“This is seriously cool.”
Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard kicked off the ground and sailed a good ten feet from the jumper before landing gently in fine gray dust. He felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the bulky white space suit, but he moved almost gracefully in the low gravity of the barren moon.
“Oooof!” Rodney McKay grunted, landing with just a little less refinement next to John. He staggered a moment, waving his arms sluggishly as he tried to hold onto his balance. John reached over with both hands, grabbing a hold of the flailing man. The gloves weren’t quite dexterous enough for him to grab the thick space suit with just one hand.
“Yeah, no problem,” McKay flashed him a smile through the helmet’s visor. It was odd hearing McKay through just the radio when he was standing right next to him.
John gazed around. The rugged, rocky landscape spread out in all directions. Far ahead, he could see jagged mountains knifing into the blackness of space. Except that space wasn’t black. Without the usual light pollution that muted the skies of Earth, John could see waves of dark colors bleeding through the sky.
And the stars—the stars were breathtaking. They weren’t just bright. They were clear and sharp, unmarred by the fuzzying effect of any atmosphere. And there were thousands of them. Thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands.
“This is an astrophysicist’s dream,” McKay said in awe, his voice subdued.
“This is a pilot’s dream,” John added. “Hell, this is…this is…”
“Stunning,” Teyla answered. She landed softly on John’s other side, her eyes shining in wonder. “To see such sights from the jumper is one thing, but I never believed I would have an opportunity to step out on a world like this.”
“I believe the phrase you’re looking for is ‘Magnificent desolation,’” McKay supplied, no less taken with their surroundings.
Magnificent indeed. John grinned. He’d always wanted to be a pilot, but what kid didn’t wonder, at some point, what it would be like to be an astronaut and walk on the moon. It wasn’t exactly his moon, but close enough. It looked about the same.
A loud groan from behind him, sounding tinny through the radio earpieces, had all three teammates turning around. Ronon stood a few feet back with his head down and his hands on his knees.
“You okay there, buddy?”
“This planet is making me sick,” Ronon ground out.
“Technically, it’s not a planet, it’s a moon. The planet that we’re revolving around is on the far side right now, but it should rise in about seven, maybe eight…hours…” McKay’s voice died out as Ronon pushed himself straight and glared at the physicist.
He really did look kind of pale. John grimaced. He and McKay both had warned Ronon about eating so much food for lunch, and that low-gravity environments sometimes made people queasy until their bodies adjusted.
“Let’s start walking,” John suggested. “Maybe your stomach will settle.”
“Yeah, cause I really don’t think you want to puke all up in the inside of your—never mind, not talking, just ignore me.”
John rolled his eyes at the physicist, giving him a shove forward. McKay squawked in return, but there was no denying the gleam of triumph in his eye. For once, Rodney McKay had the upper hand physically over the runner. Teyla followed, but John waited until Ronon had passed him, taking rear position. He made one more hop before twisting—slowly in this gravity—back toward the jumper. He poked at the remote strapped to his arm and watched the rear hatch close firmly. The mountain range—actually the rim of a very large crater—circled the edge of the horizon all around them.
This was seriously cool.
The “moon base”—as McKay had so eloquently named it—lay about fifty yards from the jumper. They’d caught a glimpse of the man-made structures in passing on their way around the nearby planet to the space gate the week before. It hadn’t taken long to determine the base was definitely not of any known Wraith or Ancient design, and it took even less time to convince Colonel Carter they should return and investigate. In fact, John had been half-convinced that Carter was going to assign herself to this mission.
They made their way slowly across the surface, for Ronon’s sake more than anything else. The gravity was slightly heavier than Earth’s moon, but not by much. Not that any of them were trained astronauts, but few personnel on Atlantis could really be considered “trained” for this type of mission—low gravity environment, no atmosphere, alien base, potential enemy encounter, and probably some kind of weird technology left behind to wreak havoc.
The last week had been filled with briefings and the little training they could accomplish to get ready for this. John had had the most experience out of all of them, having jumped from one tower to the next when Atlantis had popped out of hyperspace early and found itself in the middle of the galaxy, but he hardly thought that qualified. John smiled again, remembering the enthusiasm everyone had shown in preparation for this mission. It had been a long time since he’d seen his team this excited about going anywhere.
Hell, he was excited. John Sheppard—astronaut—was walking on the moon.
The moon base was long-abandoned. The buildings were made of solid, thick walls, but most of them had started to collapse or erode away. With no atmosphere, John wondered how long it would take for something like that to wear down. Whoever had lived here had been advanced and had left no trace of themselves on the planet below. For all he knew, they could have been contemporaries of the Ancients.
Rodney McKay plodded around the buildings methodically, his scanner held out in front of him. John, Ronon—looking a little less green—and Teyla had quickly determined there were no other living things around to threaten them, so they were now following the scientist mindlessly.
John glanced out at the mountain peaks in the distance. The urge to run and jump through the low-g environment was almost overwhelming. The gravity was strong enough that he knew he couldn’t jump too far or high to spin wildly out into the depths of space, but the thought of a few long seconds of freedom unattached to the ground, just him sailing under the momentum of his own kick off the ground, was making his heart beat double time.
It was flying—pure and simple.
“Rodney, Teyla, why don’t you guys keep exploring the base. Ronon and I are going to split off and look around.”
Ronon grinned. Teyla raised her eyebrow at John, and McKay looked up absently, still focused on the data pad in his bulky arms.
John shrugged. “We’ll cover more ground that way.”
Now that Ronon’s stomach had finally settled, the man could hardly stand still. John laughed out loud as the runner jumped into the air, landing a good 15 feet away and heading out toward the open expanse of the crater.
“Stay in radio contact, kids. And be careful,” John grinned, before following Ronon and jumping toward space. He landed a good five feet behind Ronon, to which the runner smirked. He could hear McKay muttering something through the radio, but he kicked off from the ground again and his heart soared.
Jumping was tiring after awhile. John could feel the muscles in his thighs burning at the exertion of the last hour. Ronon somehow always managed to out-jump John as well, going farther and higher than the pilot’s best attempt. They’d finally settled down to a half-walk, half-hop gait.
“Not much out here.” Ronon’s voice sounded tinny through the radio. John glanced over at him, noting the beads of perspiration on his face. John was just as sweaty. He could feel the sweat dripping in his hair and down his back.
“Just us, the moon, and the entire galaxy,” John breathed. He stared up again at the stars, missing Ronon’s eye roll.
“So are we looking for anything in particular out here?”
“Oh, now you ask,” McKay’s voice cut through. “You’ve been bouncing around out there for almost an hour like two kids hopped up on red Kool-aid, and it suddenly occurs to you that there might actually be something out there for you to find.”
“Have you guys found anything?” John interrupted.
“We have not,” Teyla answered. John could hear the patience waning thin in her voice.
“Not yet,” McKay amended. “We’re still looking. Any equipment that might have been useful has long since disintegrated. And I thought the point of splitting up was to cover more ground.”
“Then start paying attention to the more ground you’re covering. If there is anything left here, I’m pretty sure it will be like hitting the jackpot, scientifically speaking.”
“Jackpot—got it,” John answered. “You said we had about six hours of air in these tanks, is that right?”
“Yes, and we’ve been out here for two hours, which leaves you four hours of air. So start looking!”
John smiled at McKay’s exasperation, then turned to Ronon.
“You heard the man. Let’s start looking for…stuff.”
Ronon clapped John on the shoulder, hard enough to send him staggering forward a good four or five feet. The suits were bulky enough that John’s arms and legs didn’t move as fast as he was used to, and it took him a moment to regain his balance. He glared at Ronon before the two continued on.
“We heading in any particular direction?” Ronon asked after a moment.
“Just the wide open fields of moon rocks. Why? You got a particular direction you want to head in?”
Ronon shrugged, a move barely visible in the space suit.
“Speak up, Ronon. What are you thinking?”
“This place freaks me out a little.”
John raised an eyebrow at that. It was not what he expected the runner to say. “Really?” He could hear McKay asking the same thing and remembered that he and Teyla could hear everything they said.
“Everything looks the same, in every direction. It would be easy to get lost out here. And then what? We have limited air, no way to get food or water.”
“We’ll be fine, Ronon,” John said, finding it strange that he was having to reassure the normally fearless warrior.
“I know, but when I was a runner, my life depended on being able to figure out exactly where I was regardless of the planet. It would be too easy to get turned around out here.”
John hadn’t thought of that. He looked around the wide crater again with a sharper eye. There really were no discernible features. He turned and looked back in the direction they’d come. Their boot prints were clear and marked a straight line back toward the moon base. The jumper was a darker smudge against the gray rocks and dust off to the side, just barely visible.
“Foot prints,” John answered. But Ronon was right. He needed to stop playing jumping astronaut and start paying more attention to their surroundings. As if to reinforce that point, McKay’s voice crackled over the radio.
“What was that, McKay? You’re breaking up.”
“…ldd on…there…hear me now? I boosted the…nal…may st…have troub…keeping in contact.”
John rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I hear you. What’s going on?”
“Resid…diation…inter…ering with rad...transmissions.”
“Did you say radiation?”
“Yes, Co…nel. Radiation…nothing danger…ss…til…sun…ises…tiful dusk light…ives way to scorch…rays of su…but we’ve…ill got nine or t…hours before th…”
“So just our radios are affected?”
John shook his head in frustration. “I said, it’s just our radios that are affected?”
“…ats what I said…farther you t…go, the more in…ference we’ll g…on the radios.”
“Understood,” John said. He glanced around again, calculating. “We’ll keep searching but keep in contact the entire time.”
“Fine…ever…stay cl..ss...” McKay’s voice crackled a little more before cutting out. John nodded then turned back to Ronon.
“Alright, let’s see if there’s anything out here.”
John and Ronon continued on, a little more cautiously this time. The beauty and excitement of the moon had overwhelmed him at first, but he’d been lucky. John took a deep steadying breath. This place may be uninhabited, but there were just as many potential dangers. He glanced over at Ronon, feeling a little chagrined that he’d let his emotions get away with him, but the runner was busy staring down at his feet as he negotiated around a pile of rocks.
John looked forward again, stepping carefully. The gravity was no different now than it had been, but he felt a little heavier. It was just his imagination, he knew, but Ronon had been right. It would be very easy to get turned around here. The flat ground spread out in all directions around them, littered with rocks and boulders.
John hopped forward a few more times, easily dancing around the rocks below his feet. The lighting on the dark side of the moon was more like dusk, illuminated by the stars and the glow of the planet just out of sight. It reminded him of skiing on late cloudy afternoons. The light would suddenly get flat, eliminating all shadows that might warn a skier of a snow drift or a hole.
John took another step, about to warn Ronon of that type of lighting, when his foot flailed over open air. He jerked backward as the foot suddenly came down on a sharp incline and started to slide forward.
The space suit prevented any chance John might have had to spin around and catch himself. He landed flat on his back, continuing to slide. He dug his feet into the soft ground, but managed to do no more than kick up even more rocks and dust. He scraped along the side of the hill, the sound reverberating in his helmet and sending a jolt of fear through him. If his suit ripped...
The friction eventually started to slow him down, and John breathed a sigh of relief as he managed to get his hands underneath him and dig his palms into the ground as well. He was still moving, but not quite as fast as before. If he could just anchor onto something…
John caught a glimpse of a deep crater, its sheer rocky walls plunging a good twenty five feet down before his momentum carried him over the edge.
“Ronon!” John yelled, as much a warning of the danger as a cry for help. He tumbled over the cliff’s edge feet first. He could feel his arms flailing, and in the low gravity, the fall seemed to take longer than it should have. The distant crater rim jutting into space disappeared from view as he plunged downward.
The low gravity slowed him down, but it wasn’t nearly slow enough. Not for a twenty-five foot drop. John hit the ground hard, catching most of his weight on his right leg before his momentum carried him forward. His leg gave out in an explosion of pain and he had just enough time to throw his arms out in front of him before he slammed face first into the ground.
John blinked and watched lazily as white globes of light swirled around his head.
“Sheppard? Buddy, answer me.”
Someone spoke to him, whispering directly into his ear. He turned his head toward the sound—at least he tried to. His body refused to obey. He blinked again, and the swirling globes above him settled into place. Stars.
“McKay? Teyla? There’s been an accident. We need help.”
The voice again, just off to his right. He tried to turn his head a second time, and managed a slight movement. A barren gray wall of rock came into focus.
“…accident. We need…hey, can you hear me? McKay?” The wall spoke. John shook his head, then groaned at the spike of pain lancing behind his eyes at the movement. Why was the wall yelling?
“Sheppard, buddy, you awake?”
He was Sheppard. John Sheppard—astronaut.
John Sheppard—pilot. And the wall was…
Not the wall. Ronon. John almost laughed at the ludicrous idea that a rock wall could talk.
Radio. In his ear. Not the wall.
“Ronon?” He tried to say, but the sound came out garbled and more like a croak. He could feel something wet dripping into his mouth, running down his cheeks and neck, and pooling around the back of his head.
“Right here, Sheppard. Above you.”
“Above me?” John asked, lifting his head to look around. The distant ache behind his eyes shifted to a burning throb in the center of his forehead down to the tip of his nose. He gasped, then choked as the blood pouring out of his nose trickled into his mouth and down the back of his throat.
The choking reawakened every other pain in his body. John cried out, attempting to curl into himself, but the bulky space suit limited most of his movement. He rolled to the side, moaning and whimpering, trying to breath through the pain, as his memory returned with sudden clarity. They were walking on a moon. There’d been a steep hill, then a cliff, then…
“Sheppard?” Ronon’s panicked voice sounded again in his right ear, but he remembered the radio and resisted the urge to turn his head toward the voice.
It hurts too much to talk at this very moment, so please give me a second to get it together. That’s what he wanted to say. That’s what he would have said had he been able to draw enough air into his constricted lungs.
“Hurts,” he whispered instead, forcing the word out between clenched teeth.
“What hurts? Sheppard, answer me. How bad are you hurt?”
John forced himself to breathe deeply, to not pant at the incessant throbbing. Ronon was getting louder and louder in his ear, and that was not helping his headache.
“Ronon,” he grunted. “Give…give me…second…here…”
“Okay.” There was a pause, and then Ronon’s voice came through the radio again, loudly. “McKay? Teyla? Answer!” John cringed at the sound, then both of them seemed to hold their breath, waiting for a response.
The pain was ebbing a little, enough for John to take stock of himself. His nose was bleeding freely still, the iron taste clinging to the roof of his mouth. His right leg, from the tips of his toes to the middle of his thigh was screaming the loudest, although his right arm wasn’t far behind. Something was broken, of that he was sure, but in the space suit it was impossible for him to tell. His head throbbed—he must have smacked it on the inside of his helmet when he hit the ground. That would explain the nosebleed.
“McKay?” Ronon yelled again at the staticky silence.
“Ronon,” John whispered. He wondered if Ronon would hear him, but then he remembered the radios.
“Sheppard. How bad is it?”
“Um,” John said as he shifted and grimaced in pain. “Nose is bleeding. Think I must have hit my head on the helmet when I landed.” He took a deep breath then let it out slowly through his mouth. “Leg and arm hurt pretty bad, too. Maybe broken, can’t tell.”
Ronon was silent for a moment on the other end, and John wondered if the runner had heard him.
“I can’t get Teyla or McKay on the radio,” he finally said.
John let out a pained grunt. “Yeah, I heard.”
“I think we’re too far away for them to hear us. There’s interference, or something.” Ronon paused a moment. “I could climb down there.”
John had let his eyes slide closed, but at Ronon’s offer, he snapped them open again. He could just see the runner’s helmeted head, far above him on the edge of the cliff.
“And fall down here the way I did? I don’t think so, buddy. Then we’d both be stuck here with no way to get in touch with Teyla or McKay.”
“Can you climb out?”
John seriously doubted he could even stand. “I’ll try. Give me a minute.”
Five minutes later, John was sitting up against the cliff wall, panting heavily. Ronon was moving around above him, no doubt trying to figure out a way to get to John. A continuous shower of dust and dirt rained down over the edge.
John closed his eyes, swallowing against the nausea churning in his stomach. As McKay had quipped earlier, puking inside the space suit was definitely not a good thing. Another minute and several deep breaths later, he pushed up with his good arm.
The low gravity helped, but it was still an exercise in hell. John was convinced he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he had if he’d been in normal gravity. He leaned, half-hunched over, on his good leg and gripped the wall with his left hand for all he was worth.
“Can you climb?”
“Um…” John forced himself to stand up a little straighter and stare up the cliff wall. Ronon’s helmeted face looked abysmally small and far away. “You don’t happen to have any rope with you, do you?”
“Didn’t think so.” John hopped a little, trying not to cry out at the pain that ripped through his arm and leg. He managed to pull himself around to face the wall. “Alright, here goes nothing,” he muttered.
How the hell he was supposed to climb up a twenty-five foot wall with one good arm and one good leg, he had no idea. He reached up with his left arm and wrapped his fingers around a small outcrop of rock just above his head. When he was sure his grip was firm, he stared down at his feet, looking for a foothold.
This is going to hurt like hell, John thought. He grit his teeth, hopped and pulled up with his left arm. He actually rose higher than he expected, and he scrambled to find a foothold for his left foot. His weight carried him forward, jarring him into the wall and banging his right arm. John cried out in pain but managed to hold on with his left hand. His boot scraped along the cliff face as he began to sink back to the ground again.
And then it caught. John opened his eyes in surprise and peered down carefully. He’d managed to catch his foot on part of the uneven cliff side, about two feet from the ground. He breathed deeply, sucking in oxygen. Sweat was pouring down his face now, mixing in with the blood he would give anything to wipe away.
“That’s one small step for man…” John muttered. He searched the rock face again for another foothold, and spotted one that looked like it might work another two feet higher. He then eased himself back and looked for the next handhold.
This was going to be tricky. He’d have to let go of the wall and grab onto it again quickly, before his weight pulled him backward and he fell. A jagged crack within arm’s reach looked wide enough to shove his gloved fingers into and hold onto. Without waiting to talk himself out of this insane plan, he let go of the wall and jerked his arm up toward the crack.
His fingers hit the handhold but immediately began to slide out. “Shit!” John yelled, a surge of panic-induced adrenaline soaring through him. He kicked up with his left leg, scrambling to get up higher, to find another grip.
“Sheppard!” Ronon yelled in his ear.
John’s broken arm flailed instinctively, and he gasped at the onslaught of pain that movement brought. His right leg refused to move, but his left scraped and scuttled along the wall searching for something to perch himself on.
Gravity began pulling him down. Too fast, too fast, too fast. The words ran through John’s mind. He looked up just as his fingers slipped one final time, breaking their tenuous hold on the wall, and John felt the weight of the space suit, with all of his equipment on his back, pulling him backward.
It was over with almost before it started. The drop was probably only five feet, but it was five feet too far. John slammed into the ground, landing on his back, and pain bolted through him with white hot agony.
He gagged, and felt himself losing consciousness. Stay with it, John. Stay with it, he screamed at himself. If he lost consciousness now, there was a good chance he’d never wake up again. He rolled to his side and curled up as much as the clumsy suit would allow. Spots floated before his eyes, and he opened his mouth wide to suck in oxygen.
To no avail. His chest was constricted, his muscles rigid and paralyzed by the pain. He smashed his good arm into the ground, as his body bucked. The lack of oxygen, however, smothered the nerves in his arm and leg, and the pain began to recede.
Enough for him to draw in a ragged breath and chase away the blackness creeping in from the edges of awareness.
A breath of oxygen that refueled his nerves and reignited the pain like a thousand knives slashing and twisting into him.
Pain that had him gasping, his ribs squeezing in around his lungs so that he couldn’t breathe.
Again. And again. And again. The cycle continued for an agonizing amount of time. Minutes? Hours? John had no idea. Ever so slowly, the pain died down to a more manageable—yet still excruciating—level.
“—lk to me Sheppard. Sheppard? John, buddy. Come on!”
The swirl of noise buzzing through his head suddenly coalesced into Ronon’s voice. John listened to the runner’s panicked cries almost listlessly, relishing the flow of oxygen that finally seemed to be making it into his lungs on a regular basis. It wasn’t until Ronon started talking about climbing down the wall that John reacted.
“Ronon,” he croaked, and he was startled at the hoarseness of his own voice. “Don’t. Climb.”
“Sheppard? What’s happening? You scared the hell out of me.”
“Sorry, buddy…I’m…still here,” he grunted. He took another deep breath and tried to move as little as possible.
“I can climb down there, then we can both climb out.”
“No. You have to…go…back to…jumper,” John ground out. “Get McKay…Teyla…Fly back here.”
“I’m not leaving you here,” Ronon’s voice was laced with fury and helplessness.
“You know…it’s…best way…please, Ronon…can’t argue with…you…” John’s voice trailed off into breathless panting, and he prayed Ronon would do what he’d asked without further debate.
There was silence on the other side of the radio. John pushed against the ground with his good arm and flopped slowly onto his back. He managed to hold back the cry of pain, but it took another moment for him to open his eyes and stare up the side of the cliff wall. Ronon continued to peer over the edge. John could see his face through the clear visor like he was looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
Please, Ronon. Please go get help, he begged him silently.
“Okay,” Ronon finally answered quietly, almost too quietly for John to hear, even with the radio in his ear. “I’ll go back as far as I have to and then contact McKay and Teyla on the radio. As soon as they’re on their way back here, I’m coming down there.”
John nodded, forgetting for an instant that Ronon probably couldn’t see his response. The runner either didn’t care or didn’t want to wait, though, and he quickly disappeared from sight. John stared up at the stars, bright and brilliant over his head.
“You still awake?” Ronon’s voice cut through the radio not ten seconds after he’d left.
“Yeah,” John breathed out.
“Keep talking. Don’t sleep.”
“’Kay.” But then John’s voice caught, at a sudden loss of words.
“Your nose still bleeding?” Ronon asked.
“Um…no…think it stopped…mostly…”
“How’s your suit? And your oxygen? Okay?”
“…suit’s okay…no tears…and I’m still breathing…for now,” John grunted, then moaned at a spike of pain that ripped through his leg all the way up into his gut.
“…mmm…s’rrrry…still hangin’ on.”
“Don’t quit on me, buddy.”
John grit his teeth and pressed his head into the ground as another wave of pain washed through him. He groaned, trying his hardest not to move. When the throbbing ebbed back, John felt himself relax again against the soft dusty ground of the moon. He was still lying on his back in the same place he’d fallen. Cliff walls rose up around him, and the canvas of stars overhead glowed bright as ever.
“Not quitting, buddy…not quitting.”
Time passed. Ronon continued asking questions, and John continued giving what he hoped were somewhat coherent answers. Periodically, Ronon would call out to Teyla or McKay, but so far the only response had been quiet static.
After awhile, Ronon’s questions began to grow staticky and garbled as well. John’s head was starting to pound, and when it took too much effort to decipher what Ronon was saying to him, he quit answering.
He stared up into space in wonder at the colors swirling around the stars—blues and purples and shades of black. He’d never noticed the sky this way when flying in a jumper. Maybe he had too much else on his mind when he flew to notice the stark beauty of the galaxy around him.
The stars blurred together as John’s eyes drifted closed. He was exhausted and the thick dust of the crater floor was almost comfortable. He dragged in another breath, feeling his aching body relax a little more.
“No!” John growled, his eyes snapping open. He made it halfway to a sitting position before collapsing back on the ground, jarring his arm and leg. Beneath torturous spasms, his headache spiked like a hundred needles being jabbed into his eyes.
He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to rein in a few tears of agony that trickled out. The blood from his nose was mostly dry, flaking now and irritating his skin. He forced himself to stop squirming and breathe, to lie still and ride through the pain.
“I’m awake, Ronon. I’m awake,” he muttered, but Ronon did not respond. Must be the interference. He must be too far away now. Closer to McKay and Teyla. Closer to the jumper.
He looked up again into the same dark sky. He thought that maybe the stars had changed position slightly, but not much.
“Got to hold on. Got to stay alert.”
Fatigue pulled at him. If he could have sat up without passing out, he would have. Anything to stay awake. The pain throbbing in his arm and leg should have kept him conscious, but even that wasn’t quite enough. Lethargy pulled at every muscle.
John blinked once, twice. The third time, his eyes stayed stubbornly closed. Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, don’t sleep, he chanted to himself. His headache felt like an ice pick driving into his forehead. He took a deep breath, already giving in to the urge to just let it all go. In a far corner of his mind, a voice screamed at him to open his eyes, to use the oxygen he pulled in with each breath—
John’s eyes flew open. Adrenaline surged through his body at the thought of that one word. Oxygen. He tried to remember how much time McKay had told him they’d have on the tanks—five hours? Six hours? He couldn’t remember. How long had it been? He couldn’t remember that either.
“Ronon?” He called out, but he didn’t get a reply. Ronon had been here. He was sure of that. Where had the man gone now?
“Ronon, where are you?”
His radio remained ominously silent.
John shivered, suddenly aware of how cold he was. The pain in his arm and leg had abated enough for him to think, even sit up. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knew this was a bad sign, but he was too tired to focus on it.
Oxygen. He had to check it, somehow. He stared down at the controls embedded on the chest of the space suit, but they blurred together before he could make sense of them. He shuddered again—at the cold, at the pain, at the feeling of utter loneliness that surrounded him under that black expanse.
“Ronon, come back,” he whispered, hardly aware that he’d even said it out loud. The pain in his head pulsed with every heartbeat, and John wished again he could just touch his face. Wipe the blood and tears away and dig the palms of his hands into his eyes.
John fell asleep sitting up. When he opened his eyes again, it took a moment for him to remember where he was. He stared at the space-suited hands and arms lying limply in his lap, and it wasn’t until one of them moved that he realized they were his own hands. He lifted one arm then dropped it, and watched it fall too slowly back to his lap. The other arm wouldn’t move at all.
He stared at his legs. Those were his legs, he was pretty sure of that. He tried to move them, but nothing happened.
Legs are too big. Start small.
He stared at his feet. If he could just wiggle his toes a little, then he’d know those were his legs. He stared at his feet, waiting for the toes to move.
You’re wearing boots, moron. How are you going to see your toes moving when you’re wearing boots? John laughed, hearing the sound echoing inside his helmet. As it petered out, he breathed deeply and leaned his forehead against the front visor. Why was he trying to move his toes anyway?
His eyes drifted close, but it wasn’t until he started listing to the side that he jerked himself awake. He couldn’t fall asleep. That was bad—he knew it. He had to stay awake.
Math, he suddenly thought. I’ll do math. Theory…start with…starting with…
John blinked, finding himself listing to the side again. As he straightened back up, his feet, the dusty ground, and the wall of the crater swam and tilted wildly in front of him.
“Whoa,” John groaned. “Dizzy.” He closed his eyes, feeling his stomach twisting and churning at the sensation of moving. He panted heavily through his mouth, as he fought the nausea creeping up the back of his throat.
Another few seconds passed before he was able to relax again and open his eyes. The crater around him had stopped swirling, and his stomach was slowly starting to settle back down.
“Math,” he muttered. “Got to do math.”
Multiplication. I can do that.
“One times one is…no, that’s too easy. Start with…nines. One times…I mean…nine times nine is eighty-one. Nine times ten is ninety. Nine times eleven is…is…nine times eleven…eleven…” John shook his head, hoping to clear it but instead caused his headache to renew it’s throbbing. His heart was pounding in his chest as well, like he’d just finished running.
I usually run with Ronon, John thought. Maybe that’s why I’m so tired—he always makes me run longer and faster…
John looked around. Where was Ronon now? He was sure he’d been here earlier, but he couldn’t quite place it. Something nagged in the back of his mind. Ronon, Ronon, Ronon. Where was Ronon?
The silence was oppressive. John stared up at the top edge of the crater, twenty five feet high. He must have climbed down here, and Ronon was…
No! Fell. He remembered that now. He fell and it had hurt a lot.
But it didn’t hurt now. He breathed a sigh of relief. He remembered the pain clearly from before. It had really hurt, hurt so much he couldn’t breath or talk or move. He stared at his feet again, wondering if his toes were moving.
Get up, John, he berated himself. Get off your lazy ass.
John waited for a moment, and started giggling when he managed to do no more than sink forward more deeply. He was hunched over his legs as much as the space suit would allow.
Wrong way, he laughed. Going the wrong way. Have to go up. Sit up, John. Up.
The next time he opened his eyes, he was lying on his back again with no memory of having fallen over. The stars overhead had definitely changed position. John stared at the brilliant white globes, searching for a recognizable pattern or shape.
You used to be good at constellations, John, he berated himself. Eventually he gave up, twisting his head from side to side to look around. He was lying in the middle of a crater, with steep walls all around him. There was glass in front of his face, reflecting the dusky light.
“What…” he started, but his voice came out hoarse and unintelligible. He could feel his heart pounding frantically in his chest, but otherwise he was exhausted. Too exhausted to move, to sit up, to figure out what he was doing in a crater.
Moon. I’m on a moon. He remembered stepping out of the jumper in his bulky space suit, feeling clumsy and huge, and then that first step through the low gravity that landed him ten feet away from where he’d started. The flight through the air, the feeling of not being tethered to the ground…
“Ronon? Teyla? McKay?” He called out. They’d been with him, on this moon. He remembered them in their space suits, the white fabric reflecting the low light. Ronon feeling sick from eating so much beforehand.
His breaths were coming in pants now. He couldn’t seem to draw in enough air. His body felt numb, mostly, but there was a coldness beneath it that should have scared him, should have warned him he was in serious trouble.
Instead, John lay on the ground and stared at the sky. The strokes of dark colors burned into his brain. He wondered if anyone had ever painted that, because it looked like something someone should paint. Dark and light. Everything and nothing.
“Magnificent desolation,” he whispered between pained breaths. His chest was starting to ache with the effort of pulling in oxygen. He closed his eyes as the stars blurred and swam in sudden dizziness.
“Magnificent…cent…desolation…” John repeated, the words stuck in his mind like a mantra he couldn’t shake. “Magnificent…magnif…”
He coughed, then gasped. His whole body shuttered.
“Magnificent desolation.” The words were hardly even a whisper now. He could hear himself breathing, each wheeze sounding loud inside the confines of his helmet.
This is it, a voice said inside his head. This is the end. John blinked open his eyes and stared up at the stars. He could hardly feel his body now, could hardly feel his chest expanding in rapid, desperate jerks.
Other sounds began filtering in around him, but John stared listlessly at the jagged edge of the cliff walls reaching into the black depths of space. The pain was all but gone. He breathed in as much as he could, then let it out slowly.
“…rry up! Sheppard, buddy, if you’re dead…”
A helmeted head appeared above him, and John frowned. It was blocking his view. He wanted to see the stars, the sky, the only true freedom he had ever known. Something grabbed at him, shaking him, pulling him up.
“Sheppard, come on!”
John blinked, and stared into the panicked face of Ronon.
Ronon doesn’t panic, he thought. The man was moving around him, trying to pick him up in the awkward suits. John felt his head loll against the back of his helmet. He couldn’t have moved, even if he’d wanted to. He drew in another ragged, wheezing breath.
Other voices filtered in through the radio, and words floated through his consciousness, but they made no sense. Ronon was behind him now, and John’s view of space was once again unimpeded.
“…lips are turning blue…think he’s still breathing…not sure…”
“…see you…land in…move to the side...”
The stars moved, dragged across his vision. They jerked and tumbled around above him and John closed his eyes against the vertigo. Darkness descended around him, and his wheezing voice sounded overwhelmingly loud. He could feel faint vibrations and a rush of dust settling over him through the thick suit. Something pulled at him again, under his arms, and then he felt nothing.
John opened his eyes, expecting to see stars. The roof of a jumper formed overhead instead. Something was pressed against his face, hard and cutting into his cheeks. He turned his head, looking for the stars, the crater wall. He wanted to see the moon.
“Magnificent…” he gasped. “Des…dess…”
A face appeared over him, warm brown eyes peering down at him in concern and fear.
Teyla. He’d recognize her anywhere. He realized her hand was over his mouth, holding a mask in place. Pain in his ribs and head flared slightly as he drew in oxygen. He blinked at Teyla, then looked down at his legs when he felt something tugging on him. Ronon was attempting to maneuver the massive space suit off of John’s limp body.
John’s mind reeled. What’s happening to me? What’s going on? His arms and legs were dead weights, and it was all he could do to just keep breathing.
“We’re almost to the stargate,” McKay’s voice echoed around the jumper and John jerked at the sound. His radio was gone but, he realized, he didn’t need it. “Dialing the DHD now. How is he?”
“He is still breathing, but he is ice cold and his breaths are loud and painful sounding. Ronon almost has him out of the suit.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“The medical team would have to do it eventually, and it’s not like they can cut through this suit with a pair of scissors or a knife,” Ronon answered gruffly, almost impatiently.
John heard the words but couldn’t quite grasp the meaning. He smiled at the voice though, recognizing the tone. Gruff.
A warm hand on his forehead had him opening eyes he hadn’t realized were closed, and Teyla looked down at him. She was holding him in her arms, the warmth of her body seeping into his.
John shivered, then coughed, igniting the pain in his head, arm, and leg that had grown muted from the cold and lack of oxygen. He felt his body spasming, and Teyla’s arms wrapping more tightly around him.
He looked up at her, whimpering, unable to speak. The oxygen mask was still digging into his face, but he couldn’t move his arms to dislodge it. Ronon was moving quickly as he finished wrapping a splint around John’s leg and then spread blankets over the top of him.
“We’re almost home, John. Just hold on a little bit longer.” Teyla’s soft voice whispered into his ear, but even as he grasped the words, he felt his body relax and he slipped into nothingness.
John floated. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was warm. Finally, blessedly, warm. A distant part of his mind reminded him of all-consuming numbing cold, but it was far away and easy to ignore.
A small pressure on the side of his ribs chased away a little bit of the stupor. When the slight weight slid across his chest to press against the other side of his rib cage, he moaned at the interruption.
“I’m sorry, colonel. Didn’t mean to wake you,” a voice whispered, light and small and unrepentant.
Beeps and clicks and the sound of people trying to move around quietly pulled him up even further, making sleep impossible for the moment. When John finally opened his eyes, a nurse was tucking a stethoscope into her pocket. She patted him on the arm, smiling reassuringly.
“Just need to check your temperature,” she whispered.
John looked around the quiet infirmary as the woman poked him in the ear with the thermometer. It was darker than usual, so he concluded it must be in the middle of the night. He breathed in deeply, relishing the extra oxygen being pulled into his lungs through the nasal cannula, but his rib cage hitched and he exhaled on a painful cough.
The cough agitated his lungs, forcing him to inhale more than he could handle. He coughed again, more deeply this time. It sounded like paper crumpling up in his chest, over and over again. He swallowed, desperate to work up some moisture down his throat. He hadn’t even realized he’d closed his eyes until prodding on his lips jerked them open. The bed had been raised a little higher, and the nurse held a glass of water, the straw hovering in front of his mouth. John sucked in gratefully, and groaned when it was quickly pulled away.
“Not too much, colonel. You know the drill.”
Unfortunately, he did. He relaxed back against the pillows, completely wrung out. The rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor began lulling him back to sleep, and he let his eyes slip closed as the nurse wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm.
John had been lucky. He’d understood that even without Keller’s explanation of everything that had gone wrong. The ache from his broken nose—from smacking against his helmet’s visor—had subsided quickly, but it had left his face black and blue. The more serious injuries were a hairline fracture in his right arm and a displaced fracture just below his right knee that had required minor surgery.
He’d also been dangerously close to running out of air by the time Ronon had gotten back to him. McKay had told him in detail how he’d gasped and flopped on the ground like a fish out of water while his lips started turning blue under the crusted blood of his nose bleed. He’d also been hypothermic, which had delayed the surgery for hours until his body temperature could be brought up. John remembered how the cold had not felt cold until he’d returned to Atlantis. With all the jumping and moving around he’d been doing on the moon, he hadn’t felt cold then, but the temperature had been dropping almost as fast as John’s activity level.
After the surgery, after everyone had been assured that John would eventually make a full recovery, Keller had thrown around words like brain damage from hypoxia, cessation of brain stem reflexes, and brain death in her list of what could have happened, as if John wasn’t freaked out enough by all of his actual injuries. The doctor explained that he’d lost consciousness as Ronon had carried him into the waiting jumper, but only just barely, and the fact that he had woken up a few minutes later was supposedly a good sign.
John sighed, pushing his head back into the pillows and trying to find a more comfortable position. He’d take all the good signs and good news he could get at this point. His arm was wrapped and in a sling, resting heavily against his chest, and his leg was heavily casted and propped up on a stack of pillows, making moving around all but impossible. He was weak, hardly able to keep his eyes open for more than ten minutes at a time.
John was just dozing off when the nurse started fiddling with the IV in the crook of his left arm. He looked up at her, blinking to bring her into focus in the low light.
“Sorry, sir. I’m going to have to change this IV out.”
John nodded, too lethargic to do anything but watch her as she manipulated his limp and frail-looking arm. In the last day, his temperature had kept fluctuating from low-grade fever to chills—nothing serious at the moment—but it robbed him of what little energy he had. So much so that Teyla had had to hold his mug of broth for him that evening while he tried to drink it through a straw.
He grimaced at the pinch in his hand as the new needle was inserted, then squirmed in the bed, and his leg began throbbing. He breathed in heavily again through the nasal cannula, careful of how much his lungs could handle. A feeling of ice cold ran up the vein in his arm, and the pain immediately began to dull. John breathed a sigh of relief.
“There you go, colonel. Just ring if you need anything,” she whispered again, and John wondered who she was worried about waking up. She opened his hand and curled feeble fingers around the call button. “Hold onto that, sir.”
John couldn’t dredge up the energy to respond, but she set his hand back down on the bed anyway and disappeared around the corner. Despite having slept for most of the last three days, John felt sleep hovering along the edges of consciousness, and he closed his eyes to the dark infirmary, intent on giving in to the pervasive fatigue.
The chair next to his bed suddenly scraped across the floor, and John jerked his eyes open. One of the monitors behind his head echoed his rapidly pounding heart, and the rush of startled adrenaline gave him the strength to look around for the source of the noise. Ronon, his dreadlocks not quite hiding his sheepish look, settled into the chair and muttered an apology.
John coughed in reply, dragging heavily again on the extra oxygen. Keller had warned him how weak he was going to be for the next several days. Between the broken bones, the hypoxia, the hypothermia, the length of time it took to get him proper medical care, and now his fluctuating body temperature, he had resigned himself to doing a lot of sleeping. The nasal cannula itched and dried out his throat, but he was too exhausted to care. In fact, he was almost grateful for it for the time being. It made breathing much less of an effort.
A cup appeared in front of him, the bendy straw hovering near his lips. John slipped slowly, allowing the runner to hold the cup for him—and tried to convince himself that he could have held the cup for himself if he’d really wanted to.
“Thanks,” he mumbled as the cup was finally pulled away. Ronon shrugged in response, resuming his seat next to the bed.
John relaxed back against the bed, feeling heavy and lethargic. The pain meds were definitely doing what they needed to do. As his eyes drifted closed, an image of the moon flashed through his mind. He saw the rocky mountains of the rim far off in the distance below the stunning vista of stars and space. Rodney and Teyla and Ronon bounced away in the low gravity, getting smaller and smaller as they traveled farther away until they disappeared completely. John called out to them too late, and his voice sounded muffled in his helmet.
And then he saw himself, lying in a smaller crater, alone. His body was half-buried in dust, forgotten below the black expanse of stars and nebulas and far-flung galaxies. John floated above the deep crater, looking down at himself. The rise and fall of the chest just visible in the space suit stuttered once, then twice, then stilled completely. He looked around, searching frantically for any sign of his team, but no one appeared. He reached down, trying to get closer to his own body and saw sightless, glassy eyes staring up at the sky. Dead.
The frantic beeping of a heart monitor ripped John from sleep. He cried out as he tried to sit up in the bed, but his strength gave out almost as quickly as it came. He collapsed back onto the pillow, panting then coughing.
“Hey, hey. Easy, buddy.”
John heard Ronon’s voice and felt the runner’s hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes, swallowing the dry coughs, and tried to slow down his breathing. Slowly, the pounding in his heart came down to a more normal level, and the heart monitor settled back into its previous pace. John twitched his arm.
“Sorry,” John rasped. “Nightmare.” He grimaced at the pull of the IV needle in the back of his hand.
“Yeah, got that.”
John watched Ronon open his mouth to say something else, but then the man seemed to change his mind. He sat back down without another word, squirming in the hard chair as he attempted to find a more comfortable position.
John could feel exhaustion pulling him back toward sleep, but he fought it. The nightmarish image rose up in his mind again, and he saw himself lying in the deep crater, dead and alone on the barren moon.
“I’m okay now,” he said, and shivered a little at the cool breeze that drifted through one of the open windows at the far end of the infirmary.
Ronon glanced up at him, and John saw something in the other man’s eye—a glint of fear or guilt or anger. He wasn’t sure. In his sleepy, medicated mind, he wondered if Ronon had seen his nightmare—if the man had stood from somewhere far away and watched John die alone.
“You don’t have to stay,” John said. He shivered again, but let his eyes slide closed. He was almost asleep when he felt a warm hand on the back his forehead. He looked up into Ronon’s worried face, and then the man was gone. John blinked at the sudden departure, but before he could fully process it, his friend immediately returned and John jerked in surprise. Ronon draped another blanket over John’s languid, shivering form.
“Not going anywhere, Sheppard,” Ronon said, his voice gruff and all-business.
The shivering slowly subsided, and John sighed in relief, letting his body relax deeply into the soft bed. When the end of the mattress dipped down a second later, he blinked at Ronon’s long legs propped up on the edge. John smiled, and in the quiet hum of the infirmary, let warm, comforting sleep wrap around his healing body.