might owe him his life in the days to come.
Feeling tenderly between his shoulder blades, he found that the material of his jacket and vest were intact on top of the injury. It had been made when he wasn't wearing these clothes. Now he was even more confused, as he was forced to rearrange his guesswork about the chain of events leading up to his awakening in the field. He'd assumed that he had escaped from someone and been injured while trying to get away. Apparently, the situation was a little more complicated than that.
The movements hurt like hell, but he managed to shrug out of his vest and then his jacket. Even the black T-shirt beneath was not slit in the back. He'd been stripped to the waist and -- what? Tortured?
He was lying on a table. Cold. Face pressed to a hard metal surface. Screaming, he was screaming, and someone else screamed his name, and he was --
... He was still in the forest, having nearly fallen, catching himself at the last minute with arms that shook from more than just cold and hunger.
The voice that had yelled his name ... what had it said?
His first reaction was nothing more than relief -- because he knew who he was now. Or, at any rate, he knew his name, which was a vast improvement over having a hole where his name should go. Strange how it could mess a guy up, not knowing his own name.
But now, rather than a hole where his own name should be, there was a hole where that other person's name should be -- the person who has shouted "Sheppard!" in a voice laced through with terror and rage. The memory of that voice brought up a roiling mass of conflicted emotions: affection, exasperation, fear, anger, worry, and a pain so deep he didn't dare touch it. Something had happened to them both, something he needed very badly to sort out, but he knew that this was not the place to do it. Later, when he wasn't lost in a strange forest, starving and injured and armed only with a knife, he could sort through the tangled threads of memory and emotion to understand his past. Right now, the important thing was to figure out how badly he was hurt and then get himself somewhere safe and warm.
He skimmed out of the T-shirt, trembling with pain, with residual anger and fear, and, not inconsequentially, with cold. It wasn't freezing in the forest, but it wasn't warm either -- maybe somewhere in the fifties despite the bright sunlight slanting through the trees. As soon as he figured out that he wasn't going to keel over from shock and blood loss, he needed to get moving and warm up.
And it did not seem that imminent death was a danger. He ran his fingers lightly over the ragged edges of the injury between his shoulders. It felt as if it had been stitched up crudely, and he touched clotted blood, wincing. But it wasn't actively bleeding, and didn't seem to be terribly large or deep. He could feel tenderness and puffiness around the edges; most of the pain, presumably, was tenderness resulting from a mild infection, not at all surprising in an open wound that probably had not been well treated. This bothered him, since he had no antibiotics or any way to clean it, but the human body was perfectly capable of throwing off infections -- it did it all the time -- and he didn't feel feverish or lightheaded. He thought about splashing some water from the stream onto it, decided to leave well enough alone, and got dressed.
Okay. Plan and prioritize. Now that he had water, his remaining priorities were shelter, food, safety, and perhaps sending a message for help, not necessarily in that order. He tilted his head back, and looked up the twisting course of the stream. Since he was already on a hill, it made sense to try to get high and look down over the landscape. Clearly there had been people living here at one point; perhaps they still did. And even if those people were responsible for his current condition, they would still have food and blankets. He could steal something.
At the very least, he needed to get a feel for the lay of the land before he did anything else.
His decision made, the man called Sheppard climbed stiffly to his feet and began to follow the stream, ever upward.
Chapter Two: Staying Calm
Vanquish fear and panic. Value living. Remember your goal: getting out alive.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
The summer that Rodney McKay was twelve, he'd gone to the Canadian north woods for a week as part of a summer biology camp. The kids were helping wildlife researchers capture animals and tag them with radio collars to study predator-prey relationships. He'd never been a particularly empathetic child, but he could still remember the terror in the eyes of the deer, the coyotes and foxes as they were drugged and tied down in order for the biologists to tag and release them.
Now he knew how they felt.
He woke up hurting, but that wasn't a big surprise, considering that he had a frickin' huge radio transmitter under the skin of his back. Just thinking about it made his skin itch and burn as he wondered what sort of potentially lethal trace metals were even now being accidentally released into his system. Oh, sure, Ronon had survived for seven years with one of the damn things, but Ronon had the constitution of a water buffalo. Not to mention that it felt as if someone had stuck a barbecue skewer between his shoulder blades and was twisting it.
He kept his eyes shut. If there were a ring of Wraith standing around him waiting to kill him, he'd really rather not see them, thanks.
But he didn't hear anything, and he was thirsty as hell and needed to pee and his back hurt abominably. Letting out a small, involuntary whimper, he opened his eyes.
He saw ... dirt. How very enlightening. He was lying on his stomach with his head turned to the side, his cheek pressed against -- well, against dirt, obviously. It appeared to be nearly dark, but in his peripheral vision, he could see a shaft of light.
Dust tickled his nose. He tried to suppress a sneeze, but couldn't help himself. His whole body jolted at the small explosion; he groaned at the pain, and gave up on trying to pretend to be asleep. Somewhat surprised to find his hands free rather than tied, he pushed himself cautiously upright, wincing. Ouch, had he said barbecue skewer? Try cattle prod. Or maybe a harpoon. Right through the back.
On hands and knees, afraid to move for fear of doing untold internal damage to himself, he looked around. He was kneeling on a dirt floor inside some kind of building -- or, more accurately, bunker. It was square, about the size of a large bedroom, and appeared to be made of featureless concrete or stone. An open doorway allowed pale sunlight to stream into the room. There were no windows and no furniture.
The air felt chilly -- not cold enough to show his breath, but not warm enough to be comfortable, either. Early spring, he thought, or a northern latitude, or a high altitude, or maybe just a cool world. Impossible to know without looking outside.
And he did not want to look outside. Getting up, looking around, would mean admitting that this was all real, that Sheppard was gone and he was stranded on an alien world with a Wraith transmitter in his back. Released to run and die.
Ronon had lasted seven years. Rodney couldn't convince himself that he'd last even a day, not by himself. He simply wasn't a fighter, not the kind of fighter who could go up against the Wraith bare-handed and live.
On the other hand, he didn't intend to simply lie down and wait to die, either. With that thought in mind, he dragged himself painfully to his feet and lurched over to the door, shaking out the pins-and-needles of the Wraith stun ray. He must have been naturally unconscious for a while after the stun beam wore off, since all that remained was the slight tingling and a throbbing ache at the base of his skull.
Flattening himself against the wall beside the open doorway, he peered out at the trunks of piney-looking trees marching away down a hill. He glimpsed flashes of water through the trunks of the trees, and could dimly hear the rushing sound from here, along with the even more distant roar of what must have been one monster waterfall. His throat constricted at the sound of running water and he realized that he was dreadfully thirsty.
Stay here and die of thirst and probably infection from the wound in his back; venture outside and die of Wraith. It's always nice to have options, Rodney thought, and suppressed a fit of hysterical laughter.
Death by thirst would be slow and painful. At least death by Wraith had the potential to get the whole mess over quickly. Rodney searched himself for weapons, emptying his pockets. They'd taken his gun, but handguns weren't that effective against the Wraith anyway, at least not handguns wielded by one Rodney McKay. It would almost be worse to have that shred of hope; at least he could be realistic about his chances if he went up against a Wraith with a stick.
Aside from the gun, though, they appeared to have left him everything else that he'd been carrying when they were culled. Scanner, tools, digital camera, emergency powerbars, pocket knife, Epi-Pen injectors in case of bee stings, even his laptop in a Velcro-sealed pouch on his back. The only thing that had been taken besides the gun was his canteen. The thought occurred to Rodney that he was being treated exactly like a lab animal: they'd stripped him of anything that could ensure his survival on a wilderness planet, but left him the technological stuff, and now they seemed to be stepping back to see what he'd do with it. See the little mammal run!
He began to feel a glimmer of anger overriding the fear. He'd almost rather have been killed outright. Well, no, on second thought, that was a total lie. But this ... toying with him really pissed him off. He felt like a mouse in the clutches of the world's largest cat. They thought they had him, huh? Well, Rodney McKay, genius extraordinaire, didn't play by anybody's rules.
Galvanized by anger, he crept out into the sunshine. It looked warm, but it wasn't really -- a stiff breeze ruffled his hair and made him shiver, then wince in pain when the movement wrenched at the injury between his shoulder blades. He stared down the hill with a sigh. This wasn't going to be much fun.
God, he hated being right. The hill was appallingly steep and carpeted in a dense bed of needles that kept trying to slip out from under his feet. He had to grab for tree trunks, limbs, saplings, whatever was handy. He ended up with one hand bristling with thorns from grabbing a sticker bush, and the other badly scraped after colliding with the trunk of one of the pseudo-pines -- not to mention a bruised knee, a rip in his pants, and a worrisome trickling feeling along his spine that made him think he might have broken the wound open again.
Forget the Wraith -- he'd be lucky to survive the trees!
But eventually he stumbled to the bottom of the hill and found himself on a wide gravel bar strewn with boulders and tangles of driftwood. The river sparkled in the sunlight, broad and flat and ruffled with white. Rodney picked his way through patches of ankle-grabbing rocks and what looked like quicksand to kneel stiffly at the water's edge, where he stared doubtfully into the silt-gray depths. Death by Wraith, or death by dysentery? Somewhere in one of his pockets, he knew that he had purification tablets. On the other hand, there were only a few, and lacking the canteen, he had no container to use for scooping up water.
Rodney drew a deep breath. If he did survive the day, then a few purification tablets weren't going to last him very long, and if he didn't survive, then he wouldn't have to worry about it, would he? He dipped his hands into the icy water, wincing as it stung his scrapes, and scooped up a double handful. Yummy. Tasted like mud. But he was thirsty enough that he almost didn't care, and when he'd had enough, he gently washed the scrapes on his hands and picked out the stickers, then doctored it with Neosporin from the little first aid kit in his vest. There were clearly enough ways to die on this world that he didn't need to go begging for an infection, especially not in his hands. He needed his hands.
Speaking of infection, his back was probably septic already. And he didn't have a clue how to treat the injury, considering that he couldn't reach it. He'd just have to hope that he didn't keel over of some Pegasus Galaxy bacteria before he could find people. Find help.
Assuming Sheppard had been dropped on the same world as Rodney. Assuming Sheppard was even alive.
But he had to believe in Sheppard ... he had to. If he was alone on this world, he might as well lay down and die, because no matter how much confidence he had in his brains, you couldn't use brains alone to defeat a near-infinite enemy, who could track you anywhere, when you didn't even have a gun. Sheppard, on the other hand ...
Rodney didn't think he'd ever realized, consciously, the amount of faith he had in John Sheppard's ability to find his way out of a military situation. Anything involving thinking, well, obviously McKay had the edge by quite a large margin, but though he'd never dream of admitting it -- no need to give the man an even bigger swelled head -- Sheppard was some kind of virtuoso when it came to fighting. Didn't matter how many resources he had, either. Alone, with one gun, he'd taken out an entire Genii strike force. They were clearly in a military situation here, and right now Sheppard was probably building a giant spear gun and training it on the Wraith hive ship.
Rodney found himself grinning at the mental image. It was the first time he'd smiled since waking up in that hut on the hill. Trust Sheppard to make him grin even when the man wasn't here.
Sheppard was alive. Never mind that his last sight of the man had been writhing and cursing on a Wraith operating table, covered with blood, getting stunned and stunned and stunned again because he refused to stay down. Was there a lethal limit to Wraith stunners? The last shot, point-blank to the back of the skull, had been particularly nasty and had left Sheppard in a twitching heap. That was the last time Rodney had seen him; it had been his turn next, and all he remembered after that was more pain than he'd ever thought he could endure, and a stunner blast to the face, and then nothing.
The only thing worse than Sheppard being dead, he supposed, would be a brain-damaged, vegetative Sheppard. Luckily, if that was indeed the case, Rodney couldn't imagine death would be far behind in this place. No ... he'd see the Colonel alive and in top fighting form, or he'd see him not at all.
Stay alive. Find Sheppard, or find a way off this world, or, better yet, do both. He couldn't go to Atlantis with the tracker in his back, and he hated to give away the Alpha Site, but if he could only find a working Stargate, he could figure something out, send a message at least. Beckett could remove the tracker; he'd taken out Ronon's, hadn't he?
First, though, he needed to stay alive. And that meant avoiding the Wraith, because he sure as hell couldn't fight them. Suddenly the sunny riverbank seemed horribly exposed, and Rodney felt a cold chill ripple down his spine as he snapped his head up to stare into the blue sky overhead, sweeping his gaze down to the sharp jags of pine trees rising along both of the river's bluffs. High among the trees, something moved. He would have screamed if his throat hadn't seized up in terror. But it wasn't a Wraith -- squinting, he could make out a dark-colored shape with four legs and tall thin horns. A deer of some kind. Maybe an antelope. Maybe a flesh-eating antelope; this was another world, after all. Whatever it was, it turned its head and looked at him, then stepped unconcernedly back into the forest and vanished.
Tilting his head back into the sunshine, Rodney watched a few small birds -- or birdlike creatures; they seemed to have at least four wings each -- flitter across the sky and vanish into the trees as well. He was thinking back to watching nature specials as a kid, how they'd talk about the forest falling silent when lions were around. Or maybe it was lions on the plains and bears in the woods. Anyway, if the animals were out and doing their normal ... animal things, didn't that mean the Wraith weren't nearby? If Sheppard were here, that damned optimist would probably assume so. And Rodney would argue the realists' side: they had no way of knowing for sure, and only an idiot would assume they were safe based on a few twittering birds.
But Sheppard wasn't here, which left it up to him to decide which viewpoint benefited him more. Damn it, Rodney, you're a smart guy -- do you listen to Sheppard or to yourself? And the answer, in this case, he decided, was Sheppard. Freaking out like a panicked squirrel wasn't going to keep him alive or get him off this world.
There had been a time, Rodney supposed, when he would have immediately curled into the fetal position and started whimpering as soon as the reality of his situation sunk in, and stayed that way until the Wraith showed up to kill him. And it was possible that he just hadn't accepted reality yet, and that an all-expenses-paid trip to catatonia lay right around the corner. But he really didn't think so. Strange though it seemed, here he was on an alien planet, alone, with Wraith hunting for him, and he didn't feel panicked. Scared, sure. But not panicked.
I stayed calm in a sinking puddlejumper, he thought. Well ... mostly. I stayed calm in a virtual environment infested with Wraith on a ship that was about to get blown out of the sky. I kept my head while being held hostage by drug addicts and I got myself out. Sort of stupidly, but I still did it. I stayed calm while watching my team leader reenact Kafka's Metamorphosis, and by God, I can stay calm through this!
He straightened up with fists clenched in determination, and then staggered and and moaned as the pitchfork between his shoulder blades stabbed him once again.
I can do this.
Chapter Three: Getting Your Bearings
Remember where you are in relation to the location of enemy units and [enemy] controlled areas.
-U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
The man called Sheppard followed the stream's twisting course, clambering up a series of small waterfalls until he emerged on top of a ridge with a breathtaking view. Below him, the evergreens swept down into a valley nestled between the mountain peaks, their dark, almost bluish-green canopy giving way to the paler green of deciduous trees along the silver thread of a river half-hidden by steep bluffs. To his right, the river vanished into precipitous cliffs and more mountains; to his left, he caught glimpses of an ocean glittering in the light of the two suns.
From this vantage, he could see scattered signs of human habitation, but none recent -- just cleared patches that did not look natural, like the field below him, and down near the river he caught a glimpse of buildings just visible through the trees -- a town of some sort, surrounded by fields. Somewhere back in the hills at the head of the river, wisps of smoke or steam rose into the air. Campfires? A town? Hot springs? Overall, this place seemed to be mostly wild and sparsely inhabited, with no large cities, but there had certainly been people here once, and might still be.
He crouched down on his haunches, arms crossed over his knees, presenting a smaller target to the keening wind that buffeted his body and cut through his jacket as if it wasn't there. The deciduous trees in the valley appeared to be in full leaf, but around him he noted splashes of color in the low-lying plants under the pine trees -- blue and purple berries, yellow seed heads on the grasses, red and gold mottling on the leaves of unfamiliar bushes. Autumn seemed to be creeping upon the higher altitudes, and if this was what summer felt like around here, he didn't want to stick around to get a taste of winter.
Studying the terrain below him, he located the field where he'd awakened, traced the broken line of the fence appearing and vanishing in and out of the grass. From here, he could see a cluster of ramshackle buildings at the upper end of the fence, hidden behind the brow of the sloping hill which presumably had concealed them from him before. He could also make out the tracings of an overgrown road, wending off through the trees and down towards one of the larger clusters of buildings. It looked like four or five miles, at least, and it wouldn't be easy going; the road was blocked by trees in places, washed out by streams in others.
He wondered anew how he'd gotten to the field, but his brain was already suggesting an answer. He'd flown. He didn't know how, or where the vehicle had gone, or if he'd been the one actually flying it, but that was the only possible explanation.
The question was what to do now. Keep moving, said a deep, feral part of his brain, the part that had helped the human species survive through many centuries of being prey more than predator. The sense of being hunted tickled at the back of his neck. Someone had hurt him, and he expected that they would be back to try to finish the job. He didn't intend to be around for it.
Before he left the hilltop, he mapped out his route carefully in his head -- down the hill, through the trees, to the road -- taking a few moments to check avenues of escape and alternate routes, committing as much as possible of the terrain before him to memory. The thought occurred to him that he was good at this, and it seemed that he had been doing it all his life. He was a man accustomed to being hunted, and to hunting in turn. He had pursued fugitives across difficult terrain. He had dealt death.
He found himself wondering what sort of man he was, what sort of life he had led. He'd seen the scars on his pale arms when he removed his shirt by the stream, and suspected that he might not like the answer.
For now, however, he needed to get moving. The suns were starting to slant at a long angle between the mountain peaks. In this wild country, he had no doubt that predators would come out at night, even assuming that his mysterious enemies had not returned by that time.
His plan, then, was to make his way to the buildings, where he hoped to find people and food. While he supposed himself capable of living off the land if he absolutely had to, for a little while at least, he didn't recognize any of the plants around him and didn't have weapons capable of striking at a distance. Mere survival would probably take up most of his time. Better to find people and seek food and shelter. They might be enemies, but he had no intention of falling into their hands. He would trade for food if he could -- assuming he could come up with something they wanted in trade -- and take it if he could not.
Again, he kept running into this part of himself that he did not like. He wondered if he was a hard man, a cold man -- or merely a survivor. Or did it amount to the same thing?
He sighed, stood, and scrambled down the hill. Before leaving the stream, he took a long drink, wishing that he had some way to carry water. It didn't appear that water would be a precious commodity around here, though, so he'd have some time to figure it out.
Sheppard set himself a brisk walk-trot-walk pace through the woods, going faster where it was clearer and slowing down when he had to pick his way over rough ground. He came to the field sooner than he would have expected, and cut through the tall, damp grass in the direction where he'd seen the buildings from above. The sense of being watched, of being followed, was even stronger than before, and he hurried as fast as he could without twisting an ankle in the grass. The sense of danger was like a physical pressure, but he thought it would be foolish to leave the area without checking for anything useful in the abandoned barn. At this point, even a rusty pitchfork would come in handy.
The building that he mentally dubbed a barn -- though he had only the vaguest idea of what a barn was; images of cows and snatches of "Old MacDonald's Farm" flitted through his head -- was actually a large pole shed, open on one side, the roof caving in with a sapling growing up through it. Several other, smaller sheds stood around, even more tumbled down than the big one, along with various other structures so overgrown with grasses and brush that it was almost impossible to figure out what they'd once been. He recognized an ancient cistern by its glistening pool of brackish water, and scraped a hand over the waist-high rim, brushing away dead grass to reveal a coarse, gray material similar to concrete. A rusty, completely immobile water pump stood at one end like an odd kind of shrub. He stumbled over a ceramic pitcher in the grass next to it, cracked but capable of holding water; it would make a lousy canteen, but was better than nothing.
The sense of danger tickled the back of his neck more strongly. Not a good idea to hang around here, especially since there seemed to be nothing of particular use to him -- there might be other useful junk under the grass, but he had no way to find out other than by brute-force searching. He found that his belt contained numerous loops for fastening things to it, and hooked the pitcher through one of them; it bumped against his hip and he wouldn't be able to carry it that way if it was full of water, but he'd figure that out later.
Something drew his attention, by the pole barn: a squat, spreading tree. It took him a moment to figure out what had caught his eye about it -- aha, it wasn't a pine, that was it. Not an evergreen, the only tree anywhere around here that wasn't, and therefore, likely it had been planted by human beings. And trees planted by humans, on a farm, were probably there for a reason. Tilting his head back, he looked up into the gnarled branches and saw dozens of small, bluish fruits, shaped like tiny bananas as long as his finger. Some of the branches were low enough to reach. He snapped off a couple of them; they had an odd smell, sweetish and slightly antiseptic. Some had insects crawling on them, and after a moment's disgust he took this as a good sign -- if the local wildlife ate something, then maybe a human could too.
He realized that there was supposed to be a procedure for trying new foods in a survival situation, and that he actually remembered it. Breaking one of the fruits in half, he tested it on the soft skin inside his wrist. No reaction. Lightly touching it to his tongue produced no reaction either -- no tingling, numbness, weird heart effects. After waiting a few minutes, he tried a bite. It wasn't bad ... kind of like a mango with a very strange aftertaste. He finished eating that one, decided to see how it set in his stomach before eating more, and, in the hopes it would turn out to be a viable food source, picked enough of them to fill the pitcher about halfway.
A rustle in the woods made him jump. Instinctively, he flattened himself against the tree trunk, putting it between himself and the line of pine trees at the forest's edge. After a minute, he caught sight of something small and fast -- a fox maybe? Or the local equivalent? It vanished among the trees, but the crawling sense of danger didn't go away.
Time to go.
The pitcher bumped against his hip as he half-trotted, half-jogged through the open field, casting nervous glances at the sky. Automatically, he found himself assuming that danger would come from above. His enemy could fly. Didn't know how he knew that, but he did. Good to know. Hard to defend against.
He felt a little safer once he was back in the woods, following the overgrown road down towards the valley. But only a little bit safer. One of the suns had vanished behind the mountains and the other seemed likely to follow suit. Between the tall, vertical trunks of the pines, the air was chilly and the shadows growing long. A few insects came out, whining around his head in the dusk, and somewhere off in the woods, a twig snapped. Sheppard paused to draw his knife and cut off a sapling about as big around as three of his fingers together. While he alternated between walking and trotting, he whittled one end of it to a point. Lousy spear. But better than nothing. The thought occurred to him that he could make a far better spear by lashing his knife to the end of the pole, but he wasn't about to risk losing his knife that way.
A sudden sound made him freeze in place, his stomach clenching with an involuntary surge of fear and anger. It might have been the high-pitched whine of the insects, that penetrating sound ... but it wasn't. Like the vibrato of a drill bit, the sound quavered in his chest cavity and shivered his eardrums. And, above the trees, out of the north, they came: two needle-slim shapes in the darkening sky, whining swiftly overhead. One of them peeled away in the general direction of the river, while the other continued on a rapid downward trajectory and vanishing into the trees off to his right.
It appeared to be landing.
His mysterious enemy had come.
Chapter Four: Making Plans
Undue haste makes waste; don't be eager to move. Plan your moves.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
The biggest surprise of all, to McKay, was that they hadn't been forced to give up Atlantis. They hadn't even been questioned. Rodney could only assume that many of the run-of-the-mill Wraith did not know about Atlantis, at least not enough to recognize Atlanteans among the many thousands of humans that they culled, any more than humans would recognize one goat in a flock of thousands. To them, no doubt, humans were largely interchangeable, not something that you thought about on an individual basis. And why should they try? Some of the queens might be concerned enough about Atlantis to have their minions on the lookout for Atlantean survivors, but clearly not all of them, maybe not even most of them. If Rodney had wanted proof that their ruse had worked, that the Wraith truly thought Atlantis had been destroyed and was no longer a threat, it'd now been received loud and clear.
So they had been mistaken for regular Pegasus Galaxy Wraith fodder, albeit well-armed ones who could fight, and that fighting ability -- well, he had to be honest here, Sheppard's fighting ability -- had apparently convinced the Wraith to keep these two humans alive as runners. In the past, Rodney had never been able to figure out from talking to either Teyla or Ronon what caused the Wraith to choose to keep some humans alive -- Ronon had thought it might be something unique to him, some quality that only certain humans possessed, but frankly, in this case, Rodney thought that this particular batch of Wraith just seemed bored. Feeding on cattle wasn't as interesting as matching wits against a live, running prey.
He thought about it as he knelt in front of the bunker where he'd first awakened on this world. A couple of hours had passed since his awakening and his trip to the river, and he now had his meager supplies spread out in front of him. In a way, this whole situation was like a logic puzzle, the sort of puzzle he would have aced when he was twelve ... but it was different when the consequence of failing to come up with a solution were losing your life and possibly that of your closest friend.
You are stranded on an alien world. You have the following list of equipment. By using these things, and nothing else except what you find along the way, you have to find your friend and find a way off this world in the time allotted.
Except he didn't know how much time he had -- obviously the Wraith gave runners a head start, but there was no telling how long -- and he had no idea where any of his goals were. Or even what his primary goal should be. Find a Stargate? Find Sheppard? Find food? A wave of dizziness made him decide that perhaps food should be bumped to the top of the list, for the time being. He unwrapped a powerbar, ate half of it in one bite, and, very reluctantly, wrapped the rest and tucked it away. He had six of them -- more than any other member of the Atlantis expedition carried, he had no doubt, but certainly not enough to sustain him in a cross-country hike.
Too bad they hadn't been planning a long trip on PX2-394, or they might have actually had decent survival gear with them, MREs and camping supplies and the like. It had only been a simple trading mission with friendly, hospitable people who were long-term allies of the Athosians.
And then the Wraith had come.
Rodney swallowed, the taste of the powerbar suddenly sickly sweet on his tongue, and forced the memories away, concentrating instead on his present situation. The dizziness had faded as the sugar hit his system, so he hoped that it was just from hunger and not infection. He channeled his inner Sheppard, the optimism that just might be a key part of Sheppard's ability to wriggle his way out of life-or-death situations, and decided to assume that he wasn't going to drop dead of flesh-eating bacteria in the near future. Even if the sharp pain between his shoulder blades did make it feel as if the little buggers were already chomping away.
Okay. His most valuable asset -- aside from his brain -- was his Ancient scanner. He picked it up, tested it. Undamaged, as far as he could tell, and working fine.
Obviously the Wraith didn't know how powerful the scanner was, or they would never have allowed him to keep it. Although usually Rodney simply used it to pick up energy signals, the thing could be recalibrated to scan for damn near anything. It could be used as a life signs detector ... not that it'd do him much good in a place teeming with life. It could read the chemical compositions of objects, if not as effectively as some of Beckett's equipment. It could be used as a rudimentary radio, assuming anyone else on this world had anything capable of receiving radio signals. Best of all, it could be used to detect Wraith transmissions, thus functioning as a crude Wraith detector.
The really tricky part -- the part that definitely required a touch of the genius Rodney knew he possessed -- was getting it to do more than one of these things at once. Right now he wasn't picking up any energy readings at all, which was disheartening, but he wasn't about to give up the slim hope of finding some sort of Ancient ruins or technological settlement. He had a pretty good idea that without one of those two things -- not to mention, without Sheppard -- he wasn't going to last very long on this world. Even leaving aside the small matter of man-hunting Wraith, wilderness survival wasn't his thing.
After about half an hour of ever-more-nervous fiddling, Rodney found the solution for his current needs. He turned the thing into a broad-spectrum radiation receiver and then rigged a control crystal that could be calibrated by hand, allowing him to tune it. Ugly, but functional, and it meant that he could pick up just about any kind of radiation -- microwaves, radio waves, gamma waves, infrared, whatever. Tuned to infrared, it worked as a slightly crappy life signs detector; and, on the Wraith radio frequencies, he was definitely getting some traffic. Not terribly close ... but present. His stomach fluttered nervously. The Wraith were around, all right. They were just waiting, letting the prey get on the move before swooping in to start the hunt in earnest. Or so he assumed.
He sat back on his heels and studied the rest of his equipment. What he really needed was a weapon. A bazooka would be nice, not that he knew how to fire one ... but he imagined that if he was staring down the business end of a Wraith stungun, he could damn well figure it out.
Come on, damn it, he told himself, staring at the meager array of objects on the ground: digital camera, pocket knife, laptop ... Come on, you're a genius. The Wraith are idiots. If you can't outsmart them, then you may as well just throw yourself off that cliff right now.
Staring at each item in turn, he memorized them before picking them up and putting them back in the pockets of his vest. In the days to come, his life might depend on being able to find the right object, the right pocket, in an instant. He didn't have much. His most valuable possession was, as always, his brain.
In the interests of keeping that possession intact, he swallowed the other half of the powerbar. His stomach rumbled; God, if he was this hungry now, what would it be like after he'd been on the planet for more than a few hours?
He took a deep breath and stood up, swaying at a surge of dizziness and pain; and looked around him, once again trying to memorize the scene. It was a technique he'd begun to teach himself, over the last year and a half, to keep his quick-moving mind from leaping from one worst-case scenario to another. The best and worst part about being a genius was being able to rapidly leapfrog from one thought to the next -- best, when it catapulted him into the insights that other people didn't have; worst, when he couldn't control it and it carried him on a roller-coaster ride through nightmares. Having other people around helped ground him, keep him anchored. Alone, he did the best he could, and he did it by looking at the trees, the ground, the sky, the gray building half-covered in branches and weeds.
The function of the building where he'd awakened was a mystery to him. "Bunker" seemed to cover the situation as well as anything else he could come up with. It was clearly old, abandoned and overgrown. The open doorway commanded a sweeping view of the river below, and Rodney guessed that it might be an old lookout post, perhaps for traders or built during some forgotten war.
The growing chill in the air, as the suns crept towards the mountains, raised the hairs on the back of his neck and galvanized him into moving. He didn't want to be out here after dark, not with Wraith and who knew what else roaming the woods.
He looked through the trees at the river, sparkling in the long rays of the lowering suns. In one direction, the silver thread of a waterfall cascaded down from what looked to Rodney like an impenetrable wall of mountains; in the other direction, the river looped back and forth, appearing and disappearing between bluffs similar to the one he'd scrambled down -- and back up -- earlier in the day. Mountains seemed to fence him in on all sides. Damn it, Canadian or not, he was a city boy. His natural habitat was the lab. Nature was so damned ... empty. Any direction seemed as good as any other. Finally he decided to strike out for the waterfall, if only because it was different from anything around here, and he didn't have a coin to flip.
Chapter Five: Getting Wet
The availability of ready-made bridges ... is highly unlikely. Therefore it is necessary to be able to negotiate expedient stream crossings.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
The cessation of the vehicle's whine galvanized Sheppard into motion. It had landed, and that meant that whoever, or whatever, had been in it was now in the woods with him.
He turned, and began to move swiftly down the road, for the moment focused on putting as much distance as possible between himself and his enemies. It was nearly dark under the trees, though the sun still shone on the peaks of the mountains across the valley, and he could only manage a slow jog in order to avoid the risk of a twisted ankle or worse. As he trotted, he looked to both sides of the road for cover or for anything that might spark a plan.
He had no rational reason to believe himself hunted. He didn't remember a thing about his past at the moment; for all he knew, the ship could have carried his own friends who even now would be looking for him. But he didn't think so. His reaction to seeing that sleek, wicked-looking machine had been a visceral, stomach-clenching dread.
This part of the road wound through open pine woods cut by frequent ravines coming down off the mountains. Some of the ravines were still bridged by rotted wooden timbers; at others, the bridges had collapsed and he had to climb down into the brush-choked gully and up the other side. He clambered through two of these before coming to a wider, deeper ravine, almost a canyon, with its bridge still shakily spanning the gap: really just two large logs with crumbling boards crisscrossing between them.
If any place ever screamed "last stand", this was it ... with the sole exception that the bottom of the ravine was only about fifteen feet below. Not exactly a Butch and Sundance moment ... a fleeting thought that made him wonder just who exactly Butch and Sundance might be. Standing on the bridge in the growing dusk, he peered down into the thick green tangle of foliage beneath his feet. He could hear water rushing loudly, but couldn't see the stream itself. After crossing under the road, the ravine dropped away quickly between banks that grew ever steeper. Jumping from the bridge to the streambed was entirely possible, though his abused back twinged at the idea. Jumping too far, though, and falling over that edge wouldn't be good -- he doubted if he'd die, but he'd sure as heck get bruised, tumbling through the brush and rocks.
He tapped one of the cross-boards with his boot, then stomped on it and jerked his foot back quickly as the mossy wood fractured and the pieces tumbled into the gully, vanishing under the green canopy. He heard them clattering on rocks and one hit the stream with a splash. It really wasn't a long fall, nothing that would kill or even seriously injure a healthy person unless they landed wrong.
The trick would be making sure that they landed wrong.
Sheppard's head snapped up at a sound from among the trees, back the way he'd come. Somewhere a twig had broken; somewhere, branches swished against someone passing by. Maybe it was just wildlife emerging at dusk, but he doubted it.
His hunters were coming.
The idea occurred to him, as he clenched his knife in his teeth and swung himself under one of the crude bridge's support logs, that there had never been any doubt in his mind about standing his ground and fighting. Yet another tidbit of information about himself had dropped into his lap: he wasn't a man who ran from a fight, even if it was a fight he had little hope of winning. The concept of failure just wasn't in his personal lexicon.
The log was damp, slippery, covered with moss. The musty smell of decay filled his nostrils as he clung close to the decaying bark, keeping himself anchored with one arm and both legs while his free hand gripped the spear. He shifted himself carefully to the side, getting a cockeyed view of the road through a screen of brush.
Striding down the road towards the bridge came a ... Wraith, his mind supplied. In the dusk, all he could really see was long pale hair swirling about a lean dark body. Then, behind it, another pale glimmer: two of them.
Hatred made his breath come harsh, hissing past the knife clenched in his teeth. Strangely, he wasn't afraid. He was only angry.
As the Wraith approached the bridge, it paused, stopped. It turned to the other one and they spoke in harsh, sibilant whispers. Then the first one turned back and Sheppard saw the faint glimmer of its eyes in the darkness. Surely it should not be able to see him under the bridge; even if it could see in the dark -- a possibility he wasn't willing to rule out -- the brush should screen him from its view.
"You disappoint us, human," it called out to him in a distorted voice, as if its mouth and throat were ill-suited for speaking. "We expected better from you than hiding."
How the hell did it know he was under the bridge? Sense of smell? Then, as it stepped forward, he saw it reach up and touch its temple, where he could just make out the gleam of some kind of device half-hidden under its hair. Technology. They were using technology to track him. And another of those quick flashes of his forgotten past came and went -- a rough voice speaking: They operated on me put some sort of tracking device in my back and released me. They hunted me.
Crap. Crappity double crap. No point in trying to hide any longer. He shifted the knife from his teeth to his hand and hollered, "Hey, I'm on vacation here, you can't blame a guy for doing some sightseeing! Don't suppose you have a Disneyland on this planet, huh?" Hm ... more memories, how interesting. He remembered visiting the theme park at the age of four and being scared to tears by Goofy and Mickey. Now if only his memory would offer up something useful, such as how he came to be on this planet and how he could get off it. A little information on Wraith-killing would be a nice start.
After a moment of confused silence, the Wraith laughed. "Don't be absurd, human."
"I like being absurd. I'm good at it." He tried to wriggle his way into a better position under the log. "Let me guess, you two are headed to Disneyland yourselves? That would explain the costumes."
The Wraith -- he decided to dub it Goofy -- just stared at him. "What? This is a training mission, human."
"Don't listen to him," hissed the other one, which must be Mickey by default. "He is trying to confuse us."
And successfully, I see, Sheppard thought. "Training, huh? This is like a Wraith obstacle course or something?"
The one he'd nicknamed Goofy sneered at him. "We are warriors in training and you have been given the honor of honing our hunting skills. You are not a true runner, only prey for us to practice upon."
Oh, great. He was being pursued by Wraith interns. He supposed he should be thankful -- they'd surely be easier to kill -- but somehow it was just ... embarrassing.
"Do not allow him to goad you into rash actions," Mickey Wraith hissed at Goofy Wraith. Goofy, however, was strolling forward. He saw that it carried a long pointed weapon at its side, which it had swung up to point in his general direction.
A bolt of blue light hummed past him, and he instinctively recoiled under the log. Far too nearby for comfort, he heard the Wraith laugh. But that wild shot had confirmed something he had begun to suspect: they could track him, but they couldn't pinpoint him too closely, and they couldn't use the tracking device to target their weapons -- at least, if they could, they hadn't yet.
Now Goofy was stepping out onto the bridge. Sheppard's eyebrows went up. Even Wraith couldn't possibly be that stupid, could they?
At least it was smart enough to stay off the rotting crosspieces of the bridge, balancing on the log opposite the one under which Sheppard clung -- probably intending to lean over and shoot him. Unfortunately for Goofy, but fortunately for Sheppard, it didn't know he had a weapon.
He swung himself around the log and thrust upward with the spear, as hard as he could, between the rotted boards of the bridge. He was aiming for the stomach but didn't quite have the leverage -- instead, the spear entered its thigh and carved an upward track through its body. The spear wasn't sharp at all; he could only rely on brute force, throwing his body's weight behind it and pushing for all he was worth. The Wraith let out a shrill scream and pitched backwards off the bridge, dragging the spear with it and nearly ripping Sheppard's arm out of the socket.
Apparently, they could indeed be that stupid. He listened the crashing as the Wraith plunged down the ravine. The fall probably wouldn't kill it, but with that spear sticking out of its side, maybe he'd be lucky --
WHOOMPH! A fireball lit up the woods; the shockwave nearly knocked Sheppard off the bridge. He squinted, staring in disbelief down the ravine at the cloud of rising smoke and fluttering, dislodged leaves.
They explode when they fall? What are they made out of, nitroglycerine? Well, that's lucky for me...
Wait a minute! Self-destruct!
He remembered now -- a button, on the chest. The Wraith formerly known as Goofy shouldn't have had time to trigger it intentionally, so he could only assume that it had accidentally hit the button as it flailed around in its tumble down the ravine.
They certainly weren't sending the best and brightest after him, were they?
Of course, there was still one ... He peeked over the edge of the log to see the remaining Wraith, Mickey, standing just off the end of the bridge, a slender shape in the gathering dark, watching him.
"Not as easy as you thought, huh?" Sheppard demanded with a savage grin, gripping the knife in one hand and clinging to the log with the other. He could feel a trickling sensation down his back -- he'd probably torn open the wound with all the acrobatics.
A blue energy bolt would have clipped his head if he hadn't drawn it back hastily.
"Nice shootin', Tex!" Sheppard hollered from under the log. Another energy bolt missed him by a mile.
He realized that Mickey the Wraith, after what had happened to its buddy, was too scared, or at least too cautious, to venture onto the bridge ... which was good, at least for the moment. Sheppard, on the other hand, couldn't keep hanging on indefinitely. The muscles of his shoulders and legs burned from the effort of clinging to the log, and his back was a white torch of pain.
The log shuddered. He leaned his head out cautiously to see if this meant the Wraith had overcome its fear and stepped out onto the bridge, but no such luck. Instead, it was rocking the log from the bank, trying to dislodge it.
A human wouldn't have been able to do it. The log was huge, big enough that Sheppard's arms didn't go anywhere near all the way around it, and it had been sunken into the side of the ravine since who knew how long. But as Sheppard watched in growing dismay, he saw the rocks and dirt around the end of the log begin to crumble as Mickey's powerful arms worked at it.
Well, hell. Time for Plan B. He didn't have a plan B, but then again, he hadn't really had a plan A either, and that had worked out pretty well.
He thought of simply charging Mickey and trying to overpower it and knock it off the edge, but he didn't think he'd make it -- the Wraith would have plenty of time to pick him off as he climbed onto the log and ran towards the bank. Besides, a 15-foot fall was more likely to damage him than Mickey, and then he'd be down in a ravine with a pissed-off Wraith.
Nope. Time to beat a hasty retreat. Sheppard doubled over at the waist to slide the knife back into its sheath, as the log shuddered again in a very ominous way. He heard a cascade of dirt let go and slide into the ravine. Gritting his teeth, bracing for the pain he knew would come, he let go and did likewise.
He tucked his body and tried to flip over to protect his injured back, but only managed to turn halfway, so he hit the canopy of shrubby trees on his side. The air exploded from his lungs and he saw stars. A shock of cold water brought him back to himself and he scrambled to his knees, gasping. He'd fallen through the brush into a small stream about two or three feet wide and a foot deep. Ice-cold water snarled about his legs as he stood unsteadily, teetering on the slippery rocks. His back hurt like hell and there were a few new bruises and scrapes to add to his complement of pain, but nothing seemed to be broken.
Without waiting to see how Mickey would react, he turned and started a mad dash down the ravine.
The ground dropped away sharply and he found himself sliding in a deliberate, controlled fall, grabbing at trees and bushes to slow himself as he stumbled and leaped from one rock to the next. Some of the trees were singed from the other Wraith's detonation and the air reeked of burned meat and hair -- a horribly familiar smell. Memory fragments flickered in the back of his mind (combat zone, desert, bodies being pulled from a crashed helicopter) but he wrenched himself back to the present. As nice as it would be to have a good long trip down memory lane, preferably with road signs, this wasn't the time or the place.
The sides of the ravine continued to get steeper, the bottom more choked with brush. The stream formed a tunnel down the center of the gully; Sheppard had to crouch almost double, splashing through the water in near-total darkness. He lost count of the number of times his feet slipped on wet rocks, sending him to his knees and gashing his hands on sharp edges of rock as he attempted to catch himself. Though the water was generally shallow, every now and then he'd plunge into a sudden deep hole, wetting himself to the knee or hip. Before too long he was soaked to the skin, cut and bruised and thoroughly ticked off. Luckily anger and exertion were keeping him warm.
He paused occasionally to listen for pursuit, but over the sounds of the rushing creek, he couldn't tell if Mickey was following him or not. No, stupid thought: he knew Mickey was following, just not how closely.
A flash of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he spun around just in time to see Mickey the Wraith drop silently out of the canopy of trees overhead, landing in the stream with a splash.
Oh. Well, at least now he knew.
Sheppard flung himself from the streambed into the dense brush as the Wraith fired at him. The bolt missed him by inches. He landed face-first in what felt like rosebushes. Couldn't see a damn thing, but he could hear splashing coming closer and he wormed his way deeper into the brush, coming up against the steep side of the ravine.
Another flash of blue light brightened the night for an instant. "I can hear you breathing, human," the Wraith hissed. It was only a few feet away. "I can smell your fear."
Don't know what you're smelling, but it ain't fear, buddy. He'd never been less afraid in his life ... well, given that his life -- the part of it he could remember anyhow -- consisted of about five or six hours. Adrenaline had him so wired that everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. There was still some lingering brightness in the sky, and through the leaves he could see Mickey's white hair and flecks of white on the churning water. He pressed his hand against the moist dirt of the bluff, leaning back, looking up at the dark silhouettes of fallen trees criss-crossing the ravine.
Mickey had tried to drop the bridge on him. What if he could drop one of those trees on Mickey? He began to wriggle his way up the side of the ravine backwards, not daring to take his eyes off the Wraith in the streambed.
"Fly away, little human, fly into the night. We can find you wherever you go." Mickey paced his movements without leaving the stream. Though the Wraith seemed to have no trouble moving silently through open forest, Sheppard wondered if their long hair would be a liability in thick brush. Mickey did seem reluctant to follow him into the tangle, though maybe that was just because of what he'd done to its buddy.
He knocked his head against an unseen tree trunk and gritted his teeth against an exclamation of pain. Feeling above him, he touched rough bark and hanging strands of moss. The dead tree shifted as he tried to climb around it. Perfect. He shoved at it, felt it start to slide and then hang up on something else.
"Aha, there you are!" the Wraith hissed from below him. Sheppard threw himself under the dead tree just in time to avoid another energy bolt, starting to slide down the bank before grabbing a double handful of grass to arrest his fall. He couldn't remember whether the Wraith guns were lethal or not, but suspected that even a minor injury would be more than he could afford at this point.
Below him, the Wraith was laughing. Sheppard swore to himself. He was going to kill this bastard if it was the last thing he ever did.
Chapter Six: The Value of Stubbornness
Stubbornness, a refusal to give into problems and obstacles that face you, will give you the mental and physical strength to endure.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
Rodney lasted about ten minutes hiking along the top of the bluff before deciding to try his luck on the flood plain by the river instead. The woods, which had looked so open at first glance, turned out to be filled with tangles of stickery brush, ankle-trapping holes, branches that slapped him in the face, and to add insult to injury, a yellow squirrel-like creature that pursued him in the trees high overhead, criticizing his hiking technique with a shrill, nonstop chattering that penetrated his eardrums like a dentist's drill.
So once again he underwent the torture of half-sliding, half-falling down the bluff to the open rock-strewn riverbank. Not only was the walking easier, but it was also warmer now that he was out of the shadows under the trees. Sometimes he had to climb over a tangle of boulders and driftwood, tangible evidence of the catastrophic floods that must sometimes visit this peaceful-looking valley. Now in addition to watching out for Wraith darts, he was scanning the sky for any signs of storm clouds, but it remained clear of all but a few high, wispy clouds.
As he followed the course of the river, he saw a few more open-fronted buildings similar to the one where he'd awakened, half-visible through the trees on top of the river bluff. Once he glimpsed what appeared to be a series of open fields high up on the foothills of the mountains, too square to be natural. Clearly, there had been people here once, but he saw nothing to indicate that anyone still lived here. A dead world, he thought; decimated by the Wraith, like so many others.
Why did they never seem to end up on tropical resort planets? Did any planets like that even exist in this galaxy?
The distant thunder of the waterfall grew stronger as he walked, and after about an hour or so, he reached the foot of a stupendous cliff. Damn thing must be five hundred meters tall, he thought, staring up at it. He could feel the spray from the waterfall stinging his face despite the distance. That was a helluva lot of water coming over that thing. He found himself calculating falling velocity and kilopascals, and decided that continuing to stay well away from the falls would be in his best interests.
The cliff itself was less featureless than it had seemed at first glance; in fact, studying it, Rodney could see a number of dark openings that probably led to caves. This could have promise, although the idea of being killed by Wraith in a maze of caves was possibly worse than being killed by Wraith in the open. Still ... what if he could lure a Wraith inside, trap it under a rockfall or something?
"I can't believe you're seriously considering it," he said to himself, aloud. "Rodney McKay, Wraith Killer. I mean, that's just stupid. You can't even go up against those guys with a P-90; what makes you think you can do it on a world with no technology, bare-handed?"
Something new struck him as he stood with his head tilted back, studying the cave. The second sun had finally vanished behind the mountains, and as he stood in the shadow and growing chill of the evening, he could see trails of vapor outlined against the brighter sky. They were coming from somewhere above and behind the cliff. He frowned, staring upwards. Smoke? Civilization? Sheppard?
Clearly there had been people living here once. He'd just assumed that they were all dead or gone, but perhaps there was still someone here. And while he had no idea if they'd be friendly to strangers, it had to be better than sitting out here alone with night coming on.
He started looking for a way up the cliff, when an awful thought occurred to him. The Wraith transmitter. "Oh, hell," he said aloud. He couldn't go looking for people; he'd lead the Wraith straight to them. He remembered Ronon talking about that -- how he couldn't stay in one place for long because he didn't want to betray people who helped him.
Rodney glowered at the cliff as if it was personally responsible for his problems. Damn it, he was starving and probably dying of sepsis and all he wanted was to find a nice group of people with big guns who could shoot the Wraith for him and point out the nearest Stargate.
What he'd probably find instead, from the look of this world, was a group of tribespeople armed with spears, or, if he was lucky, farmers with pitchforks. And the Wraith would follow him, and he'd get to watch them all getting culled ... again. Well, unless he was one of the first ones to be taken, of course. Which, the way his day had been going, seemed likely.
While he stood there, he became aware of a sound, over the roar of the waterfall. It wasn't a sound you heard so much as one you felt in your teeth and bones.
"Hell" didn't even begin to cover the situation, but that was what he said anyway, along with a number of other words he'd learned from a lifetime of working around soldiers. He looked around wildly like a mouse trapped in the open with hawks bearing down on it. Trees -- too far away. Caves -- too high. The base of the cliff, though, was a jumbled mess of fallen rocks and scrubby trees, so he made a dash for that instead, throwing himself down among the boulders just as two Wraith darts screamed by, high enough that they still glimmered in the light of the vanished suns.
Rodney crouched under a boulder and watched the darts bank in the sky and separate, one of them peeling off towards the mountains -- thank God -- and the other descending towards the river -- oh damn. He thought it was going to land right on top of him, but instead it disappeared between the river bluffs, a bend or two downstream.
Oh, runners ... right. Presumably the Wraith liked, well, running. Chasing. Hence the name. Maybe the meat was fresher when it was nicely seasoned with gut-wrenching terror.
Okay, think positive, think positive ... The whine of the Wraith dart had ceased, probably meaning it had landed and hungry Wraith were even now headed in his direction. "What would Sheppard do?" he whispered.
What would Sheppard do. Stupid question. He's dead and you're screwed, McKay.
But somehow, he just couldn't make himself believe that Sheppard was actually dead. The odds definitely pointed in that direction, true. But the Colonel had this way of ignoring the odds if they weren't in his favor, and damned if things didn't work out for him, somehow, every single time. McKay knew that rationally, the law of averages caught up with everybody eventually. And this could well be the time that it caught up with one cocky lieutenant colonel. But ... somehow he just couldn't quite believe that. Stupid? Unscientific? Optimistic? Rodney had never been any of those things before. He left that sort of thinking to a certain pilot with enough confidence and optimism for three people. But Sheppard wasn't here at the moment to represent the voice of idiotic over-confidence, so by God, McKay would just have to do it himself. Just to show that moron Sheppard ... well ... show him something, dammit!
Show him that Rodney McKay didn't lie down and die.
A plan, a plan. His kingdom for a plan. His brains were his weapon; who needed guns? "But guns sure help," Rodney whimpered, staring up at the cliff in the growing dusk.
And he noticed something he hadn't seen before. From farther away, it was invisible; you had to be right up close to the bottom of the cliff to see it. There was a path. Well, you could hardly call it a path; more of a mountain goat trail, really. But it zig-zagged back and forth up the cliff face, and it started very near to Rodney.
He got up and jogged over to get a closer look. He had to climb onto a pile of boulders to reach it, and he couldn't help thinking that this did not look safe at all -- the path was barely wide enough for his two feet, with no railing and lots of loose places that looked as if they wanted to slough off down the mountainside. But it looked like it would take him up the cliff fast, and right now, being above was better than being below.
He started climbing.
The early part was every bit as bad as he'd feared, but as he got higher, the path began to widen slightly, and parts of it took him through cracks in the rock that mercifully concealed the ever-growing drop below him. The one problem was that he wasn't climbing nearly as fast as he'd hoped, and he was barely a third of the way up the cliff when he heard a shout from below and the blue light of a Wraith stunner flared alarmingly close to him.
The flaw in his idea only then occurred to him: he was a sitting duck up here. "Damn, damn, damn," he mumbled, scurrying higher as fast as he could. The path rose swiftly here, rough and broken in a way that almost resembled stairs. In fact ... despite the danger, he bent over to look at it closely in the fading light. It was a set of very old, very weathered stairs, so crumbled that they could hardly be distinguished as human handiwork.
Another stun blast came much closer. The Wraith were figuring out how to compensate for the awkward angle. Looking down, Rodney saw that they had discovered the path and begun to climb. They were almost directly below him. And, holy crap, it was a long way down. He'd never been bothered by heights, but it was one thing to look down from a puddlejumper or the window of a tall building ... and quite another to be exposed on a cliff face with Wraith in pursuit.
Hmm. A plan occurred to him then -- a rather unsophisticated, very obvious plan, but one which presumably had not occurred to the Wraith, or they wouldn't be following him up the cliff.
All he needed now was a really big rock.
And, unfortunately, he needed to let them get higher. Much higher. Which meant exposing himself to their stunners. Which meant putting more distance between himself and them, if he could.
Which meant turning his back on the Wraith and climbing again, even knowing that they could shoot him at any moment, and he'd be paralyzed, and fall, and fall ...
This hero business sucked.
Up the cliff he went.
To make matters even worse, as he got higher the wind was starting to buffet at him, making it even harder to keep his balance on the narrow path. He clung to the rock, digging scraped, abused fingers into every crevice he could find. He'd broken several nails and his fingertips were bleeding.
But around another switchback, he came to a spot that seemed perfect for the ambush he'd devised. The path swung around and went into another crack in the rocks where a great sheet of the cliff face had begun to split off from the main bulk. The path climbed this crack and emerged on top. Rodney did likewise, and peered over the top of the crevice, looking for the Wraith. They were coming up much faster than he was; they'd closed half the distance already.
Well ... less time to dread what he'd have to do. Probably a good thing.
He looked around for rocks, and cursed when he realized that there weren't any -- at least none larger than his fist. Granted, even a small rock could make a pretty big impact if dropped from high enough -- assuming a gravity similar to Earth's, accelerating at 9.8m/sec means that by the time it ... shut up, brain -- but would it make enough impact to knock a Wraith off a cliff? And for that matter, could he come anywhere near hitting a Wraith with one? The answer to the first question might quite possibly be "yes", but he had a sinking sensation that the answer to the second was most definitely "no".
Though he only had little rocks to choose from, there were a lot of little rocks, along with a lot of gravel and sand and even a few scrubby bushes. Come on, you're a frikking genius, McKay. A man who believes he has nothing is a man who isn't using what he has.
So what could he do with sand, rocks and a cliff? Make an avalanche was the obvious answer. He didn't really have enough rocks to product a respectable enough avalanche to make a difference, though. Maybe the Wraith would laugh hard enough at his pathetic cloud of dust that they'd fall off the cliff on their own, but he wasn't going to sit around and hope for it.
Tipping his head back, he saw that he was close to the caves he'd seen earlier. Surrounded by them, in fact; he now saw that he'd passed a number of cave entrances, but had been too focused on the Wraith and on not falling off the path to notice. In the gathering darkness, the cave entrances loomed like pools of night. There was one just above him, but too far to reach up and grab -- he tried standing on his tiptoes, but couldn't quite reach it. The next nearest was closer to the path, but probably a five or ten-minute hike farther along. Clattering and rustling from below reminded him that he didn't have that kind of time.
Damn it. Damn it. Damn it!
He looked up the path. It was getting too dark to see the gaps and loose stones; he wasn't going to make it to the top tonight. How dumb could you get? If not for the Wraith, he could have stopped here and been relatively safe, aside from the risk of rolling off the cliff during the night, but he couldn't stop with the Wraith behind him, and he couldn't go forward without risking a fatal fall.
With shaking hands, Rodney started collecting rocks. This wasn't how he had planned to go out ... not that he really had made plans along those lines, and not that he could think of a good way to die, but dying alone on a cliff on an alien world while making a futile last stand against life-sucking monsters was, well ... not really something you wanted on your obituary. But it was heroic, he comforted himself as he gathered rocks. Yeah, it was even Sheppard-caliber heroic. One man, unarmed, against two well-armed Wraith. True, he'd been running away, but he'd stopped to face them, hadn't he? Of course, no one back home would know how his actual death had happened. Everyone in Atlantis probably already thought he was dead.
Thinking of Atlantis was like opening floodgates, and he hastily shoved the thoughts away, battening them down into a small box labeled TO BE OPENED LATER. So far, he had been too concerned with his immediate survival to spend much time dwelling on what must be happening back home. Surely Atlantis knew that he and Sheppard had been culled. Since he hadn't seen them on the hiveship, surely Teyla and Ronon were ... no, he was not thinking about that right now.
He peered over the edge and had a moment of near-total panic when he realized how dark it had gotten -- what if he couldn't see the Wraith? He imagined them coming upon him out of the darkness, one minute nothing, the next minute the hand fastening upon his chest -- oh, wait, there they were. Luckily their white hair showed up brightly against the dusk. And he could hear them faintly, talking to each other in sibilant voices. Rodney realized that this was the first time he'd ever observed Wraith closely enough to notice them talking to each other ... like people.
He thought briefly of Ellia. Freaky kid who'd tried to kill him -- but, a kid, scared and unsure, shy of strangers and affectionate with her human "father", defending Rodney and Beckett from another of her own people even when she was half-crazed from the retrovirus. Was it possible that all Wraith were -- dammit, what the hell was he thinking? He summoned his inner Sheppard for a metaphorical slap upside the head. While the enemy was closing on your position was no time to be contemplating their basic humanity. Contemplating how to kill them, yeah, that was the ticket.
He knew what he was doing, though. In desperate situations when he couldn't think of anything to do, his brain went into free-association mode, multi-tasking like crazy and leaping from one crazy thought to another. Sometimes it won him an unexpected way out of a bad situation. Other times, it just sent him on a fun-filled thrill ride through his subconscious. Looked like this was going to be one of those times. And the Wraith had just mounted another switchback, approaching his hideaway far too quickly. Maybe ten minutes, and they'd be on him.
Rodney looked back down at his pathetic pile of rocks, and then down the path to the point where the Wraith would appear. He couldn't effectively ambush them from behind the rock because he had that blasted tracking device in his back. He still hadn't figured out exactly how closely they could identify his position, but he was pretty sure they'd notice if the glowing dot was right behind the rock over their heads. However ... staring down the crevice in the dusk, a wild, crazy, desperate thought occurred to him. It couldn't possibly work. But, hell, what did he have to lose?
Scooping up an armload of rocks and gravel, he scrambled and slid down to the bottom of the crack in the cliffside, where the path turned its sharp corner. Working with feverish haste, he began to build a loose, fake step from rocks and sand. His hands were slippery with sweat, and at every moment he expected the Wraith to appear around the corner and stun him senseless. Occasionally he paused to listen to the all-too-close sounds of Wraith voices and footsteps below him. Backing up a few steps, he began crafting another one somewhat higher, and then ran to the top of the crack in the rocks and peered over the edge -- at a Wraith looking up at him from just below.
His heart nearly stopped.
The Wraith laughed a harsh, hissing laugh. "What's the matter, little human? Are you tired of running?" It swung up its stunner and Rodney ducked back wildly just in time to avoid taking a stun blast in the face. It'd been unpleasant enough when he'd experienced it in Atlantis, but if it happened to him here, it would be followed by a very long fall with a very unpleasant end.
Now this was the point when he should start shouting out taunts, Sheppard-style, to keep them off guard. But it was all he could do not to pass out from terror. His throat seemed to have constricted to the size of a pinhole; he had to struggle to breathe.
Behind the rock sheltering him, he heard shuffling footsteps, and the first Wraith appeared at the bottom of the path, leaning cautiously around the rock and then relaxing when it saw he wasn't close enough to be a threat. It raised its stunner and Rodney felt his heart seize up. This was the moment of truth. Would it shoot first, or take a step forward?
It took a step forward. And its foot came down on what appeared to be the same cracked stone as the rest of the path -- but was actually loose sand and gravel. It stumbled, momentarily losing its balance. And Rodney was in motion, flinging a double handful of sand into its face, followed by a barrage of poorly aimed rocks. It staggered backwards and went off the path.
It didn't scream. It just fell. Rodney stared over the edge with his eyes as huge as saucers. The other Wraith stared, too, following the trajectory of its vanished comrade until the fall ended in a very faint, very solid impact from below.
Rodney still wasn't sure exactly what it took to kill a Wraith, but he imagined that that had probably done it.
God, they were dumb.
Unfortunately, the other one didn't seem to be that stupid ... or at least it could learn from its companion's mistakes. It tilted its head back and looked up at him, its alien face unreadable. Then it tensed its legs and -- Rodney realized what it was doing a split second before it happened, and scrambled desperately backwards to fetch up flat against the cliffside as the Wraith leaped, several times its own height, straight up, and landed lithely on top of the rock slab he'd been hiding behind. Rodney, huddled against the cliff, stared in numb horror as it bent its legs to catch itself and then straightened up, maybe two meters away from him, staring at him down the length of its stunner.
Rodney realized that he still had a rock clutched in one white-knuckled hand. He threw it, and missed by a mile of course. The rock sailed past the Wraith's shoulder and vanished over the edge.
The Wraith bared its teeth in a smile.
Rodney's last, desperate thought was the cave, but looking up, he saw that not only was the cave mouth still out of his reach just as it had always been, but it was almost directly opposite the Wraith -- standing as he was on the top of the rock slab -- and therefore, even if he could somehow climb into it, he'd still be a sitting duck for stunner blasts.
And then the miracle occurred.
There was no warning. One minute he was sitting there, flat against the rock, waiting to die, and the next minute there was a whirling sound like a thousand eggbeaters all going at once, and the air over Rodney's head turned black, shutting out the sight of the lingering sunset in the sky. The Wraith let out a single harsh cry and tumbled backward, letting off a stunner bolt that shot through the roiling black cloud without making a mark. Then it, like its partner, had vanished over the edge of the cliff. And Rodney was left, frozen, watching the swirling cloud rise higher in the evening air until it began to break up and dissipate high over the trees.
There was a soft pittering sound around him and he dragged his eyes downward to see that several small dark bodies had hit the rocks near him. Very cautiously, he reached out to poke one with his finger. It was warm, furry and breathing, about the size of his thumb.
Holy mother of ... They were bats.
And it all came together. The caves were the home of bats, or this planet's local equivalent. They hadn't attacked the Wraith; they had just come out at dusk, in a swarm, as bats do. The Wraith was unlucky enough to be in front of them. It would have been fine, even so, if it hadn't been standing at the edge of a drop-off the height of the CN Tower.
The little bodies laying around him were bats that had been hit by the one stun shot the Wraith had managed to squeeze off before it fell.
Now that he concentrated, he noticed a faint, pungent smell drifting down from the cave -- probably bat guano.
Because he knew what it felt like to get hit with a Wraith stunner, and because the little buggers had just saved his life, he carefully gathered up the stunned bats -- those he could find -- and placed them in a sheltered spot in the rocks where they could sleep it off. They were as soft as cashmere, and each of them had six small wings. Rodney noticed as he did this that his hands were trembling. When he'd tucked the bats in, he leaned against the rock and pressed his forehead against it, breathing deeply.
He had been so sure he was going to die.
"I hate this," Rodney said aloud, not sure who or what he was talking to. The only audience he had at the moment was furry and unconscious. "I really, really hate this. I'm a scientist. I'm not ... I'm not Sheppard, for crying out loud. I don't fight Wraith on alien planets. I sit in a nice comfortable lab and figure out strange bits of technology." He tipped his head back and yelled at the sky, "I'm really, really BAD at this, you do understand that, right?"
As his shout died away under the darkening sky, a sudden, distant explosion and flash of light made him jump. He clutched at the rock under his fingers and stared out across the dark expanse of forest below him. It'd come from the hills, where the land rose from the river into the rifts and peaks of the mountains. It was not followed by another.
"Sheppard?" he whispered aloud, and stood there for a long time, staring out at the forest. A couple of times he thought he might have seen the blue flashes of a Wraith's stunner, but he couldn't tell if it was real or just his eyes playing tricks in the bad light.
He stared at the hills until his eyes burned, but nothing yielded a further clue.
What else could it have been but Sheppard? Farmers clearing trees ... with high explosives ... in the dark? Maybe this planet had randomly exploding owls. No -- it was Sheppard, it had to be. And Rodney grinned into the darkness, staring in the direction of the explosion and trying to fix it in his mind. Tomorrow, he'd head in that direction and find out. Assuming no more Wraith came tonight. Assuming he survived until morning.
He sat down with his back against the cliff, looking out over the forest, and got out his scanner, placing it on his knees to warn him of approaching Wraith. He was picking up some low-level Wraith transmissions, but nothing close. Taking small bites so as to make it last, he ate one of his remaining powerbars and licked the wrapper clean. He wondered what Sheppard was doing for food. Being Sheppard, he'd probably built himself a bow and arrows and gotten a nice little Robinson Crusoe camp going.
Of course, the explosion -- if it had really been Sheppard, and Rodney couldn't imagine what else it could have been -- would seem to indicate that the Colonel had more problems than just wilderness survival on his plate. As did they all.
Rodney finished his powerbar and squirmed a little, trying to get comfortable without disturbing the injury on his back. He was thirsty, but didn't dare try to move too far in the dark in order to get water. The steady thunder of the waterfall, and the cool dampness he could feel even from here, raised his thirst from annoyance to torment. And he was cold. And exhausted. And his back hurt; his scrapes and bruises hurt. Everything hurt.
All this after being a runner for less than a day. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. And yet ... he'd taken out two Wraith, hadn't he? True, one was dumb luck, but the other one ... he'd done that, himself, Rodney McKay. He'd killed a Wraith with no weapons or tools, nothing but his own mind. Rodney found himself grinning again. They'd never believe this back home!
And they'd probably never know about this back home. His grin fell away, slowly, one piece at a time. He wondered what they were doing now. Looking for him and Sheppard, probably ... but all they would know was that the two men had been picked up during a Wraith culling. They'd have no way of knowing what hive ship they'd been taken on, no reason to believe either of them were still alive. Surely they would search, but not knowing where to search, not having any logical reason to think he and Sheppard were still alive, they'd eventually give up and send a message to the SGC: two more men dead in the Pegasus Galaxy.
When Rodney closed his eyes again, he realized to his horror that he was fighting back tears. If only he wasn't so damned alone here. It was like being back in the sinking puddlejumper all over again. At least that time, he'd had his hallucinations for company. Here, there was just him, and for a guy who'd spent his whole life believing that he didn't need anybody, he couldn't believe how much it bothered him to be completely by himself.
Above him, on the rock face, something clattered. Rodney jolted forward as if he'd been shot, then tried to stifle a soft cry as the movement tore at the injury on his back. Clutching a rock in one hand and the Ancient scanner in the other, he glared up the path in the near-total darkness. There appeared to be no moons on this world, and he could hardly see the cliff six inches from his head. Someone could have been standing right next to him, and he wouldn't have known.
There was no response. The sound didn't come again. Maybe it had just been rock contracting and cooling in the night's chill, he told himself.
Yeah. Right. He flicked a glance at the scanner. There were life sign readings above him, several of them. With everything he'd done to the controls lately, there was no way he could tell anything about them, other than their presence.
"Hello? I know you're there," he called into the dark.
But no one answered, and after a long while, he sat down again, facing toward the life signs, with a rock clutched in his free hand. Wishing he was braver, and that he wasn't so alone. Waiting.
Chapter Seven: Food Chain
Anything that creeps, crawls, swims or flies is a possible source of food.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
In the darkness of the ravine, Sheppard found that his other four senses had gone into overdrive. He could smell the cool musk of the soil crumbling under his hands, and under that, a faint, strange, dry odor that he thought might be the smell of Mickey the Wraith itself. The rushing of the creek, the rasping of the tree bark under his hand, the splashing of the Wraith's feet in the water followed by crackling leaves as it stepped out -- all these things formed a three-dimensional picture in his head of the world around him.
He could still see, a little -- the dark shapes of leaves against a star-spattered sky, glimmerings of Mickey's white hair. But his eyes were increasingly useless. This world either didn't have moons, or none of them were up tonight.
After slipping a few inches, the tree resisted all his efforts to budge it. He remembered how easily Mickey had dislodged the much bigger log at the base of the bridge. In a few minutes, apparently, he was going to be involved in hand-to-hand combat against something that was capable of doing that. Christ, he was so screwed.
... And he'd done this before, hadn't he? Fighting a Wraith hand-to-hand. It was all so familiar. Desperately he tried to remember how he'd gotten out of that one, but all he could remember was someone distracting it -- someone standing up from behind a pile of rocks and emptying a gun into its chest.
Well, that wasn't going to happen this time. He was entirely on his own -- and damned if that realization didn't feel like a knife twisting in his chest, but there was no time to worry about it, not with Mickey closing in, no weapons and nowhere to go.
I've got responsibilities back home -- people I care about, who care about me.
He's spoken those words to someone, not all that long ago. He could almost see that place -- warm, grassy, sunlight on his skin, and he'd been talking to a woman, insisting that he had to get back ... somewhere.
People who care about me.
Somewhere, someone was worrying about him. Looking for him. Whatever kind of person he was in his normal life, he wasn't alone.
Sheppard! He could still hear the voice scream his name, ragged with terror. He still didn't know the name of the voice's owner -- but he did know that he had to find him. There was one thing Sheppard knew about himself, from some deep part of him that had not been erased by whatever trauma took his memory: he was a person who protected others. He didn't know what he was, or who he was, but he did know that much. He protected the people he cared about, and no Wraith was going to come between him and that responsibility.
"Gone to ground, little human?" the Wraith called tauntingly. "I don't hear you running!"
Of course, this Wraith had other ideas. It still seemed reluctant to follow him into the brush, and that, he imagined, was the only reason why he was still alive. He scrambled higher up the bank, his boot finding purchase on the mossy tree trunk, nearly slipping off before he found a secure toehold.
Hm. He was now standing on the tree trunk, up against the bank, looking down at the white glimmer of the Wraith's hair.
What he was about to try was stupid. He didn't remember much about the other time he'd gone up against one of the suckers hand-to-hand, but he did remember it hadn't gone well. On the other hand, he really didn't have much choice. Running like a hunted animal was not his style.
The Wraith 's hissing voice called to him out of the darkness. "Your life will be sweet. Those who run hard are all the tastier when caught."
He crouched down on the log and felt about in the leaves and sticks at its base until he got his hands on a good, solid chunk of wood, about as long and thick as his arm. Then he shuffled forward a few quick steps, and jumped.
His great fear was that they could see in the dark, and that it would be able to turn swiftly enough to fire as he plunged down on top of it. And it did see him coming, and spun around with the gun coming up to point between his eyes, but it was unable to get it in place fast enough to snap off a shot. They both sprawled in the shallow water of the creek, Sheppard driving the Wraith into the water under the weight of his body.
But his eyes were all for the gun. He had no intention of trying to outfight a Wraith barehanded. He'd been entirely focused on the gun, and as he struck he swung his club, dealing the hardest possible blow to the Wraith's weapon arm that he could manage. When they fell, Sheppard and the Wraith went in one direction while the gun skittered away into the dark water.
Sheppard hit water and Wraith, and was up again, lunging in the direction he was pretty sure the gun had gone. In the near-total darkness at the bottom of the ravine, he couldn't see a damn thing and he had a suspicion the Wraith had much better night vision than he did, if only because it would just figure with the way the rest of his day had gone. On his hands and knees, ice-cold water swirling around him, he swung his hands across the bottom of the creek. Sharp, slimy rocks tore at fingers which were rapidly going numb from the cold --
-- and stars exploded in his vision as something came down brutally on his injured back. Sheppard sprawled facedown in the water and came up gasping, rolling to partially deflect another blow from the Wraith that nearly flattened him and left his right arm stinging and numb. But finally, finally something had gone his way -- under the water, his left hand had closed over a smooth surface which was not a rock.
The Wraith loomed over him, a black shape against the last vestiges of light in the sky, and Sheppard brought up the gun. There was no room for conscious thought: he was shooting with his off hand, with a weapon he might have never used before, and he just let instinct take over. He'd spent many hours firing many different kinds of weapons, and he let his body do it. He had just an instant to worry that the Wraith guns might not work underwater, before the ravine lit up in a brief flare of blue light, and the Wraith let out a strangled cry of rage as it fell over backwards, half in the creek and half on the bank.
Sheppard could hear it thrashing as he scrambled upright -- apparently one shot wasn't enough for a Wraith -- and so he shot it again, and then one more time, until the noises stopped.
The guns weren't fatal. He remembered that now. The Wraith used them to hunt prey to feed upon ... and they liked their prey alive. He stumbled forward in the darkness, shaking his right arm until he started getting some feeling back -- he didn't think anything was broken, but damn, it hurt. He'd probably have a bruise from wrist to elbow. But there'd be time to worry about that later. He wrapped his unresponsive fingers around the hilt of his knife, and there in the darkness of the ravine, he made sure that Mickey the stunned Wraith would never bother him again.
When he had finished, and was positive beyond a reasonable doubt that even the most resilient Wraith couldn't get up from that, he knelt and washed in the water of the stream. Wraith blood was heavy, sticky and cold compared to human blood, and it had a weird, musty smell. Some part of him noted that he wasn't especially concerned about having killed a helpless enemy in (literally) cold blood. A human enemy might have been different -- he knew that he had killed people, but he also had a vague memory of standing over a man, a powerful man who had tried to kill him, and letting him live. He wasn't a pathological killer, at least he didn't think so -- just somebody who was willing to do what it took to survive. To protect himself, and those close to him.
It was amazing how good it felt to have a gun in his hands again. If there'd ever been any doubt in Sheppard's mind that he had been a career soldier, those doubts were gone. He felt ... whole. Safe. Hefting the gun, he looked up at the sky overhead -- now completely dark and spangled with stars. And he remembered that these things had come in a ship. If he could find it, then he could fly it -- he knew that in the same way that he knew everything else he couldn't quite remember. Could they have left it unguarded? Well, now that he was armed, he didn't mind going up against one or two more of these sons of bitches. In fact, he rather welcomed the idea.
He felt over the Wraith's body for anything else that might be of use to him, but they didn't seem to carry gear, at least nothing beyond a couple odd pieces of technology that he couldn't figure out. One of them was probably a tracker for the transmitter that he assumed he carried in his body, but it wasn't as if that did him any good whatsoever. There must be some way to get at its self-destruct device, but fumbling around with high explosives in the dark did not seem like a good recipe for a long and healthy life. In the end, he dragged the body into the bushes and then walked down the stream for a few minutes to hide his tracks -- it wasn't as if he could get any wetter, and the movement kept him warm -- before climbing out onto the bank and scrambling out of the ravine.
After the near-total darkness in the ravine, he found that the open pine woodland was ... well, not light exactly ... but he could see dimly through the trees, well enough to keep from tripping on roots, anyhow. The next problem occurred to him as he looked around and tried to figure out which way the Wraith ship had been going when it had flown over him. He wasn't sure which way was which. He'd been far too busy outrunning Wraith to pay much attention to the twists and turns in the ravine, and while normally the mountains would be a wonderful direction indicator, it was too dark and there were too many trees to even figure out which way the mountains were.
Compass! He dug it out of his pocket, and realized two things simultaneously.
One: A compass is only useful for finding your way if you've been taking readings all along and therefore know how the landmarks are oriented. It doesn't help to know where north is when you don't have any way of knowing if your destination is north, south, east or west of anything else in the landscape. For that matter, he didn't even know if this planet had a magnetic field at all.
Two: You can't read a compass in the dark.
He sighed and put it away. Fine. The old-fashioned way it was, then. The land sloped up in front of him, and while he didn't know if that meant that he was heading back up into the mountains or just up a ridge, it should at least take him to a high point where he might be able to get his bearings. With the gun slipping into a familiar position in his arms, he loped between the trees at a ground-eating trot.
The trees became more sparse and open, until he emerged on a bare, stony ridge and the valley spread out before him, an inky pool of night. The mountain peaks were discernible by faint light -- starlight and the light of the long-set suns -- glimmering from the snow on their upper peaks. Alpenglow. It was a weird, ghostly effect. Tearing his eyes away from the silver brows of the mountains, Sheppard located the river's twisting silver ribbon in the valley. He'd strayed quite far off his original course, and still couldn't identify exactly where the ship had come down, but at least he knew which way he was headed.
A shrill, ululating scream from the mountains behind him made him jump and spin around, gun at the ready. The scream trailed away into a low sound like a cough, then repeated itself. It was not remotely human, nor did it sound like anything he'd heard from the Wraith. Some kind of local animal, then. Perhaps a predator. Standing still on the ridge, Sheppard became aware that the night around him was not at all silent, but filled with rustlings and occasional small cries as the unseen wildlife of this world conducted their nightly affairs. It exhilarated him.
Throwing his head back, he looked up at a spectacular panorama of stars, glittering in clusters and sweeping constellations. He had rarely seen stars brighter than this, and only then from outer space -- memories spun in fragments through his mind, crystal-sharp memories of stars seemingly close enough to touch, separated from him by nothing more than a thin sheet of glass or plastic. And he ... he slipped among the stars in a spaceship, his ship, guiding it with delicate touches of hand and mind -- and he turned, laughing, to say something to the person in the seat next to him, who also turned to meet his gaze ... and --
-- and something dark darted across one of the brighter constellations. Sheppard flinched, realizing that it had been mere inches from his nose: some kind of small, batlike creature. Others appeared and vanished in the darkness about him. Drawing a deep breath, he reluctantly shook off the memory and the accompanying sense of warmth and peace that had descended upon him. In a weird, probably quite messed-up way, he liked it here on this wild world, pitting himself against nature and Wraith -- but in that memory he'd been ...
And he intended to get back to it.
But first ... this seemed like a good time to try to get some rest. The alternative was blundering around in the dark, looking for the Wraith ship and risking a broken leg at the very least. He was already beginning to shiver, standing on the ridge in his wet clothes, and he knew that fatigue and hunger were contributing to the problem. Yeah. Camping time.
Descending the other side of the ridge, he accidentally flushed a covey (flock? herd? fleet?) of little stripey critters, sort of like weasels with rabbit ears, and he got one of them with the stunner. It flipped end-over-end and landed in a furry heap. Dinner!
After about half an hour of gathering the dry lower branches of the pine trees, he had a small, nearly smokeless fire going under the leaning trunk of one of the bigger trees, and his rabbitoid was roasting nicely. He could feel himself falling back on training from the life he couldn't remember -- things that he had been taught, things that his hands knew even if his conscious mind didn't. He had known how to survive in the wilderness. Maybe he wasn't particularly good at it, but he was good enough to get by. Huddled up to the fire, he stripped off his wet socks and boots, and thus discovered that the pine needles carpeting the ground were much softer than the prickly Earth variety -- it was almost like burrowing his toes into a shag rug. Well, well! He spent a few minutes scraping together a good, big pile of needles, finding that they had a fragrance more like perfume than pine, and soon he'd peeled off most of his damp clothing and strung it up over the fire. Nestled down in a bed of needles, eating half-raw rabbitoid -- which tasted like chicken, of course -- he could almost believe that this might turn out okay. He had a knife; he had a gun; he apparently had not-too-shabby wilderness survival skills.
He also had a tracking device in his back and a bunch of Wraith hunting him. Sheppard sighed, burrowing deeper into the needles and feeling the weight of exhaustion pressing down on him. Sleep would be a really bad idea right now, considering that the Wraith could be searching for him at this moment, but he was so damn tired. What he wouldn't give for someone to watch his back while he slept, if only for a short while. Loneliness stabbed at him with a sudden, sharp pain, and he wished he could remember more about the people that he knew waited for him at home. His eyelids drifted lower, and a woman swam in his mind's eye, bright and sharp and strong; he parried words with her like swords. He fell forward, falling into her intense eyes, into his memories, and woke with a start when his cheek hit the cold ground.
Damn it! Sheppard shook himself awake. The fire had burned down to coals; he'd actually nodded off for a few minutes. This wasn't going to work. He needed sleep. And since he didn't have anyone to watch out for him, he'd just have to improvise. Forcing himself out of the pile of needles, half-naked in the cold night, he occupied himself for a half-hour or so with setting up various traps around his little hideaway: basic stuff, piles of crackly dry leaves and sticks balanced precariously on top of deadfalls, just enough to warn him if anything came close. Then he extinguished the fire and dug back into the pile of needles until he was, he hoped, concealed from a casual observer. One of his hands curled protectively over the Wraith gun, and he lay in the shadows of a strange world and stared out into the night until the darkness began to fill with faces and voices that he had once known ... faces he couldn't name, yet all of them precious to him, and he knew as he drifted into sleep that he'd give his life for any one of them.
Sheppard slept, and his sleep was filled with dreams of the life that a part of him still remembered.
Chapter Eight: Learning from the Locals
Act like the natives; watch their daily routines. When, where and how they get their food. Where they get their water.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
Rodney didn't sleep, but sometimes he dozed, wedged in a crack in the rocks with his scanner propped in his lap. The one time that he actually fell into something approaching a true sleep, he was awakened with a jolt by a sudden thunder that he mistook at first for the vibration of a Wraith dart. He was already on his feet and staring blearily around when he noticed the rapid movement of alien bats above him, darting and swirling in an elaborate dance. Then he realized that he could see them; the night had lightened from black to gray, and a streak of pink had appeared in the sky above the mountains.
He was stiff, cold, damp. As the bats flew back into their cave, Rodney tried to shake the kinks out of his arms and legs, wincing at the now-familiar pain in his back and trying to ascertain if it had gotten worse. Actually, if anything, the pain seemed to be getting better, although maybe it was just drowned out by the screaming of sore muscles and scrapes from every other part of his body. Thirst had become a torment, made worse by the thunder of the waterfall just out of his reach. The rocks were damp with dew and with the waterfall's spray, and he actually tried touching his tongue to the cliffside before realizing how completely stupid that was. He'd have all the water he wanted once he reached the top of the cliff, and in the meantime, catching some sort of alien disease from bat-infested rocks wasn't a bright idea.
Looking over the cliff as the edge of the leading sun crept over the horizon, Rodney was struck by how far he had managed to climb last night. Those rocks were really, really far down there. He could spot both Wraith bodies still lying where they'd fallen. Raising his eyes to the winding river, the thought crossed his mind that there might be an abandoned Wraith dart down there somewhere ... but no way in hell was he climbing down to find out. Besides, even if he did find one, it was completely useless to him without Sheppard. Even to save his own life, he knew he couldn't fly a Wraith ship.
He looked up at the mountains where he'd seen the flash of light last night. By the light of a new day, it was much harder to convince himself that one small technological aberration meant Sheppard was alive ... difficult, even, to believe that he'd actually seen it. He had done a lot of drifting last night, and maybe he'd just imagined it, somewhere between sleeping and waking, afloat in a hypoglycemic haze.
Hypoglycemia ... Rodney realized that he wasn't hungry, and this seemed very bad considering that he'd had nothing but two powerbars in over twenty-four hours. Thirst probably explained at least part of it, but he got out a powerbar anyway and forced himself to choke it down through the gravelly dryness in his throat. As he ate, he looked down into the canyon, at the Wraith bodies and the river glimmering in the morning light.
Climb down and look for a dart? Or continue climbing upwards? He decided to refer to his inner Sheppard, who was rapidly becoming his survival manual. "So, Sheppard," he said aloud, balling up the powerbar wrapper and stuffing it into a pocket of his vest, "which way do we go?"
Never in a million years would he have thought that he'd ever make a conscious effort to think like John Sheppard, a man who thought that American football was the height of his nation's intellectual achievements. On the other hand, an intelligent man knew when to defer to the experts, and this was precisely the sort of situation at which Sheppard excelled. And his inner Sheppard thought they should go up. No point in trying to find a Wraith ship if you can't fly it, the Colonel would have said. And no sense in backtracking over ground you've already covered. You've come over halfway up the cliff, so don't climb back down. Keep going.
Sheppard was making sense, so Rodney went up.
Good God, Rodney thought as he climbed, I've gone beyond talking to myself. I'm now having complete conversations with myself ... again. If I start hallucinating Sheppard, I'll know I'm in trouble. And if I find myself kissing him, I'm jumping right off this cliff.
But no Sheppard materialized, amorous or otherwise. Besides, he was soon too distracted with thirst to think about anything but reaching the top of the cliff so he could get a drink. Well, that and the blister he could feel forming on his left heel. Both suns were high above the horizon by the time that he finally topped the final leg of the path, wheezing and gasping while grayness hovered around the edges of his vision. The first thing he did was half-limp, half-run to the river, throw himself down on the rocks and drink with his face in the water, like a dog. Thirst finally slaked, he laid his head down on his arms and wished he could just sleep for a month.
Hunger drove him upright. Now that he wasn't so thirsty, his stomach had made itself known with a vengeance, and he reeled woozily as he sat upright. Definitely experiencing severe blood sugar issues here. He tried to convince himself that it wasn't a good idea to eat another powerbar so soon ... but, honestly, no matter how carefully he doled them out, he was going to run out in a day or so anyway. All he was doing was buying himself a few more hours of time, and in return, possibly making himself so weak from hunger that he wouldn't be able to do anything useful.
So he sat on the riverbank, warming up in the sun and eating a honey peanut powerbar one small bite at a time. It tasted like heaven. He washed it down with a long drink of river water and sat for one moment longer, gazing up at a serenely blue sky. The Wraith hadn't come back yet, but they would. In force, no doubt.
He'd gotten lucky, very lucky, on the cliff. As proud of himself as he was for taking out two Wraith barehanded, he also knew that a lot of flukes had come together to keep him alive. He couldn't keep living on luck. More Wraith would come, many more. He couldn't hide from them, not with that tracker in his back.
His head snapped forward. Or could he?
You're the dumbest genius ever, Rodney. It's just a goddamn radio transmitter. If it sends a signal, you can block it.
With hands that trembled from excitement, as well as cold and hypoglycemia, he fumbled out his Ancient scanner and pried off the back. Why had he never thought of this before? All he had to do was identify the frequency that the transmitter was using to broadcast, and then modify the scanner so that rather than passively picking up signals, it would actively jam them. Of course, it would then be useless for its normal function, but in this case he figured the tradeoff was well worth it.
Finding the Wraith transmitter frequency was a piece of cake. All he had to do was use his makeshift tuning crystal to locate the right energy band. The jamming part turned out to be much harder, but after the better part of an hour, he was pretty sure that he had a functional jammer. He froze just as he was about to turn it on.
Stupid, stupid genius! Of course, the first thing that would happen when he activated it, thus disappearing from Wraith radar, was an immediate convergence of Wraith on his last known position. And they'd have darts, stunners and, no doubt, all kinds of scanners of their own. Being able to turn off the transmitter wasn't much good if he was immediately picked off by angry Wraith.
Okay. He'd solved the first challenge: deactivating the transmitter. At least, he was pretty sure he had. Now he had a new problem to solve: finding a way to rapidly conceal himself after turning the thing off.
He glanced down at the fast-moving river. Well, yes, granted, going over the waterfall would solve the hiding problem. Being crushed into Rodney jelly was the rather notable downside to that particular plan, however.
Could he possibly go over the waterfall without dying?
He sat and thought about this, becoming aware, as he did so, of how very quiet it was in this place. Distance muted the thunder of the waterfall to a hiss like the sound of traffic on a wet road, and the only other noises were the water rushing over rocks at his back, and the whisper of wind rustling in the trees. Somewhere came a distant birdcall like the ringing of bells.
And, somewhere nearer, he heard something rustle in the woods.
Maybe it was the wind. But it came again. Rodney turned his head slowly, trying very hard not to panic, and not entirely succeeding. He looked down at the scanner out of instinct, only to remember that he'd converted it to an entirely different function.
The trees looked perfectly innocent. The sound didn't come again. Somehow, this did not seem like proper Wraith behavior to him. Were they stalking him? Playing with him?
He had to get out of the open. However, the only place to go was into the trees. He realized then that he wasn't sure which direction the rustling had come from. Left? Right? This side of the river? The other side?
Judging by the fact that he hadn't been shot yet, maybe it really had been the wind. Would he bet his life on it? Hell, no.
He decided to move to the other side of the river, going by the reasoning that if something was truly stalking him, it would most likely be on his side rather than the other. The river was broad and shallow here; it only came up to his knees as he waded across, though it was bitterly cold. The belated thought occurred to him that taking off his boots would have been a good idea. Squelching with each step, he began to walk upriver, looking for someplace he might hide from the Wraith. Occasionally, when he paused for a rest, he could swear that he heard rustling sounds from the other side of the river, but they seemed to vanish when he stood still for any length of time.
He saw little wildlife, but there was some: small fluttery birds, and bigger ones with long, pointed wings. A lithe, fox-like creature darted through the underbrush, and Rodney's eyes followed it in fascination, until he was brought up short by a swarm of slim, yellow insects that looked alarmingly like wasps; Rodney froze, stricken, until they flew away. No idea if he'd be allergic to alien wasps, but anaphylaxis was not on his list of things to do today.
He topped a rise and looked back upon a rolling quilt of forest and river and stone. Had he really climbed so high? He could now see that the river ran down to an ocean; it was nothing more than a blue haze from this distance, but he'd seen enough of Atlantis's ocean from the puddlejumpers to know what bodies of water looked like, even from far away. Clouds were beginning to gather in the sky over the ocean, big fluffy ones with white tops and gray underbellies. While meteorology was one of the few things McKay didn't know much about, he thought those looked like storm clouds.
Following the river's meandering course with his eyes, he wondered if there was any way to fool the Wraith into thinking that he'd gone over the falls. That might be able to explain the sudden loss of the transmitter signal. But ... he just couldn't think of a way, not without sacrificing enough of his clothes and supplies to leave sufficient personal effects to fool them, and at this point, he needed everything he had. Especially the clothes -- he could barely keep warm enough on this chilly planet as it was.
He turned back around, and jumped.
A kid stood in front of him, half-concealed in the shadows of the forest. It looked about ten or eleven, or maybe thirteen, or eight -- he absolutely sucked at estimating children's ages. Or their genders: he thought it might be a boy, but he wouldn't swear to that in a court of law. The child appeared to subscribe to the Ronon Dex school of style, with long ratty hair and a ragged shirt that was more patch than original material. He gripped what appeared to be a rusty machete in both hands and glowered at Rodney with defiant terror.
"Hey there, uh, champ," Rodney offered weakly.
"Don't move." The kid tensed, spreading his legs and tightening his grip on the machete.
With a rustling of leaves, another one popped up beside the boy -- a slightly smaller girl, holding an axe nearly as long as her whole body. The boy took his eyes off Rodney for a minute to give the girl a look of exasperation and disbelief. "I told you to stay hidden, brat!"
The girl shook her head, tangled hair flying. "I don't have to do what you say," she retorted cheekily, and moved to stand beside the boy with her pathetic weapon held in front of her.
Rodney shook off a growing sense of deja vu. Oh please no. Not another kid planet.
"Who are you kids, and why are you out here without an adult?" he demanded.
The boy's eyes narrowed. "Because there aren't any. The Wraith got them all. Where do you come from? You're not from around here."
"I came to this world -- um, through a big metal ring." He had to assume there was a Stargate around here somewhere, because otherwise, he couldn't imagine how he and Sheppard were going to get home. The presence of people on this world would seem to indicate that there must be, unless Wraith used their hiveships to seed worlds with their own form of cattle. "You don't happen to have seen anything like that? Or heard of it?" he asked hopefully. "A big gray ring, probably sitting all by itself in a field or on a hill somewhere? Taller than me?"
The kids looked at each other. "He's crazy," the girl said.
The boy, who Rodney assumed must be her brother, nodded. "He must've been living alone all this time. Nuts."
Rodney dropped his hands to his sides and glared at the two urchins. Damn it, he was hungry, tired, scared, frustrated and he really didn't have time for this. "Show some respect for your elders, you little monsters. I came here from another planet, I don't want to be here, and I'd like nothing better than to go home."
"You're rude," the girl said.
"And mean," the boy added.
Rodney groaned. "I'm starving to death in the wilderness with Wraith trying to kill me. You'll pardon me if I'm a little testy --"
He broke off as the distinctive whine of a dart shivered the mid-morning air. Through the canopy of trees, Rodney could see the slim shape hurtle out of the north and bank overhead, then vanishing from his sight.
He turned back to see that the kids had vanished without a trace. A sudden, panicked thought occurred to him. "Hey!" he called in a loud whisper. "Hey! Kids! Come back!"
They hadn't gone far, for there was a scuffling and two small heads peered out of the underbrush at him. "Wraith are coming, crazy metal ring man. You'd better get out of here."
"I don't have anywhere to go," Rodney hissed back. "Do you kids know places to hide from the Wraith?"
The boy and girl looked at each other and then back at him with an expression that clearly said, in whatever local parlance, Duh.
"Can you show me?"
"Why should we?" the boy demanded.
What in the world did he have that he could offer a couple of kids -- Wraith orphans, from the sound of things? "Do you want to stay here? When I leave this world, I can take you with me." The look on their faces clearly indicated that they still thought he was crazy. "I can fix stuff, too. You got anything that's broken? You need me to build something for you? I can do that too." He was talking faster and faster. The whine of the Wraith dart had ceased, which meant that he had to get out of here now. "I can take things down off the top shelf for you, for crying out loud. Grown-ups are useful to have around. Just help me hide!"
"If we leave him out here, he'll probably die," the girl said to the boy.
The boy shifted his gaze back to Rodney. "How do we know we can trust you?"
"You don't," Rodney said, frustration shifting over slowly to terror as the seconds ticked by. "It's a crazy, messed-up world, as you both no doubt know first-hand. But if you leave me out here, I'm going to die, that's pretty much a given at this point. And for what it's worth, if you help me I do promise to do everything in my power to help you."
His hand hovered over the button on the scanner. If they wouldn't help him, he'd just have to hit the button and make a run for it, hoping that he could find a Wraith-proof place to hole up before they started an all-out search.
"Come on," the boy said, and Rodney let out a long, pent-up breath.
"The others won't like this," the girl muttered darkly.
"What can we do, Tekka, just leave him here to die?" The boy gestured impatiently at Rodney. "C'mon! Hurry!"
He hurried. "Are we close?" he asked, feeling huge and clumsy as he jogged through the woods after the lithe children. They slipped in and out of the trees' shadows like tiny wood spirits; he lumbered after them, tripping on roots and getting smacked in the face with branches.
"Very close," the boy called over his shoulder.
Rodney swallowed, and hit the button. He didn't want to do it too early and tip off the Wraith that he was planning something, but on the other hand, he didn't want to lead them straight to his (and the kids') hide-hole either. The thought came to him that if his jamming device failed, then he'd not only doomed himself but the kids who were helping him as well. Guilt stabbed at him. But the scanner's readout showed him that it was indeed jamming the signal, assuming he'd done everything correctly. He trusted himself. He had to; no one else was around to do it, except the kids, and they thought he was some kind of madman.
"Here," the girl whispered, and she appeared to vanish between one tree and the next.
Rodney halted, stared. The boy groaned and prodded him forward. "Hurry up!"
He had to kneel down to see where the girl had gone. What appeared to be a jumble of rocks, overgrown with brush, actually concealed some kind of opening. There were rotted timbers shoring it up -- an old mine entrance, maybe? Whatever it was, you couldn't see it unless you were standing right in front of it. Rodney had a moment of doubt that he could make it through the small space, but prodded again by the boy, and by the knowledge that the Wraith were no doubt closing in on him, he tucked the scanner away to keep it from getting damaged and then crawled forward. On the other side of the entrance, he found that there was enough space to stand up.
The girl was waiting for him inside. The boy crawled through after them and then pushed a rock to mostly block the entrance, cutting off much of the light as well.
"Thank you," he said. "Both of you."
The boy just shook his head sharply. "Don't talk here. Deeper."
Rodney jumped when small fingers slipped into his hand. It was the girl. "It's going to be dark," she whispered. "Follow me. We know the way. Just be careful of your feet."
"Where are we going?" Rodney whispered back, nervously, as they left the light behind and darkness fell around them. The girl didn't answer -- god, kids annoyed him, even kids who'd just saved his life. As the darkness became complete, claustrophobia surged up to fill the space, and he tried to swallow it down, focusing on the feeling of the small, slightly sticky fingers in his own. Echoes around him told him that the space had become larger, and he began to notice a familiar pungent smell, which he recognized after a moment as the pseudo-bat guano odor that he'd noticed on the cliff the night before.
"Are we in the caves?" Rodney asked in a piercing whisper.
"Yes," the girl whispered back, "and hush!"
He hushed. They walked in the darkness for what felt to Rodney like hours, but was probably only ten or fifteen minutes, before he realized that he could see the dim outlines of the kids. The light got brighter, and they reached a spot where sunbeams shafted through the ceiling of the cave. "Cavern" might be a better term, Rodney thought, looking around him -- it was huge, with all the usual things that he expected from a cave, stalactites and stalagmites and that sort of thing. Pools of water dotted the floor.
The girl let go of Rodney's hand. "We're safe here," she said softly, "but we should still be quiet. The Wraith come into the caves sometimes from the cave mouths on the cliff. They suspect someone is living back here, but they have never found us. We are very careful."
Rodney looked around him and saw no signs of habitation, so presumably the kids lived deeper inside the caves. They must not have trusted him enough to take him that far. "How long have you two lived down here?"
"It's not just us--" the girl began, but the boy shushed her, and gave Rodney a suspicious look.
"The last Wraith culling was a few months ago, in the spring," he said. "Where are you from, that you don't know that?"
"I told you. I came from another world. I've only been here for about a day."
"There are no other worlds," the girl said. "That's a myth."
"Oh, and you're an expert on folklore and history now, hmm?"
His voice had risen and both the kids frantically shushed him. Rodney fell silent and looked for somewhere to sit down. Boulders seemed to be all that was available, so he sat on one of them. Collapsed, rather. His legs had gotten alarmingly shaky.
"I don't suppose either of you have any food?" he asked hopefully.
The boy and girl looked at one another. "I guess we could find something to feed him," the girl said, sounding as if they were talking about a new pet.
The boy turned to look at him. "You stay here," he ordered, and the two kids ran off into the darkness.
"Where am I going to go?" Rodney demanded after them, but they were already gone.
He sighed and took out the modified scanner again, just to reassure himself that it was still working. It certainly seemed to be doing its job, but he supposed the only way to know for sure that it wasn't working would be to have a Wraith drop in through the ceiling.
Maybe moving away from the hole in the cavern roof would be a good idea. He changed seats to a boulder farther back in the shadows. This one was flatter, smoother and generally more comfortable. He settled back onto it, shifting his shoulders as the injury from the Wraiths' tracking device implantation once again reminded him of his presence. The pain was a lot less than even that morning, though, and he finally had to admit that not only was it not developing into a full-blown infection, but it seemed to be healing nicely.
Since he had nothing to do until the kids came back except think, he pulled out his gear once again and spread it in front of him as he had done beside the river the previous day. Making plans was far better than dwelling on how miniscule his chances really were of finding Sheppard and getting off this planet. And, then, there was one possibility that he truly did not want to think about: what if he actually, through some miracle, could manage to find a working Stargate before he found Sheppard? The sensible thing -- really, the only reasonable thing -- would be to gate to someplace safe, get Carson to take the transmitter out, and send a few battalions of Marines to rescue the Colonel. But none of that made him feel any better about abandoning Sheppard on a hostile planet with Wraith closing in on all sides.
Hell. Better concentrate on the here-and-now. For all he knew, Sheppard was doing much better than Rodney himself. He'd probably either managed to cut the transmitter out himself, or found some beautiful young farm widow with a medical degree to do it for him. Rodney grinned to himself; if there was a lovely single woman anywhere on this planet, it was pretty much a given that Sheppard had either rescued her from a Wraith by this point or stumbled into her backyard so that she could nurse him back to health.
Yeah, Sheppard was undoubtedly doing fine and planning a way home even now. Rodney sighed, wondering what it was about the man's irrational optimism that was so damned contagious. He went back to staring at his meager collection of technology until clattering and whispered voices heralded the return of the children.
They didn't come alone -- there were at least a half-dozen more urchins with them, all equally ragged and disreputable-looking. By this point, though, Rodney was so hungry that he wouldn't have cared if they'd brought the entire cast of Oliver Twist as long as at least one of them had a sandwich. The little girl, Tekka -- at least he assumed it was the same girl -- trotted up to him and shyly held out a wrapped bundle. "Here. I don't know what you eat. This is what we eat."
What they ate turned out to be flat, scorched-looking bread and some kind of roasted meat that appeared to have come from some kind of bird. It could have been cooked dog at this point; he wouldn't have cared. He just had enough self-control not to snatch the food away from her, but, rather, to accept it with restraint that would have made Teyla proud.
"Thanks, kid. You're a lifesaver."
The girl beamed and skipped away to hide behind her brother. To Rodney's amazement, her little simper was actually more cute than annoying. He must be hungry. Better get some food in him, quick.
While he ate, the group of kids slowly drifted closer, reminding him somewhat of pigeons in the park trying to casually wander near the bench-sitters in the hopes of getting crumbs. Only, in this case, it appeared to be curiosity rather than hunger that motivated them. Considering that they had saved his life and all, he put up with it until grubby fingers started creeping too close to his laptop.
"Hey! Leave that alone!" He snatched it back, and began putting away his things while he finished up the rest of the food.
"What is all that stuff?" one of the kids asked.
"It's mine, is what it is. Leave it alone."
"Don't treat us like kids," said the boy from before, Tekka's brother. Coming from someone who was on eye level with Rodney's belt buckle, the statement sounded absurd, but there was a gleam in the kid's eye that reminded McKay for an instant of Ronon. "We've been surviving on our own all this time, which is more than you seem to be able to do."
"Cocky little brat," Rodney snapped. "And you're all doing so well for yourselves too -- living in a cave! What was that you fed me, rat?"
The kids all glowered at him with a uniform look of dislike, except for Tekka, who started to sniffle. Rodney felt like a giant cad. After all, these people ... kids ... kid-type people had saved his life and fed him. When would he ever learn to think before opening his mouth? He sat back on the rock with a long sigh and stared at the kids.
"Look. Let's get something straight here. I don't get along well with kids. Never have, probably never will. Now, from here on out, I plan to think of all of you as a bunch of short, slightly grubby adults. After all, if you've been living alone here for months, you're probably entitled to it." He saw that he had their full, undivided attention now. "As anyone who knows me will no doubt tell you, I am not a nice person. I'm a genius, granted, and I can be uncommonly heroic at times, but I'm not nice. And I'm not going to hold back on you guys just because you're ki-- short. That only means that I, well ... respect you, but don't tell anyone I said that. And I expect all of you to pretty much ignore me when I yell at you. Like I said, I'm not going to hold myself back. Not that I would anyway," he added, trying to be honest.
The kids contemplated this and then one of them said, "If you're not a nice person, how do we know you won't hand us over to the Wraith?"
Rodney snapped his fingers -- all of them jumped -- and pointed at the child who'd spoken. "Very good question! See, you can think! The answer is that I'm not that much of a cad, but of course, all you have to go on is my word. Which, for all you know, could be worthless. So, think about it. What's in it for me? The Wraith don't make deals. At least ..." He thought of Olesia. " ... they don't make deals and keep them. I've seen that firsthand -- no, not me personally," he added as they all shrank back from him. "I told you I'm not that much of a cad. But I saw what happened when someone tried to deal with the Wraith, and it wasn't pretty. So, if you don't believe in my basic good nature -- and who could blame you -- then believe that I am, above all, a very self-centered individual who wants nothing more than to get out of this alive. I do not intend to talk to Wraith, look at Wraith, or come near Wraith unless I can kill them. Fair?"
"Fair," the kid said finally, nodding his head.
Tekka's brother cleared his throat and crossed his arms, the machete -- which he still carried -- dangling loosely from one small hand. "You said that if you left, you'd take us with you. Is that a deal you plan to keep?"
"Suspicious bunch of rugrats, aren't you? Yes, I plan to do that, depending of course on how many of you there are. How many?"
The kids looked at each other, and the boy shrugged. "About, maybe, this many more. Maybe a little more than that, even."
"Eighteen," Tekka spoke up quietly, nibbling on one grubby fingernail. "There were nineteen of us, but Golovin died last week. His stomach started hurting and he got sick, and we couldn't make it stop."
The children all looked depressed. Rodney felt, mainly, relieved that there weren't hundreds of them. He had no idea what he'd do with eighteen, either, but it was easier to manage than a whole underground munchkin city.
"Your parents were all killed by Wraith?"
There were nods and a few small whimpering sounds. Rodney realized, too late, that reminding a bunch of orphans of their relatives' recent demise wasn't the best strategy. The only thing he disliked more than kids was weepy kids. Well, that and lemons. "What are your names?" he asked hastily. "I'm Rodney."
Tekka's brother introduced himself as Jagan, and the others all piped up with names that Rodney, for the most part, immediately forgot. But it did keep them all from bursting into tears.
"Great," he said and, a bit reluctantly, held out his hand to Jagan, who just stared at it. Rodney flicked his hand at the kid impatiently. "You hold it and shake it. Custom of my people. It means we have a deal."
"Oh." Jagan took his hand nervously and gave it a token twitch, although when Rodney pumped his hand to show him what he meant, the kid pumped right back. Quick learner. That could be good. Rodney released him and wiped his hand on his pants; yet another thing he didn't like about kids was the way their hands were always so blasted damp.
"What are you going to do now?" Tekka asked, staring up at him with a worshipful light in her eyes.
The look made him more than just a little uncomfortable. After all, the most likely outcome was that he'd be trapped on the world for the rest of his (very short) lifespan, watching the kids die around him. But he couldn't exactly tell her that. "I'm working on a plan. Listen, is there somewhere more comfortable than here that we could sit down? And maybe a little more ... open?" Despite the huge size of the cavern, being underground was really starting to get to him.
"We could go to the smoking lakes," one of the kids offered. The others made cheerful, affirmative noises.
"Smoking lakes?" He couldn't even begin to imagine what they were talking about.
The kids nodded and Tekka slid her hand into his, once again, before he could notice in time to pull away. "The water is warm. It's very nice. We often build cooking fires there, because the steam hides our smoke."
"Oh. You mean hot springs."
Tekka laughed. "That's a funny thing to call it!"
Brat, Rodney thought, but somehow managed not to say it aloud.
With some reluctance, he allowed himself to be led back into the darkness. Around him the kids scampered and rustled in the dark like little lemmings. Though he would not have admitted it to her, Tekka's little hand kept him anchored, the awareness of her presence the sole constant in the unchanging blackness weighing on his eyes and mind.
He wasn't sure how long they walked in the dark before he began to smell something other than rocks and the faint lingering odor of bat guano. Smoke. Woodsmoke, to be specific -- the smell brought back powerful, mostly unpleasant memories of summer camp and family barbecues. It grew stronger, and he hoped that the Wraith hadn't set the woods on fire in an attempt to flush him out, but the children did not seem alarmed.
Tekka tugged on his hand to stop him, and he heard rattling and rustling in the dark. "Trap," she whispered. "They'll set it again when we've gone by."
As she led him on again, Rodney wondered what these kids were going to be like when they grew up. Tough, resourceful little buggers ... he could almost, maybe, imagine Sheppard being like that at their age, and Ronon, but not anyone else he knew, himself included.
The darkness around him began to lighten, at first just a faint sense that it wasn't as oppressive as it had been, but soon his light-starved eyes could make out a glow ahead. The kids led him out of the tunnel into a cavern similar to the one where Tekka and Jagan had left him before -- this time, a long gallery dotted with floor-to-ceiling pillars of calcite. A small waterfall pattered at the far end, and Rodney caught a glimpse of a dark stream glistening off to one side. Above them, the ceiling of the cave soared like that of a cathedral, and intermittent shafts of sunlight stabbed down to the uneven limestone floor.
Blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light, Rodney could see immediately that this was where the kids lived. Blankets, clothing, dishes, assorted farming implements and the remains of cold campfires were everywhere. The place was a mess. Of course, if eighteen fifth-graders had been living here all summer, that wasn't a surprise.
"When did you guys move down here?"
He asked the question to Tekka, but her brother answered. "In the spring. After the Wraith ... after they came for the last time."
"They started coming last fall," one of the older kids volunteered. "At first they got the big towns. Then they started picking off the smaller villages, finally the farms, like ours."
Jagan picked up the story again as the little procession wended its way through the underground refuge, picking their way around discarded clothing and scattered pieces of firewood. "When the Wraith came in the winter, many people died, not just those who were taken but those left behind as well. Our families were lucky because we lived so far out of town. We had enough food and our livestock were unharmed. But last spring they ..." He trailed off with a glance at Tekka, who was walking in silence, eyes downcast. "We have lived here ever since," he finished quickly.
Rodney looked around him. The kids who had come to see him, he realized, were the more able-bodied of the bunch -- or perhaps just those who were psychologically more resilient than the rest. The others that he saw just sat on piles of blankets or perched on rocks, and stared back at him with dull eyes. He couldn't tell if they were sick, malnourished or just suffering from severe emotional trauma.
Eighteen kids. And from the chill in the air, winter was coming. He wondered how much food they had. They couldn't possibly be growing crops, not while also hiding from the Wraith. They'd probably started out with plenty of food scavenged from houses in the decimated villages and farms that Jagan had mentioned, and maybe they could hunt a little bit -- he remembered the tough, stringy meat that Tekka had given him back in the cave -- but they couldn't possibly survive a winter.
The kids' survival, he thought, had now become tied to his in more ways than one. If he didn't find a way off this world, and fairly soon, they were going to die.
Just what he needed. More pressure.
A small, skinny girl with her hair bobbed off in a tomboy cut came running from one of the tunnels to whisper to Jagan, casting nervous sideways glances at Rodney. "She says the Wraith were sniffing around, but they've gone and flew off in their flying machine," Jagan reported. "It should be safe to go to the smoking lakes now."
Rodney's knees wobbled with relief. It had worked. He'd beaten the transmitter. He was, well, not free, but in much better shape than he had been a few hours ago.
But, could the Wraith really have given up so easily? He thought not. They'd be back, probably with reinforcements.
Hopefully by that time he would have come up with a plan.
Oblivious to all of this, the kids took him out of the cave by way of another tunnel. This time, one of them brought a lantern of sorts: a bowl of ashes from one of the banked campfires. The glowing embers made a terrible flashlight, providing very little light, but in the absolute darkness of the caves, it was better than nothing.
Flashlight. Rodney could have hit himself in the head. He usually carried a flashlight with him. Where was it? He'd gone through all his pockets earlier. Oh, wait. Pants pocket. Yes, there it was, a small cheap flashlight, useful for examining Ancient technology in small dark places. Or lighting up caves.
"Hey, kids, I've got something to show you." He demonstrated, turned it on. This was met with ooh and ahs of wonder from the children.
"How does it work?" Jagan asked, eyeing it critically and trying to hide his awe.
Rodney showed them how to turn it off and on, explained about the batteries (though he wasn't sure if they understood much of the explanation) and played the light around the walls and ceiling.
"I want one like that," Jagan said.
"If we go back to Atlantis, there's boxes of 'em. You can each have one."
This raised their spirits more than anything else that day. Carried along by a buoyant mass of chattering kids, Rodney found himself actually feeling ... cheerful. Maybe children weren't as annoying as he'd thought. Not all the time, at least.
Now that the group of them seemed to be getting along, he asked Jagan, "Hey, have any of you guys seen someone else like me in the woods? Another strange adult?"
The boy shook his head. "No." As Rodney's spirits plummeted to his toes, Jagan added, "But there was a weird noise last night."
"Yeah, I saw that," the tomboyish girl piped up. "A bright light too."
Tekka giggled. "We were out watching you," she explained to Rodney. "On the cliff."
"The light wasn't on the cliff. It was up on Old Woman Mountain," Jagan snapped.
"I know that, stupid. I saw it too."
Rodney remembered the explosion he'd seen ... as well as the life signs above him in the dark. "Do things like that happen often around here?"
"No. We never saw anything like that before," Jagan said. "We thought it was maybe the Wraith."
Sheppard. It just had to be. "Well, a teammate of mine might be lost in the woods, so if you see anybody strange could you tell me?"
The kids chorused agreement to tell him, as they came to another exit into the forest. This was a cave mouth blocked by a rockslide, all but a small opening that the children wriggled quickly through. Rodney followed with considerably more difficulty, feeling as if he'd left behind some skin and possibly torn open the wound on his back again.
Somehow it had become early afternoon while he was underground. After the damp chill of the caves, the air in the forest felt almost warm, with the damp, oppressive quality that often precedes a thunderstorm. They were high now, the forest sparse and the ground carpeted with pine needles -- or pine-looking needles, though the odor they released when trod upon was more similar to lavender. Rather than running and screaming as Rodney expected from kids, these children flickered in and out of the sun-dappled shade like little ghosts. Tekka had not released his hand; he thought about shaking her off, but then she looked up at him with eyes that were huge limpid pools of trust, and he decided that disengaging his hand was just too much trouble at the moment.
They topped a rise and there, below them, was a lush hollow -- the sparse pine forest changing to dense, rich-green undergrowth, like a tropical paradise in the midst of a wasteland. Clouds of steam hovered over the hollow in a fog that trailed wispy fingers into the blue sky. The air seemed to warm as the little group descended into the hollow, and the rotten-egg smell of sulfur wafted across Rodney.
He'd never been to an actual hot spring before. At the first pool they came to, he started to reach down and dip his fingers, but Tekka snatched his hand away. "Too hot. You'll burn," she said, and led him along to a lower pool. "This one is better."
The children were already doffing their clothes and diving into the water. Feeling suddenly very self-conscious, Rodney stripped off his stiff, stained shirt and dipped his hands in the water. It was as warm as a hot bath, and he splashed it on his face and hair, trying to wash away the crusted dirt. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and looked up to find Tekka staring at him. "What?" he demanded.
She pointed wordlessly at his back.
"Oh. That. It's ... an old war wound." And he definitely needed to remember not to get more than a couple of feet from his jamming device. Swimming was entirely out of the question. But he could still relax. Rodney scraped off his boots and socks, and stretched out on the bank, letting his feet drift in the water. He could hear splashing and occasional giggling from the kids, but all in all, they were amazingly well behaved. He supposed that the noisy, boisterous children must have all been long since picked off by Wraith, leaving only the silent, cautious ones.
Propping himself up on his elbows, Rodney saw that Tekka had gone to join the other kids in the water. The light of two suns filled the hollow with a misty, golden glow. He wondered at the paradoxes of this world -- so lethal, so empty, yet so beautiful. He'd never been a person who enjoyed nature; the wilderness, as far as he was concerned, could benefit greatly from a generous application of pavement. Yet he kept finding himself seduced by the peace and beauty of this place.
The edge of the hot spring drew his attention: it glimmered with crystals, no doubt precipitated out of the mineral-rich water. Rodney poked at a chunk of yellowish stuff, picked it up and held it to the light. Actual raw sulfur.
Something nagged at his memory. Sulfur. There was some valuable historical usage for sulfur. Gears began to click over in his mind.
Oh ... my ... God. Sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate: the recipe for one of the simplest and most culture-changing man-made substances on Earth. Potassium nitrate was, basically, fertilizer -- and the caves were full of bat guano.
He could make gunpowder.
His brain began spinning furiously, as it was wont to do -- making and discarding plans in the blink of an eye, patching together a course of action while he stood staring blankly at the steaming pool. He'd need a fire, some containers ... and -- the hardest commodity of all -- time. Of course, the more hands he had helping him, the less time he'd need.
Thoughtfully, he looked around him at the children playing in the water and lying in the sun on the shore, and clapped his hands.
"Hey, kids! How would you all like to get back at the Wraith once and for all?"
Bright eyes and a sudden silence told him that he had their attention. For once in his life, Rodney McKay was surrounded by children and he didn't mind a bit.
"Great! I have a plan, and I've got jobs for all of you."
Chapter Nine: Improvising
Improvise; the situation can be improved. Learn to use natural things around you for different needs.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
Sheppard woke with a start from a world of confused and fragmentary dreams, into a world of sunlight and pine needles that smelled like his grandmother's perfume. For a minute he just lay and stared up at the feathery needles of the tree over him, with sunshine shafting through its branches, and felt about as lost and confused as he ever had in his life.
Then something crackled near him, and he turned his head, very slowly, to the left. Everything came crashing back at the sight of a Wraith, not twenty feet away, lifting its foot cautiously from one of his traps -- a deadfall propped above a pile of dry leaves, designed not to damage its victim but just to make noise to wake a sleeper. It had done its job, and the Wraith did not appear to have noticed him yet, but then, he was almost entirely buried in pine needles at the moment: it surely knew he was close, but apparently not exactly where.
Sheppard rolled out of the pile of needles and started firing point-blank into its chest. The Wraith managed to squeeze off one shot before it keeled over; the blue bolt missed him, but came close enough that he felt a stinging pins-and-needles sensation in his arm.
He looked around, but didn't see any more nearby.
Drawing his knife, he hastily finished off the Wraith -- wishing for the darkness that had made this job less grisly last night. By the light of day, Wraith blood was black and sticky, more like tar than blood. Shuddering, he wiped his hands on fistfuls of pine needles and then got dressed in clothes that were stiff and chilly, but nearly dry.
He dragged a few branches over the Wraith's body -- not really intending to hide it all that well, but at least hoping to keep the others from finding it too quickly. Both stun weapons went over his shoulders. It might be cumbersome carrying both, but since he had no idea how many shots they held or how to reload them, he'd be a fool to leave a spare one behind.
Breakfast was the last piece of leftover rabbitoid from the night before, along with his stash of those odd blue fruits from the tree on the abandoned farm -- the ones he had eaten the previous day hadn't killed him, so they must be edible. While he ate, Sheppard checked his pockets for any asset he might have missed the day before. The vaguely marker-shaped object continued to puzzle him. He turned it over in his fingers, contemplating the writing on it, which meant nothing to him -- well, yes, he could read it, but it didn't explain why he had the distinct impression that this strange, deceptively simple item was important. Not in and of itself, but for the reason he carried it. It meant something to him ... or rather, it represented some vital aspect of ... what? He carried it because of someone else. Someone important to him. And there was a reason, but ... damn! Trying to figure it out just made his head hurt. He tucked the object back into a vest pocket, making a special note of where it was. He couldn't help thinking that he might need to know, one of these days.
Studying the now-empty pitcher that he'd been using to carry the fruits, Sheppard found that his mind was turning over ideas. He used his knife to cut off a piece of one of the pine-like trees' thick bark, and as he walked, he whittled on it, occasionally checking the fit against the mouth of the pitcher. The two stun guns bumped rhythmically against his hips as he set an easy pace, carving at the wood and enjoying the feeling of the sun on his hair and shoulders. He could almost forget that aliens were hunting him. Almost, but unfortunately, not quite.
By the time he'd circled around the end of the ridge to meet up once again with the stream from last night, he'd made an acceptable lid for the pitcher -- it jammed into the opening like a cork, and it didn't appear to be entirely waterproof, but at least it would enable him to carry the thing like a canteen. He drank deeply and strapped the filled "canteen" at his hip.
Straightening, he looked around him at the sunlit morning world. The open pine forest of the mountains was beginning to give way to a mixed forest where the pines shared their floor space with leafier trees. The underbrush grew more thickly here, which would make walking difficult. Since he was well off the road now and didn't relish climbing up the hill to get back to it, Sheppard decided to follow the stream. Now that the ravine had given way to more open country, it sprawled about in great loops and curves, providing plenty of open gravel bars to walk upon ... assuming he didn't mind wading every once in a while. And it seemed to take him in more-or-less the same direction that the Wraith ship had flown the previous night. Of course, he didn't have a clue if it would still be there, but he was becoming more convinced that his best and maybe his only hope of getting out of this situation would be one of those ships.
The stream's course grew steeper and Sheppard had to climb up to the top of its banks. The land was sloping down again -- this time, to the river. A movement to his left made him jump, but it turned out to be a handful of deer-like creatures with slim, twisted horns. Sunlight glimmered on their golden hides as they turned to look at him curiously and then went back to browsing on twigs.
Sheppard thought about shooting one of them, decided not to ... He didn't feel like stopping to butcher a deer, and besides, they looked so peaceful and comfortable in the sun. Just because he killed to live didn't mean that he liked to kill when he didn't have to. He wasn't a Wraith.
Speaking of Wraith, he looked up nervously at the clear, blue sky. They'd probably strike again soon. He wondered if they had figured out yet that he should be considered armed and dangerous.
His hand twitched on the stunner resting comfortably against his side.
Sunlight, ahead of him, heralded an opening in the trees. Sheppard found himself atop a steep bluff, looking out across a great expanse of floodplain and churning silver water far below him. Obviously, he'd found the river. Under his feet, the ground fell away in a steep drop-off, dotted with occasional, straggling pines, falling away to a wide gravel bar at the river's edge. He noted that clouds were beginning to gather in the sky above the mountains, and he could feel the increased heat and humidity that precedes a thunderstorm.
The familiar keening of a Wraith ship slowly entered his awareness, setting his teeth on edge. Damn. Sheppard withdrew into the trees and watched as it came into view, speeding down the river valley. As it passed by his hiding place, a blue-white beam of light played across the surface of the river and coalesced into three Wraith standing on the gravel bar. The dart continued to speed up the river's course, vanishing from sight and sound.
The Wraith all immediately turned to orient on his position. Sheppard growled under his breath, drawing back under the trees. If there had been any doubt in his mind that his guess about the transmitter was correct, this laid it to rest: they knew exactly where he was.
Being hunted was bad enough, but being treated as their toy in this manner left him speechless with fury. Apparently they had sophisticated beaming technology, and if they truly wanted to kill him immediately, they could have just beamed next to him and shot him. No ... the whole point was to play with him, to run him down. A nice hunting practice for young Wraith. The fact that the prey was now capable of shooting back probably just made it more interesting for them.
Crashing noises let him know that his pursuers were climbing the hill. Sheppard thought about just picking them off as they came over the top, but there were two problems with that. First, there were three of them and only one of him, and if they came together, the odds were good that at least one of them would get him before he could take out all three. Second, they knew he was up here. Nothing he'd seen so far indicated that Wraith were particularly capable of strategy in a fight, but he didn't want to find out the hard way when they circled around and flanked him.
Sheppard turned and ran.
Trees flashed by as he settled into a steady, mile-eating lope. Fortunately, he noted that he seemed to be in excellent physical shape. Thank goodness for small favors.
But he didn't think he could outrun a Wraith. He remembered how quickly Mickey had gotten ahead of him the previous night ... and that terrifying, inhuman strength. Wraith were stronger, faster. And there were more of them.
He needed a plan.
With startling clarity, a sudden thought sprang into his mind: What would Rodney do?
Rodney! Sudden surge of familiarity. He could almost put a face to that name. Almost. It flitted tantalizingly around the edges of his mind, as did his exact relationship to that person. Co-worker? Friend? Brother, maybe? All of those seemed to fit somehow. But most importantly: genius. Or, if not actual genius, then certainly the smartest person Sheppard knew. Rodney would be able to think of something.
Too bad Rodney wasn't here.
But if he was, what would he do?
Coming to a small clearing, Sheppard looked up at the sky. The clouds were gathering ominously now, massing in thick fleecy clumps. There was probably a fancy name for that kind of cloud, but he had no idea what it might be. Rodney would know what they're called, he thought, never mind that he had no idea who Rodney actually was. Strange, the utter confidence that he seemed to have in this person he couldn't even remember. Rodney could think his way out of any situation. Shaking Wraith off his tail would be a snap for the man.
Rain. He wondered if the rain could be used to his advantage. If they got a lot of rain, fast, it could mean flash flooding. Maybe he could find a box canyon, up in the mountains ... no, too many ifs, too many uncertainties, not enough time.
He was heading up the river, in the general direction of the town he'd seen from the mountains, although he knew that he'd have to angle away from the river in order to reach it. Go towards the town? Or stay away? He hated the thought of leading the Wraith upon unsuspecting townsfolk. On the other hand ... everything he'd seen so far left him with the impression of a dead world. There had been people living here once, but he didn't think any lived here now. He had seen no smoke, no livestock, no signs of recent cultivation in the fields.
He scrambled down into another narrow ravine, leaping over its little stream -- which hissed over the edge in a miniature waterfall -- and clambering hastily up the other side. He found himself having to cross many of these, a series of creeks cutting the river's bluff into a jagged notches. It didn't take much time to cross them, but every moment was a moment he'd lost against the Wraith.
Sheppard paused to catch his breath and take a drink, casting a glance behind him for any sign of his pursuers. He couldn't see them, but he knew they came -- maybe circling around to head him off from the front.
He looked down into the ravine he'd just crossed, at the white water shooting out over the edge. A crazy idea had occurred to him. A Rodney idea? Maybe ...
Tensing his legs, he leapt back into the ravine, splashing in the stream. The water was shockingly cold; it seemed he was doomed to spend his entire stay on this world with wet feet. Slogging hastily to the edge, he noted that the water cascaded over a crumbly rim of sand and loose stones. The ravine was very narrow here; there was no space to climb around the little creek. In fact, the only way to get over the edge was ... probably a bad idea, but it wasn't as if he had many options. Sheppard leaned out cautiously, noting that the waterfall plunged down the bluffside in a series of small hops. The first was about ten or fifteen feet, terminating in a small pool and then rushing over the edge again. Bending over, he reached his hand into the water up to the elbow. There did appear to be some space behind it.
All right. He had a plan. Now he just needed time to implement it. Like the other ravine in the mountains, this one was choked with deadfalls of various sizes, and Sheppard lugged armfuls of the smaller, more portable ones down to the mouth of the stream. He whipped off his belt and tied it around one of the larger pieces, then laid it across the stream, causing the water to flow up and over it. He dropped the belt over the edge and gently tugged on the piece of wood to make sure it wasn't wedged too tightly and would be able to come out. Confident that he could undo his dam at any time, he began working as swiftly as possible, blocking off the narrow mouth of the stream with a series of sticks and branches. He scooped up handfuls of sand and leaves to block the worst holes in the dam. Some of the water still flowed through, but most flowed over the top, creating a respectable pool about thigh-deep. Finally, he threw some handfuls of leaves and dirt over the top of the dam in a crude attempt to make it look as if it had been there all along, and stood back to view his handiwork. To his eyes, it still looked out of place, but then, he knew what the ravine was supposed to look like. Hopefully the Wraith would be too focused on finding him to pay too much attention to suspicious logjams.
A shadow moved in the corner of his vision. Sheppard jumped, spun around with dry mouth and pounding heart. There was nothing there. He flicked a glance over his shoulder as something seemed to dive at him, only to vanish when he looked straight at it.
Do not trust your eyes. The Wraith can make you see things that are not there. The woman's voice, so familiar, spoke out of the past. He could see her, backlit by fire, with people running and screaming in the background.
Sheppard shook himself out of the memory, doggedly ignored another illusion. If the Wraith were near enough to try to cloud his mind, then they were much too near. Time had run out. His plan would work or it wouldn't; there would be no more chance to make adjustments now.
Careful not to touch the dam, which was so shaky it barely seemed to be able to stand up to the pressure of the water, Sheppard braced himself against the banks and hopped over it, leaping into the next pool down. Please don't break a leg ... He landed with a tremendous splash -- so much for stealth, but then, it wasn't like he could hide from them anyway -- and immediately lost his footing, going down on his side in the icy water and very nearly spearing himself on one of the pointy stun weapons. Great, now he was wet to the skin again. But he hadn't broken anything, and he quickly scrambled out of the water and up behind the waterfall. Looking up, he could see the thin black line of his belt dancing in the flow of water, just out of his reach. He braced his back against the side of the bank, gritting his teeth as he put pressure on the half-healed injury, and edged his way up until he was right under the dam.
The splashing of the small waterfall did not quite drown out louder splashing sounds from above. He could hear sibilant Wraith voices, but not quite what they were saying. They'd surely know he was down here, that he intended to ambush them. He could only hope that they didn't realize the exact nature of the trap until it was too late.
Moving slowly, he unslung his backup stun weapon and wedged it against the bank, then brought the other one down to the ready position, cradling it against his shoulder. With his other hand, he reached up and took hold of the belt.
Something dark moved against the sky. A Wraith, climbing over the dam as Sheppard himself had done. No doubt it meant to jump down into the pool, also as he had done. But he intended to take that choice out of its scaly hands.
Sheppard yanked on his belt as hard as he could. For an instant, he didn't think it was going to go, but the pressure of the water behind the dam helped him, and the sticks came loose in a cascade of pent-up water. When it did start to move, it moved much faster than he expected, nearly jerking him out of his hiding place; he let go of the belt just in time.
A deluge of sticks, water and Wraith hit the pool. As the water began to settle, Sheppard saw, through the thin sheen of the waterfall, not just one but two Wraith struggling to their feet in the water. Oh, perfect! The sudden, rapid movement of the stream when the dam gave way must have caused one of the Wraith standing in the water to lose its footing and collide with the climber. He hadn't dared hope that he'd get all three, but two was better than one. Sheppard shot them both in rapid succession before they could get their bearings, shot them again to make sure. On his last shot, the stun beam flared a sickly yellow, and then pressing the trigger did nothing. Sheppard cursed softly and threw the weapon aside, grabbing for his backup stunner.
Then he let out a yell as something seized his ankle and pulled. The third Wraith! He'd been expecting it to come from the top, but instead, it had circled around -- must have already been circling, in fact, while the others came down from the top. Damn it, they were getting savvier! The yank caused him to lose his balance and he tumbled out from behind the waterfall, right on top of a rather startled Wraith.
The two of them rolled down the hill, bouncing off trees and rocks with bruising impacts, flailing at each other. Sheppard lost his stunner, but he got a good grip on the Wraith's long hair and bashed its face into a rock. It managed to land a solid blow on his leg that hurt like hell. They splashed into the pool next to the two stunned Wraith, falling away from each other. Sheppard scrambled wildly backwards, felt cold wet leather and buckles under him -- he was kneeling on top of a Wraith. Damn it, where was its stunner? The only saving grace was that his attacker had dropped its own stunner in the fall, or he'd already be dead. But the surviving Wraith was now on its feet and it lunged at him. Sheppard dodged its first attack and came up swinging with a thick branch from the logjam, striking his attacker a glancing blow on the shoulder. The Wraith sneered and closed its hand over his makeshift weapon, trapping it.
Sheppard grinned savagely. "Stupid," he said, and lunged forward, using the stick like a jousting lance to shove the startled Wraith over the edge. It fell about twenty feet into another pool and got to its feet, but by that time he'd picked up a stunner and shot it repeatedly in the head. It slumped bonelessly into the water.
The other two stunned Wraith had fallen facedown in the pool. Sheppard cut their throats to make sure -- he was, he thought numbly, getting much too accustomed to this. He searched through the wreckage of the logjam for his belt, but was unable to find it, so he hacked off one of the Wraiths' buckled straps and made a belt out of it. Considering that his belt had just saved his life, he wasn't about to wander around in the woods without one!
The stunner now in his hands, which had been sticking up out of the logjam, was the only one he could find that still worked. His backup stunner had broken in the fall; he shook it and heard little rattling sounds, took a test shot and got nothing. The others had apparently gone over the edge. Climbing down to finish off the Wraith in the lower pool, he kept an eye out for them, but saw nothing. Well, he had one, and he'd probably have an opportunity to pick up another one before too long.
Sheppard sighed wearily as he clambered back up the bank. It was already afternoon; he was tired, bruised, soaked and hungry. He'd won another round, but how many times could he keep doing this? He had to get off this world, and for that he needed to get his hands on one of the ships, but he wasn't sure how to do it. Now that he'd seen how the Wraith beamed down, he felt it unlikely that they would land much at all, let alone leave the ships unattended for any period of time.
Meanwhile, more were surely on the way.
Rather than taking the time to hunt, he peeled one of his two powerbars and ate it as he hiked away from the bluff, cutting through the woods in the general direction where he thought the town should be.
He began to see more signs of human habitation as he walked -- a stone tower here, like a guard tower from the middle ages; a field there, overgrown and disused. The clouds rolled across the sun, leaving the world around him cool and gray.
And, there it came, the sound he'd been dreading, the sound he'd been expecting -- the whine of a Wraith dart. At the moment, Sheppard was walking through an open field. "Shit!" He looked around, sprinted for the opening of a nearby barn. The first drops of rain struck his head as he ran. He ducked through the doorway, and looked back to see two darts whiz past at treetop level. They banked and circled his position, as if to say, We know you're there. A white beam of light stabbed at the field, and two Wraith materialized, along with a gray curtain of rain as the heavens opened and the downpour began.
Sheppard promptly stunned them both from the doorway of the barn. They fell, twitching, as the darts continued to circle. Sheppard eyed them, wondering what they were going to try now.
He got his answer when one of the darts opened fire on him. The side of the barn dissolved in an explosion of flame. "Shit!" Sheppard screamed again, and made a break for the back of the building, just in time to see the place where he'd been standing erupt into an inferno.
The back of the barn had a smaller door, hanging half-ajar on loose hinges. The rain was now falling so hard he couldn't see the darts, although he could still hear them whining, mosquito-like, above him. Behind him, he could hear the downpour hissing as it extinguished the fire in the barn.
Apparently they were starting to take him seriously. He wasn't sure whether to be flattered, annoyed -- or scared out of his wits.
The underbrush grew thickly behind the barn. Using it for cover, Sheppard darted into the woods and began to jog, as the rain flattened his hair to his forehead and dripped into his eyes.
Between the rain and the canopy of trees, he couldn't see the darts, but he could tell from the sound that they were still pacing him. A pine tree off to his left went up in a gout of flame as they tried shooting at him again. Sheppard added some zig-zags to his jogging. Nothing more happened, and after a while, he realized that he could no longer hear the sound of the darts. He had little hope that they'd give up, however. Possibly they'd gone off to regroup and plan, or maybe to wait out the bad weather -- he could only imagine that it made flying more difficult.
His jog slowed to a trot, and he plowed forward doggedly through the rainy woods. He skirted more fields and a narrow road that farmers might have used to bring their crops to market. There were no signs of human beings, however, and he was more convinced than ever that this world's population had been culled, especially after he began passing the burned-out shells of houses now and again.
He topped a small rise and looked down from a stand of pines onto the town itself. It wasn't much of a town, really more of a village -- some clusters of one- and two-story houses along narrow, crooked streets, all grouped around a central market square. Like everywhere else that people had once lived on this world, it was cold and empty with no signs of movement. But he might be able to find food there, dry clothing, even weapons.
Using trees and then buildings for cover, Sheppard worked his way down from the hill, into the outskirts of the town. The wind was gusting now, sweeping curtains of rain across the buildings. He could see why the darts might have chosen not to fly in this weather.
The town had all the signs of having been abandoned in a hurry, some time ago. He detoured around a cart, tipped over in the street, its cargo of hay rotting in the rain and sending up small green shoots. The doors of most of the houses stood open, and household items were scattered in front of some of them, as if people had fled with armloads of supplies and then dropped them. Some of the buildings had been burned, their cold black timbers stretching up towards the gray sky like clawing fingers.
Sheppard sniffed the air, smelled none of the signs of recent habitation -- smoke, manure, cooking food. All he could smell was the fresh scent of the rain and fainter, less pleasant smells of mud and decay.
His instincts, however, told him that the town was not entirely empty. He wasn't sure exactly how to attribute that feeling, because he couldn't put his finger on anything specific. Once, when he stopped moving to listen, he thought he could hear footsteps splashing in a muddy street somewhere else in town, which stopped as soon as he tried to hear them. Another time, he could have sworn he caught a snatch of voices. And there was a pervasive feeling of being watched.
Sheppard had already learned enough about himself to know that he wasn't a man given to superstitious flights of fancy. Still, sneaking around a ghost town on an apparently dead world, with a very real sense of pursuit creeping up his spine, made him nervous.
He selected a building at random, a nice two-story affair, and nudged gently on the half-open door. The creak of the rusted hinges sounded alarmingly loud, when the only other sounds were the hissing of the rain and Sheppard's own quiet breathing. He looked quickly around the interior of the building, saw that the first story was taken up with one large room. It had been a nice place once, though simple and homely, but now its wooden furnishings and braided rugs were sadly damaged from weather and animals. It appeared that the town had been abandoned months ago, or longer.
Sheppard entered silently, casting his gaze around the room. He noticed that cupboards were open and items had been strewn across the table -- dishes, clothing, food items so rotted that he couldn't identify them. The musty-sweet smell of decay was stronger here and came mainly from the spoiled food; Sheppard wrinkled his nose. A family desperately trying to pack as disaster came down upon them? Looters ransacking houses after the Wraith had left? He supposed it didn't much matter. The people were gone, not coming back.
Although the house was no warmer than the street, it was a relief to be out of the rain. He freed one hand from the gun long enough to run it over his face, wiping away the water and dragging back his wet, flopped-over hair. Then he climbed the stairs to the second story. Once again, there was one large room with a row of beds lined up along the wall, molding blankets strewn about in disarray. An occasional personal item littered the floor: a mirror, a child's doll. Sheppard felt out of place, an intruder in a defiled sanctuary. He crossed to the room's one large window and looked down into the muddy street below, just in time to see a Wraith turn the corner and come marching with determination through the mud, straight towards his hiding place.
Oh, for...! Was a little rest too much to ask for? Sheppard backed away from the window, turned and darted for the stairs. He remembered seeing a back door when he was downstairs. It opened onto a small courtyard with an overgrown garden going to seed. Sheppard noticed that some of the bushes bore fruit, and quietly cursed the Wraith for chasing him away before he had a chance to pick anything. The powerbar hadn't lasted long, what with all the energy he'd been expending, and he was hungry again. He jumped and seized the top of the small wall around the courtyard, leapt down into an alley and jogged over to the next street.
So the Wraith were back to hunting him on foot. Given that they could track him, he didn't have a prayer of hiding for long, but the mazelike town should work to his advantage. Sheppard trotted down the street, peeking into each house as he passed it, seeing nothing of use to him. Most of the woven items -- clothing and blankets -- were too damaged to be much good, and all the food was long since spoiled. He saw no signs of guns, radios or anything else above a basic agrarian level of technological development.
When he came to another house with a garden, he took the time to stop and investigate. It had several different kinds of fruit-bearing trees, and he picked a few that looked, and tasted, very much like small Earth apples. Dammit, now he needed something to carry them in. He ducked into the adjoining house and tore down a ragged, rotting curtain from a window to use for a makeshift sack.
The scream, when it came, shocked him. It was high-pitched and terrified, a child's scream. It came from very nearby.
Sheppard dropped the curtain and broke into a run, the stunner held in front of him -- not away from the sound, but towards it. He dashed out into the street, splashing through puddles. There was another scream and this time he pinpointed it as having come from a small courtyard between two houses to his right.
Stopping in the doorway to the courtyard, Sheppard saw the source of the cry: a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old. The child wore ragged clothes, her wet hair plastered to her head, and she was clutching some sort of household item -- a flat dish, or something -- to her thin chest with both arms. She was backed up against the wall, with a Wraith advancing on her.
The Wraith started to turn at Sheppard's presence, but he shot first and left it twitching in the mud as he jogged over to the child.
"Hey! Kid? Are you okay?"
He put his hands on her shoulders and she nodded, her eyes huge and staring, arms clamped firmly over the object that she held.
"Great. Let's get out of here. No, leave that, you don't need it." She wouldn't drop whatever she was holding, and it was hampering her ability to run as he half-led, half-dragged her across the courtyard.
The girl spoke for the first time. "No, I do need it, he asked for it, we need to make ..." She trailed off and finally dropped the thing, leaving it in the mud as another Wraith appeared in the mouth of the courtyard. Sheppard shot that one too, and leaped over it, pulling her with him. The Wraith had either been deliberately keeping their distance from him, or the buildings in town were messing with their ability to pinpoint him, but the kid's scream must have drawn them like jackals to fresh roadkill.
He didn't know what to do with the kid. He couldn't keep her with him for any prolonged period, not with every Wraith on the planet hunting him, but he couldn't leave her here for the Wraith to find. Were there other people here? he wondered. Was his presence endangering them, too?
The street down which they were fleeing was suddenly blocked by a Wraith stepping out from one of the buildings. Skidding to a halt, Sheppard nearly fell in the mud, and looked behind him to see yet another of the damn things closing on him from behind. He fired, taking one down, but there was an ugly yellow tinge to the stun beam. Oh damn, damn, damn ... He threw himself down, shielding the little girl as a blue bolt crackled past his head. Rising to his knees, he brought up the stunner and fired at the remaining Wraith, but as he'd feared, nothing happened. Whatever powered it had finally run out.
Giving the girl a shove, Sheppard yelled, "Run!"
She stumbled towards one of the buildings, then stopped, looking back at him. Damn it, he didn't have time to worry about her too! He gauged the distance from himself to the nearest stunned Wraith and its weapon, then looked at the one advancing on him. No way he could make it. The instant he got up to move, it would be on him.
But the alternative was to just lie in the mud and wait for it to kill him. Which was exactly what the little girl was doing at the moment. Damn it, why wouldn't she run? "Get out of here!" he shouted at her, and was gratified to see her break from her paralysis, turning and fleeing out of sight. Attracted by the motion, the Wraith turned in her direction, and in its moment of distraction, Sheppard bolted to his feet and made a dash for it.
He wasn't nearly fast enough. A powerful blow landed across his shoulders, right on the healing wound on his back, driving him forward into the mud. Gasping with pain, Sheppard rolled over and tried to push himself upright. The Wraith loomed over him in the rain.
It raised its stunner and, as Sheppard tried to roll out of the way, it spun the weapon around and brought its pointed tip down viciously, skewering him through the leg. Despite himself, he screamed at the white-hot bolt of agony that flashed through his body. Pinned like an insect to the filth of the street, Sheppard lay flat on his back, gasping in pain and hate.
So. This was how it was going to end.
The Wraith struck him across the face. He tried to dodge, but succeeded only in wrenching his injured leg, nearly passing out from the pain. Then the leather-clad fist connected with his jaw and he saw stars. Another blow cracked his head back against mud-covered cobblestones, but by this time he'd passed beyond pain into a hazy kind of fury. Lying flat on his back, unable to move, he felt his shirt torn open over his chest. That galvanized him into motion; he brought his arm up, clutched at the hard wrist as it brought its hand down. While he wasn't sure exactly what it was going to do to him, he knew that it was bad, very bad. "No, damn you --!" Somehow he kept his grip through another blow to the face, and another, aware that he was being beaten into unconsciousness, aware that he'd reached the end of the road, but even so, refusing to let go if it bought him another few seconds of life.
Wow, I really am a stubborn bastard, aren't I?
The Wraith wrenched its hand free of his grasp, batting his arm back to the ground. In slow motion, he saw it reaching towards his chest, and tried to bring up his arm to protect himself, but couldn't seem to move. Everything was going still.
And then ... then ...
There was a scream -- a hoarse scream of pure rage. And someone or something barrelled into the Wraith, knocking it into the mud. The child? No, not a child's cry .... Sheppard would have loved to see what happened next, but rolling over to follow the movement of the Wraith and his unexpected savior yanked at the stunner pinning his leg, grinding against bone, and the world flared into red and then black.
Chapter Ten: Taking Risks
Don't never take a chance you don't have to.
Standing orders for Roger's Rangers (1759), as quoted in the Army Ranger Handbook
The definition of true desperation is teaching a bunch of ten-year-olds to manufacture gunpowder. Rodney spent much of the afternoon in mortal terror of being responsible for half-a-dozen fifth-graders blowing their limbs off. Before too long, though, he realized that he was actually impressed. Damn, if only his team of adult scientists took directions half as well as these kids! Having survived on their own in the wilderness for months, they were quiet, serious and cautious, listening to his directions and remembering after being told only once.
He started off by sending most of them to collect ingredients: some went to the caves for guano while others collected sulfur, and still others, following his instructions, built small fires to roast dry sticks for charcoal. Rodney himself, with Tekka and Jagan's help, scrounged equipment from the kids' hideaway. He found a few mortar-and-pestle sets which, according to Tekka, were used for grinding seeds, and had the kids look for flat rocks which could be used to improvise more.
Wraith darts were out and about in the warm afternoon sunshine, and several times, Rodney had to duck under the trees to hide from them. They showed no awareness of his presence, so presumably his makeshift signal blocker was working just fine. However, if the darts were flying around, then presumably Wraith were wandering on the ground as well. No doubt about it ... they were looking for him, and he did not intend to make it easy for them.
He had the kids establish several different gunpowder manufacturing bases. That way, if they did have to run and abandon one or two locations because of Wraith -- or accidentally blow one up, though he didn't mention that to the kids -- they'd still have the rest of it. The main center of charcoal production was next to the hot springs, because the steam from the springs helped disguise the smoke so that they could build larger fires. At other spots in the woods and along the river, he had the kids refining and mixing ingredients. He wished he could remember the exact procedure for gunpowder manufacture, but he knew the basic proportions of the ingredients -- there were definite advantages to having a near-photographic memory, especially when stuck on an alien world with no textbooks -- and beyond that, it was just first-year chemistry.
He ordered the kids around like a tyrant and they hopped to do what they were told. As the afternoon wore on, there were only a few times that he caused some particularly sensitive child to dissolve into tears, which represented a new high in his dealings with children to date. He'd never met kids who were so unbothered by his usual verbal abuse ... probably came of being orphans and all. It was like having his own personal munchkin army.
Look what followed me through the gate, Elizabeth -- can I keep them?
Actually ... just what exactly did he plan to do with the kids back on Atlantis? They could move to the Atlantean mainland with the Athosians, he supposed. Looking over at Jagan and Tekka carefully measuring ingredients, he wondered if he could keep a couple of the brighter ones as lab assistants. Did child labor laws apply to the Pegasus Galaxy?
The suns dropped gradually towards the horizon, in a sky filled with gathering clouds. Rodney hustled from one gunpowder-manufacturing station to the next, instructing the kids and trying to keep them from blowing themselves to smithereens. Of course, the latter result wasn't terribly likely at this stage -- the stuff was about as volatile as wet paper -- but later, when they started drying and grinding it, was when things would really get interesting.
And what then? At times, Rodney would love to have the sort of mind that didn't let himself think beyond the next step -- a Sheppardian mind -- but he just wasn't blessed or cursed that way. He needed to have the future planned in excruciating detail. And the thought crossed his mind, as he jogged up the river checking on the different groups of kids, to wonder why he was going to all this trouble. All right, so he was building Wraith-fighting weaponry ... to what end? With the tracker out of commission, he really didn't have to fight Wraith at all. He could hide on this planet indefinitely, until the Wraith left, and ...
Yeah, and then what? He'd seen no sign of a Stargate so far. For all he knew, it could be on the other side of the world, or maybe this planet didn't even have a functional one -- the Wraith could easily have dropped him off from a hiveship. He really wasn't cut out for the whole roots-and-berries thing, especially when his only company was the cast of Lord of the Flies.
And there was also the small matter of finding Sheppard, who would still have a functional transmitter and therefore no way of hiding from the Wraith. And surely the Wraith wouldn't leave the planet while the Colonel was still alive and free.
Assuming he was alive at all.
"Gaaaahhhh!" Rodney picked up a rock and hurtled it into the whitewater on the river. He was so damn tired of worrying about Sheppard, bouncing back and forth from He's dead and there's nothing you can do to He's fine and can take care of himself to You'd better find him before you leave this planet, McKay. The uncertainty was the worst part. If he just knew that Sheppard was okay, or conversely, that he was dead, then he could make plans accordingly. But not knowing drove him crazy. He didn't know whether to grieve or hope, whether he should be trying to rescue his teammate or reserving his brainpower for rescuing himself.
How in the world could he find one man in the mountains ... without alerting the Wraith, and without even knowing if Sheppard was on this planet at all?
Look for the explosions. That's how you find John Sheppard, McKay, you know that. Just follow the sound of gunfire; it'll lead you right to him.
And he'd seen an explosion last night. That was his hope, right now, the lifeline he clung to. He'd build weapons, and he'd find Sheppard or Sheppard would find him, and together they'd steal a dart and Sheppard could fly it back through the Stargate ... wherever this planet's Stargate was.
A tiny voice inside him pounded relentlessly at his brain, telling him that Sheppard was dead and soon he would be too. Sighing, Rodney looked up at the sky, noticing that the clouds were now hiding the tops of the mountains, covering the lowering suns. The air remained warm and oppressive, but a cooler breeze ruffled his hair.
He might not know much about weather, but he could tell they were going to have some rain. "As if anything else could go wrong," Rodney growled, resuming his march up the riverbank. This would force them to either suspend their gunpowder production or move it underground, thus making the whole process more difficult and dangerous. Rain might help cut down on the Wraith patrols; it was the only benefit he could see.
The first drops struck his head and shoulders as he reached the next cluster of kids on the riverbank. He opened his mouth to tell them to move it inside -- but paused, looking at the small dirty faces tilted up at him. They were tired and probably hungry; they'd been at it all afternoon, and maybe this would be a good time for a break. "Let's call it quits for the day," he said, and as the kids scrambled up eagerly and prepared to run off into the woods, he barked: "Wait!" They halted, looking back at him in surprise. Rodney waved a hand at the unattended fire, the half-finished piles of sulfur they'd been grinding. "You just going to leave this here to get all wet and possibly be discovered by Wraith? Come on! Let's get it inside! We're leaving no traces -- anything you can't carry goes in the river or gets buried! Chop chop!"
He dispatched a couple of kids as runners to the other manufacturing stations, and after overseeing the breakdown of their little camp, he went himself to the hot springs to tell Tekka and Jagan to pack up. The rain was pouring down in earnest by the time that the three of them entered the caves, laden with bags of charcoal and sulfur. The air in the main cavern smelled like wet puppy dog, which Rodney presumed to be the smell of wet kid. The kids seemed to be having fun, though -- most of them were stripped partially naked and they chattered happily with each other.
Rodney flopped down squishily on a boulder and one of the kids passed him lunch, or dinner, or whatever meal it was. Unleavened bread and cold roasted mystery meat never tasted so good. He did spare a glance to try to figure out where the kids were storing the food, since food poisoning was the last thing he needed right now, and saw that they were, in fact, using the stream -- they had some small crates, covered with oiled cloth, lowered into the water, which seemed to function as a primitive refrigerator. Probably unsanitary as all hell, but still ... in the absence of electricity, not a bad solution, he mused.
After eating, most of the kids curled up in their blankets and slept. Rodney stripped to the waist and laid out as many as possible of his sodden things beside their fire, before spreading out the meager fruits of their afternoon to assess their progress. They were still a long way from actual gunpowder. They had guano, and they'd collected a good amount of sulfur, but they were still going to need a lot more charcoal. And they only had a few of the mortar-and-pestles; this would go much faster if they had a few more.
Rodney tapped his fingers impatiently on his leg. "Hey, Jagan," he called. One of the piles of blankets stirred and the kid's tousled head popped out. "Your village, is it far from here?"
The kid shrugged. "Not too far. We can go most of the way underground."
"We go back sometimes to get stuff," Tekka put in, listening to the conversation with her arms folded under her chin.
Rodney held up the mortar and pestle in his hands. "You guys think there would be more of these?"
Jagan just snorted as if it was a stupid question. Tekka said, "Everyone in the village would have had one, at least."
"Great! You guys up for a little walk in the rain?"
He expected reluctance, but the kids hopped up eagerly, and a couple of the others even volunteered to accompany them. As Rodney dressed in his clammy, smoke-smelling clothes, he marveled at their resilience and energy. Of course he'd never tell them so.
With Rodney's flashlight lighting their way, the little party set out down a new tunnel. This one was narrow and twisty, and they often had to climb over rockfalls. It sloped generally downward. After a time, the tunnel grew wider and more even, and they began to pass numerous side tunnels branching off into darkness. They also passed obvious signs of primitive mining -- handcarts, abandoned picks and shovels, timbers shoring up collapsed sections of tunnel.
"This is the old iron mine," Tekka told Rodney, sliding her damp little hand into his. He was getting used to this sort of thing, apparently; he hardly experienced any revulsion at all. "We'll be there soon."
The tunnel ended in a large opening reinforced with timbers on all sides. Outside, trees glistened in a steady downpour of rain. It was difficult to tell the time of day from the flat gray light, but Rodney thought it must be nearly evening. A cool wind, smelling of rain and growing things, blew into the cave.
He wondered if they could just forget about it, go back to the cavern and sleep. He couldn't believe how much he wanted to just stop moving. Every part of his body ached. But ... no ... they needed to get supplies, so they could start making gunpowder bright and early in the morning. With the kids on either side of him, he looked both ways for Wraith and stepped out into waist-high, soggy bushes.
Rodney had thought he'd been wet in his life before, but he soon learned the true meaning of wet. Between the steadily falling rain, and the water on all the vegetation, he may as well have been standing in a swimming pool for all the good his clothes seemed to do him. He knew that the Ancient scanners were waterproof, and had in fact been tested numerous times in the labs under various simulated field conditions -- underwater, in high radiation levels, after being dropped or stepped on -- and had passed all the tests. However, with the scanner as the sole thing standing between him and Wraith attack, it was difficult not to worry about it.
They soon reached a narrow, muddy road, and followed it through rolling hills covered with fields. The rain hung a gray curtain across the world; Rodney could barely see across the road in some places. In a way it was good, since it would make them difficult to see. But he hated the thought of a Wraith coming up out of the fog. Twice he thought he heard Wraith darts whining on the edge of hearing, and crouched down with the kids until he was sure the sound had faded away.
They crossed a wooden footbridge over a racing stream and entered the town itself. If the fields had been creepy in the rain and fog, the town was ten times worse, with silent buildings hemming them in and dark windows gaping at them from all sides.
Most of the houses -- those still standing from the culling -- were one and two-story affairs, some with little courtyards and others facing directly onto the street. Rodney could see the signs of the kids' scavenging -- doors ajar, dishes and clothing scattered in front of some of the buildings. Little slobs, the lot of them.
Speaking of the little slobs, they were scattering into the rain-washed streets, vanishing like ghosts among the houses. "Hey ...!" Rodney called after them.
Tekka turned to look back. "We know where to go. We will find your grinding tools for you and come back!" Her face was alight with the worshipful gaze that he was really starting to dread. Turning around, she disappeared into the rain.
"Great," Rodney muttered. He was alone in the rain. Well, the kids knew what he needed and it probably would be faster to let them search the houses, since they knew where everything was. Besides, he'd thought of something else he could check on. If the town had a blacksmith, and surely it did, maybe the abandoned smithy would have a ready supply of charcoal so they wouldn't have to spend too much time producing their own. "Jagan!" he called; the boy was the only child still in sight.
Jagan turned back reluctantly. "Yeah?"
"Is there a forge around here someplace? You know, a blacksmith's shop?"
"Sure. Old man Smith's place. C'mon, I'll show you."
They trotted down the crooked streets, their feet splashing in the mud. Rodney promised himself a nice long nap beside a roaring fire when they got back to the kids' hideout. Besides the physical discomfort, though, this place was just eerie. The only sounds were the hissing of the rain and the splashing of his feet, and --
Rodney froze. Jagan kept splashing for several steps more, then stopped and looked back when he noticed the adult was no longer following him. "'s matter?"
"Shhh!" Rodney held up his hand, cocked his head to one side. He had thought he heard footsteps, but he must be hearing the other kids elsewhere in town, or maybe his own overactive imagination. There were a lot of little dripping, splashing sounds -- rain sluicing down from rooftops, swirling in gutters.
Still, the dark windows of the houses seemed to watch him like blank eyes. And he'd thought he'd heard Wraith darts earlier ...
He wanted to get out of here.
"It's right around the corner -- Whoa," Jagan said from up ahead, and Rodney's heart jumped into his throat.
The kid was bent over, looking down at the muddy street. Rodney jogged up to him, his heart beating so hard he felt sure any Wraith within five streets over would be able to hear it. "What? What?"
"Tracks," Jagan said succinctly, pointing at the muddy ground.
To Rodney, one bit of mud looked just like another, but the kid had been surviving in the wilderness for months and he was inclined to trust him. "Tracks of what?" His voice hadn't just broken from panic -- it was ... the cold, yeah, just the cold getting into his throat.
"I don't know." Hands on knees, the kid stared down at the mud around his feet. "Too big to be one of us kids. Fresh."
"How fresh?" This time his voice did break, and there was no denying it.
"I don't know ..." Jagan trailed off, raised his head. They had both heard splashing, nearby, getting louder. Coming their way.
Rodney looked around wildly and made a dash for the nearest doorway with Jagan right behind him. The room inside was cramped and dark. Jagan started to push the door shut, froze when the hinges let out a scraping sound. Rodney smacked his hand away from it and the kid glared at him. They both retreated from the half-open door.
Splash. Splash. Splash. Rodney knew what he would see, but it still didn't stop the flood of stomach-clenching terror when the Wraith came into view through the sliver of open doorway. He froze in place, unable to move, unable to breath. The Wraith, apparently intent on something else, stomped right past the doorway with a determined air. It didn't so much as glance their way.
The splashing faded into the distance. Rodney looked down at Jagan and saw his own terror reflected on the boy's white face.
"Tekka," the boy whispered. "She's--"
Rodney seized him by the collar as he started to dash for the door. "You run out there right now and you'll die," he hissed. His stomach twisted at the thought of Tekka's small face, upturned in terror as the Wraith's feeding hand descended towards her -- but, he reminded himself, all of the kids had survived on their own for months. Surely they would be alert, able to take cover ... "You can't help her if you die," he told the boy in a harsh whisper. "She's smart. She'll hide. Wait until that thing leaves and then we'll find her."
Jagan twisted free, glaring up at him. "The Wraith haven't come around in months, until the last few days," he challenged. "They're looking for you! If anything happens to her, it'll be your fault!"
Well ... it was true, and Rodney's insides shriveled with guilt. "It's not like I planned it this way!" he snapped defensively, then, with a nervous glance at the door, lowered his voice. "Look, let's just wait 'till it's moved on, and then find the others and get the hell out of here, okay?"
Jagan crept towards the door and peered out into the rain. "I can't see it."
"Just wait. Give it a minute." Rodney felt like a total coward, knowing that the Wraith could even now be attacking the kids, but he also knew, more rationally, that running headlong into the street and getting its attention would only result in both their deaths. The only way that they could help Tekka and the others was by staying alive long enough to find them.
"You stay here. I'm not waiting any longer." The boy stormed out into the street.
"Wait!" Rodney hissed ineffectually after him, then, reluctantly, scuttled out into the rain on his heels.
The Wraith had vanished as if it had never been. Looking both ways, Jagan began a purposeful trot deeper into the town. Rodney caught up to him, while trying to turn his head every way at once. Each splashing of roof runoff or gutter drippings now took on a new, sinister quality. "Where are you going?" he demanded in a harsh whisper. "She could be anywhere!"
"I know," Jagan retorted softly. "But she's probably gone to our aunt and uncle's house. We used to spend winters with them sometimes, before ... Well, when we come back to town for supplies, she always goes there first."
Two of the other kids came running out of one of the houses to join them -- a scared-looking blond boy and the tomboyish girl. "I saw a Wraith --" the girl gasped.
"Two Wraith!" the boy put in.
Rodney groaned in despair.
Jagan's small fists clenched. "Have either of you seen Tekka?"
The boy shook his head. The girl said, "I think she went to your uncle's house --"
She broke off, and Rodney's stomach turned to ice, at the sound of a piercing scream.
"Tekka!" This time, Rodney wasn't fast enough to catch Jagan as the boy took off like a shot, straight towards the sound.
"Damn it. Damn it!" Rodney jogged after him. "Jagan! We have no weapons! What do you think you're going to do?"
"I won't let a Wraith take my sister!" the boy snarled, casting a look back over his shoulder. "I'll die first!"
"Yeah, that's exactly what you're going to do!" The little brat was fast; huffing and panting, it was all Rodney could do to keep up. "You little idiot, these things are hard enough to kill with guns! You don't even have so much as a knife! What are you going to do, beat it to death with your fists?"
"If that's what it takes!"
What did it take to talk sense into people? Why was he doomed to be surrounded by hero-wannabes who insisted on throwing their lives away for no reason? For that matter, why was he running after one of them when he knew full well that --
Jagan skidded to a halt in the mud and Rodney very nearly ran into him, as a wet, sobbing figure came sliding out of a side street and collided with the boy. It was Tekka, and she looked awful -- sodden, wretched, covered with mud. Acting on protective instincts he hadn't even realized he possessed, Rodney bent over and quickly felt down her arms and legs as she clung to her brother, prodding at her chest to make sure nothing had fed on her. "Tekka? Hey, kid?" He shook her, trying to get some sense back into her. "Hey! What happened? Wraith?"
The child nodded, tears and rain mixing on her face, etching tracks in the mud. "They were -- I was -- I-- I got a mortar and pestle for you, Rodney, but I had to leave it, I had to run ..."
"Don't worry about that." He stood up, only to have her latch onto his hand. "Come on, let's get out of -- hey!"
She was moving, all right, but in the wrong direction, attempting to drag him down the street the way she'd just come. "Hey! Kid! What the heck is wrong with you? The Wraith are that way!"
"We have to go back!" Tekka wailed, standing her ground and obstinately pulling on his arm. "You have to help!"
"Help what?" Rodney demanded, fear mingling with exasperation. "The Wraith?"
"No, no! You have to help him!"
Great, just great. One of the other kids ...? "Who, dammit?"
"The man who helped me." She clung to his hand and looked up at him with fear -- but not fear for herself. "The Wraith, it hurt him -- it's going to kill him. Please, Rodney, help him!"
"An adult man?" Rodney asked her, his breath catching in his throat. So far as he knew, there was only one other adult on this planet beside himself.
The girl nodded vigorously, her wet hair flying around her small, solemn face.
I have no weapons. It's probably not Sheppard. It's some stranger from this world, to whom I owe nothing, who's about to get killed and it isn't my PROBLEM, dammit. And even if it is Sheppard, this isn't fair, he's the fighter, he's the hero, and he's supposed to show up and kill the Wraith and save ME -- it isn't supposed to work out like this at all ...
Rodney's lips moved to the silent tune of his nonstop littany of excuses, and all the while he allowed himself to be dragged by an insistent Tekka, into an alley and out into another street.
Wind and rain slapped him in the face, and, half-blind, he nearly tripped on what turned out to the body of a Wraith lying in the street. Rodney staggered backwards against the side of the nearest building, and looking up, he saw what he'd been hoping for days to see -- but not exactly under these circumstances.
Sheppard. Or someone who looked remarkably like him ...
... flat on his back and being attacked by a Wraith.
It wasn't Sheppard. It couldn't be. Even Sheppard wasn't dumb enough to get himself pinned down by a Wraith like that. The man on the ground was soaking wet, covered with mud -- it had to be someone else, someone who just happened to be wearing something that vaguely resembled an Atlantis military uniform ... someone who was currently getting himself beaten senseless by a Wraith bent on killing him ...
The Wraith brought down its feeding hand in a swift movement. Snarling half-coherent insults, the man who so obviously wasn't Sheppard caught it by the wrist, held it off even as it battered him with its other fist, snapping his head repeatedly back against the street with inhumanly strong blows. And still he didn't let go.
It had to be Sheppard. Nobody was that stupidly determined, especially in the face of certain death.
The Wraith broke Sheppard's grip, lowered its feeding hand towards his chest -- and a red haze of fury descended across Rodney's world.
He didn't consciously think, I suppose I'll attack a Wraith bare-handed now. Yeah, that seems like a good idea. He didn't remember launching himself from the wall, didn't remember running towards the Wraith like a man possessed. He hit it going full tilt and they both plowed into the mud.
On his hands and knees, Rodney raised his head to see that the Wraith, as it picked itself up, actually had a discernable expression on its face: surprise, mostly. It obviously had not been expecting this. Rain slicked down its white hair to its misshapen skull as it cocked its head to one side like an ugly, oversized dog. Then it grinned, drawing its thin lips back from crooked, discolored teeth.
"Oh hello," Rodney babbled. "It seems like we're having a little misunderstanding, but I'm sure we can resolve it like sensible men -- people -- beings -- things, and as such, I think we can -- in the interests of interspecies cooperation -- what the hell am I saying anyway --"
The Wraith struck him across the face. It was like being hit by a truck; the blow snapped him around and sent him skidding through the mud, arms and legs flailing. Good grief ... back on that desert planet, a year ago, how had Sheppard managed to keep getting up after being hit like that? Rodney's ears were ringing and he tried to scramble upright as the Wraith got to its feet, laughing in a harsh voice.
Mud splattered suddenly across the Wraith's water-slick leather armor.
"Leave him alone!" came Tekka's high-pitched voice, and Rodney swung his head around, dazed, to see the girl and her brother both scooping up handfuls of mud and hurtling them at the Wraith.
Crazy ... idiot ... kids!
As the children shrieked at the Wraith, it swung its head back and forth, uncertain which target to attack first. Rodney scuttled backwards, crablike, through the mud, until he fetched up against something hard and bony. Looking down, he made a tiny eep to discover that it was the body of the dead Wraith that he'd tripped over earlier.
No. Not dead. He saw its chest move, and recoiled again. It was only unconscious -- now, wait a minute ...
And next to its open hand was another stunner ... the one it had been carrying.
Rodney fumbled for the stunner. It was wet and slick; he very nearly dropped it in his panic and haste. Getting his feet under him, he staggered upright.
The Wraith turned to look in his direction. Its eyes widened, as Rodney fired.
He missed it utterly. He wasn't a great shot under the best conditions; firing an unfamiliar weapon in the pouring rain was hardly likely to bring out the marksman in him. The blue-white beam whined harmlessly past its head. As the Wraith started to laugh, Rodney, furious, shot again and tagged it in the arm.
It stopped laughing and leaped towards him with hideous speed. When Wraith stopped playing with their prey and got serious, they could move so fast they could barely be seen. The only thing that saved Rodney was the fact that it moved straight towards him without dodging, which meant that his next wild shot scored straight in its face. He kept shooting, more out of terror than anything else, and the Wraith went down twitching at his feet.
Rodney's arm dropped, the stunner pointing at the street. He just stared down at the Wraith lying in the mud, so near he could have touched it. A sudden twitch from the Wraith made him shriek and stun it again, although he realized as his racing heart began to slow that it was probably just twitching from the residual effects of the stunner.
The sound of the kids' soft, nervous voices got his attention. Rodney looked up, saw them clustered around Sheppard in the street.
The kids all looked up as a rather shell-shocked Rodney lurched over to them. "You guys okay?" he asked them.
They stared at him with what he slowly realized was awe and a little bit of fear. "You killed a Wraith," Jagan said.
The identical looks of amazement on the kids' faces snapped Rodney out of his fugue state and left him feeling strangely inadequate and angry. "I stunned it," he snapped, and shoved them aside to kneel down in the mud next to Sheppard. "Here, take this," he ordered, thrusting the stunner into the arms of the nearest child in order to have his hands free.
Sheppard. It was Sheppard, covered with mud and, alarmingly, blood, his face bruised and lip split from the Wraith's beating. The worst part was his leg; Rodney didn't actually realize what was wrong until he reached out to move the Colonel and realized that the pointy tip of a Wraith stunner was -- good God! -- shoved through his leg below the knee, pinning him down.
One thing that Beckett had always tried to drill into them in his first aid lessons was never, never to pull out an object stuck in somebody. Rodney remembered graphic horror stories of irrevocable tissue damage and clamped-off blood vessels released to bleed. But, in this case, he didn't think he had a choice. They were light-years from advanced medical care and he didn't think he could move Sheppard with that thing stuck in his leg. He stared at it, drew a few deep breaths, wondered why it had to be him and not somebody else. Then he held out a hand to the kids.
"I'm going to need something to stop the bleeding. What do you guys have?"
Tekka unwrapped a small scarf. One of the boys, having a better idea, dashed into the nearest house and came out with an armload of linens. Rodney eyed them warily; they looked moth-eaten and not at all clean. But it wasn't like he was going to find antiseptic conditions on a planet that had yet to figure out the printing press.
He looked around at the kids. "When I pull this out, he's probably going to bleed. A lot. Just so you know."
They all nodded, but none of them left or looked away. Rodney wished that he could look away. Swallowing, he gripped the wet, slick surface of the Wraith stunner and pulled. For an instant it hung up on something -- Bone, he thought with a surge of nausea -- and then it came free, making him stagger backwards. And with it came blood. As he'd warned the kids ... a lot of blood.
Rodney grabbed a sheet from the white-faced boy who stood frozen beside him, and wound it around Sheppard's leg. As it began to soak through, he added another one and pressed down for all he was worth. He didn't dare give himself time to think, because he'd probably fai-- pass out or start second-guessing himself. In fact, he was already doing the latter. Blood, too much blood. Tourniquet? No ... you're not supposed to do tourniquets anymore, he remembered. Not in the field. Not unless the choice is between their life or their leg.
And the bleeding actually did seem to slow on its own. In minutes, he was able to knot off the rough bandage, cautiously taking his hands away from it. That was a good thing, too, because the kids were getting steadily twitchier. "We should get out of here," Jagan whispered, staring around them.
Rodney remembered at that point that the Wraith were only stunned and would wake up soon, and there could be others around somewhere, too. "Yeah. I'm with you." He tugged at Sheppard's dead weight and realized that there was no force in the universe that would enable him to carry something that heavy through miles of wilderness. Injured or not, the Colonel was going to have to do it under his own power.
He'd found Sheppard. Sheppard was alive. The reality of that still hadn't quite sunk in.
"Hey there, Sheppard?" Rodney lightly tapped his face, then smacked it harder. "Colonel, I'm sure you're having a nice little nap in the mud, but I really don't think I can carry you, so I'm going to need a little help here."
Sheppard groaned and twisted his head to the side. His eyes blinked open, drops of water quivering on the lashes and frosting his brows. Slowly his eyes focused on Rodney's face.
"Colonel--" Rodney began, and that was as far as he got before stars exploded in his vision. His first wild thought was Wraith! before he realized that, no, Sheppard had actually clouted him in the side of the head and was now making a break for it.
Chapter Eleven: Making Contact
All your patience, planning and hardships will be in vain if you do not exercise caution when contacting friendly frontline forces. Friendly patrols have killed personnel operating behind enemy lines because they did not make contact properly.
-U.S. Army Survival Manual
Even in the dark, there was pain, blazing in his body and setting off white sparks in the darkness behind his eyes. And there was a voice -- an insistent, strident voice, following him down into the abyss and dragging him back.
He opened his eyes to rain, blinked to clear his vision. He'd been about to die. The Wraith ... but then ...
Someone smacked him in the face. His eyes came open, and he managed to focus on his captor through the disorientation and pain. Human, not Wraith. Therefore easy to overcome.
He balled up his fist and clubbed the stranger in the side of the head. The man went flat in the mud with a loud yell of "What the hell, Sheppard!" while Sheppard himself was scrambling backward, crablike, trying to get his legs under him. When he tried to stand, his right leg folded under him and pain raced up his body with a convulsive shock. He collapsed back into the muddy street, gasping, and fumbled in his boot sheath. As he drew his knife in a combat grip, a thought occurred to him.
The stranger had called him by name.
He looked up to see the stranger sitting in the mud, touching one hand tenderly to the side of his head where Sheppard had struck him. He looked astonished and furious. "What is your problem, Sheppard? Did you hit your head when you fell? 'Hi buddy, nice to see you again, let me beat the crap out of you before I --' For Pete's sake, is that a knife? Get a grip!"
Sheppard, a bit reluctantly, sheathed the knife. "You know me," he said flatly.
The other man just gaped at him, mouth open in a fish-like pose. Finally he closed it. "You really must have hit your head. And then you woke up thinking you were Rambo. That's great. That's all I need."
Rambo -- Sylvester Stallone, his mind cheerfully supplied, along with a sudden intense memory of being seventeen, flushed with the success of finally getting to see an R-rated movie without an adult, cheering on Sly Stallone in a darkened theatre with his buddies. Now why could he get useless childhood memories without any trouble, while more recent, helpful memories remained elusive? Such as: who was this stranger -- wearing a uniform similar to his own, he noticed -- who seemed to know him?
Sheppard wondered if it would be a good idea to play along until he figured out the situation. "Oh," he said. "Yeah. Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you."
The other man continued to stare at him with narrowed, speculative eyes. "You're such a lousy liar. What the hell's wrong with you?"
"I'm fine, just fine," Sheppard said quickly. "You just startled me, that's all. Ow, my leg!"
He didn't have to feign pain, especially when he reached for his leg and touched a blood-sodden bandage. The other man got to his feet slowly, appearing torn between concern and wariness.
"Fine then, if you know me, what's my name?"
Sheppard made what he hoped was a noncommittal sound, changing to a hiss of genuine pain when he put pressure on the bandage on his leg. He started to peel back the bandage to get a look at the extent of the damage.
Rough hands grabbed his, pulled them away. Sheppard flinched back and almost hit him again. The fact that he'd been too distracted by pain to notice the other man approaching was not a good sign at all.
"Quit that! I don't need yet another kid to keep out of trouble! I just got the bleeding stopped, so leave that alone." He resettled the bandage over the wound; Sheppard noticed that his face had paled when he did so -- clearly a man who wasn't used to dealing with blood or injuries. "You really are worse than the kids. No common sense at all ..." He looked up at Sheppard, and his voice turned strangely plaintive, even afraid. "You really don't remember me?"
His eyes were startling -- the bluest eyes Sheppard had ever seen. It was difficult to lie to those eyes. "No, I don't," Sheppard admitted. "You're ... a doctor?"
Eyebrows went up. "Of astrophysics, not of that." He waved his hand at Sheppard's bloody leg. "So what do you remember?"
Sheppard didn't trust this guy any farther than he could throw him, and equally mistrusted the part of himself that was insisting that he could trust him. Sheppard had just let the guy grab his hands, and he had wanted to strike out, defend himself ... but he hadn't. That kind of trust was instinctive; you couldn't plan it. And it was stupid. He was in a combat zone here, and in a situation like that, trust wasn't a thing to be thrown around lightly.
On the other hand, lying seemed pointless since the other man obviously did know him and he'd be unable to fake his way through even the simplest question-and-answer session.
"Not much," he said finally.
"You can't have amnesia. That's stupid. It doesn't happen in real life, unless my life has turned into a bad soap opera. Which wouldn't surprise me at this point." The other man rubbed at the purpling bruise on the side of his face. "I can't believe you hit me!"
"I can't believe that you're still complaining about it," Sheppard said, pain making him irritable. "I didn't hit you that hard. There's a goddamn hole in my leg and I'm not whining about it."
"It's the principle of the thing! You don't go around punching your teammates in the face!"
Sheppard frowned up at him. "Since when are we teammates? Teammates on what team? You can't seriously expect me to believe that you're military."
A snort of disgust. "Kindly don't insult me; do you really believe I haven't got the brains to stay out of the army? Unlike some people I could mention ..."
"Air Force, not Army," Sheppard retorted. He didn't think about, didn't know where it came from -- the answer just came. And then he stopped, startled. "Air Force," he repeated, feeling his way around the phrase. Flying. Planes. I flew ...
He felt himself on the verge of a wellspring of hidden memories, when the strident voice snapped him back into the cold, rainy present. "Yes, Air Force, that's wonderful. I see you've already mastered Week 1 of 'John Sheppard 101'. Maybe we'll have graduated to advanced concepts by the end of the decade!"
Sheppard glared up at him. This person might be his teammate -- and he still wasn't sure -- but if so, then clearly they must've been assigned to work together, because nobody would stick around someone this irritating by choice. "Maybe I could remember a little more if you'd just shut up! I don't even know your name!"
"Aha, you admit it!"
"I already admitted it!" Jesus, what was wrong with this guy? Everything had to be an argument. Some people could be drastically improved by a few weeks of boot camp.
"Hey. You guys." The sharp, piercing whisper startled Sheppard; he hadn't realized there were other people around. The speaker was a boy of about twelve, and Sheppard recognized the girl clinging to the boy's hand as the one he'd saved from the Wraith earlier. "Shouldn't we, you know ... leave?"
"From the mouths of babes," the other man sighed, and extended a hand down to Sheppard, who looked at it warily. "Well? Having too much fun down there, or are you sulking because I won't tell you my name? Fine. It's Rodney, Dr. Rodney McKay. And that's a doctor of actual science, not medical voodoo, before you go getting any ideas about me being able to fix whatever scrambled your brains. Believe me, if anyone could fix your brain, we would have done it a long time ago."
Sheppard just stared at him. That was Rodney? 'What would Rodney do?' Rodney? The person whose memory he'd conjured to help him fight the Wraith? This Rodney didn't act like someone who could strategize his way out of a wet paper bag, let alone come up with Wraith-defeating plans.
Rodney gave his extended hand an impatient wrist-snap. "Come on, get your ass out of the mud, Colonel, and let's get out of here before our ugly friends wake up, hmm?"
Colonel. As Sheppard reluctantly took his hand and allowed himself to be helped to his feet, he asked, "Is that my rank or my name?"
"Both," McKay said, cryptically, and added, "Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, United States Air Force. That's your name and rank. Serial number is anybody's guess. Check your dog tags."
McKay rolled his eyes. "The ones around your neck? Those dog tags? You know, the ones with your name on them?"
Sheppard, startled, raised his hand to his collar and felt the metal chain there. It astonished him that the sensation of the chain around his neck was so familiar that he genuinely had not noticed it before. It was like a part of himself, the metal warmed to skin temperature and the links of the chain long since worn smooth.
"This is fantastic entertainment, all right," McKay said, apparently speaking mostly to himself. "It's like watching the Life of Sheppard reinacted in slow motion by a theatre group composed of the mentally impaired. Let's resume the fun in a safe place, why don't we?" And he tugged on Sheppard's arm, forcing him to take a step forward. His injured leg nearly buckled and he gave a hiss of pain, shaking off McKay's hand. Rodney simply ignored this, seizing Sheppard's arm and slinging it over his own shoulders. Sheppard tried to pull away but McKay just hung on all the harder. "You're impossible. Lean on me, Colonel, unless you want to crawl to the woods. Frankly, I'd enjoy watching you do that, but I imagine the Wraith might not want to wait around for the two days or so that it would take us to make the trip."
He was already walking while talking, forcing Sheppard to match his stride to Rodney's. "Wait!" he said, the word emerging as a gasp, as it happened to coincide with stepping on his injured leg. Twisting his head to look over his shoulder, he said, "Wraith. Not dead. Help me over to them."
Naturally, giving McKay an order turned out to be the best way to guarantee his unhelpfulness. Rodney set his feet in the mud and refused to budge. "No freaking way. What are you going to do?"
Sheppard gave him a long-suffering look. "Kill them, what else?"
"With what? Are you going to bash them in the head with a rock?"
"I'm going to cut their throats with my knife." Seeing McKay's face turn pale, he added, "I suggest you don't watch. You and the kids, collect the Wraith guns."
He detached his arm from Rodney's and hopped, one-legged, to the nearest Wraith, where he proceeded to do exactly as he'd said, and then finished off the others. A numbness had settled upon him; he could almost blame it on the cold, except it went deeper than that, and he recognized the weary chill of battle fatigue. He looked up to see the kids clustered close to Rodney, some of them holding Wraith stunners as long as their own bodies, and watching him with ... yes, fear. The look on Rodney's face was somewhere between disgust and disbelief, with a trace of fear as well -- and somehow, for reasons he couldn't understand, that hurt. It hurt a lot.
"You think we should leave them alive?" he snapped harshly. Weariness and pain -- not just physical -- set his nerves on edge and made him almost glad to see the scientist flinch. "Alive so they can come after us, try to kill us again?" He straightened up, wiping his open hands on his thighs to remove some of the sticky black blood, but only ended up smearing it across his pants along with mud and his own blood. God, he was an absolute mess ... no wonder they were looking at him strangely. The surge of dizziness as he stood up surely didn't help, although he thought he got it under control before anyone noticed. However, Rodney's sharp blue eyes were fixed on him with an intensity that made him uncomfortable. "Doctor -- McKay -- Rodney." He felt his way around the names, trying to find one that fit comfortably. "I thought you wanted to leave?"
"More than ever." McKay's eyes flitted around, deliberately not looking at the Wraith corpses on the ground. He offered Sheppard a shoulder to lean on, and this time, the soldier didn't put up a fight. As the adrenaline leeched out of him, all that was left was a shaky exhaustion ... due at least partly to blood loss, no doubt.
They only made it to the end of the street before he froze with a mumbled exclamation of "Shit!"
Rodney missed a stride when Sheppard stopped walking, nearly pitched forward in the mud. When he turned on Sheppard, though, the only visible expression on his mobile face was concern. "What? What's wrong? Your leg?"
The obvious, naked worry in Rodney's eyes startled Sheppard enough that he lost his train of thought for a moment. He hadn't realized, up until that point, that Rodney really did care what happened to him. And that realization made him feel a little better about his decision as he shoved Rodney away from him, balancing on his one good leg and swaying a little in the rain.
"What are you doing?" Rodney demanded, staggering a little before catching his balance.
"Saving your ass," Sheppard said. "The Wraith have the ability to track me. I'm not entirely sure how they've done it, but there's a tracking device in me somewhere. Every minute I'm with you guys, I'm putting you in danger." He drew a deep breath, held out a hand to the nearest of the kids. "Give me one of those guns. I'll be fine."
The child looked instantly to Rodney for affirmation. The scientist just rolled his eyes. "Even with amnesia, you've still got that damn martyr complex. Is that all you're worried about? The Wraith transmitter? I took care of that."
Sheppard frowned. "What?"
"Can we talk and walk? Good! Let's go!" And he looped Sheppard's unresisting arm once more over his shoulders. "I have one too, for your information. I'm jamming the signal. As long as you stay close to me -- very close, since I'm not sure of the exact safe distance -- they won't be able to track you either. But I'm quite sure they'll notice they've lost your signal, so I suggest we get under cover soon."
"... oh," Sheppard said.
"Yes, 'oh', your eloquence continues to amaze me. How you ever managed to survive on your own for twenty-four hours without me is a mystery to me, Sheppard." And Rodney gave a sharp bark of laughter, a startling sound, not just because of the bleakness of their situation, the sullen gray rain falling around them, but also because, Sheppard sensed, Rodney McKay was not a man who laughed very often. And the supportive arm around Sheppard's shoulders tightened briefly, just a little more than was needed to maintain his balance.
They left the town behind and wound their way through fog-draped fields vanishing into a growing dusk. The darkness turned out to be a very good thing, for several times they had to duck into the rain-soaked fields to hide from Wraith darts whining overhead at treetop level.
"So ... what are their names?" Sheppard asked after one such pause, gesturing to the kids with his head.
Rodney shrugged. "I have no idea. I could tell you but it'd probably be wrong." He became aware that Sheppard was staring at him and said, "What?"
"You don't know their names?"
"Do I look like a human Rolodex? I have more important things to occupy my brain, you know."
Sheppard gave him an incredulous look. "More important than learning the names of your kids?"
"What do you mean, my --" He seemed genuinely confused; then comprehension dawned. "Oh, you mean -- oh -- good GRIEF, Sheppard! Are you serious? My God, you are serious. How hard did you hit your head, again?"
"Not yours, then?"
"I'm not speaking to you."
"You just did," Sheppard pointed out.
"Fine, I'm not speaking to you effective now."
"You know," Sheppard said as they continued to wend their way down the muddy road, "you may have realized this already, and I realize I don't know you very well yet, but you are a very petty man."
"Yes, I hear I'm also arrogant and bad with people. And I'll let the crack about not knowing me slide, but you'd better get your memory back pretty damn soon, because it's starting to get annoying."
Sheppard couldn't help himself. "Speaking to me again, I see."
There was a noise from Rodney that sounded something like rrrrgggghhhh.
The children, Sheppard noticed, were watching all of this curiously. "Hi," he said.
"You are very, very strange adults," one of the boys declared.
One of the girls put in, "You aren't like any adults we've ever met before."
"Yes, well, all the adults on your world are dead," Rodney snapped petulantly.
To Sheppard's surprise, the kids seemed to take this in stride. They must have gotten used to Rodney by now. "Well, growing up doesn't mean you have to lose your sense of humor," he told them.
They seemed to like this. Rodney didn't. "Speak for yourself. Some of us actually mature as we age."
"I'm sorry? This is from the man who, from what I've seen so far, argues with the class and style of a six-year-old? No offense, guys," he added to the kids.
"I can't believe that you're treating me this way when I'm presently serving as your human crutch," Rodney grumbled. "It would be easy enough to dump you in a wheatfield somewhere. There's certainly no shortage of the --"
"Down!" Sheppard hissed, as the whine of a Wraith dart materialized out of nowhere. He grabbed Rodney by a handful of sodden jacket and pulled him down into the ditch. Rodney fell to his knees in a foot of muddy water; Sheppard ended up with his injured leg thrust awkwardly out in front of him, since it wouldn't have been able to take his weight. He had to clamp his teeth shut to stifle a cry of pain. The kids, meanwhile, scattered like rabbits into the overgrown field. The Wraith stunners they were carrying made them awkward, but even so, in seconds they were gone as if they'd never been.
The group waited in silence as the dart whined past, invisible in the gathering dusk and fog. The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle, seeping down Sheppard's neck. He would have thought he was past the point of noticing the water anymore, but somehow the effort of tuning out the big things -- the cold, the pain, the danger all around them -- made the little things spring out into sharp relief.
After waiting a few minutes to make sure the dart was gone, Rodney straightened with a long, weary sigh. "I'm getting tired of this." He extended a hand down to Sheppard, as the kids drifted back around them.
"Gimme a minute," Sheppard said tightly. Just to make his day a little better yet, the traumatized muscles in his leg had begun to seize up, and even with Rodney's help it took him two tries to get back to his feet.
"You look like crap, Colonel." Rodney's tone was flippant, but it was belied by the deep worry in his eyes. Sheppard wondered if the man knew how openly his face displayed his emotions.
"I'm fine." It wasn't as if it was possible to stop here, after all, so it didn't matter how much walking hurt. As they continued their trudging progress, each step sending a bolt of pain up his leg, he didn't dare ask how much farther it was to wherever they were going. To distract himself, he said to the kids, "I don't believe I introduced myself. I'm Sheppard."
After a hesitation, the bigger of the boys said, "I'm Jagan. That's my sister Tekka, and that's Mellie there, and Koban."
The kids seemed to relax a little now that they were all on a first-name basis. Curious, they clustered close around Sheppard as the group slogged through the rain.
"Are you the friend he was looking for?" asked the littlest girl ... Tekka, he recalled.
McKay snorted, inserting himself in the conversation as seemed to be his usual wont. "Quit feeding his ego; he hardly needs it. I wasn 't looking for you, Colonel, and I do not believe I ever once used the 'F' word."
"You know," Jagan said to Sheppard, "he talks even more than usual with you around."
"Yeah," said the tomboyish girl, Mellie, with a snort. "Every once in a while he'd shut up before."
"Yes, let's all talk about me like I'm not here," Rodney snapped. "Have none of you ever heard of respecting your elders?"
Jagan grinned. "You said you'd treat us like adults."
"Oh hell," Rodney muttered. "Yeah, yeah, I did say that, didn't I?" He jabbed Sheppard viciously in the ribs with his elbow. "What are you grinning at?"
Sheppard made a hasty attempt to wipe the smile off his face, covering with a non-entirely-feigned wince as his bad leg came down at an angle and slipped in the mud. "Grinning? I wasn't grinning."
"This is where we leave the road," Jagan said suddenly, pointing. The kids took the lead as they plunged into the wet, pitch-black forest. With the added effort of fighting his way through dense, sodden brush, Sheppard gave up trying to make conversation. He also found himself leaning more and more of his weight on Rodney. He tried not to -- he really hated to rely on anybody else that way, and he hated it all the more because it was so, well, easy to let himself sag against that comforting, warm shoulder.
There was just something really, really familiar about Rodney ... something that broke through all Sheppard's barricades, something that made him easy to be around in spite of the bickering and the obnoxiousness. He couldn't understand it, and he didn't trust it, but he couldn't help relaxing into it when he let his guard down.
"Duck," Rodney said suddenly.
"What?" Then his forehead banged into a sharp, hard surface. "Ow!"
He heard Rodney sigh, in the darkness next to him. "Tell me again how you manage to keep yourself alive without me?"
Sheppard thought about replying, but was too distracted by the general awareness that something had changed around him. It took him a minute to realize what it was: for the first time in what seemed like forever, rain wasn't falling on his head.
Soft light surrounded them as Rodney snapped on a flashlight, and Sheppard saw that they were in a cave. McKay eased him down onto the floor and collapsed next to him in a puddle of water.
"I have never been so wet in my life. I swear I am never taking a bath again. Or swimming. Or even looking at water without a towel handy."
Sheppard found that it was getting easier to ignore the steady stream of arguments and complaints ... as if he'd had a lot of practice at it in the past. He noticed, in the flashlight's thin beam, that the bandage around his shin was soaked with fresh blood. Rodney appeared to have noticed the same thing, because he reached for it. Sheppard batted his hands away.
"Ow!" Rodney held his fingers up, aggrieved. "I bruise easily, for your information. And in case you hadn't noticed, you're bleeding, Colonel."
"I'm well aware of that. And taking off the bandage is only going to make me bleed more, as well as leaving a trail for the Wraith to follow. The rain will wash out our trail outside, but it isn't going to help in here."
"Oh," Rodney said in a subdued voice.
What Sheppard didn't add was that the pain had subsided to a muted buzz, rather than the scream of tormented nerve endings that he'd been getting earlier, and he wasn't sure if he could walk much farther if they stirred it up again. He thought at least some of that had to do with the cold. His extremities were going numb -- a good thing in the case of his leg, but somewhat less of an advantage when it came to his hands. Hopefully he wouldn't need manual dexterity anytime soon; he doubted if he was even capable of tying his shoes at the moment. He had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering.
He became aware of Rodney staring at him again, frowning. "I think we'd better get moving," the scientist said, glowering at Sheppard as if to say I'm onto you, Colonel. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd really rather not wait around here until the Wraith decide to break out the bloodhounds. And isn't that a lovely thought for the ages ... Wraith bloodhounds. I can only imagine what those would look like." He stood, and helped Sheppard to his feet.
They made their way deeper into the cave by the jerky illumination of Rodney's flashlight. Afterwards, Sheppard didn't remember much of that walk through the darkness. He was half asleep, leaning against Rodney, when they stopped walking and he woke up enough to realize that the flashlight's shaky white light had been replaced by the warmer glow of firelight. A strong arm under his shoulders was lowering him onto something soft, and he heard Rodney's voice, laced with worry: "I think he's unconscious."
"I am not," Sheppard growled, but it came out an indistinct mumble even to his own ears. When hands started fumbling with his shirt, he swatted at them blindly -- eliciting an annoyed exclamation from McKay -- and finally managed to wake up enough to open his eyes. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to keep you from dying of hypothermia," Rodney grumbled. "You're soaked."
"I can undress myself, thanks." Sheppard pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked around at a long cavern with a high, soaring ceiling. The air smelled of smoke and roasting meat, and firelight cast long shadows against the walls. Little rustlings and the sound of voices drew his attention to figures sitting on blankets or tending the fires.
"Yes," Rodney said in an aggrieved tone, "we are indeed living on Peter Pan's island at the moment. Just accept it. There is, in fact, food as well, and it comes in two varieties, charred and raw. Tekka went to get us some -- I didn't ask which kind. And Jagan -- oh, here he comes now."
The boy trotted up and dropped a bundle of coarse fabric in front of them. "We haven't got any clothing that would fit either one of you," he said. "But we've got lots of blankets and stuff -- more than we need."
Rodney sighed and shook out one of the blankets, wrinkling his nose. "Well, I suppose it's better than being wet. What color would you prefer, Colonel -- brown, or brown?"
He tossed a blanket in Sheppard's direction and, carrying another, vanished behind the nearest boulder. Sheppard began peeling off his soaked clothing. He didn't even try to remove his pants -- wet or not, it wasn't worth the hassle of getting them off over the leg injury. He knew he'd have to deal with his leg sooner or later, but in the absence of morphine, he was voting "later." He ditched everything else, though: T-shirt, jacket, and socks all hit the floor with a series of soggy splats. The blankets were coarse and scratchy, and smelled faintly of goats, but they were warm and dry, and Sheppard sank into them with blissful relief.
He looked up when Rodney skulked out from behind the boulder wearing nothing but a blanket wrapped around him like a homespun toga. For an instant he tried not to laugh, he really did, but he was just too tired to fight it, and besides, it felt as if he hadn't really, truly laughed in ages. He collapsed in a fit of giggles while Rodney gave him a lethal glare.
"Thank you SO much for the support. I feel better already." He filched another blanket off the heap, and slung it around his shoulders like a cape. The result was, if anything, even more ludicrous than the toga by itself. Nonetheless, Sheppard managed to get himself under control ... until Rodney used a third blanket to towel off his hair and came up looking like an electrocuted Chia pet.
Rodney gave him a long-suffering stare as Sheppard chortled helplessly in his nest of blankets. "I can't believe that I actually tried to find you. How hard would it be to lose you again?"
Sheppard came up for air, long enough to say, "I thought you said you weren't looking for me."
Rodney sputtered, and while he was still searching for a comeback, Tekka arrived with two flat plates bearing some sort of meat. Rodney was right about the food -- it was charred on the outside, nearly raw on the inside. Sheppard was hungry enough that he didn't care. He propped himself up against a boulder while he ate, wrapped in blankets with his good leg tucked under him and the other stretched out in front. He kept very nearly falling asleep while he ate, and recognized the feeling: the release of tension, after keeping himself in battle-ready mode for many hours.
Safety. He knew that he wasn't truly safe, that nowhere on a Wraith-infested world could be ... but he felt safe, and for now, that was what mattered.
While he ate, Sheppard watched his rescuer curiously. Exhausted, wet and toga'd, another man might have been subdued, but McKay kept up a steady monologue while he ate. He complained about food poisoning and lectured the kids on safe cooking practices, with digressions regarding the smoke, the rain, and the (non-existent, as far as Sheppard could see) lice in the blankets. The kids, sitting clustered around him, argued right back. The sight of Rodney in his toga, with the children at his feet like a bunch of especially combative acolytes, was definitely one of the odder things Sheppard had seen. Well ... one of the oddest things he'd seen in the last twenty-four hours, anyhow, considering that his memories didn't go back much farther.
He couldn't figure out this Rodney McKay guy. Not at all. He could tell that there was a connection between them, yet the thing that he mainly found himself wanting to do was argue with him. Sheppard knew that he himself was military; Rodney, just as evidently, wasn't; yet he got the impression, from the way that he kept slipping into easy familiarity with the other man, that they'd spent a lot of time together.
His attention was drawn from McKay, currently expounding on Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease while the kids' eyes glazed over, to a scuffle occurring on the outskirts of the group of children. Jagan, getting bored, had started messing with Tekka's hair. Whenever she reached up to swat at his hands, he'd withdraw them quickly and tuck them behind his back. The smaller child squirmed and whined as her brother continued to poke at her. Sheppard could hear her murmuring, "Quit it. Quit it. Quit it." But she made no real effort to escape him; she could easily have moved to the other side of the group, but didn't seem to want to try.
And he finally had it ... the missing piece of the puzzle.
"... as if I have time to sit here and summarize the entire collected writings of Louis Pasteur to all of you. This may as well be Salmonella Surprise if you don't heat it to at least --" Rodney finally noticed that he had an observer. "And just what exactly are you staring at, Colonel?"
"Just wondering something."
"And that would be?"
"Are you--" He felt like an idiot for asking, but he really needed to know. "Are we brothers?"
Rodney's jaw dropped slightly and he stared. For an instant the blue eyes were naked with shock ... and under it, a sort of strange, startled warmth. Then he scrambled quickly into annoyance. "You mean like, literally brothers? Same parents? What do you think? Use your eyes, Sheppard -- do I look anything like you?"
"I just ..." Sheppard shrugged, suddenly, deeply embarrassed. "I don't know, it just seemed--"
"God. Go to sleep before you come up with any more disgusting ideas. Hopefully you'll wake up with your brains unscrambled."
He wasn't entirely sure if he believed Rodney's protests or not, but sleep sounded like a good idea. His leg was starting to throb again, and although he hadn't entirely finished his half-cooked food, the combination of pain and exhaustion made the remainder of the food even less appetizing.
And he could sleep now. He had someone to watch his back.
Chapter Twelve: Surviving
With training, equipment and the will to survive, you will find you can overcome any obstacle you may face. You will survive.
U.S. Army Ranger Handbook
He was having a wonderful dream. Samantha Carter was there, and a tub of whipped cream, and she had a beautiful, elegant, six-step proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and was writing it, in whipped cream, on his thigh when he unfortunately happened to roll over and woke up with a muffled, "Ow!"
Rodney blinked. Something hard was pressing into his cheek. He brought up his hand and let out another "Ow!" as the muscles of his shoulder protested, followed by the sharp bright pain of his knuckles smacking into ... rock?
Okay. Take inventory. He was lying face-first on a rock and his lower body seemed to be thoroughly entangled in a rough blanket which was also -- Cripes! -- the only thing he seemed to be wearing.
The physics department mixers got wilder every year, it seemed ...
No. Wait. Wraith. Planet. Sheppard. Oh. Right.
Every muscle in his body hurt. He couldn't remember being this sore since the one ill-fated week that Sheppard had made a valiant (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort to bring his one non-military team member up to full military physical fitness. Thankfully, that little experiment had ended after he'd sent Weir a series of 40-page reports detailing every indignity to which Sheppard had subjected him (including such clear Geneva Convention violations as jogging and calisthenics). Weir had eventually asked Sheppard to leave Rodney alone so that she herself could manage to get some work done without Rodney interrupting her every half-hour to report a new form of torture.
Unfortunately, this time he had no one but himself to blame. He pushed himself up to his knees and drew the blankets around himself, dislodging a hand-sized object that fell onto the rocks with a clatter. Oh right ... the modified scanner. He picked it up, checked to make sure it was still working. It was.
Groaning, Rodney limped to the nearest fire, where he'd hung their soaked clothing last night. The fire had died down to coals, and his clothes were damp, stiff and reeked of smoke and mud. Great ... the only thing more fun than wearing the same underwear for a week was wearing week-old underwear that had been dunked in mud and then smoked. For a moment he considered sticking with the blanket; then he contemplated the unhappy thought of running around the woods in a toga, and, gritting his teeth, fought his way into his clammy clothing.
A sudden bad thought penetrated his sleep-fogged brain, and he spun around so quickly that he nearly fell over, to gauge his distance from the bundle of blankets containing Sheppard. About five meters or so ... that should be safe, if his calculations were correct, which obviously they were. Hopefully. He needed to figure out the exact range of the scanner's jamming radius, because until he did that, he and Sheppard were going to have to stick very close together.
Rodney's eyes strayed down the length of the cavern to the side tunnel that the kids were -- most unsanitarily, in Rodney's opinion -- using for a bathroom. He wasn't sure how far the scanner's signal could reach, but he was pretty sure it wouldn't reach that far.
And he really needed to get down there.
Which meant waking Sheppard up.
Retrieving the Colonel's clothes from the fire, he limped over to the softly snoring bundle of blankets. "Hey. Colonel. Yo, Sleeping Beauty."
He prodded at Sheppard's shoulder. The snoring sputtered out in a snorting noise, then the Colonel's voice mumbled, "Go away."
"Sheppard, wake up. I have to ... you know. Use the bathroom."
Sheppard's head appeared from the nest of blankets, very pale, his hair sticking up even more wildly than usual. "And you need me there, why?" he demanded.
Rodney waved a hand in the air. "The signal jammer, Colonel. Remember? We have to stay close together for it to cover us both."
Sheppard blinked, staring up at the ceiling. "Oh."
"I hope that means, 'Yes, McKay, I understand, and I'm about to get up,' because I really do need to --"
"I get it, I get it." Sheppard frowned up at him. "Uh ... just how close do we have to be?"
"I don't know. I'm still working on that." Rodney, somewhat belatedly, offered him a hand, but Sheppard shrugged it off and got to his feet on his own. He was naked to the waist; the transmitter scar on his back was livid and ugly. Rodney hastily continued speaking as Sheppard shrugged into his T-shirt, trying very hard not to think about the similar wound on his own back. "I mean, I can't exactly gather data on that sort of thing without alerting every Wraith in the neighborhood. I'm thinking at this point that we're safe to about five or ten meters or so ... that's sixteen to thirty-two feet for you Americans."
Sheppard ran his hand across his face, flattening down some of the wildness in his hair. "Well, which is it? Sixteen or thirty? There's kind of a difference, Rodney."
"Still working on it," Rodney admitted. "Need a hand?"
"I can walk." And indeed, he could, although he paled slightly whenever he put his bad leg down on the floor, and surreptitiously attempted to lean on nearby boulders as he passed them.
We're so screwed, Rodney thought.
Sheppard noticed Rodney watching him and said with a crooked half-grin, "I suppose I need a crutch."
"Sure, I'll just work on that in between coming up with Wraith-fighting weapons and designing a version of the jamming device that doesn't require us to be joined at the hip." Rodney tried not to stare at the way that Sheppard was favoring his leg. "Uh, should we, you know, clean that or something?"
"It's fine. I'd really rather not."
"Excuse me, but that doesn't sound like a good idea. Do you have any idea how many germs there are in a place like --"
"It's my leg, Rodney."
"Fine, but if we have to amputate, I'm making you do it."
They reached the side tunnel and divided to take care of their business separately. As he waited for Sheppard to finish, Rodney looked up at the thin shafts of sunlight slanting down from the holes in the ceiling. The sun was already up ... he'd overslept. Time to get his cottage gunpowder-manufacturing industry on the road.
And he was going to have to do it with an injured Sheppard limping around after him, because he couldn't get more than five meters from him.
This day promised to be all kinds of fun.
The kids appeared to be in their usual state of flux: some at the fires, some sleeping, some absent. Rodney had asked them where they got their food and had been told that they snared birds and other small creatures in the woods, so presumably some of them were out hunting. Jagan was one of the absent ones, and this made sense as he'd been told that Jagan was their best hunter. Tekka was around, however, and she brought food for them.
Rodney realized that he was starting to feel a few twinges of guilt about eating their food and otherwise taking advantage of their hospitality. It would all be repaid with interest, though, if he could get them offworld, and he realized that he felt more hopeful this morning about being able to do that. He was fairly sure that any successful escape plan was going to involve flying ... and he finally had a pilot.
This was, of course, assuming that Sheppard still remembered how to fly. Rodney glanced over at him. Sheppard had put aside his half-eaten breakfast and was sorting through sticks of wood beside the fire.
"And just what exactly are you doing now?"
"Makin' a crutch." Sheppard found a long stick that he seemed to like, tested it, and then whipped out a big, wicked-looking knife from his boot -- Rodney's eyes widened -- and started whittling on it.
"How long do you think this'll take?"
"Not long," Sheppard said without looking up.
Impatient though Rodney was to get back to gunpowder-making, he had to admit that they needed something. Trying to navigate through the woods with Sheppard clinging to his shoulder wouldn't work terribly well, and without assistance, Sheppard didn't seem to be capable of moving faster than an anorexic snail.
"You really should clean that leg injury. Do you know how easily anaerobic bacteria can thrive in an enclosed --"
"Rodney, shut up."
Amnesia or not, his fundamental personality seemed to be intact, and there was just no arguing with him when he was in one of those moods. Rodney gave up, and supervised the kids in collecting their supplies for the day's work. He'd been worried about a rebellion -- after all, they'd worked hard the day before -- but they still seemed very enthusiastic. It was the promise of hurting the Wraith, he thought, that had really sold them on his idea.
"Hey, check it out!"
Rodney spun around to see Sheppard grinning broadly and waving his half-assed crutch in the air. It was just a stick with a crosspiece at the top and another about halfway down, notched and lashed into place with strips torn from one of the blankets. Rodney thought it looked like it would barely stand up to five minutes of use, but Sheppard was grinning like he'd just discovered a cure for cancer.
And damn it, he'd missed that, missed it like anything, as much as it drove him crazy -- the wholehearted, childish enthusiasm, the conviction that everything would work out despite all evidence to the contrary. He'd missed it so much that for a moment his breath caught in his throat and he had to hunt for the response that an invention like that one really deserved.
"I'll give you ten minutes in the woods before that thing falls apart, Sheppard. Want to take bets?"
Sheppard curled his lip at him. "It'll work. Check it out." He tucked the thing under his arm and hopped around a little, triumphantly.
"That's brilliant, Sheppard, positively brilliant. I can see my genius has finally been overshadowed -- you'll be winning the Nobel Prize next, assuming they have a division for crutchery. Let's get moving, shall we?"
It was a gorgeous day outside the cave. The world had been washed clean by the rain, and all the colors seemed brighter, more vivid. There was an undercurrent of chill in the air, but with the promise of heat to come later in the day. As they trekked through the forest, the kids swarmed around them like eager puppies. Tekka picked some berries from a low, sprawling bush and scampered over to Rodney to offer him a handful. He took them with the air of someone who's just been handed a live snake.
"Are these poisonous?"
"No," she said, "they're good," and popped a few in her mouth with one grubby, juice-stained hand.
Rodney looked down at the handful of slightly crushed berries. There were sticks and leaves mixed in with them. "Er, thanks. Thanks a lot. I think I'll save them for ... lunch." He tucked the squishy handful in his pocket.
Sheppard, surprisingly, seemed to be doing just fine and was able to easily keep up with the rest of them, although Rodney had to constantly remind him not to stray outside their five-meter safe zone -- he kept wandering off to look at whatever struck his fancy. It was worse than walking a dog. Rodney wondered if it would be possible to put a leash on him.
They'd brought two of the Wraith stunners, one slung over Sheppard's shoulder -- he seemed to be able to manage it even with the crutch -- and one over Rodney's. They presently had three stunners that worked and one that didn't, but Rodney decided to keep that one around, just in case he could scavenge the parts for some purpose. He could have kicked himself for not having thought to steal the stunners off the corpses of the Wraith he'd killed on the cliff.
Speaking of which ... the Wraith he'd killed. Ha! Wouldn't the Colonel be surprised ... "Hey, Sheppard. How many did you get?"
Sheppard looked up from studying the pine needles on the ground. "How many what?"
"How many what, he says. What do you think? How many forwards on a hockey team? ... How many Wraith did you get?"
"Oh! Uh ... lemme think. Nine?"
Rodney stared at him. "Nine?" he said in a small voice.
"Yeah, I think so. Two the first night, three the next day, four in town ... yup. Nine. You?"
Rodney floundered around for a moment. "Ha, as if I'm so juvenile that I'd need to compare kill tallies with you! Besides, one of those in town was mine, you forget."
"That's true," Sheppard said, surprising him. "Guess that makes eight."
At that point they reached the hot springs, which provided a convenient distraction. Rodney couldn't help grinning at the look on Sheppard's face. He really was like a big kid. "Okay," Sheppard said, looking around, "this is seriously cool. Uh, have I been here before?"
"Not that I know of, no."
"Okay, good. I'd hate to think I'd forgotten this." Sheppard bent over at the waist to dip a hand in one of the steaming pools.
"They're hot springs, Colonel -- they're not that special." But Rodney remembered his own reaction, the first time he'd seen this place. It really was beautiful.
He left Sheppard investigating the pools, and went off -- not too far, though -- to walk the kids through the process of getting their equipment set up and their fire burning. As he stepped back, he saw the Colonel watching them curiously.
"What are you making, anyway?"
And he realized that he hadn't shared the plan. "Gunpowder."
"You can just make gunpowder?"
"If the ancient Chinese can do it, Sheppard, we can do it."
A slow expression of surprise and delight spread across Sheppard's face. "Okay, that is even cooler than the hot springs," he said, with feeling.
Rodney grinned. There was just something incredibly infectious about Sheppard's enthusiasm for everything. He'd never be caught dead so much as thinking of a trite, sentimental concept such as Discoveries are more fun when you share them with someone else-- oh, hell.
Clearly he needed something to distract himself before he started dancing around with the kids and singing Disney songs. And, actually, he'd just thought of something. Vaguely aware of Sheppard watching him with alarmed curiosity, he began to pace in a tight circle and gesture in silence as he pursued this particular train of thought. He hadn't really paid a whole lot of attention to medieval weaponry in college, but what ten-year-old boy wasn't fascinated by things that exploded and fractured and burned ... especially a ten-year-old boy with enough knowledge of chemistry to actually build such things ... and come to think of it, maybe his parents had had their reasons to be wary of him --
"Er, McKay? What are you --"
"Thinking. Or trying to think, if someone wasn't distracting me."
"Thinking about what?"
Rodney heaved a sigh, rolled his eyes. Unfortunately, he knew from experience that the only way to get Sheppard to leave him alone was often to explain things to him. Apparently amnesiac Sheppard was much the same. "Greek fire."
"Well, we don't know, exactly. The Byzantine Empire used it in warfare. It was sort of ... their equivalent of napalm, really. And apparently pretty similar to the napalm we know, according to contemporary accounts. It couldn't be extinguished, even underwater."
"The Greeks had napalm?" Sheppard echoed.
Rodney decided not to ask if he had the slightest clue what either Greeks or napalm were. "Yes, sort of. The thing is, the exact formula was top-secret. They never wrote it down -- or at least they never left it lying around. There have been some pretty successful attempts to recreate it -- which I won't bore you with. Basically we know most of what was in it -- sulfur, pitch, other stuff ... Well, the upshot of all of this is that I, er --" He trailed off.
"Recreated Greek fire in my parents' basement when I was about ten years old. What?" he demanded, at Sheppard's incredulous look. "We had fire insurance! Anyway, the point is, I don't have all the ingredients I had then -- I had a chemistry set and the contents of the bathroom closet. But I understand how the stuff works, generally speaking, and I think I could probably make some. ... Um, what's that look for?"
Sheppard's face reflected a combination of amazement, fascination, and the sort of delight that he only seemed to get from blowing stuff up. With awe in his voice, he said, "You're a walking, talking WMD, aren't you?"
"Never, ever piss off a geek," Rodney told him. "And I can assure you, I am one extremely pissed-off geek right now."
"You're going to set the Wraith on fire!" Sheppard was practically bouncing in place with glee. "How can I help?"
Oh dear. "Hold on, Van Damme. We're not exactly there yet. For one thing, I've got my hands full with the gunpowder at the moment. But, yes, I believe some incendiary devices are on the agenda too."
"And we do set Wraith on fire at some point?" Sheppard looked like a kid at Christmas.
"Yes, yes. We'll have a Wraith bonfire. No!" he barked, causing Sheppard to jump. He stormed past the Colonel, descending on the startled kids. "If you grind that without dampening it down, the heat of the friction could blow you sky-high! Didn't you hear me explain that earlier? Were you born stupid or did your parents frequently drop you on the head as an infant?"
Once he'd got the kids' grinding technique straightened out, Rodney looked around for Sheppard, hoping that the Colonel had managed to remember the five-meter rule. Luckily, he had, and was sitting nearby at the edge of one of the pools of hot water, unwinding the bandage around his leg.
Rodney approached quietly, wincing at Sheppard's flinches of pain as he peeled the crusted, flaking bandage away from the wound. His lower leg was an indistinct mess of dried mud, half-dried blood, and the remnants of his pants -- little of the actual injury showed.
Sheppard cursed softly as he inspected the damage, what could be seen of it, and, turning to lay the bandage down beside him, he jumped to find Rodney almost within touching distance. "Sneaking up on people's a bad habit, McKay, especially when they're armed." He patted the stunner next to him.
Rodney sat down on the grass next to him. "That looks, uh ..."
"I'm not exactly going to be winning any marathon competitions, that's for sure." Using his knife, Sheppard cut away pieces of his pants leg. The shredded fabric was ground into his flesh in some areas; breath hissed between his teeth as he used fingertips and the point of his knife to pick out the fragments.
"Don't suppose you have anything in the way of first aid supplies, McKay?"
"Uh, antihistamines and Band-Aids," Rodney said.
"That's about the extent of mine, too. Fuck!" His hand had slipped, bumping the bruising along the edges of the wound itself. For a moment Sheppard just breathed deeply, his eyes closed. His face had gone several shades paler.
Rodney could think of a few times that he'd felt this helpless in his life. All of them had occurred since he'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy, and none of them had ended well. People with guns were often involved. "You, uh, you're going to need clean bandages, and stuff."
Sheppard turned to look at him, and despite the pain and fatigue shadowing his eyes, there was a certain self-deprecating amusement. "You know, I didn't even think of that before I unwrapped it. Just thought that the hot water would feel good, maybe get some of the mud off." He glanced ruefully at the filthy bandage laying in the grass. "Oh well, that's life."
"Hang on there. I'll send a minion." Rodney snapped his fingers to get the attention of the nearest urchin. "Hey! You! Go back to the cave and bring some blankets, wouldja? Or, no, better yet, something clean and soft, if you can find it. Cloth. Bring a lot."
The child ran off and Sheppard stared after it in amazement. "What did you do, hypnotize them?"
"Children love me."
"You're so full of it your eyes've turned brown, McKay."
"All right, fine, I don't know. I think they've imprinted on me, like ducklings." Hoping to escape that particular topic, he poked at the horrid remnants of the bandage and pulled out the least filthy part -- a length of fabric that had once been Tekka's scarf. He soaked it in the water and then held it out awkwardly. "Uh, is it easier to do this yourself, or to have someone else ...?"
Sheppard's lips quirked. "Anyone else, or you?" He took the warm, wet cloth, and began to carefully clean around the wound.
"Thank you for your confidence in my abilities, Sheppard."
Sheppard just snorted, the sound ending in a faint gasp of pain as he hit a tender spot. The raw edges of the wound were starting to ooze fresh blood as he dislodged the crusted blood and mud; Rodney swallowed and looked away, suddenly finding himself very interested in the trees along the edge of the hollow. However, this meant that he had to listen to the small sounds that escaped the Colonel as he worked. Knowing Sheppard, if he was actually hurting enough to make noise about it, he must be hurting a hell of a lot.
"So, uh, Sheppard." Rodney cast about for appropriately distracting conversation topics, drew a complete blank. Just what exactly did you discuss with an amnesia patient while stranded on a wilderness planet and surrounded by hostile aliens? Only one conversational gambit lent itself to mind. "Where have you been for the last couple of days, anyway?"
There was a moment of silence, and Rodney risked a sideward glance at Sheppard's face: pale, beaded with sweat, eyes fixed in concentration on his leg. Then Sheppard said, "I woke up in a field."
He continued to talk as he worked on his leg, telling Rodney about climbing the hill, about the field and barn, about the Wraith in the ravine, and his campsite after dark.
"That smoke you saw from the mountain must've been the hot springs," Rodney mused.
"I've come quite a ways, then," Sheppard said, rinsing the rag in the water's edge. Pink-stained water trailed down his arm as he wrung it out and then returned to his ministrations. "A number of miles, I think. You know what I still don't know is how we got here. Do you remember?"
And now it was Rodney's turn, and this meant turning his mind back to something he really didn't want to think about. Atlantis and Teyla and Ronon and cullings and hiveships and ... "Is this really going to help?"
"I'd love to know," Sheppard said, in a voice wound so tightly that it sounded as if his jaw was about to pop off its hinges. And Rodney looked at him, really looked at him -- at the fine lines of fatigue and pain around his eyes, at the faint flush of fever beginning to creep up his cheek. He was Sheppard, so he probably wouldn't say anything until the day he fell down dead, but his leg really wasn't good, it wasn't good at all.
So Rodney began to talk.
They had gone to PX2-394 on a simple trading mission. Teyla had friends among the local people, and they had only expected to be gone for a few hours. They'd gone on foot, so they didn't even have the puddlejumper. No one in Atlantis had known the planet was due for a culling ... until the Wraith hiveship materialized almost on top of them.
"They dialed into the gate so we couldn't dial out." Rodney's fingers found purchase in the grass, sank into the soft dark soil. "I still don't know what happened to Teyla and Ronon. We were separated in the chaos. I just hope they didn't ... I just hope ... I mean, I guess the next thing I remember is waking up in a cell next to you ..."
He decided to gloss over the implantation of the tracker -- or at least he'd intended to, but one detail leaped into his mind.
"Hey, they stunned you in the head!"
"What's that?" Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
"The Wraith, when they -- er, you put up quite a fight, and I watched them stun you a really ridiculous number of times. You were trying to ..." Trying to reach me, you idiot. If you'd just given up, if you'd just fallen down, they wouldn''t have had to ... "You were trying to escape. They got you in the head with one of those stun blasts from awfully close." Inches away. Centimeters. Whatever. "We don't really know how the stunners work, except that they mess with the neurons' ability to conduct impulses. We don't have any sort of empirical evidence that pertains to getting shot from that close, but I'd bet you anything that's why you're having trouble remembering stuff. Your brain's still screwed up from the stunner."
"That's comforting. Thanks, McKay." A moment's silence while Sheppard concentrated on some aspect of his leg -- Rodney didn't want to look -- and then he said, "So, does this give you any insight into getting my memory back?"
"No," Rodney admitted. "That's a Beckett problem, not a McKay problem. Although, don't you dare tell him I said that."
Rodney sighed. "Someone who would be very nice to have around at the moment, Colonel."
The kid that he'd sent for bandage material came trotting down the side of the hollow, bearing an armful of various cloth stuff, and accompanied by Jagan. "There are a lot of Wraith in the woods," the older boy said, throwing himself down on his elbows beside the two of them. He sounded more interested and curious than afraid.
"Surprise, surprise," Sheppard muttered.
Rodney glanced around warily, half-expecting to see Wraith materialize out of the clouds of steam over the pools. "They're looking for us. I don't like this."
"You liked it before?" Sheppard asked with a smirk in his voice. Rodney looked over at him and saw that Sheppard was binding up the injury again. His relief at the whole process being over was tempered by guilt that he'd been too squeamish to help.
"You know what I mean. They don't know where we are -- they couldn't know -- which means there must be a lot of them on this world right now, trying to find us. It's only a matter of time before they pick up the kids' trail somewhere."
"They won't pick up my trail," Jagan said proudly. "Nobody can catch me in the woods."
"Yeah, great for you, Daniel Boone, but where does that leave the rest of us? Without a plan and surrounded by Wraith, that's where."
"I thought you had a plan," Sheppard said with a grunt of pain as he tied off the ends of the bandage.
"No, I'm making gunpowder. There's a difference. To you, simply having a lot of explosives might be the same thing as having a plan, but I'd rather exercise a little forethought before we start blowing up Wraith."
"There's not a whole lot to think about, Rodney -- they want us dead. They'll take the choice out of our hands sooner or later. You know that."
The worst part was, he did know that. "Which is why we need a plan." He stared up at the mountains thoughtfully.
"We need to capture one of their ships," Sheppard said. "I don't know if I can fly it, but --"
"I know you can. I've seen you do it. Yeah, I know you don't remember," he snapped when Sheppard started to speak. "Just trust me on that, and we'll have to hope that your hands remember it when your brain doesn't. You started off using an interface that I designed, which I certainly don't have the tools for at the moment, but you had to steal a dart to escape a hiveship and it didn't have the interface, so clearly you're capable of managing not to get yourself killed in one of them. Barely. We get a dart and find this planet's Stargate; that's the only option, really."
"What's a Stargate?"
"Do you realize how much valuable thinking time I'm spending explaining elementary concepts to you? It's a large ring-shaped thing. They make a big flashy light and take you to other worlds. I still haven't figured out where the one on this world is, though."
Sheppard jerked his head at Jagan. "Ask the kids."
"He did," Jagan put in. "I never heard of this ring thing."
"They never heard of it," Rodney added unnecessarily. "Which is weird. We have yet to visit a world where the locals don't know about the Stargate. They might be afraid of it, they might avoid it, but they certainly knew about it."
Sheppard shrugged. "Maybe this world doesn't have one."
"Then how did they get here?" Rodney waved his hand at the kids. "Their ancestors, I mean."
"Didn't you say we got here on a spaceship? Why couldn't they?"
It was a valid point that Rodney had been trying very hard not to think about. It was entirely possible that there were plenty of inhabited worlds off the Stargate network. The Wraith possessed hyperdrives, as had the Ancients. There were no telling how many worlds had been seeded with human life.
But if there was no Stargate on this world, then they didn't have a prayer of getting back to Atlantis. What were they going to do, stow away on a hiveship and hope it took them someplace with a Stargate? Sheppard and Ford's Merry Men had proven how well that worked. "You're the one who believes in the power of positive thinking, Colonel. Well, I'm thinking positive, because if we can't locate a Stargate, I'm pretty sure we're thoroughly screwed. So, why don't you put that scrambled brain of yours to work figuring out a way to catch a dart, hmm? It seems like the sort of thing you'd be good at."
As the morning wore on, they tossed ideas back and forth. The Wraith didn't seem to leave the darts unattended; they didn't even seem to land, at least not for any period of time.
"The trick," Rodney said, pacing, "is getting the dart down without damaging it ... at least without causing damage I can't fix. Somehow we have to trap and hold one of them, and open the canopy so that we can -- er, get the pilot out."
"You mean kill the pilot."
"It's a Wraith, Rodney. It wants to eat you."
"Well, excuse me if some people are less blase about death than you, Colonel."
"I'm not blase about it," Sheppard said quietly. "I do what needs to be done ... that's all." He hesitated, then added, "At least, I guess so. You'd know better than I would, at the moment ... what kind of person I am."
"You're the kind who doesn't talk about this stuff, under normal circumstances." Rodney sighed and sat down beside him. "But no, you're right. About you, I mean. You're someone who kills when he has to -- and believe me, it's saved all our asses more than once -- but you're not Kolya. And before you ask me 'who', because I can see you're about to, let's just say it's someone we met once who was sort of like ... you gone horribly bad."
He'd never really thought about Kolya that way, but it was more or less true. Smart, ruthless, efficient -- under different circumstances, he really could see Sheppard turning out like that. It wasn't something he wanted to think about ... and considering that amnesiac Sheppard seemed to be the exact same person as the Sheppard he'd gotten to know on Atlantis, he doubted if it was likely to happen now. In another universe, maybe -- one that he was glad he didn't live in.
"Nets?" Sheppard said.
Rodney wondered just how much brain damage he actually had from the stunner blast. "We were talking about Kolya."
"No, no." Sheppard waved his hand. "Getting back to the earlier topic, the Wraith dart. I wonder if we could net one."
Rodney was caught between annoyance and amazement at the man's complete chutzpah. "With what? A giant butterfly net?"
"No, I'm just thinking ... it may be a high-tech plane, but it's still a plane, and you can't fly any kind of plane through trees and foliage and obstacles of that nature."
"... because they get tangled up," Rodney breathed.
"Well, more like they hit something and explode, but yeah, that's the basic idea. I'm wondering if we could somehow wrap a dart in something that would stop its forward progress without destroying it. There are, obviously, a few problems with that."
"Such as how do we get close enough to something that moves at damn near the speed of sound," Rodney said. "And where do we get a net that's big enough and strong enough to snare what is basically a fighter jet."
"Yeah, pretty much."
Rodney got up and paced again. It helped him think. "It would have to be a stationary trap -- something we lured the dart into, not something we took to it. I can't see any feasible way to build something big enough that would be portable or capable of being launched like a projectile. And that means we're going to have to know exactly where the dart is going to be."
"You said it yourself," Sheppard pointed out. "We lure it. And we have the perfect bait."
"And that would be?"
Sheppard pointed over his shoulder, to his back. "Us."
Rodney shuddered. "That's a truly delightful thought."
"Can you think of anything better?"
"Not at the moment, but unlike some people, I also haven't forgotten that darts have not-too-shabby defensive capabilities, such as culling beams and guns. They don't have to get within netting range to kill us in all kinds of horrible ways. And frankly, I don't think we should design a plan that hinges upon the Wraith behaving like complete morons. Not that they don't do that anyway, most of the time, but they do have their idiot-savant moments as well. It would be just our luck to get one with a brain."
"I'm certainly open to suggestions," Sheppard said.
Rodney contemplated it for a moment, gazing absently at the row of pines along the rim of the hollow, and behind them, the mountains with their hazy white tops. "Okay, tell me if you think this sounds crazy. I think it sounds crazy, but it's always nice to get a second opinion. We're in the mountains, and I don't know much about mountains, but I've always understood they have canyons and valleys and things like that. We find a good narrow one, and we trick the dart into flying down it, so it can't dodge and it has to slow down. The canyon's booby-trapped, and the dart triggers the net, snaring itself." He sighed at the fascination on Sheppard's face. "And this is the point where any reasonable person would tell me it'll never work, but of course you're you, so you love the idea."
"I think it could work," Sheppard said.
"Of course you do."
Sheppard just smirked at him. "If you don't think it'll work, and you knew what I'd say, why did you bring up the idea in the first place?"
"If you have a better idea, please, speak now!"
But Sheppard was thinking, staring up into the mountains with faraway eyes. A little color had come back into his pale face; either the distraction was good for him, or cleaning up his injury had actually helped a little. "And use one of us as bait to lure the Wraith down the canyon."
"Yeah," Rodney admitted reluctantly. "Sounds like one of your plans, doesn't it? Not that you'd know."
Sheppard let that go. "Okay, so let's say this works and we do snare the sucker without damaging it. It'll still be sealed up tighter than a drum, and capable of shooting us."
"I have an idea about that, and no, I'm not going to tell you what it is until I figure out if it'd work or not." Rodney ran his hand through his hair, avoiding Sheppard's eyes. "It's a bit crazy, but the whole thing is so harebrained that one more stupid stunt is hardly going to make much difference."
Sheppard attempted to stare him down, but gave up. "I guess now we need to find out what these mountains have in the way of canyons."
"Luckily I know exactly the person who can tell us. Hey! Jagan!"
"Yeah, what?" the boy hollered across the pool. He was over at the fire, helping the younger kids render wood into charcoal.
"Come here a minute. Got a geography question for you."
This piqued his curiosity and he trotted over. "A what question?"
"Geo -- Never mind. I was wondering something." Rodney pointed at the mountains looming over them. "Canyons. We're looking for one. Preferably really narrow, deep and twisty."
"Sounds like Dead Man's Canyon," the boy said immediately.
Sheppard raised his eyebrows and grinned. "Well, with a name like that, what could possibly go wrong!"
"How close is it?" Rodney asked, endeavoring to ignore him.
"Not far. A short walk."
Jagan's "short walk" turned out to be well over a half-hour. They followed a winding path that climbed steadily through pine forest and occasional stands of shrubby deciduous trees. With both suns high in the sky, it was almost oppressively hot. Rodney removed his jacket and tied it around his waist, but his T-shirt was still plastered to his body with sweat, and he'd never noticed how clammy the flak vest could get. And to think he'd thought this planet was cold ...
Several times, they had to hide under the trees as Wraith darts zipped by, and once Jagan gave a sudden sharp whisper of "Hide!" and they all ducked into the bushes just before a Wraith patrol marched past. The Wraith were definitely out in force. Rodney realized that he felt a little less terrified now that he had a weapon, of a sort, but he still wished himself desperately off this world.
The path rose steeply and then leveled off amid more pines. The forest here was broken by boulders and ridges of rock, and Rodney, looking back, realized that they had come much higher. He could see the cloud of steam from the hot springs below them, concealing their gunpowder manufacturing center from prying Wraith eyes.
"We close?" Sheppard asked. He sounded winded, and Rodney didn't like that. Normally a hike like this would be a stroll in the park for him. Sheppard's dark hair had gone limp in the heat, and his face was white again; he looked lousy.
"We're there," Jagan said.
"I don't see --" Rodney began, but then he did see. The canyon was right in front of them -- he could see how the pines rose on the other side. It was just so narrow that it was hard to see until you were right on top of it. Cautiously he walked forward and looked down. Far below them, a mountain stream frothed white at the bottom of precipitous stone walls. It was hard to believe that such a small creek could carve through that much rock. Time, Rodney thought. Lots of time.
Sheppard gave a short laugh. "Well, it's exactly what we asked for," he said. "Narrow and twisty, from what I can see. Jagan, how far up the mountain does this go?"
"Not much farther." The boy pointed up into the hills, where Rodney could just catch some flashes of silver -- a waterfall, though much less spectacular than the one on the river below the kids' cave. "It's a dead end. There were stories that, in the old days, people hid from the Wraith here. You can see a lookout post there." His finger directed them to a gray bunker between them and the waterfall, moss-covered and nearly invisible among the trees.
Sheppard hopped to the lip of the cliff, so close to the edge that Rodney had to resist the temptation to grab hold of his jacket to keep him from sliding off. Compared to the other cliff, it wasn't a terribly long way down -- about a hundred meters at most -- but more than enough to kill a human being. They didn't need to survive the Wraith only to turn themselves into paste on the rocks.
"It's got potential," Rodney had to admit.
Sheppard looked up with a grin. "It's perfect! Look, it's hardly more thirty or forty feet across. And, look there." He jabbed his finger at a sharp bend in the canyon, just below them. "They'll have to slow almost to a stop to make that turn. It's the perfect place for an ambush."
"And what if they fly over the canyon and just cull us from above?"
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "You're the smart one, right? It's your job to come up with a way to prevent that."
"Great, no pressure, then," Rodney snorted.
"You know the only problem with this plan, that I can see?" Sheppard said after a moment.
"You only see one? And what would that one be?"
"At no point during this operation do we get to set Wraith on fire."
Rodney raised his finger. "I beg to differ, Colonel. Something tells me that the odds of getting one Wraith ship, by itself, are just too much to hope for. We're probably going to attract every Wraith in the neighborhood. I'm sure we'll have more Wraith to torch than we know what to do with."
"With a squadron of Marines at our backs, this would be kinda fun," Sheppard mused.
"Speak for yourself, Colonel."
Sheppard just grinned at him and sat down on a sun-warmed rock at the canyon's lip, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. Rodney couldn't help noticing that the bandage was stained with fresh blood and his mouth opened to comment before he managed to cover with a cough. Sheppard was, no doubt, fully aware of it, and there really wasn't anything they could do ... except get off this world as quickly as possible.
"So," he said. "We need a really big net."
Over the next half hour, they hashed out a rough plan, throwing ideas back and forth until Jagan got bored and wandered off into the woods. Eventually they had something that seemed workable, if uncomfortably likely to get them both killed.
One of them would serve a decoy down in the canyon -- and they were still arguing over which one that would be. The other one, with the jamming device, would be up top, with the kids, ready to activate the trap. Rodney thought that he could rig up a system of ropes to quickly raise a net across the canyon when the dart was too close to avoid it. After that, they'd have mere seconds until the dart would blast its way free -- which was where Rodney's secret came into play. He tried to rebuff Sheppard's questions, but as the Colonel accurately pointed out, since the plan hinged on this detail, it wasn't fair to expect the rest of them to go along without knowing what Rodney had in mind.
"I think I might be able to alter one of the Wraith stunners to disrupt electrical impulses," Rodney said, reluctantly. "But I don't know for sure. It just makes sense that it would be a fairly easy adjustment to make, being similar enough to their original function. I won't really know until I take one apart and look."
Sheppard snapped his fingers. "If you can get that to work, we can just forget about the net! We'll just knock one out from the ground."
"Whereupon it will crash and explode in a nice, large fireball. The whole point is to capture one intact, remember? Also, I doubt if I'll be able to get much range, and I don't know how long the effect will last or how easily they'll be able to override it. However, someone standing at the top of the cliff should be able to knock out the dart in the net for a few seconds. And that's all it'll take. We know the canopy retracts when they power down, so we can then take out the pilot with a regular stunner, and voila: one Wraith dart, undamaged and ready to fly us through the nearest Stargate. At that point, I imagine forty more darts will show up and kill us all, but no plan is perfect."
"You know, just once, you could focus on the bright side of things for a change."
Rodney snorted. "If I could do that, then I'd be you, and one John Sheppard is enough for any rational universe." He took his scanner out of his pocket, along with his tool kit, and began to fiddle with it.
"Be careful," Sheppard said, to which Rodney responded with a long, hostile stare. "Yes, I'm sure you know what you're doing, but don't forget we're in a very exposed location and that gizmo is the only thing standing between us and annihilation at the moment."
"I'm well aware of that, Colonel." Rodney went back to tweaking the scanner's guts. "I'm just trying to see how much I can boost the signal. The next few days are going to be hard enough without having a conjoined twin. Now, I suggest you pipe down and let me work, unless you want me to short this out and cause our untimely Wraith-induced demise."
And Sheppard shut up. Rodney had always liked that about the Colonel: he could be irritatingly nosy, but he also knew when to be quiet and let the genius work. In a few minutes, he'd finished his adjustments and closed the scanner.
"How much range do you think it has?" Sheppard asked. He'd lain back on the warm rock and folded his hands under his head.
"Tough to say for sure, but we're probably good to thirty meters, at least. I figure past the safety zone, it won't mask the signal entirely but it'll make it difficult to pinpoint. Which may come in handy for the person at the bottom of the canyon. Which," he added, "will clearly need to be me, as much as I don't want it to be."
"Is there some kind of reasoning behind that, or are you just feeling suicidal today?"
"Believe me, I have no intention of dying." Rodney ticked off points on his fingers. "First, you're a much better shot than I am. I only admit this because it proves that I clearly have more important things to do with my time than poke tiny holes in paper targets. But it does mean that you should be on top of the cliff, because whoever's up there is only going to get one, maybe two shots at the dart before it blasts its way free and kills us all. Second, right now you're about as maneuverable as a Gremlin with a flat tire. I, at least, can dodge. Third --"
"All right, fine, fine. We'll talk about this later," Sheppard said, which probably meant that the issue was far from settled in his mind.
Rodney stood up and dusted off his pants. "So, we've got a plan and a hell of a lot of work to do. Giant nets don't build themselves, Colonel."
After a hesitation, Sheppard took the proffered hand, allowing Rodney to help him to his feet. Rodney didn't like that hesitation, and this prompted a question that he would never have asked otherwise. "You gonna be okay? To get back to the cave, I mean, and ... you know, we're going to have to do a lot of walking in the next few days."
He could see Sheppard's usual flippancy flare up and then fade, and the Colonel looked away. "There's only one possible answer, isn't there, Rodney?" he said, a bit harshly. "We don't have antibiotics, we don't have anything sterile. It's not as if there's much I can do at this point to change the outcome. I'm going to heal, or not, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it. So, yes, I can walk."
"Hmm," was all Rodney said. But he touched Sheppard's arm, just once, as they turned to walk back down the mountain.
Jagan joined them shortly. "That the canyon you wanted?" he asked.
Rodney jerked his head in a brief nod. Sheppard's admission of weakness disturbed him far more than he wanted to admit, even to himself -- but left him all the more determined to get them off this world, sooner rather than later. "Now, I've got a list of other things I need. Starting with rope. Lots of rope. Also ---"
"You want a lot," Jagan said, taking the lead.
"Do you want to leave this world, or not?"
Jagan stopped, turned around, and folded his arms, forcing the adults to come to a halt on the narrow path. "You want to," he said. "And you think we can't do things on our own. You're wrong. We survived. We will continue to survive."
"Wait just a damn minute here." Rodney stared at the kid. "You don't want to leave?"
"This is our home," the boy said belligerently, scowling at them. "Our people have always lived here."
"No," Rodney said with as much patience as he could muster, "you didn't. Your people came here through a Stargate. When I find it, I can prove it to you."
Jagan opened his mouth for a heated retort, and Sheppard stepped in hastily. "Look, Jagan, I can see what you're saying, I really do. And knowing Rodney as I ... well .. have for a few hours, I doubt if he gave you guys much choice. He probably just showed up and told you what to do, right? But think about it." Sheppard gestured behind him, at the snow on the mountain peaks, the bright colors starting to show in the high alpine meadows. "I don't know much about your world, but I can see that winter's coming. Maybe you can hunt enough to survive, but what about your sister? What about the rest of you? You know you can't all survive the winter."
"The rest of 'em can go with you, if they want," Jagan said. "Tekka and I will be just fine here."
"Okay, so everyone else leaves, and you stay here all alone? You think Tekka would like that?"
The boy's face was starting to waver, and Rodney watched in openmouthed astonishment. Who would have guessed that Sheppard was capable of actually talking people into doing something, rather than just pointing a gun at them. Weir must be rubbing off on him.
"And what if something happens to you?" Sheppard pressed. "Do you think she can --"
"Shut up! Just ... shut up." Jagan spun around and ran off into the woods.
"That went well ..." Rodney muttered.
Sheppard lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. "I don't know. I think he was listening to me. He just doesn't want to believe it. He's the closest thing the kids seem to have to a leader ... other than you at the moment." He ignored Rodney's dirty look. "He's just used to being autonomous, doing his own thing. Being an adult. Having an adult come in and give him orders isn't sitting too well with him."
"I forgot you're the resident expert on insubordination." Rodney glanced after the kid. "You think he'll come around?"
"I'm sure he will ... for his sister, if nothing else."
They resumed walking down the trail. With the crutch, going down was considerably more difficult for Sheppard than going up, and they made slow progress. "It really frightens me when you act smart," Rodney said, helping him over a rough patch in the trail. "I think it's one of the lesser-known signs of the apocalypse."
Sheppard snorted a small laugh. "An apocalypse actually might come in handy about now. It would give the Wraith something to think about other than us."
"Ronon and his big gun might be nice to have around as well ... and I never thought I'd hear myself say that."
"I have no idea who Ronon is, but I'll take your word for it."
"And there's yet another thing, as if we need something else to worry about." Rodney studied him critically. "Your brain. I've kinda been going on the assumption that your memory will come back on its own, but that doesn't seem to be happening. You'd better not have permanent brain damage. I don't think Weir will like that."
Sheppard grinned at him. "Maybe if you hit me in the head, my memory will come back."
"That's a myth. How do you think that could possibly work? And don't tempt me, because I might take you up on it, if only to shut you up." After walking in silence for a minute, another thought occurred to him. "Hey, how come you can remember stupid stuff like that, but you can't remember your own name?"
"I do remember my name."
"Well, because I told it to you. Don't be an ass. You know what I mean."
"I don't know. I remember a lot of random things, little things. Fragments. Ewoks."
Rodney paused in the act of stepping over a root, and turned a flat glare on Sheppard. Karma. It had to be karma. He'd almost killed Teal'c in the gate back at the SGC; now karma had decided to punish him by stranding him in the wilderness with Sheppard. It was the only possible explanation. He really shouldn't ask, but he was morbidly curious ...
"Yeah, little furry guys with hang gliders and --"
Rodney glowered at him. "I know what Ewoks are, Sheppard."
"Then why'd you ask?"
"I didn't, I ... Christ." Back to walking in blessed silence until Sheppard apparently decided that one fragmentary childhood memory was not enough.
"Snickers bars," he said in a conversational tone. "There was this guy down the street who always gave out Snickers bars at Halloween. Whole ones. We'd go by his house five or six times in the course of an evening."
"Good for you," Rodney snapped, trying not to think about Snickers bars. Chocolate. He'd kill for chocolate right now.
"Hey, what say we go back by way of the town?" Sheppard asked, switching gears.
"Excuse me? I thought we were talking about Ewoks and Halloween. Where'd that come from?"
Sheppard pointed off generally to their left. "I could see it from up on the hill, and I don't think we're too far away. We're going to need rope, lots of it."
"We'll just have to get it from somewhere else. That town is full of Wraith."
"If you can point out somewhere else that has rope, I'll be happy to go there." Sheppard indicated the woods around them, pointedly.
"The farms," Jagan said, popping up almost under their feet.
Rodney covered his heart with his hand, just to make sure he wasn't having an attack. "Damn it! Could you not do that, please!"
"There are farms scattered all around here." Jagan ignored Rodney's comment, speaking mostly to Sheppard. "Like the one where Tekka and I used to ... well, anyway, he's right, the town is full of Wraith. But the farms should be safe."
Sheppard and McKay looked at each other, and Rodney waved his arm expansively. "Well, lead on!"
They did more walking that afternoon than Rodney had ever considered himself capable of. It amazed him that Sheppard was able to keep up, and he noticed the Colonel getting steadily whiter -- which he hadn't thought was possible -- as the day wore on. He hated this, the enforced connection between them that made it impossible for one of them to stop and rest without the other one having to stop as well to stay within scanner range. And they really didn't have time to stop, not if they were to make it off this world before they were either discovered by Wraith, or Sheppard's wound turned septic -- those were the two things that Rodney feared the most at this point.
The farms turned out to be excellent sources of rope, which they stored in the abandoned lookout post on top of the canyon wall. The problem was that the farms were very scattered, the roads often in poor shape, and at each one they had to search through barns and haylofts for what they needed. Rodney wondered about the overall absence of visible livestock, but he figured that most of the animals must have escaped after their owners were killed, becoming fodder for wild predators.
Digging through haylofts and lugging rope up the mountain was tiresome, hot, sweaty work, and they couldn't have done it without the kids. Jagan didn't mention their earlier argument, but he helped them willingly, and Rodney noticed that they slowly accreted more children who trotted to and fro, dwarfed by armloads of rope almost bigger than themselves. Where in the world did kids get all that energy? And where could he get some of it?
They stopped by the hot springs to check on the progress of the gunpowder. Rodney was happy to see that the kids had produced a damp, grayish paste and were spreading it out to dry in the sun.
"Nice work, you guys," he said. "I mean it. You've done good. Now just leave the stuff alone -- it'll need to be crushed up when it's dry, which is the really dangerous part, but we'll deal with that when we get there." In a rare attack of magnanimity, he went on, "After you finish that, go ahead and play or whatever it is that you guys do. We'll start a new batch in the morning."
As he spoke, he peeled off his flak vest and sweat-soaked jacket, and dropped them in a heap by the hot spring, sticking the scanner in a pocket of his pants. "I've had it. I'm dying of heat here." Seeing Sheppard's disapproving look, he added, "I know how you feel about proper mission procedures and all of that, but I'm not lugging those around anymore, unless you want to drag my heatstroke-stricken carcass back to the cave."
"If the Wraith find those --" Sheppard warned.
"They won't, all right? Look, if the Wraith show up here, they'll know we're up to something no matter what." He waved his hands around them, at the fires and the kids spreading out the pastelike gunpowder mixture to dry in the sun. "There's way too much to hide now. I hate to take a page from your book, but we're just going to have to hope. And I'd suggest that you leave your jacket here too, unless you want to keel over from heat exhaustion."
"I'm not hot," was Sheppard's terse reply.
Rodney started to ask how he could possibly not be hot, considering that they'd been running around in the sun all afternoon, but he took a second look at Sheppard, at his white face and trembling hands.
Oh, this was not good.
"On the other hand, it is getting late." Rodney stared up at the suns, willing them to move more quickly towards the horizon. "Maybe we should pack it in for the night. There's still a lot to do down here ..."
"There's a lot of daylight left, and a lot to do up there," Sheppard said, "and don't you dare sacrifice our chances of getting off this world on my account, McKay."
"I'm not doing that," Rodney retorted in a low voice, uncomfortably aware of the curious eyes and ears of the children fixated upon them. "I should point out, though, that if you collapse because you pushed yourself too hard, then I'm not going to be able to go anywhere without dragging you, and we're both completely screwed, Colonel."
Sheppard heaved a sigh, and Rodney knew he'd won. Sort of. "One more trip up to the canyon, and then we'll stay up there for a while and start working on the net. Fair?"
They each shouldered a load of rope and set off up the hill. Rodney was positive that he could feel blisters on top of his blisters. He was afraid to take off his boots, afraid to see what things looked like down there. He had only the vaguest idea of what trench foot was, but he wouldn't be surprised if he was developing it.
Sheppard said suddenly, "You're lying to me. I don't know why, but I think you are."
McKay rolled his eyes, wondering what paranoid fantasy he was on about now. "About what?"
"You really are my brother, aren't you?"
It had been sort of flattering the first time, but this was just getting creepy. "For God's sake, Sheppard! Will you get off this strange and annoying mental tangent? For the last time, no! Use your head! Sheppard! McKay! What, were we separated at birth and raised by different families or something? Get over yourself!"
Sheppard just grunted, and Rodney fervently hoped that he wasn't getting delirious. Carrying a raving Colonel around in the woods was not his idea of a good time.
They reached the bunker and deposited their burdens. The accumulated pile of rope was up to Rodney's waist, and he figured that it looked like enough to build one hell of a big net. He threw himself down in the block of afternoon sunshine falling through the bunker's open doorway. "Enough is enough, Colonel. I'm done traipsing around through cow pastures. I'm sitting right here and tying knots in rope for the rest of the day, and I suggest you do likewise."
Sheppard gave him a suspicious look, as if suspecting that Rodney was indulging him, but sank down gratefully. He dropped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
Rodney deliberated and then took out two of his remaining powerbars. He tossed one into Sheppard's lap; the Colonel opened his eyes. "What's this?"
"Energy," Rodney said, taking a bite. "We could both use some. I'm going to fall flat on my face if I don't get my blood sugar up, and that's not a good thing when one is at the top of a cliff."
Sheppard tossed the powerbar back to him. "I'm not hungry."
"Of course you are. I haven't eaten since breakfast, and I haven't seen you eat anything, either."
"I said I'm not hungry, Rodney. Leave it alone."
He didn't like this, didn't like it at all. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. "Well, drink something, at least." The kids had supplied them with canteens, or more accurately, with leather bags that made the water inside them taste like a horse's ass. It staved off dehydration and that was about all he could say for it.
Sheppard cracked an eye open, gave him a slight grin, and took a drink. He shuddered. "Nasty."
"At least your taste buds still work." All Rodney wanted to do was just stay here, lying on the floor, but he forced his sore muscles to pull him upright. Picking up an armload of rope, he tossed it down next to Sheppard, then got some for himself.
"So ..." The Colonel picked at the rope with his fingers. "We're making a net. Have you ever made a net?"
Honestly, of all the dumb questions ... "Oh yes, of course. In between getting my PhD and working for the Stargate program, I had a brief yet satisfying career as a fisherman. Of course not. I know as much about making nets as the next physicist. Er -- what are you doing?"
Sheppard had picked up a piece of rope. His fingers danced over it deftly, bending and wrapping. "I'm not sure. Apparently, tying knots is one of the skills the Air Force teaches you." He gave his knot a tug and then held it up. "Look good for net-making?"
It looked more than good -- it looked a hell of a lot more solid than any knot Rodney knew, considering that his entire knowledge of knots was limited to tying his shoelaces. "Er ... showmehowtodothat?" he mumbled.
"What was that?"
"Show me. How to. Do that."
"You don't know how to tie a knot?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course I can tie a knot, it's just that tying knots for holding Wraith ships was somehow, regrettably, left off the physics curriculum at university. I'll be sure and bring up their oversight to the faculty. In the meantime, it might be in our best interests if all my knots don't come undone the moment the dart hits them."
"Well, get over here; I can't teach you if you can't see what I'm doing."
Opting to ignore the imperious tone, Rodney sat down shoulder to shoulder with Sheppard, and followed the man through his motions. After a few repetitions, he felt that he had it, and they both settled into knot-tying.
It was quiet and peaceful. Outside the suns moved through the sky and the shadows grew long under the trees. The door of the bunker looked out on a breathtaking view of canyon, pines and mountains. It made Rodney think of Colorado and his all-too-infrequent visits to Cheyenne Mountain. Did Sam go hiking in the Colorado mountains? he wondered. Probably she did. In fact, probably she went for thirty-mile jogs in the mountains.
The thought occurred to him that, these days, Carter was not so much a fantasy fixation as simply a touchstone for Earth. He doubted if she ever thought about him; probably she didn't even remember him. But she was just about the only nice thing that he had to remember about Earth. He hadn't spoken to his family in years, and the last time he'd been back, his cat seemed to be settling happily into life with his neighbor. Despite the fact that she didn't like him much and every time he'd seen her, he'd screwed up in her eyes, Carter still remained a nice memory -- something pleasant to associate with the world of his birth.
A sudden movement from Sheppard jerked him out of his reverie. The Colonel's hand had gone to his stunner, and following his intent stare, Rodney saw that a shadow had fallen across the doorway of the bunker. As he reached for his own stunner, however, two small figures appeared around the corner: Tekka and Jagan.
"Thought you kids knocked off for the night," Sheppard said.
Jagan shrugged. "We guessed we'd see if you wanted a hand." And that was probably the closest he'd come to an apology for his earlier outburst.
Sheppard showed the kids how to tie secure knots as well, and they settled down willingly to net-making. Tekka grew quickly bored with it, though, and wandered outside to play in the last of the sunshine. Rodney suppressed a flash of irritation; the kids had been working hard all day, and they really did deserve a break.
In fact, he could use a break too. And before they got too far along on the net, he'd better figure out what shape it should be.
Sheppard looked up when Rodney rose to his feet, massaging out the cramps in his legs. "Where are you going?"
"Outside." When a quirked eyebrow indicated that more explanation was required, he said impatiently, "Going to check anchors for rope placement. I need a system that will raise the net instantly, without tangling. And we don't want any of the ropes to come loose when the weight of the dart hits them."
"Just remember ..." Sheppard's eyes strayed to the scanner, currently lodged in McKay's pants pocket.
"Yes, yes, I won't go far. Thank you for the entirely gratuitous warning, Colonel."
He ducked outside, stretched and breathed deeply of the evening air, and ambled along the clifftop to get a look at the local trees. As he'd feared, the trees right at the edge were far too spindly and unstable to take the weight of the net, but farther back from the edge, there were some good-sized ones. They'd have to use a lot of ropes, and distribute out the weight as much as possible. The real trick was going to be coming up with an effective pulley system for raising the net. It made an interesting application of practical physics, the sort of challenge he'd almost never had back on Earth, although the Pegasus Galaxy seemed to delight in giving him near-daily practice.
Using a stick as a stylus, he began sketching plans in the dirt, erasing with his foot and redrawing as new ideas occurred to him. Snapping twigs and the pattering of small feet alerted him to Tekka's presence.
"What are you drawing?"
"A Wraith-killing machine," he answered shortly.
"Oooh," was the reply, as she leaned over his drawing.
"Which I can't presently see, because your head is in the way."
Tekka pulled back with a murmured, "Sorry."
Rodney just muttered "hmmph" and returned to measuring angles with his stick, before abandoning the drawing to collect real-world data. Tekka tagged behind him as he went to the edge of the cliff, holding his hands out in front of him to estimate distances, then headed off into the edge of the woods, seeking a few good, sturdy trees to use as the bases for the main lines in his pulley setup.
He was completely intent on his mental calculations, not on the world around him ... which was why he didn't notice the alien wasps until they swarmed up in his face.
Rodney let out a yell and stumbled backwards, instinctively bringing his arms up in front of his eyes. As if it would be any better to die from bee stings in his arms rather than his face ... Sharp pains stabbed at his forearms and hands, and he yelled again, staggering backwards and wildly swatting at the creatures in a blind panic.
The alien bees, or whatever they were, scattered on the breeze and Rodney leaned against a tree, panting.
"Are you all right?" Tekka asked, hovering anxiously. Rodney ignored her. He lowered his arm and, in the calm of pure terror, studied the red pinpricks on his hand and wrist -- five or six of them, little white dots with an angry red halo around them.
Alien bees. Maybe whatever made him allergic to Earth bees wouldn't be a problem here. But he was already noticing that the ugly red flush around the stings had spread out, joining them to one another in a hideous game of connect-the-dots.
And his lips and eyes had begun to itch, sting and tingle.
Epinephrine. It wasn't easy to think, between the panic and his growing physical discomfort, but he seized upon that thought and reached for his pocket. Slapped the thin cloth of a T-shirt over bare chest.
Good God. His flak vest -- and epinephrine injectors -- were back at the hot springs ... at least a half hour away, even for the kids. He didn't have anywhere near that kind of time.
And then, of course, he really did panic -- which made it even harder to tell what he was really feeling, whether the sensation of his throat seizing up was actually happening or was just a symptom of a growing panic attack. He was dizzy as hell -- that much he could be sure of, and it drove him to his knees, clutching at the tree while the forest spun around him. His lips felt thick and weird. So did his tongue and his throat, and burning pain rippled through the core of his body. Nausea seized him and he found himself on hands and knees on the pine needles. He wasn't sure where Tekka had gotten off to, and really didn't care, because he realized that he was going to die here, in an alien forest.
Oh God. Oh hell. Oh damn. He really couldn't see a way out of this one. Nausea surged through him and he vomited, or tried to; his throat was closing up, and he had one truly awful moment when he thought that he might not even live long to suffocate, but rather, that he'd drown in his own vomit first -- but he got his airway clear, or rather, clearer, and he doubled over in an agonizing struggle to breathe. He pressed his burning, itching face against the cool earth, fighting desperately for air.
Familiar voice. A hand on his shoulder, tentative, gently shaking him.
"McKay? You all right?"
Sheppard. Rodney's first reaction, in the midst of the panic, was overwhelming relief. Sheppard knew -- knew he was allergic to insect stings, knew what epinephrine injectors were used for. Sheppard knew ...
"Rodney, what the hell happened to you?"
... but he realized, clutching at the last vestiges of his fading consciousness, that amnesiac Sheppard didn't know. Didn't have a clue. And he couldn't tell him what to do ... couldn't even hold enough rationality together to remember what it was that he wanted to tell him ... and there wouldn't have been time to get the injectors anyway, it didn't matter ...
As Rodney spiraled down into darkness, his last coherent thought was how stupid it was, how unfair, to survive hand-to-hand combat against the Wraith only to die of a damned bee sting.
Chapter Thirteen: Dealing with Medical Emergencies
The best way to deal with injuries and sicknesses is to take measures to prevent them from happening in the first place. Treat any injury or sickness that occurs as soon as possible to prevent it from worsening.
U.S. Army Survival Manual
In a way, it was a relief when Rodney left the bunker, because Sheppard could relax and stop trying to keep the pain off his face. His leg was on fire, even after sitting and resting for the last hour or so. It scared him, scared him badly, how much worse it had gotten in the course of the day.
He looked up to see Jagan watching him. "You're hurtin'," the boy said.
"Yeah." Sheppard's mouth twisted in a half-grin. "Don't tell Rodney."
Jagan just nodded and leaned back against the wall, deftly tying pieces of rope together. Clearly accustomed to working with his hands, he'd picked up the knot on the first try and was probably better at it than Sheppard by now.
Just as they'd settled back into quiet, a sudden, hoarse yell from somewhere outside made them both bolt upright. In Sheppard's case, this turned out to be a very bad idea, as the sudden movement jarred his leg and sent a sheet of fire coursing through his veins. He doubled over, gasping. As the haze faded from his vision, he got hold of the wall and pulled himself upright.
Jagan, pale-faced, was looking from Sheppard to the doorway of the bunker, as if uncertain which he should be more concerned about. "I'm fine," Sheppard gasped, trying to ignore the lightheadedness that had come when he stood up. "Don't go out there. Wait for me."
He stooped to pick up his stunner in one hand and crutch in the other. Looking across the room, he grimaced to see Rodney's stunner lying where he'd left it, beside a pile of knotted rope. Damn the man.
"My sister --" Jagan began.
"Hush!" Sheppard listened intently, trying to tune out the sound of his own harsh breathing to determine what was happening in the woods. Wraith? Had Rodney actually gotten too close to the edge and fallen in? He couldn't possibly be that absent-minded ... could he?
"I'm not staying here," Jagan said shortly. As he started for the doorway, Sheppard heard a sudden patter of small, pounding feet, and Tekka skidded around the corner, running full tilt. As soon as she saw them, she began babbling so quickly that Sheppard couldn't make out any of the words except for an occasional, hurried Rodney.
"What happened? Slow down," Sheppard urged her.
The child gulped and got herself under control. "Rodney. Rodney's sick. I don't know why..." She trailed off, looking helpless and scared.
Sick? He hadn't been stupid enough to eat something poisonous in the woods, had he? Hooking the crutch under his arm, Sheppard hobbled after the kids as quickly as he could.
They found him under the pine trees, a couple dozen yards away from the bunker. "Sick" was obviously an understatement. When they came upon him, he was on his hands and knees, throwing up, and as Sheppard sank down next to him, Rodney rolled over onto his side, his hands curled to his chest. His face and arms were red, blotchy, and alarmingly swollen. Sheppard had no idea what was wrong with him.
"Rodney? McKay? You all right?" Stupid, stupid question -- he was very obviously not all right. Sheppard gripped his shoulder, shook at him, trying to get his attention. Rodney seemed completely unaware of his surroundings; his body convulsed, and he made a dreadful wheezing sound as he gasped for air. Sheppard realized, then, that Rodney was rapidly losing his ability to breathe. His tongue and throat seemed to be swelling like the rest of him -- cutting off his air supply.
What in ...?
"Rodney! What the hell happened to you?" He shook him again, then tried to get him upright in the hopes that it might help with his breathing a little, but Rodney just slumped against him, leaving him confused and terrified. And furious with himself. Because there was a horrible familiarity to all of this -- what was happening to Rodney, why it was happening -- he knew this, dammit, he knew it. And he knew what to do about it. He was positive of that. He simply couldn't remember.
The kids hovered around them, scared. Tekka was clinging to her brother's leg. And Sheppard gripped a double handful of Rodney's shirt, feeling Rodney's heart beating wildly, feeling his own heart pounding.
He had to remember. Rodney would die if he didn't remember.
Rodney would die.
And that, apparently, was what it took.
The floodgates opened.
For an instant he thought he'd drown in the dizzying cascade of memories. Atlantis and Elizabeth and puddlejumpers and the Stargate; Ferris wheels and girls he'd dated and Afghanistan and flying F-14s; Wraith and Ford and Ronon and Teyla and ... and ... and a desert planet, where Rodney had said he was allergic to bees, and after which Sheppard had learned everything he could about ... about ... anaphylactic shock, that was the word, because if one of his people had a medical condition, then he felt he had a responsibility to watch out for it. And now he knew what that naggingly familiar marker-shaped object in his pocket was for, and why he carried it. Epinephrine.
He fumbled out the auto-injector, sinking in memories and trying not to drown, well aware that Rodney's life depended on every second.
Someone ... a doctor ... Beckett, Carson Beckett, that was the man who had shown him how to use one of these things --
"Twist off the cap. Now swing back, and hit the thigh -- bugger it all, not like that, you aren't trying to stick a meat fork in him --"
He flicked off the cap, turned the black business end downward, and stabbed Rodney's thigh with a satisfying click. Carson had told him to hold it for ten seconds, and he counted aloud, every word ticked off by the sound of Rodney's choking efforts to breathe. Gasping for air himself, he dropped it and rubbed his thumb vigorously across the injection site, still following Carson's memorized directions.
Please. Please. Please work, please....
Looking up, seeing the kids still hovering, he snapped at them: "Go down the mountain, back to the hot springs. Get his vest. Bring it back here." Rodney surely carried an injector as well, and hopefully antihistamines, which Carson had said were necessary to keep the reaction under control once the immediate effects of the epinephrine wore off.
The kids took off running as if Wraith were on their heels -- oh damn, Wraith, he'd forgotten to warn them to watch out for Wraith. But they probably wouldn't have listened anyway, and he had more pressing things even than Wraith to worry about at the moment.
Not really by design, he had clamped Rodney against him with one hand splayed out across the man's chest -- it was the only way to hold him in a position where he could both monitor Rodney's breathing and use the auto-injector. He could feel McKay's heart racing against his palm, pounding like the beat of a runaway team of horses. And Carson had warned him about that, too: "Epinephrine is just another word for adrenaline, Colonel. Know what you feel like after a bad scare? Picture that, times ten. In a perfect world, you only do this if you have a medical team on the way..."
Well, obviously he didn't have a medical team coming. And the very definition of eternity, he found, was crouching in a sunlit forest, cradling his best friend against his chest, listening to him struggle for air, praying for the shot to take effect, praying for the shot not to make him worse or kill him, wishing for a miracle in the form of Carson Beckett to descend from the sky in a puddlejumper. Just one miracle. After everything they'd been through, it wasn't asking for much.
And maybe he had his miracle after all. Rodney's contorted body relaxed, and for just one instant Sheppard felt a surge of panic, but then he realized that Rodney's breathing, though still harsh, no longer had that horrible whistling sound. His body was hot, damp with sweat, trembling, but the terrible strain as he struggled to breathe had vanished.
No response, but a little bit at a time, he could feel the rigid body relaxing against him -- Rodney slowly sagging into his arms, no longer arching stiffly with the struggle for air. Sheppard felt his head falling forward as his own body relaxed as well. He let his forehead rest against Rodney's damp hair, shaking slightly himself. He'd be embarrassed as hell if anybody else saw this. But no one could; even Rodney himself didn't seem to be entirely conscious at the moment.
So he knelt on the forest floor, feeling the pine needles prickling his knees through his pants, the late afternoon sunlight warm on his shoulders, and held onto Rodney McKay for all he was worth. Just feeling him breathe ... all he wanted was to feel the rhythmic rise and fall of Rodney's chest. The pain in his injured leg -- cramped under him in his awkward kneeling position -- didn't matter next to this. It had worked, and Rodney was breathing, and he didn't really want to think past that, not right now.
His memories were a jumbled mess, still needing to be sorted out. But they were there, and as he knelt in the forest, the past couple of days began rearranging themselves, seen through a clearer lens.
And, strangely, he found himself grinning, remembering his own insistence that Rodney was lying about being his brother, and Rodney's huffy protests. "Sorry, McKay," he murmured to Rodney's sweat-damp hair. "I guess you weren't lying after all. Though at the same time, I think you doth protest too much."
Rodney twitched and Sheppard pulled his head back quickly. "Rodney?"
There was an unintelligible mumble and Rodney began, feebly, to struggle. Sheppard realized what he was trying to do, and why, just in time to hastily roll him over as he started retching. "That's nice, McKay. Just lovely." He supported Rodney by the shoulders until the spasms eased; the other man didn't seem to have the strength to hold himself up.
Relaxing, Rodney sank down until his head was resting on Sheppard's thigh. He breathed in rapid, desperate-sounding gasps, and what Sheppard could see of his face was still so blotchy and swollen as to be almost unrecognizable. His whole body trembled and occasionally flinched, a rapid convulsive movement. They'd bought some time, but, Sheppard thought, they really weren't out of the woods yet. Literally and figuratively.
"Rodney? Hey, McKay?" He lightly tapped Rodney's too-hot skin, getting an indistinct mumble. "I know you're probably feeling like hell right now, and I wouldn't blame you, but I'm thinking we ought to get inside. We're awfully exposed out here, and the last thing we need right now is a Wraith inviting itself to the party." Also, he was finally noticing the pain in his leg again, twisted under him. It hurt like an absolute mother. If he didn't get in a more comfortable position soon, he might be joining Rodney on the ground.
There was a long silence before a slurred, hoarse, unspeakably wonderful voice said slowly, "Go to hell, I'm staying right here, Colonel."
"I'll take that as a yes, then."
What followed would probably have been a highly amusing comedy of errors to an outside observer. Sheppard's efforts to get Rodney on his feet were severely hampered by the fact that he couldn't get himself up without outside help. He ended up dragging himself vertical on a tree trunk, while trying to drag Rodney along with him. This operation stopped in the middle when Rodney had to double over and throw up again. "Side effect ... epinephrine," he mumbled, knotting his fingers in Sheppard's sleeve to stop himself from falling over. "Sucks. Very much. I want to lie down."
"So do I," Sheppard admitted. "In the bunker. Arm over my shoulders. Okay. On three, we go up. Three."
"Cheating," Rodney complained, tilting into him as they got upright and very nearly sending them back to the ground again.
"I know. It worked, didn't it?"
At some point he'd lost his crutch and so he had to lean on Rodney, who was simultaneously leaning on him. The trip back to the bunker seemed about four miles long, and by the time Sheppard caught himself on the bunker's rough wall, his ears were buzzing and a swirl of vertigo let him know that walking on his injured leg was not turning out to be a good idea at all. He tried to put Rodney down gently through the bunker's doorway, but they ended up going over in a heap. His leg slammed into the floor and his vision blanked.
He came back to himself with his head pounding and a scratchy, worried voice saying, "-- not fair, I'm the one with the lethal allergies, you're not allowed to die. Damn it, Colonel, wake up now."
To his utter astonishment, five fingers sank into his hair and clenched down hard -- pulling out several hanks by the roots, from the feel of things. Sheppard's eyes snapped open with a pained gasp of "Jeez, McKay!"
"Sleeping on guard duty, had to wake you up somehow and I can't reach any other part of you."
Sheppard blinked up at a gray blur which eventually decided to become the ceiling of the bunker. Twisting his head to one side, he saw blue and gray -- Rodney's T-shirt and leg. He rolled his head back until he managed to meet Rodney's eyes, still half-swollen shut from the allergic reaction. They were lying at an angle to each other; Rodney had either slid or rolled a few feet away when they'd fallen, and he was right, Sheppard's hair was the only part he could reach. The hair in which his fingers were still entwined with painful tightness ...
"McKay, let go of my hair or I will shoot you."
The grip relaxed and his scalp stopped screaming at him, although he could still feel Rodney's half-curled hand resting against his head -- which would have been alarming and creepy in any other circumstance, but in this case was actually sort of ... comforting.
Getting up would be the thing to do. He would have to do it eventually. He just really, really didn't want to.
"I think I'm having a heart attack," Rodney rasped.
Sheppard thought about this for a minute and finally said, "Your body's full of adrenaline. It's probably that."
"So, you've suddenly remembered you have a medical degree, hmm?" There was a pause and then Rodney spoke again, his voice still sounding as if someone had tried to strangle him. "Er ... not that I don't appreciate lying here feeling like crap, but ... I should be dead. I really should."
"I carry an Epi-Pen with me," Sheppard said. "Beckett showed me how to use it."
There was an even longer pause and then: "Either I'm hallucinating or some of your memory really has come back."
Sheppard grinned. "Took you long enough to pick up on that. Genius, my ass."
"I'm ill," Rodney wheezed in protest. "Seriously, did it?"
"I remember a lot of things that I didn't before."
"Oh, how delightfully vague." Some of the familiar tetchiness was starting to reassert itself. "Do you remember everything? Or just some things?"
"How'm I supposed to know? If I didn't remember it, I wouldn't know ... jeez, Rodney."
"Okay, now who's being obtuse? I'm not asking if you remember the names of your childhood goldfish. Just the big things ... Atlantis, me, and so forth." His voice sounded stronger, less breathless. That was good, very good.
And this was also much too good an opening to pass by. "You're not as big as Atlantis, Rodney, in spite of all those cafeteria desserts. Not even half as big."
"Oh, har. Hey, you remember the cafeteria?"
"I said my memory's come back; weren't you listening?"
"And I asked if you had all of it, to which you didn't reply."
"I did reply; you just didn't like the answer." And it was a true answer: he really didn't know, had no way to know. Everything was still a giant, jumbled pile. There was a lot there, and he could access it, but the organization was still screwed all to hell.
A note of suspicion crept into Rodney's hoarse voice. "How long have you had it back?"
"Huh? Not long."
"Yeah, right. You've been messing with me, haven't you, Colonel? That's unfair."
"I have not. I've been perfectly honest with you, Rodney."
"Or maybe you're messing with me now."
"What's Teyla's last name?"
Sheppard sighed. He had to think a minute before he remembered. "Emmagan."
"You had to think about it," Rodney accused.
As he opened his mouth to reply, sudden insight hit Sheppard and he understood what Rodney was really doing: trying to distract himself from being scared out of his mind. His glib reply died on his lips and he floundered for a moment. In the silence, over the sound of Rodney's harsh breathing, he heard a pounding of feet outside.
The kids, had to be the kids, but it was too soon and a sudden panicked scenario scrolled through his brain: Jagan and Tekka, ambushed halfway to the hot springs by Wraith, fleeing back to Sheppard for help. He sat up quickly, much too quickly. Spots danced in his vision and he reeled. Looking around for their other gun took a sudden backseat to simply keeping himself from passing out.
As his vision cleared, Jagan came sliding into the window of late afternoon sunlight in the bunker's doorway. Something heavy hit Sheppard in the chest, and he blinked at it: Rodney's vest and jacket.
Jagan bent over, hands on his knees, gasping to get his breath back. Sheppard just stared in amazement. Surely the kid had broken some kind of land speed record getting back here so fast.
"Nice work," he said finally. "Where's Tekka?"
"Back at ... hot springs," Jagan gasped. "I'm a faster runner. Left her there."
"Colonel." Rodney's panicked whisper cut through the lingering fog in Sheppard's head. "Not doing so good over here." His voice sounded strangled again, and Sheppard remembered what Beckett had said, about the effects of the epinephrine being very temporary.
He dragged himself over to Rodney while digging frantically through the pockets of the vest. When Carson had said that, in a hospital, antihistamines were used to control the reaction, Sheppard wasn't sure if he'd meant regular antihistamines or some sort of heavy-duty industrial dose. Probably the latter. But they'd have to make do with what they had. He found a packet of pills wrapped in a plastic bag, and held it up to the light. Bingo!
"Think you can swallow some pills, Rodney? And keep them down?"
"Don't know." The scratchy whisper was so slurred he could barely understand it, and a wheezing note had crept back into Rodney's breathing.
"Good, that'll do for 'yes'. Jagan, please hand me my canteen."
He was calm only because he had to be. He'd never had any trouble keeping his head when he was about to die, when others around him were about to die. But somehow it was easier when there was something to shoot at. This tentative back-and-forth with death ... he wasn't good at it. Getting an arm under Rodney's shoulders, Sheppard tilted him upright and helped him swallow two of the pills. When those seemed to stay down, he gave him two more and then scooted them both into a more comfortable position against the wall. The limited field first aid that he'd learned told him that sitting upright helped with difficult breathing, so he intended to keep Rodney as vertical as possible, but he wasn't going to stay up himself without something to lean against.
Jagan straightened up, his breathing returning to something close to normal. "I'm gonna go check on my sister," he said. "Don't trust her not to run off on her own."
Sheppard nodded over Rodney's head. "We'll probably spend the night up here. I can't really see us walking down the mountain at the moment."
"We can bring you food --" Jagan began.
Sheppard shook his head. "No. Not with the Wraith in the woods. I'd rather have you avoid unnecessary trips. We'll be fine."
Jagan pressed his lips together in the stubborn look that indicated he once again resented being told what to do. He turned and jogged out of sight.
Sheppard sighed and let his head roll back against the wall. "And I thought you were stubborn."
"Still here, you know. My ears still work just fine," Rodney grumbled.
Sheppard grinned, though he knew Rodney couldn't see him. "I know."
Neither of them spoke after that. There wasn't much to say. It had been too close, and they both knew it. For the first time, Sheppard found himself thinking about how high the odds really were against their ability to get themselves back to Atlantis. He hadn't realized just how imperfect was his amnesia-clouded picture of the overall situation. Now he could see that Rodney really did have cause for his ongoing pessimism. Even if they did manage to capture a dart, they were untold light-years from home, trapped on a planet that might or might not have a Stargate, and now to top it all off, both of them were in shaky health as well.
One thing at a time. What else could they do? The alternative was to resign themselves to spending the rest of their lives here, and the rest of their lives might well be quite short if the Wraith kept searching for them.
The shadow of the mountain peaks fell across their hut, although through the doorway Sheppard could still see the mountain peaks gleaming reddish in the light of the setting suns, as the shadow crept up them and the sky faded through shades of pink into dark blue. The wind grew colder, and darkness gathered under the trees and in the corners of the room. Sheppard could feel the chill of the stone wall behind his back, seeping into his body, making his bones ache and the line of fire along his lower leg burn brighter. McKay's solid body was a block of warmth against his chest. When Rodney moved suddenly, sliding away from him, it was the cold he noticed the most.
Rodney stood up shakily in the doorway, blocking the light. He clutched at the doorframe, steadying himself, and took some deep breaths.
"Feeling better?" Sheppard asked. He certainly wasn't, but it would be nice if one of them was.
"Compared to asphyxiating? The only way to go from there is up, Colonel." His voice was still hoarse, but not as choked and awful-sounding as it had been earlier. With the glow of the mountain peaks behind him, his face was hidden by shadows; Sheppard couldn't tell how much of the swelling had gone down.
"Where are you going?" Sheppard asked when Rodney turned his back and started to lurch out the door. For an instant he had the idea that Rodney was delirious and in danger of walking off the cliff.
There was an exasperated sigh. "Kindly don't make me draw you a picture, Colonel." And he was gone.
Sheppard took advantage of Rodney's absence to move himself into a more comfortable position without having to hide his grimaces of pain as his leg bumped on the floor. It was idiotic, macho pride, and he knew it; Rodney was far from stupid, and was well aware of the seriousness of Sheppard's injury. But at least if he didn't dwell on it, Rodney wouldn't obsess on it, and they could continue to move forward.
He still didn't have his crutch -- it had been dropped in the forest when he'd come upon Rodney in the throes of anaphylaxis. So he used the next best thing, the wall, and dragged himself over to the pile of rope, which was the only thing in the whole building that offered some sort of protection from the cold hard floor. Maybe he should have had the kids bring up some food and blankets, after all. But he wasn't about to have them risk themselves after dark, in woods infested with Wraith and God knew what else.
Come to think of it, Rodney was alone out there with all of that, too, in the growing darkness. This thought forced Sheppard from his comparatively comfortable position on the rope, to a much less stable tilt against the wall. Rodney, of course, picked that moment to come through the doorway in an unsteady jog. He crashed against the doorframe, rebounded off it, staggered, and used the object that he was carrying -- Sheppard's crutch -- to keep himself from falling over.
"Rodney! Is something chasing you?" Sheppard looked around wildly for a Wraith stunner, discovered that the one he hadn't dropped in the woods was just out of reach, and while he was debating whether or not he could take a step towards it without falling over, Rodney spoke in a voice that managed to be scornful, breathless and weak all at the same time.
"Of course not."
"Then why are you running in the goddamn dark?"
"Because I'm hyped up on adrenaline and I'm really freaking paranoid, that's why." Rodney held out the crutch impatiently; Sheppard took it. "It doesn't help that there's nothing irrational about being scared out there, considering that we're in the wilderness surrounded by Wraith and bears."
"We haven't seen any bears." Sheppard decided not to mention that predator's scream that he'd heard two nights ago. He wasn't being dishonest; they hadn't seen any bears. "Um, thanks," he added, resting some of his weight on the crutch.
"Sure, anytime." Rodney looked around the rapidly darkening interior of the bunker, and sighed. "This is not going to be a comfortable night, is it?"
"Depends on how much effort we want to expend." Sheppard nodded towards the door. "Those pine needles are soft. I spent my first night on this world in a pile of them. The trouble is ..." He trailed off. The trouble was he didn't think he could carrying an armload of anything right now, and he didn't like the idea of Rodney going out there alone.
"Right," Rodney sighed, apparently coming to the same conclusion. "I'll be the beast of burden, never mind the fact that I feel like crap and the world is impolitely spinning around me. But if I go out there, you are damn well going out there too, and you're bringing a gun."
Without much choice, they did exactly that. Sheppard stood in the doorway of the bunker, or rather, leaned against the wall, Wraith stunner at the ready. Rodney gathered armloads of the aromatic needles, and at Sheppard's instructions, broke off some of the lower branches of the pine trees as well. These would serve as a ground cover to help insulate them from the cold floor of the bunker. Rodney kept up a steady stream of complaints, but Sheppard noticed how his hands shook as he bent over to gather the armloads of needles.
Their final foray was a trip to the waterfall to fill their canteens. Sheppard limped doggedly along, teeth gritted and determined not to make a sound. Rodney dipped the canteens in the falling water and picked up the other Wraith stunner on the way back to the cave.
"Well, let's look on the bright side, at least," Rodney remarked as they, respectively, limped and shuffled through the doorway of the bunker. The walk, short though it was, had been hard on both of them. "The water seems to be fine. Neither one of us has picked up space dysentery ... yet."
"Thank you, McKay, for finding yet another way that this experience could become immeasurably worse." Sheppard sank down on the blessedly soft heap of needles. They'd stacked it next to the pile of rope so that they would be wedged between the rope and the wall, hopefully giving them a little bit more insulation to help conserve body heat.
"If you like that, wait until you hear my next one." He did not, however, speak immediately, but gathered up his flak vest and went through the pockets methodically. Sheppard was about to ask what he was searching for, when he felt a thick cylinder pressed into his hand. It was another Epi-Pen.
"Now what's this for? I thought you were getting better."
After a somewhat uncharacteristic hesitation, Rodney said, "Did Carson ever mention biphasic reactions to you?"
"Figures." The pile of needles and branches creaked as Rodney settled down next to him. It had grown so dark that Sheppard could barely make out his friend's shape in the faint light from the doorway. "Let's just say, sometimes it comes back. Usually a few hours later, if it's going to. You think you're fine, and then, bam, it's asphyxiation central again. I've never had it happen to me, but that doesn't mean it couldn't." He reached over and tapped the Epi-Pen. "That's what that's for. Keep it handy."
"Good Lord, McKay, it's a fun world you inhabit."
"Isn't it, though? One hardly needs the Wraith at all--"
His voice died at a barking scream from outside the bunker. It shivered on the night air and died away. It did not sound far off at all. Sheppard, disgruntled, wished he hadn't given that critter a passing thought earlier in the evening.
After a few moments of silence, Rodney's high, terrified whisper: "What was that?"
"Don't know. It sounds like some kind of mountain cat or something. I heard one a couple of days ago, too."
"And you didn't think to mention it, did you?"
"Slipped my mind."
"It's beginning to strike me, Sheppard, that this amnesia of yours is awfully convenient." Rodney began to worm his way into the pine needles. In such close quarters, this turned out to be impossible to do without bumping Sheppard on multiple occasions.
"Ow! Dammit, Rodney!" And he was bent over, breathing hard, one hand curling on his thigh -- as if touching his leg would help ease the pain. It had only been a light bump, but he was nearly paralyzed from it.
"Well, if someone would just move his fat ass, things like this wouldn't happen," Rodney's voice growled in the dark. But Sheppard felt a hand on his sleeve, moving down his arm to his leg, patting him down and presumably trying to ascertain if he was all right.
"Rodney, quit it." He shoved the hand back where it belonged, noticing in passing that it was ice cold and trembling. Sheppard then realized that Rodney, in his own way, was doing the stubborn macho pride thing as well. It didn't suit him at all, but that didn't mean he couldn't be good at it, as he was good at everything. When he wanted to be.
It also seemed unlikely that Sheppard himself would be sleeping much tonight, not with his leg hurting the way it was. "I'll take first watch."
Rustling next to him. "Oh, we're taking watches now? When did this happen?"
"Unless you want to wake up with whatever screamed just now sitting on your chest."
"Oh, that is a good point." Rodney sounded subdued.
"Also, I need to listen to your breathing just in case you get bipartial or whatever it was."
"Biphasic. You know perfectly well what I said. You're just trying to annoy me."
"Is it working?"
"Hell yeah, it's working." But he fell silent then, rather than continuing the argument. And it was Sheppard's turn to reach over hastily, placing his hand on Rodney's rib cage to make sure he was still breathing. He was rewarded for his troubles with a smack on the fingers.
"No groping, Colonel."
"You were groping me a minute ago."
"I'm glad no one's listening to this conversation." Rodney sighed and sank deeper into the pine needles. "Wake me up when it's my turn."
"I will," Sheppard lied, and settled himself against Rodney's warm back, propped up with a layer of branches between himself and the wall. Neither one of them mentioned dinner, which was particularly alarming in Rodney's case, but Sheppard really didn't think he could stomach the idea of food right now.
Rodney slipped rapidly into sleep, his breathing evening out. Sheppard listened to the rhythm, felt it against his side. Felt it lull him. After a few moments, he felt around in the pockets of his vest and got out a package of Tylenol. It was pathetically small against the pain he was experiencing -- morphine might have been too small. But he had to do something, or he wasn't going to be able to think. He swallowed two pills and washed them down with a drink of cold, slightly leathery water from the canteen.
While he waited for the Tylenol to kick in as much as it would, he pulled down a handful of rope on top of the Wraith stunner propped in his lap. It took him a few minutes to work out the technique of tying knots by feel, but soon he had it, and he worked quietly while Rodney slept next to him, warm and solid and alive.
The moonless night slipped by, and the cry of the alien predator did not come again.
Chapter Fourteen: Under Pressure
Stress can show our ability to handle pressure without breaking; it tests our adaptability and flexibility; it can stimulate us to do our best. Stress can inspire you to operate successfully and perform at your maximum efficiency in a survival situation. It can also cause you to panic and forget all your training.
--U.S. Army Survival Manual
Rodney woke, but for a moment he just kept his eyes shut. Until he opened them, he could believe, if only for a moment, that the last few days had been a horrible dream, and he was safe at home on Atlantis.
Unfortunately for this pleasant fantasy, Atlantis didn't smell like piney lavender; it didn't have the sounds of wind swishing through branches or birds singing somewhere far away; and most importantly, his bed didn't smell like perfume and contain little pokey bits jabbing him in awkward places. Also, his throat hurt, his head hurt, even his eyeballs hurt. He felt as if he had the world's worst hangover combined with a head cold. This did not have the makings of a good day so far.
Sighing, he opened his eyes and blinked -- painfully -- at the early morning sunlight shafting through the tops of trees just visible from the open doorway of the bunker. Yeah, no doubt about it ... still on the damn planet.
Moving was probably gonna hurt too. He turned his head and moaned as a stab of pain proved him right. One would think that his muscles would be starting to get used to all the unaccustomed activity, but no such luck, apparently. He felt like absolute crap. Wishing himself dead, although a bit halfheartedly considering how close he'd genuinely come to that condition yesterday, he squinted blearily at the lump next to him.
"Hey. Sheppard. Rise and shine." Rodney shifted a hand out of the pine needles -- Christ, even his hands hurt -- to poke at the general area where he assumed Sheppard's shoulder must be.
There was no response. Annoyed and now somewhat worried, Rodney pushed himself up on his elbows, wincing, and gripped the bony shape of Sheppard's shoulder . He gave him a short, hard shake. "Up and at 'em, pilot boy. Wraith wait for no man."
Still no response, none at all. Rodney went straight from the first stirrings of fear to sheer terror. He'd spent enough nights on various planets with Sheppard to know that the man was always a light sleeper and quick to waken. He scrambled to his knees, lightheaded with panic. It couldn't be. Sheppard could not have died in his sleep, lying next to Rodney who had just slept on like a total moron. How could he have been so stupid ... why hadn't he woken himself up to check on him ...
"Sheppard!" He scraped the pine needles away from the Colonel's face. Sheppard's skin was so white it was gray, with an angry red flush across his cheekbones. Touching his face, Rodney felt the heat radiating from him. His relief that Sheppard hadn't died in his sleep was still tempered with pulse-pounding fear. They had to get off this world, had to get off soon, or there wouldn't be any reason to hurry anymore. Lifting Sheppard's arm to feel his pulse, he discovered that the Colonel's hands were as cold as ice, his limbs limp and motionless.
"Sheppard. Colonel. Wake up. Get your lazy ass up. If I have to be up, so do you. Quit being a lazy bastard and help me out here!" Rodney prodded at him and insulted him until Sheppard moaned faintly and started trying to twist away, deeper into the heap of needles. "Ah, a sign of life. Stop faking it; you're just trying to get out of work, aren't you? Up. Now. Wakey wakey."
Sheppard blinked, and the glazed, disoriented look in his eyes sent Rodney off into a new paroxysm of fear. After a moment, the usual sharp intelligence in those eyes began to slowly coalesce, along with annoyance. "You are taking 'obnoxious' to whole new levels this morning, Rodney," he rasped in a faint, hoarse voice, and swallowed.
Rodney had to swallow a couple of times himself to get his voice to come out normal. "So, that's the thanks I get for being your personal alarm clock, hm?" Sheppard's only response was a slight twist of his mouth. Rodney bit his lip, anxious. "Wish I could offer you coffee, but want some water instead?"
Sheppard moved his head in a slight nod. Rodney reached for the canteen, lifted him and helped him drink. Heat radiated from his body as if from a furnace, and he was utterly limp -- no muscle tone in him at all.
Rodney's brain kept pounding at him in a nonstop litany of fear: We are screwed. Screwed, screwed, screwed. He tried his best to keep it out of his face and voice as he put the cap back on the canteen one-handed, although considering his generally lousy poker face, he suspected he was probably transparent as glass. "Well, Colonel, ready for breakfast and a thrilling day of Wraith-trapping?"
"Less than you might think," Sheppard mumbled.
"I wish I could let you lay here like a lazy lump, Colonel" -- more than you know -- "but remember the whole joined-at-the-hip thing. Regrettably, in order for me to build a Wraith trap, you'll have to come along, and this is not really something I have a choice about." Not if you're going to survive, that is.
"I know," Sheppard sighed, and Rodney could see a change come over him -- his muscles tensing, becoming capable of supporting him on his own; his face hardening, becoming determined. It was willpower he was seeing, Rodney realized, pure willpower -- the Colonel was using sheer will to force his sick, weak body to obey him.
Sheppard waved off Rodney, who backed away with extreme reluctance and sat down with his flak vest in his lap. He took out two of their remaining powerbars and offered one to the Colonel, who shook his head.
"You need to eat." Frustration and concern made the words come out more snippish than sympathetic.
"No point. It wouldn't stay down anyway."
Rodney threw the small foil-wrapped package into Sheppard's lap with a quick, fierce snap of his arm. "Fine, stay here and starve to death then, I don't care."
He left the bunker before he really started saying things he'd regret, and ventured to the edge of the cliff while chewing on candy-sweet mouthfuls that choked him like sand. The early morning sun turned the ridges and outcrops of rock to molten gold, and lit up the trees across the gulf as if they were on fire. The wind blowing down from the snow-capped mountains had a sharp bite that made him glad for the protection of his jacket.
A high-pitched whine drew his eyes to the sky. He watched the dark, needle-thin shape of a distant Wraith dart gliding across the blazing silver peaks of the mountains, its characteristic sound rising and falling as it crossed cliffsides and valleys, causing the sound to reverberate at different pitches to the ears of the scientist watching and listening below. He couldn't say what impulse made him continue to stand at the edge of the ravine, even knowing he could be seen if the dart happened to circle lower, if the pilot looked down and picked him out from the sea of pine trees behind him. He wasn't suicidal. He just ... didn't really care at the moment. He had never realized that it actually took strength to be afraid -- never realized, until he came to this point, when he couldn't spare the energy and still have enough left over for everything else he had to do.
The dart dwindled until it vanished amid the silver wisps of high cirrus clouds, and Rodney turned away, finishing his meager breakfast with dogged determination. He didn't want to look at Sheppard again, but everything he needed to begin the morning's work was in the bunker, so he swallowed fear and frustration and anger along with the last of the powerbar, and went inside.
Sheppard was up ... sort of ... leaning against the wall with a heap of rope in his lap and tying knots with grim fixation. The foil wrapper had been peeled back from the powerbar Rodney had given him. He glanced up when Rodney walked in, and rolled his eyes down to the powerbar, then picked it up and took a disinterested nibble as if to say, See?
Somehow, the fact that he was willing to make the effort caused Rodney's anger to well up afresh. He stalked past the Colonel to grab an armload of rope himself.
On opposite sides of the room, they worked on the net in a stiff silence. Its size had grown considerably since yesterday, and Rodney realized that Sheppard must have worked on it last night after they'd gone to bed ... while Rodney himself slept. Guilt combined with the headache throbbing behind his eyes, and his lingering sinus pain and discomfort, adding to his seething anger until he just wanted to hit something. Sheppard, namely, but it wouldn't be sporting at the moment.
Sheppard spoke suddenly, breaking into the silence. "Once we catch the dart ..." He trailed off.
Rodney wasn't at all in the mood to deal with verbal nattering. "What are you going on about? Spit it out." He tied off another knot with a vicious tug.
"Just this, Rodney. There's only room for one person in a dart -- the pilot."
Rodney took another handful of rope, not looking up. "I'm well aware of that, Colonel. The passengers will need to be dematerialized."
"Yeah. And passengers includes you. Are you okay with that?"
Rodney looked up in surprise, to find that he was being studied intensely. At the genuine concern in the hazel eyes, all his anger, frustration and helplessness boiled over. How dare Sheppard have the audacity to worry about Rodney, of all things, when his goddamn leg was rotting off and they couldn't stop it. "What? What is it? You think I'm a coward? You don't think I'm capable of doing this? Is that what it is?"
Sheppard blinked, startled by his vehemence. "No ... I'm just thinking that the only time you've ever had that happen to you was the whole Cadman ... incident ... and I wouldn't blame you if you were a little leery. It's different with a functional control system, and I had no trouble rematerializing Teyla and Ronon when we --"
"And can I just say, thank you so much for reminding me of that delightful phase of my life," Rodney interrupted. "Let me worry about my problems, and you worry about yours, Colonel. Except you won't, because you're congenitally incapable of worrying about yourself, but that's perfectly all right. I really don't give a damn anymore."
Sheppard leaned back, startled comprehension dawning on his face. "Oh," was all he said.
Rodney had the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that Sheppard had just seen right through him, into aspects of his emotions that he didn't even want to examine himself. And that made him even angrier. He hated the way that Sheppard always seemed to be able to read between the lines, to hear what he meant rather than what he said. He hated that he had ever allowed Sheppard, allowed anyone, to know him that deeply. And beyond all capacity for rational thought, he hated the inescapable fact that the man who sat across from him was dying -- that the bright spark of John Sheppard was fading, and he couldn't stop it, couldn't fix it, couldn't do anything except tie knots in a goddamn piece of rope.
A rustling sound, outside the bunker, drew him from his own dark thoughts. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sheppard reach for the Wraith stunner, but it was Tekka and Jagan, with a couple of other kids, who appeared around the corner. Jagan was armed with his usual machete; Tekka's arms were full of packages.
"Brought you food," Tekka said, depositing a couple of leaf-wrapped bundles in Rodney's lap and then, somewhat as an afterthought, in Sheppard's.
Rodney was surprised to find that the urchins' presence was actually sort of a ... relief. If he'd had to sit alone in this room with Sheppard for any longer, he had no idea what he would have done -- probably something completely insane, like beating the crap out of the Colonel or just bursting into tears. At least now he had minions to order around. It was almost like being back on Atlantis.
"Brought you blankets, too," Jagan said, as Tekka dropped them on the floor. "Can we help?"
"You certainly can." Rodney snapped his fingers and began pointing, delegating children. "You, go down to the hot springs and see if the gunpowder mixture is dry. If it is, I want you to get some of the others, wrap it in blankets and bring it up here. Be very, very careful and don't jar or drop it. You, you, go back to the caves and see if you can find me some pottery containers, the bigger the better. Get the others to help you search. You, um, go with them and get a few kids back up here to help us with this net. Well, what are you all waiting for? Go!"
"Wait!" Sheppard said sharply, bringing the kids up short as they began to scatter. "Are there Wraith out there?"
"There's always Wraith out there," Jagan said scornfully.
"Come here then." When the boy came over to him, Sheppard handed him the stunner. "Just point it, like this, and fire it by pushing this. Don't use it unless you absolutely have to. Hiding is better. But if you get in a bad spot, I want you to have some ability to defend yourself." He laid his hands on the boy's shoulders and looked him in the eyes. "Protecting the others while they make trips back and forth from this hill is going to be your responsibility, Jagan. It's up to you to make sure that nobody comes up here without you -- you, and that gun. I don't want any of you getting killed while trying to help us, and you also need to be sure that the Wraith don't find this place."
Jagan nodded, looking suddenly older than his twelve or so years. "I will," he said simply, and nodded to the others. They all slipped out the door and vanished into the forest.
"They've been avoiding the Wraith successfully for months," Rodney said stiffly. He didn't want to admit that he felt like a gigantic ass for sending the kids out, repeatedly, with no defense against the Wraith except for some rusty hand tools.
"I know. But being armed doesn't hurt." Sheppard set aside the bundles of food that Tekka had given him, without opening them, and went back to tying knots in the rope.
Rodney glowered at him, finding that he'd lost his own appetite. A darker suspicion had occurred to him. Sheppard had shown Jagan how to use the Wraith stunner. Sheppard knew that the kids needed to be able to defend themselves -- and he didn't anticipate being able to do it.
The Colonel might not realize it consciously, but Rodney could see what was going on here: John Sheppard, the eternal optimist, was preparing to die.
Rodney got up in a single sharp, quick motion. He picked up one of the blankets and reached out a hand to the Colonel, who looked up at it in surprise.
"Where are we going?"
"Down to the waterfall, to rebandage that leg of yours." Rodney shook his fingers at Sheppard impatiently. "Come on, come on, I haven't got all day."
"I really don't think it's necessary --"
"I really don't think I care. Get up."
Sheppard sighed and accepted the hand up. Once on his feet, he swayed and leaned against the wall for a moment, evading Rodney's attempt to help support him. Getting the crutch under his arm, he followed Rodney slowly out the door.
It was only a few hundred yards to the waterfall, but it took forever, and by the time they got there, Sheppard was trembling and white. He half-sat, half-fell on a moss-covered rock by the waterfall and began to fumble with the dark-stained wrappings on his leg.
"Let me help --"
"No," Sheppard said sharply, and he looked up at Rodney with an expression that was half commanding and half pleading. "I suggest you take a short walk."
"I don't want --"
"Please," Sheppard said, his voice so quiet it could barely be heard above the waterfall.
Without another word, Rodney ducked quickly behind the waterfall to the other side of the dead-end canyon, and took the opportunity to walk a little way along the opposite clifftop, inspecting the trees from this new vantage point. By now he'd developed a pretty good mental picture of the way his net-deploying rigging was going to need to be set up. Obviously, the final setup would depend on whether he could find adequate trees, but after inspecting the trees on this side, he felt more confident.
He gave Sheppard what he supposed was a fair amount of private time before starting back. As he came closer, he could see that the Colonel was lying on his back on the mossy ground by the waterfall, and he quickened his pace until he got close enough to see that Sheppard was breathing and his eyes were open, gazing up at the sky. A few scraps of blanket lay beside him, the parts that were left over from shredding it to make clean wrappings. There was no sign of his soiled bandages; probably he had thrown them into the waterfall and let the stream carry them away.
Sheppard turned his head when Rodney's shadow fell across him. "You know, I haven't really looked up at the clouds since I was a kid," he said.
"You're a pilot; you look at the clouds all the time." Rodney joined him on the ground, legs folded.
"I do. But I don't look at them, I mean really look at them. See that?" He raised a hand -- Rodney tried not to notice how it was shaking -- and pointed at white streamers slung across the depths of the blue sky.
"Yeah, they're clouds all right."
"Cirrus. High clouds in the upper atmosphere, made of ice crystals. And there's some cumulus, lower down ... You know, when I was a kid, I memorized all the cloud types, and what weather they indicated. One of the strangest things about losing my memory was not being able to remember the kinds of clouds. I was always interested in the sky."
He should get the Colonel on his feet and get them both back to the bunker. They had so very little time -- Sheppard had so very little time. But Sheppard also very rarely talked about himself, and maybe, just maybe, listening to him for a little while could make up for behaving like an ass earlier that day. It was easier to see the clouds if he lay back as the Colonel had done, so he dropped onto his back and gazed through the scattered tree branches into the blue bowl of the sky.
"I used to look at the sky, too," he offered. "The stars, really. I had a telescope in my room."
Sheppard laughed a little. "I used to nag my old man to buy me a telescope. Waste of money, he said ... but one Christmas I woke up and found the biggest and best telescope in the store under our tree. Mainly, I used it to look through the windows of Susie Waterman's room ... she lived next door."
"Trust you to get an expensive piece of scientific equipment and use it for lechery," Rodney grumbled. "I'll have you know I built my telescope. Well, I started out with the ultra-cheap one that my folks got me, but I used the labs at school to learn how to grind my own lenses, and I tricked out that cheap little plastic telescope into something that any backyard astronomy hobbyist would be proud to own."
"In other words, you built a Frankenscope," Sheppard said.
Rodney closed his eyes briefly. "Yes, Sheppard. I built a Frankenscope. I see your gift for clever wordplay is intact."
"You still have it? The Frankenscope, I mean."
Strange question. He honestly hadn't thought about it in years. "I imagine my folks threw it out when I left home." He was surprised by the twinge he felt. And stranger yet was the thought that he would have liked to show his creation to Sheppard. He didn't know what the Colonel would have done -- laughed at it; made polite noises and gone off to find something more interesting, perhaps. But still ... he would have liked to show him.
"That's too bad," Sheppard said. And Rodney wondered, surprised, if Sheppard might have liked to see it, too.
They had to get off this planet, while there was still time. They had to. And with that in mind, Rodney rolled himself forward and sat up. His hands burned when he dug them into the moss for purchase; wincing, he raised one to study the rough, reddened fingertips. "You know, tying those knots is absolutely killing my hands, Colonel. You realize that I have delicate skin? My fingers will never be the same. I feel like a piece of tenderized meat."
Beside him, Sheppard laughed softly, and held out a hand for assistance getting to his feet. And things seemed to be okay between them again ... at least, as okay as anything could be, considering the circumstances.
He helped Sheppard back to the bunker, to find that a small swarm of children had invaded its sanctuary and were working on the net under Jagan's direction. Once they arrived, the boy ran off into the forest and soon returned with another group of children bearing the carefully blanket-wrapped cakes of gunpowder.
It astonished Rodney how quickly the rest of the work went with a dozen energetic, eager children helping them. The net grew by leaps and bounds, until the mass of it seemed to fill the entire floor of the bunker. Under Rodney's direction, several of the older children helped drag it outside and spread it so that he could see if it was big enough.
"You think that thing will stop a dart?" Sheppard asked doubtfully, poking at a thick strand of rope.
"I ran the numbers four times. Of course it will." Rodney hesitated. "At least, I'm pretty sure it will, given a virtually infinite set of variables, of course."
"Your confidence is underwhelming." Sheppard let himself drop back onto the folded blanket where he'd taken up residence in the shade outside the bunker.
Choosing to ignore him, Rodney began measuring off lengths of rope with his arms. The plans for the release mechanism were all in his head, and he impatiently waved off the kids whenever one of them tried to ask a question. Sheppard was now propped up on his elbows and watching curiously as Rodney cut the ropes and tied them, muttering equations to himself under his breath. He rose and began to pace off the distance from the cliff edge to various trees that he'd picked as good candidates to take the weight of the net.
Lost in his mental calculations, he jumped when something smacked him in the back of the skull. Clapping a hand to his head, he whipped around to catch Sheppard in the act of fingering a pinecone.
"You're throwing pinecones at me!"
The corner of Sheppard's mouth lifted in half a smirk. "It must have been the kids."
Rodney looked around warily. None of the children were anywhere nearby. As soon as he took his eyes off Sheppard, another pinecone hit him in the shoulder. He spun back to see the Colonel trying to hide another one behind his back.
Rodney sputtered for a moment and finally settled for, "Dick."
"Yes, well, some of us are working while others are lying around using the workers for target practice." Privately, though, he couldn't help being glad to see that some of the devil-may-care gleam had returned to Sheppard's eyes. Maybe it meant he was feeling a little better. "Maybe you could actually, you know, help me a little."
Sheppard grinned. "This is more fun."
"You're trying to drive me crazy, aren't you? That's a good strategy for getting off this planet. Drive the smart guy nuts." Rodney turned his back, ignoring the pinecone that promptly bounced off his neck, and resumed his calculations. Eventually he paused on the lip of the ravine and contemplated the distance across it, along with the small matter of stringing the net from one bank to the other. Even he could probably throw a rope that far ... but not with a very heavy and bulky bundle of net attached to it. There was one obvious solution -- but it would have been easier if he and Sheppard could get farther away from each other. He looked over at the man on the blanket. He hated to move him, considering that Sheppard actually seemed to be feeling better after lying down for a couple of hours, but he couldn't see another way and he didn't trust the kids to do it all on their own.
"Hey, Colonel, seeing as you clearly don't have enough to do, would you care to take a stroll?"
"Must we? It's so comfortable lying here by the pool," Sheppard answered lightly. Sweat sheened his face as he pushed himself upright on trembling arms. Rodney hesitated by the pile of rope, awkward and uncertain, not sure whether help would be appreciated or not. It took awhile, but Sheppard got himself upright on his own, leaning heavily on the crutch.
Casting uncertain glances at him, Rodney barked orders at several children who scampered forward to help him with the pile of rope. He led the way along the cliff's edge to the waterfall, with Sheppard limping along behind.
"I think I missed something. What are you doing?" Sheppard asked, looking from Rodney to the net and back again.
"Taking it across." He waved a hand back towards the bunker. "You're going to have to parallel me on this side, to keep within jammer range. You understand?"
The nice thing about Sheppard was that you didn't have to explain things twice. In fact, often you didn't have to explain things much at all, as long as you told him where you wanted him and when. Must be something to do with the military mindset, Rodney thought as he dragged his end of the net through the waterfall.
With some of the kids on one side of the ravine, and some of the others helping Rodney on his side, they manhandled the net back to the blind corner where the trap was to be set. The thing was appallingly heavy, and as the wind tried to tug it out of their grasp, Rodney envisioned tiny bodies slipping over the edge of the cliff and falling to their doom. Yes, Elizabeth, I got us off-world, but I killed a dozen or so kids in the process ... However, nobody died, and Rodney tied off the support ropes to trees on his side of the ravine, and called across to Sheppard and the kids to do likewise on their side.
When they were done, the net hung down one side of the cliff. It was not by any means invisible, but due to the narrowness of the ravine, it couldn't really be seen from the air, at least not until you were right on top of it. The only thing visible from above were the main guy lines strung across the canyon, and with so many miles of wilderness around them, Rodney thought it highly unlikely that the Wraith would notice a few slender ropes from thousands of feet in the air. Even if they did, they were surely so used to seeing old signs of human technology on this world that he didn't think they'd be likely to attach any significance to them. He hoped.
"Testing, on my mark." Rodney directed the kids to specific ropes. The real acid test would be whether the weight of the net could be lifted, quickly, by the children before the Wraith saw it. "Mark!" he shouted, and was greeted by blank looks from his able assistants. "Oh, you know what I mean," he snapped. "Lift it now!"
They lifted, and immediately two of them managed to get tangled in each other's ropes. Rodney yelled at them and straightened them out. On the second try, the net went up beautifully in seconds, blocking the canyon from one side to the other.
Rodney leaned over the edge, looking down critically. The net didn't go down as far as he'd like -- the Wraith dart could potentially avoid it by dodging under, or might even be flying low enough to miss it entirely. But it was a start. He ordered the kids to lower it back into its resting position and gestured to Sheppard. The two men paralleled each other back to the waterfall where Rodney could cross over.
Emerging from behind the waterfall, Rodney saw that Sheppard had dropped to the ground and was sitting with his head resting in his hands. He'd remained standing all throughout the net tests, like an idiot, and clearly it had taken its toll. Rodney waited to see if he'd get up on his own, and finally asked, "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Sheppard said without raising his head, his voice slightly muffled. "Go on. I'll catch up."
"Love to, Colonel, but ... signal jammer? Hello?"
Sheppard laughed, a small sharp sound without a lot of humor in it. "Yeah. Forgot." He pushed his head up, and once again Rodney saw that drawing-together effect, as if the Colonel's willpower was a physical force that flowed into his limbs and animated him. Rodney couldn't help noticing that the bandages on his leg were starting to seep through, darkly. Blood shouldn't be that black, at least outside of a Wraith.
He spoke without thinking, as always. "You know, I was kidding about amputating your leg, when I mentioned it a couple of days ago."
"I know." Sheppard's grin was ghastly.
"I was kidding then. I'm not kidding now."
The attempt at a smile slowly dropped away from his face. "Oh, hell no, Rodney."
"Look, if it's your leg or your life --"
"-- then I'd rather die! There's got to be another way." He shoved himself a few inches away from Rodney as if expecting his friend to come after him with a knife. "Besides, what do you think you're going to do it with, an ax? Do you really think my chances of surviving are any better if you hack my leg off with the nearest rusty tool?"
"I don't know! I just ..." Rodney trailed off. For a moment, all the helplessness, all the frustration nearly overwhelmed him. He couldn't find any words.
Sheppard looked up at him, and despite the glaze of fever in his eyes, his expression was gentle. "Look, we're just about done, right? We're close. We're there. You built the net; what's left to do?"
Rodney waved his hand around, letting the movement calm him until he could speak again. "Well, building some sort of anti-dart defenses, for one, because once we alert them to our presence, they aren't going to send just one."
"Hence the gunpowder."
"Yes. Hence the gunpowder." Rodney drew a deep breath, and extended a hand. "Let's go back there, and do that, and get off this godawful planet, shall we?"
Cold, trembling fingers closed around his. "I don't know," Sheppard said. "I kind of like it here."
Rodney pulled him to his feet, steadied him with a hand on his arm when he staggered. "Which just goes to prove what I've been saying about you for years: you're crazy."
"Takes one to know one," Sheppard said in a breathless voice.
"That's the best comeback you can muster? Sad, Colonel. Sad."
Sheppard snorted and leaned on his crutch. His first attempt at a step faltered when he very nearly overbalanced and fell, clearly dizzier than he was willing to let on. Rodney gritted his teeth and, prepared for arguments, slipped his arm under Sheppard's shoulder, supporting him. The fact that Sheppard didn't complain, just leaned on him, frightened him as much as anything that day.
As they started back towards the bunker in that fashion, Sheppard murmured, "Rodney, I have something to say that you're not going to like."
Rodney snorted a laugh. "And my day could get worse, how?"
"You're going to have to fly the dart."
Rodney stopped in his tracks. Looked down at the mop of dark hair resting against his shoulder. "That's crazy," he said flatly.
For answer, Sheppard took his hand off the crutch and lifted it. The fingers trembled like those of an alcoholic in advanced DT's. Raising his head to look Rodney in the eyes, he said, "Do you really think I can fly like this?"
"I can't. Sheppard, seriously, I can't." Panic swelled in him. "I can barely fly the puddlejumpers. I won't make it ten feet without crashing."
"You designed the interface that I used to fly the dart on Ford's planet."
"Yeah, I designed the interface, so I know how insanely complicated those things are! Look, you just need some rest. You'll be fine. We'll sleep, do it in the morning --"
"You honestly think I'll be better in the morning." Sheppard's voice was flat, expressionless. The fact that he was actually willing to admit the seriousness of his condition did not escape Rodney, and only added to his growing terror.
"No, I -- Look, Sheppard, I want to, I really do, but I can't. I'm not a pilot. I'm not you. I know what I'm capable of, and I'm not capable of this. I can't."
"Can't? Or won't?" There was steel in Sheppard's pain-glazed eyes. "I don't give a damn how scared you are, Rodney. It's the only way off this planet, you're the only person who can do it, and not only can you do it, but by God, you will do it. You don't have a choice and you know it. If you don't do it now, you'll have to do it eventually and you know that."
Because I'll be dead. The unspoken part of the sentence hovered in the air between them.
And Rodney nodded, a short jerk of his head, the only motion he could make with the rest of him paralyzed with fear. Because Sheppard was right. There wasn't any other way.
Chapter Fifteen: Going it Alone
It is not uncommon for survivors to feel guilty about being spared from death while others were not. Do not let guilt feelings prevent you from living.
U.S. Army Survival Manual
By evening, they were ready.
Given more time, Rodney could have made something much more elaborate in the way of anti-Wraith defenses, but considering their ticking clock and the materials he had to work with, he thought he was doing at least as well as could be expected.
They had a small pile of pipe bombs, utilizing any hollow objects they could find -- pottery water jars, wooden tubes that had been used for storing food. One part of the cliffside, downstream of the net trap, was mined with the remainder of the gunpowder, ready to be brought down on incoming darts. One of the kids had brought from the caves a small quantity of the oil they used in their lamps -- it was made from the fat of an ocean-going fish, or so they told him, and it wasn't as volatile as he would have liked, but he'd made some passable Molotov cocktails (or, as Sheppard called them, Molotov mocktails). They had extended the net as far as they could without having to go back to the town for more rope. Rodney had also discovered that just a few quick adjustments were all that was needed to refit one of the Wraith stunners as a very pathetic and short-range electrical-interference gun.
He still couldn't believe that they were actually, seriously planning to attack a fleet of Wraith darts with a handful of improvised explosives. It was pathetic and feeble and didn't have a chance of working. It would be like attacking a rhinoceros with a butter knife. But it was the best they were going to get.
Rodney would have liked to wait until morning -- they were all tired, and tired people make mistakes. But the darkness could only help them, and besides, he wasn't sure if Sheppard could wait until morning. The Colonel had been very quiet for the last hour or so, and he kept drifting -- not sleeping, really, but losing track, his hands going still on his work while he stared off into nothing until Rodney jogged his shoulder or spoke to him. Then he came back with a start, waking from whatever dreamworld he'd found to escape into.
They had a few Tylenol pills remaining in their meager first-aid supplies, and Rodney had given them all to Sheppard in the hopes that it would help. Sheppard said it helped a little. Rodney suspected he was lying, but didn't have the heart to argue about it.
While Tekka and Jagan returned to the caves to round up the remaining kids, Sheppard gave Rodney a crash course in dart flying, sketching with a stick in the dirt to demonstrate what little he knew of the control system. "Seriously, Rodney, it mainly flies itself. You're not going to be doing anything fancy -- just point it forward and fly until you find a Stargate. Don't try to engage in combat; don't try to take it into outer space."
"And if I don't find a Stargate before they find me?" Rodney tried to keep the quaver out of his voice.
"Then find a clear space, land and power it down. If you have to hide, taking it underwater might be a good bet. They won't be able to see you, and the water will screw with their instruments just as it does with the ones on the puddlejumpers."
Neither of them mentioned the extraordinary odds against being able to find a Stargate by brute force searching. Neither mentioned the possibility that this world didn't have one at all. They were gambling their lives on a long shot, and Rodney knew it and hated it, but he really couldn't see an alternative -- at least not an alternative that had the slightest chance of saving Sheppard's life.
The dart-flying lesson was interrupted by the return of the children. Jagan had even rousted the catatonic kids; each one was being assisted by another, more able child.
Rodney swept his eyes over the motley collection of orphans and ended up on Sheppard, who looked even worse than he had that morning. His face was grayish, his hair a limp mess, falling across his forehead. "You can do this?" he asked, very softly.
Sheppard pulled himself to a sitting position, and one hand closed over the refitted Wraith stunner. "Can you?"
Rodney didn't answer. He just looked around at the kids, who waited patiently ... for what, he didn't know. A pep talk? He wasn't good at those. "We're ready," he said, and added, "If this works, we're leaving this world. I can't force any of you to come along ..."
It was Jagan who spoke, when Rodney trailed off. "We're coming," he said, firmly, and looked around at the others as if daring them to disagree.
"All right then." He looked around at them one final time. "You know where your places are. Let's go."
It had actually been Sheppard -- utilizing his combat experience -- who planned where each child would be stationed, but they'd quickly found that the orders had to be relayed through Rodney or nobody would listen. Now Jagan trotted off into the dusk, leading his small group of net-raisers to the other side of the canyon; Rodney had hand-picked the most reliable dozen or so for this critical job. Several more children ran off down the canyon to act as lookouts. Tekka and tomboyish Mellie scurried to the place where Rodney had set the charges that would bring down the side of the canyon on the darts; as the darts approached, they were to light the fuses and run. The smallest and sickest of the kids waited in the bunker.
Rodney looked up at the lingering light in the sky, then down into the darkening woods. This was the perfect time of evening for their ambush: light enough they could still see the Wraith darts, but dark enough to make it easy to hide in the forest. He picked up one of their two remaining fully-functional Wraith stunners and slung it over his shoulder. Sheppard had the other one, leaning against the wall in easy reach. He was sitting in the doorway of the bunker with the refitted stunner across his lap.
Rodney took his signal-jamming scanner from his pocket, feeling naked and insecure without it, and handed it to Sheppard, who nodded and put it in his own pocket.
"You'll be able to see the net go up from where you are," Sheppard said. "Once it does, get back up here as fast as possible, regardless of whether we catch anything or not. Every minute you stay down there, you'll be attracting more Wraith."
"I'm not an idiot. I know what I'm doing. I can do this, Sheppard."
The Colonel looked up at him, his eyes shadowed and unreadable in the dusk. "I know you can."
And for a moment, they just looked at each other, until Jagan hollered across the canyon, "We're ready!"
"Rodney," Sheppard said quietly. "Good luck."
Rodney turned and left the bunker behind, jogging along the canyon's rim. The random thought crossed his mind that he was in much better shape than he had been just a few days ago. When we get off this world, we should market this as the amazing wilderness survival fitness course. It's fun! It's easy! You'll be running marathons with Wraith chasing you in no time!
By the time he reached the waterfall, panting, he figured he was well out of the scanner's protective range. The kids had told him about a path down to the canyon floor that started at the waterfall. The only thing he saw was some kind of narrow, winding goat trail that dropped immediately out of sight as if it had plunged off a sheer drop -- they couldn't possibly mean that, could they? Looking around, he couldn't see anything else that looked remotely like a path, and it was getting darker and harder to see by the minute. Heaving a sigh, Rodney took a couple of cautious steps down the goat path. It turned out to be much less treacherous than it looked, and though it wound through some mindbending switchbacks, he made good time.
Still, he was only about halfway down when he heard the familiar whining sound above him.
"Dart!" one of the kids across the canyon cried. A small white hand flashed in the dusk, pointing at the sky, until the speaker was quickly hushed by Jagan.
But Sheppard could hear them, and see them now too: three, four -- no, six small specks in the sky, dark against the sunset-tinted clouds.
He stood up, and the sunset clouds vanished briefly as his vision went dark and speckled. Steadying himself on the doorway, he waited through it, until he could see again and the roaring in his ears had faded. He tensed himself, preparing to move forward -- he'd only have seconds before the dart tore its way free of the net, but he couldn't wait in the open for fear of being seen and tipping them off that something was wrong. He would simply have to cross the space to the canyon rim with enough speed to knock out the dart's electronics before it could escape.
The darts dropped from the sky, growing in size. Overhead, they banked and peeled away from each other, four taking off down the canyon while two more looped around and came back over for another pass. And they came in hot. The leading dart began firing a stream of energy bursts. Sheppard sucked in his breath in dismay as flames erupted at the head of the canyon. He heard the low rumble of dislodged earth and rocks sloughing off into the ravine.
Rodney! Damn! The thought hadn't occurred to either of them, in making their plans, that it might go this way. Apparently, the Wraith were ready to give these two runners up as a lost cause. After Sheppard and McKay had mysteriously disappeared off their radar for days, they just wanted them dead.
"Damn it, damn it," Sheppard whispered to himself. But it wasn't as if they could call the operation off now. Rodney was somehow going to have to take care of himself until they could trigger the trap.
From far down the canyon, he heard a call, which was quickly taken up by the other child lookouts stationed nearer to the bunker. It was an imitation of a birdcall that the kids had wanted to use for their signal. It was given once, then repeated four times.
Four darts in the canyon -- heading their way.
At the sound of the darts overhead, Rodney abandoned his careful descent for a headlong, stumbling slide. He grabbed at brush and trees to help contain what was basically a controlled fall towards the bottom of the canyon. He wouldn't be that much better off on the canyon floor, but he was a sitting duck on the path.
With a tremendous WHOOMPH! a pine tree just to his left exploded in a ball of flame. Rodney screamed and lost his footing, tumbling down the last twenty feet or so of path to fetch up in a shaken heap among the rocks and grass at the bottom of the canyon wall. Gasping, he stared up at sky and mountaintops and trees, trying to collect his scattered wits. They were shooting at him!
The darts had vanished from the visible stripe of sky overhead, but he could still hear them, somewhere out of sight beyond the canyon rim. And one of them was coming back for another pass. Rodney heard himself make a small whimper as he scrambled to his feet and started running, stumbling and sliding on loose rocks on the canyon floor. He still had the stunner slung over his back -- fat lot of good that it would do him against a dart that was trying to --
KAWHOOMPH! He staggered backwards as dirt and rocks erupted nearly under his feet from another not-terribly-well-aimed shot. Hell and damn and -- Why hadn't they anticipated this? The only thing saving him so far, he suspected, were the canyon walls; the darts had a lot of trouble getting a good angle on him while they were up there and he was down here. Which might mean that they'd try diving into the canyon, which would be good because it would bring them within range of the trap, but bad because it would also bring them within range of him.
A sudden cry went up on the canyon rim. Forgetting for an instant his own danger, Rodney looked up to see a blur of movement and a dark shape silhouetted against the sky -- a stationary Wraith dart, wrapped in netting. His jaw dropped. They'd done it. They'd actually done it --
As he savored the moment, his world erupted in fire.
The alert had been given -- darts were coming up the canyon. Sheppard couldn't see Jagan's group under the trees, but he knew they were there. Waiting. And he tensed himself, ready to move as soon as Jagan's team moved. He freed a hand from the refitted, energy-disrupting stunner to reach down and pick up the other one, slinging it over his shoulder so that he would have it when he needed it.
And there they went. He saw quick motion under the trees across from him, heard a cheer go up from the children as the ropes tightened and sang with sudden tension. Sheppard bolted from the doorway. There was no time for the crutch, and he didn't have a hand free anyway, with the refitted stunner held in front of him and the other slung on his back. He knew it would hurt when his foot contacted the ground, and oh God it hurt like hell and black dots swam in his vision, but he kept going, one step and another --
The ground trembled under him as Tekka and Mellie set off their gunpowder charges with a sudden thunder. In theory at least, the darts behind their captive one would have been caught in the resulting landslide, but Sheppard didn't have time to even wonder about it, because the captured dart would blast itself free as soon as the pilot figured out what had happened to him. Sheppard was shooting over the canyon rim before he even came to a complete stop, firing on the long dark shape tangled up in the ropes. He hit it -- blue fire flared across its metal skin, flickering like lightning in the dusk. Another hit, and this time the glow of its drive system and running lights flared red and died. Blinking away the afterimages dotting his vision, he saw the canopy retract automatically with the loss of power, and he dropped the refitted stunner and grabbed the other one to pump shot after shot into the dart's shocked and confused pilot. The Wraith slumped, having no idea what had hit it --
-- just as another dart screamed out of the dust cloud billowing up from the landslide. It clipped the entangled dart, ripping some of the ropes free, and tore through only to collide with the canyon wall out of Sheppard's sight. A brief fireball lit up the woods.
Rodney, oh hell ... Sheppard only hoped that he hadn't been close enough to be caught in that. And the dart ... shit. ... after all that -- but, looking over, Sheppard saw that it was still suspended by enough of the rope-and-net assemblage to keep it from falling to the canyon floor, although it tilted crazily and the pilot was gone, apparently having been knocked over the side in the collision.
Two small shapes came running out of the dust cloud: Tekka and Mellie. "We did it! We did it!" they were crowing. And behind them, Sheppard saw the dark shape of another dart, diving in at head height.
"Down!" He dove at them, knocked them to the ground, very nearly rolling them all off the edge. His leg whacked the ground and he couldn't hold back a scream as the dart tore overhead, close enough to blow back their hair. Something blew up nearby with a sharp crack!, very different from the sound of exploding darts. The kids were throwing the pipe bombs. Gritting his teeth, Sheppard rolled over just in time to see a Molotov cocktail explode across the dart's side as it climbed -- liquid trails of fire ran down its skin and vanished. Another pipe bomb arced past beneath it and vanished into the canyon, exploding harmlessly. "Stop!" Sheppard yelled as loudly as he could. "Don't waste bombs! It's too high!"
Far above them, the dart twisted in a graceful pirouette -- despite his pain and fatigue, despite the fact that it was the enemy, Sheppard couldn't help feeling a stir in his pilot's soul at the beauty of that maneuver. Then it was diving towards them, firing as it came. Another dart came out of nowhere, riding low over the trees, also firing. The kids scattered without needing to be told as rocks shattered and trees went up in showers of flames. There was a high-pitched shriek and someone went off the side of the cliff, but there was no time to even find out which of the kids it had been. Sheppard gave the little girls a hard shove and rolled the other way just as the ground exploded where they had been. He scrambled on hands and knees (or rather, knee) towards the remaining pipe bombs. His fingers closed over the nearest one -- it happened to be the one they'd made out of the water pitcher he'd been carrying ever since he'd been on this world. There was no time to light its fuse, but as one of the darts screamed over the bunker's roof, he threw the gunpowder-filled vessel straight up into the wake of its engine. The resulting explosion was not at all powerful enough to damage the dart -- in fact, in all likelihood, none of their homemade bombs could do that, something which he hadn't had the heart to tell either the kids or Rodney -- but the concussion knocked it slightly off course, and with its proximity to the ground, there was no room whatsoever for error. It hit the ground with a shriek of metal, went airborne momentarily and then vanished over the edge of the canyon on a downhill trajectory. A minute later, another fireball lit up the night as it plowed into the far wall.
Sheppard looked wildly around for the refitted stunner -- he still had the regular one, but it wouldn't be any use against the darts. Seeing it near the girls, he shouted and pointed: "Tekka! I need that!" The little girl nodded and scrambled to her feet just as the remaining dart came in for another pass. Sheppard rolled to meet her halfway. The stunner was cold in his hands as he braced himself and looked up to see the flare of light as the diving dart prepared to fire on him. He fired, missed utterly, rolled away in time to just barely miss being fried. One of its shots took out the wall of the bunker and then it was tearing past him; the backwash from its engines hit him in a wave of heat, and he was firing, firing, and saw blue light flare up its skin as its running lights died and it fell into the canyon like a rock. This one didn't explode, but there was a very final sound to the crunching, rending metallic noises as it hit the ravine's walls several times on the way down.
Silence settled over them, along with a pall of smoke. Several of the trees were burning brightly along the canyon rim, and Sheppard thought that they might have a forest fire on their hands soon, but that was such a distant concern at the moment as to be utterly meaningless. He heard coughing and crying from some of the children, excited babbling voices from others, all fading into a buzzing murmur as his vision grayed around the edges.
Small warm hands touched him, jarring him out of his daze of exhaustion and shock. "Are you all right?"
He looked up at Tekka kneeling beside him. Her face was dirt-smudged, her hair a wild mess, but he didn't see blood on her anywhere. "Yeah," he lied. "You?"
She nodded, and grinned a gap-toothed grin. "We got two of 'em in the rock slide, me and Mellie," she said. "The other got away."
That would have been the one that had torn through the net and hit the cliff. Doing a brief mental tally, Sheppard realized that all six darts were accounted for. More of them would probably show up shortly, but for the moment, they'd done it. They'd really done it.
And they needed to get Rodney back up here, assuming he was still alive, before his tracking device acted as a magnet for every Wraith within a hundred-mile radius. Sheppard started to roll over, just as he heard a familiar, peeved-sounding voice not very far away. "... just about blew me up. Where the hell is Sheppard? I have a few things to say to him about not shooting down darts that are right on top of my head -- Oh, Colonel, there you are --"
Sheppard grinned. And his head sank down, he couldn't help it. Darkness washed over him, the tide drawing him under despite his struggle against it. But at least in that black ocean, there was no pain.
The dart hit the canyon wall right above Rodney's head, showering him with flames and unidentifiable bits of Wraith technology -- not to mention, undoubtedly, bits of Wraith. He yelped and rolled under a fallen tree trunk, which would have provided all the protection of wet paper if the bulk of the dart had actually fallen on him, but it missed him, barely, and crashed to the ground in a flaming mass so close he could almost have touched it.
Rodney stayed under the tree for a moment, shivering, until he was positive that nothing else was going to fall on him. Then he scrambled out and began to run, heading for the trail back up to the top of the canyon. They'd triggered the trap, so his job as bait was done. He had to get close enough to Sheppard to be covered by the jamming device before every Wraith on this planet found them.
The Wraith had apparently realized that it was the people on the canyon rim, not Rodney, who were attacking them. Nothing else fired on him and he reached the top just in time to see the final dart pinwheel into the canyon's depths. The forest around the ravine looked like a war zone. Rodney picked his way through flaming trees, looking around nervously for more darts or, God forbid, Wraith roaming the woods on foot, but nothing appeared.
As soon as he came in sight of the kids, several of them rushed him, throwing their arms around his legs and waist. Rodney staggered and began prying them off. They were babbling in a combination of excitement and fear. He gathered from their ranting that one of them had died, falling off the edge -- the pain that he felt at hearing that surprised him, although he didn't recognize the name of the dead child. But the rest of them appeared to be all right. As he approached the bunker, he saw that some of the older children were herding together the sick and catatonic ones who'd been grouped inside the bunker -- which, he now saw, had one entire wall taken out. And there was Sheppard, next to it, with Tekka beside him.
The first thing he felt was a flare of anger -- Sheppard had known he was down in the canyon, dammit, and had been shooting down Wraith right on top of him. He was just getting started on a good rant about trigger-happy Lieutenant Colonels who couldn't be bothered to look around them for civilians before they started shooting, when Sheppard slumped over in a boneless heap.
"Uh, Colonel?" Rodney dropped to his knees next to him and shook him. There was no response, and he rolled Sheppard over to see that his face, under a mask of bruises and dirt, was the color of clay. His lips were parted and he was breathing, but that was the only sign of life. The Wraith signal jammer lay in the dirt next to him; Rodney picked it up, checked to make sure it was functional (it was) and tucked it into his pocket. Sheppard didn't stir through all of this.
"Damn," Rodney swore softly, gripping Sheppard's shoulder. He looked up to see Tekka crouched beside the Colonel, her eyes wide and worried. "You okay, kid?"
She nodded. "He saved me," she said, looking at Sheppard. "Again."
"He's got a habit of doing that," Rodney sighed. He shook at Sheppard's shoulder again, and this time got a faint groan. Firelight reflected in his eyes as they cracked open.
"Colonel. Excellent. Up and at 'em. We've got a dart to fly."
"You've got a dart to fly," Sheppard corrected in a faint, weak voice. "More are probably on the way. Get to it, Rodney."
"Fine, fine." Rodney let him down gently to the ground and stood up. Looking down at Sheppard, he realized that this was probably the last time he'd see him until rematerializing him on the other side of the Stargate -- assuming that all went according to plan. If not ... well, it was still the last time he'd see him. "Hey, Sheppard?"
The eyes cracked open again. "You're still here, Rodney," Sheppard mumbled.
Irritation flared. "You owe me a drink for this one," Rodney snapped. "You owe me a lot of drinks. I intend to collect on this for a long, long time."
"Deal," Sheppard whispered, his eyes closing as a faint smile curved his lips.
"And -- and I want bigger quarters," Rodney continued desperately. He didn't want those eyes to close, didn't want to say goodbye for what might be the last time. "Closer to the labs. Mine are too far away. The last time I talked to Weir, she said that we're through shuffling living space and I'd have to stay where I was. You'll have to talk to her, get her to see reason."
Sheppard raised his head just a trifle. "Sure, why not, as long as you get over there and fly that damned dart, Rodney!"
"I'm going, I'm going." And then, he didn't know why, he raised his hand and gave Sheppard a fast, inexpert salute. And he meant it, really meant it.
Sheppard's faint trace of a smile became a real one. "You should leave that to the experts, McKay; you're bad at it." One of his hands twitched; the fingers raised, sketched out a little wave. "Go and get us home, Pilot Rodney."
Rodney snorted. "Pilot? In your dreams, Sheppard." And he turned and ran to the edge of the canyon, skidding to a stop as a small shower of rocks, dislodged by his feet, plunged into the abyss. Oh, dear, it was a long way down. A long, long way down.
The Wraith dart hung suspended above that terrifying drop, and he made a small sound, deep in his throat, as he realized what he was going to have to do to get there.
"Oh, no." But, there was no help for it. He looked back at Sheppard's still form in the firelight -- the light of the burning trees, which were, no doubt, attracting every Wraith in the area. And he gripped hold of one of the guy lines, and began to climb down.
Later, he didn't remember much of that climb, just flashes: the rope swaying under him with each movement, the wind in his hair, the awful dizzying flashes of the canyon floor far below him. Then, shaking, he was scrambling over the edge of the dart. It was tilted nearly onto his side and he just clung to it, gasping, until his heart slowed to a speed that wasn't likely to send him into fibrillation at any moment. Then he settled in the seat and lightly touched the controls. The effects of the energy disruptor should be very temporary -- and, yes, everything lit up, and the canopy sealed around him.
Oh god, oh god, it was really small in here. Wide open fields ... Rodney breathed deeply, focusing on the bombardment of information coming at him from the dart's heads-up display. It was more of a distraction than a help. Gently trying a few different things on the controls, he found the button that made the canopy go transparent. Suddenly he was looking at the canyon wall, with Wraith script rapidly scrolling across it. The text display, he could deal with; it wasn't so distracting that it was worth risking blowing himself up by pushing buttons to get rid of it.
A gust of wind hit him and the dart shuddered in its cradle of ropes. Rodney shuddered, too. The minute that he freed himself from the net, he'd start to fall. The only bright spot was that the nose of the dart was pointed up, so all he had to do was fire up the engines and he'd soar skyward -- as opposed to, say, straight into the wall of the cliff. The trick would be getting the engines going before he turned into a Rodney-sized grease stain on the rocks. Sheppard had told him which buttons to push, but he could easily see himself freezing up and staring at the controls while he plummeted to his doom.
All too aware of the possibility of Wraith closing in on all sides, but afraid to hurry, he took a few minutes to familiarize himself with the controls as much as possible. When he was fairly sure that he had memorized everything that he would need to know, he hit the firing stud and was rewarded with a flare of light on the HUD. The dart shuddered, dropped a few feet and stopped with a jolt, still held by the ropes beneath it.
Assuming he wasn't too tangled up, this might actually work. All he really needed to do was clear the ropes in front of him, after all. Rodney fired up the engines. He felt the dart trembling with their power, and found himself wishing that he could just sit down right here and spend a couple of days studying them. He'd never really gotten to examine an undamaged dart for any length of time. The closest he'd come was on Ford's planet, and that had been under strict time constraints and drug-addled besides.
But now was not the time. He pushed forward on what passed for a joystick. The dart trembled, and then it was free, launched into the darkening sky.
Rodney screamed involuntarily. The mountains spun in front of him as the dart looped crazily. Throwing up in a dart cockpit would be very bad. Do not throw up. He tried to stabilize it with the joystick. Compared to the larger, more stable puddlejumpers, the thing was incredibly sensitive. The only similar experience he'd had was riding a friend's motorcycle in college, and at least that had been on the ground. Incredibly, he'd managed to keep the Wraith stunner with him -- he'd been too terrified while climbing on the ropes to even notice it -- and it was now jabbing into his side and interfering with his ability to use his right arm, making the whole situation even more stressful than it already was.
A mountain peak flashed past underneath him, and Rodney realized he was shockingly high and also rapidly losing track of which way he was going. Okay, it would be just great if he lost the valley with Sheppard and the kids, wouldn't it? Swallowing, he began pushing at the joystick and got himself turned around in a big loop. For a few minutes, he just did loops, getting a feel for how the controls worked. Then he took himself back down, experiencing a moment's panic when nothing looked familiar, until he located the flare of bright fire against the dark hillside. Ah, right, the burning trees. They were better than runway beacons. He did a big, looping circle overhead, and saw the kids grouped around Sheppard's still form, with flames all around them as the forest fire spread.
He wasn't going to be able to land, perhaps not at the best of times and certainly not in these thick woods. He'd have to do this on the fly. At least they were all grouped together down there. He touched the buttons to activate the culling beam, and couldn't help a small shudder as he saw it stab out and sweep across the ground, over the small huddled group on the canyon's rim. Just like that, they were gone. He did another pass to make sure he'd gotten everybody, and then he flew up, and up, until the mountains were tiny beneath him and wisps of clouds stroked past the sleek shape of his dart.
He drew in a long, shuddering breath and let it out. Home. They were going home.
Across the skies of an alien world, he flew. His hand grew steadier on the joystick as he became more accustomed to the sensation of controlling the dart. He flew out of the night into daylight, chasing the sun around the world, watching the light travel across the miniature landscape spread out beneath him.
It had a lot of water, this world. Not as much as Atlantis, but more than Earth. There were only a couple of large land masses. This was actually a good thing; it narrowed down the possible places to search for a Stargate. He brought the dart down and watched ocean speed by underneath him, punctuated by small craggy islands. Enclosed by the dart's canopy, feeling it respond to him almost as an extension of his body, he had the strangest feeling that he was playing some sort of first-person video game. He took it down lower still, until he could see the white-capped tops of the waves. Startled sea birds flicked past almost too quickly to be consciously registered before they were gone. On this side of the world it was just past dawn. Far off to his right on the glistening ocean, he saw some kind of huge sea creature breach to blow a cloud of spray into the air before it submerged.
At that moment, with the sea below him and the pink-tinged sky above, he could almost understand why Sheppard so loved to fly.
The nearest land mass was coming up quickly, and Rodney raised the dart until beaches and hills began to speed past below him. Rising still farther, he examined the landscape, seeing overgrown traces of old cities, even more decrepit than those on the other side of the world. This place had been culled long since, and he saw no smoke, tilled fields or other signs of life. It was possible that the place where the Wraith had dropped him and Sheppard was the last part of the world where anyone still lived.
He followed roads, because Stargates were often located at the end of roads, and he looked for temples, standing stones and other signs of religious activity, which were frequently Stargate-focused on the worlds they'd visited. But as minutes became hours, his heart sank. He'd skimmed both continents, then gone back to search in depth, and had seen not the slightest sign of a Stargate anywhere.
This world really might not have one.
This wasn't good at all.
And the Wraith were starting to close in on him. He had been seeing other darts from time to time, either visually or picking them up on the sensors he was becoming more adept at reading, but they seemed to carry on about their business with no notice of him. As time passed, however, they seemed to become aware that this dart was behaving as a rogue, and they began veering to intercept him when they would come near. Rodney, his heart in his mouth, could generally avoid them by putting on speed or dropping behind the nearest mountain range, but all it would take would be one particularly persistent one.
And he finally got one: a dart that wouldn't be shaken. Lights on his console flashed, and he suspected that they might be hailing him in their fashion, but damned if he was going to answer. The dart dogged him, following him as he once again crossed the night-and-day boundary into a blazing dawn, and then a stream of energy bolts went flying past him, and he knew the gig was up.
From another angle of the sky, two more darts came straight out of the sun, streaking towards him. And another one was closing on his night side. Rodney felt the joystick become slick with sweat as he dropped towards the ocean. Mountains flitted past on his right side, and he turned to head inland, not sure what he was trying to do, except that he knew he could never survive a crash landing in the ocean and he thought it might be coming to that.
More energy blasts streamed past him and cut a swathe of destruction through the mountains below. Sheppard had told him not to try to fight, but what choice did he have? Except that he had no idea how to use the targeting system. He fired off a wild shot at a dart that dropped in front of him; the blast exploded harmlessly on a mountain peak below them. His only comfort was the fact that none of their shots had hit him, either.
But they were getting pretty damn close. Sheppard, now ... Sheppard could probably have done loop-de-loops and lured his pursuers into smashing themselves on mountaintops, like some sort of World War II flying ace in a movie. Rodney could just about manage to keep the dart going in a straight line, and fancy acrobatics ... forget it.
He had six or seven darts after him now, and most of them were shooting at him. Trying to focus on both them and on his own flying, he almost wiped out on a mountain peak. Shaking, sweating, he took the dart up higher, whispering a silent apology to the twenty or so people currently dematerialized inside the culling module.
The dart shuddered and Rodney let out a small scream as he suddenly lost about a mile of altitude. The HUD was flashing what were clearly the Wraith equivalent of a board full of red lights. Somebody had scored a hit on him. The joystick bucked in his hands like a living thing; cursing, gasping, he struggled with it as the dart plunged towards a jagged line of mountains below him. Damn it, didn't this planet have any nice grasslands, or even a good flat desert for pete's sake? He twisted the joystick wildly to avoid a mountain peak and ended up sending himself in an uncontrollable roll. Sky, ground, sky flashed past dizzyingly. The nose of the dart hit something (a rock, a tree?) and it went spinning off in a different direction, flipping end-over-end and violently colliding with something. Sparks showered up from the console and Rodney threw his hands in front of his face to protect it as they went through a final series of jolts and stopped moving.
Slowly he took his hands away, did a quick check of his body. He'd banged one knee but otherwise seemed unharmed. The canopy had retracted and the dart was lying on its side; there was a boulder mere inches from Rodney's nose, giving him a shudder at just how close he'd come to a sudden violent lobotomy. Somewhere out of sight, Wraith darts whined about; they'd be here soon, he was sure, but for the moment he just had to come down off the adrenaline high before he could start thinking again.
Raising his head, he found that the dart was lying on the bank of a river. This one was smaller than the one on the other side of the world -- narrow and fast, its waters a cloudy gray-blue from glacial silt. The air was clear and fresh, the sky showing him that the day was just past midmorning here.
A fizzling sound from the control console, followed by a shower of sparks, made him jump. Oh God. Sheppard. The kids. He checked over the control system in a panic and found that the retrieval system was still intact, but from the look of things, the whole system was about to go down. He held his hands over the console, rapidly going through what he thought should be the right sequence to retrieve them. A dart whined over at treetop level; Rodney looked up with a whisper of "Shit!" and hit the buttons.
The white light stabbed out, and on the riverbank, a cluster of kids materialized along with Sheppard's crumpled figure. And so did several Wraith.
Rodney's jaw dropped. He'd set it to retrieve everything it had stored, completely forgetting that the Wraith used the darts as troop carriers.
The Wraith and the kids were looking around with equally startled expressions; under any other circumstances it would have been funny. This, however, wasn't funny at all. And Sheppard just lay there like a lump, terrifyingly still. Rodney scrambled out of the dart and made a dash for Sheppard. "The water!" he yelled at the scared, frozen kids. "Get in the water!" And, seizing Sheppard under the arms, he rolled them both into the river just as the Wraith finally caught onto what was going on and started shooting at them.
The current caught him immediately. The river was shockingly cold and much deeper than it looked, and Rodney found that it was all he could do to hang onto Sheppard as they were smacked around by the whitewater. Cold, silty water flooded his mouth and he coughed and choked, then gasped "Oh, hell!" as they were swept over a small waterfall. Luckily it wasn't very high; they bounced back to the surface like a couple of corks and were caught up in the speeding current again. Numb and bruised, Rodney tried desperately to stroke for shore. Sheppard was a dead weight dragging him down, but he'd rather drown than let go. He could have cried with relief when his feet touched the bottom and he scrambled onto the sandy bank, dragging himself ashore like a half-drowned rat. Around him, the kids were doing likewise, and small hands seized onto him, helped him get Sheppard onto the shore.
Two Wraith darts rocketed over at treetop level. Rodney tilted his head back, hatred overwhelming him. So close, he'd been so goddamn close to getting off this world ... "You sons of bitches!" he screamed, firing at them with the stunner. Naturally it did nothing.
Jagan came splashing up to him in the edge of the water and pushed something into Rodney's hands. "I think this is the one that the Colonel used to shoot down the Wraith," he said. "I'd picked it up before you swept us up."
And somehow, the kid had managed to hang onto it even when being swept around by whitewater. Rodney stared down at the refitted stunner and then looked up as another dart swooped over, very low. Just as its culling beam stabbed down towards them, he fired and saw the white swathe of the culling beam flicker out as its electrical system died. The dart went out of control and plowed into the trees. Rodney spun around, following its trajectory. The canopy had flickered open and the Wraith pilot was climbing out, apparently unharmed.
"Bastard!" Rodney grabbed for the other stunner and ran at the Wraith, shooting wildly. He missed with the first shot, scored with the second and third. The Wraith went down, and then, to Rodney's shock, the kids swarmed forward, grabbing rocks and sticks, taking out their fury on their unconscious enemy. This was one Wraith that was never getting up again.
The whining of the darts drew Rodney's attention to the sky. He tilted his head back just in time to watch all the darts -- which now numbered nearly a dozen -- rise into the air as if at an unheard signal, and streak upwards until they vanished into the sun. They did not return.
"What the hell," he murmured. This could not possibly bode well. But he was simply too exhausted, physically and emotionally, to muster a whole lot of curiosity. Dropping the stunner, he turned his back on the sound of the kids dismembering the Wraith, and walked wearily back to where Sheppard lay limply in the sand. His legs folded and he sank down next to his friend with a sigh.
"And back to the drawing board, Colonel," he said wearily. "Uh, Colonel?" The slow tingle of panic began to crawl over him at Sheppard's utter unresponsiveness. "Sheppard?"
He rolled Sheppard onto his back. There was no response, none at all. "Colonel?" Rodney whispered, running his hand down Sheppard's face and onto his neck.
Sheppard wasn't breathing. And Rodney could not find a pulse.
No. God, no. Please, no.
"Don't you dare." He folded his hands against the still chest. "Don't you dare, not now." Not like this. Please, not like this. And he had no idea how long Sheppard had been in this condition. It could have been the shock to his damaged body of rematerializing from the Wraith culling beam. It could have been the submerging in the cold water. He didn't know, and as he began the chest thrusts, guilt rolled through him in waves. He hadn't looked. He hadn't checked. The thought hadn't even occurred to him that Sheppard could have been other than unconscious.
After only a couple of CPR cycles, he rocked back on his heels, stared at Sheppard's blue-tinged face. It wasn't going to work. He knew it. How many times had Beckett told them that CPR, no matter what you saw on TV, wasn't capable of restarting a person's heart? If medical help wasn't nearby ... and clearly, it wasn't ... there was no point.
He would have given him CPR until he passed out from the strain ... but Rodney knew, intellectually at least, that without Beckett and his infirmary somewhere nearby, it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. And besides, even if by some shocking chance he could get Sheppard going again, what would be the point? Another few hours, a day or two maybe, before he died painfully and horribly from the infection eating him alive?
This was the moment ... the moment he'd known would come. The moment when the Sheppard luck finally ran out.
John Sheppard was dead.
"No," he whispered, a tiny, fragile sound in the wilderness. And he touched Sheppard's throat, very gently with his fingertips, as if a miracle could actually have occurred, as if Sheppard's heart could have restarted by itself.
He might as well have been touching the rocks by the river.
Sheppard was dead. The Colonel wasn't going to pull a rabbit out of the hat, not this time. He wasn't going to open his eyes again, wasn't ever going to flash that crooked grin, wasn't going to make Rodney laugh or save his life or inspire him to pull out depths of courage that he'd never known he possessed. Sheppard was dead. He was gone.
"No," Rodney said again, stronger, and he looked up, his eyes settling on the crashed dart half-visible in the woods. The dart...
He leapt to his feet, scattering the startled children who had begun gathering around him, and ran to it, past the corpse of the Wraith. He half-jumped and half-fell into the pilot's seat. It was stupid, he knew. It could only buy time, time for a rescue that would never come. And powering up the thing would only bring the Wraith down on his neck again. He knew all this, but still his hands were flying over the controls, bringing systems online, activating the culling beam. He was too hurried and desperate to even warn the children to get out of the way, but they scattered instinctively as the white beam stabbed out and vanished along with Sheppard's body.
Rodney let his suddenly limp hand drop from the controls. He didn't know what the Wraith beam would do to a clinically dead person. For all he knew, without an active life sign, he wouldn't ever be able to get Sheppard back out again. But since the Wraith module stored people as data, at the very least it would freeze Sheppard in time, just like that one time they'd dropped him into the event horizon of the Stargate after stopping his heart. Brain death could occur in minutes in the real world, but in the dart, Sheppard could remain, undamaged, forever.
Assuming the Wraith didn't come to retrieve their dart, as they surely would now that it was giving off an energy signature. And Rodney was afraid to power it down, afraid of erasing the one fragile bit of Sheppard that remained in the world. He knew the storage module could be removed, but he was terrified to try -- afraid that he'd break it, that he'd sever Sheppard's final connection to any hope of revival.
He'd bought some time. But perhaps not much. And, looking up at the blue sky for any sign of returning darts, he thought he just might have done it at the cost of his and the kids' lives.
At the moment, he didn't care. Slowly, creakily, like an old man, Rodney climbed out of the dart and dropped to the ground. He needed to figure out how to remove the module ... without tools and with the Wraith capable of returning at any moment. He and the kids needed food, and he'd managed to strand them miles and miles from any hope of getting any, unless they could live off the land.
Hell. He may as well dematerialize all of them and wait for the Wraith to come. It amounted to the same thing. Some runner he'd turned out to be. In the long run, he'd killed them all, and Sheppard was dead.
Sheppard was dead.
God, he was tired.
Rodney sank down to the damp ground, rested his arm on the side of the Wraith dart and laid his face against it. And he cried -- hard, choked, harsh sobs. Tears that hurt. He couldn't remember the last time in his life that he'd really, truly cried. And he didn't even think he was crying for Sheppard, not really -- that pain was too fresh; it hadn't sunk in yet.
He cried because he'd failed, because he was going to die and he'd never see home again -- home, and here, at the end of his life, he thought of not Earth but Atlantis, the one place in this galaxy or any other that held everything of meaning to him. He cried because people had depended on him and he'd let them down.
All right, maybe a little of it was for Sheppard ... the person he'd let down the most.
He was vaguely aware, through grief and pain and numbness, of the kids drifting slowly back, gathering around him. He wanted them to go away. It was bad enough to break down like this, but to do it in front of other people was the final indignity. But he didn't even have the strength to raise his head and snap at them. That was the real measure of how exhausted he was, physically and emotionally. He couldn't even yell at people anymore.
Some of the children touched him ... small hands on his back. It wasn't as bad as he'd feared, having them so close. The rest of them sat down around him, huddling as near as they dared, and he could feel the warmth of their bodies, the only warmth in the whole cold world.
Eventually he stopped crying, maybe only because he was too tired, and he rolled over and laid his head back against the side of the dart. He opened his eyes -- swollen, wet with tears; God, he hated crying -- and stared up at a sky that was blue and swirling with light, fluffy clouds. Waiting for the darts to come, because at this point he couldn't really do anything else, and he didn't have the energy to try.
So he was staring at the sky, unblinking, when a sudden flash it it up from horizon to horizon. Rodney jumped, and around him, he felt the kids flinch as well. He blinked the spots from his eyes, confused.
What the hell had that been? What final indignity did the universe intend to heap on him now ...?
Oh. Wait. He didn't know what it would look like, never having seen it from this perspective before, but he had a sudden guess.
That flash had been the Wraith ship entering hyperspace.
They'd left. That was why the darts had gone -- they had been recalled to the mother ship.
The Wraith had gone away and left them here.
Just as this thought crossed his mind, though, a shadowy shape began to breach the clouds. Dark, huge, shimmering with heat as the clouds boiled around it ... Rodney was so exhausted and shell-shocked that it took him a moment to realize what it was, what it had to be. Oh holy mother of hell ... the hiveship. That flash hadn't been the ship entering hyperspace, it had been the ship hitting the atmosphere. Clearly, he and Sheppard had been declared a Major Threat by the local Wraith command. And here it came, and why couldn't he even summon the energy to care?
Rodney closed his eyes. Everything about him hurt, within and without. His heart most of all. He was done running, done fighting. Everyone gave up at some point. Even Sheppard had given up, in the end. He thought he'd reached that point himself.
Around him, the children were murmuring in fear and wonder. Tekka tugged on his sleeve. "Is that a space ship?" she asked in wonder.
"Yes," Rodney said without opening his eyes. "It's a Wraith hiveship, to be precise. Our death in one large nutshell."
"Oh," she murmured.
"It's pretty," one of the other kids said.
Pretty wasn't exactly the word that he would use to describe a hiveship, but then, he wasn't a child from a backwater world, seeing a spaceship for the first time. There was a certain grandeur to them, the way they drifted through the clouds, huge and distant and frightening.
Rodney listened to the kids' wondering murmurs and he thought to himself, The kids aren't afraid to look. Dammit, McKay, if you're going to die, at least do it like a man.
Wearily, he forced his eyes open and blinked at the dark shape of the hiveship high above them.
Wait just a ... That shape was all wrong. In fact it was -- familiar. Very familiar, and not in a hiveship kind of way, either. But it couldn't be. Not here. Had he lost his mind and started hallucinating on top of everything else?
For just an instant, he was back in the sinking puddlejumper, hypothermic and delirious and shivering, and he heard himself ask his illusion of Sam Carter, What was that? and she had answered back, Help.
Carter, or rather the subconscious part of him manifesting as Carter, had tried to tell him that if he could hold out long enough, help would come. His friends would find him. And against odds he knew were impossible, they had found him -- Sheppard had found him -- and rescued him from a water-filled puddlejumper at the bottom of the ocean.
And somehow, they'd done it again.
It wasn't a hiveship. It was the Daedalus.
Chapter Sixteen: Never Give Up
"The will to survive" can also be considered to be "the refusal to give up."
--U.S. Army Survival Manual
When the Wraith hiveship exploded, the resulting flash of light washed out the viewscreens of the Daedalus in a sudden, white-hot flare. As the light died away, the orbit above this nameless planet was clear save for scattered, drifting debris.
Steven Caldwell thought that the people of that world, if any existed, would have seen a spectacular sunset tonight.
"Report," he said.
Novak swiveled around from her station. "Sir, the hiveship has been destroyed."
"It appears that the darts were also caught in the blast," one of his helmsmen -- Bryant -- announced, eyes glued to the screens. "I'm not showing anything alive."
Novak was running her eyes down lists of readouts. "Shields ... almost depleted. We've lost some communications arrays and one of the fighter bays is nearly destroyed, but otherwise we're intact." Relief evident in her voice, she added, "No casualties."
Caldwell let out a long breath, a sigh not only of relief, but regret as well. He swiveled his chair to meet the eyes of the only two people on the bridge who were not members of his crew.
He had no need to explain his actions to civilians, but somehow, in this case, he felt as if he owed them something. "I had to do it," he said. "You know that."
"We know," Ronon rumbled, staring at the main screen as if his eyes could discern what the Asgard instruments could not.
Teyla's eyes remained on Caldwell. "We were fighting for our lives," she said quietly. "Your actions saved the ship and everyone on it. I do not blame you."
Still staring at the screens, Ronon said, "Any chance they made it to the planet?"
There was no need to ask who he meant by they.
"I don't see how, sir," the helmsman said when Caldwell looked to him. "We didn't detect any darts leaving the area, and we're fairly sure the Wraith can't transport all the way from orbit."
"We should search that world," Teyla insisted. "If they were able to escape from the hiveship before it exploded, then they may well be there."
"Miss Emmagan ..." Caldwell stopped in the face of the naked conviction in her eyes. He wanted to tell her how feeble were the shreds of hope she clung to. How the odds of Sheppard and McKay's survival had been impossibly slim after a week in Wraith hands, and had just dropped to zero when the hiveship that had been carrying them exploded.
He wanted to tell her that. But she looked back at him, and he knew that she knew. And he could see, from the look in Ronon's eyes, that Ronon knew as well. Logic, probability and reason all said, beyond a doubt, that their teammates, their friends were dead. And they wouldn't believe it. Not until every avenue was exhausted, until the door to hope was closed beyond a reasonable doubt.
And Caldwell was a career soldier. He understood that kind of hope. Hell, he'd seen men given up for dead, only to walk out of the jungle, out of the desert, months later. He knew it could happen. And he nodded to his helmsman.
"Take us down."
They sank through the clouds and emerged over a blue-and-green, Earthlike world. The database said that it had no Stargate, but the scanners detected signs of habitation anyway -- faint traces of long-dead cities. And, really, there was no reason why there couldn't be inhabited worlds off the Stargate network, he thought. The Stargates weren't the only way to get from one world to another. The Wraith had hyperdrives and the Ancients had possessed them as well.
If there had once been people on this world, though, they did not seem to still live here. The Daedalus rolled over tiny dots of towns, thin strings of roads, and all the scanners showed the same story -- dead, empty. There was animal life in abundance, but of people, no trace. The world had been long since culled.
Besides, even if Sheppard and McKay had somehow survived and made it down here, the odds of being able to find them were impossible. Two men, on an entire planet ... Caldwell shook his head. He looked over at Teyla and Ronon, both staring at the screens with identically intent expressions. His bridge crew wore similar looks. They, too, wanted to believe. Most of them didn't know Sheppard or McKay except by reputation, maybe a chance meeting in passing, but all of them knew what it was like to lose friends -- in the war with the Goa'uld or the various wars on Earth. All soldiers knew how it felt.
"Sir." Novak's voice, tense and urgent. "Sir, I'm picking up a transmission from the planet. It's very faint. I'm trying to boost the signal."
Caldwell nodded. "Do it."
He didn't dare look at Teyla and Ronon, didn't want to see the hope flare in their eyes. It could be anything, hell, it could be Wraith for all they knew.
And then he saw an electric snap in Novak's eyes, and he knew it wasn't Wraith, a second before she touched the speaker and let them all hear what she was hearing.
The voice was so strained it was barely recognizable, and it was half obscured by the hissing of static. But they could hear enough:
"... Daedalus, this ... McKay. Daedalus ... Cald ... do ... read me?"
"Answer him," Caldwell said, unable to suppress his grin. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Teyla and Ronon meet each other's eyes, and he heard her laugh and saw the Satedan flash a smile so bright it lit his face like a solar flare.
Rodney hunched over his refitted scanner. After realizing the ship was far too high to see him, he'd made the changes faster than he thought possible -- reworking the thing from a signal jammer to a signal broadcasting device. He didn't have time to fine-tune it for a particular channel. He just had to hope that Caldwell's people scanned for a variety of frequencies, and that his signal was strong enough for them to pick up.
"Daedalus, this is McKay. Dr. Rodney McKay. Um, I guess you know that. Do you read me? Daedalus, this is McKay; do you copy?"
Of course, there was no way they could answer if they did -- his radio wasn't two-way. The children watched, silent and fascinated, as Rodney kept trying, kept hoping.
"Daedalus, if you're hearing this, I can't hear you back. I can only send, not receive. I'm on a riverbank in the mountains. Um, I'm right above a point where two rivers come together to form a sort of a V; I saw it when I was flying over. And I'm in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately, I can't tell you any better than that. I was being chased by Wraith at the time. But, listen." He glanced around at the kids, their small faces turned up to him, trusting and hopeful. "I'm not alone. And Sheppard, Sheppard is ... Listen, the point is, don't beam me up. Send somebody down here instead, so I can explain. If you can hear --"
He broke off, head tilted back at the low rumble of engines. There it was, the Daedalus, huge and beautiful, gliding towards him over the trees. He'd never seen it fly so low -- it was only a few hundred meters off the ground.
"Caldwell, if you're hearing this, beam somebody down and I'll explain in more detail. I'm going to need a medical team standing by in order to get Sheppard out of the --"
He broke off at a flash of white light. Several of the children screamed and clustered close to him. The only beaming technology they'd ever seen, after all, was Wraith. But Rodney, for his part, very nearly collapsed with relief when the white light materialized into two very familiar shapes, one short and one extremely tall.
Teyla and Ronon.
Rodney's knees went weak. It was true. They'd come for him. He wasn't on his own anymore.
Despite her worry for her friends, Teyla could not resist a small surge of relief at the feeling of dirt under her feet and wind in her hair. It felt so good to be off that ship. She'd gotten used to living in Atlantis, away from the sun and trees, but the past week on the Daedalus had taxed her to the very limit.
Then she looked around and saw Rodney -- and the relief rose in a crescendo that nearly made her collapse.
He looked ... awful. He was thinner than she'd ever seen him, with a week's growth of beard, ragged and filthy and pale, looking as if only willpower held him upright. He was also surrounded by about a dozen dirty children, all of them clustering close to him, and under other circumstances Teyla would probably have been incredibly curious, but right now, she only had eyes for Rodney.
She crossed the distance between them in a few leaps, aware of Ronon close behind her. Rodney staggered slightly when she placed her hands on his shoulders in the Athosian way. Up close, he looked even worse -- there were dark circles under his eyes, and she could see he had been recently weeping. "Teyla," he said in a small, broken voice, and then she dispensed utterly with the Athosian way and greeted him in the way of his people instead, putting her arms around him and drawing him close to her body. She felt him stiffen, then relax except for a slight trembling. "Teyla," he whispered into her hair. "You're here. You're really here."
Wrapping her arms more tightly around his back, she felt him jerk, and quickly drew her hands away. "Are you hurt?"
"Wraith transmitter," he murmured, his head resting against her shoulder.
"Wraith transmitter?" she repeated, tipping back to look at him in astonishment. "Do you mean, such as a runner would have?" Behind her, she heard a rumble of surprise from Ronon.
Rodney drew his head back, regarded her with weary amusement. "Yes," he said, "exactly as a runner would have." He looked around her to the other man. "Hi there, Ronon."
The former runner nodded to him, and his eyes said all that he could not say with words. Rodney smiled a little, and Teyla felt more of his weight sag onto her. As far as she could tell, he wasn't hurt, at least not badly -- only exhausted.
"Hello," piped a small voice by her knees. Teyla looked down to meet the eyes of the bolder children -- the others were hiding shyly behind Rodney's back.
"Well, hello." She smiled at them and was rewarded with bashful smiles in return. "Rodney, are you going to introduce me to your friends?"
"Oh ... right." He seemed to remember the children for the first time. "Guys, this is Teyla. The big lunk is Ronon; he's less scary than he looks. Um, this is Jagan, and Tekka, and, uh, I think this one's called Mellie ... kids, tell Teyla and Ronon your names."
The children chirped up with a barrage of names. Teyla could tell there was quite an interesting story behind this, but she felt that now was not the time to ask. Something else concerned her far more at the moment. Except for the children, Rodney appeared to be alone.
"Rodney ..." She didn't want to say it, but she could see that he knew what she wanted to ask. And she could see his face change, the pallor and weariness growing deeper, and she thought, No, oh no.
"He's not ..." Rodney hesitated. "Maybe not as bad as you think, but he's ..." He swallowed convulsively, and pointed at the woods. Following his finger, Teyla noticed for the first time a Wraith dart half-hidden in the edge of the woods. "He's in there. Dematerialized."
Teyla was unable to understand his obvious agitation. "That is not so bad. We can get him out."
"No, you don't understand. I put him in there on purpose to keep him from ... Teyla, you remember when he had the Iratus bug on his neck? When we put him in the event horizon? It's that bad. At least. Probably worse."
"He is dying?" Teyla questioned softly.
"He is dead." Rodney's voice was harsh, but the anger seemed directed mostly at himself, not her. "He's not breathing, his heart's not beating. He's dead, Teyla. I put him in there to prevent brain death, but what we're going to need -- we need a medical team from the Daedalus down here when I bring him out of there, and then we'll need to send him straight to the Daedalus infirmary as soon as he re-materializes if he's going to have any chance at all."
He was starting to babble; she recognized the signs, and she wondered just how hard he had been fighting to hold himself together. She laid a hand on his arm. "I will call Colonel Caldwell and explain the situation."
After a brief radio conversation, they had arranged to transport the children first, so that Caldwell's people could get them out of the way and provide them with food and basic medical care. Teyla watched as Rodney, all business again, tersely explained to the kids that they about to beam aboard a spaceship, and yes it was very cool, but they were going to behave themselves and the first child who stepped out of line would be chucked out an airlock. Teyla would not have ever thought of saying such a thing to a child, but they seemed to take it in stride. Presumably they were used to him by now.
As the children winked out in flashes of light, she asked him, "Do they have parents?"
"Wraith orphans," he explained succinctly. After a moment he added, a bit diffidently, "I was sort of hoping the Athosians might maybe ... you know ..."
Teyla smiled. "I am sure that my people would be happy to take them in."
"They're good kids. I mean, really, they are. I know what you're thinking, and you're right -- That sounds kind of weird coming from me. But, for kids, they handled themselves very well down here."
His eyes kept straying to the Wraith dart in the bushes, and Teyla knew what he was really doing: putting off the inevitable. As long as Sheppard remained dematerialized in the dart, anything was possible. Once they brought him out, there would be only one of two possible outcomes -- life, or death -- and there was no going back.
Her radio crackled. "Colonel Caldwell says that a medical team is standing by."
Rodney swallowed, nodded. "Send 'em."
"You may send them down," Teyla relayed.
The familiar white light swelled and faded, leaving the Daedalus's doctor standing with a team of assistants and equipment. Teyla listened quietly as Rodney described Sheppard's injuries -- the infection in his leg and the sequence of events that had led to heart failure. She listened and was proud of him, for his voice didn't break once, even though she could see from his eyes that he was bleeding inside.
When he'd finished, the Daedalus doctor nodded. "Let's get this done. And then let's get you up there and take that transmitter out."
"Oh." Rodney looked startled as if this thought had not even occurred to him. "Okay."
He jogged over to the dart. Teyla glanced at Ronon, who looked as helpless as she felt, and the two of them followed him. "Is there anything we can do to help?" Teyla asked as Rodney clambered into the pilot's seat.
He shook his head. "Just stand back." He reached for the controls, then hesitated, and looked over the side at them. The raw hurt in his eyes staggered Teyla; she could see how hard he was trying to maintain control through his pain, fear and exhaustion. She wondered how long it had been since he'd slept. "Just so you know ... I mean, so you're prepared ... I don't know what this is going to do. I know how the Wraith beam reacts to living beings, but considering that he, technically, wasn't living at the time ... I don't know if what I'll get back will be -- Sheppard. So, just ... maybe you shouldn't look. When I do this."
"If you hadn't done anything, he'd be dead for sure," Ronon said roughly.
Teyla added quietly, "He is right. No matter what happens, you acted very quickly and did all you could -- more than most people would have been able to do."
Rodney took a slow, steadying breath. "I know. But, thanks."
With a quick motion, he hit the button. Despite herself, Teyla could not resist flinching as the familiar blue-white beam caused the trees beyond it to waver like water. She had lost too many people to that beam of light -- including, perhaps, John Sheppard.
The beam flicked away too quickly for the eye to follow, leaving a dark shape on the riverbank. Instantly the Daedalus medical team descended. Teyla helped Rodney climb out of the dart pilot's seat, listening to the Daedalus doctor barking orders to his people. At least, there definitely seemed to be something for the medical team to work on. As the medical team and Sheppard vanished in the flash of Asgard transportation technology, Teyla clung to that hope. She could feel Rodney's body shaking against her, and she closed her hands over his cold ones, gripping tightly as the white light took them both.
Rodney blinked his eyes. For a confused instant he thought he was facedown in the snow. But it wasn't cold. And slowly he began to resolve the many familiar smells and sounds of a hospital. No, infirmary. Atlantis? No ... he could feel the rumble of powerful engines, bearing him homeward. Daedalus.
He was lying on his stomach, head twisted to one side. The white was a pillow in front of his nose. He stirred, trying to turn to a more comfortable position, and just had time to notice that his back felt weird -- strange, stiff and heavy -- before a hand on each of his arms stopped him. One was large and powerful, the other small and strong. "Rodney, do not move," Teyla's voice said. "You have been in surgery to remove the transmitter. You are still recovering from the sedation."
Teyla and Ronon were there. He focused on that. Thinking was difficult; his brain felt stuffed with cotton. But there was something, something important ... He tried to grab for the thought as it slithered elusively away. And he found it.
"Sheppard." His lips were thick and clumsy. "Sheppard ... is ...?"
Teyla's face came into his field of vision, her hair brushing his pillow. He could see the answer in her glowing eyes before she spoke. "He is alive."
Clinging to that, Rodney slept.
When he next awoke, it was in a slow, peaceful slide towards consciousness. He was lying on his back, but nothing hurt, and from the lazy, floating feeling he knew he must be drugged. He could think again, though -- it was a little difficult and hazy, but his brain was working. Before opening his eyes, he registered the low vibration of the Daedalus's engines, felt but not heard. He wondered how long it had been and how far away from Atlantis they were.
A soft sound beside him made him open his eyes and roll his head just enough to see Teyla sitting at his bedside, leaning her head in her open palm. She smiled sleepily at him.
"How long?" he asked, or tried to ask, but all that emerged was a croak. Teyla leaned for a cup of water at his bedside and held it to his lips, helped him drink.
"Thanks," he whispered. "How long was I asleep?"
"It has been about twenty-four hours since we picked you up, and Colonel Caldwell tells me that we are still two days away from Atlantis. We were quite far out in the galaxy."
"Far from home," Rodney whispered.
"Yes," she agreed with a smile. "Very far from home."
"Is sleeping. We are taking turns." Her grin turned impish. "He has also been spending much time in the weapons room of the Daedalus. After seeing the hiveship explode, I believe that he may be considering a new career."
Rodney felt a grin flicker at the idea of Ronon at the helm of the Daedalus's railguns. "Scary thought," he said, his voice growing stronger as his head cleared.
"Indeed." Teyla offered him the cup of water again; this time he took it with slightly shaky fingers. "Are you hungry? Would you like anything?"
"I wouldn't mind sitting up." She helped him with that; after an initial wave of dizziness, he steadied and looked around. The Daedalus sickbay was smaller and more cramped than the infirmary on Atlantis, but otherwise, not too different. His eyes roved over a short row of white-covered beds and stopped on the one that was occupied. He couldn't see much from here -- just a mass of unruly dark hair, and a lot of equipment and bags of various fluids. He didn't know what all of it was for, but he could see that Sheppard was on a ventilator.
Teyla followed his gaze. "He has been out of surgery for a while. The doctor says that they were able to save his leg, but he is still very weak. He will not wake up for a while."
"But he's going to be okay?" He hoped his voice didn't sound as pathetically hopeful as he felt.
"The doctor will not say."
"Quack. He's making it up as he goes along. I wish Carson was here ... someone who knows what he's doing. ... What's that look for?" he demanded, seeing her raised eyebrows.
The impish grin returned. "I will have to tell Dr. Beckett that you have admitted he is not a 'voodoo' doctor after all."
"I admit nothing of the kind," Rodney retorted huffily. "I'm just saying that he's better at his particular voodoo than most other people, that's all." Trying to distract himself, he looked around the sickbay and realized what it was about the overall silence that made him feel so odd. It had been a number of days since he hadn't heard the constant, annoying chatter of children. "Hey, where'd the kids get off to, anyway?"
Teyla smiled. "None of them are injured enough to require medical care, so Colonel Caldwell has found quarters for them. It is quite cramped, and they are -- what is that charming Earth expression he used? Oh yes ... 'bouncing off the walls'. He says that we cannot reach Atlantis too soon for him."
"Do you know what's going to happen to them, once we get there?" Rodney tried to rise from the bed; Teyla pushed him back down with a firm hand. "Hey! I need to call Weir, let her know to expect a bunch of guests."
"I have already done so," she assured him. "And my people have agreed to take in the children, as we discussed earlier, if it is all right with you."
"Why should it matter if I care?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"You appear to be the closest thing they have to a guardian at the moment." Amusement flickered in her eyes.
Rodney groaned. "Oh, please, kill me now."
"Someday you must tell me how you ended up in the company of so many children."
"Don't worry, you'll get the whole story. Right now, though, it's your turn. I'd really like to know how in the world you guys found us."
Teyla smiled. "It was a group effort," she said, leaning forward and lightly touching his knee under the sheet. "The one thing I regret is that Ronon and I could do so little to help. When we could not find you after being separated during the culling on PX2-394, we determined that you must have been taken. Your scientists and Colonel Caldwell determined the positions of various hive ships in the area and hypothesized, based on their trajectories, which one would have most likely been involved in the culling. Then it was just a matter of plotting out its estimated course of travel and tracking it down to this world." She frowned. "We attempted to stay out of its sensor range, but it became aware of us, and there was a battle. Colonel Caldwell was forced to destroy it. I do not blame him for that," she added quickly. "He had the welfare of his own ship to consider, and everyone aboard. But we were very glad to hear your transmission from the planet."
"You came looking for us," Rodney said softly. "Even after the hiveship was destroyed, you didn't give up. You were still looking for us."
"Of course we did not give up." Teyla leaned forward, her brown eyes intense. "You did not give up on Colonel Sheppard, did you? Even after you believed that he was dead, that there was no hope, you still did not give up."
Rodney sank back against his pillows. "You'll never know how close I came to giving up, how many times," he admitted. His hands moved restlessly, plucking at the sheet. "The Colonel ..." His eyes strayed to the other bed.
"Would you like to sit with him? I can help you."
He wanted it, and at the same time, he didn't. At least when he couldn't see Sheppard, he didn't have to think about how close it had been, how close it still was. On the other hand, Teyla and Ronon hadn't given up, Sheppard hadn't given up except right there at the end. "Sure," he said.
Teyla helped him out of bed with an arm under his shoulders, pushing along the IV stand. It surprised Rodney to discover how weak he was, the exhaustion and deprivation of the last few days catching up with him all at once. Teyla helped settle him into a chair beside Sheppard's bed and draped a blanket over his shoulders. "I need to go check on the children, and see about getting some food for you. I will be back soon."
"Hey, wait ...!" But she was already gone.
Rodney sighed, and turned his attention to the Colonel. He looked marginally better than he had the last time Rodney had seen him ... but, then, he'd been dead at the time. His face was as white as the sheet over him, the dark, tousled hair stark against the pallor of his forehead. His crackled lips were parted around a tube down his throat; IVs pierced both arms, and cables from various monitoring equipment snaked across his body and wound under the blankets, making Rodney think of parasitic worms burrowing into him.
"So," he said, lamely. "You're alive. Not very alive, from the look of it, but better than nothing."
Hmm. As bedside chats with a sick friend went, this one wasn't shaping up very well. But he'd never claimed to be good with people, sick or otherwise. Sheppard, of all people, should know that.
Well, talking wasn't working too well, so what else did you do when people were in hospital? Hold their hand maybe? After a surreptitious look around to make sure nobody was watching, he laid his hand over Sheppard's, feeling a bit awkward and silly. Sheppard's skin was cold and dry to the touch.
"You know, Colonel, you feel dead," Rodney said without thinking, then added a hasty, "Er, sorry. Didn't mean it the way it came out."
It seemed natural to curl his fingers around Sheppard's cold ones, so he did that. Maybe he could warm them up a little bit.
Having nothing else to look at, with Sheppard's fingers warming slowly in his palm, Rodney studied the Colonel's pale face in the dim light of the infirmary. He'd never really seen Sheppard look like this before. He appeared so ... fragile, as if a careless touch could break him. His skin was so pale it seemed translucent. The soft, rhythmic hissing of the ventilator provided a constant reminder that his life still hung by a thread, dependent upon the machines.
Rodney hesitated, leaning forward. Had he moved a little? The angle of Sheppard's head on the pillow was slightly different now, the shadows of his eyelashes at a minutely different angle. And ... he didn't think it was his imagination ... the cool fingers held loosely in his own twitched once, then again.
"Colonel?" he breathed.
Sheppard's face didn't change, but his fingers moved again, and this time Rodney knew it wasn't his imagination, as the Colonel's hand twisted and, very slowly, his fingers curled loosely around the edge of Rodney's palm.
Rodney looked wildly around for any sort of medical person. "Nurse! Hey, nurse!"
A male medic appeared from one end of the infirmary and made his way over to Rodney's end. He was only slightly smaller than Ronon, with treelike upper arms. Rodney stared up at him. "You're a nurse?"
"I'm a corpsman. Everything okay over here?"
Rodney looked back down at Sheppard, feeling suddenly a little bit foolish. "Could he be waking up? I think he knows I'm here."
The medic placed a sympathetic hand on Rodney's shoulder, causing him to tense up instantly -- he'd never liked unauthorized touching.
"That's not possible. He's heavily sedated, and anything you see is probably a reflexive movement. He's not aware of anything around him."
"And your advanced medical degree tells you this?" Rodney snapped. "Oh wait, you're not a doctor, are you? Maybe it's your psychic powers then?"
The hand withdrew. "Perhaps I'll just let you be alone, then," the medic said with thinly concealed hostility.
"Perhaps that would be best, yes."
Definitely not Carson's infirmary. Carson would never stand for incompetent people like that working for him. Rodney turned his attention back to Sheppard. He still appeared unconscious, and the fingers lightly wrapped around his own hand did not respond to a gentle squeeze. In all likelihood, Rodney knew, the corpsman was right: Sheppard wasn't awake, just twitching in reflexive response to stimuli. But ... this was Lt. Col. John Sheppard, the most obnoxiously stubborn person Rodney had ever had the misfortune to meet. If anyone could drag himself from death's doorstep towards the land of the living, even if just long enough to give the reassurance of a feeble hand squeeze ...
Rodney wrapped his hand more tightly around Sheppard's, and was rewarded with a light, returned pressure. Reflex or conscious response, he didn't really care. Dead men didn't spontaneously move, and at this point, he'd take what he could get.
When Teyla returned, she found that Rodney had fallen asleep sitting up, with Sheppard's fingers still curled loosely in his own.
He was hot on the trail of a nagging power drain in the southwest sector. It had been driving the scientists crazy for months -- ever since the Wraith siege, in fact, when they'd installed the ZPM and started bringing more systems online, and that pesky little power fluctuation had first shown up. Since they couldn't find anything online that shouldn't be, Rodney had long theorized that it was an incidental side effect of other systems interacting in unexpected ways. The trick was figuring out which ones were doing it and how to stop it. His eyes burned from hours of staring at scrolling fields of numbers on his laptop screen -- but he was so close; he could feel, somewhere just out of reach, that electric snap of understanding that he experienced when all the pieces fell together. Squinting at the screen, he flipped to yesterday's logs and felt a grin beginning to tug at one corner of his mouth. Oh yeah, you stubborn sucker, he thought, I've got you now --
A sharp sting on the side of his head knocked him out of his reverie. Without looking up, Rodney snapped his hand up to catch the thrown object as it bounced, and brought it down in front of his eyes. He knew what he'd see before he uncurled his hand: a small, rolled-up piece of yellow notepaper.
"I said stop that," he grumbled, returning his eyes to the screen.
His answer was another impact, this time a direct score on his ear. Rodney growled and turned a vicious glare on the source of his torment.
Sheppard grinned unrepentantly, rolling another piece of paper briskly between his fingers. "Bored," was all he said.
"And you without your pinecones. How tragic."
The grin broadened. "My aim's better with these." Holding the little ball of paper between thumb and forefinger, he flicked it at Rodney, who winced and ducked. It sailed over his head and bounced on the floor.
Sheppard probably couldn't have thrown a pinecone at the moment if he'd wanted to; he still didn't have the strength to raise his head, let alone his arms. At the moment he was propped up on a pile of pillows, still hooked up to a feeding tube and an alarming array of other medical paraphernalia. The note pad and pencil were in his lap because he'd complained of being bored and wanted to work on some notes for rearranging the off-world teams to better complement their various strengths and weaknesses. Or so he had claimed, although the notepad contained nothing more than a few random doodles and was clearly being put to other, less official uses.
Sheppard was white as a sheet, looked like death warmed over, and should obviously be sleeping and recovering his strength. But would he sleep? No. He had to stay awake to pester Rodney while he was trying to work.
When another little twist of yellow paper ricocheted off his elbow, Rodney finally broke. "Carson! Sheppard's throwing things at me again!"
"You could always leave," Beckett retorted, without sympathy, from the other side of the infirmary.
They'd been back in Atlantis now for almost a week. After a thorough examination, Rodney had been released from the infirmary, but to Beckett's growing irritation, he refused to actually go. He'd leave to eat, shower, change clothes, and periodically to visit his labs and terrorize the scientists for a few hours, but he always came back, laptop in hand, to take up his station on the bed next to Sheppard's. When, after two days, Sheppard had finally woken up and been taken off the ventilator, Carson had hoped that Rodney might actually go somewhere else for a while, but no such luck.
Part of the problem was that both Weir and Beckett wanted to keep Rodney on light duty and restrict his off-world travel until they were positive that there were no lingering side effects from his ordeal -- and, most importantly, that the Wraith had no possible means of tracking him. When he was cleared for full duty, Carson was heard to say loudly, he might stay in his lab and keep out from underfoot for a while.
To which Rodney responded, unsurprisingly, by being even more persistently underfoot than he had been before.
Beckett, with great patience and perhaps a little less speed than absolutely necessary, removed the slide that he was currently studying -- containing smears from cultures of the latest retrovirus variation -- from his microscope and glanced over his shoulder. "Yes, Rodney? Is there a problem?"
"Can't you sedate him or something?"
The one in danger of being sedated at the moment was probably Rodney, not Sheppard, but he was saved by the sudden, timely arrival of a smiling Elizabeth Weir. "Well, hello ... gentlemen ... boys. How are you doing?"
"Oh," Sheppard said, rolling another little ball of paper between two fingers, "I'm peachy."
"He is drugged," Rodney interjected. "Carson's giving him all the good drugs he doesn't give me."
Elizabeth quirked an eyebrow. "He's sicker than you, Rodney." She tossed a book into Sheppard's lap; the Colonel immediately perked up with an "Ah!" of happy surprise. "I just stopped by to drop this off for you."
"Thanks, Elizabeth. Hey, about that other thing we talked about ..."
"Bigger quarters for Rodney? I'm still looking." Seeing that Rodney was staring at her with his mouth open, she smiled and said, "John said it was a condition of getting you to fly the Wraith dart, down on that planet. And I am looking. All of the large rooms near the labs are being used, but I'm currently negotiating for one suite that I think you might like."
Rodney divided his suspicious glare between her and the innocent-looking Colonel. "You told me we weren't going to shuffle living spaces anymore."
One shoulder lifted under her red T-shirt. "Sometimes I make exceptions in special cases. Gentlemen ... Carson ... " And she was off. Elizabeth never stayed for long -- she was much too busy -- but she always stopped in whenever she was nearby, which amounted to a good dozen times a day.
Rodney turned towards Sheppard with a combination of disbelief and amazement. The fact that Sheppard had actually remembered his request was a small warm glow at the pit of his stomach, but he didn't intend to let it show. "Do you have her wrapped around your finger, or what? I've been trying to get her to okay a room-swap for months!"
"You just have to know how to ask for things, Rodney." Sheppard tilted his head to look at the book in his lap.
Rodney leaned over to try to get a not-so-subtle look himself, but he couldn't quite see it. "What's that, anyhow?"
"Just something I asked Elizabeth to pick up from my quarters for me." Sheppard moved a hand over the top of the book, obscuring the title. Rodney could see only that it was a large-ish paperback with a tan cover. He was also uncomfortably aware of how sharply the Colonel's bones thrust out beneath the skin on the back of his hand; he looked as if you could snap him in half, which disturbed Rodney far more deeply than he was willing to admit.
"Curious?" Sheppard teased, raising a finger over the book only to snap it back down when Rodney tried to take a peek.
"Quit being juvenile," Rodney snorted. Obviously, as weak as Sheppard was, the scientist could have freed the book easily, but that would hardly have been fair. Besides, Sheppard was like a kid with a new toy -- he wouldn't last five minutes before he had to show it off. In fact, Rodney was putting his money on five seconds. Three ... two ... one ...
Sheppard moved his hand off the book's cover, and Rodney covered a laugh with a short cough. "It's for you anyway," the Colonel said, scooping his hand under it to lift it. His fingers trembled with the effort, and Rodney took it quickly.
He turned it over and read the title: U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76.
"What the hell is this, Sheppard?"
"Something we probably should have gone over a long time ago." Looking up, Rodney saw that the Colonel's eyes were fixed on him with a stare that was intense and very alert despite the lingering illness and the effects of Carson's various drugs.
"So you're saying I was a liability out there? That's what you're saying?"
Sheppard's voice was quiet. "You know I'm not saying that."
The rage rose up through Rodney's chest, a fury born from terror. He almost threw the book at Sheppard, depositing it roughly on the hospital cot's beside table. "You know what? Fuck you, Colonel." Grabbing his laptop, he stormed out of the infirmary.
Beckett watched him go with a mix of surprise and concern. Schooling his face to a slight smile, he turned to look at an equally startled Sheppard. "And had I known that I could make him leave so easily, I would've sent Elizabeth for that book days ago," he said.
Sheppard flashed a half-hearted smile back, but his eyes kept going to the door of the infirmary. And so did Beckett's.
The first couple of days after they'd gotten back had been ... weird. People stared at Rodney in the halls, murmured shy hellos to him in the mess line. Even the ones who should know better, like Zelenka and Elizabeth, treated him with kid gloves, refusing to rise to even the most obvious verbal baiting. Rodney found himself becoming more and more of a bastard just trying to get everyone to stop being so damn nice to him. He knew it was working when Zelenka lost his temper and called him a string of indecipherable Czech insults in front of the entire science night shift, and after that, normality (such as it ever was) began to resume.
They'd thought he and Sheppard were dead. Everyone had. It was obvious. Teyla and Ronon were really the only ones who had refused to believe it, and that was just through a sort of obstinate denial of reality. Perhaps the worst part was that deep down, Rodney knew that they should be dead, and the fact that everyone seemed to treat him like a returning ghost didn't make it any easier to handle.
He spent the rest of the day in his lab, first wrestling with the power consumption problem, then with a string of other issues that his staff brought to his attention. It had to be a fluke that these people had somehow managed not to blow themselves up during the two weeks he'd been off-world. Idiots. He was surrounded by idiots. He found himself momentarily wistful for the kids, who from all reports were doing fine on the mainland with the Athosians. When the regular supply jumper had come back from the mainland yesterday, the pilot had also brought a bouquet of flowers that Tekka had picked for Rodney. Stupid, sentimental little brat -- this sort of thing was exactly why kids annoyed him, and the pilot's smirk hadn't helped a bit.
The bouquet was currently installed in a beaker full of water, next to his workstation in the lab. The first tech who had been unfortunate enough to mention it -- despite the hasty shushing motions of her colleagues -- had been treated to a twenty-minute tirade and had left the science wing in tears. And there went one more person who wouldn't be giving him any unearned hero worship for surviving certain death, Rodney thought with the warm fuzzy glow of a job well done.
Unfortunately, there was only so long that one could stay in the labs. One by one, his staff trickled off to bed, until all that remained was the skeleton night crew. He would have willingly continued working, but the glowing digits on his computer screen were beginning to swim together, and he'd already caught himself in two elementary mistakes.
Leaving the lab, he drifted through the darkened, nearly empty corridors of the sleeping city. The mess hall was deserted except for a small group of Marines at one of the tables. They looked up and nodded to him when he came in -- and that, too, was wrong, for Rodney didn't expect to be recognized or acknowledged by military personnel outside the small handful that he'd managed to befriend to a degree. But here was yet another batch of Rodney-and-Sheppard worshippers who'd heard fifth-hand rumors of their survival among the Wraith.
It was strange, Rodney mused as he picked up a sandwich from the lighted case along the wall and beat a hasty retreat. For most of his life, he would have loved the notoriety. He was a man who lived for the spotlight -- and it wasn't as if he didn't deserve it, considering that he was smarter than 99.99 percent of the people around him. He didn't want much, only to be acknowledged as one of the smartest and most accomplished people on Earth ... and, strangely, that was exactly what had happened to him in the Pegasus Galaxy.
And now that he had it, the spotlight he'd actively sought all his life, he had found that it didn't matter nearly as much as he'd thought it did. What mattered was Teyla's quiet smile over breakfast, or Sheppard showing him how to handle a P90, or Carson's gentle hands holding him down during a drug-induced seizure, or late-night arguments with Zelenka over some meaningless piece of Ancient technology. He still loved being admired, and he still had a teeny, tiny little fantasy in the back of his head about discovering a world through the gate that worshipped him as a god ... but he'd found that being admired from afar wasn't exactly all it was cracked up to be -- and maybe it wasn't even what he'd always wanted, after all.
He knew, now, why Sam Carter had furiously turned her back on him, at the SGC all those years ago, when she had realized what he'd done -- that he'd condemned her friend to near-certain death in the Stargate crystal matrix. He hadn't understood, then, how co-workers could become friends and friends could become family.
He understood now. And he hoped that someday he could talk to Carter, tell her of the things he'd learned out here, half a universe away. Tell her he understood why she wouldn't abandon Teal'c, even when logic and reason and one Dr. Rodney McKay said that she should.
Eating as he walked, he let his feet carry him without thinking too deeply about where he was going. He didn't realize that he'd arrived at the infirmary until he very nearly ran into Beckett.
"Carson." Rodney tried to peek around his shoulder without being obtrusive about it. "Is, uh, is the Colonel asleep?"
"For the last few hours, yes." Pointedly, Carson added, "He sleeps quite a bit more when you're not around to distract him."
Rodney sputtered but quickly recovered his verbal feet. "I thought you were a great believer in the warm, fuzzy, utterly non-scientific ideal of allowing people to heal surrounded by their friends, family and co-workers."
"When they're not constantly underfoot and keeping my patients from healing ... yes."
"I'm here to work," Rodney protested, holding up his ever-present laptop in demonstration.
"That's strange -- the last I'd heard, you worked in the science wing. I must have missed the memo about you being reassigned to the infirmary. Does that mean you take orders from me now, Rodney?"
"Oh, har de har. The sarcasm runneth over." Rodney rolled his eyes and tried to go around him, only to be blocked. "Okay, now what? Is there a secret handshake to get in?"
"Your quarters are the other direction, Rodney."
"For your information -- are you listening, Carson? Do you even care? -- I can actually get work done here. It's quiet. People aren't constantly interrupting me. I'm convalescing too -- there's nothing strange about wanting to be someplace quiet where I can actually concentrate."
"Oh, don't be daft, man -- you're clinging to him like a limpet. That isn't normal."
"That's completely disgusting, Carson, and clearly you've been spending too much time with your eyes glued to a microscope lately, or you'd have noticed that all of us visit each other in the infirmary; it's what we do."
"Visit, yes. Move in? No. Teyla and Ronon have been getting on with their lives. They stop by to visit, chat and check on him every so often, but they don't feel the need to hover over him. Neither would you, usually."
"I am most certainly not hovering."
Carson's eyes were on him, penetrating and irritatingly perceptive. "Oh really? Then what are you doing?" The doctor's face softened at Rodney's obvious irritation, and he added, "Rodney, I know the two of you went through hell on that planet, and I also know you'll never talk about half of it, even to Kate -- nor do you need to. I understand you don't want to let him out of your sight. But you're home. You're safe. You can let go."
"Leave the analyzing to Heightmeyer, Carson." Rodney pushed past him, his back set like a wall designed to keep prying friends away. He thought he could feel Carson watching him, but when he looked over his shoulder, the man was gone.
He hopped up into the Rodney-shaped spot in a rumpled nest of sheets on the cot he'd staked out as "his", next to Sheppard's, and lay back and got comfortable with the laptop on his chest. All he could see of the other man at the moment was a tuft of dark hair atop a blanket-draped lump. It made him think uncomfortably of a corpse. True, the rhythmic beeping of the monitors would seem to indicate otherwise, but he worked with machines every day and he knew how unreliable they could be. Stupid ... but ... once the niggling worry had curled up at the base of his brain, he couldn't seem to concentrate on the computer code scrolling on his screen. Maybe he should just take a peek at Sheppard, just to allow him to focus so that he could actually get some work done.
It wasn't hovering. It was just being careful. Because you couldn't be too careful; he knew that now.
Rodney set the laptop aside and started to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
"Rodney," Sheppard rasped. "Quit hovering."
"GAH!" He rolled hastily back up onto the bed, glanced about to make sure that no nurses were nearby to have witnessed that little fiasco. To his relief, the infirmary was deserted at the moment except for the two of them. "I'm not hovering," he snapped.
"Sorry -- lurking, looming, whatever you want to call it." Sheppard cleared his throat, coughed, and Rodney started to roll out of bed again.
"Need a drink of water?"
"I've got it," Sheppard retorted, with a suspicious look at him. There was a plastic cup of water on the stand beside his bed -- left by a solicitous nurse or perhaps by Beckett -- and he got a shaking hand around it after a couple of false tries.
Rodney mercilessly battened down the urge to just pick up the damn cup for him. He knew from experience that if Sheppard said he didn't want help, he meant it. Instead, he groaned and dropped onto his back, laying an arm over his eyes. "Carson said you were asleep. That Scottish rat-fink sold me out."
"No, he probably thinks I am asleep."
"And why aren't you?" Rodney twisted his head to the side and took in Sheppard's pallor, the lingering bruised look around his eyes. "You should be."
With an obvious effort, Sheppard rolled over onto his side so that he was able to look easily in Rodney's direction. "Woke up when you came in."
"Well, I'm going to go to sleep now. I suggest you do likewise."
He heard a soft sigh from Sheppard. "You know, I'm serious about doing the wilderness survival training with you. Not because you didn't do well on that planet. You did great, Rodney, really --"
"I don't want to talk about this, Sheppard."
"I just need to know why you don't want to do it." And Carson had called him a limpet? The Colonel just didn't let go.
"I'm a civilian, dammit." Rodney hated falling back on the civilian defense; it always felt as if he was halfway to losing an argument when he did that. "I don't need to know this stuff, and I don't need to take orders from you."
"That's not what's wrong and you know it."
"What are you, my therapist? I certainly hope not. Heightmeyer's a lot easier on the eyes, no matter what half a dozen space princesses have to say about you."
There was a soft, snorted laugh from the bed next to his, then a brief silence that was broken by, "Rodney, seriously. I don't want to make this a condition of going off-world, but I will if I have to. You need to know this stuff. Why aren't you willing to learn?"
What did it take to make the man stop pushing? Rodney sighed and glowered up at the ceiling.
"Because I ..." Damn it, he did not want to talk about this. "I watched you die, do you understand that? I watched you die slowly, one day at a time. The wilderness is full of germs and predators and it's far, far, far from lifesaving medical care." He was alarmed and annoyed to discover that he was trembling. His voice rose and he only remembered to modulate it with a quick glance towards Carson's dark office. "You really think that our little jaunt of the last couple of weeks has made me want to run out into the woods and go camping? Are you insane? Did that fever eat up your goddamn mind--?"
He broke off his babbling at a tug on his shirt, and looked down to discover that Sheppard had reached one long arm across the space between them -- leaning precariously far out from his bed in order to do so -- and seized hold of a handful of Rodney's uniform jacket in order to give it a swift jerk.
"Rodney," Sheppard said, gently. "I'm alive."
"I know you are." Rodney twisted away, just hard enough to break Sheppard's weak grip. He wasn't ready to stop being angry yet.
I'm not finished being angry at you for taking stupid chances, for throwing your life away a dozen times over for everyone you meet. I'm not done being mad at you for worrying about ME when you were the one whose leg was falling off. I'm not done being mad at you for making me cry, you ass.
Sheppard drew his hand back, but still let it trail over the side of the bed towards Rodney. "So," he said in a conversational tone. "When we go back out there -- when we're all cleared for gate travel and back out in the field -- when something like this happens again, I'll just hang around and watch you die instead?"
Rodney was unable to keep himself from flinching. A hit, Sheppard, a palpable hit. "I don't know about you, but I have every intention of not getting culled again anytime in the near future, thanks."
"And you can guarantee that, how?" When Rodney stayed silent, Sheppard gestured with his painfully thin hand. "Every time we go out there, we're taking a huge risk -- you know that. And it isn't just the Wraith. Every time we walk through that gate, there's no telling what might happen. How many times have we been temporarily trapped on the other side, by weather or hostile locals or other circumstances? How long do you think it'll be before we really need to use those wilderness survival skills again?"
"That's why we have you," Rodney snapped. He pulled the thin cotton blanket from the cot over his shoulders. He was suddenly freezing.
Sheppard snorted a humorless laugh. "Yeah, and we've seen how effective I can be." He sighed and leaned back into his pillows, half-closing his eyes in evident exhaustion. "McKay ... every single person on this team, on every team, has to have those skills. I know that, but I've been lax in actually teaching them to you. All it'd take is a few well-aimed bullets or one IED and you'd be alone out there. No me, no Teyla, no Ronon." Seeing Rodney start to shake his head, Sheppard turned his head to the side, hazel eyes snapping fire. "We're in a war zone, Rodney! You can deny it, but that doesn't make it less true. You know we could die out there."
Rodney huddled into the blanket. "I never thought I'd ever hear you admit it," he protested peevishly. "I'm the one who always points out the risks, aren't I? You're the one who goes charging in with guns blazing."
"Then why won't you admit that you need to have the same survival skills the rest of us do, because one of us might not be around to do it for you one of these days?"
Rodney closed his eyes, shocked to discover how close he was to tears.
Because I've found my home and family here. Because, though I'll never say it aloud, I'd rather die myself than have anything happen to them. Because if I stop and think about how close we all live to the edge, it'll drive me insane.
"How do you do it?" He didn't even know he was going to ask the question until the words were out of his mouth.
"Me?" Sheppard seemed equally startled. "Do what?"
"Go out there, every time, knowing ... I mean, I always thought you just didn't ... that you never really understood the risks. That you thought you were invulnerable somehow. John Sheppard the Million Dollar Man."
"What, you mean I'm not?" The grin fell slowly away from his face and eyes when he saw Rodney wasn't buying it. "What are you looking for here, McKay? A magic bullet, a perfect answer? I haven't got it. I'm just a guy who gets shot at a lot."
"I just want to know how you can keep going through the gate, even knowing ..." He trailed off. It was a stupid question anyway.
Sheppard spoke softly, into the silence. "Because I make myself as ready as I can be, and then I just don't think about it. That's how I do it, Rodney."
"I'm not capable of not thinking about anything."
A quiet laugh. "I know. That's why we have you along. So you can think of the things the rest of us aren't thinking about. And seriously, McKay, you should be able to leave the military stuff, the risk-taking, up to the rest of us so you can concentrate on other things. It's our job, not yours. I'm not going to try to turn you into some kind of super-soldier. But knowing that you're capable of handling yourself in a wilderness emergency ... it would make my job easier, knowing that. That's all."
"Oh, just give me the stupid book," Rodney grumbled. He knew what Sheppard could be like when he got an idea into his head. It was easier to just read the damn book and take a couple of survival courses than to put up with the nagging.
"It's by your bed." And that had better not be triumph in that quiet voice, or he was going to pop him one in the mouth, sick or not.
Rodney twisted his head to the side and saw the book lying on his bedside table, where he'd left it after storming out of the infirmary hours ago. "Well, isn't it just. Guess I'll have some light reading at breakfast tomorrow." He turned to see Sheppard still lying on his side, watching him, one hand tucked under his face. "And speaking of the time, it's the middle of the night and Carson is going to sedate us both if you don't get some sleep."
"Looks like you could use some too."
Rodney snorted. He was perfectly fine ... just a little tired. And damn, he was tired, and starting to drift. "Excellent, we have something in common. Good night, Colonel."
He shut his eyes and almost immediately felt his body relaxing. The soft beeping of Sheppard's monitors was hypnotic, lulling him over the edge. He could feel one of his arms slip off the bed -- on accident really; he was just too tired to keep track of all his limbs -- and it was more trouble than it was worth to try to gather it back up again. Then, out of nowhere, he felt a cold hand with an IV in the back of it close over his own and give it a sudden, hard squeeze. Before he could quite believe that the Colonel had invaded his personal space in such an utterly gratuitous way, the hand had withdrawn and he whipped his head around to see Sheppard settling both hands innocently on his chest as if they had always been there.
Rodney ruthlessly fought down the grin that wanted to tug at the corners of his mouth. He was not about to give the idiot that kind of satisfaction. But it must have shown in his eyes, for the warmth was caught and reflected in Sheppard's hazel ones, before the eyelids slid shut and the Colonel's breathing evened out.
Neither of them were awake, a few minutes later, to see Carson Beckett quietly slip out of his office and cross the infirmary without a sound. He paused to look down on his sleeping friends, checking Sheppard's monitors and very gently tugging the blanket higher on Rodney's chest. Then he slipped away, leaving them alone and dialing the lights down with a thought as he left.