Medium: Photoshop artwork
Notes: Begun over a year ago for the Artword community, shelved when my writer partner unfortunately had to withdraw, completed (well, almost) for this challenge. Close use of references from Stargatesg1971.com
Pairing(s): none (gen)
Summary: Radek struggles, sometimes, with the feeling that he's an outsider to the closeness that Sheppard's team share. Offworld rescue missions tend to put things in perspective, though.
Notes: Many thanks to almost_clara for her inspiring art, and to perspi for invaluable brainstorming assistance! And thank you to mashimero for running the exchange, and especially for being a patient and understanding mod when I turned out to be an extremely scatterbrained writer. This takes place in early season four, before "Missing".
It's an hour past dawn. Molten gold sunlight climbs the walls and fills Atlantis's soaring cathedral ceilings. Even yawning and bleary-eyed and wanting coffee, Radek can't help stopping to look up every so often as he walks to the cafeteria. He hopes the wonder never wears off. After four years, it hasn't yet, and he hopes that he will never see the day when the City's vistas seem no more extraordinary than a street corner in any city on Earth.
The cafeteria is filling up. Radek grabs a not-exactly-chocolate muffin before Vogel has a chance to steal them all, and then pours himself a cup of coffee. Esposito, annoyingly perky as always in the mornings, says hello and snatches a muffin of her own. Radek nods to Thiessen and Wong, both of whom look as sleepy as he feels, and smothers a grin against the rim of his coffee cup when Vogel piles four of the muffins on his tray and gets his hand smacked by Sgt. Klein when he reaches for another one.
Looking around the room, he is struck by the awareness that he knows nearly all of these people, by face if not name. The physicists and engineers he knows best of all, naturally, but the others are all at least passingly familiar to him -- gateroom techs and botanists, Marines and Air Force and Bundeswehr, medical staff and oceanographers. It catches him in the way that the light does, sometimes, on the stained glass windows: this awareness that he is part of something larger than himself, not just a cog in the machine but one of the old men in the lab. The new people bring questions to him; they listen eagerly to his stories of Wraith and gate travel and asteroids.
And there's Rodney's team, of course, in their usual breakfast table by the big windows overlooking the ocean, looking out on the sunrise -- except none of them, of course, notice the sunrise; they are focused on each other. Teyla is laughing, the rising sun striking fire from her hair, at Rodney holding court as he does in the labs, gesturing wildly with his hands in a fluid language of his own. Sheppard watches them with quiet amusement, and Radek wonders if the protectiveness in Sheppard's body language is as visible to them as it is to him, an outside observer.
It is strange, sometimes, to be a friend to people who are so wrapped up in each other. Radek ponders this as he goes through the breakfast line, his first cup of coffee already half-drained, picking up rye toast and yogurt and rather too many of those sweet little fruits from MP5-792. He has been in the odd position of watching from the outside as Rodney and the other members of Sheppard's team have drawn together, from strangers, to friends, to ... whatever they are now. After Carson's death, and Weir's, they've become so tightly bound that it is not possible to slide a sheet of paper between them. Radek wonders if they are aware of it.
He could sit with them, but he does not want to -- not on such a lovely morning, with alien birds flying in formation on a brilliant horizon. It would mean smiling at in-jokes that he does not share, and sitting politely while they reminisce about missions that he did not experience. If he is lucky, he might hope to be drawn into an argument with Rodney about physics in which his intellect will be belittled five times before he can butter his toast. So, no, probably not today. Instead he joins Vogel, Esposito and Coleman at a table in the corner.
"You ever wonder if we're missing out on anything?" Vogel says through a mouthful of muffin, as he spreads marmalade on a croissant.
Coleman frowns. "Sorry? Missing what?"
Vogel gestures with his sticky knife at the table with Rodney and his team. "Being on a team. Going offworld."
Esposito puffs out a breath. "Not me. Going offworld every day, getting shot at? No thanks." She smiles shyly. "On the other hand, if they needed help on an offworld mission, it might be an excellent opportunity for good resume-building experience, don't you think?"
Vogel and Coleman both roll their eyes in unison, which would make Radek laugh if he weren't trying to clamp down on his own amusement and remain polite. Esposito's crush on Ronon is well known in the science department, and Radek suspects that her desire to help on an offworld mission has very little to do with her resume. "Yes," he says, stealing the pot of marmalade from Vogel. "I think it would be an excellent opportunity."
"You do sometimes wonder, though," Coleman says as she peppers her eggs. "I mean, not all of the teams click like that." She nods towards the group at the window; Teyla is now laughing so hard that she's grabbed hold of Ronon, while Rodney, after carrying on in blissful ignorance for a few more seconds, breaks off in mid-elocution to scowl at her -- obviously this isn't his intended result. "But Alison just started going offworld with Major Teldy's team -- you know Alison Porter, right, Dr. Zelenka?"
When Radek nods, Coleman continues around a bite of eggs, "After her first mission, she didn't stop complaining for a week -- remember that? Her feet hurt and her legs hurt and she hated carrying a gun, and she was afraid she'd get shot at or kidnapped, and Teldy pushed her around, and her teammates were scary. But now I see them all in here, eating together, and ..." She shrugs, and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and nods at Vogel, acknowledging his point. "I do think about it, Harry; I wonder what it would be like to be a part of something like that. To have people you're that close to you, who rely on you that much."
Radek thinks about being trapped in a small puddlejumper or, worse, a small tent with Rodney for days. He shudders. "I do not think I could take it, personally. Living in another person's pocket as they do? I grew up in a very small house with too many siblings. It is not something I remember fondly."
But later, after the other scientists at his table have straggled off to work, he is the only one left, finishing his coffee, surrounded by crumbs and scattered napkins. The mess hall is beginning to empty, and over at the windows, Rodney and his team rise in unison. Ronon is saying something to Teyla, while Sheppard nudges Rodney and points to Esposito as she walks out. Radek doesn't know what he said, but he sees Rodney stomp on Sheppard's foot and can lip-read Sheppard's aggrieved "Ow" even from here.
You ever wonder if we're missing out on anything?
Yes, Radek thinks, folding his paper napkin neatly on his tray. Yes, I do wonder.
It's a typical day in the labs. Rodney and his team have gone offworld, so people bring Radek their problems. He resolves a personality conflict by moving Kazlinski to a different group of botanists, approves vacation leave for Maddoc and Rogers, and stamps Chang's request for permanent reassignment back to Earth. I should get paid extra for this, he thinks grimly, but on the other hand, he doesn't want Rodney's job and has no desire whatsoever to add "Deputy Head of Science" to his extensive list of official duties.
In early afternoon, he finally resolves the nagging power drain on the South Pier -- since the city was damaged flying to their new world, they've been rerouting systems all over the city, and nothing works like it should. He's celebrating by making a fresh pot of coffee when Lorne wanders in, wearing a tac vest and looking purposeful. Radek considers hiding, but he's already been seen.
"So, Doc, feel like going on a rescue mission?"
"Now what's happened?" Zelenka asks, but he has a feeling.
"Guess which team." Lorne gives him a lopsided grin.
Radek sighs. Sheppard and his team are such notorious trouble magnets that he's heard there's a running pool in Medical for which of them will be brought in next.
"They missed their check-in on a planet with possible hostiles, so Carter wants us to scramble a recon team." Lorne pats him on the back. "Grab your gear; meet you in the jumper bay in ten."
"Wait, hostiles?" Radek says, but Lorne's already gone.
In the jumper bay, Lorne is nowhere to be seen, but soldiers are moving about with purpose, loading things into the jumper. Radek tries to stay out of the way. Carter appears out of nowhere to hand him one of the rugged tablet computers that the expedition uses in the field. "Here, I uploaded all the information we had on M98-403. Sorry it's not organized a little better; I just pulled Rodney's files and the database entry."
Radek raises an eyebrow; there's nothing "just" about pulling anything out of Rodney's records, let alone the Ancient database. "This is where Sheppard's team has disappeared?"
"Yes. They're investigating an Ancient facility on a disputed area of the planet." Carter smiles grimly. "Our first survey team encountered the Cushawanda and made a deal with them to give us free access to the ruins -- which is all well and good. Except the second team met the Zanfo in the same area, so now we have a deal with them as well. Both groups claim the area around the ruins as part of their nation; neither acknowledges the other's claim. And neither knows that we've made a treaty with their enemy. Hopefully that's still true."
Radek tilts the tablet, studying a schematic of the planet. "What was the facility used for?"
Carter shakes her head. "We don't know. Rodney thinks it was involved in ZPM manufacturing ..." No doubt the look on his face must have betrayed his thoughts, because she grins. "Yes, that's why we keep sending teams back, though it would be safer to stay away. It's also why Major Lorne wanted a physicist on the S&R mission. He mentioned your name."
"I will be sure and thank him."
Her mouth quirks. "Well, at this point we have no idea what happened. They might have been caught in an outbreak of open hostility between the Cushawanda and the Zanfo. Or they may have triggered something in the ruins. The facility is not close to the gate, so it's also entirely possible that weather or other harmless factors delayed them. You may meet them on your way."
Lorne arrives in the jumper bay at a jog. "Ma'am," he acknowledges Carter, and to Radek, "Ready to roll, Doc?"
"I would like nothing better," Radek says, and mounts the jumper's ramp. He catches a brief glimpse of Carter's wistful look. She obviously misses traveling offworld on missions such as this one. He hopes that this particular form of insanity is not contagious.
Rain lashes the jumper as they emerge from the gate, and the dark treetops outside the front viewport veer wildly and vanish as Lorne throws them into a steep climb. At first Radek doesn't realize why; he thinks the peppery rattling on the hull is hail. Then he realizes that someone is shooting at them. Glancing at the HUD, he sees they've cloaked, but it's too late -- the jumper rolls and tosses them about. Radek clutches at the handrests of his seat.
Lorne is cursing loudly, struggling with the controls. "We just lost one of the drive pods," he yells over his shoulder. "Brace for impact, guys."
"Wait, what --" Radek begins, because it is too much to follow, too impossible that they have gone from the warm safety of the gateroom in mere seconds to this. The jumper bucks violently. He is thrown from his seat, smashing his face against the dashboard.
He does not lose consciousness, but everything is a little hazy: he remembers being tossed back and forth, and the smell of burning electronics along with the sting of sparks on the side of his face. Then Lorne is hustling him to his feet. "Move, move! Dorstein, Muller, Franks? You guys okay?"
The interior of the jumper is dark, lit only by spitting sparks from its damaged systems. Wind and rain slap at Radek as Lorne abandons him, leaving him to clutch at the back of one of the seats for balance. His glasses are askew, hanging from one ear, and when he reaches to push them back into place, he finds that his face is wet. He can't tell if it's rain or blood. The jumper's windshield is shattered, letting in the cold damp night and the sound of shouting voices not nearly far enough away.
"What happened?" he asks, his voice shaky in his own ears.
"Some kind of rocket hit us." Lorne helps Muller out of her seat; she's holding her ribs and grimacing. "Gate used to be neutral territory. Obviously someone made a power grab. You know how to handle a P90, Doc?"
"I have fired one on the range." There have been many times since he came to the Pegasus Galaxy that Radek has wished he hadn't managed to escape his country's compulsory military service -- like many young men of his generation, he'd found a doctor willing to give him a note excusing him on a half-invented medical pretext. Now, many years later when it's much too late, he's finally realized that the training would not have been so useless after all. He nervously studies the weapon that Lorne clips to his vest, adjusting it with quick, efficient motions.
"It's not rocket science, Doc. Keep it pointed down and don't touch the trigger unless you know what you're shooting at. You'll stay behind me. Dorstein, you're on our six. Franks, help Muller."
"I'm all right, sir."
"Don't be a hero, Sergeant. Let him help you." Lorne slaps the ramp controls. Nothing happens. Lorne curses and turns back the other way, pushing past Radek and scrambling onto the jumper's dashboard and, with barely a pause, through the gaping hole where the windshield used to be. Radek finds himself shoved from behind as Franks, or maybe Dorstein, hands him up to Lorne. "Shouldn't we stay in the jumper?" Radek protests faintly. "Wait for help?"
"Jumper's about to be overrun by hostiles, and it's not exactly a defensible position right now." The ground is slippery underfoot, ankle-deep in wet leaves. Overhead, trees groan in the wind like sailing vessels tossed by storms. Lorne steadies him and then reaches to help Muller through. "You think you can fix it in the next minute or two, Doc, be my guest. Otherwise, we move."
No more words pass between the members of Lorne's team; they fall into place like cogs in a well-oiled machine, and Radek is jostled between them, a small tugboat bounced around in the wake of big ships steaming to unknown destinations. He does not know if Lorne has a plan, but they move through the wet, dark forest with purpose and speed. When Radek's feet catch on tree roots, Dorstein grabs his vest and boosts him forward. After the first time or two, Radek stops whispering "Thanks" and merely stumbles along with the rest of them, trying not to fall.
Lorne is carrying a life-signs detector from the jumper; Radek can see the glow of the small blue screen whenever Lorne stops to consult it. They reverse direction a half-dozen times, but something goes wrong -- Radek doesn't know what or how, just that there's a sudden scuffle up ahead, and the sharp stutter of P90 fire. Someone slams into him and knocks him down, pressing his face into the wet leaves. At first he thinks it's Dorstein, and reflexively snaps at the man -- in Czech, he later realizes -- to get off him, let him up. Then he sees the arm of an unfamiliar uniform, braided with gold on the cuff, and stops struggling. There is no point in dying through pointless heroics.
They are stripped of their weapons and radios, and hustled through the woods. The wind grows suddenly fiercer, and Radek catches a glimpse of a clearing with buildings before they are shoved through a door and he falls forward, managing to catch himself before his abused face suffers more bruises. The floor is dirt, and it stinks.
"We've got to stop meeting like this, Major," Sheppard's voice drawls.
"I was just thinking the same thing, sir. Dorstein, I thought I told you people not to get shot."
"I think the bleeding's stopped, sir," Dorstein answers shakily.
Radek sits up. The room is nearly dark, lit only by the reflected glow of lamps or flashlights outside, filtering in through small windows near the ceiling. There's some straw scattered around, poking his hands, and he can see the shadowy frames of posts and low half-walls dividing the interior of the building. The musky stink is almost certainly the smell of animals. He's pretty sure this place used to be a stable or barn.
"This is our rescue, I take it," Sheppard says.
"Yes, sir," Lorne says wryly, from somewhere near Dorstein's position. "Sorry, sir. Lost a jumper too, by the way."
"Yeah? Us, too. Apparently they shoot jumpers around here."
"That's good intel. Keep it in mind."
Sheppard laughs and then sucks in his breath. The dark shapes around Radek shift, and Teyla's voice says sharply, "Lie still, John, please."
"You all right, Colonel?" Lorne asks.
"Nothing a week or two in the infirmary won't cure," Sheppard says. "Who's with you?"
"My team and Doctor Z." There's a little bit of rustling. "Stopped bleeding, my ass," Lorne mutters. "Muller, keep pressure here. Lieutenant, try to walk on that and I'll shoot you myself. Hey, Doc Z, sound off -- you okay?"
It takes Radek's brain a minute to catch up and realize Lorne is talking to him. "Yes." His voice cracks, and he tries a little louder. "Yes, I am all right." Except for the rotten-tooth throbbing in his face where he smashed it into the jumper's dashboard, but he doesn't think it's important enough to mention, compared to the scale of their current problems. And now that his brain is working again, he realizes there's one voice he hasn't heard yet. "Where is Rodney?"
Teyla is the one who answers. "Rodney is working on the DHD."
"The guys with guns figured out that Rodney can fix things," Sheppard says. "Because he can't keep his damn mouth shut. Apparently the other side sabotaged the DHD, or so they say."
"Oh, good," Lorne says. "So we can't dial out. And here I thought this day couldn't get better. Uh, and where's Ronon?"
"Well, hopefully," Sheppard begins, and then a tremendous explosion lights up the windows. "Uh, yeah, there's Ronon," Sheppard is saying when the ringing in Radek's ears fades enough that he can hear again. "Er, at least I hope that's him. He didn't get caught with the rest of us."
"Our guards may be distracted," Teyla says. "John, this would be an excellent time to try my idea, now that we have more hands."
"Teyla wants to make a battering ram," Sheppard explains. "That door's not very sturdy. We were just trying to figure out the logistics of the whole thing when they threw you guys in here. Someone grab one of those poles?"
My life is very peculiar, Radek thinks, as he finds himself sandwiched between Lorne's solid shoulders and Teyla's small, sturdy shape, clinging to a beam torn from one of the old stall dividers. Sheppard and Dorstein are sitting this one out, but the battering-ram crew has Lorne, Franks and a limping Muller.
"On three?" Teyla says. "One ..." She sounds like she's enjoying herself, in a grim kind of way. Radek reminds himself that "Do not make Teyla angry" needs to be added to the list of survival instructions for the new scientists.
They're already running on Teyla's "three", and the door splinters under the combined might of three US soldiers and one Teyla (not to mention Radek himself, but he's not sure how much muscle power he's actually managing to add). Outside, the night is bright with flames dancing in the rubble of the next building over. Radek gives up on any delusions of valor and drops into the mud as hand-to-hand fighting erupts around him. A single gunshot goes off, and then things go quiet. He raises his head to see Lorne's team stripping weapons off the soldiers they've subdued. Teyla has vanished, only to appear in the doorway with Sheppard leaning heavily on her shoulder.
"Which way's the gate?" Lorne wants to know. Teyla points.
"I'm kinda getting the idea that we're extraneous to this whole rescue operation," Franks remarks dryly to Radek, giving him a quick, conspiratorial smile that he's too startled to return until the soldier has already ducked back through the doorway, presumably to help Dorstein.
Sheppard hears him, though. "Trust me, I'm never going to complain about you guys having our backs. Sadly," he adds, surveying the destruction as Ronon's unmistakable silhouette appears against the flames, "though I hate to admit it, we're getting kind of good at this sort of thing."
Ronon joins them, slapping Sheppard on the back and provoking a faint ow. "Where's McKay?"
"Gate," Sheppard says, coughing. "Which is where we're headed. Ow, dammit."
"They may use him for a hostage," Teyla warns.
"They can try." Ronon spins his gun and flicks a setting on the handle with a small electronic whine.
Radek ends up supporting Dorstein near the rear of their party, with Lorne behind them, scanning the rooftops through the sights of a stolen gun. Sheppard's leading the way, using Teyla for support, and if no one else thinks it's odd to have the wounded guy leading them out of trouble, Radek doesn't want to be the one to mention it. Instead he focuses on not tripping over anything and pulling Dorstein down. The lieutenant's leg is soaked in blood from knee to ankle, but he doesn't say anything, just limps along with his head down. Radek tries to match the length of their strides so as not to put added stress on him. At one point, Ronon vanishes, and there's a startled yell and the sound of Ronon's gun from somewhere off in the rainy night. Ronon reappears a moment later, looking satisfied with himself.
"They didn't leave many people to defend the gate," Lorne remarks.
"I get the idea that the main offensive is elsewhere. This is sort of an afterthought, mainly to keep the other side from bringing reinforcements through. And apparently they think we're in cahoots with the enemy." Sheppard leans on the side of a building while Teyla peers around the corner. "So, Doc, this is not a complaint about the jumpers, because you know I love them, but is there any chance we can do cloak and shield? It'd really come in handy sometimes."
Radek blinks, realizing that Sheppard is somehow dividing his attention between their current situation, and analyzing the chain of events that got them into it. Dwelling on something other than imminent muddy death is a nice change, though. "Rodney and I have been working on it, actually. We think we have a couple of work-arounds, but the power drain of deploying the cloak while --" He breaks off, realizing that he's channeling Rodney, babbling about his theories in a life-or-death situation. "We are working on it," he finishes weakly, and takes off his glasses to clean them, only to realize that he's using his other arm to hold up Dorstein. He slides his smeared glasses back up the slippery bridge of his nose.
Lorne pats Radek's shoulder as he moves past him, glancing into alleys, ever alert. "Do we have any idea which side we're actually fighting here?" He seems to be addressing Sheppard's team in general.
"Does it matter?" Ronon counters.
Teyla clears her throat. "These are the Cushawanda, I believe."
"Look, I don't care if they're Smurfs, if they're shooting at us," Sheppard says. "Seriously, we can sort out the political ramifications back on Atlantis. Right now our job is to get through the gate alive."
At that point, Dorstein goes down. His knees buckle from one step to the next. Radek tries to halt their slide to the ground, but all he can really do is cushion the fall a little.
"Shit," Lorne says, kneeling beside him. "Jake?"
Sheppard draws a breath and pulls away from Teyla, leaning on a rain-slick fence post for support. "Can he walk?"
"I do not think so," Radek says. Dorstein's skin is cold and white; his eyelids flicker over unfocused eyes.
"Okay," Sheppard says. "New plan. Ronon, get the Doc to the gate. We'll catch up as soon as we rig a stretcher."
"Wait, what?" Radek protests as he's hustled along by Ronon's unforgiving hands. "Why me?"
Ronon's the one who answers, because the others are already misty shapes in the rain behind them. "No idea what happened with McKay. If the gate's still not working, you're the one has to fix it. I'll keep 'em off you."
"Oh," Radek says weakly, and tries to keep up. Ronon raises his gun and shoots at the top of a building. Something -- no, someone pitches off the roof into the mud. There's another burst of gunfire behind them. Radek looks back, not realizing that he's stopped until Ronon grabs his vest and drags him along for a few steps until he gets his stride again. "We are, er, going to find Rodney too, right?"
"Hopefully he's at the gate," Ronon says, half-dragging him along at a much faster pace than Radek thinks is safe considering the darkness and the treacherous footing. "If not, he knows he needs to get there."
The buildings around them look like warehouses. In more peaceful times, Radek thinks, these buildings were probably built to support the trade coming through the Stargate. Now they are a maze, a wet dark maze in which people are trying to shoot them. Radek has no idea how Ronon spots their enemies in the darkness, but again and again, he reacts to things Radek cannot see or hear.
Radek hopes that Ronon is stunning the men he's shooting, but decides not to ask.
There's light at the gate, streaming between the buildings. Ronon's big hand flattens Radek against a wall, but he peers around anyway. The gate stands in a middle of a plaza, crisscrossed with barricades made from crates and splintered timbers torn from roofs or walls. Some of them have bullet holes. There has been fighting here, Radek can see, but now the barricades are both a blessing and a curse for them -- while providing shelter so that he and Ronon can approach the gate, they may also hide an untold number of enemy soldiers.
There are only three Cushawanda visible at the moment. Two men are guarding the gate with rifles, looking around nervously through the rain, and one is bent over the DHD along with a small, gesticulating figure that is very obviously Rodney.
Ronon touches Radek's shoulder and then does what's probably some kind of military hand gesture -- either that, Radek thinks, or he just got flipped off in Satedan. Radek stares blankly at him until Ronon sighs. "We go to the gate that way," he says, pointing. "First, we'll hide behind that, then go to the -- you know what? Follow me and get down when I tell you to."
"Okay." He's pretty sure he can manage that much.
It's a torturous scramble through the mud, between the barricades. Radek focuses on following Ronon, trying not to bump into his back or fall behind. Ronon stands up suddenly, and Radek's become so focused on emulating Ronon's movements that he does so, too, without thinking. The gate looms just ahead; they're very close. Ronon manages to stun two of the three men guarding it before someone else fires at them from across the plaza. Radek hears Rodney yell, sees him go down, but he's not sure if Rodney's been shot or if he's just trying to take cover. Radek is already ducking back down, instinct carrying him down to crouch in the mud, heart pounding.
Ronon, pressed against the barricade, checks the charge level on his gun. Something's a little wrong with the way he's moving, but Radek doesn't realize what it is until Ronon flips the gun into position -- with the wrong hand. His right arm dangles at his side, blood running off his fingertips to mix with the rain. "You've been shot," Radek says, before his brain can catch up with his mouth.
"Yeah," Ronon says, as if it's too obvious to mention.
We are seriously screwed, Radek thinks. He's gone through mind-numbing panic into a weird sort of calm. "Did you see what happened to Rodney?" he asks.
Ronon shakes his head. "Think he mighta got shot. Not really sure. I was looking the other way."
Radek draws a breath. His heart batters his ribs. "If you cover me, I can run from here to the DHD. It is not far. I can try to dial it."
Ronon looks at him, a single long look. Then he nods, and in a fluid motion, he's on his feet and firing over the top of the barricade.
Radek runs, crouching low, thinking once again of the military service he considered so pointless when he was young and stupid. He tries to pretend it's a training exercise, that the guns are firing blanks over his head. It's only a game, an exercise, don't think about it.
He hits the DHD, literally smacks into it. When he ducks down behind, he almost trips over Rodney, who's leaning against the DHD and clutching his thigh. Blood wells between Rodney's fingers.
"Nice rescue!" Rodney yells over the sound of gunfire. "Remind me to thank Ronon later! What the hell are you doing here, anyway?"
Radek gulps air, catching his breath, touching his head and face and chest for bullet holes. There is rain, cold on his fingertips, but he does not feel the heat of blood. "Is -- is the DHD working?" he asks Rodney.
"Yes! Sort of! I pulled the control crystal first thing, of course. Then I've been puttering around fixing the handful of minor -- god!" He grips his thigh, rolls his head against the DHD's pedastal. "Anyway, it's all fixed, except of course they can't dial out because I took the control crystal. And then the shooting started. Tell Ronon his rescue technique sucks!"
Radek holds out a hand. Rodney looks at him in confusion. "Give me the crystal," Radek says. "I will put it back. The DHD is working otherwise, correct?"
Rodney stares at him and then slaps the control crystal into his palm. "I won't insult your intelligence by asking if you know where to put this."
"Don't be stupid," Radek says. "You always insult my intelligence." And then he's moving again, even though people are still shooting and now there are explosions from the far side of the plaza. It seems to him that he is floating in a dream world -- there is all the time in the world, and he is invincible. The DHD's access panel is open, and he snaps the control crystal into place, then straightens (Don't think about it) and begins to dial the gate.
A bullet whines past his ear; he feels the hot sting on his cheek, but keeps dialing. Rain runs down the keys as he presses them. The last key lights up, and the wormhole takes hold with its familiar wash of light. Radek has a moment of panic until he touches his wrist and realizes that he still has his GDO -- the Cushawanda confiscated their weapons and radios, but must not have realized that the GDOs were anything more than part of their uniforms. Radek enters his code, knowing that he is in plain sight, silhouetted against the gate.
Someone stumbles into him, and Radek jumps. It's Muller, her face blanched stark white in the gate's blue glow, a dark streak of blood or mud down one cheek. She slaps him on the shoulder. "Nice work! Go, Doc. The others are right behind us." She gives him a push towards the gate.
Radek looks around, blinking. It's like waking from a dream -- his awareness was so intensely focused on the DHD that he's only now realizing that the others have joined them. The shooting has stopped and the wet air stinks of burnt gunpowder. Sheppard seems to be standing on his own now, back to back with Ronon, guns pointed outward. Lorne and Franks have Dorstein slung between them. Teyla kneels next to Rodney and puts her hands over his bloody ones, pressed against his thigh.
"Well, it's about damn time," Rodney says, but there's a little wobble in his voice, and Teyla leans forward, resting her wet, dirty forehead against his. Then Muller gives Radek a firm shove between the shoulder blades and he stumbles into the cold blue wash of the gate, staggering out into the bright lights of the Atlantis gateroom.
The dreamlike sense of unreality haunts him all the way to the infirmary, where Dr. Cole runs him under a scanner and stitches up the gash on his head, which he'd completely forgotten about. "I hear you're a hero," she says, smiling as she hands him a bottle of painkillers. "Ronon says you dialed the DHD under heavy fire, and didn't get a scratch."
"Big damn hero," Lorne puts in from across the room.
"Yes, yes," Rodney snaps, curled in an unhappy huddle while Keller peels off his wet and muddy clothes. "I'm the one who got shot, and I'm also the one who has to deal with him if his overdeveloped ego gets any bigger, all right?"
"Suck it up, McKay; you're not the only one," Sheppard says from behind one of the examination curtains. He sounds a little loopy, his voice sleepy and slurred; he's obviously under the influence of painkillers.
"Suck it up? I got shot."
Radek still can't quite cope with the fact that, apparently, he is one of the only people from both teams who came back without any serious injuries. Even Teyla isn't quite as unscathed as she'd seemed on the planet; she's stripped to her undershirt, with a nurse manipulating her arm, and the skin around her shoulder and collarbone is mottled with bruises. Ronon leans on the end of her gurney, his arm in a sling, dividing his attention between Teyla, Rodney and the curtain that conceals Sheppard. Radek gets the impression that Ronon is, in some sense, filling in for Sheppard, watching over them until Sheppard can do it again.
The walls of the infirmary seem too close, all of a sudden -- it's too crowded, too full of noise and bustle. Radek draws a deep breath as everything spins around him.
"Damn it," Rodney says, pushing Keller's head down so that he can see over her. "Radek, the lab -- I meant to be back before evening, I left the diagnostics on the hyperdrive running and they're going to be eating processor cycles all night --"
"I'll shut them down for you," Radek says, and clutching his bottle of painkillers, he backs out of the infirmary before Rodney can find a dozen other tasks to pile on him.
For a moment, he just stands in the dim hallway, getting his bearings and his equilibrium again. His filthy clothes are drying on him. He's damp and itchy and really, really needs a shower, but he also wants to get this done so that he can crawl into his quarters and not come back out again for a day or two.
The labs are nearly deserted. Esposito is finishing up her reports; she blinks at him and says, "Are you all right, Doctor?"
"I'm fine." Radek wipes drying mud off his face and shuts down the diagnostics, saving the results to sort through tomorrow, then stops by his own desk to make sure there are no pressing emails.
The sight of a small package on his desk takes him by surprise, all the more so when he sees what it is. It's a handful of candy bars -- rare and coveted currency in Atlantis -- with a card propped on top: one of the blank, generic cards with a nature scene on it, that the department heads (including Radek, since Rodney always forgets) buy in bulk back on Earth, for people to pass back and forth for birthdays and various holidays.
The message written inside the card is short and simple. Dear Dr. Zelenka: Heard you had to go offworld on a rescue mission today. I know what a bitch it can be, so some of us took up a little collection. - Alison Porter.
Radek gazes at it for a moment, then sets it carefully beside the computer, and pockets the candy bars. He should work on his mission report, but he's too tired to even think about it, so he brings up his email instead. The first message is from Chang, responding to his approval of Chang's reassignment to Earth: Thanks, Dr. Z. I'm sorry; I don't think I'm a good fit with all the danger around here, but I'll really miss you guys. I've worked in a lot of labs, but this one's the best. There's no other job quite like this one.
Radek raises his head from the computer, blinks and squints and looks around. Esposito sees him looking at her and flashes him a bright smile before she closes her laptop, tucks it under her arm and heads out.
Coleman wanders by, with an empty coffee cup in her hand and a zombie-like glaze in her eyes. If she notices that Radek is rumpled and covered in mud, with a fresh set of butterfly sutures on his face, she doesn't mention it. Possibly they are all too used to the weirdness of their daily life. "I think I'm about done, Dr. Z. Anything needs doing before I stagger off to bed?"
Radek tries to drag his brain from the alien planet back to the lab and its familiar routines. The coffeepot will need to be cleaned, but he can do that himself; he'd welcome the familiar task. "No. Just sleep well."
"You too, Dr. Z," she says, and gives him a sleepy wave.
He tries to get back into the list of emails, but he's so tired that the screen keeps blurring. Radek decides that the remainder of his inbox can wait until after a shower and about twenty hours' sleep. As he starts to push back from his chair, the computer dings to indicate a new message. It's from Lorne, cc'd to Carter, and Radek rubs his aching eyes, then leans forward with apprehension.
Subject: Good work, Dr. Z
You did good out there today. I know you don't do the offworld thing much, but I've always trusted you to go out with my team, and I've never been more confident in that choice than I was today. Dialing that DHD under fire was damn brave, and it'll be in my report. Just thought you might need to hear it after a day like the one we just had.
p.s. Jake Dorstein's going to be fine, doc says.
p.p.s. While Jake's down, I'm probably taking some of the guys over the mainland for R&R. The reptile guy in Bio says there's giant snakes on this planet. Want to come? If you don't want to shoot snakes, you can take pictures.
Radek hits "Reply", but he's too tired to adequately arrange his thoughts, so he closes the unsaved email, shuts down the computer and resolves to see Lorne in the morning. Or possibly the afternoon.
At the sink in the corner, he scrubs the coffeepot, dries it neatly and puts it in the rack beside all the coffee mugs: Vogel's ASTROPHYSICISTS DO IT WITH A BIG BANG cup, Esposito's pretty pottery mug that Teyla gave her at the Secret Santa exchange last year, Berkowitz's SGC-issue tin cup that all the botanists painted with alien flowers for her. Radek adds his own mug to the rack -- SCIENTISTS DREAM, ENGINEERS DO -- and then pauses to look at the dish rack itself. Dumais made it, their first year, out of a piece of Ancient shelving that they found in one of the labs. It's crooked and things tend to slide off, but no one has ever suggested ordering a better one from Earth. There's a yellowed note with curling edges taped to the side in Kavanagh's handwriting: WASH YOUR DAMN MUG!!!! The man's been gone for almost a year, and no one really misses him, but no one's taken the note down, either.
Radek doesn't go regularly offworld like Rodney and his team -- and, he thinks as he leaves the lab and shuts off the light, he's grateful for that. He doesn't enjoy being shot at and squishing around in wet boots. The twinge in his leg, still healing from the meteoroid that penetrated his space suit, and the throb in his forehead and cheekbone remind him how grateful he is for that. He does not want to be the action hero scientist, a 21st-century Indiana Jones with a PhD in engineering.
And he's not sure if he wants to be part of a group as tightly knit as Rodney's team. In fact, he's certain that he doesn't want to be. The idea of someone watching over him with the intensity of Sheppard or Ronon is appealing, but also frightening. Smothering. He doesn't want the obligation of following someone like that offworld, into mud and fear and danger.
No. He has a happy life here, and friends, and people who appreciate him and even look up to him, not to mention a city full of alien artifacts to play with. He gets invited to science lab barbecues and birthday parties and, apparently, giant-snake hunts with the Marines on the mainland. He can keep up mentally with Rodney in the labs -- and he knows that Rodney knows it, even if neither of them will say it. On a good day, he can sometimes beat Rodney to a breakthrough.
And maybe once or twice a year, he gets to be a hero.
Chang's right: there is no other job like this one. And, Radek thinks, there is no other place he'd rather be.