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Metamorphosis

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 ‘I have to wonder… does he know how selfish he is? Or is he just really that unaware of anything else other than himself.’ John paced the immediate area before Elizabeth’s desk.

‘John, calm down.’

‘Calm down? Do you… Have you… You have met him right? We are talking about the same person? Calm down you say?’

‘Look, he hasn’t had your training or experience.’

‘You’re godammed right he hasn’t.’

‘Hey, you are hardly the epitome of following the rules you know.’

‘Me? You’re criticising me? I’m not the one that nearly brought a planet to war!’ Sheppard’s eyes widened in disbelief.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and allowed her look to express everything she did not say.

John took the look in and ran a hand through his dark hair and sat down in the seat opposite hers.

‘I can be calm. See, here I am, being calm.’

‘There are a number of things you can take away from this, John. It’s not really my place to tell you how to lead. But if you think there is a problem you are going to have to address it one way or another. It comes down to team unity. If you don’t believe in him, how can you have him on your team?’

‘I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘Wouldn’t you? Tell me, do you trust he’ll always have your back?’

John opened his mouth to say of course, but it didn’t come out. Instead he sat like an idiot with his mouth open. He shut it again. His silence said plenty.

‘John, you know I support you. Over time I’ve come to accept some of your more… idiosyncratic leadership methods.’

‘Only some?’

‘Some,’ she reaffirmed. ‘But if you feel the cons outweigh the pros or that he’s evolved in a different tangent to the rest of your team, well, you need to make some harsh choices.’

‘I don’t think I could make those sorts of choices overnight.’

‘And no-one is asking you to, John. But he has taken some outrageous risks and put you and others in peril. I’d just ask you to reassess at this stage, with no nostalgia-‘ Elizabeth paused while John snorted and rolled his eyes, ‘or emotion and see if he still fits into the team.’

‘Fit isn’t really the word I would use to describe him.’

‘I would say you have some thinking to do.’

‘I try not to do too much of that off duty.’

‘Look, if you needed to vent, you’ve done that, but if there’s more to it then consider what I’ve said.’

Elizabeth could see that the self-defensive humour mechanism John frequently used had appeared now the conversation had turned to consequences. She was happy to be Sheppard’s sounding board for the occasional rant, but those events had become more frequent. His increasing frustration with Rodney was starting to become an issue. She found it confusing. Often she’d seen John’s team eating together or working together in relative harmony, or at least their screwed up version of it. Rodney did grate on you, he was an acquired taste. His intelligence was impressive, as was his ego. Perhaps it was a simple as John needing to express frustration, after all, he rarely made an official complaint. In fact when she suggested he took it further he’d do as he did today and withdraw. If there was more to it, she’d be damned if she knew what it was. She’d have to trust John’s judgement.

...

Sheppard left Weir’s office knowing he needed to let off some steam. A run would probably do it. He was pissed at himself. John had nearly told Weir about the argument he and McKay had a few weeks ago. Perhaps if he’d told her after it had happened it might not have been so bad, but he’d waited. He suspected McKay might tell Weir what he’d said, but John guessed he didn’t say a thing, which was most un-McKay-like. The fact McKay had said nothing made it worse really. It had either fallen on deaf ears or… or it had hurt McKay deeply. And as much as John berated McKay, he knew the guy was sensitive. At least about himself. For weeks now John had popped in to talk about McKay, to give Elizabeth the perfect chance to say, ‘Hey, John, remember that time where you said an unforgivable thing to McKay?’ etc. But thus far, nothing.

At his quarters, Sheppard changed into running gear and stepped out to do a few loops and try to burn away that growing sense of shame he was feeling. He’d tried to justify it, McKay was insufferable, he was egocentric, and he never listened, superior, arrogant. The list was long. What he couldn’t get away from was the simple fact that as his commanding officer it was his job to help McKay improve. So he had failed to support him. Even worst he’d failed to follow it up. He sprinted to hide the feeling of let-down. He stopped at the end of the pier and looked out to the calm blue waters. John winced as he remembered McKay’s blue eyes slowly widening as he spoke. A rant he recalled that had been brewing for days after being stuck on a planet listening to McKay whinge about lack of food and heat.

‘God, will you just shut up! I’m just so disappointed in you, Rodney. I keep you around, expecting you to show some spark of decency, a moment of humanity, but it never comes. You’re like the perpetual caterpillar. Fuck you eat like one. Every now and then you withdraw and I think you are going to evolve, but you don’t. You just slither back out again, unchanged. You are just a walking brain, with no redeemable features.’

Just remembering it made his face burn. He’d been glad neither Teyla nor Ronon had seen him like that. McKay had been silent after that and they’d gotten back in one piece. But now Sheppard didn’t know how to broach the subject and McKay acted like nothing had happened. Maybe he should just let it go. He knew he’d overcompensated by being extra chummy and teasing McKay. He seriously felt like a high school kid who didn’t know how to deal with his feelings, so he just teased more. Some kind of reaction would be better than nothing. Or something.

...

‘Oh come on!’ Rodney’s vocal disapproval rang through the ducting and Zelenka winced withdrawing his head from the opening. ‘Is it really so difficult to reinitialise and reboot the secondary phasic panel?’

McKay crawled out backwards scraping his elbow on the way out. He rubbed it and looked at it in annoyance as if it were its fault he’d hurt it.

‘Are you ok?’ Zelenka asked.

‘No. No I am not. This completely below my paygrade.’ Rodney thrust the toolkit into Zelenka’s arms. ‘I’ve finished what everyone seemingly couldn’t do. I still don’t understand why you couldn’t do it.’

‘I told you…’

‘Yes, yes, confined spaces, blah blah.’

‘No that was…’

‘Look all that matters is I’ve done my job, yours and whoever was supposed to fix that.’

‘Yes, that is what I’m trying to tell…’

‘Zelenka, I’m going to lunch before I pass out.’

‘Dinner.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve been in there for hours.’

McKay checked the time and his eyes widened. He’d missed lunch. He felt his stomach growl urgently. He turned and started walking in the direction of the canteen with no further words wasted on Zelenka. As he walked, he wondered how the time had passed so quickly. Had it really been more difficult than expected? Perhaps, not that he’d tell Zelenka that of course.

The canteen was busy and there was a queue. Rodney reluctantly joined the queue and glanced with agitation at anyone dithering. He didn’t bother to socialise opting rather to sit by himself and concentrate on the task of eating. Literally on the first mouthful the alarms started blaring.

‘Really?’ He shovelled in three more forkfuls before he heard Weir’s voice summoning him to the gate room.

Tapping his earpiece, he replied, ‘Understood.’ He forked in one more mouthful and picked up the apple to eat on the way.

When he entered the gate room he was already halfway through the fruit and continued to eat despite the judging look he got from Sheppard. More fool him, Rodney thought, if this is a proper emergency I’ll need the calories. Everyone seemed tense. Weir was looking at the Comms officer, waiting.

‘Anything?’ Weir looked concerned.

‘There’s no IDC, no message as yet,’ said the Comms officer.

‘Well, with no other information I’m not opening the iris.’ Elizabeth crossed her arms and looked resolutely at the gate, as if it would offer answers under her authorative glare.

Rodney crunched loudly into the apple. Everyone looked at him.

‘What? I’m hungry, I skipped lunch.’

‘Unlike you to skip meals, McKay,’ said Sheppard.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ snapped Rodney.

‘Nothing, just an observation.’ Sheppard smirked.

‘He means you eat too much,’ Ronon explained.

‘I know what he’s implying,’ said McKay resentfully. He looked down at his torso and crossed one arm over his middle, defensively.

‘Oh, I thought you were confused.’ Ronon didn’t look at him but Rodney knew Ronon was grinning.

The gate disconnected and powered down; everyone relaxed a little. Weir turned to the computer screen.

‘So where did the gate originate?’

Rodney looked at the map of the Pegasus galaxy and quickly worked out from the coordinates where the gate approximately came from. He pointed, with the now three quarters eaten apple, in his hand.

‘Unexplored area right on the fringes of the galaxy, we have no data on that area yet.’

Weir nodded and turned to the rest of the group, ‘Teyla? Ronon?’

‘This area is not known to me, but I might be able to find out more,’ said Teyla.

Ronon squinted at the map and shook his head.

‘Well, someone’s activating that gate. I suggest we have a team ready at a moment’s notice, for at least the next twenty-four hours,’ Sheppard suggested.

‘I agree. Teyla please use your contacts to see if we can find out more.’

‘I’d go and eat if I were you, McKay,’ Sheppard’s eyes were twinkling with unsaid taunts.

‘Oh it’s fine for you to mock. But when my blood sugar is low and I faint in a crisis, you won’t be laughing then.’

‘So it won’t be you fainting because of the sight of blood,’ added Sheppard.

‘That was one time!’

Ronon laughed, ‘I thought you were used to the sight of your own blood by now.’

‘Oh ha ha.’

Teyla patted Rodney’s arm, ‘We are all very grateful for your talents.’ She nodded and glared at Sheppard.

‘Oh yeah, dunno what I’d do without your “talents”, McKay.’ Sheppard’s smirk was emphasised with the word ‘talent’.

‘Can we focus here?’ Weir did her best school teacher look. ‘Rodney, can you search the ancient database and see if there is anything on this gate?’

‘I can, yes.’ Rodney took another bite of fruit.

‘Now, McKay.’ He scurried off and Elizabeth looked at Sheppard. A silent conversation passed between them. John looked away first and he followed Ronon and Teyla out.

*****

The gate activated and the alarms blared exactly twenty-four hours later. And the next twenty-four and the next after that. On the fourth activation, Weir called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. It was seriously starting to concern her.

‘Ok, McKay, did you find anything in the database?’

‘Yes and no. I found references to a settlement there but that it was secretive and unapproachable. After a relative short period of time the gate was unable to make a connection and the ancients came to think the gate the other side had been either destroyed or disabled.’ Rodney’s hands were animated and flew about as he talked.

‘So we still can’t rule out the wraith then?’ Asked Weir.

‘No, I suppose not. The gate and planet were on the ‘no-fly’ list, but they were also mentioned in some of the private entries. There were a few scientists who were very curious about the power sources the people there had. They were much more efficient than the ZPMs. But they were refused all access.’ McKay’s eyes widened as he mentioned the mysterious power source. There was an immense sense of curiosity and wonder coming off Rodney in waves.

‘Well that’s certainly interesting, but that gets us not closer to why the gate is activating.’

‘Well, a number of things might be at play. An automated system, a new settlement, whatever was blocking the gate is gone. I doubt the wraith, but can’t rule it out.’

‘Well, does anyone else have any thoughts?’

‘We have to go through,’ said Sheppard.

‘No, I can’t open the iris or allow you to take that risk just yet,’ said Weir.

‘Won’t the gate being activated interfere with other gate travel?’ Teyla asked.

‘Yes, while it is active no one else will be able to dial in or out,’ replied McKay.

‘So if it continues it could be a risk?’ asked Sheppard.

‘Yes,’ said McKay.

‘Can we block it?’ asked Weir.

‘We could try.’

‘Then that’s what we will try to do for now,’ said Weir.

Sheppard looked around at the table and saw that nobody here wanted to block the gate. Rodney was intensely curious, Teyla was concerned, hell, even he wanted to go see these alternate power sources. Ronon though, chewed his lip and looked bored.

‘What are you thinking, Ronon?’ Sheppard asked.

‘I let you guys do that, you just point me where the wraith are.’

‘You sure? You got nothing to add here?’

‘No.’

‘Okay then, McKay, guess you best get started.’

‘Yes,’ Ronon changed his answer.

Sheppard looked at Ronon, waiting for the addendum. 

‘What if it’s none of those things.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Weir.

‘What if it’s not the wraith or a machine or a new settlement?’

‘Well, what do you think it is?’ McKay asked with added sneer.

‘Someone asking for help.’

McKay snorted, ‘And what evidence are you basing that hypothesis on?’

‘None.’

‘Oh, I see. Is it one of those hunches, those gut feelings that are just always so right?’

‘Yeah.’


Rodney waves his hand at Weir, as if to say: see what I have to work with?


‘Why do you think it’s someone who wants help?’ Asked Teyla.

‘Dunno, just do.’

Rodney rolls his eyes and flumps back into his chair. The movement cause Sheppard to glance at McKay and not for the first time that day, John’s eyes narrow in thought.

‘Well, Ronon, I’m not dismissing your feelings but I feel like we should err on the side of caution here. I’m still thinking we should try to find a way to block it and maybe then look into who may or may not be on the other side.’ Weir looks slightly apologetic.

‘This is why I said nothing.’

‘Well, let’s see if we can block it.’ Weir dismisses everyone and all but Sheppard leave. He lingered and nodded at Ronon, mostly to let him know Sheppard supported him. Time has shown that Ronon’s gut is pretty reliable and John felt the same pull. They needed to go to that planet. As the others file out he sees Weir look out at the gate, troubled. He totally understood why she was going to say no, but hell, he had to try anyway. She turned and wore a wry smile.

Sheppard smiled back in his lazily charming way.

‘Shall we skip the schmooze and you just lay it out,’ said Weir.

‘I think we should go. I think Ronon is right. Whoever is opening that gate is making no effort to come through.’

‘I think you are right.’

Sheppard blinked at Weir, completely taken aback. Weir grinned knowing she has Sheppard on the back foot.

‘Well… er… this is a first.’

‘If we could block gate addresses we wouldn’t need a system in place to stop people coming through, would we?’

‘True…’ said John. He narrowed his eyes and wondered where Weir was going with this.

‘If the gate keeps dialling we are at some point going to have to drop the shield and go through.’

‘Right… so we aren’t doing that because?’

‘Because I want to give McKay a chance. He works well under pressure.’

John laughed, a short derisive laugh, ‘Are you sure? Cos he whines a lot too.’

‘What I mean is, he gets results. And finding a way to block the gates would be great. However, I want you to start prepping for an away mission. I’m going to see if the gate opens again, if it does I’ll send a MALP through. Based on what we see I will tell you whether to go or not.’

‘Well, that’s better than a no.’

...

‘Can someone please explain to me why we are going through the gate?’ Asked McKay. He didn’t really need an answer, he just needed to verbalise his terror. The MALP they’d sent through had shown an empty room with strange equipment and a low level of light. The atmosphere was breathable and there was no environmental factors like radiation to stop them from entering. Of course, disease was the first thing that came into McKay’s mind. They’d been caught out a few times and there wasn’t much they could do to stop unknown viruses and pathogens. McKay worried that they were unprepared. His protests about there being a possible advanced civilisation on the other side of the gate were listened too, but Weir seemed to selectively ignore the fact that advancement brought a whole new set of unknown terrors upon them. Plus, Rodney couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a lack of people in that civilisation. That didn’t exactly inspire hope, y’know.

‘I thought this was what you wanted, McKay?’ said Sheppard, in a patronising tone.

‘It was… it is,’ Mckay blinked. ‘It is,’ he said more firmly, like he was trying to convince himself too. Just trying he supposed.
‘Ok, you are clear to go,’ said Weir.

McKay walked through and felt the all too familiar pull of the wormhole. Why no-one else found that deeply and profoundly disturbing was a testament to their lack of understanding. The feeling of solid ground was always a relief of course. As usual he tried to stay back until a sweep had been performed. But, as usual, he found it difficult not to look and touch. At first he thought the room they were in was mostly made of metal, but it looked as though it might be ceramic. Odd.

‘McKay?’

‘Looks like a bay of some kind. There are doors above so I would think they used puddle jumpers of some kind too. This material is strange. It looks metal but feels like ceramic. No interface of any kind though,’ said McKay. He continued to look around.

Ronon touched the wall and raised his eyebrows in surprise.

‘This wall is warm.’ They all reached out at this point and touched the walls. McKay’s eyes widened.

‘Perhaps we should explore a little further then?’ Sheppard asked more like an invitation to a stroll rather than an investigation into alien territory. Not for the first time, McKay envied his easy charm. Ronon and Teyla moved through the archway to the side of the stargate.

The corridor was wide and expansive, much bigger than require for a human sized person. Rodney assumed this would be for the ships to move through occasionally. Here outside of the gate room the hallways were coloured in bright distinctive lines. He noticed that they moved together and apart again. It was rather breath taking.

‘Oh…’ said Teyla, ‘It is so beautiful…’ She reached out and allowed her fingers to gently brush the surface. The wall reacted to her touch and she snatched back her had in fear. The stripes of colour lightened and danced momentarily before resuming the pattern they had before.

‘McKay, what are we looking at here?’

‘I don’t know.’

Sheppard looked at Rodney, disbelieving. ‘What… nothing? You got nothing?’

McKay shrugged, unashamed.

‘I need more info. This place is different and until I get a look at their network, I’m no good to you.’

‘Shoulda bought Jackson,’ Sheppard sniped.

‘I wish you had,’ McKay retorted.

‘Well, I for one, am glad you brought me. This place is amazing, ‘said Teyla.

They made their way through the corridor and a few side rooms. There was a suspicious absence of things. The walls continued to glow and colour. Rodney started to see that ahead the walls were dull and lifeless, but as they approached they came to life. He could see the others had noticed as well. There was a massive archway ahead with much darker material in the centre of it.

‘Is that some kind of door?’ asked Ronon.

‘I think so,’ said McKay. He reached out to touch it and slowly it lit up. The entrance rippled like water, much like the stargate itself, and receded to allow them passage into the next area. It took a moment for them to move. The area in front of them was vast. It seemed to be underground, as there was no sky. A rich tapestry of viridian green spread out in front of them. There were many walkways, bridges and paths connecting a huge network of, what Rodney assumed were buildings. It looked unlike the gate room. The organic mesh of plants and the white metal were fused and the colours from the walls pulsed through it.

Other than the stunning beauty, two things struck McKay. First, it was silent, there was no machine hum or mechanical noise. Second, there were no people or animals or creatures of any kind. The only sounds he heard was Sheppard mutter ‘Holy Fuck’ under his breath. McKay noticed the others were looking at each other with amazement. It reminded Rodney of a spider’s web, many threads leading to a central area. That, he thought, is where we need to go.

‘I have never seen anything of it’s like before,’ said Teyla.

‘I think we should make our way up to there,’ Rodney pointed, ‘it seems centralised and maybe it’s some sort of hub.’

Sheppard looked toward the hub and then at the various pathways. He frowned. Rodney could tell he was assessing for safety. They didn’t look rickety or anything, just different. Sheppard stepped forward and tested strength. McKay groaned and felt his stomach flip. Whenever Sheppard did anything that put himself at peril, even remotely, Rodney always felt queasy. Sheppard looked up and grinned.

‘Well, it seems safe.’

Then Sheppard looked Rodney in the eye and jumped up and down.

‘What d’you think, McKay? Fancy giving it a go?’

McKay’s stomach churned and he had to look away. He heard a satisfied snort. Sometimes he envied the less intelligent, they really couldn’t see multitudes of ways to die. Sheppard on the other hand, of course, knew but preferred instead to taunt McKay’s real and quite frankly normal fears. So he wasn’t a sociopath like Sheppard.

‘Come, Rodney, it’s not that bad just look ahead.’ Teyla often surprised McKay with her understanding, although she had her impatient moments too. She guided Rodney to the walkway and she was right, once you were on it, it wasn’t so bad. If you didn’t think about plunging to your death. As they walked the area in front lit up.

‘It’s a bit like Atlantis in a way, the way it reacts to the gene. Although, no way of knowing if it’s that of course,’ said Rodney.

The hub area in front was much bigger than it seemed and there was another black pond like door way. This time Teyla reached forward and touched it to open. The black receded as before. Inside all the plant vines and tendrils seemed to meet at one large point in the centre of the room. Around the vines, and some of them were tree trunk thick, was some sort of work station.

‘Aha,’ Rodney’s eyes lit up and he proceeded to the area. There was some kind of screen but it was made from organic material. He reached up to touch it.

‘McKay, should you touch that?’

‘Well what would you suggest?’

‘I’ll do it.’

‘Be my guest.’ McKay stepped back from the area to allow the overcautious flyboy access. He stepped back and rested his hand against the wall. Sheppard stepped forward.

The world for Rodney changed. It was just one moment, one silly little moment.

He couldn’t have known the screen wasn’t a screen, nor that the centralised area wasn’t a workstation at all. He heard Teyla and John’s voices but they were distant and faraway. He felt himself travelling further and further away and their voices became like whispers tickling his mind. Rodney thought if he were dying this wasn’t the worst way to go, like falling asleep. Then he felt a different… tickle? A whisper. He felt it looking for him so he reached out for it. The whisper suddenly became a scream and Rodney recoiled. He could hear John briefly but then the dark whisper came back. This time it hesitated. It slowly reached out and then waited. Rodney sensed it was excited, jubilant. Relieved. It was relieved. When it did nothing else Rodney did the only thing he knew how.

‘Hello?’

McKay sensed the surprise and then the excitement again. It didn’t speak to him but rather felt a welcoming. It was a hello he supposed.

‘My name is Rodney.’

He was thinking of every film he’d ever seen where two people who have no language in common speak. He tapped himself, but realised his perception was mental, not physical, would the weird presence know what he meant? Then he felt a sense of something he couldn’t describe, it was comforting but isolated with a whole load of sorrow mixed in. The presence the moved back a little. In Rodney’s mind’s eye he could see something he had no name for, it wasn’t human or even bipedal. It was huge and every time he tried to see the whole it hurt his head. The feeling of relief washed over him again and he saw colours swirl in front of him, they formed a face of sorts. It was in flux, constantly changing whilst keeping the expression the same. The expression was open and friendly. He felt the presence pull at him, but then wait. Rodney followed. Then it moved away again, the colours swirling excitedly. Rodney followed. It flashed lots of pink and purple and smiled. So Rodney kept moving towards it. Slowly he became aware of a massive space, a void. The presence moved into it and Rodney hesitated. He was scared. His fear must have translated to the alien because it came back and sent feelings of comfort and reassurance. Still he waited, after all what was he doing here? This time the presence reached out and tugged gently: Rodney felt it’s hope and fear. What would Sheppard do, he asked himself already knowing the answer. Sheppard would smirk in the face of danger, give a one liner and he would jump. He could feel his own ball of fear rising, and as it did he felt the aliens hope depleting. Had Ronon been right? Did this thing need help? Sheppard’s words came back to him, ‘You are just a walking brain, with no redeemable features.’ Well, we’ll see about that, he thought. Rodney stepped forward and then, jumped.

Chapter Text

When McKay put his hand out to touch the supposed workstation, John felt a moment of apprehension. Not that he could put it into words really but it was more of a… well that feeling you get in car when you go over a big bump. A lightening of the gut, a swirl of fear.

'McKay, should you touch that?’

'Well what would you suggest?'

'I'll do it.'

'Be my guest.'

McKay had stepped back albeit somewhat smugly, like John would fail. Stepping forward John had simply meant to assess the panel and see if there were anything obviously dangerous. Except that hadn’t happened. He heard Teyla gasp and a resounding thud. He knew it was McKay before he saw it was McKay.

McKay was on the floor but he looked like a destrung puppet. His limbs were limp and although his eyes were open it looked like he was losing consciousness.

‘McKay?’ John lightly tapped his face.

‘Rodney, can you hear us?’ asked Teyla as she also patted his shoulder.

It looked like he was slipping away right in front of them. Sheppard looked briefly for whatever had done this to McKay but nothing really stood out. Just a wall.

‘Oh come on, McKay, don’t be a drama queen now…’ John watched as Teyla again attempted to wake him.

‘We need to get him back to Atlantis,’ said Ronon.

‘I know. Help me with him. Teyla, radio ahead please.’
 
‘Atlantis we have an emergency, over. This is Teyla, do you read? I am not getting through.’

‘We’ll take him to the gate.’ Sheppard got McKay’s feet and Ronon his upper body. They lifted and moved him away from the central column, which at first was fine.

‘Stop,’ said Teyla urgently. ‘He’s bleeding.’

Alarmed John looked down and saw blood coming from McKay’s nose and ears.

‘No, we shouldn’t stop, we need to get him back right now.’

‘What if it’s a contagion?’ asked Teyla.

‘Get Beckett, Ronon. Teyla go with him,’ said Sheppard conceded.

‘I would rather stay.’

‘I know but there’s nothing we can do, so you better off guarding the way, help Beckett with his gear.’

‘Very well.’ Teyla nods at Ronon and they leave.

They are gone for a minute or two and McKay started to fit. Sheppard does the best he can to make sure McKay does not choke. After thirty seconds or so McKay stopped fitting and stilled. John rested his hand on McKay’s chest and felt him breathing. The bag of guilt he’d been carrying around had become heavier. He looked at McKay for a moment, but the churning inside forced him to look away. Why had he said those things? John thought the others would be about ten minutes, given that Beckett had to grab gear and get to the gate room. McKay fitted a few more times, each time lasting longer, his back arching like he was being electrocuted.

‘Come on, McKay, no giving up. I’m sure you can bore me with the endless details but you gotta wake up first bud.’ John checked his vitals. His breathing had become shallow and John saw blood coming from his eyes too. He’s going to die: the cold realisation hit him. John got up and started looking around, for something, anything. Recklessly he touched the ‘workstation’ or whatever it was. It lit with colours, it reacted to his presence but nothing else. John bent over it looking for some idea as to it’s use. Nothing.

‘Goddammit.’ The helpless rage he felt wasn’t aiding anyone but John raged anyway. ‘I don’t know if anyone is there or if you can even hear me, but you are killing him. Do you understand? He’s going to die!’ Sheppard punched the display in frustration.

‘Now I’m pissed off and my hand hurts!’ John didn’t care if anyone heard him.

The walls suddenly flashed brightly, a blue green cascade which then dimmed, but remained giving the room a weird glow. Oddly, he felt immediately calmer. He checked McKay again, still breathing. John sat down next to him. He took out a sealed antiseptic wipe and tore the packet open with his teeth. Very hygienic, John, he thought. He wiped the blood from McKay’s face; he’d totally freak if he woke up. When, John thought, when he woke up. The blue-green light now pleasantly thrummed through a variety of tones. A few minutes passed and John sat quietly beside McKay. He didn’t fit or continue to bleed which John assumed was a good thing. He looked at his watch, it had been ten minutes. John got up and went to the entrance and looked for the others. Nope, nothing. He paced about for another five. McKay stayed still, breathing but nothing else. When a full twenty minutes had passed John went from mildly concerned to quite worried. From here he could see down to their original entrance, the door was still clear as far as he could see. Twenty-five minutes. He decided to wait the full thirty and then begin to move McKay himself. He checked to make sure McKay was still stable. He noticed McKay’s eyes were moving rapidly as if dreaming.

‘Oh, okay. Yeah… You have a little nap there, McKay… no no, don’t get up.’ John put his hands under McKay’s arms and started to drag him to the doorway. He stopped and made sure all was clear. Thirty-one minutes. He checked the radio, still nothing. John dragged McKay down the adjoining walkway.

‘Oh look, McKay, it’s a normal mission, you’re a dead weight and I’m carrying you… again.’ John moved backwards and had to keep stopping to look behind him. It was when he was one third of the way when he heard a massive explosion. Ducking down next to McKay, John waited a moment before slowly popping his head up again. John felt like he’d been stabbed with an icicle of fear. Wraith.

‘And I was having such a great day…’

John started dragging McKay back the way he’d come, but then down one of the many adjoining paths. The Wraith would most likely go to the centralised area like they had done previously. Hopefully one of the adjoining rooms would give them some cover. Sweat was beading on John’s face and he felt that he wasn’t putting enough weights into his strength routines. As he dragged McKay’s prone body John wondered if Teyla and Ronon had made it back or if they had been captured by the Wraith. He hoped for their sake they had managed to return.

As Sheppard neared the end of the walkway he tried to assess which way to go. Now he was out of sight he picked McKay up and slung him over his shoulder. The Wraith were far behind him, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t come this way eventually. Then he noticed a flashing light, a small green light. It was in the floor and as he stepped closer to it the light moved a step away from him. He stepped again in that direction, the light moved. Was it him, or was the light getting him to follow? He looked behind him, there was another light, but red and it did not flash. What the hell, he followed the green light. It led him down a side corridor out of the main expansive chamber. The lights came on as he moved down but they stayed low and the walls of colour were muted.

John stopped a moment to catch his breath and he checked McKay, still breathing and not bleeding. Good.

‘Hope you’re enjoying that dream, McKay,’ John whispered and wiped his brow on his sleeve. He picked McKay up again and moved towards a door-pool thing. He touched it and it receded. The lights led him to a room off to the side so he followed, muttering under his breath. Once inside John stopped and looked around. There were beds, of sorts, weird bio mechanical tubes and a sound of trickling water. John placed McKay down on one of the ‘beds’. He turned to look at the door and the green lights flashed around a button. John walked closer to the button and put his face right by it.

‘Ok, you want me to push the button?’ It’s not going to lock us in is it?’ He looked around the area not really expecting a sign but recognising that their might be. Nothing like hedging your bets is there. ‘Ok, I’m going to press it, but I will be most displeased if I become trapped.’ He pushed the button and the door rippled and came together. The green light still flashed, so he pushed it again. This time the black ‘water’ looked like it was freezing solid. John touched it. It was hard. He pushed it and it did not give.

‘Well, that’s not encouraging,’ he shook his head, ‘One life threatening problem at a time, John.’

Sheppard saw McKay was fine for now so he started to search the room. It was round, the bed heads were pointed at the centralised column. Colour flashed around McKay’s only. There was some sort of projection on the wall behind his head. There was a regular blip, and on checking McKay’s pulse he could see they were the same. A flashing wall caught his eye and he saw many compartments, one flashed green. He reached out to touch it and stopped.

‘Green is good right?’ John looked around and saw nothing else. He was starting to think that there definitely was some sort of intelligence helping him. Was it some kind of ancient computer? Maybe McKay was hooked up to it somehow?

‘McKay… is that you?’ John watched for a reaction, but nothing other than the panel in front of him flashed. Shrugging he tapped the green and a draw opened. Inside were little vials, all the same. He picked one up. The draw shut and another area started to flash. He went to it, tapped it and it opened. Inside were what he assumed were hypo-syringe type things. He picked one up. He looked to see how they fit together. He mashed them together and the wall flashed red.

‘Oh… so not like that?’ He tried another way and it clicked into place. The wall flashed green. John smiled and for a tiny moment forgot where he was, then the smile fell away.

‘How do you know green is good and red is bad? Is that a universal thing?’ McKay’s bed flashed green. John walked over to it.

‘So you seem to want me to inject my friend, well, not friend more colleague… well, maybe subordinate. Huh… not sure what he is, but I don’t want to hurt him with whatever is in here.’ John shook the syringe.

The bed continued to flash green. So it was crunch time. Make a choice John. He hovered the end of the syringe over McKay, then to his arm. The bed flashed red.

‘Okay, not there,’ John tried the other arm, still red. He tried the neck and the bed flashed green.

‘So here?’ He put it closer and the bed pulsed quicker. ‘Hey, McKay, I’m going to inject you with an alien medicine. I’m pretty sure it’s ok, the flashing lights said so. Say or do something now if you think this is a bad idea.’ John waited, looked at McKay’s face closely. Nothing.

 ‘Yeah, you’re not McKay’, he said to the flashing lights, ‘he’d be freaking out. All right then.’ John pressed the syringe against McKay’s skin he felt something release but no noise. He watched McKay closely. The eyes started to twitch more and his breathing picked up. He was waking.

...

Jumping had not been his smartest move.


‘Bad idea, Rodney, stupid, stupid.’ Shepard wouldn’t have jumped into an unknown situation blind.

Rodney was at once overwhelmed by visions, emotions and random snippets of conversations in a language he didn’t understand. Waves of information hit him over and over and he felt like he was going to drown. It was hard to separate his own thoughts from those flashing before him. His head felt like it was going to explode, the pain was incredible. He tried to hide from it as best he could. It felt like he was treading water in a sea of thought. But then he saw the lights again, flashing blue-green. They were far away in the distance. He’d have to make his way through the thoughts first. He dithered wondering what to do. The lights pulsed ahead, just greens now. Well he knew what Sheppard would do… Why did he even care what Sheppard would do? That thinking had got him here in the first place.

The well of self-pity he had rose up and he felt like he’d cry, well if he were awake. He knew what it was. Rodney was part of a group, the group wasn’t perfect, but he was a part of it. He never really needed the approval of his peers and when he did meet people he actually liked, he tended to drive them away. He tried not to get attached to people for this reason. In Atlantis, those options were moot. They were all stuck with one another. He’d started to feel a part of the team, to become attached to them. He even felt liked. See that was the mistake, he’d broken the first rule. People like Sheppard usually didn’t like him. Handsome, affable, charming those sorts of people normally despised him. Well, not much changed. Sheppard clearly thought Rodney was beneath him, and on his worse days, Rodney thought so too.

McKay looked up and saw the rapid flashes of green. It had gotten brighter while he had been thinking.

‘Oh all right, I’m coming for god sake.’ Other people’s thoughts couldn’t be much worse than his own dark ones could they? Naïve, McKay, Naïve, he thought.

If he didn’t do something he would just sit here with his dark thoughts. And what if the others needed him? That thought propelled him. He made his way over and every time information threatened to overload him he concentrated on the stronger thoughts he had. Like the time when he’d dreamt about Samantha Carter or when he first found out about the stargate program. More recently, the Wraith featured quite highly as did Sheppard’s expression of disgust when he told McKay he had no redeemable features. The hurt that went with that also helped him focus.

The lights flashed rapidly and brightly once Rodney arrived. McKay felt happiness or maybe relief again, he wasn’t sure. He was rubbish at discerning emotions at the best of times.

‘Well, I’m here. I got through…’ McKay pointed at the sea of thoughts and failed to find a word to describe it, ‘That.’

The lights flashed and bobbed away slightly.

‘Oh, I know this game already, you want me to follow? Is there more of… that?’ McKay shuddered.

Flashes of red.

‘No? Red is no, green is yes?’

Flashes of green.

‘Ah, communication,’ McKay smiled, pleased with the development.

‘Am I dead?’ He asked suddenly fearful. Red.

‘Well, that’s good to know. Are you dead?’ Red.

‘Excellent. Do you need help? Ronon seemed to think so.’ Green.

‘You are in danger?’ Green.

‘Ok. Right well this is a start.’ Rodney didn’t know what to ask next, but the lights formed a face again, it was his own in red. Then it flashed to Sheppard, as red too.

‘Sheppard and I are in danger?’ Green. Rodney felt fear flutter.

‘Is Sheppard hurt?’ Red. ‘Okay, that’s good.’

‘What about Ronon and Teyla, are they hurt?’ Red.

The lights then faded and formed a picture, of some of the people he’d seen when his mind was overloaded. He felt sadness, loss.

‘Are those people here?’ Red. Rodney felt something else, alongside the loss deep down.

‘Are they alive?’ A long pause and then red.

‘You miss them.’ It wasn’t a question but then green pulsed.

Then the lights started to dim and flutter. McKay felt himself being pulled up, slowly through the deep of his mind. He saw the lights flash white and disappear. He felt it’s hope and desperation.

And then he felt his headache, pounding. He put his hand to his head and winced as he opened his eyes and saw Sheppard watching him with concern.

‘Well, nice of you to join us. You’ve missed a real treat.’

McKay tried to get up and Sheppard had to help him. He wobbled on the edge of the bed and Sheppard steadied him by holding his shoulder.

‘Are you with me, McKay?’

‘I… think so,’ McKay squinted at his surroundings, ‘Where are we?’

‘Oh, McKay, I’ve been having a great time while you were passed out.’

‘Give me the facts, Major. Not your delusion.’

‘Well, you touched things after I told you not to,’ Rodney tried to object but Sheppard held up a finger to stop him like he was a naughty school boy, ‘I sent Ronon and Teyla to get the Doc. I haven’t seen them since. So I tried to lug your sorry ass to the gate. But I had to redirect to here because of the Wraith.’

McKay’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again as Sheppard wagged his finger again. Rodney glared.

‘Yeah, I haven’t heard them, but they will find their way here eventually. Weirdness is happening though. I followed signs to this room and then… helped you.’ Sheppard wore a sheepish grin that immediately made Rodney suspicious.

‘How did you help me, exactly?’

‘Well, I administered first aid. Look we should really be trying to find a way back to the Stargate.’ Sheppard walked over to the door and listened. Rodney knew that look, that face said he was not telling him something.

‘What did you do?’ Rodney walked, unsteadily, over to where Sheppard was standing and faced him.

‘I told you, first aid.’

‘Yeah, what exactly did you do? I don’t see anything here,’ then McKay spots the syringe by the bed he’d laid on. He stomped over and picked it up. ‘What the hell is this?’

‘It’s some sort of syringe-hypo-spray thing.’ Sheppard shifted guiltily.

‘Where did it come from?’ McKay had a sinking feeling in his stomach which didn’t help with the nausea he was already feeling. ‘Did you use this on me?

‘Well…’

Rodney gaped at Sheppard, unable to fathom his recklessness. He stuttered unable to get the words he wanted to shout at Sheppard out.

‘I certainly didn’t inject anything untested on you because you would completely overreact, lose your shit and panic,’ said Sheppard sarcastically.

‘How could you?’ McKay squeaked.

‘I thought you were dying.’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘Well I didn’t know that did I? I had Wraith breathing down my neck,’ Sheppard hissed as he gesticulated towards the door.

‘What… so you just injected random alien meds in me?’ McKay’s disbelief soared.

‘No, it wasn’t random. There’s some sort of on board computer, it told me what to use,’ Sheppard justified himself.

‘So you did!’ McKay’s head was now pounding with pain and fury.

The wall flashed behind Rodney, a pale muted blue.

‘I know, I know. He’s really very grateful. McKay, shut up,’ Sheppard seemed to address another part of the room.

‘Who are you talking to?’ McKay looked around.

‘The room.’

‘Did you hit your head too?’

‘Really? I just spent the best part of an hour trying to wake you up and I already wish you’d just shut up!’

‘Your unbelievable.’

‘No, McKay, just worried.’

‘Ok.’ McKay skirted around Sheppard looking at his head.

Sheppard frowned at Rodney, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Looking for signs of a concussion’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Oh okay. So do you regularly talk to alien architecture?’

‘Only ones that communicate with me,’ Sheppard grinned at Rodney.

‘Right,’ McKay pauses, ‘So what does it say?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing. Well nothing out loud.’

‘So you are hearing it in your head?

‘For gods sake McKay. I’m not hearing voices. I’m seeing flashing colours that tell me whether I should or shouldn’t do something.’

‘Okay, then.’ McKay’s eyes widen slightly.

‘Why are you saying it like that?’

‘Like what?’

‘Like I’m a crazy person.’

‘Well, I dunno… maybe because you are acting like a crazy person!’ McKay shouted the last part. ‘Rational people don’t talk to walls!’

The wall behind McKay flashed blue-green again.

‘Wait, did you say flashing colours?’

‘Yes… why?’

‘I saw them too.’

‘Yes, just now the room flashed.’

‘No, I mean, I saw them in my head.’

‘When… you were unconscious?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay.’

‘Why are you saying it like that.’

‘I dunno, McKay, it kinda sounds like something a crazy person would say, don’t you think?’ The smug self-satisfied look on Sheppard’s face was insufferable.

‘Hilarious, ha ha.’

‘What did you see?’ Sheppard looked concerned for the first time since Rodney had awoken.

‘Something was guiding me with flashing colours, red was no and green…’

‘Was yes,’ finished Sheppard.

‘So it was helping us both?’

‘Looks like it.’

‘I saw other stuff. Alien thoughts and visions it was overwhelming. The lights guided me though. It told me we are in danger.’

‘On that we can agree. I think we should get out of here and get to the gate if we can.’

‘What about the… Alien? It’s asking for help.’

‘I guess that’s something we’ll consider on the way. If those Wraith are from a Hive ship, I think help at this stage is a moot point.’

‘Ok,’ said Rodney simply. His head was still aching and waves of sickness would wash over him if he nodded too much. He felt a tug of guilt, however, he didn’t want to abandon whoever was trying to help them. He watched as Sheppard fiddled with a panel next to what he assumed was the door. He could see the other man’s frustration mounting.

‘Could you open the door?’ Sheppard asked the room. The wall flashed red and Rodney felt a burst of fear.

‘I think the Wraith are getting closer.’

‘Why?’

‘When it flashes I feel the corresponding emotion too, don’t you?’

‘No, I don’t. What did you feel?’

‘Fear.’

Then McKay heard them, marching and presumably checking rooms. This one was shut so obviously they were interested in what was on the other side. They banged on it. Sheppard immediately put his arm out and indicated to McKay to fall back, which he did. McKay shakily withdrew his sidearm and pointed it down. Silently they moved so that the central column was in between them and the door. Rodney felt his heart hammering in his chest. The Wraith banged harder and louder. When they started firing their weapons, Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s arm and gripped it silently. McKay wasn’t sure who Sheppard was trying to reassure, he didn’t care, the touch made him feel less freaked. A few minutes of silence and a new noise came. They were trying to cut through and it seemed to be working. A black dot could be seen from their side although it hadn’t broken through yet.

There was a hiss of air from behind them and Sheppard spun around. A green light was flashing and Rodney felt hope coming from it. They stepped over, Sheppard glancing over his should frequently. There was a panel and McKay could see that it was loose. Rodney opened the panel and saw it was some sort of vent. There was enough room inside for them to get into.

‘It wants us to go in here,’ Rodney whispered.

‘Ok, you first.’

‘Me?’

Sheppard gestured to the door and the incoming Wraith, ‘Unless you’d like to deal with that?’ McKay’s eyes widened and he got into the vent.

Sheppard followed after and the panel shut itself and hissed. The vent was tall enough for them to walk, but they were stooped over. The walls and floors were made with a spongy organic looking material. As Rodney walked he felt his feet bouncing slightly. After thirty feet they reached a junction, leading either left going down or right going up.

‘Which way?’ Asked Rodney.

Sheppard was watching their six and glanced over his shoulder briefly.

‘Which one is green?’ Rodney looked and saw that the left side had a light green glow as opposed to the right’s red glow.

‘Left.’

‘Then we go left, McKay.’

Chapter Text

At first the smell was an annoyance. Better than that of a Wraith breathing down your neck, Rodney supposed, but after a while it became pervasive. It was everywhere. Before the Stargate program he had little experience of the smells of the world and now he had the benefit of a variety from at least two different galaxies. It might be enough to say it was unpleasant, but that really didn’t give it its due. And it was getting worse.

‘Ok, so I’m going to bet that something died in here,’ said Sheppard.

‘Bet?’ Asked Rodney.

‘Yeah. What do you think it is?’

‘Well to be honest I really don’t want to think about it much less talk about it. Every time I open my mouth I feel like I’m eating it.’

‘You probably are.’

McKay glared at Shepard’s back, knowing he was probably smirking. Even if he were facing him, Rodney probably wouldn’t be able to see his face in the gloomy duct interior. There was barely enough light to get around. They just kept following the green light and hoping.

‘It’s got to be something decaying, right?’ asked Shepard.

‘Why does it have to be something dead and/or dying? Why can’t it be something nice?’

‘You don’t think the smell is a clue?’ Sheppard turned right down a slightly downward slope. ‘Come on, McKay, name me something nice that goes with that aroma.’

‘Well, it could be an old sewer system.’

‘That doesn’t sound nice.’

‘Better than dead things decaying.’

‘Come on, Brainiac, I’m sure you can think of something.’ Sheppard stopped and stepped down a two foot drop. ‘Careful here there’s a drop.’

Rodney jumped down and for the first time since they’d started walking in these damned ducts he got a good glimpse of Sheppard’s face. It was strained.  Rodney knew he wasn’t very good at picking up on emotional cues, but he strongly suspected the guessing game was Sheppard’s way of distracting, not only himself, but Rodney too. He edged into the difficult territory.

‘Do you think Teyla and Ronan are all right?’ Rodney asked.

‘I think so. Whatever helped us probably helped them, if they were still here when the Wraith arrived. If not, then they are probably on the other side of the gate wondering how on earth they are going to get us out. Either way, nothing can be done until we are out of these ducts.’

McKay noticed that Sheppard left the unthinkable, unsaid. He hoped the Wraith hadn’t found them.

‘It could be hydroponics.’

‘What could?’

‘The smell. You said it could be decaying matter. Well what if they had some sort of hydroponic system? It’s probably not being maintained and the power is still connected, I should imagine it would be a forest by now.’

‘Interesting. What else have you got?’

‘Well, the whole place seems to be biomechanical…’ Rodney squeaked in surprise as Sheppard roughly put his hand over Rodney’s mouth. In the half-light Sheppard put his finger on his own lips to indicate silence. McKay nodded.

Ahead there was a vent with light flooding out of it. They walked past loads of others in darkness. Above the lit one were many red flashing low lit lights. Danger ahead. They quietly tiptoed to the vent and Sheppard indicated to lay down, so Rodney did. By doing this they could both crawl up and see down into the area below. The Wraith were there. Sheppard looked at McKay concerned and they paused for a few seconds looking at each other, waiting for the Wraith inevitably to sense them above. Ten seconds passed to twenty and they saw the Wraith did not know they were there.

Then there was a horrible screaming and a Wraith was dragged into the centre of the room. It was wounded but didn’t appear to be healing. It continued to scream until one of the others knocked it out with the butt of his gun. Sympathetic.

Sheppard pointed forward, he wanted to keep moving. McKay crawled around the vent and stood. They quietly made their way further down the duct and then Sheppard stopped him.

‘Did you see what I saw back there?’ He whispered.

‘The Wraith didn’t heal.’

‘We should look into that.’

‘Agreed.’

Sheppard pulled a glow stick out of a pocket and snapped it, shook it and threw it on the ground.

‘Just in case we have to run back in a hurry.’

‘I don’t think I could find my way back now,’ McKay said as they walked on.

‘Haven’t you been remembering each turn?’

‘God, no.’

Sheppard gave him a disapproving look.

‘Oh and I suppose you remembered every single turn, did you?’ McKay narrowed his eyes in disbelief.

‘Yup. Left, right, forward for about twenty meters, step down left again, left…’

‘Oh you could be saying anything and I wouldn’t know the difference.’

‘Yeah,’ Sheppard chuckled. ‘So much for that amazing intellect eh?’

‘I’m probably in shock from that weird alien drug you gave me.’

‘Well it hasn’t shut you up any so I really wouldn’t worry about it for now.’

McKay glared daggers at Sheppard and walked along in silence for a while. The Major got under his skin a lot lately, more than ever in fact. Before Sheppard had shouted at him too. There were so many aspects that irritated. Probably the biggest was how effortless Sheppard made everything seem. Like now, he walked gun in hand checking every corner in the half-light. He looked professional, calm and not a hair out of place. Rodney knew it wasn’t quite that simple, he’d utterly hate Sheppard if it was, but he just oozed his brand of laidback machismo. Whereas Rodney had always struggled despite his brain. He got the social stuff wrong and people tended to remember those sorts of mistakes. Of course you have to care about that sort of thing in the first place and Rodney hadn’t for the longest time. Here he didn’t have the choice, you got to know people and they got to know you too. He’d started to care. Those feelings had led him to irrational places.

Ahead the red lights flashed and Sheppard dropped down into a squatting position. Rodney followed suit and rested on his haunches. He watched Sheppard’s hawk like reaction. What light there was glinted off his quick eyes and his profile was handsome as always. For a moment Rodney let his mind wander and, not for the first time, wonder what it would be like to be that handsome. He found attractive people truly unnerving and annoyingly found himself saying the most ridiculous things around them: Samantha Carter being a case in point. They made him feel awkward and ugly. He brazened out his insecurities with bluster and bullshit. Carter and Sheppard had a similar effect on him. Although, unlike Carter, Sheppard’s personality directly caused some of the uncomfortableness. It was time, he guessed, and that familiarity with one another, which had eroded some of his awkwardness with Sheppard. It was time that had allowed him to feel a kinship with Sheppard, as well as Teyla and Ronan. It was time that allowed his walls to fall away and believe that the respect was mutual.

Rodney looked away from Sheppard and glanced down for a moment. His gut clenched when he thought of Sheppard’s previous disapproval. It hurt more when he remembered Sheppard said he had ‘no redeemable features’. He felt the usual shame wash over him, but it was worse than before. Sheppard needed him and all he’d managed so far was to fall unconscious, cause the team to split and get Sheppard trapped in an unknown location with the Wraith. Rodney felt his pulse quickening. It wasn’t the words Sheppard had said that hurt the most, it was knowing that it was true.

When Sheppard’s hand rested on Rodney’s shoulder, he jumped. He hadn’t noticed Sheppard move he’d been so deep in thought.

‘McKay? You okay?’

‘What? Yes. I’m fine,’ he lied.

‘Your nose is bleeding.’ Rodney reached up and touched his nose and felt the blood. He wiped at it with his sleeve.

‘It’s fine.’ It wasn’t fine. He felt woozy and sick.

‘You sure? Don’t want to take a minute?’ Rodney shook his head. ‘Okay then, let’s keep going.’
 
They followed the lights to an intersection and a hatch opened. Inside was a narrow shaft which led down into darkness, there were some sort of hand and foot holds. Sheppard took out a torch and shone it down the dark shaft. Sheppard lent over slightly and put the torch away.

‘I can’t see the bottom,’ said Sheppard.

Rodney felt the now familiar flutter of fear.

‘Fantastic,’ said Rodney.

‘I don’t know why you are worried, McKay. Scenic heights, darkness, unknown alien architecture, some sort of ghost telling us what to do and bad guys trying to eat us. All the makings of a great horror movie.’

The look McKay gave him was so withering that Sheppard chuckled.

‘Shall I go first?’ It wasn’t a question; of course Sheppard was going first.

Sheppard stepped down into the lightless void.

‘Seems ok,’ he stated simply. ‘We’ll go in stages, follow my lead and don’t go too quick.’

‘Okay.’

Rodney watched as Sheppard disappeared and then stood over the opening himself. The flutter of fear turned into an icy tendril that seemed to coil around his spine. He sat with his legs dangling over the edge; every part of his body saying ‘nope’ quite certainly. He found the footholds and started his descent. Little green lights flashed around them, in unison. Rodney felt encouragement wash through him. Whatever it was it wanted them to succeed.

‘The er… ghost is cheerleading,’ McKay said into the dark.

‘The what?’ Sheppard said back, closer than Rodney thought.

‘The disembodied entity that is trying to help us,’ Rodney explained.

‘Oh that. You mean you can feel it?’

‘Yeah, it’s sending waves of calm too,’ Rodney heard Sheppard laugh. ‘What’s so funny?’

‘It already knows you so well.’

‘Well, excuse me for being afraid in a dark, enclosed space.’

They moved in silence for a while. The effort of climbing down was tiring and Rodney had started to sweat a lot. It seemed like they had been walking the ducts and descending for hours; he realised he had no idea of time since he had lost consciousness. He could feel his chest heaving with the physical exercise.

‘I’ve hit bottom, wait where you are, McKay.’ And just like that Sheppard was gone. Rodney clung on, waiting, sweating in apprehension. ‘Okay, you can come down now.’ Rodney descended the rest of the way.

It was not brightly lit but there seemed to be no discernible source of light. It was just there. Again there was a centralised area but it had little else in common with the control type room they’d been in when he fell unconscious. It had flowing water for a start. Conduits of fluid, varying in colour and size, flowed into the middle. Here Rodney felt a sense of security.

‘McKay, don’t you touch anything.’

‘Witty.’

‘I like to think so.’ Sheppard looked around and then pointed at the wall. ‘Does that look like it’s moving?’

Rodney stepped closer to inspect. The wall moved rhythmically, almost like a heartbeat. He felt the excitement rise in the room and he knew he must be right. Whatever it was, it was alive. Rodney reached out to touch it automatically but Sheppard caught his hand quickly. He held it tightly and looked annoyed.

‘What did I just say?’

Rodney looked down for a moment, ashamed.

‘You said, “Don’t you touch anything.”’

‘That’s right.’

Rodney felt his face heating up.

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry, just be careful.’

Sheppard let go of Rodney’s hand and he immediately felt the loss. He also felt angry and annoyed. Sheppard was treating him like a child. He put his hand on the wall, petulantly.

Rodney suddenly became hyperaware of everything in the room. He heard the rushing of the water, pulsing through and reaching everywhere. He felt Sheppard’s body heat and could smell the soap he used this morning. The gun oil taint cut through and faint traces of cordite could be picked up. Sheppard’s heartbeat was quickening and Rodney could feel his fear, not anger, coming in waves. He felt the unknown entity reaching for him gently. A pleasant dream-like feeling washed over him and he felt the reassuring touch of the entity, hesitant but buzzing with excitement.

The pain was a shock. It wracked through him first from his face and then through the rest of his body. He felt the entity’s anger and then fell over.

...

This is what happens when you work with civilians, John thought. He looked at the crumpled heap on the floor. Instantly the guilt edged its way in over the anger. John bent down to check where he’d slapped Rodney. There was a lovely red handprint.

‘Goddammit, McKay. You couldn’t just do one thing I asked you too?’ He lent over Rodney and gently patted the unbruised cheek. ‘Wake up, McKay, come on…’

McKay’s eyes fluttered a little and Shepard could see he would wake up shortly. Sheppard took a moment to take Rodney’s pulse and could feel it racing. He’d suspected McKay had been lying when he said he was fine. John frowned, McKay usually wasn’t one for being stoically silent; if anything it usually made him whinge louder. A loud Rodney was a happy Rodney. McKay’s eyes opened.

‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ McKay asked.

‘I’m wondering whether I should kill you now or later.’

McKay looked away and then sat up. He put a hand to the red mark on his face.

‘Did you hit me?’

‘You looked like you were going into brain overload again, I stopped it.’

‘But… you hit me!’

‘I didn’t know you were going to defy common sense and grab the wall did I? I panicked.’

‘By hitting me?’ McKay said angrily.

‘Yes and I didn’t even have time to enjoy it. Man up.’ Sheppard turned his back on McKay looked at where he’d touched the wall.

‘You know sometimes you piss me off too.’

Sheppard turned back around to face Rodney again. Rodney’s face was flushed but his eyes were bright with unshed tears.

‘Really? Oh do elaborate.’ Sheppard could feel his own anger building. ‘This seems like just the place for us to have a chat.’

‘You don’t struggle with anything do you?’ Rodney was still holding his cheek.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You just waltz around breezing through life, it’s easy when you’re handsome. You just flap your puppy-dog eyes and the world opens up for you.’

‘You think I'm handsome?’ The annoyance slipped away to be replaced by amusement.

‘Really? That’s your response?’

Sheppard just grinned.

‘You think I’m handsome.’ This time it wasn’t a question.

‘For god’s sake, Sheppard.’

‘Look, I’m sorry. I thought that thing was going to short your brain again,’ Sheppard smiled, ‘Do you want a power bar? I always pack extra.’ He unzipped one of the many pockets he had and pulled out a power bar, offering it to Rodney.

‘No.’

Sheppard frowned. A refusal of food too. They needed to get out of here sooner rather than later.

‘Look, McKay, the entity that’s helping us could be a computer or some alien in a room. We don’t know it’s motivations for keeping us alive. I’ve trusted it this far because I’ve been given no other choices. It nearly killed you, whether it meant to or not. Be cautious first not curious, ok?’

McKay still looked sullen but he nodded. The redness of his cheek contrasted with the overall pallor of his face. Rodney’s eyes looked bluer against the whiteness of his skin.

‘Right, we need to find the next exit.’ Sheppard hoped moving the conversation on would halt the rant Rodney no doubt was ready to unleash. He looked around the conduits of fluid and found a gap. It could be a door but it wasn’t obvious. As he looked around the edges he was aware that Rodney was watching him, but not moving.

‘What was it that made you think you could inject me with what ‘it’ suggested?’ McKay asked. ‘Was it caution or curiosity?’

‘That’s not the same.’

‘Why not?’

‘I thought you were dying,’ Sheppard felt his gut clench remembering the moment. ‘I had to make a choice, so I did. I’m not apologising for trying to keep you alive.’

Sheppard glanced over and saw McKay nodding slightly. He knew it was fear that was eating at McKay, anything outside of his understanding bothered him or fascinated him. In this case, the lack of data was a loss of power, Sheppard got that.

‘I think we can get out here, but it’s not opening.’

‘Have you tried touching it?’

‘No.’

‘That’s how we opened the other doors.’

‘I’ll try…’

Sheppard put his hand out to the ‘door’ and touched it. It rippled and flashed red.

‘Well I guess not then.’

The door then revealed a small panel and through it they could see into the area beyond the room, which was flooded with water. The panel had a simple bar in two colours, red and green. The red was mostly full and the green was slowly rising.

‘It looks like we have to wait for the water to clear before we move on,’ Said McKay.

Sheppard checked the vent they’d entered through by shining a torch up. When he was satisfied that it was clear he sat down against the central pillar and faced the door. He put his gun in his lap and then patted the floor next to him looking at McKay.

‘If we have to wait, then we should rest. And by we, I mean you.’

McKay walked over and sat down next to Sheppard. He didn’t say anything and just watched the door silently. Sheppard waited a while to see if McKay fell asleep, but he didn’t. So he tried a different tact.

‘So tell me about this handsome thing?’

McKay twitched and breathed out an irritated huff of air.

‘Really?’

‘Oh yes really, I want to understand, McKay.’

‘It’s a science thing.’

‘Hey, I get science things if you explain them properly.’

‘Well, its science and math.’

‘Ok, well I can do both.’

‘Well there er… well some might think that there is a pleasing geometry to your features?

‘Pleasing geometry?’

‘Well, it’s symmetrical. We are predisposed to look for it as a species. Malformations and scars are generally undesirable because they could mean genetic aberration.’

‘Do you bring stuff like this up on dates?’

‘Not generally, no.’

‘And the puppy-dog eyes?’

‘I would guess some people might like that symmetry with that eye colour.’

‘And what eye colour is that?’

‘Hazel with hints of grey-green.’

Sheppard twisted around to look straight at Rodney, chuckling.

‘That’s specific,’ John couldn’t help the grin.

‘I’m observant.’

‘Puppy-dog?’

‘Oh come on.’

‘You have to explain, or I’m telling everyone what you said,’ Sheppard thought for a moment, ‘If we live.’

‘You know, it’s hard not to like a puppy…’

‘And?’

‘I just mean… some people might find it hard to resist.’

‘Oh plenty of people can and do, I assure you.’

‘Yeah, you would say that, Captain Kirk.’

‘Wait… do find me hard to resist, McKay?’

‘I said other people might.’

‘Right…’

‘God you are so full of it.’

Sheppard lent in closer and Rodney’s eyes widened. He was smiling a soft smile he reserved for winning over Weir and flirting.

‘Well, I guess I will have to flap my puppy-dogs at the wraith and see what we get.’

‘I really don’t think that would be advisable.’

Sheppard lent in closer again and this time Rodney moved away slightly involuntarily.

‘Does the way I look intimidate you?’

‘No,’ Rodney squeaked.

‘Are you sure, Rodney?’

‘No… I mean yes.’

The moment, as it was, lingered. Rodney’s blue eyes were wide and tremulous. A little jolt of something hit John in his gut and he felt as though he were seeing McKay for the first time, truly. There was more to the prickly façade that Rodney projected, there was true vulnerability. Sheppard had been teasing him, but suddenly it wasn’t funny when he saw how thin a veneer there was between prickly Rodney and the real Rodney. There was weight in his gaze, a depth unknown. The gap closed a little more and John realised, in that second he could kiss him if he wanted. Did he want to? The jolt hit him again, only this time lower. He did want to. John closed the space and touched his lips against Rodney’s. This time when the jolt came it didn’t leave. When Rodney kissed back the fierceness of his reciprocation took John by surprise. They broke apart for a moment and Sheppard saw the unhidden desire on McKay’s face, now the mask had fully dropped. John slipped his hand around the back of McKay’s neck and pulled him in. John would remember this kiss for a long time. The soft groan Rodney made as they touched and the desire McKay had for him. He would remember feeling as though he were alight. He would wish it had been longer. Who knows where it would have gone?

The door rippled and opened. At the same time the room flashed red. Sheppard wrenched himself from Rodney and pulled his gun up into the firing position. Slowly he rose, using his free hand to indicate to McKay to get behind him. Sheppard walked up to the doorway and listened; there were no immediate sounds so he popped his head around the doorway. There was a huge space with lots of stairs and doorways. He ducked back in to where McKay stood.

‘Gun out, McKay,’ Sheppard whispered, ‘Do not shoot unless I tell you to, and check your corners. And, Rodney?’

‘Yes?’

‘Don’t shoot me, ok?’

‘I’ll try, no promises,’ McKay whispered back.

They skirted the perimeter in the near gloom that they were already used too. Tiny green flashes led them upstairs and through corridors. They passed a number botanical arboretums of varying sizes. Probably the hydroponics that Rodney mentioned earlier. The plant life was pretty exotic. At the top of the fifth flight of stairs Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s shoulder and squeezed. Sheppard instinctively dropped down onto his haunches.

‘What is it?’ He whispered.

‘The entity is warning me quite strongly that we should be cautious.’

‘Wraith?’

‘It didn’t specify.’

‘Helpful.’ 

‘Actually, it can tell me, if you’d just let me touch one of the panels.’

‘Not happening, McKay,’ Sheppard hissed.

They moved on and Sheppard started to understand where they were going. The entity or whatever it was, was trying to get them back to the gate room. This was the good news. The bad news was it had led them to an overgrown arboretum and clearly expected them to get through it. They manoeuvred inside and the door closed and hardened behind them. There were windows in here and you could see through the gaps in the canopy to the stars. John turned to look at Rodney and saw him staring at the very same thing, eyes full of wonder. Sheppard smiled.

‘Are we safe in here?’ Asked Rodney, still looking up.

‘I was about to ask you the same thing.’

‘I’m not getting anything. Actually I’m not seeing any flashing lights in here either.’

They both looked around and could see nothing flashing.

‘I guess we are on our own through here. It looks domed, so I’d guess straight over as best we can. Unless you have a better idea?’

McKay looked surprised and blinked for a moment.

‘Me? I er… Well, I think that seems logical although straight lining it might be hard.’

‘May as well get to it,’ Sheppard suggested.

They were not prepped for hacking their way through undergrowth, but Sheppard used his combat knife to great effect. They had to climb a lot of it and although Rodney struggled he did not complain. In fact Rodney had very little to say. It was a little awkward. One part of a massive tree had fallen and they’d had to scramble over using the vines already growing over it. Once on the other side, Rodney bent over, panting. He looked up, pale and sweaty.

‘I know, I know, do more cardio…’ He put his head back down and breathed in more deeply.

‘Actually, I was just thinking you’ve gotten fitter,’ said Sheppard.

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, a year ago you’d never have made that.’

Sheppard was rewarded with McKay reassessing the fallen tree and then having a little smirk of self-satisfaction. And with that the awkwardness fell away. John felt a swell of feeling rush through him and he caught McKay’s eye. McKay looked away immediately, but almost as quickly looked back and away again. The smile stayed on John’s face. When Rodney looked back for the third time, he kept John’s gaze for a longer moment and shyly looked down.

‘I have been trying to fit in more gym time, given the extraordinary amount of time we spend trekking.’

‘Well, I approve,’ Sheppard said, taking his water bottle and taking a massive swig.
As Sheppard offered his water to McKay, he saw McKay’s eye’s go wide with terror as he fumbled at his holster trying to get his gun out. Sheppard dropped the bottle and turned bringing his gun up at the same time. The first shot missed him, but the second hit him in the gut. The fiery pain was immediate. His whole body spasmed with the pain and he fired at the floor missing the Wraith. He couldn’t catch his breath and his vision was tunnelling.

Sheppard’s legs went from under him and the shock of hitting the ground shook through every nerve. Sheppard heard McKay’s gun firing, good for you, Sheppard thought, fight till your last Rodney. The stars glinted from the gaps in the canopy above him and then the gunshots stopped.



Chapter Text

The chamber clicked empty; the Wraith had fallen to its knees and it wobbled injured but not dead. Rodney knew in that moment if he didn’t kill it now the Wraith would finish him for sure. He grabbed the Wraith’s weapon from its loose grasp and turned the gun upon it. McKay did not hesitate in shooting it more than once in the face. It flailed and writhed and stopped moving. McKay shot it one more time to be sure, forcing down the sickened feeling he felt rising.

Rodney moved to where Sheppard was and saw the wound he’d taken. There was a significant hole and the wetness of the blood made the black shirt shine. For a moment panic washed over him, it was interspersed with terror.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ he said to no one.

He fumbled around Sheppard’s neck looking for a pulse; it was there, just. McKay didn’t hear any wraith nearby but he knew damn well that didn’t mean anything. He couldn’t even try to patch Sheppard up, he had to move him now. McKay’s chest was pounding and his breaths were short and shallow. He put a new clip into his gun and took John’s too, looping it over his shoulder. Getting Sheppard out of here and into one of the area’s the entity had access too was a priority. Although he wasn’t sure how much moving John would damage the wound, he knew he had to try. They were about fifty meters from where they wanted to be; Rodney hoped the Wraith wouldn’t be there waiting for him.

Of course what he should have hoped for was the strength to move John all that way. Moving Sheppard on a flat surface on a day where he wasn’t already physically and mentally exhausted would have been hard. Today it was damn near impossible. He tried to get Shepard over his shoulder, even though he knew he wasn’t strong enough, and failed. Rodney looped his arms around Sheppard’s chest and under his arms. Over uneven ground, tree roots and vines, Rodney dragged Sheppard and tried to ignore the trail of blood he left. It was hard, his body shook with the effort. As sweat dripped down his face McKay swore he’d workout more if only he could move Sheppard just a bit farther.

At the side of the arboretum Rodney saw a green flashing light. Relief flooded through him. The light gave him hope and with that he found more energy. There was a small opening to what seemed to be some sort of service tunnel. McKay dragged John in and shut the door behind him. The entity sealed the door as it had done previously.

Rodney took off his pack and took out his first aid kit. He then opened the front of Sheppard’s shirt; his hands shook and the blood on them made it slippery.

‘Oh god,’ he said. There was a slow trickle of blood and some of the wound had been cauterised. Being able to see inside was near impossible and he knew he wouldn’t know what to do if he could. He took out some bandages and did his best to stem the flow. Once or twice Sheppard groaned but didn’t become conscious. Once or twice Rodney’s bottom lip quivered with the threat of completely losing it.

The green light started flashing again and Rodney picked up his bag and guns. He started to drag Sheppard towards the lights. Luckily he didn’t have to go far, a small side room opened up and Rodney manoeuvred Sheppard in. The door shut but this time didn’t seal. Rodney sat on the floor next to Sheppard. The bandages he’d used were already soaked. He hoped they would hold for a bit longer now Sheppard was still. Sheppard’s face was a shade of pale Rodney had never seen on him. The roles had been reversed. Sheppard had helped him, stuck by him and got him safe; he had to do the same. But he was scared. Rodney held up his hand and watched: it was still shaking and covered in Sheppard’s blood.

The lights caught his eye and he went over to a panel. He knew he had to touch it despite Sheppard’s constant insistence he shouldn’t. But right or wrong, he’d run out of options. He placed his hand in the square of warm and slightly pulsing wall. Like before, he felt himself falling away but this time it was gentle. He was aware of being inside the room with Sheppard. The entity reached out to him, softly and Rodney responded in kind. He felt its sympathy and its concern for John. He knew it wanted to help and tried to convey that they really needed it. He felt the entity tug him and he allowed it to lead him to a memory. He saw people, doctors from the look of what they were doing, healing wounds that looked extremely similar to the wounds Sheppard had received. They had tubes of black fluid which they poured over the injuries and Rodney was surprised to see them heal quickly.

‘Yes, that’s what we need. Where is it?’ Rodney asked eagerly.

The entity darkened the moment with the feeling of danger.

‘It’s dangerous? Is that what you are saying?’ A green flash was his reply.

‘Dangerous to Sheppard?’ A red flash.

‘To me?’ A green flash.

‘I don’t care. Tell me where it is or how to get it.’

Rodney was pulled to another moment and he saw an arboretum. A little flip of fear from his gut reminded him where he’d seen it before. It was the one that the Wraith had entered but had been attacked by something in there. He remembered the Wraith didn’t heal from his injuries. There was a plant in there that produced the black sap needed to help Sheppard. The entity showed him what the plant looked like; it looked unpleasant, but clearly that didn’t matter.

‘I have to go back the way we came?’ A green flash.

Rodney took his hand off the panel and put the hand to his head, unknowingly wiping Sheppard’s blood there.

‘I don’t know if I’m capable of this,’ he said to the room. The room flashed blue and then blended to green.

‘I appreciate the vote of confidence.’

Rodney bent down beside Sheppard and changed the bandages quickly. He left his bag and gun, taking Sheppard’s gun and ammo. He looked at Sheppard and he could see how his breathing had become shallow.

‘Even if I could get you to the gate, there’s no way of knowing if I can get through it. It’s probably surrounded by Wraith. Going back is risky, what if I get lost? What would you do?’ Rodney glanced at the door. He knew exactly what Sheppard would do, go and get the weird alien plant sap and save his life. And then Rodney allowed himself to think about the kiss, just for a moment. He shut his eyes and thought about Sheppard staring into his eyes and that first touch of his lips.

‘Weird alien plant sap it is.’

McKay wrote a quick note in case Sheppard woke up: ‘Gone to get medicine, stay here’. He propped it up on the bag. Once he’d gathered what he needed, McKay walked to the door and paused. He looked back at Sheppard and really hoped this wouldn’t be the last time that he saw him.

‘I have to try… I know you would.’

His gut clenched in fear, but Rodney touched the door, it rippled open and he walked through. This was absolutely the last thing he wanted to be doing.

McKay quietly made his way down the access tunnel and gripped Sheppard’s gun tightly as he approached the exit. He saw it was green lit and he carefully poked his head out of the door. He saw nothing, but he waited and listened. After a few minutes he sneaked into the undergrowth. This part was made easier by following the trail of John’s blood. Retching slightly, McKay took a moment. He knew he should’ve eaten something, but he just felt constantly sickened.

Rodney thought about why he was walking slowly towards his own death. Somehow doing it on your own was much worse than with company. Not he wished anyone harm, but dying alone sucked. Unfortunately his great intellect was working away to provide a number of ways in which he might die. This was the down side to being extremely smart, it was all too easy to predict death. Risk taking was a well prepared thing, of course he couldn’t predict everything that had been proven a number of times. Doing the right thing wasn’t always obvious or clear cut. This was one of those times. It wasn’t like him to ignore the many inherent risks involved in what he was doing, but Sheppard’s comment to him about being unable to change had cut him deeply. For a while he’d just buried the hurt and ignored it as best he could, but after the incident waiting for the water to clear he could ignore it no longer.

As he made his way through the brush, Rodney distracted himself from the physical pain by thinking about Sheppard. It was a confusing moment, the kiss. Rodney had always thought Sheppard was good looking, but paid it little mind. After all, Sheppard liked women and he was military. You can appreciate someone’s looks from afar. Sexuality wasn’t some fixed linear thing for Rodney, it very much depended on the person. He had a habit of fixating on beautiful people, he knew he couldn’t be let down because he never expected a chance in hell. But then Sheppard changed the rules.

Once he started to get close to where the fight had happened he slowed down and listened again. Nothing. Approaching with caution McKay came into the clearing and saw the Wraith still laying where he’d left it. Had he killed it? He could see it wasn’t breathing, but then he knew well enough not to take that for granted. He walked past it, watching it with every step. Perhaps it hadn’t healed like the other injured Wraith they’d seen. As he stepped through the next section he constantly looked over his shoulder, expecting the Wraith to burst through like some horror movie cliché. Moving through the greenery was tougher than before, this time he didn’t have Sheppard helping him. And then he realised he’d have to do it again on the way back. Fuck.

Getting back to the bottom of the area that had been flooded was fairly easy, but then, he quickly realised, climbing up the shaft that led there was also much harder this way around. The darkness he climbed in was terrifying; more than once he had to stop just to be able to breathe without the fear of his heart beating out of his chest. He imagined Sheppard goading him along and realised that was exactly what he had been doing. Not just then, but the whole way. The constant jokes, comments and annoyances had all been to keep him on track. McKay smiled and then remembered where he was and the smiled dropped away. He continued to climb. Once at the top he carefully exited and he realised straight away that he didn’t know where he was going. Sheppard had been the one to keep track. Rodney started to glace around hoping for some point of reference.

‘Don’t panic,’ McKay muttered to himself.

The full force of just how exhausted he was hit him. Tears started to burn in his eyes and he wiped at them angrily. This was exactly why Sheppard had shouted at him all those weeks ago. He needed to stay in control, just like Sheppard would. Just give him a database or a math problem to solve and he’d be your man, but this macho stuff… How did they all do it? Ronon, Teyla and Sheppard: he knew if any of them had been in this situation then Sheppard would be saved. But it was him. Fuck, he felt weak. He took out the power bar in his pocket and took a moment to have a few bites before moving on. It was hard to swallow and the smell from down here did not help.

‘It smells like something died,’ McKay said chewing aloud but realising something. ‘The smell was worse where the wraith were and Sheppard dropped the glow stick.’

Rodney sniffed about until he found where the stench was strongest and followed it. He walked for a good ten minutes before he realised there were no green flashing lights. He stopped and looked around, nothing. Odd and worrying. He couldn’t help being worried about Sheppard, it was a constant fear in the back of his mind. Not for one second did he forget why he was here. And then he saw the glow stick, softly illuminating the area a yellow-green.

Quietly, he stepped forward to the grating on the floor and squatted down to look through. The smell was pretty bad now, but he remained quiet and listened. After a while he pried the grating open as quietly as he could. Although all he could hear was his thumping heart. Slowly he popped his head over the edge and looked: all clear. His only option here was the hang and drop, so he double checked his gun and bag were properly attached and tried to lower himself. Rodney realised quite quickly he did not have the strength to lower himself and would fall; there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He landed with an unceremonious loud thud, which hurt his knees. Scrambling backwards to the wall, McKay held the gun ready, waiting for the imagined hordes of wraith to swarm him. They didn’t come.

The arboretum doors were closed and out of the entranceway there was a slew of Wraith ichor. It continued up the corridor and out of Rodney’s sight. He stood, wincing as his knees cracked, a shooting pain quickly passed and McKay hoped it wasn’t real damage. He approached the doors and saw there was a gap, enough to pry. The entity wasn’t opening them so using the butt of the gun, Rodney jimmied open the doors. As he did so the stench that had been held back by the doors rushed through. He tried to hold up the gun and be ready, but the smell was overwhelming. The few bites of power bar he’d had came right on up. He retched until empty and then a few more times. Straightening up Rodney held the gun ready and hoped to hell Sheppard had been right. Whatever was causing that smell needed to be dead and not alive or angry. Or hungry.

Rodney held up his hand and watched: it shook. Clearly, being brave wasn’t in his remit.

‘Let’s face it, Meredith, brave or terrified,’ he said to himself, ‘You’re fucked either way.’ He stepped through the doors.

...

There was a lot of darkness and John stayed there for a while, it was warm and cosy. He was aware of someone else but they were far, far away. Eventually, John became aware of a blueness to everything. It wasn’t worrying or troubling, it was calming and he felt at ease. Then the ‘someone else’ became clearer, pushing carefully forward, slowly making themselves known.

‘Hi,’ said Sheppard. Saying that had been weird, like speaking without moving his mouth. He tried again.

‘Hello?’ Around him he felt reassurance and the calm blue flashed.

‘Oh, it’s you.’ The lights flash a positive green and went back to blue.

‘Am I dead?’ Green, but Sheppard felt an overwhelming amusement coming from it.

‘What’s so funny?’ The entity showed him Rodney asking the very same question.

‘Well that kinda figures.’

Sheppard then remembered what had happened, fear gripped him.

‘Is he dead?’ Red flash.

‘But, I’m dying aren’t I?’ There was a significant pause and then green.

‘Is that why I am here?’ The entity showed him a vision of himself laying on the floor, bleeding.

‘Where’s McKay?’ Sheppard saw McKay dragging him down a corridor and into the room he was laying in. He saw how Rodney tried to help him. Sheppard smiled when he saw Rodney touch the wall, of course he did. The entity showed their entire exchange. Sheppard watched with increasing alarm and interjected in the playback.

‘No, no… please tell me he didn’t go back?’ Sheppard felt an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling in his gut. The entity showed him Rodney getting ready to leave and saying “I have to try… I know you would”.

Sheppard remained quiet for a few minutes trying to play out scenarios out in his head where Rodney somehow succeeds. When that failed he considered the likelihood of Rodney surviving, also failing. The odds of another team coming through was unlikely, but it might happen. If it did that would be great, but it wasn’t something he could rely on. If he’d been in Rodney’s shoes, he’d have done the exact same thing. So McKay was right on that. The thought of Rodney out there on his own was deeply troubling. He’d seen what McKay could do in the right circumstances, but he often fell short with the physical. A terrible thought was starting to dawn on Sheppard. He knew Rodney could be reckless in the moment, sometimes he’d even say brave, but this… trekking through an alien station filled with Wraith? This was a new level of stupidity for McKay. Sheppard smirked for a moment, he was actually impressed. Not that he’d be telling McKay that of course. Assuming he lived.

‘So… flashing light entity? What are you?’ Sheppard felt trepidation and fear, a grey flashed. ‘You don’t have to be scared of me. I mean, I’m not exactly in a position to do anything about it am I?’

The entity showed him a memory. There was a massive room with what John assumed was scientific equipment; lots of wires, tubes and computers. They led into a centralised area and John thought it looked a little similar to the area before the huge water tank, but more machine-like and less bio-whatever. Then with that realisation his mind disconnected from the entity’s thoughts and internalised to his own. John was sitting beside Rodney again and he felt that electric from before, shoot through his middle. It was those blue eyes; wide and piercing. It felt as though they saw straight through him. It was disconcerting to see the memory again, up close through his own eyes. He knew what was coming. They’d played, he’d flirted. It wasn’t the first time he’d flirted with McKay but usually McKay didn’t respond. This time there was something in his face, maybe the fear or the exhaustion highlighted it, but John felt like he truly saw him. It was the vulnerability, it just cut through Rodney’s usual masks. John relived the moment, enjoyed the look of need on Rodney’s face and the passion in the kiss. Looking back on it like this Sheppard could see how McKay had let go of his usual restraints. It pleased him to see Rodney gaining some confidence. Amongst other things.

The entity waited politely and then jogged John’s mind with a little blip of impatience.

‘Sorry,’ Sheppard said, feeling a little embarrassed. ‘I er… got distracted.’

They went back into the memory of the centralised room and he saw, what he assumed were scientists, working intensely. He saw a time lapse of them scurrying around like ants. They were trying desperately to create, no reanimate, something. It was dying and somehow this control room had much to do with it. It became clear to John that these people depended on it to survive, or they needed it to continue surviving, he wasn’t quite sure of the context. Sheppard suspected that the Wraith might be the thing these people feared. He’d seen it time and time again in colonies throughout Pegasus, the desperate measures different groups had made to survive. It made him feel desperately sad each time he found one, knowing that he wouldn’t be there if they’d succeeded.

There was a moment in the replay that told Sheppard they’d had a breakthrough. The same black sap that he’d been shown previously was the answer somehow. This time the entity showed him where the sap came from. Footage from a soldier’s camera showed a group trudging through dense forest. John expected something to happen, why else would the entity show it to him, but he wasn’t ready to feel the feelings of those involved to overwhelm him. The panic, even the terror they felt was bearable compared to the pain and eventual death. The plants were carnivorous. They were also clever. It seemed to John that they covered a wide area with what appeared to be near invisible hair like strands. When a creature wandered in the plants opened up one of many tubes that the animal would then disappear down. Inside, an acidic substance would coat it and, slowly, it would be digested.  Humans didn’t die so quick. John felt sick to his stomach and mercifully the entity skipped ahead. Eventually survivors made it back but those who’d been enveloped in the acid were heightened to pain and suffered as a consequence. Some had managed to gather samples and they were rewarded with finding a healing agent with no precedent.

Sheppard couldn’t help getting caught up in the moment, in the strangers emotions and celebrations. They’d succeeded. But if they had, where were they now? Did they leave? There were no bodies, no signs of a fight or of an evacuation: it made no sense. 

But then something clicked into place and a swell of fear washed over Sheppard.

‘They’re here, aren’t they? Those Triffid things… that’s what Rodney…’ he couldn’t finish saying it. The entity flashed green.

‘I didn’t ask him to do that. Does he know?’ The entity flashed red.

‘Why didn’t you tell him?’ The entity was silent but showed him McKay’s reaction to his injuries.

‘He’ll die in there!’ Sheppard shouted, well mentally anyway. All he felt was rage. Rage at the entity for letting Rodney go, rage at Rodney actually growing a backbone and rage at the fact he was helpless… dying.

The entity prodded at him with another memory.

‘No, no more.’ Sheppard waved it away.

It prodded again.

‘What?’

John saw a young man, a scientist, no more than twenty working on the machine in the previous memory. He seemed to work harder than everyone else, staying well beyond the others who helped him. Sheppard watched impassively, trying not to think about the plants or Rodney. It was clear to him, at least with his limited knowledge that the machine they were creating was bio-mechanical, probably the area he stood in… laid in. It made sense, he’d seen lots of things required for communal living, which if they wanted to avoid the Wraith, they’d need in abundance. Everything had worked for these people, they sealed themselves in, and the Wraith couldn’t find them. They had people, food, water, warmth and computers to carry on work with. He saw that they had families, children… lives. When somebody got sick they cured it with the black sap from the plants. The machine also needed little care as the sap helped with the bio aspect of its existence. But Sheppard started to see where the entity was leading him; they ran out of sap. Sure enough they grew their own and at first it was all hunky dory. However, the plants were aggressive and soon they took over the arboretum they grew in. It had to be sealed off. When the need for the black sap arose they’d send people in to retrieve it. The plant couldn’t exist without food, so they reared small animals to feed it.

Sheppard could see it was a slow decline. People died as they tried to only retrieve sap when absolutely necessary and when they did the plants adapted their traps.

‘This is all very interesting, but none of this explains to me what you are?’

The entity showed John the young scientist, though not so young… positively decrepit in fact. In the central control area with all the pipes. He sat down next to the middle, not far from where he and Rodney had rested. Next to him was a panel and he opened it to reveal a series of what looked like blood vessels, except they weren’t. He cut his arm open and started to stick some of these tubes into his arm. Then he took a tube of the black sap and poured it onto the open wound. Sheppard winced as the man screamed and screamed. Then the entity ended the vision and Sheppard returned to the less comforting blackness of before.

‘You… what? Integrated yourself?’ Green flash.

‘Why?’ It showed him the other people still alive in the memory. His family. Sheppard approved. ‘You did what you had too, I get that.’

The entity showed him how he integrated at the systems, grew out like a plant himself and protected the people for as long as he could. One by one they died until the entity was alone. Sheppard felt a wash of despair flood over him.

‘I’m sorry.’ Sheppard said simply, knowing the words were not enough.

The entity then showed him the Wraith. They’d tried to get in before, on many, many occasions, and the entity had managed to keep them out. But time and the lack of repair had taken its toll. Out of desperation the entity used the Stargate to signal worlds it thought could help.

‘So you need more of the black stuff? Is that why you sent Rodney after it?’ Sheppard could feel his anger rising again.

A bright red flash.

‘Woah, ok.’

Sheppard felt a series of emotions in quick bursts, but the entity settled on a memory instead. An old woman, asleep peacefully. Sheppard nodded.

‘You want to die.’ Sustained green light, that didn’t fade away emphasised the strength of what the entity wanted.

‘Well… I think we can assist one another. Help me, help Rodney and I will do everything I can to help you.'

The entity showed Sheppard the room he laid in and highlighted the panel on the wall.

‘You want me touch that?’ A green flash. ‘And then what?’

It showed him systems he could access, including the Stargate.

‘Why didn’t you mention this before?’

It showed him Rodney passing out when he first touched the panel.

‘It will do that to me?’ A green flash. ‘Well… I don’t really have anything else to do before I die.’

The entity failed to mention the pain and it took Sheppard a while to get control of himself. On the plus side, no-one was around to see him cry. It took him fifteen or so minutes to drag himself to the wall. As he laid there, shaking with the effort and pain, Sheppard remembered how much he’d told Rodney off for doing what he was about to do.

‘Well, I guess here goes nothing.’


Chapter Text

Elizabeth was sick of the constant berating. If it wasn’t Teyla, it was Ronon or Beckett, knocking at her door. She appreciated why they wanted action, she wanted action too. But the lack of information was deafening with its silence. No radio, no Stargate, no nothing. Ronan had taken to sitting on the steps by the Stargate. He seemed convinced it would activate again, but after forty-eight hours it had remained resolutely shut. No one had told Ronon to move when he fell asleep sitting upright, leaning against the wall. Elizabeth knew some battles were not worth fighting.

She looked out across the void between her office and the Stargate. Carson had brought food for everyone who’d not been down to the mess. He looked as tired as everyone else. And then everything changed. The Stargate activated and its silvery hues refracted around the room. Ronon was up instantly, gun drawn and ready. Teyla appeared from somewhere, Elizabeth hadn’t seen her from the office.

‘We are receiving a message, audio and visual.’

‘Put it on the screen,’ Weir frowned, no IDC.

The screen flickered and the video looked like surveillance footage of a smallish room. There was a trail of red, blood she guessed and Sheppard sat upright in the corner of the room. Weir heard the reactions of everyone around her, but it was Carson’s she paid attention too. His wince and look away told her more in that moment than anything else. He caught her eye and then looked back at the screen.

‘Hello, this is Sheppard… um… not sure if this is just sound or not but… Be brief, John.’ Sheppard’s head seemed to lull at this point.

‘Sheppard, can you hear me? It’s Weir.’

Sheppard showed no sign of hearing her at all.

‘We need to go through right now,’ growled Ronon.

Elizabeth held her hand up to show she’d heard him but he should be quiet.

‘John? Can you hear us?’

The room around Sheppard started to flash brightly and he snapped his head up.

‘Okay, okay. I wasn’t sleeping. Right. Specifics. I’m dying. Wraith shot me. Rodney’s alive last I saw…’ John started to droop forward again and the room flashed.

‘John? Can he hear us?’ Weir asked the Comms.

‘No, they don’t look to be receiving.’

At the same time Sheppard was wincing and holding his side. It was really hard to ignore the pool of blood he was sitting in.

‘Pay attention now, important info: this place must not fall into the hands of the Wraith. There’s… not many, but there’s something here that kills them. Like, no regen at all.’ John paused and looked up. ‘When the gate next opens it will be safe to pass, but I can’t IDC from here. You are gonna have to trust… the… what are you?’

‘Who is he speaking too?’ Asked Teyla.

‘Is he coherent?’ Weir aimed the question at the Doctor. Who gave her a look and shrugged.

‘He’s struggling to keep conscious. Whether we can act on what he says is your department. But he is right on one thing for certain, he is dying.’

Sheppard spoke over Teyla and she quieted. Although, Weir suspected it would be much along the lines of what Ronon’s glare was communicating to her.

‘There’s a… well person? No… computer? No. Look, Ronon you are just gonna have to trust the green lights. Red is bad, green in good.’

Ronon looked at Weir and she did not turn to face him. He continued to stare at her while John spoke.

‘Look, that’s going to have to…’ John gasped in pain.  A few moments passed and he regained his composure. ‘Just keep sending it ok. Repeat.’ The screen went blank and then started playing again from the beginning.

Ronon was still staring at her. After the video played through three more times the Stargate shut down. Weir gripped the side of the table and finally looked Ronon in the eye.

‘Get a team together for the next time the gate opens.’ Ronon’s dreads flicked from behind as he turned sharply out of the room. Teyla nodded at Weir and also left.

Carson stood quiet and thoughtful.

‘Why isn’t Rodney with Sheppard?’ He asked.

‘Could be a million reasons why. John wouldn’t have left him unless he’d had too.’

‘No, I don’t suppose he would. But potentially they are both in a bad way. I should go too.’

Weir gave him a stern look and was about to say no, but remembered the Wraith killing thing Sheppard mentioned.

‘Go then, help them if you can and, Carson?’

‘Yes?’

‘If you can, gather any intel on the Wraith killing weapon Sheppard mentioned…’

‘Aye, I’ll keep both eyes open.’

Carson left Weir and made his way down to Medical. He kept his face neutral, not wanting to show how deeply worried he was. Alone in the elevator, he allowed himself to feel the full force of his apprehension. Fear was a natural response, but Carson knew whatever had happened was in Ronan’s words, ‘Not good.’ He packed everything he thought he might need and a few things he might not. He also packed some sampling equipment in case the weapon for the wraith was chemical. The last thing he picked up was his gun. He held it flat and in the palm of his hand. What an odd thing to need, he mused, as a healer. But he thought of the wraith and holstered it.

...

 

The ground was spongy; it bounced as he walked. Considering how tired he was it felt like it was sucking all the energy out of his step. A glance downward confirmed it was some sort of moss. The ground was also strewn with old decaying leaves, twigs and some sort of brownish reddish fluid, which Rodney almost immediately decided not to touch under any circumstance. The smell had not improved and although he tried to breathe out of his nose, it did little to help. Sheppard might have had a point when he said they were eating it when they breathed: what if it were some sort of spore. God, what if it was literally growing from within him? His mind snapped to the dining scene in the film Alien. He couldn’t shake the feeling of dread, it clung to his chest. Calm, Rodney, calm. Positive thoughts. You are Ripley.

Holding up the gun he channelled his inner Ripley and walked further in. He felt something against his face. It felt suspiciously like spider webs. Rodney let the gun go and it hung loosely at his waist while he panicked and slapped at his face. He stepped back and bounced off the trunk of the tree behind him. When he recovered from the moment of fear he grabbed the gun and pointed it in random directions. His heart pounded. To be fair, it hadn’t stopped pounding like a war drum since he’d left Sheppard. Rodney was sure if the Wraith or plants didn’t kill him a heart attack probably would. Reaching around into his pocket Rodney pulled out a small torch. He shined it around the immediate area and saw the strands he’d walked into. Projecting the light further ahead, he saw the strands were everywhere. It might not be spider silk, but Rodney knew a web when he saw one.

And then a coldness went through McKay. It was certainty. This place was death.

Just when he was getting used to terror, he was introduced to being petrified. The coldness he felt numbed his body and he couldn’t move. He daren’t move. Standing quiet and frozen, Rodney breathed. He’d made a mistake, he knew that now. It wasn’t coming here, but coming here trying to be Sheppard, Teyla or Ronan. Thinking he had to be like Ripley. But he wasn’t them. He would never be them. He wasn’t brave, he was stupid.

Rodney looked at his surroundings shining the light around. Come on, Rodney, use what you have. The strands all came from vines that laced their way through the canopy of the trees. The vines came up from the ground. Rodney noticed they mostly grew from beneath the moss. The strands also came back down to the moss. It looked like hair, the darkness of it blended in with the dank beneath the canopy. The vines would lead him to the black sap, which came from the inner part of the plant. So then he’d have to dig for it he guessed.

Rodney stepped forward and the ground gave way from beneath him and he disappeared through the moss.

Each time Rodney thought he knew fear, knew horror, this place sought to introduce him to another level. He landed in wet up to his waist, in pitch darkness and there were sharp things in the fluid that poked at him, but somehow didn’t pierce. Still, that wasn’t the factor that caught him first, it was the smell. Death, or rather dead. It smelt dead. McKay dry heaved. Whilst retching Rodney noticed Sheppard’s gun was gone, probably on the surface. He saw a dim light in the water and knew it must be his torch, so he reached down to retrieve it. He saw that the fluid wasn’t water but was much thicker and glutinous. There were other things in the liquid but he tried not to think about that as he scrabbled blindly. Holding up the torch Rodney scanned the area.

The walls were interlaced roots, mostly fine but seeming to lead back to a more central point where they were thicker. The brown-red fluid dripped from everything. But all this was secondary to the corpses laying around in varying states of decay. Roots grew through some of them. This is what happened to the people here.

This is what will happen to me.

The panic started to creep up from his toes, like icicles caressing him. The feeling reached his chest and stopped. Rodney’s mind fought for composure with logic. Wouldn’t I be dead already? He thought. Sloshing through the viscous water he trudged over to the pile of decaying corpses nearest to him. He examined them. He could see that decay was slow, which made sense. The plant only took what it would need and it seemed to need vary little to survive. The fluid was clearly part of the digestion process. But what he couldn’t fathom is why the people seemed not to move from where they entered. Above he could see gaps in the root mesh which he assumed were more entrances. Currently he couldn’t see how he might reach one. Walking further on Rodney saw a Wraith. He pulled out his sidearm and pointed at the Wraith. It looked dead and it was covered with the brown-red goo.

It opened its eyes and looked at Rodney.

‘Don’t move.’

‘Why aren’t you screaming?’ the Wraith rasped.

‘Because I’m not scared of you.’ Rodney lied.

‘No pain?’ The Wraith seemed badly wounded.

‘What?’

‘You… you have no pain?’

‘I have plenty.’

‘No, no you don’t.’

‘Why did you come here?’

‘Power.’ When Rodney looked surprised at the truthful response the Wraith continued. ‘It’s not like you’ll be telling anyone soon.’

Rodney frowned.

‘You have your weapon.’ The Wraith tilted his head slightly in the direction of Rodney’s gun, which he now lowered.

‘Yes.’

‘Kill me then.’

‘You want me to kill you?’

‘Yes.’

‘I haven’t finished asking you questions.’

‘If I answer your questions, will you…’ The Wraith stopped speaking and convulsed for a few seconds.

‘I will.’

‘Ask then.’

‘How many of you came in?’

‘A scout ship.’

‘Where’s the cruiser?’

‘Destroyed by the station’s defences.’

‘What do you know about the power source?’

‘It’s legend. But the station still exists so…’

‘The power source must do too,’ Rodney finished for the Wraith. ‘Why don’t you heal?’

‘Do not know. This is poison.’ The Wraith gestures at the brown-red ooze. ‘The pain is excruciating.’

‘Good.’ Rodney surprised himself with the venom he spat at the Wraith.

The Wraith hissed at him. Rodney raised the gun again but faltered. Choosing not to act Rodney walked on towards the root centre leaving the Wraith behind. He could hear it cursing him, threatening all sorts of painful deaths. The closer Rodney got to the centre the harder it became to get through. The thick water, the refuse, the skeletal remains of those long dead made it all the more difficult to traverse. The occasional screams of pain came from the Wraith, along with rage and occasional pleas for mercy. Rodney knew on the way back he would shoot it. He was ashamed he’d allowed it to suffer.

The roots at the centre had less of the brown-red ooze but when Rodney walked he could feel bones under his feet. He was no longer retching because of the stench or feeling queasy walking on human remains. He was tired. Exhaustion made it so he had little energy for feeling anything other than tired. Rodney’s actions were slow, but methodical not wanting to waste what little energy he had. He unsheathed his knife, which he’d taken from Sheppard, and started hacking at the larger roots. This seemed the right place to do it, as he could see other cut roots that had healed. Thick black ichor leaked out from the cut and Rodney collected it in a vial. He had several to fill. His mind wondered whether it was pointless or not, after all, he didn’t know if he could leave. Rodney was betting that there was a way out, he just had to find it and not fall back in to what he was referring to as the ‘Sarlacc’. He was starting to wish all the sci-fi films he’d watched weren’t actually based in fact.

After what seemed like a long time to Rodney, he managed to fill all the vials. He also cut off a piece of root and stuck it all into his back pack. He then trudged back toward the Wraith he’d left, it had quietened down after a while. It whimpered and twitched in the dark. It heard Rodney approach and looked up. Rodney withdrew his gun and pointed it at the Wraith. It nodded, its eyes grateful. Rodney shot it in the head and it instantly slumped. Rodney holstered his gun and walked on. He’d envied it in the moment, not wanting to die, but it at least having an end. He felt nothing in killing it.

After at least an hour wandering amongst the roots Rodney found a way out. Or at least a place he could use. It was lower hanging and he could see it had been used by others in the past. Somebody had made a sort of ladder from root and bone tied together, but it had broken. Rodney knew he could fix it. There was plenty of root around, he had some rope, enough for this job anyway and it would be stronger. The bone was a problem though. He’d need the stronger bones like femurs. Another new horror. As Rodney sifted through the dead he distanced himself from the task, he thought about tensile strength, compound pressure. He even estimated the thread count of the rope, running the numbers seeking comfort in equations. He’d stopped wondering if John was alive, because that didn’t matter in the moment. In this moment, he was making a ladder, nothing more.

McKay anchored the ladder to the highest point of the roots he could reach. He managed to get higher by making a mound to stand on. Once he reached the top he would be able to grab a hold of the interlacing network of ceiling roots and get out. The torch had stopped working about a third of the way through making the mound. It had taken him a lot longer to anchor the ladder than he’d thought. It was much easier to concentrate on that rather than the suffocating darkness around him.

After testing the anchor would take his weight, Rodney stepped on the first rung and let it take his whole weight. It took it, so he went up one more and waited. Then another and another till he reached the top. As he pulled himself up he pushed down hard on the bone which snapped and he slipped but held on. The bone jabbed into his ankle, he winced and pulled on the roots above him. Now only being held by the weight of the roots Rodney somehow pushed through the moss and handful by handful he broke through. He lay, beached covered in brown-red goo and laughed. He had no idea where he was or which direction to go, but he was out.

Rodney sat up and then reached down to his ankle, which was hurting still. It had a fragment of bone sticking out from it. He pulled it out. Whilst down there he’d not considered the brown-red water: what its purpose was, why did everyone die down there? The moment the plant water ran into the cut Rodney knew. It was like fire spreading up his leg, every nerve ending lit up. McKay screamed.

...

When the Stargate lit up the team was ready and waiting. No one had talked much apart from the usual checks. Lorne was leading the team and Carson had seen him talk to Ronon briefly. The man was poised and ready to launch himself through the Stargate. Lorne looked up at Weir and she nodded.

‘Bring them and yourselves back, Commander.’

‘Let’s go.’ Lorne waved them on.

Carson walked through the Stargate with the second wave after the all clear was given. Not being particularly tactically minded, Carson gawped at the flashing swirling colours coming from the walls. He reached out to touch it and Teyla caught his hand.

‘I would not touch anything, it is unclear exactly how this system works. It affected Rodney poorly.’

‘I understand, sorry.’ Carson looked sheepish. He’d read the report Teyla and Ronon had given, he should of known better. Teyla smiled and nodded. He waited while the military checked and checked. They made their way to where Sheppard had been watching over Rodney, with no visual sign of Wraith.

Ronon walked about the room and then left. He paced outside and then pointed out a tiny trail of blood, a smear here and there.

‘Ok, Ronon, you track the blood, we’ll follow and support. Any sign of Wraith we hunker down. Teyla please stay with Carson.’ Lorne’s orders were immediately followed and Teyla took a position on Carson’s flank. Back home, Carson knew some men might be threatened by having a woman protect them. But he wasn’t. People were driven by different things, fighting, at least physically was not for him. In fact he was rather glad to know she was watching him.

They took a pace which Carson found hard to keep up with, it was like a forced march. Occasionally he’d feel Teyla touch his back and he’d jog a little to catch up. It wasn’t that he was unfit, but a lot shorter than Ronon who was moving very quickly, running ahead, pausing and tracking. Then they stopped for a few minutes. Carson could hear Lorne and Ronon arguing about something Sheppard had said in the SOS.

‘Doctor, we could use your input,’ Lorne waved him over and he jogged up.

‘Sure what do you need?’

‘How compos mentis do you think Sheppard was in that communication?’ Asked Lorne.

Carson was very aware of the glowering look coming from Ronon.

‘I think he was struggling to stay conscious.’ Lorne gave Ronon a ‘see I told you look’. ‘What is this about? Some context might help?’ Carson shrugged.

‘Sheppard gave me instructions about red and green lights. There are red and green lights,’ Ronon pointed to the walkway floor where some small green lights were flashing.

‘Well, that is different,’ Carson smiled, ‘I’d suggest we follow the lights.’

It was Lorne’s turn to frown.

‘Ronon, be extra vigilant, but follow the lights. Anything hinky, stop and reassess.’

Lorne walked back to talk to the rest of the team and Ronon’s brow wrinkled in confusion for a moment. Carson smiled.

‘Hinky means bad or off somehow, Ronon.’

‘Thanks.’ Ronon turned away and started walking after the lights.

Carson started to walk but then looked around for Teyla, who was just three steps away. She smiled at him, he smiled back. Of course she was right there. But then as she turned away he saw a crack in the façade she presented. Fear. Not like she was frightened, but her concern for the others was visible and deep.

They continued to follow Ronon to the edge of the great open area to a small side corridor. Here Lorne made extra checks before allowing Ronon to move on. They made it to the med room Sheppard had found and treated Rodney in. Carson was handed the hypo-syringe by Lorne.

‘What is it?’

‘Well, it looks medical. It’s empty. There’s blood on this bed so I would assume Sheppard used it to treat Rodney.’

‘What? Are you sure? That sounds risky.’ Lorne’s eyebrows arched in surprise.

‘You did not see Rodney, Commander. He was very unwell,’ said Teyla. ‘We only left because of our concern for Rodney. It was urgent.’

‘Yes but how did he know it was here or how to use it?’ Asked Lorne.

‘Green lights,’ said Ronon. He was ready to leave the room and move on.

‘There’s a panel flashing here,’ Carson pointed.

Ronon reached out to touch it but the light turned red. As he moved his hand away it became green again. Lorne shrugged and reached out slowly and it turned red. He retracted and it became green again. Teyla stepped forward and looked at Lorne for permission, he nodded and she reached out. It remained green. She looked to Lorne again.

‘Are you sure this is the right action?’ Lorne questioned Teyla.

‘I feel it is.’

‘Ok then.’

Teyla touched the panel. Unlike Rodney and Sheppard, Teyla was more than familiar with touching another’s mind. Plus the entity had two humans before her to practice on. She remained conscious and standing but she closed her eyes.

‘I feel a presence, a mind that is ancient. It is scared, lonely but peaceful,’ Teyla smiled, ‘It is happy to see me again.’

Inside her mind the entity tried to show Teyla what had happened, but too quickly and she cannot follow.

‘It is too fast.’ The entity showed John, alive.

‘That is good. Where is Rodney?’ There is a wave of worry mixed with red and orange. It shows her the black liquid, the healing, the plants and the Arboretum. Then it shows Rodney leaving.

‘Oh.’ Teyla opened her eyes and looked at Lorne. ‘We must divide into two groups.’

‘Why?’

‘Rodney is located elsewhere.’

‘Do you know where?’

‘Yes, it is on the way to finding Sheppard.’

‘Very well, Ronon you go get Rodney with…’

‘No…’ Teyla interjected, ‘I must go and find Rodney. I’ve seen where he has gone and it is not safe. The presence has shown me how to be… safe.’

‘You’re not going alone, Stevens, you will assist.’ Lorne pointed at Stevens and he nodded he understood. ‘If you are sure this presence is to be trusted, Teyla?’

‘Yes, I am assured we can get to the gate room after…’ Teyla started to say.

‘Yes, go straight to the gate unless there are Wraith, then radio.’ Lorne nodded.

They entered the corridor and followed the lights until they reached a ventilation shaft. The panel opened and they all went inside. The further in they went the worse the smell got. They moved quietly until they reached an open floor panel with what appeared to be on of Sheppard glow sticks. Teyla whispered to Lorne.

‘This is where Rodney is…’

‘Ok, Stevens, go with her. Carson, stick to me. Radio if you need help.’

Carson watched as Teyla dropped through the hole and then Stevens followed. He felt apprehension about the team splitting up but said nothing. He did as Lorne asked and followed closely.

When they entered the arboretum Carson could not help staring. It was beautiful and terrifying. The walk through was not pleasant. There were no lights giving hints. And Carson found keeping pace much harder without Teyla giving him prompts to keep up. They reached a clearing up ahead and Ronon stopped. Carson saw, when Lorne stepped out of the way, that there was a dead Wraith. Ronon walked forward a few paces and stopped he looked at Lorne and Lorne frowned.

‘Doc?’ Lorne pointed at what they both were staring: a pool of blood.

‘I’m going to assume this is where Sheppard got shot.’ The blood trail led into the trees beyond. ‘Somebody dragged him away. The loss of blood here is significant.’

‘We keep moving then.’ Lorne nodded at Ronon and they moved on.

Carson didn’t consider himself unfit, but yet again the pace and the uneven terrain, left him panting to keep up. When they reached the outer most edge of the arboretum, Carson grabbed the branch of a nearby tree to rest upon. Ahead, Ronon and Lorne once again debated which way to head. Once settled Lorne waved him on.

The green light flashed consistently, leading Ronon along the corridor. The lights were not needed. Carson looked at the congealed blood they walked over and tried to estimate how much blood Sheppard had lost. It was difficult to say. The pessimist in him doubted he’d be live when they got there. However, if Sheppard could find a way to lengthen that time he would. Hope springs eternal and all that…

Then there was Rodney. He tried not to fear for his friend, but Carson knew that for such a smart person, Rodney could be alarmingly stupid sometimes. Especially where his friends were concerned.

They reached the end of the blood trail with a sealed door. Ronon knocked, before Lorne could tell him not too. The door shimmered and rippled and ebbed away leaving the entrance way clear of obstruction. Ronon did not wait for a signal but instead lurched inside. Carson heard Ronon say ‘Sheppard?’ before he saw the man sat slumped against the wall.

Doctor mode kicked in and he immediately went to work on Sheppard. He laid him flat and examined the wound briefly. Then he took his pulse, which was present but faint, very faint. He packed the wound looking to see if Sheppard stirred at all from the pain. A flicker registered on his face, which reassured Carson a little.

‘Doc?’ Ronon was in his face.

‘He’s alive… just. I’m trying to stabilise him, but it’s moving him I fear the most.’

‘Do you think you can get him stable enough to move? Lorne asked.

‘I hope so.’ Carson looked at the wound. It was cauterized to some extent but it bled heavily still. If blood loss didn’t kill him, infection would. They needed to get him back. Carson relayed this to Lorne who nodded briefly. The truth was Carson could not see how he would make it alive.

There was a sudden movement Carson recognised it from experience. Everyone in the room bar himself and Sheppard pulled up there weapons for combat. Carson turned around. There stood Rodney, covered in red-brown goo, panting. He held out a vial filled with black liquid. He wobbled on his feet.

‘Here, use this to save Sheppard.’

Chapter Text

Lorne reacted first by reaching forward and taking the vial from Rodney’s shaking hand. He looked out behind Rodney and into the corridor he just emerged from checking for the others and probably Wraith. Carson noted that McKay wobbled slightly as he stood. Unsteady and weary looking.

‘Where’s Teyla and Stevens?’ Lorne asked.

‘I didn’t see them,’ Rodney looked behind confused, ‘was I meant too?’

Lorne ignored the question and focused on the sticky vial in his hand.

‘What is this?’ He jiggled it and it glooped around viscously.

‘The sap from a particularly horrific smelling plant.’

Lorne passed it to Carson who took it and looked doubtfully at it.

‘Are you ok, Rodney?’ asked Carson.

‘I’m fine. You need to give that to Sheppard, just pour it on the wound,’ McKay nodded encouragingly, still slightly breathless.

‘Rodney, there is no way I am pouring this on to Sheppard’s injuries, god knows what it will do,’ Carson shook his head.

‘It’s fine, the entity told me it was the right thing to use.’ Carson and Lorne exchanged a telling glance. What entity? Carson ran possibilities through his mind, like group hallucination or some mind altering alien interfering. He knew something was communicating with them, but it did not mean it was entirely friendly. What other reasons could there be for doing the actions it had suggested to McKay?

‘Rodney with all due respect there is absolutely no way I would advocate using an unknown substance, the side effects alone…’ Carson stared at the tube.

‘How is he?’ Rodney indicated Sheppard.

‘Not good,’ Carson said, echoing Ronon’s words from before.

‘Then use it.’

‘I told you, Rodney, it’s not safe.’

‘I know and I told you it’s fine.’

‘How would you know that without extensive testing?’

‘Because I already used it on myself.’

‘You did what?’ Carson’s eyebrows flew up in shock.

‘I tested it, I used it on myself.’

‘Why on earth would you do that?’ Carson didn’t know why he was surprised, it was exactly the sort of thing McKay would do.

‘Because I was hurt and I couldn’t make it back. I knew if I didn’t… he’d die.’ Rodney left out the little details like he nearly dying himself and the pain that was so excruciating he blacked out more than once.

Carson stood up and looked at Rodney in disbelief.

‘That was an incredibly stupid thing to do.’

‘Well, I accidently got poisoned by the plant and I remembered…’

‘The same plant you got the sap from?’

‘Yes.’ The look Carson gave Rodney started with utter disbelief but ended with annoyance. ‘Think about it,’ Rodney breathed heavily still trying to catch his breath, ‘Plants often are the cure to their own toxins on earth.’

‘That… That is true sometimes,’ Carson begrudgingly admitted.

‘It’s true now, give it to Shepard.’

‘Rodney, it’s not tested and even if it didn’t appear to kill him now, it might do later.’

‘Deal with that later then.’

‘Rodney!’

McKay looked from Carson to Lorne, both had their shocked judging faces on. It was a particular expression people reserved for when Rodney was operating outside of social norms. He didn’t care. He didn’t have time to molly-coddle the less intelligent or their feelings. It was this stuff that drove him mad, having to explain and waste valuable time they didn’t have.

‘There are things in play here, information I don’t have time to distil down for you,’ Rodney points at the vial, ‘I am vastly more intelligent than anyone else in this room and I take massively calculated risks with people’s lives all the time. I am good at it. It’s one of the reasons I am out here in Pegasus, doing what I do. I win far more than I lose. I bet my own life on taking that sap and I am willing to bet his too. You should be trusting my expert opinion right now.’ Rodney’s eyes were wide with the strength of his anger.

‘Well I’m not, Rodney. I hear what you are saying but there is no way I am giving Sheppard an unknown toxic organic compound.’ Carson did not take offense at Rodney’s belligerence, it was almost normal. Although… there was something else, desperation?

Rodney sagged where he stood. The exhaustion of everything suddenly overtook him the cost mentally and physically of everything he’d done to get to this moment only to be stopped by his well-meaning friends.

‘You don’t understand…’ His eyes were bright with tears that threatened to fall.

Carson stood and went to him.

‘Come sit down and… Rodney are you bleeding?’ Carson looked at the floor where Rodney stood, there were several drops of blood by his feet.

‘No… not anymore.’

‘Sit down.’

Carson checked Sheppard briefly and then started to quickly assess Rodney.

McKay had not given up. He sat carefully and quietly, waiting for his moment to give Sheppard the plant sap. It wasn’t their fault that they did not understand what was happening but he’d be damned if he were just going to sit by and let John die. McKay knew if he acted tired and weary they would take their focus off him. The exhaustion wasn’t fake, the tears and frustration were not fake. It wasn’t like him to be so devious, but exceptional circumstances allowed for strange things to happen. As it was he didn’t have to wait long for a reasonable distraction.

‘Wraith,’ Lorne hissed.

Lorne and Ronon took position to defend. Rodney held up Sheppard’s gun and aimed at the doorway. Lorne shot first and the Wraith shot back. Ronon walked out into the corridor and there were sound of fighting. Rodney suspected Ronon was taking care of the problem. He walked back in and nodded at Lorne.

‘It was just two for now.’

Then the room started to flash red.

‘Rodney?’

‘It’s trying to warn us, I would guess more Wraith inbound.’

Lorne pointed at Sheppard.

‘Can we move him yet?’

‘No.’ Carson shook his head.

‘Doctor, we are going to be moving one way or another, get Sheppard ready.’

Carson didn’t look happy, but started to prep Sheppard anyway.

Rodney realised he’d missed the ideal opportunity to sneak the sap to Sheppard and huffed. He’d gotten caught up in the moment and missed his chance. He looked over at Sheppard. He was so pale… pallid. Rodney’s gut twisted with fear for John. Carson unpacked and assembled some sort of strong but lightweight stretcher and asked Ronon to help him move Sheppard. John didn’t wake or stir and Carson watched him like a Hawk.

A shot narrowly missed Ronon just as Lorne shouted ‘Wraith.’ The next moments were a blur for Rodney. He and Carson moved Sheppard as close to the exit as they could. McKay’s achy muscles screamed at the renewed work they had to do. Lorne and Ronon forced the Wraith back with oppressive fire allowing McKay and Carson to get Sheppard out. The retreated back the way they had come right up till the arboretum. This time the green lights led a different path; McKay did not question them. Instead he directed Carson that way and Lorne and Ronon were forced to follow.

‘Where the hell are you going, McKay?’ Lorne shouted.

‘To the Stargate,’ McKay shouted back. He was guessing, but it was a good guess. He’d started to remember some of the direction and distance they’d been heading and knew they were going that way. When they reached the corridor just before the gate room the remaining Wraith made their presence known. McKay and the others were trapped between the two groups of Wraith. Rodney supported and returned fire until a shot glanced his arm and seared his flesh. He yelled out in pain but held his gun up, still firing. The Wraith pressed forward from both sides, Lorne yelled to keep the pressure up and Rodney heard Ronon shouting support too.  And then… there was a lot more shooting. Ronon stopped covering their rear and joined Lorne at the front. Stevens then followed. Teyla ran up to where Rodney was squatting down next to Sheppard and Carson.

‘Are you ok, Rodney?’ McKay nodded. He saw Teyla wince looking at Sheppard.

The shooting stopped and Lorne shouted the all clear. Ronon continued to watch the gate room door. Carson in the meantime was checking Sheppard. He looked at Lorne directly.

‘We are losing Sheppard.’

‘Let’s get him out of here,’ Lorne looked to Ronon, ‘Ronon, we’ll clear the gate room.’

‘No, no…’ Carson’s hands move quickly trying to find a pulse on Sheppard. His face was grim, his mouth pressed into a bloodless line. After a few moments Carson puts his head down to Sheppard’s chest to listen.

Rodney reached into his bag and pulled out another vial of black sap. He didn’t look at Carson, nor did he ask permission. Even when Carson said his name and tried to grab his hands, Rodney ignored him and found the strength to resist. He poured the vial on to Sheppard’s open wound. McKay dropped the vial to one side and watched John’s face for any reaction. The gunfire stopped and Sheppard still hadn’t moved. Lorne and Ronon ran back into the corridor looking rattled and on edge.

‘Ok the gate room is clear, let’s go –‘

Lorne is cut off mid-sentence as Sheppard started to violently arch his back as though a current passed through him. Rodney knew what this was, he’d been through it himself. The pain was… indescribable. Carson tried to hold Sheppard down, but was failing.

‘You gave him that black shit?’ Lorne’s disbelief and anger was immediate. The adrenaline of the gun battle was still flowing through his veins. He grabbed Rodney by the collar and yanked him off the ground. Ronon grabbed Lorne’s arm and glared at him for a few seconds. Lorne relented but gave daggers to McKay.

‘We need to leave now.’

‘Thanks, Ronon.’ McKay whispered.

‘Don’t thank me yet, he’d better live…’ Ronon trailed off leaving the threat unsaid.

‘Ronon, help Stevens with Sheppard,’ Lorne ordered.

‘I don’t think he’s ready to be moved yet,’ Carson gestured at Sheppard convulsing.

‘We are not waiting for the next wave of Wraith. We move now.’

They walked through into the gate room, stepping over a few dead Wraith laying on the floor. Lorne opened the gate and contacted Atlantis. The room started to flash yellow. Rodney felt the entity’s fear wash over him, the dread, the pain and anguish. He fell to his knees and braced himself on all fours. It was too much… The entity tried desperately to show Rodney images to explain itself. It hurt and the pressure started to build up inside his head.

‘For god’s sake, McKay,’ Lorne misread the situation and grabbed at McKay’s arm to yank him back up to his feet, which worked for a moment. What Lorne hadn’t foreseen was McKay screaming and holding his head.

‘We can’t leave!’ shouted McKay.

Lorne didn’t bother to reply and started to drag McKay to the Stargate.

‘No, we have to stay.’

Rodney turned and tried to go back, but Lorne did not relinquish his hold on him. McKay twisted and ducked under Lorne’s grasp. Lorne held fast and when Rodney hit him it took him totally by surprise. Using the moment to his advantage Rodney wriggled free and started to move away from the gate room. Ronon grabbed him from behind and his eyes widened in surprise at the fierceness of McKay’s struggle. Rodney stamped down on Ronon’s foot and wrenched himself away. A momentary victory as he was now cornered by Ronon, Lorne and Teyla. He had Sheppard and Carson at his back but he didn’t pay them any attention. The need to stay was consuming.

‘You don’t understand…’ Rodney winced in pain as waves of fear passed through him from the entity. ‘We… have… to stay.’

‘Rodney, you are not yourself. You are not thinking straight.’ Teyla held out her hand, open. ‘Please, just come with us and we will help.’

Rodney waved her hand and help away, though the effort sent a fresh wave of pain through him.

Carson caught Teyla’s eye and reached into his bag pulling out a sedative. She glanced at Ronon who took the cue.

‘McKay, Shepard needs medical attention…’ Ronon drew McKay’s attention.

Carson calmly walked up behind McKay and administered a sedative while Ronon was speaking. Rodney dropped like a stone.

‘Right, if you three have finished fannying about, Shepard needs moving,’ Carson said. Carson did not have time to worry too much about his medicine clashing with whatever was wrong with Rodney. Sheppard needed Atlantis.



‘What am I looking at here?’

‘Well, let’s start with the easy one, shall we?’ Carson waved Weir over to the bed Sheppard laid in. ‘Sheppard received a wound to the lower abdomen via a Wraith weapon. It did a lot of damage internally and Sheppard was mortally wounded.’

‘Mortally?’

‘Aye, but whatever Rodney gave him kick started the healing process. It started to repair by the time I came to operate. I had to do very little when it came down to it.’

‘Do we know what Rodney gave him?’

‘Not really, but I am doing extensive tests.’

‘How is Sheppard now?’

‘He’s fine.’

‘Fine?’

‘Yes, fine. I share your disbelief, if I hadn’t have seen him dying myself…’

‘So… he’ll just recover?’

‘Yes. If there are side effects I haven’t seen any in his bloodwork or any of the tests I’ve done. But we aren’t out of the park yet with that one. He’ll need a few days rest in here for me to be sure.’

‘And Rodney?’ Weir frowned as she said his name. She’d had a brief report from Lorne and frankly she was very concerned about Rodney.

‘Where to start? Exhaustion, hypoglycaemia, minor flesh wound from a Wraith weapon, fracture of the patella, cuts, contusions, head trauma, possible concussion, ingestion of unknown plant sap, poison from the same plant and that’s just the physical stuff.’

‘What’s the non-physical stuff?’

‘My immediate concern was delayed shock, but after speaking to Teyla I realised he’s had empathic, possibly telepathic communication with an unknown alien. So there’s that. An assessment will have to be done but he hasn’t really spoken about what he’s been through and for Rodney that’s a warning sign.’

‘Has he been awake much?’

‘Off and on. I have kept him mildly sedated. I saw how agitated he became when we tried to leave and I’m concerned he still might not be in his right mind. He has mentioned that we should go back, quite insistent. I told him I’d let you know. So now you know.’

‘What about the Wraith killing weapon we heard about?’

‘I saw nothing to indicate such a weapon.’

‘What about the famed power source?’

‘Again, I saw little. I imagine Rodney will know more. Perhaps you could drop by tomorrow morning?’

‘I can do that.’

‘But go easy, I am concerned…’

‘I understand Doctor.’

‘I will be requesting Dr Heightmeyer’s help I think.’

‘Whatever you need to get our people back up and running.’

Elizabeth looked at McKay and Sheppard laying so quietly. It was unnerving not to hear these two bickering or sniping at each other. While she knew they both would recover it was difficult not to worry anyway. Their story thus far was relatively untold and she could admit to herself that her curiosity went way beyond concern for the two of them. She wanted to know about the power sources and she wanted that potential wraith killing weapon. Both party’s wouldn’t blame her for these thoughts of course, Rodney’s scientific curiosity and John’s defensive instincts both would want answers. But she had to be patient for a while, their recovery was important too. The expertise in leadership came from knowing the balance… or something very like that.



Sheppard opened his eyes and looked around the med bay. He was mildly surprised to be alive: the last thing he remembered was dying. Or perhaps it was nearly dying. Instinctively his hands went to his torso and felt for the wound he knew he’d had. It was still there but… it was not painful. Sheppard sat up slightly and looked around to see where he was and was relieved to see Atlantis. McKay laying in the bed beside him. A pang of concern threaded through him.

‘Good morning, Major,’ Carson smiled brightly. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he tried really hard.

‘It certainly is, especially as I didn’t expect to have another morning.’ Sheppard saw Carson’s expression flicker from the cheer for a moment. ‘Well, it’s clearly not all good news?’

‘There’s not bad news, just uncertain news.’

‘May as well get it over with while I’m on such a lucky roll.’

‘Your wound is healing exceptionally well, I’d expect you to be up and about within a day or so,’ Sheppard’s eyebrows rose in surprise, ‘But…’

‘Ah the ever present and eventful but…’

‘Rodney treated you with an unknown organic compound, which in his defence, did work despite my misgivings. However, I have no way of knowing what the short term or long term effects might be.’

‘The plant serum?’ Asked Sheppard.

‘Yes,’ Carson looked confused. ‘How did you know about that?’

‘The entity told me about it.’

‘You had contact with it too?’ Carson’s frown threated to make his eyebrows meet in the middle. ‘Telepathically?’

‘Er… I guess so. It didn’t speak directly, it just showed me images of things or feelings. It tended to show me the less happy fun times. ’ Sheppard watched as Carson added notes to a tablet he was holding. ‘Is that a problem?’

‘Yes… no.’ Carson shrugged, ‘I don’t know, it might do.’

‘Well as long as you are sure.’ Sheppard smiled.

‘This entity seems to have affected you all differently.’

‘All? Just the two of us as I recall.’

‘Teyla too, but she seems fine. Well you do too actually…’

Sheppard glanced over to Rodney and his smile slipped away. He looked back to Carson who was watching him and didn’t get the chance to voice the question he wanted to ask.

‘Rodney has not reacted well to the events, which might be in part to the entity’s communication.’

‘Why, what has he said?’

‘He said he was fine.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh. That’s not good.’

‘That was my general feeling too.’

Weir and Dr Heightmeyer entered the room just as Sheppard was about to ask more, but put on his best ‘I’m great’ face instead. Weir spent a few minutes outlining Lorne’s report so that he was caught up with what transpired. Heightmeyer said little but informed him they would need to have a chat in the near future. Sheppard had little to say apart from a quip here and there. Eventually, he feigned tiredness and pulled the ‘I’ve been shot’ card.

He lay in his bed, eyes shut but trying to doze. John listened to the medical staff moving around and Carson’s friendly chatter amongst them. He could hear Rodney’s soft snoring which he found oddly comforting in its regularity. Deep inside Sheppard, feelings kept trying to surface, a menagerie trying to be heard. John knew just how to deal with them by shoving them back down, deep down till he couldn’t hear them anymore. Once he did this, he found sleep came much easier.

An amount of time passed and Sheppard was drawn to the surface of his consciousness by voices, softly spoken. It was not an immediate thing but rather a gentle awakening. He listened and realised Heightmeyer was discussing him with Carson.

‘I agree, it’s not the physical injuries that are the cause for concern.’

‘He’s not been awake much. I would imagine shock is a factor here.’

‘Yes. The initial physical shock will fade but the mental one…’

‘I guess there’s no way to know until he starts being more responsive. I could start to wind back the sedation, have someone present at all times… just in case.’

‘I think that’s probably wise. Sedation is only delaying the inevitable I’m afraid.’

Sheppard then realised they were talking about McKay.

‘Do we know any more about what he’s been through specifically?’

‘I’ve pieced together a timeline of sorts. But specific events? An alien mind invaded his, caused the blackout in the first instance. He survived an encounter with the Wraith that Sheppard didn’t. I know Rodney and I know that seeing Sheppard gunned down would be devastating especially if he was helpless to prevent it. In fact, lack of control over the given situation would have tested him in the worst of ways I think. Then there’s the time he was alone, hours as I understand it.’

‘Do we know what happened in that timeframe?’

‘Only that he retrieved an organic compound from a plant on the say so of the entity that was in his mind.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Rodney was injured and took the organic compound himself. I’ve not found the source for the injury, it must have healed. I can only surmise that it wasn’t as serious as Sheppard’s wound and therefore it would have healed quicker. There was blood on his trousers, but no damage.’

‘That’s sounds incredibly risky.’

‘It was, but you have to understand, doing risky, logic defying acts is not uncommon for Rodney. In fact, when you combine Sheppard into the mix I would say it definitely multiplies the chance of him doing something that most people would run from.’

Sheppard fought hard not to laugh and give himself away.

‘So, in your opinion he takes more risks when Sheppard is around?’

There was a pause here, Sheppard assumed Carson was thinking.

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you think that is?’

‘Oh different reasons. Sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s for fun. They get caught up in these stupid theoretical debates.’

‘Interesting, what sort of debates?’

Carson chuckles.

‘Well sometimes it’s competitive like who can fit the most fruit in their mouth. Or sometimes they test new tech and try to out macho each other. Sheppard once threw Rodney from a balcony and shot him in the leg to test an Ancient shielding device. They can get caught up in the ‘can we…’ and don’t consider the ‘should we…’ as perhaps they should. Makes a good story though.’

‘In the field?’

‘That’s a bit different.’

‘Is it?’

‘Well…’

‘You’re not getting them in trouble.’

‘I know. It’s just…’ There was a pause and Sheppard heard Carson sigh. ‘I’ve seen them both take extreme risks for each other. I mean I understand why Sheppard does, but Rodney is very self-orientated and not really made for what he clearly did to save Sheppard. Rodney is an anxious man, quick see death in direct action.’

‘Unless there’s some other motivating factor we are not aware of.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well survival is a driving factor, but clearly he was going against that instinct. Perhaps it is simply that he didn’t want his friend to die. It seems to me that would be enough.’

‘True.’

‘You are frowning, Doctor, do you not agree?’

‘Yes, on the surface, as a team they all would do a lot for each other.’

‘And under the surface.’

‘I think there’s not a lot Rodney wouldn’t do if Sheppard suggested it.’

Sheppard tensed slightly, no longer amused by the subject matter.

‘Interesting. You think he looks up to Sheppard.’

‘Definitely, not that you’d ever hear him admit it.’

‘Well, that sort of influence can be good. It inspires and motivates, and… you have that frown again, Doctor.’

‘Yes.’

‘Care to enlighten me?’

‘Sheppard can be… oh I don’t know. I can’t seem to find the right word.’

‘They work well together, don’t they?’

‘They bicker… a lot.’

‘Well then, I would said if McKay stands up to him it’s not all one way.’

Carson’s voice lowers and Sheppard struggles to hear the next part.

‘It’s a façade. Rodney is a deeply sensitive man, prickly on the outside but that’s because he gets hurt easily. Far too easily. The verbal sparring is a defence sometimes. His insecurity is a significant barrier to making friends.’

‘But you are friends with him aren’t you?’

‘Yes, but it’s different.’

‘Why?’

‘He knows I wouldn’t hurt him.’

‘And Sheppard does?’

‘Yes, I think he has done.’

Sheppard felt his feelings start to surface, a pang of guilt struck through and his mind was immediately back in the moment when he’d lost his temper with McKay. He remembered McKay almost wilting in front of him. The wide blue eyes cast downward and away.

‘Then perhaps McKay was trying to win approval?’

Carson snorted.

‘Oh god no, whatever for? Their friendship’s not that misguided.’

‘Well, we won’t know why until we can ask him, will we?’

‘True enough.’

‘Well, it’s getting late and I will be back in the morning, Doctor. Good night.’

‘Good night.’

Sheppard heard Heightmeyer’s footsteps fade out and the door open and close. He also heard Carson nearby. Very carefully, Sheppard cracked open and eye and saw Carson staring down at Rodney, tablet in hand but not actually looking at it.

‘I think you were just brave, Rodney, unquantifiably and unexpectedly, brave.’

He tapped the tablet and left it on a table nearby and went into his office, leaving Sheppard with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

A dark mass of swirling black and red.  Mouths open in endless silent screaming, drowning. Arms aloft, reaching out trying to find something, anything to cling too. A hand grabbed McKay and pulled with unprecedented strength. It yanked him into the sea of red and black and McKay screamed but no sound was emitted. He was drowning. Rodney woke up struggling and drenched in sweat. He tried to reach up to wipe his face, but his hand was stopped by something. Restraints. He glanced around and saw Atlantis and relaxed a little.

‘Welcome back, Rodney.’ Beckett’s voice was low and calm. ‘Easy now. Don’t fight the restraints.’ Carson put his hand on McKay’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. ‘Do you know where you are, Rodney?’

‘Yes, of course I do. Atlantis.’ Carson looked relieved at Rodney’s irritation and nodded.

McKay tried to shake the feeling of suffocation that still lingered from the dream. He tried to focus on the things Carson was saying but his mind felt… foggy.

‘Good, that’s good. Now, how are you feeling?’

‘Terrible.’

Rodney saw something in Carson’s eyes, concern, yes, but something more not quite pity… McKay’s eyes went wide.

‘Sheppard?’

‘He’s fine.’

‘Really?’ McKay studied Carson’s face for anything he might be hiding. There was something there.

‘Yes, whatever you gave him seemed to work exactly as you said it would.’

Rodney tried to cast his mind back to getting home to Atlantis but his mind drew blanks. He remembered Carson’s concerns about the sap and the side effects that there might be. Side effects that he may well be suffering from.

‘Side-effects?’

‘I’m not seeing any currently, but we both know that doesn’t mean anything necessarily. It will be a while before I am happy that you are both in the clear as far as that is concerned.’

Rodney felt woozy and rested his head back for a moment.

‘Are you sure you are feeling well?’

‘I’m exhausted even though it feels like I’ve been sleeping forever.’

‘That might be the sedative I gave you. You were extremely agitated when we tried to leave the planet. Do you remember it?’ Carson was squinting his eyes and being careful with his words, McKay recognised the signs of being ‘handled’.

‘I don’t remember leaving but I know we need to go back.’

‘Why?’

‘The entity there needs our help.’

‘And what do you think the best way to do that would be?’

‘Take a team and find the solution, like we always do… why?’

‘And if I said you’d have to wait?’

‘Well I wouldn’t expect get up and just waltz through the stargate.’

Carson narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

‘You don’t feel compelled to return?’

‘I want to go back and help, but not alone. I’m not insane.’ Rodney felt his head drooping and snapped it back up. ‘Sorry, I can’t seem to keep my eyes open.’

‘It’s ok, Rodney, you sleep. God knows you’ve earned it.’ Carson patted his arm and pulled up the blanket.

 

McKay shut his eyes and drifted back into deep sleep. This time his dreams were less about drowning more about other things. A number of times he was roused to semi consciousness by dreams of a meadow with green and purple grass, flowers and children playing. It was pleasant and carefree. Another dream showed the same children playing on the station in the arboretum he’d crossed with John. The trees were much, much smaller and everything was well maintained. There was a great sense of happiness and contentment. McKay observed quietly and then, one by one, they all turned and looked at him. Their eyes staring right into him. He felt paralysed with fear and could not move or avoid their penetrating gaze. Then suddenly the smell of death and McKay saw himself reaching into the red-brown plant water…

Rodney was not unaccustomed to nightmares, he’d always had them as a child and as an adult his intellect helped fuel his anxieties about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen when awake. These dreams were different. They were vivid, he could smell, hear and see everything. It was like he was a part of them, not just experiencing them. Waking up from them was jarring and it took a moment for him to realise once again where he was. He wiped his face and realised the restraints on his hands were gone. He looked over at John and saw he was asleep. It was reassuring to know he was there, not far away. A warm swell of feeling went through him, pleased that Sheppard was alive.

‘Hello, Dr McKay.’

Rodney jumped and saw Dr Heightmeyer sitting nearby, she had a book in her lap and a cup beside her on the tray-table between them. She looked tired and Rodney noticed the lights were dimmed.

‘Hello, Dr Heightmeyer.’

‘How are you feeling?’

How was he feeling? He wasn’t sure. Tired, absolutely, but everything else seemed so far away. Why was it freezing in here?

‘Tired and cold,’ he replied.

‘You might still be feeling the effects of medication Dr Beckett has given you. It’s ok if you are feeling a little bit out of sorts, perfectly normal.’

‘How much time has passed?’

‘Since you came back? It’s been about thirty-six hours.’

‘Where’s Carson?’

‘He’s asleep.’

‘Here?’

Heightmeyer pointed to one of the beds on the further side of the bay and Rodney saw Carson sleeping.

‘I came in early to help and saw how exhausted he was. I told him I would keep watch and wake him if need be.’

Rodney nodded. He sat quietly for a moment and he could feel Heightmeyer watching him. He felt her penetrating gaze was assessing him for signs of insanity.

‘Would you like something to drink? Tea perhaps?’

‘Just water.’

Heightmeyer got up and poured some water into a cup for McKay and handed it to him. He sipped it and at least his mouth felt less dry. As he placed the cup on the tray-table between himself and Heightmeyer, he saw that his hand shook. McKay looked up immediately to see if Heightmeyer had too. She was looking directly at him, but she didn’t say anything. He took his betraying hand back and pinned it to his lap with the other.

‘I don’t know how I got here.’ Rodney tried to fill the silence and perhaps she would avoid talking about his shaking. And he didn’t know how he’d gotten home.

‘As I understand it you didn’t want to leave and had to be sedated.’

‘I did? Yes, I did. Carson said something about it. Sorry I forgot.’

‘According to the others you suddenly became insistent about staying, wouldn’t listen to reason. Dr Beckett had to sedate you.’

McKay looked uncomfortable searching his mind for the memories that went with what Heightmeyer was describing.

‘I remember John…’ McKay trailed off recalling the pain Sheppard was in when he’d given him the sap.

‘What do you remember about him?’

‘He was in pain. No-one was listening to me and John was dying, so I gave him the sap.’

‘Then what?’ Heightmeyer lent forward slightly.

‘The wraith came and so did Teyla and Stevens, they fought so that we could get back to the stargate.’

‘Did you feel then that you should stay?’

‘No… no. I had to get John back to Atlantis.’

‘So what changed?’

McKay stared at the cup of water so that he wouldn’t have to look Heightmeyer in the eyes as he spoke. He felt the drowning feeling coming back and a tightness in his chest.

‘I… It, the entity overwhelmed me. It needs our help and it tried to show me why but the onslaught of its feelings was too much.’

‘Rodney, do you feel like yourself?’

McKay snapped his head up to look at her. The question took him by surprise. Almost immediately he began to answer yes, but then stopped himself. Did he? Did he really feel like himself? He looked away while he thought about the answer. He crossed his arms over his chest and rubbed them as if he were trying to find warmth. Everything seemed so distant and far away. He gritted his teeth a little, he wasn’t sure how to answer and that scared him. He felt a flutter of fear and the tightness in his chest worsen. How would he even know? His bottom lip quivered a little as he answered.

‘I don’t know.’

‘It’s ok, Rodney.’ Heightmeyer stood and walked over to him. She picked up a spare blanket and started to place it over his legs, bringing it up to his waist. ‘You are shivering, are you cold?’

‘I don’t feel anything… just numb.’ Rodney looked down at his arms and hands and realised he was shaking. He gritted his teeth further, the cold feeling intensifying, the tightness in his chest compressed his lungs.

‘Oh,’ said Heightmeyer like she just realised something and quickly walked over to where Carson laid and gently shook him. He started when he woke and got up quickly, barely looking tired at all, ready to help.

‘I think Dr McKay is in delayed shock, he’s cold and shaking.’

Carson got up and made his way over to McKay.

‘Rodney, how are you feeling now?’ He added another blanket and pulled it up over Rodney’s chest making sure it was all tucked in. He took Rodney’s hand holding it tightly and looked directly at McKay.

‘I’m getting pretty sick of being asked that, that’s how I’m feeling.’ McKay looked annoyed.

‘Aye, well, you are in medical you’re going to be asked it a lot.’

‘I’m cold. Somehow I’m still tired.’

‘You’re in shock, Rodney. Not really a surprise given what you’ve been through. The sedation I gave you would have delayed it, but not prevented it necessarily. And sedation isn’t a substitute for real sleep or rest. I would suggest you settle down and see if you can get some sleep by yourself. Or, if you like I can give you something?’

‘Will it stop dreams?’

Carson and Heightmeyer exchanged a weighty glance with each other. Carson’s tone softened when he spoke again.

‘I could find something that might help with dreams, if that’s something you’d like?’

‘Yes… please,’ McKay laid down and added, ‘And, Carson, don’t tell Sheppard.’

‘Don’t tell him what?’

‘That I’ve had bad dreams.’

‘Of course not, your secrets safe with me, Rodney,’ Carson went to the medicine cabinet and came back with two pills in a paper cup. ‘Here you go.’

McKay took the pills and swallowed them.

‘How long will they take to work?’

‘A few minutes.’

‘Ok.’ McKay lay back but didn’t shut his eyes.

‘Are you warm enough?’

‘I think so.’

‘Would you like something to eat, Rodney?’

Carson was rewarded with McKay’s eyes lighting up.

‘Pancakes.’

‘Pancakes? Might have to wait till the mess opens for those. Best I can do is a fruit cup.’

‘I guess that will have to do.’ Carson walked off to fetch the fruit cup.

Rodney looked at Heightmeyer.

‘You think I’m nuts don’t you?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘You have to say that.’

‘True, but, Rodney, you have your issues but nuts isn’t one of them, citrus maybe…’ She smiled reassuringly, ‘Why don’t you close your eyes and think of something more pleasant to help you rest?’

‘Like what?’

‘The last time you felt happy?’

McKay’s mind wandering back to the alien station. Rodney closed his eyes and thought of the moment on the alien station, in the arboretum when he’d caught Sheppard’s eye and looked away. Sheppard hadn’t looked away. The thought of that moment trapped in Sheppard’s glance made his stomach queasy. No, not queasy, it made his insides lighten. Like going over a bump in a car, a moment of exciting freefall just before you hit the ground again. He kept returning to the moment, replaying it, enjoying the moment of ‘freefall’. McKay had started to rationalise what had happened between them as some sort of freak, stress induced episode, where Sheppard had teased and Rodney had misunderstood. Except… the look after, in the trees. Those eyes and that smile. He pushed away the doubts and lived in the moment as he drifted back to sleep.



Sheppard woke to Weir gently tapping his arm, she was smiling softly.

‘Good morning, John.’

‘Are you allowed to wake me? I’m pretty sure there’s some rules about letting healing patients get their rest.’

‘There probably is but you seem to be healing just fine.’

‘I do feel fine… considering. Was there something you specifically wanted or was it just to rob me of my beauty sleep?’ Sheppard forced himself to sit up in bed and waited for the pain when he moved. He was pleasantly surprised to find there was none.

Weir smirked and held out a tablet for John to review. There were lots of words like ‘mission report’ and ‘incomplete’. He looked up at her and she was still smirking.

‘Would you believe I’ve suddenly taken a turn for the worse?’

Weir shook her head.

‘The truth is, John, we have some hefty gaps in the narrative and until McKay is awake and gets the all clear, you’re going to have to fill them in for me. But a brief now so I have some understanding could delay the written report for a few hours.’

‘You’re sly sometimes, you know that?’ John lay the tablet on his lap as he spoke.

‘I know.’

‘I guess you know everything up until Teyla and Ronon left,’ Weir nodded. ‘Well, McKay was fitting and, at that time, we’d seen no-one else apparent so sending for help seemed the right thing to do. Especially when the radio didn’t work. The other choice was pick him up and carry him back, but that might have killed him so I was cautious. That and he’s damn heavy.’

Weir gave Sheppard a disapproving look.

‘Anyway, they didn’t come back. I waited about thirty minutes and decided to move Rodney myself, then Wraith turned up. I knew they would head to the room we were in before because it was some sort of hub. So I moved McKay, as quietly and as quickly as I could, and I wasn’t wrong, he was heavy.’

‘Did you know about the entity at this point?’

‘No… well actually, I wasn’t aware of it, but it was aware of me. It tried to communicate with various flashing colours but I didn’t know that at the time. It was only when I was trying to escape the Wraith did I notice the green lights leading me away from them.’

‘Did you feel compelled to follow them?’

‘No, it was more like choosing odds, you know 50/50 chance of not ending in death so I went that way. As it turned out it led me to some sort of medical area with beds and scanners, not that I understood more than his heartrate. Now, the next bit is going to be… well, you’re going to get judgy.’

Weir’s face changed from calm to extremely tense instantly.

‘John…’

‘It turned out okay, McKay’s alive right?’

‘John!’

‘See that’s exactly the face I was talking about.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I injected McKay with an unknown alien medicine because the flashing lights said it was ok.’ Weir’s eyebrows flew up her forehead. ‘Look, I know how it sounds, I do. But in the moment, with McKay bleeding out of his ears and eyes, it seemed the call to make. And I can tell you, he was not pleased. That’s gratitude for you.’

‘I can’t believe you did something so reckless...’ Weir shook her head in disbelief as she spoke.

‘You can’t? Oh well I guess that’s a good thing.’

‘What happened after that?’

‘McKay whined… a lot,’ Weir shot him an impatient look, ‘The Wraith turned up and tried to get in but we escaped thanks to the entity helping us. There was some trekking in vents, McKay wasn’t doing so well, but we pressed on anyway. There was an incident with Wraith on the way that was extremely interesting. We saw one who was injured but not healing, it made a lot of noise until his charming friends knocked him unconscious.’

‘Did you notice anything unusual about the Wraith?’

‘It was wet, it might have been blood.’

‘Like a red-brown liquid?’

Sheppard nodded.

‘Yes, I think so. Is that significant?’

‘Yes, I think it might be. Rodney was covered in it when he came back.’

‘I know that the place the Wraith came from and the place Rodney went to get the sap were one and the same.’

‘That’s good to know, thank you.’

‘When we got out of the vents we had to cross and area that was flooded, but the entity evacuated the water.’ Sheppard’s mind flashed to waiting for the water to clear and smiled.

‘Remember something else?’

‘What? Oh er… no. Yeah. When the water cleared we just followed the lights till the arboretum. Where I got shot. Bit of a shock actually. I don’t remember much after that until I was in the room Lorne found me in.’

‘You made the video clip that was sent to us in there.’

‘Yeah, see… I don’t really remember much about that part. I do remember the entity communicating with me while I was unconscious.’

‘It did? I wasn’t aware of that.’

‘I’m not sure how it did that. Maybe because I was unconscious it could speak to me. Anyway, in that time it showed me visions of the past and how it got to that state. It helped me regain consciousness so that I could communicate with you.’

‘What sort of things did it show you?’

‘Their struggles to survive against the Wraith and the lengths they went to. Not dissimilar to many groups we’ve met, they gave a lot to live. The entity was a living breathing person once, but sacrificed himself to help others, I guess it’s a trait that stayed with him.’ Sheppard looked down when he thought about it. The idea of not helping the entity was displeasing. ‘We are going to try and go back, right?’

‘Yes, of course. The gate opened a few times but it has stopped. We aren’t going to dial until we have all the facts and a team together.’ Weir paused and glanced over to where McKay was sleeping, ‘We also need to know what happened to McKay.’

‘I thought he went back to get the sap and returned?’

‘Yes, he did…’

‘But?’

‘When the team tried to leave he lost control, fought to stay. He had to be sedated and brought back.’

‘Right, I know that bit. I would guess that because McKay was more sensitive to the entity the emotions it projected were much stronger. I did promise to help it.’

‘You did what?’

‘I told it, if it helped me I would do my best to help it.’

‘You shouldn’t have made promises you didn’t know you could keep.’

‘It knew I might not live, it was a risk it was willing to take. But as long as we go back…’

‘For all we know it could be crawling with Wraith.’

‘Send a MALP.’

Weir frowned at Sheppard, he could see her trying to work out if it were worth the risk. John knew he could sell it, if he took a certain angle. He used his winning-over-Weir smile.

‘You know that station is powered by some significant tech. I’m pretty sure if we help the entity it will share it’s knowledge at the very least with us. And that’s not to mention the idea of having something that can heal life threatening injuries.’

‘Don’t do that.’

‘What?’

‘The hang-dog thing.’

‘Wow, I must be losing my touch…’ Sheppard looked faux-confused, ‘it’s like losing a super power or something.’

‘We’ll send a MALP, depending on McKay’s assessment.’

Dr Heightmeyer walked in at this point and greeted both Weir and Sheppard with a bright smile.

‘How are you feeling, John?’ She asked.

‘Alive, which is better than yesterday.’

‘Do you think you are up to having a chat later?’

‘Is this where you ask me probing personal questions, I get uncomfortable and give you one word answers.’

‘No, it’s where I ask you probing personal questions to try and ascertain whether your mind has been compromised by an alien consciousness or whether being shot has traumatised you, and you get uncomfortable and give me one word answers.’

Weir laughed and covered her mouth almost immediately.

‘I think you might have broken Dr Heightmeyer, John,’ said Weir.

‘I’ve made an impression I can tell.’

‘I will leave you to your verbal sparring, I will speak to you later, John,’ Weir nodded at both on them and walked off to find Carson before she left.

‘Am I that bad?’ asked Sheppard.

‘Not compared to some,’ Heightmeyer looked over at McKay.

‘Oh, I know that one. Never stops talking, am I right?’

‘Actually, I did want to speak to you about Rodney.’

Sheppard’s defences went up immediately and internally his mind was saying ‘Danger. Danger, Will Robinson.’ John tried to sound as casual as possible.

‘Oh, concerning what exactly?’

‘Would you say you are friends?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘Really? He did save your life.’

‘Well I might want him to shut up less… for good behaviour you understand.’

‘Is it really so difficult to admit you’re both friends.’

‘Have you met McKay?’

‘Okay, let me try again. You know him well?’

‘Yes, I know him well.’

‘Right. Well when Rodney wakes up he’s going to need a stable environment to feel safe in. Just a precautionary measure until we know he’s ok.’

‘Why isn’t he awake now?’

Beckett who’d been loitering nearby talking to Weir before she’d left replied before Heightmeyer could.

‘Rodney needed some help sleeping last night, but it shouldn’t be too long before he wakes now,’ Carson glanced at the time and mentally calculated when Rodney would wake, ‘Maybe an hour or two at most.’

‘What do you mean by “stable environment”?’

‘I mean keep things as they are so he feels secure.’

‘I’m sorry… have I missed something?’

‘We don’t know the long term effects of the entity’s presence. It clearly had a hold on McKay far more than it did you or Teyla. I’m just erring on the side of caution, that’s all. If it turns out I’ve over-reacted in his treatment I’ll be relieved, but I’m not an expert… no one is.’

‘I understand, stable and normal, check.’

‘Thank you, John, and do pop in later for our chat.’

‘I wouldn’t miss it.’

‘That means today.’

‘I know.’

Carson chuckled at their exchange and said goodbye to Heightmeyer as she left. He walked over to Sheppard’s bed and checked his vitals.

‘So, do we get breakfast in this joint?’ asked Sheppard.

‘Yes, but I’m afraid you won’t be eating solids just yet.’

Sheppard gave Carson a serious look.

‘What?’

‘You had a gut wound, I would like to give it some time to recover before we start to tax it.’

‘This is precautionary right?’

Carson gave Sheppard a stern look.

‘I know what you are thinking and you will have to wait till this evening at the earliest. I have a liquid supplement for you in the meantime.’

‘Sounds appetising.’ John pouted and then asked, ‘What are they serving in the mess this morning?’

‘Pancakes.’

‘Aww man I was looking forward to those.’

‘If you eat and stress your wounds they could pop internally and give you sepsis.’

‘Yeah… but pancakes!’

‘Well you can watch Rodney eat his when he wakes up.’

Sheppard gave Carson an evil stare.

‘I see how it is; McKay’s your favourite.’

‘Perhaps you can convince McKay to share while I’m not looking.’

Carson and Sheppard looked at each for a moment and then laughed.

‘Maybe you could make a start on that report if you’re bored,’ Carson observed helpfully.

Sheppard pulled a disgusted face, but picked up the tablet. He read Ronon and Teyla’s accounts of what happened, Ronon’s was brief but Teyla’s had some insights. Then he read Lorne’s report which did not make for good reading. It was a difficult situation made worse being under fire from the Wraith. Sheppard started to tap in some details; some of it was still a bit foggy.  As he wrote he couldn’t stop his mind drifting off on tangents. It had occurred to him as he recounted, what McKay must have done to get the sap. He must have fought and killed at least one Wraith, the one that had shot him. McKay must have then carried or dragged him out of the arboretum to the room the others found him in. Rodney would then have had to go all the way back through the arboretum, through the flooded area, up the access and back into the vents. No one knew what Rodney faced in the… what would you call that? The dark arboretum? But once out he wouldn’t have been able to go back the way he’d come. Sheppard was sure McKay would not have been able to get back into the vent. What happened after that? He must have found an alternate route and avoided the Wraith.

Sheppard looked over to the bed where McKay was sleeping. The gentle rise and fall of Rodney’s shoulders indicated a deep sleep. John felt a swell of something in his chest, a rising feeling of warmth. A wide smile spread across his face lighting up his eyes on the way.

‘Well, well…’ He said aloud to himself. ‘Hello there, butterfly.’



Rodney opened his eyes for the first time in a couple of days without feeling groggy or tired. He was still in medical, the beds still sucked but it was home at least and he was alive. He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes only to be jarred by someone throwing something hard at his head.

‘Ow!’

‘Sorry, aim is not back yet.’ Sheppard grinned widely and Rodney rubbed his head, then picked up the missile. It was a green jello cup. Rodney looked confused and held it up.

‘Why are you throwing jello at me?’

‘I don’t like that flavour.’

‘And how does throwing it at me help?’

‘I want yours,’ Sheppard pointed at the breakfast set aside for McKay.

McKay held up the cup on his tray.

‘This is syrup, not Jello.’

‘I know.’

‘In what reality do you think I’m going to swap jello for syrup?’ McKay was clearly sceptical.

‘This one.’

‘Major, please do not throw projectiles at other patients,’ said Carson. ‘And we had this chat already, you get solids tomorrow. You shouldn’t even have that.’ Carson pointed at the cup Rodney was holding.

‘I’m fine… you know I’m fine.’

‘Do you think it is possible, Major, that just once you might err on the side of caution?’

Sheppard smirked. Carson sighed.

‘I guess not. Wait and let me check your tests, I’ll be back in a moment.’

The moment Carson was out of the room Sheppard held his hands to his chest like he was ready to receive a pass. Rodney looked at him and shook his head.

‘Aw come on, McKay!’

‘Doctors’ orders,’ Rodney smirked.

‘Oh I get it… no, no, you keep it.’ Sheppard crossed his arms, ‘It’s not like you to be uncertain of your own theories.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Black plant serum ring any bells? I mean you wouldn’t have given it to me if you were unsure it would heal me right?’

Rodney glared at Sheppard unable to find a flaw in his reasoning, of course he wasn’t wrong. McKay threw the syrup at him a lot harder than Sheppard had thrown it to him. Sheppard’s smugness was insufferable. He put the Syrup down on his tray, which only held orange juice, and then held up his hands again.

‘What now?’

‘Pancake,’ said Sheppard.

McKay narrowed his eyes, picked up a pancake and frisbee’d it over. John caught it like a pro. The look of smugness intensified. Sheppard poured syrup on the pancake and shoved almost all of it into his mouth. An inch hung out of the side and Carson walked back into the room. Sheppard had the grace to look a little sheepish.

‘Busted,’ said McKay.

‘Honestly,’ said Carson. The doctor turned on his heel and left the room without another word.

Sheppard chewed loudly and swallowed. He pointed at the exit.

‘Do you think he’s gone to get me breakfast?’

McKay threw another pancake over and Sheppard smiled.

‘Thanks… wait hang on.’ Sheppard eyed the food then McKay suspiciously. ‘Why don’t you want it?’

‘Does it not taste the same when you haven’t cajoled me into feeding you?’

Sheppard nibbled the edge.

‘No.’ He ate the rest anyway.

Carson returned and gestured at Sheppard.

‘You need to come with me. I want blood before you disappear and then hide.’

‘I don’t do that, do I?’

‘You know you do.’

Rodney watched as Sheppard walked off with Carson. Sheppard glanced over his shoulder at McKay before he disappeared from sight. It was hard to believe that he’d nearly died only a few days ago. Not a wince or a whimper getting out of bed. In fact he’d never looked better. Rodney picked up the last pancake, took a bite and chewed. He looked at the pancake confused and placed it back down on the plate. His hand was still shaking he noticed. It didn’t taste quite as nice as he thought it would. Usually it would’ve been devoured in seconds, but it really wasn’t all that great. The gnawing, tight feeling in his chest hadn’t lessened and all of a sudden he felt like he needed to move. Edging his way out of the bed McKay stood and stretched, he was surprised he didn’t ache anywhere near as much as he thought he would.

The only other person in the room, a med-tech, barely noticed as McKay walked out.

 

 

Chapter Text

‘Hang on Doc… Didn’t you just get blood yesterday?’ Sheppard narrowed his eyes in mistrust.

‘Yes, but that’s not why I asked you in here.’ Carson crossed his arms over his chest. John noticed that the Doctor seemed irked.

‘Oh?’ John cocked his head ever so slightly, curious.

‘I’m not sure you and I have the same understanding of what ‘stable environment’ means.’

‘It means… to keep things the same?’ Sheppard looked confused.

‘It means to create an environment in which things are stable. Y’know calm, serene or dare I say… peaceful.’

‘Ah I can see where you went wrong,’ Sheppard nodded.

‘Where I went wrong?’ Carson’s disbelief made his voice reach a slightly higher pitch.

‘Yes.’

‘How on earth is lobbing food at Rodney the moment he wakes up and berating him ‘stable’ exactly?’

‘Oh berate is a strong word, I think I was more annoying, dare I say… aggravating?’ John mimicked Carson’s phrasing and enjoyed the look of frustration that crossed the Doc’s face.

‘Who cares what you’d call it, it’s hardly conducive to a relaxing environment where he can recover, is it?’

‘Actually, I think you are wrong. Heightmeyer said to keep things stable, the same. If I’d been anything other than my normal charming self, don’t you think it would worry him? He’d freak out.’ It really could be a no-win situation with McKay, he’d freak if you said nothing too, and it was all about finding the right balance.

Carson blinked and thought about it.

‘McKay is going to notice if I try to ‘handle’ him. Imagine his reaction if I was ‘concerned’,’ added Sheppard.

‘Aye… well, you might have a point,’ Carson conceded. ‘Right well, I’ll have that blood sample while you are here.’

John held out his arm and allowed Beckett to take yet more blood. Whatever was in that plant sap it had done an excellent job of healing him, was it really so wrong to hope that there were no side effects? Well, perhaps not wrong exactly, but he hoped anyway. Sheppard rubbed his arm and looked slightly resentful.

‘I really hope that’s the last blood sample you need.’

‘Given what you’ve been through, we’ve not even begun.’

‘Can you be less wasteful with it, I’m quite attached to it.’

‘Go on, away with you. Go eat. A light meal, mind you,’ Carson waved him away. ‘And come back if there are any unusual symptoms or pain of any kind,’ He shouted after John.

Sheppard walked back through and immediately saw that Rodney was gone. He felt the hair on his forearms prickle up in apprehension.

‘McKay? McKay!’ Sheppard walked around the bed and circled the immediate vicinity. There was no Rodney. He walked back through to Carson.

‘Did you arrange for McKay to go somewhere?’

‘No, why?’

‘He’s not in the infirmary anymore.’

‘What…’ Carson jumped up and looked in the exact same places. ‘Well, he can’t have gone far.’

‘I’ll have a look outside,’ said Sheppard.

John stepped outside the medical unit and looked around. If he were Rodney, where would he go: the mess, his quarters? Sheppard questioned his handling of McKay, was he off on that, did the Doc have it right? He frowned, hesitating on the next move doubting his method. He didn’t want to start running off in the wrong direction. He kept to the general area and asked a few people if they’d seen Rodney, only one had seen him briefly. John jogged in that direction and immediately regretted it. The searing pain in his middle indicated that running was a very bad idea. He slowed down and walked quickly instead, ignoring the twinges that now occurred through his efforts. Looking around he could see a balcony area open, unusual but he supposed Rodney could be outside.

Sheppard walked through the doorway and into the present morning sun. Shielding his eyes, he looked up and down the walkway. Turning away John nearly missed a lone figure standing at the end of the far walkway. It really wasn’t the safest place to be standing. Ignoring his now nagging pain, John made his way over as quickly as possible. He could see it was Rodney. He seemed to be leaning on the rail and staring down into the water. McKay wasn’t really much for meditative walks in the morning sunshine, more a hunched-over thinking bathed in the light of a computer monitor at three in the morning, sort of person. John could see his body language was tense, which was normal, but every now and then Rodney took an overly deep breath and let it go raggedly. There was the quiet too. Rodney talked to himself all the time, whether people were there to listen or not. These were McKay warning signs as far as John was concerned.

John walked up behind him and made enough noise so that McKay would know he was there. The last thing he wanted to do was make him jump.

‘Watcha doing, McKay?’ Sheppard tried to sound casual as possible hoping to keep everything nice and calm.

‘Enjoying not being cooped up in the infirmary,’ he replied. Rodney did not look at John but rather kept looking down to the water.

‘You know, you kinda gave the doc a scare.’

‘I did?’ He seemed vaguely surprised.

‘Yeah, I mean I wasn’t worried, but you know Carson…’

‘Yeah.’

Sheppard stepped forward so that he was standing next to McKay. Rodney didn’t glance in his direction at all. He seemed a little spaced out.

‘Are you feeling ok, Rodney?’

McKay looked at him, opened his mouth to say something but shut it, and just shook his head. Sheppard felt a little helpless and he didn’t like that feeling at all. This sort of thing was a little outside his remit. He felt ill-prepared to deal with his own feelings let alone other peoples. But he did want to help; perhaps he could persuade Rodney back.

‘You wanna go back to medical?’

‘Not really.’

‘You know Doctor Heightmeyer might be available?’

McKay looked at John now in disbelief. John shrugged and smiled acknowledging that it was a long shot.

‘Well, I just thought if you weren’t feeling yourself talking to someone might help?’

‘I just wanted to look at the water,’ McKay said looking back down into the sea.

‘Any particular reason?’ John kept his question calm but his own sense of unease was growing.

‘I keep dreaming about drowning or other people drowning.’ Sheppard winced but said nothing. ‘I’ve dreamt weird things before but this was…’ He trailed off unable to finish the sentence.

‘You know it’s not outside the realms of reality that some of what you saw… fucked you up a bit?’ Sheppard put his hand on Rodney’s shoulder. ‘It could be sensible to try and sort through what happened to make sense of it.’

McKay nodded slightly and took another deep breath. As he let the breath go, John felt it catch and shudder slightly.

‘I have this feeling, John, here,’ Rodney pointed at his chest, ‘that won’t go away and the only thing that lightens it at all is the thought of going back. Does that mean the entity has a hold of me somehow? Am I in control? What if it makes me do something I don’t want to do?’ McKay’s tone rose in pitch alongside his rising panic. John squeezed Rodney’s shoulder to try to calm him.

‘Whoa, whoa calm down. It’s clearly not in control of you okay?’ Sheppard didn’t know anything of the sort but it’s what seemed to be the case. ‘Everything about it and how it helped us doesn’t suggest it would do that. It showed me how desperate it was but if control was something it could do, it would have done it already, before we left.’

‘But didn’t it try to control me when we left?’

‘Did it? Think about it, Rodney; think about what it showed you? Was it an attack, did you lose control of yourself?’

‘It showed me, people, people dying.’

‘It did?’

‘Yes, it wanted me to stay. The need to stay wasn’t forced but just so hard to ignore. The feeling was so desperate, beseeching, begging…’ McKay broke off and looked away from Sheppard hiding his face. He bent over and clutched his chest, breathing rapidly.

‘We need to get you back to the infirmary.’ Sheppard hooked his arm around McKay and tried to help him stand up.

‘I’m fine, I’m fine…’

‘You most certainly are not, Rodney.’

‘Just give me a moment.’

Sheppard stood holding McKay while he breathed in and out slowly. The rise and fall of each breath came slower and more regular. John knew some things about shock and he could see that Rodney was not over his yet. The body was still processing memories as if they were physically happening as part of the fight or flight response. It might take a few days or maybe months depending on the person. Ever longer sometimes. Sheppard felt guilty. Rodney had pushed himself a long way to saving him, perhaps too far. An uncomfortable truth reared its head. Would Rodney have tried so damn hard if Sheppard had not shouted at him weeks before? Would he have tried so hard if John hadn’t kissed him? John took that feeling and shoved it down with the rest of the emotions he’d earmarked for later consideration. Much later.

‘You must think I’m so weak.’

‘What?’ Irritation rose and Sheppard held McKay out in front of him his hands gripping the tops of Rodney’s arms. He tried not to shout but he really wanted Rodney to know that’s the opposite of what he felt. ‘You stop that right now. You hear me? You are paying the price for being strong, Rodney, not for being weak. You exhausted yourself, mentally and physically, you expended everything you had to save my life.’

The big blue eyes looked straight into his and John saw a dawning realisation in McKay. His eyes looked all the brighter for the unshed tears that threatened to tumble but somehow did not.

‘I saved your life.’

‘You did.’

‘You didn’t die.’

‘I didn’t.’

McKay smiled at John. An expression of such sheer joy that John himself could not help but smile with him. Then John felt it, like before on the station, a moment of electricity that seemed to pass through them both. He could act on it if he wanted too and his bodily responses told him he most definitely did want too. But… the words ‘stable environment’ stood out in his mind. This wasn’t like before; McKay was in a vulnerable place. It wouldn’t be right. Sheppard was aware he’d leant in close so he redirected the action into a hug, one that Rodney responded to warmly by hugging Sheppard back. John didn’t know why, but he was always surprised when Rodney reciprocated.

‘You know I haven’t said thank you…’ said John, breaking the silence.

‘For what?’ Rodney pulled back far enough to see John’s face. He looked genuinely surprised.

‘For what he says… for saving my life obviously.’

‘Oh, you’d have done the same for me. You did actually, so I should be thanking you,’ McKay nodded seeming more McKay-like. John was extremely aware of how close they were physically.

‘It’s my job to do that, Rodney, not yours.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to let you die; I’d never hear the end of it.’

‘That’s true,’ said Sheppard. The silence after lingered as they just looked at each other. Those azure eyes just seemed to bore right through him. The electricity hadn’t let up at all.

It took great effort to break the embrace and John smiled at Rodney as he did so. But then he found himself reaching up and cupping Rodney’s cheek with one hand.

‘You’re going to be ok. It might not feel that way right now, but you will soon.’

‘You promise?’

‘Of course.’

Sheppard withdrew his hand and looked back down the walkway. He needed to break eye contact so he could have rational thought.

‘We should go back, Carson will be sending out a team.’

‘John?’ McKay’s voice sounded uncertain and Sheppard turned back to face him.

‘Yes?’ There was a long pause and Rodney seemed to struggle to say what he wanted to say.

‘I just… well, I er…’ McKay suddenly looked like he wished he hadn’t said anything at all. ‘Look, I just wanted to say I’m glad you’re not dead.’

‘Well, that makes two of us, Rodney.’

‘It would ruin the team dynamic and I would hate to have to break in a new team leader.’

Sheppard grinned. The old McKay was creeping back in, good.

‘Come on, Rodney; let’s go put Carson’s mind at rest.’

They walked back into the infirmary and saw Lorne and Weir both talking with Doctor Beckett. Lorne had a bruised cheek with some lovely purple-blue hues. Weir and Carson seemed relieved to see them.

‘Ah you are back, everything okay?’ asked Carson.

‘All good,’ said Sheppard, ‘Just needed a bit of fresh sea air.’

‘I can see you are feeling better, Sheppard,’ said Lorne.

‘I am feeling better, thanks for noticing. Did a Wraith manage to get by you?’ Sheppard points to the bruising on Lorne’s face. Lorne touched his face self-consciously and glanced at McKay.

‘No, McKay did,’ said Lorne.

Sheppard laughed, but no one else did.

‘You’re kidding?’ Sheppard looked at McKay who seemed to be just as confused as he did.

‘No I’m not. Do you think I would kid about that?’

‘I don’t remember doing that,’ Rodney was horrified. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Actually, it’s part of the reason I’m here. There was a lot of confusion getting out of that place, some things were said, and done that perhaps, in hindsight, could have been done better. I lost my temper with you, McKay, when I really shouldn’t have. I apologise for that.’

‘Well, to be fair I can see how hitting you would be aggravating,’ said Rodney.

‘It’s not just that… it’s… well, I got it wrong, didn’t I? If you’d done as I ordered Sheppard would be dead.’ Lorne shrugged, he seemed a little deflated.

‘It’s not that simple, is it? I think it is easy to look back over what happened, with all the knowledge after the fact and think about what you should have done. Out here in Atlantis, the rules have to be a bit flexible on occasion. You do what you can, with what you have at the time and make the best call you can in the moment. You are all here, alive. That’s a win. Our survival out here depends on us, no-one else,’ said Weir.

‘Well, I for one am grateful that I’m alive.’ Sheppard looked Rodney in the eye when he said ‘I’m alive’. He held McKay’s gaze with a small smile and Rodney smiled back. ‘I think we take the win and move on from here. But we are going back, right?’ Sheppard looked to Weir.

‘We’ve tried to dial the gate but it’s not responding,’ said Weir.

Rodney snapped his head in Weir’s direction.

‘What do you mean it won’t dial?’

‘The connection is lost; the problem is coming from the other end,’ said Weir.

McKay put a hand on his chest and took a deep breath.

‘I’m sorry, Rodney, I know you wanted to go back,’ said Weir.

‘It wasn’t just a matter of going back for the tech, which would’ve been invaluable, it was the entity I wanted to help,’ said McKay.

‘I understand and it’s not as if we are giving up, we can dial at different times. You never know with these sorts of things.’

‘Are you okay, Rodney?’ asked Carson.

‘Yes… It just makes me feel incredibly sad, that’s all.’

‘Well, I’ve asked Doctor Heightmeyer to have a chat with both of you. You seem compos mentis but I’d feel better knowing you are both checked out,’ said Weir.

Both McKay and Sheppard nodded slowly.

‘Such enthusiasm. Also, Ronon and Teyla were looking for you both. They came back from breakfast to find you’d gone for a walk,’ finished Weir.

Sheppard watched as Weir and Lorne left; he looked over at McKay. An idea was starting to form in his mind, a way to help Rodney. He’d need Ronon and Teyla too. He knew they would help the trick was persuading Heightmeyer. John smirked, he’d also get off his session with Heightmeyer if he played his cards right.



Heightmeyer sat in front of Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and Ronon, and took a moment to allow the situation to sink in. Only Ronon stood, slightly to one side and between herself and the others, pacing like a caged lion. She felt duped somehow, but she wasn’t quite sure how that was happening. Sheppard was smirking, which was her first clue.

‘So let me get this absolutely clear. John, you are here because I asked you to be here,’ Sheppard nodded, ‘and Rodney is here because he wants help too and Teyla is here because there might be some trauma due to the link with an Alien mind, which Teyla might be able to help with, is that right?’

‘Yes,’ said Sheppard.

‘And Ronon is here because?’ She looked up at him for an explanation.

‘In case little man here loses his shit again,’ Ronon smirked and flipped his gun in his hand. Heightmeyer frowned.

‘Oh don’t worry his gun is set to lullaby,’ said Sheppard.

‘That’s reassuring,’ said Heightmeyer seemingly unassured. ‘Well, it’s a bit unorthodox but then out here in Pegasus I am starting to fully understand that’s normal. If nobody minds then I see no reason why we can’t have… a group session I suppose. Doctor Beckett knows you are here right?’

‘Yes, he requested you contact him after to ‘share notes’ with you,’ said Teyla.

‘Well, let’s get started. Where would you like to start? John?’ Heightmeyer picked Sheppard first because she was sure he was trying to avoid having an assessment.

‘McKay’s been seeing drowning people.’ Sheppard pointed at Rodney for clarification.

McKay gapped at Sheppard in utter disbelief at the betrayal.

‘I have not been seeing drowning people,’ said McKay. ‘I’ve just been dreaming about them.’ He crossed his arms defensively and gave Sheppard evils from aside.

‘That’s horrible,’ said Heightmeyer.

‘Yes, it is particularly unpleasant,’ said McKay.

‘Why do you think you are dreaming about them?’

‘I’m not sure,’ replied McKay.

‘Sometimes our minds use dreaming to help us work something out that we are not consciously aware. It is a starting point if nothing else. What exactly do you see in the dream?’

‘Before the drowning, the people are in the arboretum, happy. Kids playing that sort of thing,’ McKay explained.

‘Arboretum?’ asked Teyla.

‘On the planet, we came from, there seemed to be a number of large growing areas. Completely out of control and wild really.’

‘Ok, what happens after that?’ asked Heightmeyer.

‘While they are playing and happy the smell of the decay from the arboretum in the future overwhelms everything else and then they are drowning, grabbing at me trying to pull me under with them.’

‘In the future?’

‘Well, Sheppard and I went through one, which was overgrown, but it smelled fine, I guess. It was the other one that was rank.’

‘Rodney, does the smell mean anything else to you?’ asked Heightmeyer.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Any one of our senses can stimulate a memory, like smell for example. Does it specifically remind you of anything?’

‘Yes, when I was trapped in the under part of the Sarlacc.’

‘Sarlacc, Rodney? Really?’ questioned Sheppard.

‘Can you think of a better name for something that slowly digests its trapped prey underground?’

‘Uh… I guess not,’ replied Sheppard, ‘it does conjure a certain unpleasant scenario.’

‘Well, Major Maladroit, it was pretty damn unpleasant,’ sniped McKay.

‘Hey now… no need for - what I am going to assume was an insult - name-calling,’ said Sheppard.

‘So what does that decaying odour have to do with children playing in the arboretum?’ asked Heightmeyer.

‘I don’t know,’ said McKay, ‘I mean there were bodies down there in various states of decay, all clearly being down there a very long time. There were a lot of bones and skeletal remains; I mean that’s what I was walking on for the most part whilst I was down there.’

‘You were surrounded by human remains?’ asked Heightmeyer her eyes widening a little.

‘Yes,’ McKay answered.

There was a moment of quiet where the words sunk in.

‘How did you get out of there?’

‘I climbed out,’ McKay looked down and away from Heightmeyer’s gaze. There was something in that, in his escape. Shame possibly? It needed probing.

‘Rodney, walk me through the process of escape,’ asked Heightmeyer.

McKay looked uncomfortable and took a deep breath before he spoke.

‘I used what I had to hand and I found somebody else had tried to escape by creating a ladder, so I used the vines and… other things that were around.’

‘Other things?’

‘Bones, femur bones to be precise. Did you know that on average a femur could take around four thousand Newton’s of force before it breaks? In layman’s terms, that’s about four hundred kilos of weight. Plus when you tie them in pairs, their strength capability is multiplied. You have to consider the compound strength and the overall weight distribution too. Length is varied of course, some being a little too… a little too…’ Rodney held his hands out and looked at them as though something was there that no one else could see.

‘Rodney?’

‘Er… Short. A little too short… too short. They were too short.’ McKay was starting to shake and his hands trembled. He’d triggered some distant connection and now it was finding its way to the surface of his thoughts.

Heightmeyer sat forward concerned for McKay; she glanced briefly at Sheppard and saw that he was no longer jovial but frowning.

‘Rodney, you’ve realised something or made a connection, follow it through, find the information your mind is trying to tell you.’

McKay looked up eyes angry and emotive.

‘I discarded the smaller ones because the bigger ones were stronger. I ran the math repeatedly in my head. I concentrated on Newton’s, on force, and on mass. I considered whether the vines would shred under my weight. I concentrated on not panicking and on the fact that if I failed John would die. So I just used the math to focus on the problem and nothing else. All the while I ignored what was right in front of me.’

‘What was that?’ asked Heightmeyer.

‘The small ones… they were the bones of children.’

‘Oh Rodney,’ said Teyla and she took his hand and squeezed. Teyla glanced around meeting eyes with everyone in the room.

Heightmeyer felt sick to her stomach and struggled to find the next thing to say that would somehow help. Luckily, she didn’t have too.

‘You did what you had to, McKay, surviving can be tough,’ said Ronon. ‘The Wraith did that to us, forced us to survive in ways we never imagined, but we owe it to the people who died trying to live.’

‘Ronon’s right, Rodney, you must not dwell on such horrors we owe it to those who tried before us, even if they failed. If you had not, you and John would not be sitting here now.’

Rodney nodded and was quiet for a moment as he reflected. Heightmeyer could see how this group supported each other. They were so different from one another but their sames were… well, the same. She could see that Ronon was slightly impressed with Rodney’s resolve and Teyla clearly felt the horror with McKay, but she channelled it into strength. Sheppard looked pained and Heightmeyer was sure he’d be feeling some sort of guilt, after all, Rodney pushed himself to save Sheppard. Rodney broke the silence.

‘There was a Wraith down there too.’ Everyone looked surprised.

‘You didn’t mention that before,’ said Sheppard.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why, I mean I haven’t filed a report yet or anything, but yeah it was down there.’

‘How did you survive it?’ asked Ronon.

‘It was badly injured from the fall and the brown goo stopped it from healing. The goo has a side effect when it hits an open wound. It causes extreme pain, which the Wraith was clearly in; it begged me to kill it.’

‘Did you?’ asked Heightmeyer.

‘I wouldn’t have,’ said Ronon.

‘I refused to at first. I asked questions. Their scout ship had been destroyed by the planet's defences and they got in somehow, but I didn’t think to ask where.’

‘Did you kill it?’ asked Teyla.

‘Yes,’ said McKay.

Teyla then touched her comm and appeared to be listening to someone. Heightmeyer saw that Teyla and Ronon were the only ones in the room that had them. Sheppard and McKay were lacking theirs.

‘Understood, Doctor,’ Teyla tapped the comm again and looked to Heightmeyer. ‘Doctor Beckett would like his patient’s back he says he needs to finish some tests.’

‘Of course. Rodney I would like you to come and speak with me tomorrow if you can?’ McKay nodded without objection. They started to stand and clear out but Heightmeyer added, ‘John if I could have a moment with you?’ Sheppard looked disappointed and Heightmeyer could not help but smile slightly.

‘We’ll wait outside for you,’ said Teyla.

‘Nah, it’s fine, I’ll catch up.’ Sheppard waved her off and they left with Rodney.

‘John…’

‘I know, I know… I should have come alone.’

‘Don’t presume to know what I’m going to say.’ Sheppard looked at her slightly shocked.

‘Sorry… I just thought, I dunno…’

‘Why are you taking a burden of guilt over what’s happened?’

‘What? I’m not.’ Sheppard immediately crossed his arms over his chest.

‘John, I can see that you are blaming yourself in some way, why?’ She watched him closely, knowing that he would evade direct questions if they caused discomfort. His body language would tell her more than he would. Right now, it was defensive.

‘I just said I’m not.’ A lie. Aggressive denial probably meant she’d hit the right spot.

‘Rodney chose to do the things he did, with or without your influence, he still had to make the choice himself.’

‘I know.’

‘You should have died from all accounts.’

Sheppard blinked at her and she saw his face harden slightly. He clearly didn’t want to think about that too much. She didn’t really blame him.

‘And yet I am alive… just another day in the Pegasus galaxy.’ The blasé attitude was another defence. Time to cut through that.

‘How did that make you feel?’

John clenched his jaw and looked away.

‘It felt pretty shitty at the time.’

‘And after when you realised you’d survived?’

‘Considerably less shitty.’

‘John…’

‘I don’t know what you want from me here? Was it crappy feeling as if I was dying, absolutely. I’m not going to dwell on that because here I am, thinking, breathing and alive. Honestly? I was surprised, just plain surprised.’

‘Why?’

‘I got taken down and I wasn’t getting back up again.’

‘Did you not think for a moment that Rodney could save you?’

‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘I said no, didn’t I?’

‘Ah, okay I think I understand.’

‘What is it you think you understand? It’s very easy to sit here and judge somebodies actions without truly knowing what it’s actually like to be out there in the theatre of war.’

‘If you want to know what I think I will tell you.’

‘Enlighten me.’ His voice had an edge of sarcasm.

‘I think you accepted death and I think you accepted it because you thought McKay wasn’t capable of saving you.’

Sheppard’s arms relaxed a little although still crossed defensively and he stared at Heightmeyer.

‘Go on…’ said Sheppard quietly.

‘I believe, in the moment, you expected McKay to die too.’

Sheppard quietly nodded agreement.

‘You underestimated him. Don’t get me wrong here, we both know he’s a genius, but the physical and military side of things aren’t his strong points. He has saved many lives before, but not like this. And I have to say from my perspective I have wondered why he would do such a thing? He broke protocol many times, by leaving you, going off on his own, giving you untested medicine. All very un-McKay-like things to do.’

‘Why do you think he did it?’ asked Sheppard. Heightmeyer could see there was something behind the question; she could see it in John’s eyes. Sheppard clearly thought he knew why but wanted confirmation.

‘I think he admires you greatly.’ Heightmeyer was rewarded with surprise, clearly not something John had considered. ‘Why do you think he did it?’

‘It could be because four weeks ago I chewed him out and told him he was a ‘perpetual caterpillar’ who didn’t evolve and a ‘walking brain with no redeemable features’?’

Heightmeyer blinked in surprise.

‘You said that to him?’

‘Yeah… I did.’ Sheppard at least had the good grace to look ashamed of what he’d said. His arms dropped down from the crossed position; at least he was relaxing a little.

‘Why did you say that to him? What’s the context?’

‘I was frustrated with him. He’d have these moments where he’d actually think of someone other than himself, but then he’d just go back to being… you know, McKay.’

‘So you were disappointed in him?’

‘Yeah, I guess a little.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’d shown he could be more, you know.’

‘Be more?’

‘Be more, be better, do better.’

‘So you felt he wasn’t living up to his potential?’

‘Yes. It’s like he’d given a glimpse of light and then shut the curtain.’

‘So you reacted in anger and said some hurtful things?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you consider that perhaps you did that because it hurt you to be shut out?’

‘No.’

‘Or that he might feel vulnerable himself and feel the need to withdraw to protect himself?’

‘No.’

‘Or that sometimes he does these things to impress you?’

‘No, why would he?’ Heightmeyer gave John a look as if to say really.

‘As I already said, he admires you, looks up to you.’

‘Well, I’d like to think we are becoming friends.’ Sheppard paused then added, ‘Don’t tell him I said that.’

‘So you’re not actually surprised you are alive.’

‘I’m not?’

‘No. I think you are genuinely surprised that McKay saved you.’

‘I don’t see how that makes any difference to actually being alive, in the here and now.’

‘It makes all the difference in the world, John.’

‘Am I going to regret it if I ask how it makes a difference?’

‘Maybe. Or maybe you’ll learn something.’

Sheppard sighed.

‘How?’

‘Because deep down, under that visage of nonchalance you sport, you know you had no faith in him whatsoever.’

Sheppard’s brows furrowed deeply and he looked down.

‘And despite your lack of faith in him, his belief in you never wavered.’

Sheppard didn’t say anything and he didn’t need too. Again, his body language spoke for him his head lulled, as he looked down, his shoulders still tense.

‘You know, the entity showed me things too.’

‘I do know that, although I don’t know what it showed you.’

‘It showed me, Rodney.’

‘What was Rodney doing?’

‘Talking to me while I was unconscious. It’s a bit creepy that it watches everyone the whole time.’

‘What did he say?’

‘If I tell you, you are going to have to promise not to be smug.’

‘I can make that promise, not sure I can keep it though.’

Sheppard smiled.

‘Fair enough. He said, “I have to try… I know you would” before deciding to go off and rummage around in, what can only be described as, garbage water and bones.’

‘How does that make you feel?’

‘Well, you seem to think it makes me feel guilty.’

‘Does it?’

‘That he did all that to save me because he thought it’s what I would do?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, that doesn’t make me feel guilty, not at all.’

Heightmeyer squinted at Sheppard, looking for the lie and not finding it. She was confused had she really read him so wrong.

‘What does it make you feel?’

‘Proud.’

‘Proud?’

‘Yep.’

‘Want to elaborate?’

‘If I said no…’

Heightmeyer cocked her head indicating no wasn’t an option.

‘I’m so proud of him.’

‘But?’

‘There wasn’t a but.’

‘It was implied.’

‘Was it?’

‘John.’

‘The guilt you’re so sure I feel doesn’t come from him risking his life for me. It comes from the fact that I made a mistake and we were ambushed. I should never have put him in the position where he had to do that.’

‘That could’ve happened to anyone.’

‘I know that. I didn’t say it was rational.’

‘You underestimated Rodney.’

‘Yes.’

‘Or something changed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Perhaps Rodney has always been this way or maybe something else changed to motivate him.’

‘Or both.’

‘John?’

‘That he’s always been this person and I just didn’t see it and something changed.’

‘What changed?’

‘I did.’

Sheppard stood and looked at Heightmeyer.

‘Thanks, Doc.’ He walked across the room, opened the door and left, leaving Heightmeyer staring at the space he’d vacated. Somehow, she felt that John had learned far more than she would ever know.

‘You’re most welcome, John,’ she said to the empty couch.










 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

McKay stared at his computer screen, not really seeing the lines of code he’d been fixing. His mind wandered, as it had a lot lately, to a single moment where life hadn’t completely sucked. He smiled and shut his eyes reimagining everything he could; he had a good memory for detail.

‘Rodney, have you finished the diagnostics for the jumpers?’

McKay’s eyes snapped open and he glared at Zelenka.

‘No, and I’m not going to if you keep hounding me.’

‘I only asked three hours ago.’

Rodney waved him off and got up. His hips had stiffened from the prolonged sitting. Wincing he rolled them to free the joints. He looked at the time and realised he was late.

‘Where are you going now?’ asked Zelenka.

‘Food,’ replied McKay, not bothering to face Zelenka or explain further, he walked out of the room and in the direction of the mess.

Once there McKay scanned the room looking for Sheppard and found he wasn’t there. Had he already been and gone? That seemed possible. It was pathetic, he knew it was and he imagined everyone could see how he felt. As if, the clinginess was apparent. Except people didn’t know. That was because it was so god damned unlikely. He turned to leave thinking he could come back in a little while and try. He wasn’t concentrating on where he was going and walked straight into Sheppard.

‘Whoa, slow down, McKay. Anyone would think they have lemon chicken on again.’

‘That joke wasn’t funny the first time you said it.’

‘It makes me smile.’ Sheppard grinned widely to prove his point.

‘It’s funny how much of your amusement depends on making me miserable.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘What? Oh, ha-ha hilarious.’

‘Are you leaving?’

‘No, I came for lunch.’

‘You do realise it’s in there and not out here, right?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Do you need me to explain how doors work again?’

McKay pulled a face and walked back into the mess. He grabbed a tray and started the process of selecting food. It was difficult not to double check to see if John were doing the same, McKay did not want to show weakness. Once he’d filled his tray, he walked over to a reasonably quiet place to sit. Now he checked to see where Sheppard was and was not surprised to see him coming over. He sat opposite Rodney.

Sheppard would try to bait him and Rodney would try not to bite, he usually failed. It was half the fun, really. Sheppard challenged him in ways other people couldn’t. Plus, if he were being honest with himself, just watching Sheppard was enough. There was something about the way he smiled it was a relaxed and lazy charm. And even when they were arguing that easy way, he had about him never left. McKay envied that a lot; he wished he could be so comfortable with himself. Although, since the life-saving incident, John had been different. Perhaps it wasn’t much of a difference, but Rodney noticed.

They never used to have lunch together; McKay would usually sit alone. But for a while now, Rodney had deliberately timed eating when he knew Sheppard would be in the mess. Sometimes he was alone, often he would have Teyla or Ronon or both. Although lately, he’d seen them less and less at lunch. Not that Rodney minded seeing them of course, but he did enjoy the time they spent alone more. It seemed that Sheppard didn’t mind it too much either.

‘You’re unusually quiet.’

‘I’m thinking.’

‘Doesn’t usually stop you talking.’

‘I am also eating.’

‘Again, doesn’t usually stop you.’

‘I was wondering when to try dialling the gate again.’

‘How long since the last time?’

‘A few days. It’s been six weeks since we came back.’

‘Probably could schedule it in this week.’

‘Weir has been a bit shifty about it. I don’t think she wants me too.’

‘Maybe she thinks you’re being a bit obsessive over it?’

‘Is that what you think?’

‘No, you know I want to go back.’

‘I worry it will never open.’

‘You know it might not.’

‘I guess.’

‘McKay, we need you to go off world in about fifteen minutes. Can you suit up and meet Sheppard at the gate?’ said Weir over the Comm.

‘Why is only ever when I am eating do you people need me?’

‘Er us people also have the guns, McKay,’ said Sheppard.

‘It’s not like you are going to shoot me,’ said McKay. Sheppard gave him a look that suggested he might be tempted.

‘McKay?’

‘Hello? Yes.’

‘Now please.’

‘Okay, okay.’

‘See you later, Rodney,’ said Sheppard.

‘Apparently, I’m meeting you there.’ Rodney enjoyed the look of annoyance on Sheppard’s face. He picked up the muffin on his tray to eat on the way.

McKay swung by the lab to pick up his equipment and a jacket. It actually took him about twenty minutes. When he arrived in the gate room, he could see that Elizabeth was annoyed. Sheppard was also there fully kitted out. God knows how he managed to do all that so quickly. The gate was already open.

‘At last.’

‘What’s happening?’

‘I’ll brief you on the way, McKay.’

They walked through the gate and Rodney tried not to think about all the shearing forces that could kill him instantly. Tried and failed. On the other side, there was the sunshine and a pleasant countryside to look at. There were rolling hills and a village not too far away at the bottom. It was picturesque.

‘This place seems nice. I wonder how it’s going to try and kill us.’

‘Ever the pessimist, Rodney.’

‘I prefer realist.’

‘How ironic.’

‘Why are we here?’

‘Apparently, there’s some sort of ancient temple, they were told of legends where people disappear, but they decided to investigate…’

‘Sounds like a lot of our missions to be fair.’

‘Best kind.’

‘So why do they need me?’

‘Something about a different dialect of Ancient and the way the tech is different.’

‘Sounds interesting. Might be some sort of splinter group of rogue Ancients?’

‘Oh, you’d love that wouldn’t you?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘I don’t need too, I just turn up look pretty and point my gun at things.’

‘It’s intellectually stimulating, of course, you’re going to hate it.’

‘Hey, McKay?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Do you remember that time you said I was handsome?’

McKay stopped walking for a moment and rolled his eyes.

‘How could I when you’ve never let me forget it.’ Rodney had also noticed that Sheppard only ever brought it up when they were alone, like now. It was going to take at least twenty minutes to walk to the village.

‘It’s not something you could easily forget.’

‘Well, I am sure there are some buxom wenches in the village that would gladly tell you the same.’

‘Buxom wenches. What a lovely description,’ Sheppard raised his eyebrow.

‘I’m sure they all have wonderful personalities.’

‘And you’re still single… shocker.’

‘Hey, I choose to be single.’

‘Sure you do.’

‘Some of us actually have to think to do our jobs, not just turn up and look pretty.’

‘You think I’m-‘

‘No! No… I am paraphrasing you.’

Sheppard pouted. They walked in silence for a while and Rodney squinted trying to see what was ahead. The bright midday sun was making that particularly hard. It was actually quite pleasant. The air was warm but a light breeze refreshed as it blew over them. Occasionally, McKay stole a glance at John who seemed to be enjoying the walk.

‘You still getting those dreams?’ asked Sheppard.

‘Which ones?’

‘The drowning ones.’

‘Not for a couple of weeks.’

‘Good. Wait, are there other bad dreams?’

‘Oh the usual, being eaten by a whale or being chased by Wraith.’

‘Your subconscious never ceases to amaze me.’

‘I sometimes get dreams about the Arboretum, but they are happy ones.’

‘Good.’

‘It’s a lot like this, the sunshine, green everywhere. The pollen count is probably through the roof.’

‘I think sometimes that it’s good to get out of Atlantis, stretch your legs, and rescue your co-workers from peril. It’s a fulfilling life.’

‘And probably a short one. They’re not actually in peril though are they?’

‘Bad, Rodney. Don’t be putting a downer on my mood.’

‘Your mood currently consists of…‘ Rodney failed to finish as an unusual rumble came from the village in front of them. He could feel it through his boots. He and Sheppard exchanged a glance and they started running towards the sound.

‘What’s the likelihood of this not being connected to Lorne?’ McKay shouted, even though he really didn’t have the breath to spare. John was a little smarter than he was and said nothing as they ran.

At the village, one of the elders pointed them in the direction of the temple. It was another ten minutes of running. McKay panted this really wasn’t his thing. Sheppard never got too far in front and always made sure he had eyes on McKay.

They arrived at the entrance to the temple, which was a cave mouth. McKay could see the ‘cave’ was old ancient architecture. There were differences in the language on the walls, but they were also badly degraded and it was difficult to tell what it meant. They found light markers left behind by Lorne’s team and they followed them inside.

McKay felt like his sweat was sweating. The run in his gear, in the sun, was uncomfortable. He could feel his shirt sticking to the small of his back.

‘Rodney…’

‘Yep?’

‘Be ready.’

‘For what?’

‘Anything. Not sure what we are walking into.’

‘Okay.’

They rounded a bend and the area opened up into a natural cave, with stalagmites and stalactites included. It was beautiful. At the far end, Rodney could see Lorne with the others, so they made their way over.

‘Lorne? Everything ok?’

An ancient looking console was poking out of a stalagmite formation. Rodney could see that it had formed around the Ancient device. Lorne stood beside it and the tech that was running the diagnostic was on the floor unconscious. The console had probably shorted.

‘It could be better. The console shorted and zapped him when the quake happened, he’s ok, but we need to get him back ASAP. Also over there,’ Lorne pointed to the wall, ‘There’s tech I don’t think is ancient.’

‘Do you know what that rumble was? Earthquake?’

‘According to the locals that happens like clockwork here, every three hours.’

‘Every three hours?’ asked McKay. He narrowed his eyes and looked suspiciously at the temple.

‘Yup, I assumed it had something to do with an ancient device in this temple. The locals call it, the despair or something like that.’

‘Yeah, it’s never the fluffy puppy or the placidly tempered dragon, is it?’ said Sheppard.

Lorne laughed and nodded. McKay’s mind was already trying to compute why they named it the despair. The Ancients were often vague with names but there was usually a sound reasoning behind them.

‘What did they call it exactly?’

‘The river of the despairing souls,’ said a voice from behind them. McKay turned to look and a young woman, clearly a native of the planet, stood watching their efforts. ‘I told you that the alter is not safe to use.’ She pointed at the console.

‘Yes, you did and they didn’t listen,’ said Sheppard shaking his head at Lorne. He smiled at the woman and said, ‘Hi, I’m Major Sheppard, and this is Dr McKay.’

McKay noticed he used his special Weir winning smile that he occasionally broke out for ‘Kirk’ moments like these. Typical. Rodney felt a pang of jealousy. He rolled his eyes dramatically knowing Sheppard would most likely see him. He walked over to the console and examined it.

‘I know ancient tech is resilient but this really is quite impressive.’

‘Careful,’ said Lorne and he too received an eye-roll.

‘Yes, I’ll be careful after all the unconscious tech at my feet really wasn’t warning enough.’ The stalactites were forcing their way through the console from above, pushing and pressing where they had grown bigger over the years. There must be low yield conductive material in them to be arcing out what with the water dripping as well. That got McKay to wondering what and where was the power source.

‘You said there was tech that wasn’t ancient?’ McKay asked Lorne.

‘Yeah, it’s over here on the wall.’

McKay walked over to where Lorne pointed and examined it. A coating of slime, one Rodney assumed did not need sunlight to survive, covered it. It might be a fungus of some sort. The wall itself was marble-like, white with swirls of colour. Next to it were inscribed words in ancient. He used his sleeve to wipe the words clear. As he read them he felt a coldness rush through his middle.

‘Where did you learn what this place was called?’ Rodney asked the woman who was still chatting to Sheppard annoyingly.

‘My father told me.’

‘He got it wrong, probably because it was passed down from generation to generation. Was anything written or was all an oral history?’

‘There are sacred texts.’

‘Could I look at one?’

‘I will go and retrieve it for you.’ She left and Sheppard came and stood by McKay looking over the inscriptions.

‘Oh, I have your attention now do I?’

‘Not really, but I was bored waiting for you to tell me what this actually says. It’s not the fluffy puppy is it?’

‘What does it mean?’ Lorne asked.

‘Its literal translation is the Sepulchre of the Drowned Remnant.’

‘That’s cheery,’ said Sheppard.

‘It gets worse,’ replied McKay.

‘Really, I am shocked. I thought it was all rainbows from here on in.’

‘This bit talks about a river underground, it’s part of what powers it I suspect. This place was sealed up with people inside.’

‘What like a bunker?’

‘It might have been once, but the clue is in the name, Major. It’s a tomb and from what I can see they were alive when it was shut.’

‘Well, there goes my mood.’

‘How can you know all that from one tiny bit of writing?’ asked Lorne.

McKay pointed to the end of the wall that met the natural cavern. There was more writing but clearer, well to someone who could read ancient anyway.

‘What does that say?’ asked Lorne.

‘Forgive me,’ said McKay.

‘All that writing is just two words?’ said Lorne.

‘Mostly. It’s written multiple times and from what I can tell, by different people.’

‘Fuck,’ said Lorne.

‘Major Sheppard?’ The annoying nymph was back. ‘I have the book your colleague asked for.’ She handed the book to him, smiled though her eyes cast aside to the writing McKay just pointed out. McKay felt animosity toward her, despite her being perfectly nice.

‘Hey, do you know anything about this writing over here?’ asked Sheppard.

‘No, I’m sorry I don’t understand it, although there might be some in the village that might?’ She wasn’t smiling anymore.

‘It’s ok, don’t worry.’ Sheppard handed McKay the book and he flicked through it.

‘There is another opening,’ replied the woman.

McKay looked up.

‘There is, where?’

‘Through here.’ She pointed to a crack in the natural cave. From this angle, it was barely noticeable. McKay walked over to it and could see it could fit people down it single file.

‘Whoa there McKay,’ said Lorne. ‘People with guns and training first.’

‘Yes, please, by all means, show me how to do it professionally.’ McKay looked round to Sheppard but he was looking at the village woman again. He was sure someone had said her name but he’d missed it.

‘What about your tech guy?’ said McKay.

‘Stevens, stay with Ramirez.’

McKay looked around and saw Stevens for the first time. He hadn’t noticed him at all. Facing the crack, Rodney felt the immediate clenching fear of feeling enclosed in a tight, dark, place without being able to turn around. He tried to go back but Sheppard was right behind him.

‘Where you going, McKay?’ Sheppard was smirking.

‘Nowhere. Just checking you were there.’

‘Okay, well I’m here. You can walk through the scary cave crack now.’

McKay looked up, checking for loose material or signs of collapse.

‘It’s fine. Now move.’

He walked through and it was surprisingly short, about twenty meters or so.

‘There, see that wasn’t so bad was it?’ Sheppard’s smugness was quite annoying sometimes.

This area was small but drafty. The rock here was different it had more in common with glass than actual stone, in places it was transparent but far too thick to see through. It was smooth and cold, it had been subject to years of change and erosion, and radial cracks had started to appear. Rodney started to have an idea what had happened and he felt sorry for the people who had died.

‘The ancients sealed this place with molten silicates laced with carbon.’

‘How can you tell?’ asked Lorne.

‘I just can. It’s clear to me that this part wouldn’t have been accessible before but it has eroded over time. You can see over here that time and pressures are causing cracks,’ said McKay.

‘Yes, but how does that relate to the rumbling?’ asked Lorne.

‘I honestly don’t know. I could make educated guesses, but they would still just be –‘

‘Just be what?’ Sheppard looked to where he thought McKay was and saw that he wasn’t.

‘Rodney?’ He ran over to where he was and there was nothing. He looked up at Lorne. ‘Did you see where he went?’

‘I wasn’t looking at him, weren’t you?’

‘No, were you?’ Sheppard asked Miana.

‘He was here,’ she walked over to where he was and pointed. Sheppard came to stand beside her. The crack in the ground was extremely difficult to see and Miana stepped straight into it. Sheppard grabbed her, wrenched her back over the precipice, and by doing so unbalanced himself. His feet slipped on the edge of the smooth glass-like rock, he grabbed handfuls of air, but he knew he was going over. Lorne tried desperately to grab Sheppard, their fingertips brushed as Sheppard felt the balance tip against him, and he fell into the darkness below.

He had a few moments to register falling before he hit something large, flat, and cold. It knocked the breath out of him. Then he was sliding, moving quicker, and gaining momentum in the gloom. Then freefall and he flailed looking for purchase but finding none. Then water, freezing cold water. He gasped for breath and struggled as the water splashed onto his face. The water carried him along and he struggled to find anything to grab. He felt something yank the back of his uniform and it dragged him sideways against the current until he hit something harder. John’s head pounded with pain and he found it difficult to understand what was happening. Then someone was tapping his face.

‘John? John? Wake up.’ It was McKay. Sheppard grabbed the hand that was tapping him awake. It was making his head hurt.

‘I’m awake.’ He sat up with Rodney’s help, looked around, and wished he hadn’t. ‘What’s the likelihood of us being by the hole we fell through?’

‘Minimal, we fell into a moving river.’

‘Fantastic.’

‘Guns?’

‘I have my sidearm and you do too.’

‘Are you hurt?’

‘I bruised my elbow and…’ Rodney stopped when he saw John glaring, ‘Nothing serious,’ he finished.

‘There’s light down here, some sort of iridescent fungus and there’s architecture down there, doorways over there. Maybe we can find a way out?’

‘I thought you said this place was sealed?’

‘I did.’

‘And if the ancients sealed it so how are we going to leave?’

‘I’m guessing the erosion has occurred elsewhere.’

They both heard a crackle over the Comms but no voices.

‘This is Sheppard, can you read me?’ He exchanged a look with McKay and shook his head. ‘I don’t know if you can hear us but we can’t go back the way we fell through, so we are looking for alternative routes.’ While he was talking Sheppard looked up. He could see a number of outlets about sixty feet up, assuming he could climb what looked to be a sheer face, the outlets looked metal and smooth. Even if he could climb them and that was extremely doubtful, there was no way Rodney would be able too.

‘Well then, which way do we go from here?’

‘This way looks like it goes up, which is a start I guess.’ Rodney pointed at the one he thought was best. Sheppard walked through and saw that it did indeed go up. They walked in silence. Well, almost silence their boots squelched with the excess of water in them. It was cold down here and Sheppard knew they should keep moving to make sure there was no possibility of hypothermia. Rodney’s puffing allowed Sheppard to know where he was and how fast to keep the pace. The degradation of this place made it difficult to progress; they had to circumvent collapsed areas.

‘John?’ Sheppard stopped and looked around to McKay, who pointed at a section of stonework with ancient writing on it.

‘What?’

‘It’s a statement of philosophy.’

Sheppard looked blankly at McKay.

‘And?’

‘They were pacifists.’

‘Why is that interesting?’

‘Well most of them weren’t. These ones seem to have a strict code of non-aggression.’

‘Are you suggesting they sealed in a group of hippies?’

‘Yes.’

Sheppard shook his head.

‘It’s just the gift that keeps giving.’

‘You’re grumpy.’

‘Why shouldn’t I be? After all, you’re the one that cursed us.’

‘Me? What did I do?’

‘Does this sound familiar? “I wonder how this planet’s going to try and kill us?”.’ Sheppard mimicked Rodney.

Rodney looked a little sheepish.

‘Well, I didn’t want to walk through the damn scary cave crack.’

‘We can debate it or we can continue walking.’

Sheppard heard Rodney muttering under his breath and it made him smile. He was unable to let the moment go without having the last word.

Ahead they had the choice of stairs or continuing onwards. Sheppard chose the stairs, hoping there might be a way out at the top. About three or four ‘flights’ in Rodney’s breath became laboured and Sheppard slowed the pace down. At about fourth flight the stairs opened out to a huge space. It was vast. They walked over to the edge, which probably had some sort of rail there before, but now part had fallen away and twisted metal lay trailing down off the edge.

‘Careful…’ said Sheppard to McKay as they stepped lightly to the edge.

As they did, the full sight of the city below sprawled out in front of them. John could see that it had been magnificent once, but now it was crumbling and decayed. It was partially flooded and he could see swirling eddies of fast dark water. What was surprising was the light. All the way over the other side, there was a bright shaft of light.

‘John, do you see that?’ Rodney pointed excitedly at the light.

‘I do.’

‘Looks like sunlight.’

‘It does.’

‘You could be a little more excited by it.’

‘Well, I’m not a genius or anything but I am looking at the expanse of crumbling ancient buildings, which is flooded by the way, and I’m thinking it’s not going to be easy.’

‘How do we get down there?’

‘Well, we are not going to be able to get down here, so back down and through the city tunnels and find a way out into the open.’

‘The closer we get the more likely we are to be able to get Comms back up. Maybe they can get a jumper through the gap.’

‘Maybe,’ said Sheppard. His gut suggested otherwise. There was something about this place that really wasn’t feeling right. He couldn’t put his finger on it of course, but if he’d learned anything at all, it was to trust initial assessments until proven otherwise.

They went back down the stairs, which was a lot faster than going up. They took the tunnel leading down and towards where they wanted to go. At first, it was easy, some rubble and a few inches of water. But soon the inches were a few feet and some collapses were impossible to get around. Rodney clearly needed to rest and had been quite vocal about it. McKay did stop every now and then to read text or to examine a mural. Most of the tech down here was dead and they tried not to touch what was live. It wouldn’t help their situation much.

As they got closer to the centre of the city, the architecture became older and was in a worse state. They had walked for a couple of hours. Sheppard stopped at the next higher and drier place and sat down.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Resting.’

‘I thought you said we needed to keep moving.’

‘We do, but it’s just for ten minutes.’ Sheppard patted the ground beside him. McKay sat down next to him.

After a minute or so, McKay’s teeth started to chatter. John turned and looked at McKay.

‘I can’t help it, I’m cold,’ he said defensively.

‘You mouth just never stops moving does it?’

Sheppard rolled his eyes, just as Rodney had when he’d been talking to Miana. John held his arm up.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Wanna keep warm or not?’ McKay looked confused but scootched over and Sheppard put his arm around Rodney and pulled him in tight. McKay trembled but stayed silent. John smiled to himself; in any other circumstances, this would be nice but he was frozen to the bone like McKay. The water stank and everything was covered in mould and fungus. The debris-strewn walkways made it difficult to traverse the area, and if their legs weren’t aching enough, they then had to slew through the chilling, numbing water. So no, not the ideal place for snuggles.

He looked at Rodney, who’d shut his eyes and was breathing slowly, and wished he could fall sleep so quickly. He was glad that he’d managed to catch Rodney at lunchtime and spend a few moments together. McKay was regular with the times he ate so it wasn’t hard to find him. At first, John was making sure Rodney’s recovery was on point, but after the first couple of weeks, it was more about just being with him. Rodney never mentioned the kiss they shared and neither had he. But every now and then, he caught McKay watching him when he thought John wouldn’t notice. He had tried to put a little space between them, a buffer of comfort so that they both had a chance to recover from their respective ordeals. What had surprised him more than anything was how difficult it was to go back to normal, now the line had been crossed. Even more so, when he found he didn’t want it to go back. He wanted it to go forward. He squeezed Rodney and McKay snuggled in. John smiled. This place wasn’t the right place to do that but the time was starting to feel right. That is of course if he hadn’t vastly misunderstood McKay.

Sheppard glanced at his watch and saw eleven minutes had passed. He shook McKay.

‘Rodney?’ McKay jumped. ‘It’s been ten minutes.’

‘Five more minutes…’

‘No, Rodney or you’ll get too cold and stop moving.’

‘Aren’t you cold?’

‘Yes, but I’m more conditioned to extreme temperatures than you are.’

‘Is being wet a temperature?’

‘Move, Rodney.’

McKay got up and they resumed their trek. But now, McKay was increasingly verbal about his complaints. The rest had only made the walking worse for him. Sheppard knew he needed to distract Rodney a bit, keep that brain of his from focusing on the physical.

‘So why do you think the ancients sealed these people in?’

‘Well, their overall philosophies seem a little different but I don’t think for a moment that would be enough for the kind of response we’ve seen.’

‘I agree, so what do you think could cause that sort of response?’

‘Anger? Although I don’t know why. They extra writing outside suggests that somebody didn’t want to do it. But from what I’m seeing in here, this place was old even by ancient standards.’ Rodney crossed through a particularly deep part and the water went up to his armpits. ‘Fantastic.’

‘Okay, so how old are we talking.’ Sheppard leant over and helped Rodney out of the dip.

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know.’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Educated guess then?’

‘A lot.’

‘You’re getting cranky, Rodney.’

‘Yes, I’m getting cranky. I’m freezing walking through near darkness, constantly hitting my legs on sharp bit of fallen buildings, treading on bones and god knows what else…’

Sheppard looked around to Rodney.

‘Bones?’

‘Stones, I said stones.’

‘No you didn’t, you said bones.’

‘I most certainly did not.’

John squinted at McKay and realised he needed to up his distraction method. He faced forward again and continued moving on, checking the way. Rodney must be associating this place with the ‘Sarlacc’ pit or whatever it was. He left speaking for five minutes or so and allowed Rodney to collect himself a little.

‘So, McKay… how about that kiss we had, huh?’

From behind, he could hear that Rodney had instantly stopped moving. John bet that McKay now had that expression of utter disbelief, mouth open and eyes wide. He smirked to himself.

‘You want to talk about that now?’ McKay emphasised the ‘now’ with a slightly higher pitch.

‘Why not?’

‘Why not? Are you actually serious?’ Impressive, Rodney had managed to go up an octave.

‘Absolutely. What did you think of it?’

‘What did I think of it?’

‘Yup. You keep repeating my questions back, Rodney, somebody might think you’re evading the question.’

‘I’m not evading it, I just don’t know what to say.’

‘I think you know exactly what you want to say.’

‘Oh, do you?’

‘Yes, I think your just too scared to tell me.’

‘I am not scared of you.’

‘Good.’ There was silence, well, apart from the sounds of them sloshing through stagnant water. ‘Rodney?’ John prompted.

‘It wasn’t unpleasant.’

‘Interesting.’

‘What did you think?’

‘I quite enjoyed it.’

‘You did?’

‘Yeah, I mean you were a bit slow to start…’

‘Are you critiquing my technique?’

‘No, just observing.’

‘You are!’

‘I’m just saying you were slow to get going, it was hard to tell if you liked it.’

‘I was Kirked, I wasn’t ready.’

‘Kirked? I didn’t Kirk you. I don’t Kirk people; I don’t understand your obsession with that particular phrase.’

‘You did, you did that dreamy-eyed staring thing!’

‘I did not,’ John suppressed the giggle that struggled to be released.

‘I was like a rabbit caught in headlights. I didn’t stand a chance.’

‘So I seduced into kissing with my eyes?’

‘Yes.’

‘So… you think my eyes are dreamy?’

‘No.’

‘You just said they were dreamy.’

‘Some people might think they are… just like some people might think you are handsome.’

It was John’s turn to pause, was Rodney actually trying to flirt back?

‘Some people, eh?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay, so let’s say you were taken off guard.’

‘Kirked.’

‘Off guard. Either way, you weren’t ready.’

‘Right.’

‘That aside, did you like it?’

‘I thought I covered that.’

‘You said it wasn’t unpleasant.’

‘Right.’

‘So by that logic, it was pleasant.’

‘Yes.’

‘Pleasant enough to do it again?’

McKay stopped walking again; John could sense Rodney’s eyes on him. He looked around, and although the light level was gloomy, he could see McKay’s face. It looked slightly panicked.

‘Again?’

‘Yes, again, Rodney,’ Sheppard turned around and continued to walk. ‘Walk and talk.’ He heard the splashing resume and the silence continued.

‘Yes.’

‘Yes, what?’

‘Yes, it was pleasant enough to do it again.’

‘Good.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes, good.’ John stopped and turned around to face McKay. McKay squeaked and looked terrified.

‘Now?’

‘How about this, Rodney, you do your best to get out of here alive and if you do I promise you there will be another opportunity to revisit the moment.’

‘If I do?’

‘If you die the deal’s off, obviously.’

‘Are you really so full of yourself that you think kissing you is an incentive to survive.’

‘Yes, yes I am.’

‘Kirk.’

‘Or maybe, unlike you, I can admit how good the kiss felt.’

Sheppard rounded the corner smugly and was surprised to see daylight. He squinted shielding his eyes.

‘McKay, we’ve broken through.’

He heard more sloshing, at a faster pace. Rodney appeared beside him, squinted, and shielded his eyes just as John had done.

‘Okay, now all we have to do is get over there.’

The rumble started deep, hardly noticeable but it travelled upward and shook the entire cave, the buildings started showering shards of stone and Sheppard heard something collapse behind them.

‘Move.’ He said grabbing McKay and dragging him forward. Nowhere was safe to shelter so John stayed in the open and hunkered down pulling McKay down with him. It lasted for a minute or two and then started to settle down. The quake faded away Sheppard noticed and he had his arms wrapped around Rodney. McKay gripped John tightly, his head tucked into Sheppard’s shoulder.

‘It’s passed, we’re okay,’ said Sheppard.

‘Has it only been three hours? It felt a lot longer.’ Rodney let go of John and he felt the loss of heat immediately.

John tapped his comm on.

‘Can anyone hear me? This is Sheppard. Lorne? Stevens?’ Nothing came through and he shook his head at Rodney. ‘Nothing.’

‘Well, maybe we still need to get a little bit closer for the Comms to work.’ McKay looked up and around at the huge cavern. ‘Perhaps there is something in the rock preventing communication.’

‘We need to get closer to the cave in either way.’

‘Which way?’

‘Forwards until something blocks and then we go round, just like before.’

Rodney nodded and followed Sheppard’s lead. He also complained less, which John appreciated. As before, it was hard going and they had to contend with a current too. The water flowed quicker in some places, but as it was, only a few feet deep it was manageable. If it got deeper, then it might be a problem. There was a large building in the centre and they needed to pass that to get through to the other side. As they got closer, they could see it must have once been quite beautiful. There were mosaics of intricate detail, mostly of scenes, which bore no relevance to Sheppard and McKay. As they rounded a corner, McKay stopped and his reaction made Sheppard stop too.

‘What is it?’

‘What does that figure look like to you?

Sheppard squinted and saw a figure with long, flowing white hair, pale, dressed in black.

‘Wraith?’

‘Yes, but look at the context.’

Again, Sheppard looked at the figures and saw that it was a group of Wraith, possibly with a queen, a red-haired figure. John narrowed his eyes, this wasn’t a scene of destruction or war, and it was celebratory. The Ancients and the Wraith were together, working together. John stepped back to look at the mosaic as a whole.

‘They were living together?’ asked John.

‘I think so, look there’s a hive-like ‘home’ here,’ McKay pointed to where he meant. ‘This place is not what we thought it was.’

John looked a little longer and stepped back a little further. He could see a pattern forming, but he couldn’t read it.

‘Hey, Rodney, step back and look at the whole picture,’ McKay stepped back.

‘The people form words. This one is written in Wraith but its meaning is clear: Sanctuary.’

‘Is it possible that the ancients here and the Wraith lived together, like happily or something?’

‘That could explain why the others sealed them in, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.’

They stood for a minute just looking at the mosaic, it was impressive art, but more than that, it was a statement about who they were and what they stood for. It made John a little sad but he did have to wonder at the folly of living with the Wraith.

‘The stone this building is made from is weird as well,’ said Rodney. ‘The colours suggest it was formed that way, but it looks natural.’

‘Why is that weird?’

‘Do you know the sort of temperatures, pressure and time have to occur for natural stone to form?’

‘Let’s say I don’t for the sake of argument.’

‘Well, it’s a lot.’

‘But up top, you said they’d sealed people in with a rock?’

‘No, I said molten silicates laced with carbon, which is basically glass and graphite dust,’ said Rodney. ‘The temperatures are significantly lower and much easier to control. This is something else.’

‘Enough sightseeing we need to keep moving, we don’t want to be around for the next quake.’

They continued and had to circumvent a few deep places where the water flowed too quickly. Rodney now took a few moments to look at any murals or mosaics they passed. As they got closer to the opening, the more Sheppard knew they would be able to get out. Of course, what was on the other side was another story, but one life threatening problem at a time.

Every now and then, there was a popping sound. Sheppard hadn’t noticed it at first but it seemed to be getting louder and louder. He tried to locate the source of it, but the sound was bouncing off the walls and making it difficult to pin down.

‘Can you hear that?’ said Rodney looking around slightly unnerved.

‘The popping sound? Yeah, I can.’

‘Popping? It sounds like ice to me.’

‘What does ice sound like?’ Sheppard didn’t hide his scepticism.

‘It sounds like broken ice moving, a cracking, scraping sound rather than popping.’

Sheppard looked around again, trying to find the source of the sound. It seemed to be coming from a large building to the left of them. John walked over to it and heard the sound echoing out from near its base. There was water shooting out in tiny jets from behind. The water pressure must be immense. It slowly dawned on Sheppard that the sounds he’d been hearing were the supports for the building failing. The wall of water behind was teetering on breaking through.

‘Rodney, we need to move to higher ground now.’

McKay looked at the wall and very quickly came to the same conclusion; John could see it via the panic in his eyes.
 
‘Which way?’ asked McKay.

‘Over here,’ Sheppard led the way across the walkway to a nearby building. There were stairs leading up and down, there were some missing so they might have a jump a few going up. He wasn’t sure how high they might need to go but as high as they could get.

The bang of the other building giving way to the water was deafening; John and Rodney both covered their ears. Rodney grabbed the entryway wall as the water rushed out, it slewed around his legs, and into the building they were trying to find higher ground in. John reached forward and Rodney grabbed his arm. John pulled him in, but the water was rushing in quick and fast. They tried to make their way to the stairs that led upward. The speed of the water knocked Rodney to his knees and Sheppard stooped to help him up. As he did so, the outer wall of the building they were in gave way and collapsed. The force of the collapse threw them backwards and Rodney disappeared down the stairwell. Sheppard tried to step down but the relentless water took his legs out from underneath him. He slid down on his back and he couldn’t help but notice this was how he started this whole adventure.

The water pushed them down further into ruins and John lost track of where there were. The tunnels were dark and other than the odd outcropping of iridescent fungus, there was no light. They were at the mercy of the current until it started to slow down. Rodney had grabbed some sort of pipework to steady himself. He reached out for John he grabbed the pipe too. They were floating in one of the tunnels, unable to put their feet down. There was about two feet of air space and it was filling up.

‘Well this day just keeps getting betting, huh?’ shouted Sheppard over the sound of the water. His bravado masking the fear beginning to knot in his gut.

‘You’re telling me,’ Rodney shouted back with eyes wide, panic looking ready to take hold at any moment.

Sheppard tried to think quickly. They weren’t going to be able to swim against the current and they would more than likely run out of air before the water slowed enough for them to move. Sheppard guessed that there must be a way through below the water line, which meant swimming down. There was no light so it would be by feel.

‘Rodney, I’m gonna swim down and try to find a way out.’

‘What if you don’t come back?’

‘I’m going to come back.’

‘But…’

‘Rodney, look at me,’ John grabbed McKay’s shoulder. ‘I’m going to get us out of this, okay?’ McKay nodded, the apprehension still very much there, but he relaxed a little.

‘Okay.’

‘I’ll be right back,’ he gave Rodney his ‘Kirk’ smile, ‘and remember, Rodney… don’t die.’ He took a deep breath and disappeared under the water.



The cold water was chilling to the core and it swirled beneath his feet. The choppy eddies made it hard to grip onto the already slippery pipe. How long had it been? Three minutes, four? Could John hold his breath for that long? McKay knew he couldn’t trust his sense of time so he started to count aloud.

‘One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus,’ he said.

There was barely a foot of headspace and the lack of air was starting to make Rodney feel claustrophobic. The water lapped at his face and made the feeling worse. What really didn’t help was the impending sense of doom. It also didn’t help that he was sure he could calculate exactly how long it would take the water to rise above his head. He really wasn’t that brilliant at holding his breath either.

When he counted to past five minutes, Rodney began to fret. Had something happened to John? No, Sheppard said he would get them out of this. It had to be at least six minutes now. Should he attempt to look himself and what if John was stuck somehow?

Sheppard burst out of the water in front of him. McKay yelped in shock. Sheppard wiped the water from his eyes.

‘You are not going to believe what’s on the other side.’

‘Unless it’s dry and there’s air I don’t think I care.’

‘You will trust me.’

McKay gave him an I-don’t-think-so look and frowned.

‘How far is it?’

‘It’s not how far it is, more how awkward it is. Take some big breaths,’ Rodney started to breathe in deeply. ‘Hold on to me and I’ll get you through. Ready?’

McKay nodded and took one last breath and plunged himself under, which was hard to do fully clothed. Sheppard grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him along; Rodney kicked his feet as hard as he could. He could already feel the need to take another breath, but he held it in. Sheppard pulled him through a tiny crawlspace and Rodney felt his heart rate soar.  Then he had to swim up a little and back down again. The space was not forgiving. As he tried to swim through he became stuck, his jacket had snagged on something. He wriggled and tried to manoeuvre but it wasn’t budging. Sheppard wrenched Rodney out of the space with brute strength; he felt his flesh scraping on the rocks. And then, suddenly they were out of the water, dry and lying next to each other panting.

McKay sat up and patted himself down, not really believing that he was dry. He looked up and saw some sort of force field held the water back.

‘Well, that’s the good news,’ said Sheppard pointing at the force field. ‘The bad news is that we are now further underground and less likely to be rescued.’

‘What’s powering it? In fact, why is it here at all?’ McKay looked at their surroundings. The room was bare and there was only one door, which rather looked like it should be in a cold war submarine. It had a rusty valve and wheel, probably to open it. It looked watertight, sort of.

‘Well, that is the next question isn’t it?’ said Sheppard.

‘I guess we go through there,’ McKay pointed just as the wheel on the door started to turn. Rodney looked at Sheppard there was nowhere to hide. Sheppard pulled his side arm and indicated for Rodney to get behind him. Rodney wasn’t even sure if the gun would fire. The door opened a tiny crack and there was a hiss of air.

‘I know you have weapons, please do not shoot,’ said an unknown male voice.

‘Okay,’ said Sheppard. ‘I will take that into account providing you give us no reason too.’

‘I’m coming into the room alone although there are others waiting outside.’

A young looking man with pale skin walked in slowly. John lowered his weapon but did not holster it, neither did he relax at all, Rodney noticed. The young man was nervous but tried to smile and spread his hands to show they were empty.

‘Hello,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ said Sheppard.

‘I am Hewl.’

‘I’m Major Sheppard and this is Dr McKay.’

‘Would you like to come with me? This force field cannot be continually sustained.’

‘Where would we be going?’ asked Sheppard.

‘Inside, but you are going to have to put your weapons down.’

‘What if we don’t want to?’

‘Well, you can stay here and drown, but I’d take the other option if it were me.’ Hewl indicated the doorway.

‘When you put it like that…’ Sheppard holstered his weapon. ‘Rodney, any objections?’

‘Not drowning sounds good to me.’

‘If you’d like to follow me.’ Hewl walked through the doorway and Sheppard followed. Rodney didn’t hesitate in complying and noticed the warmth from within almost straight away.

The rather basic tunnel soon led out into a larger area. Rodney thought it looked another part of the cavern they’d just come from. He thought it might be a series of interlinked caves and that this was one of many perhaps. It seemed logical considering the underground river; it had probably carved the spaces out over time. There were other humans watching them as they walked through and the next space was breathtaking. It was beautiful. Not a bit of cavern could be seen, instead, an ardent green spread out everywhere with dotted with a myriad of bright colours. The constant glow of bright lights clearly gave the plants the light they needed to survive. It was remarkable. Rodney frowned, somewhere deep inside him stirred an unease that was hard to ignore. He looked at the people they were passing, they’d clearly lived beneath the ground most of their lives and yet, did the people above know they were here?

Hewl led them to a group who had their backs to them on the approach. They parted as they arrived and McKay saw Lorne and Stevens on their knees, weaponless. Sheppard went to grab his weapon but they grabbed his arm. At the same time, one reached over and plucked Rodney’s from his holster. They were shoved in the direction of Lorne and Stevens and made to kneel. McKay glanced at Sheppard but he was looking at Lorne. As best Rodney could see, they were having some secret military conversation, finger wagging and twitching.

‘Fancy meeting you here,’ Sheppard said to Lorne seeming calm like they’d met in a bar.

‘Glad to see you are both alive, Major,’ replied Lorne equally as cool.

Sheppard looked up at Hewl.

‘I’m not loving your hospitality so far,’ said Sheppard but he remained silent.

They looked like they were waiting for somebody. Rodney did not like that feeling. The walls here, like the flooded cavern, were etched with writing and sprawling mosaics, which unlike the ones he’d already seen, were bright and colourful. There were some particularly intricate doors to the north of them with a vivid depiction of trees. Thick trunks and roots that seemed to go deep. Then Rodney saw something that made his insides chill. The roots ran down into a red dirt and in the dirt, bones protruded. He turned to take in the rest of the friezes and saw that their themes all ended up woven into the branches of the giant trees pictured on the door. One mosaic saw men drinking a red-brown fluid from a goblet. The sense of unease now grew to alarm. His mind was trying to warn him, he saw flashes of the meadows and the playing children. The underground of the ‘Sarlacc’ came to the forefront of his mind and he shuddered.

A flurry of activity in front of them saw that who they had been waiting for had arrived. A self-important older man stood before them and behind him, a Wraith stood, watching them with his cold pale eyes.

‘Where did they come from?’ The older man asked.

‘They fell through from above, Wilem,’ said Hewl.

‘Have they revealed our presence?’ asked Wilem.

‘No, the jammers are still working perfectly,’ replied Hewl.

‘Then kill them,’ said Wilem.

‘Hey now, there’s no need for hasty actions…’ said Sheppard looking a bit annoyed.

‘It’s nothing personal,’ said the older man.

‘Really? Is there not some way we can work this out?’ asked John. ‘I’m not a fan of your current suggestion.’

‘Perhaps the rite, Wilem?’ the Wraith suggested to Wilem.

‘No.’

‘It’s death one way or another.’

‘I suppose.’

‘What’s this rite you are talking about?’ asked Sheppard. ‘If it will help relations between us?’ The look Wilem gave John was somewhere between a smirk and pity. ‘Or not.’ Sheppard added.

‘If you fail, you will die in excruciating pain, or we can just kill you now. It seems the more merciful option.’

‘I’m not opposed to mercy per se, but in this case, I’m curious, perhaps you could tell me what does the rite entail exactly?

‘You drink poison.’

‘That doesn’t sound like much of a rite, more like an execution.’

‘If you commit a crime here, the rite is death or redemption.’

‘Have we committed a crime?’ asked Lorne.

‘No, I supposed not,’ replied Wilem.

‘How many people have survived this rite?’ asked Sheppard.

‘In the old days, most did. But not for a hundred years or more,’ said Wilem.

‘How quickly does the poison work?’ asked Sheppard.

‘It takes days to die,’ replied Wilem.

‘Of course, it does. This fucking day… just does not let up.’

McKay looked at John and knew what Sheppard was about to do. Of course, Sheppard would want to try thinking there was little choice other than summary execution. Rodney’s stomach churned as his mind duly responded with all the ways in which Sheppard would die painfully. It seemed to McKay that if the red-brown liquid in the mosaics were the ritual poison, it would also make sense it was the same stuff at the bottom of the ‘Sarlacc’ plant. If Sheppard took that, he would die. However, Rodney knew he’d been infused with it before and survived. He also knew the root of the plant cured it.

Rodney looked at the Wraith, who seemed to be sympathetic if you could possibly apply that to a Wraith. He seemed to be looking at Sheppard with pity.

‘I’ll do it, I’ll take the rite or poison or whatever it is,’ said McKay.

Lorne and Stevens looked agog at McKay. Sheppard looked apoplectic.

‘Now, Rodney,’ said Sheppard in a low but aggressive tone, ‘I don’t think you’ve thought that through.’

‘I have.’

‘The poison is taken and if you survive you must perform the rite,’ said the Wraith.

McKay didn’t break eye contact with Sheppard.

‘I understand.’

‘Rodney, don’t do this,’ said Sheppard.

‘I am doing this.’

‘McKay, I don’t know what idea has gotten into your neurotic mind but you get it right back out.’ Sheppard was just about managing to keep his frustration under control, but it was clear he was quite cross.

The Wraith came forward, grabbed McKay’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He walked him over to what looked like a stone alter. On it was a goblet and three bottles. The Wraith picked up the first bottle and poured a shots worth of liquid into the goblet. He picked it up and handed it to McKay.

‘You understand no mercy will be given for the pain.’

McKay nodded.

‘Rodney, I order you not to do this. Do you understand me? That’s an order from your commanding officer,’ Sheppard paused, and added, ‘that’s me.’

Rodney smiled even though his hand shook as he held the goblet and looked at John.

‘It’s okay; I’m going to get us out of this.’ Rodney looked into the goblet and felt revulsion. He held his breath and downed the liquid. Nothing. He looked confused; he thought it would be instant. Of course, he could have been wrong. It was a long shot that somehow surviving the red-brown liquid from the Sarlacc would protect him now. Assuming the plants were even the same. Assuming that there was any residue of the substance in his system at all. McKay started to wonder if he’d done the right thing when the fire started deep in the pit of his stomach. He dropped the goblet and fell to his knees doubling over. He vaguely heard Sheppard trying to get to him but they held him back. It was everything he remembered and more, so much more. Everything was pain.

‘Help him, please!’ Rodney heard Lorne; at least he thought it was Lorne. It was hard to hear over his own screams.

Inexplicably the pain started to fade. How long had passed he did not know. His mouth tasted like blood from where he’d bitten his own tongue, not that he could feel it, only that it was slightly swollen. His theory worked although the pain was there he knew he could function. Now all he had to do was survive the rite and he strongly suspected that would be doing the very thing he’d done for Sheppard. Collect the black sap. He stood shakily although he tried his best to look calm. The last place in the world he wanted to go to was back to that plant dungeon.

‘It cannot be,’ Wilem seemed royally pissed that McKay had survived.

‘Perhaps the others can also be used?’ The Wraith suggested.

‘It won’t be necessary,’ said Rodney.

‘More people the more chance you’ll succeed.’

‘No, the deal is this. I complete your rite and you let us go back to the surface. We will tell no-one you are here.’

‘Why would we trust you at all?’

‘Because the gift of life is sacrosanct.’

The Wraith blinked in surprise, as did the others who heard what he said.

‘How do you know our customs?’

‘I don’t, but I read it enough times out there, in the flooded part of your city. It is, or it was at least, a founding principle.’

‘It was… but that was before we were betrayed,’ said Wilem.

‘I understand this much, I go through those doors and get you what you want I’ve paid the toll and you will let us go,’ McKay stared at Wilem and then the Wraith.

The Wraith took the other two bottles on the alter and put them in a cloth bag. He gave them to McKay. He then produced a knife with a wicked looking blade made from metal with swirling faint rainbow colours.

‘You will need this to cut the sacred tree,’ he pointed to the doors and McKay walked over. ‘I hope you return, human.’

Rodney looked at Sheppard who had given up telling McKay not to do the stupid thing but had resigned himself to what was happening. His eyes were angry but worse than that, he saw how powerless John must feel.

‘McKay?’

‘Sheppard?’

‘Don’t die. That’s an order. Perhaps one you might follow.’

‘I won’t, I said I’d get us all out of this and I will.’

‘I know you will.’

Pleasantly surprised McKay half-smiled and nodded. The doors opened and Rodney walked through.

The tunnel was dark, dank and nothing like his favourite place to be which was currently anywhere but here. He started to see light ahead and the tunnel led to yet another cave. Except, it wasn’t. It was outside. McKay could see a cloudless azure blue sky and a sprawling forested canopy just below him. There was a clear way down carved into the side of the rock. He could smell the decay here, but in the open, the smell was almost undetectable. He tried to access his comm but realised for the first time, it was not there. It must have fallen off in the floodwater.

At the bottom, moss grew in heathery mounds green and dewy in the shade. Rodney knew the moss covered the holes that trapped the unwary. Here it seemed slightly different. There were other types of tree, shrubs, and bushes, and areas of fallen leaves. Rodney hopped carefully avoiding the moss and made his way to the largest tree. Unlike the other place, he could already see a hollow where he could safely get in lower and most likely back out again. His stomach ached still and the window of relatively less pain was closing. McKay knew he must get the black stuff to survive. He climbed down into the hole and breathed through his mouth. The rotting corpse of something large and furry laid at the bottom. Carefully he placed his feet down slowly and moved toward the centre of the rootstock. He pulled the knife, cut the root, and held the bottle underneath to catch the sap. The darkness down here wasn’t quite as pitch black as before and there were shafts of light where gaps had not sealed. Whilst he was scared, it was nothing like before although the stakes were the same.

Once the second bottle was full, he drank a mouthful of the black sap and it was just as ghastly as he remembered it to be. He topped the bottle up, placed the stoppers on, and made his way back. Something still made him feel uneasy. His mind kept leaping back to the children playing in the meadow. He climbed back out of the hole and started his ascent up the rock wall. Once at the top, he glanced back at the forest below; it really was quite beautiful. He turned to face the tunnel entrance and for the first time realised that the inhabitants inside must have spent many days digging through. In fact, now that he thought about it, maybe years.

Rodney stopped walking.

‘No, no, no… something isn’t right here.’

He looked at the walls of the tunnel. There were tool marks indicating how the rock was dug away, why? Surely, they had more sophisticated equipment.

‘Why are you using hand tools? No, that’s not right either you don’t have the strength. Wait… human’s don’t have the strength but the Wraith definitely does, so the Wraith digs through, but why? I’m betting the tools you might have used are either use too much power or… draw too much attention. So you dig quietly and you stay hidden. I’m guessing because of the other Wraith. Why is the Wraith here passive? Don’t they need to eat? What are they eating? Wilem told the Wraith to kill us so trespassers at least, but how many of those come by really?’

McKay paused in his monologue and turned to walk back out of the tunnel by the trees again. He looked out over and saw the sun was a little lower in the sky.

‘How many people come by?’ McKay frowned. ‘The village nymph! We didn’t know about the other room until she pointed it out. I bet she could read the ancient writing as well. Oh god…’

McKay visualised the conversation in his head where he asked her about the writing. The smile had fallen away and she had a hard time dragging her eyes from the words. They’d written the words, the villagers, perhaps even she had, but she knew their meaning well enough. So they colluded in some way, getting people into the temple like she had with Lorne’s team. Wraith worshippers then? No. He’d only seen one Wraith and he wasn’t in control: Wilem was. What was it the Wraith had said, “How do you know our customs?” our customs? Not, my customs or his or their customs, it was our customs.

‘Oh, Meredith, you got it wrong… it’s not a sanctuary as in a safe place, it is a sanctuary as in a sacred place. They aren’t offering harbour to Wraith. So what are they doing with them?’

Rodney thought about the friezes on the walls and the imagery. The Wraith and their queen holding their arms up touching some of the depicted humans. Once again, Rodney saw that this place held deeper horrors, as he realised what the Wraith were doing. It was also clear that despite everything he’d done, they would be killed anyway. The Wraith would kill them one by one. The gift of life was sacrosanct after all.