Title: Heard the World
Notes: A big thank you to trystings for helping me sort out some composition and perspective issues and letting me talk her ear off about every little idea that came to me regarding this piece.
Title: Snow, Sand, Blood (the storm's leavings)
Rating: R for violence, NC-17 for strong sexual content
Pairing(s): John/Rodney, Teyla/female character
Summary: A terrible jumper crash on a desolate world with no stargate leaves the team at the mercy of their rescuers.
Notes: Many thanks to petra for beta-reading, to Nando, petra , and Sam Johnsson for story help, to RubyNye for technical detail, and to everyone who offered cheerleading support. <3 More notes follow at end.
Warnings: Disturbing content. Graphic violence, mild horror, gore, captivity.
Snow, Sand, Blood (the storm's leavings)
If they were on Earth, John might call it a freak storm. He only wishes they were so lucky.
In orbit, Rodney had checked his readings and pointed. "That one. Go that way." And John had nosed the jumper to the left of this system's dim red dwarf, aiming at a hazy, steel blue ball of rock. The readings were crazy, but the jumper made it look doable. Or, possibly, John is an idiot. Regardless, the atmosphere is full of lightning and particulate grit and some strange frozen mix of the two creating flight conditions John never even imagined having nightmares about—and that'll be remedied, if he survives.
He concentrates, telling the jumper to compensate, to roll with the buffeting wind, to dip and bob through the roiling storm, and she tries. He can feel her trying her hardest and he's right there with her, mentally chanting, Come on, baby, you can swing this. You're nearly there, nearly there. But there's a surge, a zap, and something overloads spilling over into something else. John gets a slew of new HUDs distorted by jagged lines. Somewhere Rodney is shouting dire warnings, and John's vaguely aware of interior access panels coming down. They're going much too fast; their altitude is still much too high.Slow. Slower and lower, sweetheart. Come on, now., he coaxes, insists, battling turbulence with every last ounce of will. The jumper tries, but it's no good. The right engine dies, and then the inertial dampeners, and then the sensors.
"I don't know where we're headed," John yells. "Strap in good, this is going to be rough." He is absolutely flashing back to desert dust storms no chopper was ever meant to fly through—not his fault they sprang up where they did—but no, he's here, here, spinning in a murky, gritty, icy atmosphere above an alien world. Rodney is in the back, trying to fix something. Sparks fly in the cargo bay. "Rodney!" John yells, "Get your ass in a seat!" They're getting buffeted around like a kid's balloon in a hurricane. We're not going to make it, John thinks. As far as he can see, there's nothing but flat, empty wasteland below them. There are some hills, some dry canyons, some low mesas. No nice soft place for him to land. No lakes or oceans. No wide fields of tall crops. He can't see anything green anywhere, which may be partly due to the light of the weird sun and partly due to the storm in the crazy sky. He thinks. Maybe.
Rodney squawks at the same time as a terrifying electrical frying sound buzzes forth from the back. "Shit!" Rodney yells. "Shit-shit-shit!"
At the same time, John realizes he's lost most of his helm control. It's like the power steering going out in a big truck and taking most of the steering column with it. "Rodney," John warns in a low voice. The jumper lurches.
Rodney runs forward and falls into his seat, strapping in. "I was trying to prevent that from happening, just so you know. There's too much damage. I couldn't get the navigational control rerouted in time. With another hour, and a set of fresh crystals, yeah, maybe, but—"
"Impact in 7-6-5—"
"I'm sorry," Rodney says.
"We'll make it," John says, and they crash.
They aren't dead. Ronon is less surprised by this than he would have been half a year ago, but the Atlanteans have a knack—a curse, even—for scraping their way out of impossible situations. He thinks Sheppard is unconscious. McKay is, too. Ronon isn't sure about Teyla yet. For that matter, he isn't certain about himself.
They skidded a long way on the rock. The metal shrieked like a geela, so high and long it would make your ears bleed. Then they hit something on the left front corner, flipped high in the air, and cartwheeled. They were all screaming. They landed hard on their side. Then gravity pulled them down onto the jumper's flat base, so in the end, now, they're sitting upright in their seats. The front window is a solid pale green spiderweb. Interior metal paneling is torn and the inner parts of the walls are all hanging free.
Some lights still glow in the broken panels; others are sputtering out. Ronon doesn't know what he can touch without getting electrocuted.
"Sheppard," he says. He repeats it. He tries shaking off his daze and becomes aware of his body. It was not a good idea. There's a metal rod in his leg. It came up from underneath, stabbed him in the thigh from below, and is pinning him to the chair. There might be another in his back. "Sheppard!" he yells. Then, "Teyla! McKay!" If he can wake one of them...
Teyla's sitting at a weird angle, but it looks like she's breathing. If her back is broken, it hasn't killed her yet. Ronon takes a deep breath. It isn't like him to jump to conclusions like this. The risk assessment sucks, but they have supplies in the back for a week and a lead-time of two days, tops, before help will come.
"Wake up!" he roars when he tires of cataloging their limited assets. Nothing happens, and he resolves to yell again in two minutes. Their assets are nearly squat; their liabilities are at least three injured crew—he can't see if Sheppard's still breathing or not—possibly one fatality, unknown planet, orbital gate, and a broken jumper. Ronon wasn't clear on why McKay picked this planet out of his scans. There could be people here, hiding somewhere; he's seen weirder things in his travels. And there don't seem to be any Wraith hanging around waiting to eat them, so that's a plus.
He takes a deep breath, glad for it. His lungs are intact and his heart is strong. He calls their names one by one, loud, and shouts, "Wake up!" It feels different this time, maybe because he means it more. He isn't panicking now. If they're going to survive, they have to wake up. Or at least one of them has to wake up and help remove this thing from his thigh. He can rig his blaster to heat a bar to cauterize it.
Teyla murmurs and turns her head. Her eyelids flicker. There's a wide red blotch on her right temple, matting her hair. "Teyla, hey, come on," he says. Her eyes go to him before she's really there yet, and he waits. "You're okay," he says, because that's what you say. "Come on, Teyla."
It's a minute before she can focus, and another minute before her awareness slots back in. Her eyes go round and her hand almost slaps her head in her rush to cradle and investigate the wound. Her touch brings tears to her eyes.
"Is it fractured?" Ronon asks.
She swallows hard and moments pass in pained silence before she answers. "It is very tender."
"Bone's not thick there. It should heal fast, though."
Her mouth flattens. Nodding probably hurts her too much right now.
"Teyla." There are tears on her face. "Can you get up? Can you stand? Watch for the wires and crap before you move your feet."
She looks at him again and covers her mouth. A smear of red blood comes off on her lip when she moves her hand back to her head. "Oh, Ronon."
"McKay's still alive, but I can't see Sheppard well enough from here to tell."
Teyla swallows hard. Sheppard is slumped forward on his arms. The waist strap held him to his seat but the front of the jumper is crumpled inward around McKay's legs, and Ronon can only guess that it's the same or worse on the left.
The lights in the console have all finally gone out; and in the walls, the bared panels of Ancient crystals are dark instead of flaring with white light. It's harder to see now. Teyla gets to her feet and pulls the flashlight off her P-90. She puts it in Ronon's palm, aimed at the ceiling.
"Wait," he says, handing it back to her. He takes a bandage from her tac vest, glops antiseptic ointment onto it, and adheres it to the side of Teyla's face at her temple. It's crappy first aid, but it'll keep anything worse from getting into it. His grandmother the old colonel used to slap bandages on Ronon's cut knees and elbows and call him her good soldier. He says it now, "Good soldier," to Teyla, thinking of his grandmother. She quirks her mouth. She's probably wondering how much blood they've lost. He's trying very hard not to.
He takes the flashlight back and aims it at the ceiling of the cockpit.
She checks Rodney's pulse at the throat. She goes to him first because he's slightly easier to get to, sitting mostly upright with his head leaning on the bulkhead at his temple. The front of the jumper has caved in and encases his legs. He's warm and his pulse is strong, but the blood, oh. She gently pulls Rodney upright, cupping the back of his head. There are cuts in his scalp on the right side, and blood coats his hair, skin, and shoulder. The cuts might be shallow, as scalp wounds weep like infants, or there might be brain damage. She can make no guesses about his body without moving him. There might be internal bleeding, his legs might be crushed, he could be stabbed from below as Ronon is; she is completely unable to help, and her own headache is a blinding white fire in her skull.
She turns to John, who sits, head down, utterly still.
"Well?" Ronon says.
"Rodney's alive and might be too injured to move without killing or crippling him. I can't help him."
"He may awaken on his own." She's terse, but she's standing on debris from the console, reaching for John's skin, reaching for a pulse point. He's warm, but then, she knows not enough time has passed for a body to cool. She braces a hand to lean in and touch his throat, careful not to bend his neck. His pulse is there, beating a tattered rhythm against her fingertips. There's sweat on his skin. He's breathing. Slowly, she begins a gentle exploration: she touches his shoulders, his upper arms to the elbow, the top of his head with its strange styling product gone sticky from sweat. It's only sweat; no blood comes away on her skin. She glides hands down his back and sides: no blood. If he's unconscious, he'll never know of the intrusion, so, quickly, she inserts a finger between his hip and the pilot's chair, pulling forward toward his knee. No blood pooling in the fabric of his pants, but as she reaches a point along his right femur a hand span above his knee: a soft, mewling whimper.
His left side is beyond her reach and his legs are mostly beyond her sight. Tentatively, she begins clearing broken bits of the console, crystals, wires, and all sorts of things she cannot name, to the side. "Can you aim the light this way, please?" she tells Ronon, and he extends his arm down to hold the beam where she needs it. He shifts the angles a few times and holds it where she says, "There, like that." She can see into the jumble to John's legs. She's looking for blood, and the left lower pant leg is black with it on the front, but not the back. The right leg seems dry.
She gets dizzily to her feet and strokes John's shoulder again. "Wake up, John. We need you." It is a selfish request, but a true one.
"Well?" Ronon looks pale, and Teyla swallows. If the metal fragment impaling him is connected to something solid on the other side, she has no hope of getting him off it. However, if an artery had been punctured, then he would already be dead.
"He is bleeding heavily from the front of his left leg—it seems like a compound fracture because I don't see any stab wounds." She cups John's shoulder and squeezes. "Also, he's sustained an injury to his right femur bad enough to make him cry out while unconscious."
"So, both his legs are broken."
"At a guess."
"In a moment."
"Oh." Ronon blinks and shakes his head as if to clear it. "Sorry, I didn't think. There's stuff for pain in the big medical kits in the back."
She squints at him, realizing for the first time that looking for the medical supplies hadn't even occurred to her. "I apologize, I didn't think." She's more woozy than she'd thought.
"I meant for you," he protests.
"I meant I needed a moment to collect myself, but this will help us both."
Slowly, Teyla picks her way through the wreckage of the cargo bay to excavate one of the large medical kits. There's less direct damage and more mess from bins bursting open and disgorging their contents all over the floor, or else bins bending shut and refusing to open without the help of a pry bar or cutting torch. Her firestarter has a setting for cutting, but it has a bad habit of catching anything in the way on fire as well, so that will be a last resort. She finally shoves aside a broken panel and rubs her ear to alleviate an itch, thereby discovering her head is either still bleeding or bleeding again. She tells herself she is very lucky.
The panel moved, she wrenches open the bin with the medical kit, tries to lift it out, and only gets it two inches up before vertigo defeats her. She props herself on the box, breathing slowly, feeling a deep need to retch her life up through her stomach, but she won't allow it. Her life fire will remain in her belly where it belongs, it will. The twist in her gut relaxes back into familiar cold fear. It is only fear, an old companion if not friend.
She tries again to lift the box, but she can't and she doesn't dare use up all her resources before...something. Before the thing she needs to save them for happens. She opens the lid and finds the right medications for pain and infection. Water is stored somewhere, hopefully in a container that won't leak out all over them. She has a canteen, though. She takes three pills. She hands three to Ronon and her canteen. She's supposed to mark the time.
"I'm unwell," she says when he hands the canteen back.
"Sit before you fall," he tells her.
Gratefully, because her head has never in her life hurt like this, she does.
Teyla collapses into her seat. Ronon yells, "Sheppard!" a minute later, and Teyla whimpers. He's sorry about it, but he's starting to get very, very angry. She got him meds but she didn't look at his wounds. He doesn't blame her; she was about to pass out. But he has a huge fucking problem sticking out of his thigh and something sharp digging in under his right shoulder blade. It isn't too deep, he thinks. If he leans forward, he's pretty sure it'll slide right out, unless its tip is barbed or hooked, but he can't risk it taking a gout of flesh or bone along with it.
He's being careful not to move his leg. It's harder to hold his upper body still. He's still holding the flashlight. He's getting fucking tempted to throw it at Sheppard. Maybe that will wake him up.
"Sheppard!" he yells again. "Sheppard, wake the hell up!" His voice is going gruff and low from the shouting. He could get out his canteen. It's in an inner pouch of his coat, which is on the floor getting dyed red with his blood. He was hot, so he left it off. He could hook it with his right boot and not have to bend forward to reach it.
A low moan comes from the seat in front of him. Shoulders shift. That's a good sign. Sheppard's head comes up and Ronon sighs in relief.
"You awake yet?" he asks.
There's a dry throaty noise, then, "Fuck."
"You, Teyla, Rodney," Sheppard starts, and finally turns his head. There are either burns or soot-stain, as if the console blew up in his face, and paler creases where he protected his eyes. He has some bleeding gashes in his forehead and hair. They'll scar sexy.
Ronon blinks. "McKay's still out. Teyla checked him and was scared to try to move him. She can walk, but she just passed out. Maybe has a skull fracture. She checked you and said your legs are—"
"Toast, yeah. You?"
"Think I'm going into shock."
"More words, buddy. I can't get back there to check it out myself."
"Staked to the seat through the left leg. Got a metal spear coming up two feet or so above my thigh, and there's a shallow one in my back. I could get free of that one if the point's smooth, but I can't tell."
"Fuck." Sheppard turns his face back to the front.
"Teyla and I took some pills. Pain and antibiotic."
"McKay's still breathing."
"I can see that."
Ronon sees Sheppard's shoulders hunch. "Don't."
Sheppard cocks an ear. "What?"
"If you try to move you'll pass out."
"You're not the only one going into shock, big guy."
Ronon closes his eyes. "Goddamnit."
"Teyla?" Sheppard calls. "Teyla, can you hear me?"
Ronon watches. There isn't the slightest response. "She's out cold."
Sheppard shakes his head. "Man, this is not how I planned to die."
"You bleeding bad?" Ronon asks him after a minute.
"Um." John isn't really sure. He scratches his forehead and reopens a cut. The flat of his hand finds a number of them, so he makes a command decision to ignore everything minor. His arms are weirdly fine. Minor burns on his forearms, but nothing bad. His tac vest has a few shallow holes melted into the surface layer of several pockets. He tests his stomach and hips and decides they're okay. No shrapnel in the ass. His right thigh is fucked above the knee. He swallows a breath and tests it with firm fingers. Fucker is cracked, if not broken clean through, and John has to shove his mouth against his shoulder to quell the nausea. There's that distinct feeling of nerve-squirming, toe-curling, must-vomit-now nausea that comes with broken bones, worse with bad breaks. He flexes his right calf and foot, groaning around the pressure on his thigh, but he's satisfied.
He's pussyfooting, saving the left leg for last, but he could also call it being thorough. It's also helping keep his eyes off Rodney, who is still sitting there motionless but for the rise and fall of his chest. He uses his hands because he knows it's going to hurt. He feels from his crotch down to his knee, squeezing lightly. Everything there is hunky-dory. The knee is intact. There's something—he remembers something slamming against his leg when they hit the obstacle and started to flip. His pants leg is wet. If he touches it, he's going to hurl all over the remains of the console. Gently, he pokes a finger along the back of his calf. Hurts, but it's manageable. He wiggles his toes. His shin explodes in fire and John's pretty sure he screams. Ronon's in no place to hold it against him, at least. Blinking back tears, he takes stock. The foot is fine—combat boots did their job—trouble is it's on the other side of a bad compound fracture.
"Fuck," he says when he can speak again.
"I figure help in two days," Ronon says.
"Yeah," John says. That's assuming that Atlantis can find them. He doesn't know if the crash took out the distress beacon, and he's sure none of them will know which planet or moon in this system to search first. Well, Zelenka might be able to take one look at the system and say, "That one," but that slim glimmer of hope is still two days off. Without a way to get to their supplies, they'll be dead by then.
"Fuck, Teyla, we need you," he says, but he knows she won't hear.
Ronon hooks his coat up off the floor with his right foot. The movement is enough to make him gasp with pain, and also enough to make him feel the amount of give the spear has within the chair. He might be able to wrench out its lower end. If he could get his right leg under himself and push up vertically, he thinks, it could work. It would mean pulling himself off the sticker in his shoulder, too, but that's looking like a better option every minute. For now, though, he first takes out his canteen and drinks. The pills are helping. He's better. Someone has to take care of them all, and if it's him, then so be it. They're his team now. Second, he takes out a plastic sack that's rolled into a thin tube in one of his umpteen hidden utility pockets. He sometimes puts pens in this one, but not this time. He fishes out the bag, opens it, opens his pants, and takes the leak he's been dying to for the past thirty minutes. It took him this long to remember he had something that would spare him a little more dignity than peeing on the floor like a dog. He wonders if he should pass the bag to Sheppard to use. At this point, he doesn't know if Sheppard's even still awake.
He looks at his leg and the strip of metal piercing it. It's a little over an inch wide and maybe an eighth of an inch thick. The tip that stabbed him is shorn away on a diagonal. It's probably a clean cut. He has no idea what the other end looks like, but the outer thigh is meat, mostly, and away from the important arteries. He used to slice open his back regularly, if stupidly. He's pretty sure he can manage this.
That could be the drugs talking.
He's going to need a plan, though. Fuck.
"Sheppard. Wake up."
"I'm awake." The answer is groggy, but there.
"I'm going to do a thing."
"What?" Sheppard turns his head as far as he can. "What the fuck?"
"You ever cauterize anything before?"
Sheppard blinks. "No," he says slowly. "That's why we have modern medicine. So we don't have to do medieval shit like that."
"Two days on a spear, we both know I'll die. This'll work."
"We're going to make a cauter." Ronon fishes a glove out of his coat. He tosses it over Sheppard's head. "You'll need that."
"Don't, god. I can't believe you're seriously considering this."
"Finished considering it nearly an hour ago. Can't see any other choice. No power, no radio, no people, no help."
"Why do you have to be so fucking hardcore?" Sheppard mutters. "Fine, as long as I'm conscious, you've got me. What else?"
"Grab a piece of metal." He describes how wide and how long it should be, and Sheppard roots around one-handed in the pile of debris Teyla had made at his side. He takes what might have once been a support strut and holds it up.
"Good," Ronon says. The plan's clearer in his mind as the minutes pass and the medication settles into his system. He's going to be fine. He has to believe it. He takes a knife from his belt and carefully cuts back the fabric of his pants around the entrance and exit wounds of the spear. It means getting the blade between the seat and his thigh, which means sliding up a little on the bloody length of metal. The sensation is awful, and he's glad he relieved his bladder because that wet, gristly slip would have done the job for him, otherwise. The good thing—the only good thing—is he can feel the lower end of the spar move a little beneath or inside his chair. He has a little bit of hope.
Reaching back to widen the hole in his shirt hurts like fuck, but it's easier than getting to the back of his leg. Ronon tells Sheppard his role, step by step, before he gets too caught up in performing surgery on himself to say it. Sheppard nods, face turned as far to the right as he can manage. He's grimacing. Ronon takes a breath, strokes his blaster, and breaks its power control switch in the way Satedan soldiers were warned never to do. They can fix it later, if they survive. He tosses the gun to Sheppard and waits for him to get the fire going. Then he torques his arm around. He has a bandage from his coat in his other hand, ready. He tries not to think about what will happen if it takes too long to unstake himself from the chair and get to where Sheppard can help him.
Sheppard's brand heats and Ronon wiggles his fingers around the tip of the thing in his back. It isn't a thin hook; it's more like a jagged-tipped rod. It's uneven and it's going to hurt.
He thinks he has the angle right—leaning forward a little helps, then a little more, and gently turning and pushing upward on the metal, ceiling-ward. There's a wet, grating sound—and he's free. Fuck, he's free. His fingers are wet with blood, but he's leaning forward. He can move. He slaps the bandage on blindly, hoping it's more or less in the right spot.
It's good enough, and he can still move his arms, so it counts as a win.
"Okay?" Sheppard asks.
He's dizzy and high on endorphins again, and holy fuck that hurt, but it's still nothing to the thing in his leg. He reaches up and yanks on the metal bar, pulling it through the seat and giving it a long, evaluative look. "Thing is barbed like a pike. Nasty."
"You got the first one out, right?" Sheppard's eyes are on the fire; they're disturbingly glassy.
"Yup. How's that heating up?"
Sheppard's holding the strut with Ronon's leather glove doubled over like a kitchen pot guard. The tip is starting to glow. "Okay, I guess. Did I say I've never done this before?"
Ronon tells Sheppard again what he needs him to do, just in case shock is making him stupid. Or, well, he knows shock is making Sheppard stupid. It's making him stupid, too, but less so. To be sure Sheppard gets it, he adds, "Okay, when I scream, turn off the gun."
He nods. "Got it."
Ronon is a terrifying human being.
John screamed when he first shifted his hips and jarred his femur, thus jarring the busted shinbones of his left leg. He can't turn more than his head and shoulders, and even that hurts in other places. He needs a fucking rear view mirror—only that would make him feel even more helpless.
Ronon's clear of the spike in his back now, and John can't help but think of the day Ronon had taken an arrow through the calf above the ankle, broken off the point, yanked it out, and gone on with the fight. He's a man who sees what has to be done and finds a way to make it happen. Which is not to say he isn't a dumbass, too.
John can see the glint of tears streaming down Ronon's face. He's biting down on something in his mouth, but that isn't stopping the growling moan from coming out. John wishes he could see better, but he's also really glad he can't. If Ronon passes out before he can get to where John can lay this brand on his skin—the blood, god.
Ronon has his right boot on the seat now. He's holding his arms like he's holding the metal bar and trying to move it and himself at the same angle at the same time. It's taking forever. Slow and easy's the way. Slow and easy.
John shakes himself. His attention is supposed to be on the gun in his hand, the fucking science fiction blaster pistol like something out of Star Wars, and, sure, Han totally shot first. So what? John aims the heat back on the strut he'd found. The heat cone is only a few inches long like this. Behind him, Ronon bellows. Then he screams, "Fuck!" and falls to the floor.
John's adrenaline spikes. "Get up here!" Ronon's vomiting all over the floor. Nobody can blame him, but, Jesus Christ—"Ronon, now!" John puts as much authority in it as he can while forcibly holding his legs totally still. The tip of the strut glows red in the torch and darkens in the air. That's too hot, shit. Ronon crawls one-legged, forward, forward. From where he sits, John can't reach him. The angle sucks. "On the DHD, dammit. I can't reach from here."
Ronon lunges up with his right leg and flings himself onto the remains of the center console. Things crunch under his weight. John remembers to turn the gun off before he sets either of them on fire. He changes his grip on the leather glove protecting him from the hot metal. He presses back the fabric of Ronon's pants leg and holds the no longer red-hot tip to Ronon's skin. Meat and blood sizzle and reek. Ronon howls and John yells with him, partly in sympathy and partly because he's reflexively clenching his glutes and thighs to brace himself, and with that strain he can't not shout.
"Flip," John orders when he sees there's no way to angle the brand under Ronon to get to the front of his thigh. "Flip, goddamn you. Now!"
"Fuck!" Ronon roars and, somehow, does it. He pivots on his right leg so John is faced with the bloody gash. John lays on the brand. He doesn't know if it's still hot enough. He burns his fingers on the shaft when the glove slips, but that's nothing, not compared to—this. Which, how can they know if this will even work? Maybe it'll cause a blood clot and Ronon will die anyway. Maybe... John tells himself to shut the hell up.
John holds the metal tip there longer than he did the first time but still pulls it off every two seconds to check. It's not as hot; there's more blood pouring out from the exertion of turning over. Maybe, god, maybe. John bites his cheek and swallows hard. The scent is—the worst part is that the scent is familiar. It's horrifying and awful and for weeks after the first time he learned this smell—and no one should have to know what firebombed people smell like—John couldn't look at a plate of meat without wanting to throw up. He still has serious trouble with pork barbecue. But he draws the cauter away and it's done. If he could get up, he'd—oh, wait. John finds the right pocket of his tac vest on the third try and yanks out a foil-packed alcohol wipe. He cleans the whole area. Ronon bellows again but he's mostly collapsed on the crushed inside of the nose of the jumper. John cleans the back of his leg by feel. It hurts Ronon more, but there's not a fuck of a lot either of them can do about it. Then John gets out a couple of square adhesive bandages, and covers each wound.
It isn't anything like ideal first aid, this freaking Roman gladiator shit. No, it's abysmal. You're supposed to clean it out first, not last, but either the blood pushed out all the germs or it didn't, and Ronon said Teyla had given him antibiotics. The cleaning at the end was only to get the skin dry enough to make a bandage stick to it. Hopeless, possibly, but it might keep Ronon alive long enough to eat more antibiotics and get rescued. That's what matters.
Ronon lays back and passes out. John just looks at him. "Okay, buddy." A while later he adds, "When you can get to the med kit, I'll try to sew up the hole in your back."
Ronon lets out a healthy snore.
John shakes his head, tries to shake the growing fog out of his eyes but can't. He stayed awake for Ronon. He has bone fragments sticking out of his leg. Shattered tibia. Or fibula—both. Wait, tibula? Fibia? He can't think. But neither he nor Ronon will be running laps of the city any time soon.
Ronon lets out another snore; John takes it as a suggestion and lets the fog pull him down.
Ronon wakes to the sound of a familiar voice. He can't feel much, and that freaks him out. "Let me see them!" McKay demands.
"Gentle sir, gentle sir, you must calm yourself. You have been in a coma!" It's a feminine voice and she sounds frantic. Ronon squints. She's short, broad-hipped, and yellow-haired, but next to McKay, her skin is too gray—not merely ashen but a brown tinged with pewter.
"I...what? Whatever, I don't care. You have to show them to me. I have to know they're okay." McKay's head is wrapped in bandages and one of his feet's in a cast.
"Gentle sir, be still. I will do as you say, but only be still. We will move your bed. Allow me to go get one to help me do this. Please do not move." She leaves through a door to the left of McKay's bed. Ronon's faces Teyla's. Sheppard's is between Teyla's and the door. The head of McKay's is parallel to the door; it seems really far away.
"I have to know they're okay," McKay repeats, but she's gone. He sounds more forlorn than Ronon has ever heard him. "God, John," he says, "please be okay."
In a minute, the woman returns with a man in tow. He's shorter than McKay but taller than Teyla and skinny. Together they push McKay's bed, along with some kind of medical equipment, closer, so he has a clear view of the other three beds in the ward. Ronon thinks it must be a ward. Instinctively, he quashes thoughts of Melena, but then he has to ask himself why. Why deny her memory? He has no answer, so he relents and lets the thoughts wash over him. The end happened, yeah, but there was still a lot of good before the end came.
McKay has his attention focused on Sheppard, who looks like shit. Both his legs are in enormous casts, his head is bandaged, and there's some blue paint or something coating his face. That's when Ronon remembers the burns. Then he realizes he's lying on his back and there's a thick pad on his back where the rod got him. He still isn't able to feel much. He wants to call out to the doctor or nurse, or whatever she is, and ask, but he can't. McKay looks at him then and Ronon can only blink, because what is there to say? Then McKay's eyes go to Teyla, and Ronon's follow. She's asleep, ashen-skinned and puffy.
"Please be okay," McKay says again.
"Gentle sir," the woman starts, and McKay interrupts her to give her his list of allergies. Whether she understands what each one is, Ronon can't tell, but she diligently taps them into something Ronon can't see, and before he knows it, Ronon's falling asleep.
Rodney is awake again. He keeps waking up, anxiously checking to make sure the rest of the team is present and their monitors are blinking with comfortingly active heart rates. They are three little yellow beacons of hope in the dim room, and Rodney is totally not above using hopelessly twee metaphors when they apparently all nearly died. He keeps hoping, too, that one of them will be awake enough to communicate. He needs to talk to one of them. He needs to talk to John.
Rodney can't remember what happened. That's the crux of the problem. He remembers standing in the back, his arms elbow-deep in jumper guts. There was shouting, he knows, and the next thing he knows, he's waking up in a hospital—or at least a room with medical equipment. He has yet to be convinced that they're in an actual hospital. He doesn't remember seeing anything like a city on the scans of the planet they were going to investigate, either. Only interesting mineral readings and the fascinating problem of an apparently livable environment on a planet the size of Mercury and equidistant from this system's sun. The rotational speed was unheard of for a habitable world, and the astrophysicist in him could not resist the temptation to go down and see firsthand what conditions were like.
He's made a few. Not many, and rarely small ones, much to his chagrin.
John's doing a thing where his eyes flicker open for a second and then close. He takes a deep breath and sinks back into sleep. Or possibly a drugged stupor. Rodney has no idea and the nurse won't tell him, not that he's been able to make sense of a third of what she's said to him. He really, really hopes that's her fault instead of his.
Also, he doesn't know why he's awake when apparently he was the one who started out in a coma.
The nurse does tell him there is no stargate on this planet. That means they're probably screwed. Nobody back home knows which of the planets they're on because they didn't know themselves. This gate address was on their list of "places of scientific interest to go check out when we have time." They were only supposed to poke around, take some readings, and learn whether any of the worlds in the system were worth further investigation.
She also tells him, incidentally, that they're in a place called Onna. Rodney isn't clear if that's their word for the world, the city, or just the building they're occupying, and he can't make enough sense of what she says to clarify. It is baffling—and he hates being baffled—but his head hurts and parsing what he can only loosely describe as her "dialect" is exhausting.
Ronon wakes up every once in a while and stares at him. Rodney's caught the nurse playing with Ronon's dreads as if she's never seen anything of the kind. It was in the course of her giving them their daily sponge baths, so Rodney didn't say anything to dissuade her. She seems immune to his protestations for basics like privacy. In his mind, there's a basic assumption of physical privacy for people in the hospital—there just is—but not here. Bathing, use of bedpans, catheterization, IV insertion and removal, examinations, all of it happens to each of them, in view of each of them, when they're awake, at least. Rodney is most awake and they've relocated Rodney's hospital bed from the end of the row where it had been to the corner, where he faces John. While he was sleeping, they relocated Ronon to the next corner, so he faces Teyla. John and Teyla are still next to each other, still sleeping all the time that Rodney's awake. Rodney wants to be next to Ronon, just for the companionship, but there's a bank of equipment in the way.
He wonders if Ronon remembers the crash.
More, he wonders what shape the jumper came down in. There should be an emergency beacon running on its own power cell. It's not much more than an airplane's black box, but the signal will easily reach space and tell the Search and Rescue team where to find them. Lorne will come and take them home.
This, of course, presumes the box and its transmitter and its power cell all survived. It presumes the jumper is anywhere near where they are. It presumes Lorne can figure out where they are based on where the jumper's signal is. Those are a lot of assumptions.
Lorne's team will have life-signs detectors. They will have a jumper equipped with scanners that have a much better range than the handheld LSDs. They'll be fine. Atlantis will find them.
Except, given their injuries, Rodney's afraid the jumper is either a hunk of scrap metal or else a trail of tiny pieces scattered over hundreds of miles. Which is why he really needs to talk to Ronon. John is closer, but John looks awful—his face partly is covered in slimy blue goop and his legs are in enormous foam casts that extend above the knee on the left and nearly to the crotch on the right—and he's unconscious. Rodney's own cast covers his right leg from mid-calf down. That's also the limit of sensation, so he can't feel anything in the cast. It's disconcerting, to say the least, but they wouldn't put a cast on thin air, so he's pretty sure his leg is whole.
The nurse comes in again, finally, and smiles at him. "Could I have some water?" he asks.
"Happily," she answers, smiling more. It's another odd word choice, but whatever. Rodney drinks gratefully, even though it tastes metallic, like iron tinged with chalk, somehow. He says, "What's your name?"
She refills the empty ceramic cup. "Meope," she answers, making three syllables of it. She's small with tightly curly hair, blonde in a way that reminds Rodney of years wasted longing for things he wouldn't get, and so indescribably different in her manner and appearance that Rodney begins to wonder whether the star in this system has induced biological changes on its human residents. He's never seen humans with that particular skin color, and he wonders briefly if she's from a non-human race, which in turn makes Rodney wonder if she's alone here or if her people are just shy. Is she an anomaly? He can't remember what the orderly who helped her move his bed looked like; all his thoughts at that moment had been on John, who is—he glances over—still asleep. Is it a mutation from the environment, or just an effect of the world's strange blue light?
It's a lot of cognition for someone recently in a coma, and his headache has only abated a little. They were having a conversation, right. Right. He remembers he needs to introduce himself then, and does so, providing all of his titles in case she has any doubt about his importance.
"Happily met," she says, and gravely removes the pus-soaked half-helmet-shaped bandage Rodney hadn't even known was stuck to his head. The red and yellow smears are grotesquely fascinating up until she begins bathing the wounds. That's an excruciating wet fire, but the new bandage is a cool comfort against his skin.
"Thank you," he says. Then, because he isn't a complete ass no matter what John says, he adds, "And thank you for this. For taking care of us and, saving our lives, I guess."
She pats his hand. "Of course, it is obvious."
A sharp cry comes from Teyla's part of the room, and Meope rushes away. Teyla might be having a nightmare, or maybe she tried to roll over onto her injured side.
A few minutes pass and Teyla calms. Meope checks on John, who is still asleep, and goes to Ronon, who is awake but silent and cat-like in his corner. A few soft words are exchanged, and a privacy-violating process of meeting biological needs is attended to. Ronon has a puffy torus-shaped contraption encircling his left thigh, and Meope keeps making him do contortions so she can change the various bandages on his back and leg. He might be the least bad off of the four of them.
When Meope returns, Rodney tells her, "I want to talk to Ronon." He points at Ronon, just in case she doesn't know his name yet.
Meope looks at him as if he's speaking another language. He tries again. "I need to talk to him—" He points. "—and I wanted to do it without having to shout and disturb them—or make my headache worse, for that matter." He points again. "Do you have a wheelchair I can use or something?"
"Motion fractures," she tells him firmly. Her face says absolutely not. Rodney's suddenly sure that neither Meope nor, possibly, anyone else on this rock has ever been through a stargate. Rodney's never seen the translation function for gate travelers so completely fail to keep up. There are problems with some languages and English contractions, sure, to say nothing of the speech on some worlds coming through in comically archaic vocal patterns, but this is just weird.
Rodney resorts to hand gestures, pointing from himself to Ronon and miming a mouth talking with his hand. Meope waggles her head. "Motion fractures," she insists. "You will take more uncertainty."
Rodney squeezes his eyes shut. In the other corner, Ronon is laughing. "McKay," he says, "she means you'll hurt yourself by moving." He pauses. "There's too great a risk of further injury," he says as if he's quoting. Meope smiles, waving a hand at Ronon. He nods in return.
"Give me something to write with, then?" He mimes typing. Then he stops, wondering about alien alphabets and keyboards. He needs paper, he decides, or at the very least a tablet. He draws a rectangle in the air hopefully.
She goes away and comes back with what looks for all the world like a half-screen tablet with a keyboard taken from an old Speak and Spell. He squints at it and presses a button. The character on the button appears on the screen. He tries to draw on the screen with a thumbnail, but nothing happens. "Nice," he mumbles. "Right, I can't read this alphabet," he says, "assuming it is an alphabet." She's nodding to herself; she understands the problem. Rodney wonders what kind of world this is that they don't have paper.
She returns several minutes later with a flat metal square and a metal-capped tube that must be a pen. From her pocket, she draws a bottle of ink and a tiny funnel. She unscrews the top of the pen and demonstrates how to fill it with ink. Then she opens the cap and Rodney sees the tip is something like a felt-tip marker. Last, she pulls out a stained gray cloth clearly meant to be an eraser. Rodney wonders where his laptop is. He wonders where the jumper is. He wonders where his clothes are. Or—his radio! He'd had his radio on him when they left, he's sure of it. Whether it survived their landing was anyone's guess.
"What about our radios?" he asks. He starts to draw a picture on the slate. It isn't a slate, but he might as well call it that. He holds up the drawing. "Can you bring us our radios?"
Meope gives him a troubled look, glances at Ronon, and shrugs. Then she leaves.
"I think she liked you better when you were asleep," Ronon calls.
"Well, if she'd just move us closer so I don't have to give myself a migraine to talk to you," Rodney half-shouts back. But John shifts and scowls in his sleep, and Rodney shuts up.
He writes, "Do you remember the crash? I don't. If you do, then tell me everything you remember. She called this place 'Onna'—have you ever heard of it? Has she told you anything about where we are? How bad was the damage?"
Two months later, Teyla chases Ronon, Rodney, and John up the dirt track behind the compound. Meope has told her it used to be a road, back in the days of light, and now it serves as a track for Teyla to make the boys strengthen their injured legs. Rodney, amusingly enough, is doing the best. His foot was crushed and he complains of the pain in his ankle frequently, but between the weight he has lost and the impressive healing technology they've been blessed with, the bones have knit well.
Ronon brushes off his injuries as "just flesh wounds," a phrase that makes John snicker and Rodney huff while hiding the delight in his eyes. Teyla's seen the source for the reference and didn't, in fact, need Rodney to explain absurdist humor to her. But she's heard the story from John of what Ronon did and how he made John assist him. She herself remembers almost nothing of the crash. She does remember kneeling in a pile of broken wires and crystals, peering through the dim light to see the blood-soaked leg of John's pants. She remembers the side of Rodney's head painted red with blood and her fear of touching him. She remembers Ronon shouting at her and being physically unable to respond.
John is slowest. The bones themselves are healed. Teyla doesn't understand the technology used, and although Rodney has grilled Meope, he doesn't understand what the equipment did or how. He took apart a console with many switches and a large computer display, but all he did was shake his head and say, "It is not Earth or Ancient tech, and it is not Wraith—which is reassuring to us all, I am sure."
Teyla's still having trouble keeping her thoughts focused. Skull fractures and swelling in the brain, and numerous other small issues. They don't know how she was able to get up and do as much as she did when they first landed, but that demolished her reserves. She still has occasional vertigo and headaches. So does Rodney.
She watches John run. She slows to a walk when he seems to be pushing himself too hard. He will never do it himself until he stumbles or falls first, so she does it for him, and he slows to a walk beside her.
"Thanks," he says, when she does it now.
"I'm supposed to say, 'John, you're a moron,' now, aren't I?"
He laughs. "I am getting better."
"Slowly," she agrees. Too slowly, she doesn't say.
"Any new thoughts on how we are going to get off this rock?"
The wind is bitingly cold and the sky is a solid, forbidding mass above them, as it always is. They're dressed in plain shirts, coats, pants, and boots made by their hosts. The colors are all shades of tan or gray, like the land. Their hosts have shared a few legends of Ancestral Rings with her, but in these legends, the rings are magical items of jewelry worn by gods.
"None of the Onnae will tell me where we landed or if they recovered the jumper."
John scowls. "Yeah, they all say they do not know."
"Major Lorne," Teyla begins. They've had this conversation a hundred times.
"The emergency beacon is clearly not working, or something else is blocking the signal."
They've discussed this, too. "They could be jamming it."
"We should have found a secret stash of high-tech radio gear by now. I think it has to be the cloud bank and all the crap in the air."
Teyla frowns. "As reticent as they are—and how modest the compound's appearance is next to their medical expertise—I'm hesitant to draw that conclusion."
"Yeah." John pauses to stretch his legs and rub out a cramp. Teyla's still angry about the Genii betrayals, and pushing for a little extra caution makes her feel better. Ahead of them, Ronon and Rodney appear to be playing tag or keep-away. John raises his eyebrows. "You doubt whether they will let us go, I take it?"
She holds his gaze and touches his arm to get them walking again. She's starting to shiver in the cold, and a run will feel good, once John is recovered. "I don't like the silence, John. After all this time, and now that we're no longer attached to the healing machines, we ought to know more about this place and these people than we do."
"You think they would spend all these resources fixing us just to kill us?" John asks.
"Not kill, I don't believe. Not unless they perform sacrifices to the gods in their legends."
"Yeek." John makes a face comically horrific enough to make Teyla laugh, normally, but she only smiles wanly at him.
"Indenture is my concern." She speeds her step, urging John to do the same because his legs need to be running again. "There is nowhere to go. If we want food to eat and water to drink, we must stay." She's been to the top of every rise for at least ten miles in every direction. She's visited every abandoned building, every cave, every potentially inhabitable place she's been able to discover, and there's nothing. There are a few small trees, mostly in the dry riverbed. She's found no surface water, no edible plants.
John says nothing for a long while. He's looking around them. They're at the far end of the loop they've worn into the road with their therapeutic runs. "This could get really bad," he says as they round the curve.
"If it does, we need you to be strong. As strong as your body can be."
John's lips press into a thin line, then twist upward. "And you tell me not to overtax myself."
Teyla smirks. "I didn't say as strong as your body used to be. Please be realistic."
She breaks into a jog. John catches up quickly and they speed up just a little. "Yeah, well, realism about major injuries sucks."
Ronon and Rodney are coming up behind them, having pulled a full lap ahead. "Hurry it up, Sheppard!" Ronon yells. A moment later, he thumps John on the shoulder. "You know it is sad when McKay can run circles around you."
Rodney is red-faced and panting, but he's preening, too. "Hey, I am! Look at that!"
John extends his middle finger at them and keeps running. He holds his pace steady, and she can tell from the set of his jaw that he's planning to run the rest of this lap and, aptly, stop for the day. The sun will be plummeting into the west by then, soon to rise again after a very short night.
They still share the one room, and John has almost gotten used to it, gross lack of privacy and all. They aren't confined. There's a washroom across the corridor, a kitchen, storerooms, and no locks on the doors. When he'd woken up, it had seemed like a hospital ward, but now he knows it's just a building.
They found the other buildings as soon as they could walk. Teyla was first to go exploring, mapping the whole compound first and then peering in windows one by one until she knew what was where. Her reports were succinct: the Onnae are a small group. The main house is next door, and ten people live there. Eight more people live in a bunkhouse on the other side of the barn. Among these residents are six women and three kids. There is no other habitation anywhere nearby, at least not that they will admit.
That day, Teyla had tried the diplomacy spiel and failed pretty miserably from the sound of it. After they escorted her back to their room, she told John, Rodney, and Ronon what she'd learned: that the leader was a man called Norrel Onna, there was no local stargate, and they were the last remnants of a long-gone civilization that had been devoured by the waste.
"Then where are the ruins?" Rodney had asked before John could voice the same question.
"He would not say," Teyla answered. "I plan to raise the matter with Meope."
John had said, "You know, I'm really starting to hate this place."
Later, Teyla had found their hydroponics operation in the barn. After Meope had gone for the night, she told them, "It continues several stories underground. There's a crude elevator and a long spiral staircase that appears, I think, laser-carved into the bedrock. Our water comes from a deep well that seems like it was created in the same manner. Certainly, it is enough for a small outpost or a way station, but it is the barest level of survival."
"Fantastic," John had groused.
She added, "Also, they will not mention the jumper or answer when asked about it."
John watches the sky and thinks. It's thick and dark with clouds and the light is perpetually blue on the rough gray land. Day zips by at dizzying speed. There is no moon, so nights are pitch black; they all take the strange light sticks Meope gave them with them wherever they go. John misses G-class stars with a fierceness he never imagined.
Rodney finds him one morning, sitting on a low wall by one of the outbuildings and watching the sky. No one else is around, and Rodney sits closer than he otherwise would have. Teyla and Ronon have known for a while, but it's habit to keep it on the down-low, and if they ever get out of here—John belays the thought. He leans in, pressing his shoulder against Rodney's for a long moment, enjoying the warm contact in the cold air, and then turns his head for a kiss. It's easier to kiss than talk. Talking only leads to lists of Rodney's fears, of John's concerns, of the practical impossibilities of getting their asses out of here. John cups Rodney's face and kisses harder, better.
"Oh, yes," Rodney murmurs and pulls John to his feet, drags him to stand between his thighs. The warmth against the cold air is perfect.
"I want—" John starts. But then he hears voices approaching and pulls away. There are more men here than women, but he hasn't seen any same-sex couples at all. For all they know, the Onnae might view being queer as a burning-at-the-stake kind of sacrilege, and the language issue they're having is only one more reason to keep a lid on it.
The voices turn out to be Teyla with Meope and Norrel. They're just out walking, not coming to talk to them in particular. Teyla leaves them for a moment, gliding up to John and Rodney with her usual grace. John isn't blushing, even though Rodney looks like they've been doing exactly what they've been doing, all red-lipped and glazed with arousal. Her eyes twinkle as she cups their upper arms in turn. Just a passing greeting, not the whole official forehead-touch thing. John's plan was absolutely to blasé this out, but as usual, she sees right through him.
With a glance over her shoulder, Teyla says, "Ronon will be assisting in the barn all day, and I will be with Meope and Norrel for at least another hour." She stops and John blinks at her, not really daring to go where she's apparently leading them, and then she shakes her head fondly and adds, "That is, if you would care to take advantage of our empty room?" Rodney's mouth falls open, and she smiles at them both. "Go in out of the cold."
Recovering first, Rodney beams at her, bouncing on his feet. "Thank you!" He tugs at John's hand, then again harder.
John squeezes it, but he leans in and says into Teyla's hair, "You are wonderful, and, uh—" he can't figure out the words to admit he should probably tell her that a lot more often, not when it's cold out and Rodney's practically yanking his arm out of the socket in his hurry. Instead, he just says, "Thanks," but he really means it and he hopes she can tell. Then he glances at Meope and Norren. "Promise you'll be careful."
She smiles up at him and nods. "We will talk later."
He decides not to wonder whether she means that as a threat and lets Rodney pull him back to their building. Inside, John liberates some cooking oil from the kitchen because he has yet to find anything like KY in the bathroom or their medical supplies. He blocks their door with a flat knife wedged between the inner hinges, because he will never not be paranoid about who can catch him in violation of the uniform code, and then—then—he lets himself look. Rodney is already mostly naked, and his eyes go wide when he sees the bottle of oil. "Really?" he says, smiling widely.
John opens his coat, pulls off his sweater and shirts, kicks off his boots, and scratches his chest. "So," he says, all fake-casual, "whose bed?"
That night Teyla tells them a ridiculous story that Rodney only bites his tongue on because he'd gotten laid twice that day and John keeps glaring at him whenever he draws in a breath to offer his own scintillating commentary.
She says: "I will relate to you what they told me: 'Once upon a time, long ago, before this land was lost from habitation, there was a great civilization here, and mere mortals might travel through an enormous, ornate god-ring, but an epochal cataclysm opened a chasm that split the world. It consumed the cities, and the ring tumbled down into it, crashing into a crevasse nearly a mile below the surface. What remained on the surface burned or was buried, and died. That was the last day of the old world and the first day of the new. That was the beginning of their history.' "
"Sounds like the end of it to me," Rodney says, because, honestly, how can you resist an opening like that?
"Okay," John says, "so they used to have a terrestrial gate, after all, and now they don't."
"There is more," Teyla says darkly. "The next part is: 'And yet the monsters still came in their sky carts shaped like tri-point spears. Their lights and shadows confused the unwary and their beams of white fire took them away. There was no hope but to live in the caves in the hills. But what may people eat under the ground? Can one raise children on mere dirt? No.' "
"Okay," Ronon says doubtfully, and Rodney agrees completely.
"So what do we make of that?" Rodney asks.
"Tell me they aren't Wraith-worshippers," John says.
"No, I do not think so, but I must wonder how this community survives with no game to hunt and only their hydroponic harvests."
Rodney feels his gorge rise. He'd seen Delicatessen back in the early '90s, and it had given him nightmares, which were, thankfully all in French, so they were generally easy to ignore. "Are you thinking that they're the witch in the gingerbread house and we're Hansel and Gretel?"
Ronon looks at him, then at John. "I have no idea what he just said."
"He means 'Are they cannibals?' " John translates.
Ronon shudders visibly. "That's disgusting."
Teyla purses her lips and shakes her head. "If they were eating their own population, then there should be more women, should there not? They must replenish the food supply."
Rodney covers his mouth. Then he gets up and walks around, thinking, breathing. "I think you're right. There's no sense in it. And civilized people value human life."
"This isn't civilization," Ronon says.
"We haven't seen a graveyard," John points out.
"Oh, stop," Rodney moans. "Maybe there's game we haven't seen yet. It could be out of season or whatever!"
"Women die in childbirth," Ronon suggests.
"God, not helping!" Rodney covers his face. When he peeks out, Ronon isn't making a face like a schoolboy; he's staring at Teyla, deadly serious.
"We really have to get out of here," John says.
"It's been ten weeks," Rodney says. It's his best estimate from what he remembers of their initial scan of the planet while they were still in space. Local days and nights average six hours each, and about a hundred and forty days have passed, assuming the Onnae reached and rescued them quickly. He's also assuming they weren't comatose long before they regained consciousness.
"More or less," Ronon says.
"They must still look for us, though. You said—" Teyla looks at John.
He answers, "They should continue to send a jumper through regularly to check for distress signals, even if they don't have the resources available to physically search all the planets in the system."
None of them says, Assuming the Wraith haven't found them. Assuming the city's still there.
"If we can get to the jumper, I can fix the emergency beacon or make a new one out of—" Rodney stops before speaking the word cannibalized. "—parts."
"We've only searched a three hour walk," Ronon says. "It could still be out there."
"Can't we just demand they take us to it?" Rodney asks.
"Demand?" Teyla says, and Rodney sighs, point taken.
"Eighteen to four." John spreads his hands like a scale, one going up, and one dropping low.
"Only fifteen adults. Had worse," Ronon says.
John sighs. "Gimpy." He points first at Ronon, then at himself, Rodney, and Teyla.
Her back goes straight. "Unlike the rest of you, I am fully recovered." She glares at him for a second, and then her face softens. "However, even if you all were well, we lack equipment and sufficient weaponry. Therefore, we should inquire as to what we could offer in trade."
Rodney likes the way she thinks. She's logical, and it's like a clear blue sky against the insanity coming out of Ronon's mouth; and yet Rodney can't help muttering, "What do you bet all they give us is more of the spooky silent treatment?"
Teyla shrugs gracefully. "Then we will find another way."
Two frustrating weeks pass with no progress, at least as far as Teyla can tell. Sixteen of the eighteen Onnae refuse all conversation beyond the minimum required to allow the team to help with basic chores. She doesn't even know all of their names, despite asking some of them directly. In her efforts to draw them out, she's told them rather more of Athos than she intended to, but only Meope and Norrel will talk to her. Those conversations often happen over mugs of dark tea in the guesthouse kitchen. The Atlanteans are less than welcome in the main house.
Then one evening after dinner—a true evening by her circadian rhythms, which seem fiercely tied to the long days and nights of Athos and Atlantis—Meope arrives in their doorway. The team has grown used to absence of privacy where Meope is concerned, but it's an odd time for her to call upon them. Also, she looks harried. Her face is drawn, her hair unkempt, her coat flapping open, and boots covered in dust. "For you gentles all to come," she says, flapping a hand in the shooing motion that paradoxically means, on Onna, "come here".
Teyla exchanges anxious looks with the others, but in moments, they don their outdoor gear, collect their light-sticks, and head out into the night. Meope leads them to the main house, where everyone is gathered in the long salon waiting.
"Guests," Norrel says in greeting.
Teyla nods and John says, "Hi," in his way that some find disarming. Others interpret it as a sign of feeble-mindedness, however, and Teyla still doesn't know which way Norrel leans, on this as in so many other matters.
Norrel doesn't invite them to sit. They no longer need to, physically, as all their structural wounds are healed. John's and Rodney's bodies remain weaker than they used to be, but they can now stand without strain. Teyla still experiences occasional headaches. Ronon's leg cramps, still, due to overextending new muscle fibers, but that will pass as he recovers his strength.
Norrel adopts a formal speech-making pose. "You have expressed your desire to access the metal box in which we found you."
Rodney begins to speak, but Ronon lays a hand on his shoulder and quiets him. Teyla simply says, "Yes."
"In the time since you arrived, our hands have healed you and fed you. Our home has sheltered you."
"That is true, and we're grateful for your help in our time of need," Teyla answers politely, wondering where this is going. She suspects it won't be anywhere good.
Norrel smiles with a hard mouth and calculating eyes. "What we require now is that you offer thanks to our gods who have saved you."
"I do not understand," John says.
Teyla asks, "What exactly does this process entail?" Norrel's gaze flicks to her disdainfully, and she sets her chin to show she stands by the question.
"You shall be bound to the sky for nine turns as the gods take their joy. Then you will have your metal box, and not before."
There's the trip, she thinks. "I must confer with my companions," she announces. She presses them toward an outer door. It will be cold, but private.
Rodney sighs. "You know, compared to him, I can understand Meope pretty clearly."
Teyla looks at Ronon. "Did you understand?"
"Sounded like 'nine days exposed to the elements'," he says. " 'Roped'? 'Restrained'? I didn't get the word he used."
"What?" Rodney squawks.
"Who?" John says.
"Who was also unclear." Teyla frowns. "I couldn't tell if he meant a plural or singular 'you'."
"And in return, we get the jumper back," John clarifies.
Teyla nods. "Yes."
"Is this expected to be fatal?" Rodney demands. "The human body can only survive three days without water!"
Ronon looks at the sky. "Nine days here, maybe four of what we are used to."
"Four is a whole day more than three!" Rodney cries, outraged. "That will not help us if we're dead!"
John shrugs. "If it is just one of us tied up, then the rest of us could help them out, though, right?"
Silence falls among them, and their light-stick beams weave and intertwine on the dusty ground at their feet. Teyla purses her lips, as frustrated as they all are with this wall of uncertainty.
"Atlantis doesn't know where we are," Ronon says, "and they never will until you can rig up a signal."
To that, they can only nod. "Point," John says.
Rodney shuts his eyes. "Way to bottom-line it, there. Thanks."
The door opens, then, and a pool of light spills out. Norrel spreads his arms wide. "I see you decide true. Good! Come inside now, it is cold."
He gestures and they enter, Teyla taking point and Ronon putting John in the middle. The interior is warm and glowing, and something smells sweet and inviting. Meope approaches with mugs on a tray. "Take, please. Now we celebrate," she says.
The drink is warm and reminds Teyla of quill-berry on old Athos and cinnamon on Atlantis. There is something festive in its taste. Meope has assured Rodney there is nothing like citrus on this world, but old habits are often good habits, and Teyla is pleased to see him touch a minuscule drop to his tongue with a finger and wait for a reaction. Seconds pass and he dips his finger again, sucking off the liquid this time. This test passed, he takes a sip and smiles at Meope. She then draws them over to the seating area, and for a time they lounge together on the low tan couches, comfortable and warm.
They were in the main house celebrating an agreement, Ronon recalls. Teyla's cheeks were flushed and her smile bright. McKay took Sheppard's hand in his own, just to hold, and Sheppard's hackles had gone up for a minute but relaxed slowly as McKay stroked the back of his hand. Ronon remembers being amused at that and thinking that if anyone was weird enough to love McKay, it was Sheppard.
He isn't in the house anymore. Ronon doesn't know where he is. It isn't anywhere he's discovered on his hikes around the area.
His head is really foggy. So is the air around him, but following a single train of thought is a little more than he can manage.
It's dark, still, or again, he isn't sure, and he has the creeping sensation that he's being watched. A number of light-sticks are scattered around on the dry ground. Ronon realizes he isn't wearing any clothes and it's cold. He also realizes he's in a bare-branched tree, bound by ropes to a wide vee of the trunk. His arms are outstretched, his legs are splayed, and the ropes support him from foot to crotch to neck to fingertips. He twists and pulls, trying to get free, and panics as much as he ever does, but he's held fast. In the darkness he can't see anyone; he can't tell if it's safe to call out. The glow of the light-sticks blinds him to whatever might lie beyond. He breathes a minute, eyes shut, and when he opens them again, there's darkness and fog, yes, but also a purplish glow in the east telling him that sunrise is coming.
Screw it. "Sheppard? Teyla? McKay?" he calls into the murk. There's no answer at all, not even the scuff of a boot.
Maybe the Onnae chose him and the others are safe inside. Shivering in the wind, Ronon hopes they're at least somewhere warm.
John wakes up on a road, curled on his side, with his team sprawled around him. He groans and sits up. "Hey," he says, because they're all slowly coming to consciousness. "Are you guys okay? Where the hell are we?"
Ronon pushes up onto one hand and points over John's shoulder. He turns around and sees an old-fashioned wooden sign carved with a jagged, rune-like script.
"Yeah, whatever language that is, I can't read it."
"Way Station twenty miles," Ronon says. The words he uses for the distance aren't actually "twenty miles," but John guesses it's the gate translating, even though he doesn't know why it says miles instead of klicks.
"Huh," he says. Teyla's up and Rodney's rubbing his face as if he's trying to pull the blanket of whatever he was dreaming back around himself. Once they establish they're all basically okay, John says, "So, I don't guess this is familiar territory. Anybody know how we got here?"
There's a round of head shaking. Rodney stretches, popping in a dozen places. "Oh my god, my back. Are we seriously sleeping in the road? Do we have food? Tell me we have some food."
They have nothing. No field packs, no water, no weapons. Only the strange, dirt-colored civilian clothes they're wearing.
"Were we beamed down?" Rodney asks.
"What's the last thing you remember?" Ronon asks. He's up, circling them slowly.
"Scanning for energy signatures," Rodney answers, "but I can't remember where I was."
Ronon says, "There aren't any tracks leading here."
Rodney looks up. "Maybe we were stunned?"
John's skeptical. "Who could drop us here without a trace?"
Ronon growls and pulls off his coat. Then he yanks up his shirt to bare his back. "Anything?"
They all peer between his shoulder blades, fearing the worst, but no, there's no sign of a runner-implant.
"This is most worrisome," Teyla says. She's scanning the horizon, slowly, intently. John looks and sees nothing useful. A few scattered trees a long way off. The road north to the Way Station and the road south to whatever lies that way. John awoke facing north, but he doubts that's important.
Everything is desolate as far as the eye can see. They have each other and the road, which, crap.
"Virtual environment?" Rodney suggests, hopefully.
"You think this is fake?" Ronon asks.
Rodney concentrates, and goes into a pose straight out of I Dream of Jeannie. There's a genie-in-the-bottle joke in there somewhere, but John can't quite find it. At any rate, Rodney stays fully material next to them.
"So, let's go with the assumption that we're all really here," John says. Rodney pokes John in the shoulder, then Teyla and Ronon, who sighs and pokes him back three times harder. "Rodney, it isn't a holodeck."
"Which way do we go?" Rodney asks.
John exchanges looks with Ronon and Teyla. "Let's scout it out before we decide. Five klicks each way."
Ronon's on his feet, turning south. Teyla says, "Do you want to go north or stay to check the perimeter?" She points east and west into the wilderness. It's rocky and desolate and reminds John of the flatter parts of Nevada outside of Las Vegas.
"I can do the perimeter," he says, but she gives him a look that says he's being stupid. He laughs and she shoots him a knowing smirk. "Fine. I'll stick to the road."
"What about me?" Rodney asks.
"You're home base," John tells him.
"My leg's better than yours are," Rodney protests.
"And my aim is better, you know, if there's something nasty out there," John says reasonably. "Stay here so we know where to meet back. Otherwise," he stops and looks around. "The rest of this road looks pretty identical."
Rodney sighs. "Don't get hurt."
John gives him the thumbs up and turns north as Teyla heads down the embankment and into the east. For a moment, it occurs to him to worry whether he'll ever see them again, but, of course, that would be ridiculous.
"Hello?" Teyla calls. There is no answer, though she calls again and again. She cranes her neck as far as she can without strangling herself, but she can see no one and nothing but the wide, empty land. The sun here is violet. She knows that it is what Rodney calls a red dwarf, a small, cool red star, and that the light here tints everything blue because of the thick swirling dust in the atmosphere. The sky is an opaque swirl of blue-black storm clouds. She wonders if the things that appear to her as brown here are a brilliant orange under normal light. Rodney would know. She calls his name, and then the others.
She's grown used to the air on her naked body and the pressure of the ropes holding her still. They balance her weight widely across the span of the tree branch. She isn't even cold anymore. She is glad to be chosen, glad to do this for the team. She hopes the others are well, safe and warm in their room, and not hanging on their own trees, hidden from her sight. But for herself, she feels confident she can do this. Women have more reserves of body fat. If this sky will open and give her a drink from one of its rare storms, then all shall be well. She will come down off this gallows tree and demand they give over the jumper. Then they will find their way home.
"You think I need this? You think I need you?" Rodney shouts. "You have no idea what I need—and the best evidence for that is that you think you can barrel in here and tell me how to live my life!"
"Son—" his dad says.
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" It's my life and I don't give a damn whether it meets with your approval."
"Calm down, Meredith." His father sits on the end of Rodney's bed. He has to clear a spot between engineering and physics textbooks and a pile of—clean—laundry Rodney hasn't put away yet. Rodney glares at him and folds his arms across his chest. He's standing in front of his stereo, in front of the window, and he's damned if the entire dorm suite can't hear this fight, but so what? His life, not his dad's.
"You came all the way down here because that jerk Winston is badmouthing me back in Vancouver."
"Dr. Winston is a respected professor and one of my colleagues. He wouldn't pass on empty gossip, and from what I heard from your department head this morning—"
"You went to my department head behind my back?" Rodney yells.
"Your lifestyle choices and your stubborn refusal to observe the most basic of social niceties—"
Rodney narrows his eyes. "Is this because I don't mince words when I'm surrounded by idiots—and I mean the sort of imbeciles who try to blow up the Physics building while we're inside it—or is this because I suck cock?"
His father shuts his eyes, visibly counts to ten, and says, "Your mother is terribly upset over this, Meredith."
Rodney's face is a twist of irony, because he's lost his patience and all sense of give-a-shit. "Ah, you do mean my sex life."
"Do you think she enjoys being asked publicly about your reputation? She has had to work twice as hard to earn—"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, she can deal. Anyone who can stand up to peer review and shoot down all her critics in one go after every single conference she presents at can cope with having a loudmouthed bisexual son."
There's a brief silence. "Don't confuse her professional relationships with family," his father says darkly.
Rodney laughs, and then laughs longer, a little hysterically. He can't believe those words just came out of his father's mouth. "Right," he says, wiping tears. "Do me a favor and tell her that."
Rodney's dad looks down, studying his fingernails, and Rodney knows he's hit home, possibly too hard. On the other hand, they did raise him. He never asked to grow up in a household fraught with razor-sharp critique. Honestly, what did they expect? As his mother would say, sweet dispositions are not for McKays.
"Look, I have to be in the lab in twenty minutes." Rodney picks up his backpack and starts shoving in notebooks. "If you want to stick around, I can be free for dinner at seven. It's Murchison Hall, 432 if you want to meet me. If not—" He shrugs. "I guess, have a safe trip back."
His father sits there, grinding his teeth. Rodney finishes loading his backpack.
"I really do have to go," he says, but his dad doesn't stand. Sighing, Rodney opens his door and leaves.
Rodney doesn't see his father alive again. He made the flight back to Vancouver and he made it to the hospital after his heart seized, but he never made it home.
Ronon's begun to feel cradled by the tree. It will take care of him if he lets it. He doesn't know why he feels so certain of that, because it's a pretty weird thing to believe, but he does. He's starting to think it's keeping him warm, now, too. There might be some kind of force field or something. McKay would know. Or it could be like the healing ring they'd put on his thigh that kept him from feeling pain while it stuck the sliced muscle and gristle back together. He doesn't know if that's entirely right, but that's the gist of what he thinks Meope told him.
Maybe the tree is a healing ring.
He relaxes against it further. The sun might be setting; it's hard to tell. It's always so dark here. A drink of water would be nice. He's covered in blown dust and worse from the sneezing fit he had earlier when the wind kicked up. A warm rain, a warm bath, warm hands touching his skin rubbing away the cramps in his muscles—it's been a long time since he let himself want anything. Survival and vengeance, yeah, but little things, tangible things. When he sees McKay cup Sheppard's neck as if they're the only people in the world. When he feels Teyla butt her shoulder into his side, low but firm, a solid reminder that she has his back no matter what seven years of hindbrain thinking have to say about it. When he smells someone who wants him, even if they only want to touch him instead of truly know him.
He chokes on a sob, remembering his wife. She had a beautiful laugh. She loved to go dancing. She sang off-key in the shower. She let him teach her how to floor a man in three moves, just so he would worry less about her working nights in the city and taking public transport home. Getting married won them an apartment of their own off the military base—they were so excited. They'd been so young and stupid, and the sweetness of it hurts, but she's nine years and more gone and he's grieved her well. He's done all the proper observances and rites, and he knows she bears him no spite. Kell's death, on the other hand, was justice, so he can't follow Ronon through his life. The others...well. He's seen a lot of death.
He can want a bath, now. He can want hands on his shoulders and a willing mouth on his own. He gave up so much.
John returns, having seen nothing of interest on the road north. No people, no rivers, no buildings, no life. There's a low curving rise, and John is pleased to see the shape of Rodney standing at the edge of the road talking with Teyla. She gestures down the embankment. Ronon kicks at something, then climbs up the short slope to the road to meet them. Huh. John walks faster, annoyed at himself for being slow, for making them wait. It hurts his legs a little, stretching muscles that are all too prone to stiffness and cramp, although he has to admit the problem lately is his marginal stamina. However those inflatable cast things worked, the bones themselves are healed; John just runs out of steam long before he thinks he should.
They're burning daylight, he thinks, and starts to jog.
A rocky outcrop from the last hill blocks his view for a minute and reminds John briefly of highway passes in the desert southwest, where engineers blasted through with dynamite to build a traversable highway. When he has a view of the meeting spot again, no one's there.
Ronon wakes, so he knows he slept. He isn't on the tree anymore. Instead, he's crouched with the team in a low stone hut pretending to ignore the salesman circling them and the two smallish, hyper-muscled customers eyeing them up. The salesman has shoulder-length bright orange hair in the style the locals like. Their hair is supposed to be black, but they bleach and dye it to the color of fruit. The electrical bracelets on Ronon's wrists itch in the way that means he's about to get a warning jolt. He sets his teeth so he doesn't bite his tongue. He misses his bracers. The others are feeling it, too, and he's grown comfortable with how the four of them move and think as a single unit now. They are practically a single organism, or as McKay likes to say, an exceptionally elegant piece of code. Ronon scorned that until McKay explained it as four components that work together to create a complex and versatile function, and now he really likes the metaphor.
"You have an hour," the salesman says after the customers agree to terms. They paid full price and want the team in full gear, so as soon as they're left alone, they break it down.
"Steroids much?" McKay says.
"They will shelter in the valley." Teyla straps her cuirass into place. "They are weak."
"We don't know how many hunters they'll bring," Sheppard says.
"If only every group would let us count them first." McKay ties his chaps around his pants. He made them from part of a crocodile Ronon killed a few months ago; Ronon's worried they won't be flexible enough, but McKay's been conditioning them.
"Which route?" Ronon asks.
"Plan C," Sheppard replies, meaning the one that goes around the valley to the river, and up the ridge. "We don't know what they've got."
They make noises of agreement. Once they know, then they can break them.
And with a great deal of luck, they might be able to find a hunter they can turn: someone they can convince to get them off this rock and take them to freedom. There's little left, at this point, they won't promise. However, the repercussions against the person who stole away their captors' star attraction would be huge, and none of the team will go without all of the others. Fleeing one captivity for another would be no kind of win.
They load their gear: bits of armor they've made, hidden sharpened stones and shards of metal they've stumbled on and hoarded, weapons they've stolen. They get to take water and the condensed food bars their captors' feed them. They go, jogging, because the bigger the headstart, the better chance they have of hunting their hunters instead of becoming prey themselves.
Teyla dreams deeply of Athos before the culling that took her to a hive ship with the people from Earth. Her childhood was full of singing, of playing Sneak in the trees, of hunting and cleaning game, of sewing clothes and shelter, of running from the scree-sounds of Wraith darts, and finally, when she was of age, traveling to other worlds at the side of her parents. She would be Ambassador, certainly, and probably Emmagan, if the people elected her so. It was the way, and her priority would always be the good of the populace.
Nevertheless, the innocence of childhood was sweet. Even the fraying innocence of adolescence was a fond memory when laid next to the shape her life has taken since. A furtive touch, a false hunt turned to nudging one another left and right and forward into an enclosed thicket of undergrowth, a kiss followed by a hundred more and giddy inexpert groping.
She awakes in tears because Meerna is lost to her now. And Sol. And Zellin. And Mayling. And others she remembers just as well but was somewhat less shaped by. She enjoys that the people of Atlantis are intimidated by her, because they generally fail to respect and appreciate powerful women in the way she always took for granted on Athos. Even Atlantean women typically seek a man's opinion before that of an authoritative woman. It is such an alien culture. Sometimes Teyla wishes for respite, for bodies that will see her for the leader she is and the woman she is and the touch-craving human she still is. She would have these things without offending the Terrans, but she doubts their capacity to be what she needs.
Blinking away the tears, she finds it is raining. The rain is warm and tastes of ozone. She tilts her face back, opening her mouth wide. Drops land on her lips and cheek and one goes up her nose, making her shake her head and laugh.
"Here," someone says. It is Meerna, who has been dead some fifteen years. She has a cup of rain and holds it to Teyla's mouth. "Drink, lovely."
"Oh, Meerna." Teyla feels tears welling again, but she sips and sips, and soon the cup is empty and Teyla feels a warmth in her heart that wasn't there before. "I miss you," she says.
Meerna kisses her lips, soft on soft. Her skin is so smooth, her hair a silky red-brown, her body strong, lithe, smaller than Teyla's as it always was. "Beautiful," she says, and Teyla answers, "You."
The tree shivers as Meerna shifts her left foot against a lower branch. She traces the lines of the ropes, sending a matching shiver through Teyla's body. "I'm sorry you're lonely," she says.
Teyla swallows hard, but the tears come anyway. "I haven't wept this much since Athos was lost." Meerna steadies a gaze at her. Teyla revises, "No, you're right, even then. There was never time to cry."
"Grief comes like the sun."
"Not like rain?" Teyla tips her face back again, letting the water mingle with her tears and wash them away.
"We grieve and grieve and grieve. Some dawns are bright and some are dim, but loss touches us with more regularity than joy, doesn't it?"
Teyla frowns. "I don't think it does. Joy is too easily ignored while we focus on strife."
"You miss me."
"And I love my happy memories of you still."
Meerna smiles. "I'm glad of that." She places a hand between Teyla's breasts, where ropes cross and hold her tight. She feels heat from Meerna's skin. Their foreheads touch and they're kissing. Teyla's tears escalate and Meerna licks them away, warmer even than the rain.
Time passes, and touch, and in a while Meerna offers the wooden cup to Teyla a second time. It is full again, and Teyla drinks. She's no longer parched and can drink this cup for the pleasure of it. It tastes perfectly clean, pure. She shuts her eyes and savors the last drops, and when she opens them, Meerna is gone.
Rodney wakes under rolling, dense storm clouds and the flicker of lightning. He is utterly confused at being outside, and then he takes in his situation. First, he's naked. Being naked and outside is, in his experience, nearly always a matter for dire concern. Second, he's tied up with thick, rough rope—the kind they use in historical films about brave mostly-European sailors crammed onto a tiny wooden ship together to cross oceans, while conveniently no one mentions what happens to the cabin boys below deck. Third, he's in a tree. Or what used to be a tree. He can't twist his head far enough to see if he's bound to a tree or to some sort of contraption like a—what's the word—gallows or pillory or one of those terms that was supposed to have died out back in the Nineteenth Century.
He's thinking a mile a minute, as they say, but he isn't thinking fast enough to outpace the panic attack that's got a fist clenched around his heart. There is terror and then there is terror and holy god he isn't going to survive this!
Panic eats a few minutes of his life, and then his 'clear blue skies' mantra surfaces amid the flotsam of his brain and he can breathe, if only a little.
He doesn't understand how he was chosen for this. He recalls the conversation well enough, and Norren's abrupt conclusion of their attempt to understand what was being asked of them. It hadn't felt quite right to Rodney, but what else could they do? It's this in exchange for access to their jumper. If they can't get to the jumper, Rodney can't repair the distress signal. If they don't repair the distress signal, then Lorne will never find them. If Lorne can't find them, then they'll be stuck here forever. If Lorne can't find them and take sufficient exploratory readings, then Radek won't be able to devise a way for the rescue team to safely penetrate the planet's terrifying atmosphere. If Radek can't devise a safe way for the rescue team to reach them—augh! Rodney cuts off the negative thought of thought with a literal knee-jerk, which tightens three ropes, all of which cause different types of pain in other places and rope-burn on parts of his skin that have never in all his life felt the bite of actual rope. Scarves, bathrobe ties, neckties, yes, but he never had much of a restraint kink and never for anything so goddamned uncomfortable.
To say nothing of how exposed he feels. He's on display, head to toe to privates, and he's ninety-nine percent certain he doesn't look anywhere near as aesthetically pleasing as the intricate cord-weaving he's randomly surfed across on porn sites with links to Japanese rope bondage. Which had never seemed as disturbing to him then as it does now, because, hello, he's tied to a fucking tree!
Nine days, he remembers. Atlantis' rotation clocks in at twenty-eight hours, twelve minutes, and their internal clocks have spectacularly failed to adapt. Onna's days are twelve hours, total, which at least fits part of what his body needs, but going to sleep before dusk of the second day has been entirely confusing. Rodney takes another breath and looks at the sky, which is as dour as ever. The light is the muted blue of daylight here and the sun is invisible. He has no idea how long he's been here like this. He isn't thirsty. His stomach is hollow with that strange feeling following a hangover, where there's no more nausea but also no appetite. His face is tight with the salt of tear-tracks. He wants desperately to go home.
Failing that, he wants desperately to see John, to know John is okay.
Only then does it occur to Rodney to call out, that there could be people behind him. "Hello?" he yells. He always forgets his six, and Ronon always—always—slaps him on the back when Rodney has no idea he's even there. "Hello? Can anyone hear me?" he shouts.
There isn't even an echo. You'd think if you had some great nine-day ritual you were putting on, you'd bother to watch the people performing it, right? But no. Nothing these people say or do makes any sense to Rodney.
"Radek," he whispers. "Please figure this out."
He watches the wind for a long time. Once he thinks he hears something—a long, low cry at some indiscernible distance—and he stares out at the landscape, which is at once composed of desert and tundra, and begs any available divine powers to let him hear it again.
It doesn't come.
John runs and runs. He runs until he collapses in a bruised heap on the dusty ground. He's going to regret it; he can already feel his legs swelling up and he has no water. "Where the fuck did you go?" he screams in rage. He's been off the road on both sides, picking through the rocks and scrub brush. The brush is nothing more than glossy blue spines poking up from the dirt in clusters best targeted to latch onto John's pants and stab him as painfully as possible. There are no hidden bunkers, no clever blinds under camo tarps. They've vanished. He's beginning to wonder if they were ever there.
But he knows they were. He knows Rodney, and Rodney was right there.
He's lost them. The truth of it slowly sinks in, and John wracks his brain to figure out how. They were only out of sight for a minute. Forty-five seconds, even. The only answer he can think of is the mysterious, unknown thing that apparently beamed them down here in the first place—that would make the most sense. The team knows they don't leave people behind, never willingly. It can't have been willingly.
Maybe Ronon found something good on the road south. It's flatter there. It's got fewer hills and no doglegs around boulders or curves. John walks, choosing to ignore the pain. Maybe if he keeps going, he'll find some water.
Ronon splashes through the river where it shallows to rapids. He could risk breaking his neck on the line of slippery rocks, but he isn't stupid. The hunters are close enough to be interesting and far off enough that he doesn't have to race from cover to cover. There are seven, he thinks.
He climbs ashore on the rocks at the base of a large broad-leafed tree. He leaps up, grasps a limb and moves hand over hand until the branch begins to give. Then he swings back and forth—twice, three times—and flies up to the top of a mid-sized irregular boulder. It won't take them long, but anything to hide his footprints counts as bonus. And he can't let himself be too good too early in the game. The team can't risk the hunters twigging to their tricks and resorting to crossbows too soon. Better to have them foolish and cocky.
He hears a shouted, "Over here!" and revises his estimation. If they're stupid enough to make noise, they're stupid enough to go back bloodied.
Ronon checks his perimeter and then returns to the boulder. From there, he can leap down on them as they pass. Idiots never look up.
It takes twenty minutes. First contact is a pair of young men, not the buyers who looked them over. These might be sons or nephews. They don't know what they're doing and they shouldn't be here. Ronon jumps. He lands on one and takes the other out with a single jaw-breaking punch. He picks the other up by the throat and lets him choke himself into a nice little nap. Then Ronon begins the process of stripping them of everything of value. One of the knives is good, so he claims it and leaves the other three. He takes the crossbow and longbow. He takes their boots, too, not because they're particularly good boots, but because boots make good flowerpots and the gift of them will make Teyla smile. Their hut is surrounded by a garden of herbs and flowers growing in defeated hunters' shoes. As McKay would say, it's exceptional for team morale.
Uphill, he caches his loot and heads west along the ridge to find his next victim.
John lies in the road. He's the only living being for as far as the eye can see, so there's no reason not to. After sundown, the night is pitch black. Wind whistles over the broken, empty land and sighs through the blue spines of death like the whispers of children. There is no moon. There are no stars. He has no flashlight, lighter, chemical firestarter, flint and steel, firewood, candle, torch, et cetera. His retinas strain uselessly for any ambient light because he's human; it's what human retinas do. After a while, he makes himself sleep.
He doesn't know what wakes him, and then he does. Something's touching him. Something cold and smooth is on his left hand. He flings it away instinctively. There's a multitude of skittering, and things that had been on his body and in his hair are falling, falling away. John's on his feet shouting wordlessly before he can process what's happening. There are claws on his neck. All he can see in his mind are iratus bugs. Hundreds of cockroach-sized iratus bugs. All over him. He rubs and scratches. He takes off his coat, shakes it out. He rubs down the outside of his pants, puts the coat between his knees to keep it off the ground, and starts yanking off his shirts. In the dark, he feels and hears more bugs fall.
"God, god, god," he's chanting, and he wants like hell to be able to throw up because what else can you do? But there's nothing in him to vomit. His stomach is even growling a little, as if it thinks whatever the hell these things are, they might be edible. And that thought does make him retch, but not even bile comes up.
He dresses again, careful never to let any article of clothing touch the ground. Then he walks a few paces, hearing shells crack under his boots. Then he remembers he didn't clear his boots, so he has to scrape them against each other and shake his legs one by one until he's satisfied. Ronon would laugh his ass off. Ronon might even bite one in half and claim it tasted like chicken.
Then, a realization. In the commotion, John lost the road. He scrubs the back of his head and lets himself yell like he never does when anyone can see him. How is this his life? How? But what else is he going to do?
Finally, he takes a breath and spares a hope that dawn will come soon. He shuffles slowly forward, feeling with each step lest he fall face-first down the embankment. It takes seven or eight steps, and the edge comes at a diagonal.
He probably didn't turn around completely. Probably.
This should be the western shoulder.
He isn't getting back to sleep before sun-up.
It can't be that many hours 'til dawn. Really.
He ends up walking slowly, keeping the shoulder at his right. After a while, he has a sudden memory of waking: of leaping to his feet, swiping at the crawling things and turning from left to right, all the way around, searching for threats, trying to understand what was happening before his brain had fully woken up. He stops walking. Motherfuck, he thinks. Which way did he turn? Which way?
He kneels down in the dirt, trying to remember. He hears the wind whisper. He can't hear any skittering now, but there's a long rasp that sounds uncannily like a desert snake sliding through dry grass. John doesn't move. It occurs to him finally that he's probably the only warm-blooded anything in this land. Any exothermic creature of any kind is going to be coming at him like a heat-seeking missile. Briefly, he flashes on the scene in Natural Born Killers where they're surrounded by rattlesnakes, but he shuts that down with a firm, Help or get out of the way! It works as well or better on himself as it does on other people, but he still has to decide what to do. He can stay here or he can move. He might be moving in the wrong direction, but—that's better than bugs. When it comes down to it, that's what he's got: it's better than bugs.
He finds the edge of the embankment again and heads what he hopes is south.
An hour later, maybe, or maybe longer, a violet sun rises in his eyes. In the dull, indigo light, he sees what looks like an old-fashioned gallows from a Sergio Leone western. A rope swings from it, but there's no noose, as if the body's been cut down. The road shouldn't be heading east.
Torrents of quarter-sized, silverish scorpion-things are skittering off the road and into whatever cracks and crevices they shelter in during the day. John sees two long, heavy, reptilian creatures that he can't call snakes because they have legs, but that aren't as big as, say, alligators. They're also silver-gray and appear to eat the scorpions.
When John looks up, Ronon's coat is hanging from the gallows. It's his actual coat, the long leather one, instead of the plain gray duffel coat he was wearing on the road the last time John saw him.
John wonders, was it there a minute ago and he just didn't notice? He's so thirsty, he could be hallucinating. That makes him think of that old cartoon—he thinks it was Bugs Bunny seeing mirages in the desert. Him, or Elmer Fudd chasing him. John blinks hard and tries to focus: he's getting Ronon's coat; that's his objective. He has to step off the road to reach it, but he doesn't hesitate. It's a short hike; stomping on stray scorpion-things is viciously satisfying; and he doesn't see any gator-snake monsters in his way. He snatches the leather duster off the knot of wood it's snagged on and scrambles back up the embankment to shake it out. A single scorpion-thing crawls away, and a knife falls to the dusty roadbed. "Thank Christ," John says under his breath. It isn't one of the scarier ones, but it's steel so he can make a fire.
One pocket contains a stash of powerbars. There's no canteen. For hours, John had studiously dulled all awareness of his thirst, and his phobia of alien insects actually helped for once, since it took up so much of his attention. But now his throat is parched, and the only clear thought in his head is of water. He needs water. He remembers the sign marking Way Station, twenty miles. There would be water there, surely.
John hears Teyla's voice clear as day. "John, what do you want?" she asks.
He whips around, but she isn't there. She isn't there. He slips Ronon's coat on over the one he's already wearing. It hangs too long, and the hem brushes the ground. Briefly, it makes him feel like an old-time cowboy. He walks north for several paces until realizing that he'd gotten turned around in the night after all, and he has no idea where the Way Station is. In the night, with no real sense of time or space, he could conceivably have passed their starting point right over. He could be somewhere entirely new. In this place, it seems like anything is possible.
He smells Ronon on the coat, warm, strong, and silently amused. "I need help," John says aloud, and it's only partly in answer to Teyla. He doesn't want to examine too closely the question of who exactly he's talking to, but his voice is a sad, plaintive scrape. "I need some help here."
There are hills in the distance, and the road curves gently. He's exhausted, bleary and staggering in the dim blue light; however little sleep he managed, it wasn't nearly enough. As soon as it seems safe, he'll—yeah.
An hour later, John approaches the open door of an empty hut. In the yard, bleary with exhaustion, he trips and finds himself in the midst of dozens of boots whimsically planted with flowers.
"Where have you gone, child?" Charon's voice is an old creak in the death-black night.
"Teyla, where are you?" asks her mother, who has been dead these twenty years now.
"You left, Teyla Emmagan. Where did you go? How do you expect to be Emmagan to a people you abandoned?" Her father is angry. He is disappointed.
"How can I be Emmagan to a people who are dead? How shall I lead the culled, Father?" she counters.
"You left them!" he roars.
"I work to save them."
"You endanger them! The Emmagan must live among the people of Athos. It is the way."
Teyla shrugs this off. "Ways must change as all things change."
"You are a disgrace to our home," a voice says. It is not her father's voice, but she can't place it.
It doesn't matter, though. She can meet this one with appropriate scorn: "To survive, we must adapt. I won't apologize for surviving, or for adapting to protect my people."
"Where have you gone, Teyla?" her mother asks again. "The Athosians need their Emmagan."
Teyla feels a deep pang at that. Flight to another world, life as refugees has changed all of them and destroyed many of the old ways. It killed Charon. It has split the clans between modernists and traditionalists. Teyla tries to respect them all without taking a side, and her parents' voices are correct: that is not the way of an Emmagan. Her job is to lead by example and ideology, not to stand back and refuse to decide.
In truth, many days she would hand the title over to Halling if only he would take it. He prefers to be Spiritual Father, though, and she would not force secular rulership upon him.
"You left," her father says again, accusing.
"I did, yes," she replies. She could argue the merits of her choice all night, but in the end, it is what it is. He will accept what she's done or he won't. However, she's still the Emmagan, and will be until the people of Athos elect to depose her. When she sees them again, she must remind them of it.
Rodney sleeps for a while and doesn't remember his dreams. Then he's awake, worried, tense, and alternately hyperaware and nonaware of his body. He can't find a pattern for it—sometimes he can feel every grain of dust sticking to his skin, every goosebump that rises against the wind, every shift of each strand of hair, and then sometimes it's as if he's merged with the tree. His arms are spread, but they aren't his—or aren't his alone—anymore. The ropes don't even bother him anymore. They're weathering against his skin, fading, softening. They feel more like cloth now than twists of hemp shoving splinters into bare skin. When he can feel them at all, that is.
He watches the sun drive across the sky. The light is blue, the sky is a mottled indigo bruise, the sun is a violet or lavender disc, and counting degrees of passing arc absorbs vast fathoms of his attention. Radek is a brilliant scientist in his own right, second only to himself, and somewhat more experienced with the nuances of jumper technology, given all the extra hours Radek has devoted to it while Rodney has been offworld. If Rodney lived in the labs all day, week in, week out, then he would surpass Radek in that, too, of course, but someone has to keep Sheppard out of trouble.
"John," he whispers. It wasn't really meant as a whisper, but his voice has apparently gone elsewhere. He is parched, though less so than yesterday. In one of the dreams he doesn't remember, he thinks there was a ceramic cup, and sweet, sweet rain.
He never planned to fall in love, certainly not like this and certainly not with a man who risks his life on a weekly basis. If he was going to fall in love, it was supposed to be with a woman who worked in a lab all day and never, ever needed to fear for her life.
In hindsight, he realizes Sam Carter risks her life on a more or less weekly basis, as well, but that infatuation wasn't love. It was something to do in his spare time, so he didn't have to face his lonely apartment.
He should probably tell her something of that, that she inspires him and he admires her for it. But mere admiration is a far cry from what he feels for John.
If we get out of this, he thinks, there's going to be a vacation, and it's going to be a vacation where the stupid US Military regs can't follow. If they get out of this, Rodney will make it happen whether they have to take their shore leave camping in some Pegasus backwater or covered in sunblock in the Solomon Islands.
"Oh yeah?" says the John in his head.
"Yes," Rodney insists.
"What if I wanted to spend it in Colorado Springs?"
"Then I'd call you a moron."
"What if I insisted?"
"Then I'd book rooms at the Broadmoor and keep you in bed for a week."
"At least a week," Rodney amends.
The John in his head smiles. "That could be a plan."
Only it isn't, not really. Rodney needs John to get that, to understand that he isn't a stopgap. He isn't transient, fleeting, or temporary. Rodney never wants this to end. He wants for this never to end.
He wants to ask, "John, how shy of commitment are you?" And into the silence that would be met with, he wants to say, "I'll wait. You'll have your twenty years soon, and I can wait." And when John says, "Rodney," and trails off into speechlessness, Rodney wants to tell him, "Think it over. I'll be here."
Rodney doesn't have a voice anymore, but he mouths, "Don't get killed," and "Please be okay." The wrong-colored sun speeds across the sky, afternoon dwindling into evening. He's falling asleep again, his lips shaping a, "Love you," he's never dared to speak.
All the hunters go back wounded, half of them by Ronon. Teyla and Sheppard had tried to charm two of them to their side, but it was useless. These men didn't have the resources to get them out, even if they had been willing. Back at their hut, there's a feast laid out on trestles in the yard. They strip and use the outdoor shower first, scrubbing off the grime and tending to scrapes and bruises first. Food tastes better when you're clean, Ronon was always taught. It's sideways logic, but meals are always better when he's come down from the rush of running for his life. More flavor, less indigestion.
Afterward, they inventory their haul. Ronon presents the knife, bows, clothing, and boots. Teyla beams and thanks him. McKay caught a hunter in a snare and took his sword. It's a beautiful weapon. Sheppard brings boots, leather pants, and two water skins. Teyla lays out a whip and a round, boiled leather scull cap. It's a good day's work.
"Tonight," Sheppard says, "let's scope out the bosses' office."
"We need tools," McKay adds, rubbing at the keyhole on the backs of his shock bracelets. "And the key that fits this lock."
"If we get them, then we should run tonight," Teyla says.
They all nod. They've done this before, although not the office. They've scouted other parts of the compound and the lane to the security crossing barring the way to the high road to the stargate. They know it's five miles down the road to the stargate because they've heard both captors and hunters mention it.
"We can do this," Sheppard says, as if he's trying to convince them. Ronon raises his eyebrows because he has no doubt at all. It might not be tonight, but they are damn well getting out of here. Teyla looks determined and murderous; it's hard to see because she used to be the picture of calm and kindness. McKay looks worried as ever but impatient to have tools in his hands and a problem he can fix.
Ronon sidles back to the table and grabs another roll. There's extra cider, so he drains the first ewer. "Nap soon," he says. It's going to be a long night.
John wakes up to the sound of his own voice, and not in the way that means he's shouted himself out of a nightmare. He's on a cot in the hut with the boot garden, the door's still standing wide open, and he sees his team, only they aren't his team. They're wearing a motley combination of Pegasus clothing and armor, and they all have steel bracelets on their wrists that they each keep rubbing at unconsciously.
John gets up and walks out into the yard. "So, I guess you can't see me," he says, standing between himself and Ronon. "Can you hear me, at least?" No dice. There's no acknowledgment of him at all. He pokes Rodney in the shoulder, but his finger passes right through. "Yeah, that's creepy," he mutters.
He listens to them plan their nighttime recon mission. Then Ronon goes to bed. His other self heads to the outhouse. Teyla stands watch as a couple of their guards arrive to clear the feast away. And Rodney folds his arms and tells them, "You know, if you would issue us a refrigerator, you wouldn't have to do that. Then we could have enough fresh food on hand for snacks later!" The guards don't listen, and the look they exchange tells John they've heard this line a hundred times.
"That would require a generator, of course," Teyla says, smiling sweetly. The guards load their handcart with their leavings and retreat down the road.
"It would also give me some basic parts to get our asses out of here with," Rodney answers.
The other John reappears, and Rodney brightens at once. They help Teyla neaten the trestles and benches, and they take a few moments to hang their new weapons and armor on the hooks under the eaves of the hut's thatched roof. "The knives will need sharpening," she says.
"I'm not going to deprive Ronon of that pleasure," Rodney says, smirking. Teyla flashes a lightning quick smile and reaches for his shoulder. Rodney dutifully dips his forehead to hers, more comfortable with her touch than John's ever seen him. Then she does the same with the other John, and it strikes him how obvious it is how he forces himself to relax into it. He's like wax melting or something. It looks painful. She smiles at him when she looks up, after, and something in her gaze says she's pleased. Then she touches Rodney's wrist again, and goes inside. She swings the leather-hinged door closed behind her.
The other John sighs, and Rodney says, "At last."
"Shh! They can still hear, you know," that John says.
John doesn't know what to do. He'd taken a seat on the trestle table, with his feet on the bench below, but now he has a front row seat to this version of himself wrapping his arms around Rodney and getting down to some serious making out. He has to hop down when they make for the table. Rodney's pants are open before John can even believe it, and Other-John is on his knees, getting himself comfortable to give a pre-nap blowjob.
"Wait, wait," Rodney says, curling forward. He pushes Other-John back, supporting his head against the back-bend, and kisses him deeply. "I just—you know—"
Other-John takes one of Rodney's hands and kisses the palm, then kisses his mouth again. "Yeah, I do," he says, and holds his gaze a long moment. Then he pushes Rodney upright, puts his mouth back where he wants it, and begins to blow his mind.
John has a knot in his throat, watching. Are they really like this, he wants to know. Do they look like this all the time? Because this John and Rodney are so clearly in love with each other, anyone could figure it out. John doesn't know where to look. He should give them some privacy, and yet it's him—which might be an even stronger point in favor of giving them some privacy, except that he needs to see this. They aren't different from him and his Rodney, except maybe they're a little more obvious. A little more honest.
He gets up and wanders around the yard, under the trees and between the clumps of boots growing different plants. There are flowers, herbs, even vegetables: a pepper plant is bearing fruit. He stops. If it grew from a seed found in their food, then they've been here—in captivity—for a while. It's a terrifying thought. It also makes him wonder why Atlantis hasn't come for them.
Under the big shade tree, John looks up and sees Other-John yanking Rodney's pants to his knees, shoving him onto his back, and pressing spit-slick fingers into him. John goes instantly from half-hard to painfully so. He adjusts himself in his pants, embarrassed at being in public and embarrassed for being a voyeur, even though no one can see him. But he's still so turned on. Rodney starts to come—John knows because he knows that sound. Other-John collects all the come and uses it to further stretch Rodney open and lube his cock. Rodney's legs are in the air and he's going to complain about his back for days after this, John is sure.
But John stops. He isn't sure. This isn't precisely his Rodney; those cots were definitely not ergonomic mattresses. Each one of the members of this team seems harder, colder, and deadlier than the team he knows and loves. And watching his other self fuck Rodney, John focuses on Other-John's face. There's so much need there. There's a quiet desperation that breaks his heart to see. They're prisoners forced to be prey for someone else's profit, and this is the main joy—maybe the only true joy—in this guy's life.
Then it's over, and Other-John has hauled Rodney up into his arms, his face buried in his shoulder, something all too close to sobs wracking his body.
Rodney's holding him fiercely, saying, "It's all right. I've got you. Everyone came back fine today. We're all right."
"Need you," Other-John says, muffled.
"You've got me," Rodney answers firmly. "And tonight I'm going to get us out of here."
The next day, once the dull blue light has resolved into day, Teyla finds herself being observed. On the branch beyond the reach of her right hand—not that she has any reach, bound as she is—perches an enormous and beautiful eagle. Its eyes, beak, and feet are yellow; its head and neck are a fallow brown graduating to a deep cocoa through its wings and above its feet; and its tail ends in a snowy plume of white. It's watching her with intelligent eyes, and, Teyla slowly realizes, it seems indescribably old.
Tentatively, she smiles at it, noticing with the strain of her skin that this is the first she's smiled in what must be a very long time. "Hello," she tries to say, although her voice is a ghost of itself. She tries to clear her throat, but it doesn't help.
"You are come a long way from home," says the eagle in an aged voice.
"Yes," Teyla rasps. She has seen Meerna and argued with her long-dead parents. An eagle that speaks is no stranger than that. "But after this ordeal, that will be remedied."
The eagle dips and twists its head. "How?"
"We will be able to call for help."
"Who will help you if no one has come looking in all this time?"
Teyla shakes her head. "Our rescue beacon was damaged in the landing. Once we repair it, they will know where we are. They will find us and take us home."
"To the world of your dreams?" it asks her.
"To one of them," she admits. "I've visited a great many worlds."
"And you're anxious to leave this one."
She thinks, of course, anyone would be. Does she care what an eagle thinks of her wishes? She shrugs in answer. "I want to go home, as we all do. If you broke your wings in an accident and were kept in a cage after you were healed, you'd be anxious to return to your aerie, too, would you not?"
The eagle stretches its wings to full breadth. The branch sways a little, and Teyla admires the grace of its lines, the strength of its body. "It could be so," it admits.
Teyla blinks a few times, clearing grit from her eyes. "Do you know why we've been kept here?" It is impossible to stare down a bird, but she tries.
A very long time passes, she thinks, before it speaks again. "I believe I do, yes." She makes an impatient face, prompting it to go on. It makes a high kakking sound, as if laughing at her. "The handful of Onnae you've met are almost the last of their race. There are a few other settlements, still, but the road is long and hard and the caravans between run only once or twice a year. If many more die, they will have to consolidate."
"They would keep us prisoner until we integrated into their group?" Teyla's skin begins to prickle, not from cold but with rage.
"They will see another path now."
"I shall guide them to it."
Teyla frowns, still choking on her anger. "I don't understand."
"Norren told you that you would be bound to the sky so his gods might take their joy of you."
Now Teyla goes cold, inside and out. "You're saying—" She breaks off and starts over, "Are you Ancients?"
The eagle makes its kakking laugh again. "No, no. I remember them, in their time. That was long ago now. The gods of Onna used to be many, but most have faded into nothing, as this world as been consumed by dust. Now we are but four, and of us only I can still speak."
"And this is how you take your joy of us?" Her trust in gods and Ancients has plummeted since meeting the Atlanteans. As far as this eagle goes, she has no idea what to think.
"To know you, yes," it says, "to understand you and speak with you."
"My visions have been tricks?" she asks, horrified. "My parents? Meerna?"
"No, no, be calm," it soothes. "Your memories are your own. Your mind is your own. You have eaten nothing for eight days. You have tasted only rain and what blessings we could give to preserve your life. Everything you have seen has appeared to you because your own mind called it."
Teyla mulls this. She has no reason to trust its word, and there is no neutral party to confirm or deny its assurance. Finally, she asks, "What do you want?"
The eagle bows its head. "A safe egress from this place for my people, and a safe new home for them elsewhere. I believe, Teyla Emmagan, you can empathize with their plight."
She swallows. "You know I can."
"Will you help them?"
She sighs. "If it is physically possible." Briefly, she tells it what Rodney must accomplish for Atlantis to find them. "It is difficult, you see, and our ships are small. This will be a difficult challenge."
"The Onnae stand at their world's end," the eagle says.
Teyla cants her head, mirroring it. "As do we, until our friends come for us."
This is their ninth escape attempt, by Ronon's count. Four failed because of guards catching them while out on patrol. The other four failed because they had to figure out how to dismantle the perimeter force field, the perimeter alarm, their bracelets' electrical charge, and the bracelets' coordinate tracker. Ultimately, they have to get the cuffs off, dismantle the gate and its guard without raising reinforcements, and run flat out. That's the plan.
It's not a great plan.
Breaking into the empty office building is simple. The security system is laughable, but they dismantle it anyway. McKay whispers excitedly about field generators and pulse emanators while they all look for the silver stick that will take off their bracelets. Teyla finds an all-too-precious light-stick in a desk drawer, and they all look for more without luck.
Meanwhile, the key isn't in any drawers or cabinets or the lab area in the back room with extra bracelets locked in a glass bin. But Ronon does find a push-button safe under the lab bench. He laughs because his grandmother had one like this for her handguns. The instructions to alter the security code were printed wrong, and so, unable to change it, his grandmother had kept the factory-default. Ronon presses the buttons in the familiar order. There's a click, and he turns the handle.
"How did you do that?" McKay says, astonished.
Ronon grins. "Magic," he says, just to fuck with him.
He scoops out everything in the safe. The key is on top. It's in a shot glass, presumably so it wouldn't roll away and get lost. McKay snatches it up. There are pages of datafilms and a fair bit of money. He unstraps the leather pack from his back and tucks everything in.
"What's all that?" Sheppard asks.
"Hopefully a way to fuck them over permanently."
"Like, secret documents?" he says.
Ronon rolls his eyes. "Won't know 'til we read them. Are we ready?"
"Yes," McKay says.
Outside, they slip into darkness, skirting the floodlit lane, and hurry to the guard station at the gate. There are two men on duty. Ronon takes one, Sheppard the other. With his size advantage, it's easy for Ronon to grab one from behind and snap his neck. He goes down, but the other guard sees movement, spins on Sheppard, and pinches the button on his shirt that signals the nearest bracelets to shock. It's stronger the closer you are, and Sheppard is closest. It lasts, as if the guard is holding it down. Sheppard's fingers are opening and closing spasmodically. He's fumbling for his knife, but he can't get a grip on it. Meanwhile, Ronon's feeling it, too. His fingers are going numb, and he hurries to draw a knife and throw it hard. It sticks in the guard's back, and Ronon shoves it in deeper and twists, just to be sure.
The guard falls dead, his fingers sliding off the shock button, and Ronon cleans his knife on the man's shirt. "Jesus Christ," Sheppard's saying, staring at his hands. His fingers are sticking out at weird angles.
"You okay?" Ronon asks as Teyla and McKay rush in.
"My hands are like—" He shakes his head and tucks his hands into his armpits, as if the heat will calm the fucked up nerve-signals faster. "Frozen. I fucking hate these things."
"Here, here, move," McKay says. He leans over the touchscreen console between them and starts accessing force field controls.
"Give me the key, Rodney," Teyla says.
He nods and hands it over. "When I say the word."
He taps through repeated confirmations, muttering, "Am I sure I want to open the main entrance gate after hours? Of course, I already said so three times. Open already, damn you!" Ronon watches the lane and, next to him, Teyla watches the other direction. Sheppard watches McKay, as usual.
Finally, McKay says, "Now!" Within seconds, their bracelets fall to the floor in a clatter, and all four of them race the twenty feet to the main gate. It opens for them smoothly—they aren't electrocuted—and Teyla pulls it shut behind them, just in case. From here, it's a flat five-mile run over clear ground. Using the light-stick would make them obvious targets, but not using it, and with no moon, they risk tripping and breaking their necks. They take to turning it on at intervals, sweeping it over the terrain ahead, and turning it off again while they run.
If they've timed it right, they should be long ahead of any pursuit, but in the past, guards have showed up at random and ruined their plans. Tonight, they just don't know. It seems to take forever to reach the stargate, but when they do, the sight of the chevrons' ambient blue glow tightens something in Ronon's chest. McKay dials Atlantis. Their IDCs were taken, along with their radios and clothes, months ago, but they've been stealing communicators from hunters from the very first day.
The puddle forms, blue and perfect, lighting up the nighttime landscape. "Atlantis, come in, this is Sheppard," he calls. "Come in, Atlantis."
From the speaker they hear, "Sorry, did you say—Colonel? Please confirm!"
"Yup, it's me, McKay, Ronon, and Teyla. You want to open the door and let us come home?"
John struggles into wakefulness as if he were surfacing from anesthesia. He's parched and bleary; he hurts in about a hundred places; he's unaccountably stiff; and he's cold. At first, he thinks there's something wrong with his eyes, but then he realizes it's just dark. The bigger problem is that he's tied to something, hand, foot, and everything in between. It's like he's on a rack or some other fancy medieval torture device—he saw some porn once with a Catherine wheel in it, but that looked a lot more appealing than whatever the fuck is happening to him now.
"Hello?" he calls out. "Is anybody out there?" His voice is an embarrassing croak. He tries to hawk up some spit, but he's bone dry. His tongue is a swollen lump in his mouth and he can't actually swallow.
Definitely awake now, John tests his bonds, starting with his head. There's a little bit of give in the rope around his neck, and he can rub the back of his head and neck against the thing he's tied to. It's rough against his skin, but he can't tell what it is. Wiggling the rest of his body shows him that, first, he's naked as the day he was born, second, he's being held off the ground, and third, either the ropes have stretched or he's lost some girth since they tied him up here because he can use his feet to lever himself upward a little.
He has no idea how much time has passed, though. Vaguely, he remembers them being called to the main house. They'd been arguing about cannibalism, he thinks. There was a talk in the night about someone doing something for nine days, local time, and everyone agreeing to do what had to be done. He shakes his head to clear it, but it doesn't really work. He feels like he's been asleep for a year.
So, apparently they chose him to string up. John takes a deep breath and wonders why he isn't colder. He's had enough cold climate duty stations that he's pretty inured to it, but not to the level of prancing around naked. It feels like being naked in a room with the air conditioning set too low instead of outside in conditions that ought to cause hypothermia. Not that he's complaining or anything.
"Rodney? Teyla? Ronon?" he calls again. There's no answer. "Yeah, okay. I'll just hang out and wait, then."
Which he does, hyperaware of the darkness and all the sounds in it. He remembers his dreams, or what he genuinely hopes were dreams: walking endlessly, the silver-gray scorpions, the giant snakes with legs, Ronon's coat on the gallows, and—oh, yeah—watching a captive version of himself fuck his brains out with Rodney on a picnic table.
Yeah, there's a reason he only sees Heightmeyer under duress. This is shit he just doesn't want to look at.
Soon, for certain loose values of 'soon', the sun rises in a display of dusty purples, aquas, and the odd streak of green that makes John miss dawn flights like crazy. The sky above him is unusually clear this morning—for Onna—and he has the answer now for how Lorne will have to get them out. They'll have to find a clear weather pattern from above, fly down under the clouds, and dodge around anything sketchy until he finally reaches them.
That, or call the Daedalus to beam them out. The thought twists something in his gut, but getting trapped somewhere and having to call for help always does. That way leads to black marks, reprimands, good friends bleeding to death in his arms, all around bad shit. Safer, he supposes, especially if he's got crew and passengers to look out for, but—John squeezes his eyes shut. He sucks at humility. He's terrible at sucking it up and admitting he needs help. He said the words in the dream, he remembers, but when you're talking to empty space or god—or God—or whatever, it's different from actually calling in to request a full emergency evac. Especially in a live war zone.
He sucks in a breath, then another, and remembers the mantras of officer training school. You do what has to be done. You're responsible for the men and women under your command. You behave with dignity and honor. However, every officer ever fails to do something that has to be done, commands someone who will eventually be brought up on charges, behaves disgracefully and dishonorably—because the expectations are set so high that every officer must fail.
He knows this. He's learned it backward and forward. The hard way.
He can do it, but he doesn't have to like it. And he really fucking hopes Lorne can find a patch of open sky to swoop down through and save the day.
At any rate, better Lorne than Caldwell.
Rodney believes he's hallucinating when, a little past daybreak, Meope shows up. She's accompanied by two other women, and together they climb ladders to cut his weatherworn ropes and maneuver him onto a floating gurney. Once he's settled, Meope pulls a small bottle from her bag and holds it to Rodney's lips. "Water," she says, and he sips. He remembers that drinking much water in his state will cause stomach cramps and painful vomiting, but there's only a little liquid in the container. He swallows again, again. He's absolutely certain it's the best thing he's ever tasted.
Then he falls asleep.
He wakes up in their old room in the guesthouse. All four of them are there, medical monitors pulsing their heart rates in reassuring yellow blips at their sides. There are IV-cylinders of what Rodney very much hopes are saline and nutrients flowing into their veins, which—he doesn't understand. Were they all tied up for nine days? Wasn't it supposed to be only one of them?
If he were any less exhausted, he would shout for Meope—surely she's just in the kitchen—but sleep is swallowing him, again. And having a mattress under his body again is exquisite. It's the first contented sleep he's had in ages.
Ronon thinks they're in better shape than they should be. It's about thirty hours after they were cut down, and he thinks they look pretty normal. Eating breakfast together in the guesthouse kitchen, he straightens up, swallows his piece of fruit, and looks at them in turn.
"What?" McKay asks, and that's different because he would have been slow to notice in the past.
Ronon looks at Teyla. "You feel okay?" He asks it in the voice he uses in the field, as he might ask, "Did you hear that?"
She nods, then her eyes widen a little and she says, "Yes. I certainly do." She breathes in deep. "It is remarkable."
"What?" Sheppard asks.
"Do you not feel it?" Teyla says.
"Better," Ronon explains.
"It isn't just me?" McKay asks. "I thought it was just me."
Sheppard cracks a grin. "Of course you did."
Teyla smiles. "But you do."
"Yeah," Sheppard agrees. "This'll sound hokey, but 'cleaner' somehow? I don't know how to describe it."
"Hmm, don't they use fasting for detoxing the blood in some places?" McKay asks. "I can't believe I didn't eat for four days."
"Are you done?" Ronon asks. "We're doing this today, right?"
"Right," Sheppard answers, and they all hurry to finish eating.
Afterward, they dress for the cold and head outside. Norren and Meope are halfway between the main house and the guesthouse, on their way to meet them. "We shall take you to your box," Norren says. He looks a little green and eyes Teyla nervously. She told Ronon, Sheppard, and McKay about her conversation with the eagle, so they're more or less prepared when Norren starts fumbling for words. "The Waste eats the world here, and the Onnae are no more. Our last hope failed long ago and together we wait in vain, only now Eagle tells us a way will open." He looks at them hopefully. The words are clear enough to Ronon, and Teyla seems to understand pretty well, too. McKay and Sheppard look baffled, though.
"With us," Teyla prompts him.
"Aye, with you," he says.
Teyla says, "It is a complex process and we don't know if it will work yet, but if we succeed, then we will transfer you to a new world."
Norren wags his head, eyes overflowing with tears. He suddenly looks about twenty years older than he did before.
Meope distracts them by leading the way to the barn. The floating gurneys are leaning against the wall, where Ronon had always thought they were temporary workbenches not in use. Meope presses a series of buttons on the short side of each one and eases them gently into the air. They float at waist-height. With another press of buttons, they snap together, as if magnetized. A soft push, and it heads out into the yard, a floating table.
"I will stay," Norren says, wiping his face.
"I know where to go," Meope answers, and hops onto the contraption. She sits where she can reach the control buttons.
"Hover-bed? Hover-car? Hover-cart?" McKay muses, climbing up.
"Magic carpet?" suggests Sheppard. McKay thwaps him in the arm.
They all climb on, and Meope presses the button for go.
"Why don't you use this all the time?" McKay says in wonder. It isn't a fast ride, but it's faster than walking and easier over the terrain they're covering.
Meope shakes her head. "They are centuries aged plus resist keeping energy for frequency."
"They won't hold a charge," Ronon interprets.
McKay pets the flat panel like a cat. "Perhaps when we get home I could fix it."
Meope beams. "Oh, good, gentle sir. Yes."
It's a long trip. It's a wonder the Onnae even found them, although the damage trail starts a hell of a lot closer to their compound. They follow the jumper wreckage—mostly bits of engine smashed in the nose-to-tail cart wheeling—a long way before arriving at the hulk.
"Holy shit," Sheppard says. He sounds gutted. To Ronon's eye, it looks like a squashed beer can.
McKay covers his eyes. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Did I need to see this? Honestly?"
Teyla clasps his shoulder and jumps down into the desert sand. "Come. We must build a distress signal."
Sheppard slides down, Ronon and McKay following. "Come on, Rodney. We survived."
McKay breathes in wetly.
Sheppard says lightly, "Any crash you can walk away from."
"You mean landing," McKay says. "Any landing you can walk away from."
"That's what I said." McKay snorts and Sheppard grins. "So tell us what we're looking for."
McKay demands a boost up onto the smashed nose of the jumper to get in. The rear door is wedged shut. "Oh my god," he shouts.
"What?" Sheppard and Ronon are right behind him.
"Our clothes and things are right here."
"Wait," Ronon says. "There could be wildlife." He doesn't think so, but he didn't like what Sheppard told them of his visions. They haven't been out in the wilderness in the dark, and they don't need to be snakebit out here. He hefts a long metal rod and jumps through. McKay and Sheppard point light-sticks for him, and he points his own in the hollows of the crumpled cockpit and rear cargo area. He bangs the rod against storage compartments and gets no response. He opens a few: they're clean. "All clear," he calls, and the others climb in.
From the state of the stained clothes sliced and discarded on the jumper floor, they were on the verge of death when the Onnae reached them.
"Jesus," McKay says, holding up the blood-soaked tatters of his uniform shirt. He turns toward the open air. "How did we survive?" he asks Meope.
She grimaces. "Surgery there," she points a few meters away. "We brought life machines in case, in hope."
McKay swallows. Then, surprising them all, he climbs out through the front and wraps Meope in a hug. She's made tiny in his embrace, and her small hands flail a little. Ronon can't hear them, but he's pretty sure McKay's saying thank you.
A moment later, Meope's face is flushed and McKay's clambering back into the cockpit. He starts throwing out as many stray broken pieces of jumper as he can, except for two he saves as pry bars. "What we need is in this section under the DHD," he says. Teyla watches, holding a light-stick, and then also a flashlight, as they work. Sheppard and Ronon get the casing dismantled, but there's a thing inside that won't budge.
"What I wouldn't give for a blowtorch," McKay says, dropping his multi-tool in disgust.
"Oh!" Teyla sets the lights down and goes to her dust-strewn pile of clothes. After a minute of checking the pockets of the tac vest, she comes back with her firestarter.
McKay blinks. "Really?"
Teyla crouches down. "Show me where to cut."
John has a basic understanding of how radios operate, and he's watched Rodney and Radek poke around inside his jumpers often enough to know what kind of parts Rodney needs him to scrounge. He and Ronon work on that while Rodney and Teyla wrestle with the emergency beacon. They find three of their headset communicators and Rodney's laptop; that gives them microphones and speakers. They climb up onto the roof of the jumper to see if they can pry open the communications array. Parts are disturbingly easy to pull out, and soon they have a row of things that looked worthy of Rodney's consideration laid out on the ground.
There's a screech of metal from inside, and Rodney hefts out a shoebox-sized yellow-striped box. Ronon takes it from him and sets it next to the resting—he can't call it a hovercraft—thing, which is lying on the ground, inert. John looks up at the sky, hyperaware of it now in ways he wasn't a week ago.
"We're racing the sun, people," he calls out. "We want to get home before dark, right?"
"Oh, shit," Rodney says.
Ronon pulls him over to examine the broken pieces they'd pulled out. Teyla is putting all of their shredded clothing into a large plastic garbage bag. "I took the MREs and medical supplies, too."
"Good thinking," he answers. He heads back in, looking for things to take with them. There's a ton of broken metal, glass, crystal, and plastic. There's a lot of dried blood. There's dust and sadness and an echoing sense of loss, too. It isn't a jumper anymore. It's a crash-site.
Racing the sun? Of course they're racing the sun. This planet spins so fast it gives him motion sickness to watch the daily rotation. Rodney scratches the back of his neck. He was going to haul the box back to the compound and try to rig the power to one of the hover-sleds, but now he thinks, what if he can't? What if they get all the way back and he needs to grab more parts to make it work? Maybe there's an easier way.
He unscrews the beacon's side panel and looks at the fuel cell. It shouldn't be dead. There's no reason it should have drained in the crash, so it has to be a broken connection. He can fix that. He settles in with his tools, and after teaching Teyla how to solder, he reconnects the fuel cell. The status light on the top comes on and a moment later, there's a pulsing red light next to it.
"She's working," he breathes. "Holy crap, it's working!"
John sits next to him, hard, as if he can't believe it. He throws an arm around Rodney's shoulders. "Knew you could do it," he says, sounding blown away.
Ronon and Teyla are hugging each other and him. John's enduring back-pats and light touches. Then he shakes himself and looks up at Rodney. "We have to get all this back to the house and build that receiver."
Rodney nods vigorously. He's right. Lorne can find them with the beacon, but he can't talk to them unless they get a radio working.
Meope's eyes are on the sky. "Fast, gentles, please."
They look up. A storm is coiling up over the hills in the north like a snake poised to strike. They hurry.
Lorne comes in the morning, about twenty-two hours later. "Calling distress signal. Sheppard, McKay, Emmagan, or Dex, do you read? This is SGA-2." They're eating breakfast in the kitchen, and Rodney trips over a chair in his rush for the radio.
John's there first, though. He had to be there first, and Rodney can just cope. "Lorne, this is Sheppard, can you hear me?"
"That's affirmative, Colonel. It's good to hear your voice. Are you guys okay?"
"We're all fine, thanks to the folks down here. You guys still in orbit?"
"Looking for a way down as we speak."
John sighs. "Hold off on that for a second. Is the Daedalus in the neighborhood?"
Lorne says, "It's due in a couple of days or so for the next supply drop. Why?"
"We have a group of eighteen civilians to evacuate from the place we're staying. And there may or may not be more from other areas. They're not really in contact with each other, so they don't know if the other settlements are even there anymore."
"We could move that few in a couple of trips," Lorne says.
"Mm, wait 'til you see the soup in the air. It's like flying through frozen mud. If you have to try it, you're going to have to find a hole, dive under the clouds as fast as you can, and come in low."
"Sucks, yeah. If you come in from the west, you'll see our crash trail. I don't recommend it."
"We're okay waiting a couple of days, and I bet the people who saved our lives might want to pack more of their stuff than can fit in a jumper."
"Good point, sir."
John swallows. He can't believe he's saying this, but for once in his life he's playing it safe. "Right, so, go confer with Elizabeth. We're fine where we are."
Lorne signs off and John looks up from the stretch of blank wall he'd been focused on. They're all staring at him. "Shit." He scowls. "Sorry, I just. I can't order them to fly through that wall of crap just to pick us up, not when Daedalus is so close."
"John," Teyla says. "Stop, it is fine. It is all right." She wraps her arms around him, and he notices that he's shaking. He shuts his eyes. Ronon lays a giant hand high on his back and holds it there a moment. Then he takes the last of the toast and heads toward the door. "Going to find Meope," he says.
John hopes Ronon won't, yet. He doesn't want to see her yet or face the language barrier or be inundated with questions he can't answer.
Teyla steps back, finally. "Thank you," he says. He's calmer now. He just wasn't expecting it to hit him that hard.
She nods, then eyes him up and down, smiling a little around the edges. "I imagine that if we were home on Atlantis right now, you would wish to go for a run."
He nods, sighing.
"Kate has taught me much about the sublimation of feelings," she says, smiling openly now.
He looks down, thinks about trying to kick her ass for half a second before giving it up as wishful thinking, and finally just laughs at his own expense.
She nudges him. "Go for a run. Rodney should go with you."
Rodney's a few feet away, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "I thought we were done with running!" he protests.
John can't resist. "Aw, what happened to you running circles around me?"
Rodney eyes him up slowly and makes a skeptical face. "I still could. Have you seen yourself lately?"
Laughing, Teyla crosses to the table to finish her breakfast, while John chases Rodney, or, well, is chased by Rodney, out to their homemade track.
Forty-eight hours later, the radio clicks to life once more. "SGA-1, this is Daedalus. SGA-1, do you read?" Teyla calls John in from the other room to respond.
She watches John steel himself, then click the button. "We read you, Daedalus. This is Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."
"Glad to hear your voice, sir. Stand by for Colonel Caldwell."
"Sheppard, you gave us a scare," he says, and John winces.
"Yes, sir. I believe it was mutual."
"You folks all right?"
John rubs his neck. "Yeah, we are now. It was close, at first, but we are fine now—apart from being stuck down here. The terrestrial gate was destroyed centuries or millennia ago, and conditions have deteriorated to the breaking point. The local residents would be grateful if we could help them find some new digs."
There's a huff of laughter through the speaker and Caldwell says, "Yes, Dr. Weir mentioned something about that." There's a worrying silence and then, "My apologies, I have Dr. Zelenka with me. They are working on the atmosphere problem."
Rodney snatches the microphone out of John's hand. "Are they calibrating the beam?" he demands.
"Dr. McKay," Caldwell says dryly.
"Yes, hello, yes, let me talk to them—is it just Radek or is Hermiod helping? What are they doing?"
Time passes and Teyla largely ignores their conversation in favor of eating breakfast. She makes a plate for Rodney, who eats it sitting at the table with the slate and pen Meope had given him at the beginning. It's covered in numbers, and every few minutes he has to remind Radek that he does not, in fact, have a computer available.
The second hour becomes the third. Ronon leaves and comes back. "Meope wants to know if we have a time frame yet." Rodney blinks, and Ronon explains, "Packing up the rest of their stuff."
"Oh, right. Radek, we need an ETA."
"Will not know until we test with living beings," Radek answers.
Ronon blinks. "How long until that happens?"
"Do you have a test subject?" Radek says. "There are no stray animals aboard for us to use."
Ronon sighs dramatically and Teyla laughs. He stomps out. She says, "He will return shortly with some wildlife."
At an hour before dusk, the transporter beam finally succeeds in rematerializing three reptiles and two rodents with no ill effects. Teyla helps gather the people and their things to the departure area, and they help the Onnae remove the last of their people and belongings to the Daedalus. Meope and Norren go first to guide the others and manage the storage of their heritage, the valuable advanced technology made by their ancestors. Teyla and the team depart last, because John won't leave until the rest have, and the team won't leave until John does.
They have surprisingly little to pack: so little to show, physically, for three entire months away, Teyla thinks. She has the clothes she's wearing and the bags of flotsam from the jumper. They have their bodies, whole, and the knowledge of what they've experienced here. She wonders if the eagle will travel with its people, or if it will die, abandoned, along with the rest of Onna.
When it's finally their turn, John calls, "Hold up," at the last minute, stalling the transport. He runs for the guesthouse and returns minutes later with Rodney's metal slate tucked under his arm. "Didn't want to forget this," he tells them. On it is drawn a broad, grasping tree.
Endnotes & Credits:
• This photo by lamentables inspired Teyla's boot garden.
• trinityofone's Athosian for Beginners explores the stargate translation mechanism, and I've borrowed some of her thoughts about Pegasus language.
• Other influences: newkidfan's hypnotic vid Language. The Odin myth and elements of American Gods by Neil Gaiman (which is itself a riff on the Odin myth). Stephen King's The Dark Tower series.
• greyias's haunting artwork includes lyrics from the O.A.R. song Heard the World.
• Story title comes from the following:
Detail of My Sort of Light
by Ander Monson
Now I know that everything is a body,
so even the snow and the sand and
the blood rivered down in the snow,
and snowed on again so it's buried
is a body. All things are bodies in photos—
detail of the left side of a breast and the arm's
pit—detail of the sled slumbered under
by the storm's leavings. Detail of my sort
of so-early half-lit eyelid light that bodies
are near to invisible and touch is no longer
the sole way of knowing, and outline is all
that there is. Detail of your body as it does
its morning leaving thing. Detail of what
light there is on your skin. Detail of land-
scape of let me in please and coffee, warm
when the weather's action on this body is less
than ideal. Landscape with pear. Landscape
with weather and part of a breast in the frame.
From The Available World, Sarabande Books, 2010.