There's a drum pounding in his head, echoed by his heartbeat, fast, fast, bum buh-bum and his breathing's quickening to match. Tucking his elbows in close, Ronon runs faster, scanning the ground in front of him for any sign that McKay's been this way, but there's nothing, not a clod of dirt, not a crumb, no impressions at all. Ronon's never wrestled with claustrophobia, not even when he was trapped in the thick webbing of a hiveship's pod, but from how McKay describes it – shortness of breath, hyperventilation, the walls closing in – it's catching up to him now.
There's something watching him, but he's not quick enough to spot it no matter how he twists or strains; his reflexes are slower than usual and he doesn't know why, triggering unease itching between his shoulder blades.
And he's lost McKay somewhere in this vast gray maze, and Sheppard's going to kill him, if there's anything left after Teyla's done with him.
It's her first mission since the end of maternity leave, and Teyla feels anxious, strapping and unstrapping her thigh holster. She's only half-listening while John checks in with Atlantis – "not a gun in sight, and pretty decent food," – but when Mr Woolsey admonishes them to keep alert, she smiles in response to John's exaggerated eye roll.
"He is not wrong to say so," Teyla says as they walk down the ramp of the jumper. She pauses while John fiddles with the control to cloak it, and then they head back to the town hall where Ronon's recounting gruesome Wraith kills to a wide-eyed audience, and Rodney's fishing for information from Fremil about Ancient tech that might be laying around. It's happened over the years. Teyla remembers the medical scanner doubling as a barn's half-door and the bundle of non-functioning parasitic wiring masquerading as a hat stand.
"Hm," John says, flipping down the dark part of his sunglasses. He shoots her a grin. "Nope, no trouble today. Sky's blue," he gestures to it with the nose of his P90, "well, kinda blue. Bluish. Maybe more like green. Anyway, sky's green, the sun's shining, we had a good meal, and no one's tried to –"
"Don't say it," Teyla interrupts, suddenly feeling superstitious. "Just... don't."
John's eyebrows raise up over the curve of his sunglasses. "Teyla Emmagan," he says, drawing out the vowels in her name. "What's got you spooked?"
"Nothing. I don't know," Teyla snaps, and then she gentles her tone. "I am waiting for something to happen."
John's expression changes instantly from teasing to serious. "That's exactly where you should be," he says.
It's difficult for Teyla to admit that she has returned to active duty a different woman, even though it's a logical change. The hard-edged determination that she brought to the team prior to mothering a child has been stripped away, replaced by a boundless tenderness that she can't shake. She fears it will cause problems, somehow, and John's words jolt her because he's right: what she's forgotten about missions is the constant undercurrent of anticipation, waiting for the surprise flood of adrenaline but never knowing when it'll come. Yes, this was exactly what she's needed to hear to make the transition into the familiar headspace of protecting her team.
"Then I'm good," Teyla says, and John responds to her confidence and says, "I know."
Rodney's one hundred and fifty percent sure that he and Ronon had entered the maze together. Totally, completely certain. He knows this because when the wooden gate swung shut behind them, it left Rodney standing in Ronon's shadow, so he'd stepped to the side to get some light on his tablet. A glance at the life-signs detector reassures him that it's just the two of them, so he says, "This way," and points down the passage.
"Because I said so," comes out purely on reflex, and he takes two more steps before realizing that Ronon hasn't voiced the usual question. Looking up from the screen, he sees that they've already gotten turned around because there's a wall of solid rock in front of him, and he resigns himself to the look on Ronon's face when he turns around – something between pity and smug, no doubt.
"No need to say it," he grumps, adjusting a sensor on the tablet, and Ronon doesn't. In fact, there's no noise from behind Rodney at all, not the scuff of boots or a single exhalation, and Rodney flashes on every ridiculous horror movie he's ever watched where some giant creepy-crawly advances on the unsuspecting hero.
Whipping around, he's met with gray stone towering over him, stretching upwards at a height far above his head. It's as though he's beamed down to this precise location with rough concrete walls on four sides and no sign of a gateway. No bog monsters either, but more importantly, no Ronon-shaped protector who's very good with firearms and in combat.
There's no ceiling, but something else must be interfering with his radio because tapping his earpiece returns the fizzle of static. Turning back, he notes the light overhead dimming, and he squints down the short length of the room which seems narrower than a moment ago.
There's a noise like rushing wind and colorful dots sparkle at the edges of Rodney's vision, and he sucks in a desperate breath and –
John had picked out a handful of possible missions that were suitable for Teyla's return, and he'd given them all to Woolsey for review. He'd wanted to circle the best one, highlight it in neon yellow and toss some glitter on there for good measure, but it had turned out that Woolsey was on John's wavelength. He didn't even mention that all of John's choices were routine meet and greets.
Teyla had said during the briefing that she knew of the Raheene through third parties, and so John asked her to take point. Upon their arrival, there was a long, stylized salutation ceremony involving hand-holding and burning herbs, and John stepped on Rodney's foot twice, grinding his heel down hard the second time, a warning to smother his yawns. Finally, the headwoman, Fremil, wrapped a long string of tiny, tinkling bells around Teyla's arm, said some words about weaving a tapestry, and she and Teyla touched foreheads.
The townspeople showed their approval by clapping, though instead of smacking their palms together, one hand hit at the back of the other hand, which made for a muted applause.
"I'm awake!" Rodney said, suddenly, and Ronon laughed. He looked at ease, at odds with his usual tight-lipped, defensive demeanor.
John raised an eyebrow in question.
"They're Ravellers," Ronon explained, as though John would know what that meant. "I thought they'd all been culled."
"What's a raveller?" Rodney asked, glancing at John's boots and then staring at his own feet. John anticipated snide comments about broken toes coming his way.
"They're weavers," Teyla said, joining the conversation. "Nomads, mainly, which may be why you heard they were extinct, Ronon. But Fremil tells me they've been here for –" she paused, her brow wrinkling, "– about four Earth years. The town was abandoned when they found it."
"So they're handy with a loom," Rodney said, already dismissive. "Whoopie."
"Wait until you get your hands on some of the textiles up for trade," Teyla said. "I had a Raveller overcoat when I was young; I wore it everywhere and refused to take it off, even for sleep."
John was struck with a crystal-clear memory of the Space Sentinels T-shirt that he wore the hell out of when he was seven or eight: the decal of Mercury nearly disintegrated, the fabric soft and gray from multiple washings.
"Hmph," Rodney said, unimpressed. "When do we eat?"
Sixteen dead ends in a row, and Ronon's sense of direction is never this wrong. He's kept up a steady, loping jog that he can maintain for several hours, and it's much too soon for his legs to feel so leaden, for his lungs to feel as though they're shrinking in his chest. The walls are impervious to the metal of his knives, and he hasn't used his gun yet because he doesn't want to give away the extent of his firepower. It's dusty in the long hallways, the strength of the light ranging from pale morning light to twilight dusk, which leads him to believe that parts of the maze are underground.
The problem with that theory is the entire time he's been running, it's been on a flat plane, nothing uphill or down, no stairs or cubbies, just walls and the odd clump of earth or a few stones scattered on the ground.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ronon sees a flash of light - there - he spins out of stride, turning smoothly, firing his gun even as he's raising his arm and the energy blasts glance harmlessly off the stone walls, not leaving so much as a scorch mark.
That's confirmation that the material may look like stone, but it's not, and the prickle itching at his back intensifies, a warning not to touch. If his team was here: McKay would have his tablet out, Sheppard would already have his hand on the wall, and Teyla would be watching, drawing conclusions from her observation. Ronon would be standing guard. He forces himself to move closer, the knot in his stomach tightening with every step. The wall shimmers and glows faintly, a light bluish-white that Ronon is very familiar with, but his relief is short-lived. So McKay probably activated something, but that doesn't explain what it is, what it does, or how to turn it off.
He won't waste any more shots at the walls, and he also won't forget that they're not exactly walls.
Teyla thinks it must be tiring to ricochet from one emotion to the next as John so often does, relaxed when they reenter the main hall, tense the next moment when they realize that Rodney and Ronon are not among the people cleaning up after the meal.
"They went to try their luck in the caverns," Fremil says, her eyes twinkling.
John's spine snaps up so straight that Teyla's shoulders twitch in sympathy. "The caverns?"
"They went voluntarily, Colonel Sheppard," Fremil says, correctly interpreting the hint of menace in John's question. "Doctor McKay was rather excited by the prospect of the potentia."
"Please tell us about the caverns, Ruminalan," Teyla says, addressing Fremil by her formal title. She touches the back of John's hand briefly, quelling any overreaction. They can all pretend that she hasn't noticed that the mission roster's been stuffed full of trips to small, agrarian settlements, but the Raheene are not the Genii, and the quickest way to lose trust is to make accusations.
Fremil settles an amused look on them both, then seats herself at one of the low benches pulled up to the closest table. She raises two fingers and a teenaged girl rushes over, setting down a steaming clay mug and then pulling off her own shawl and wrapping it around Fremil's shoulders.
"Thank you," Fremil says, and the girl's curly hair falls across her face as she bobs, a sort of half-bow of acknowledgment.
"Is it a long story?" John asks, falling into parade rest, and Teyla works to keep a neutral expression in reaction to how petulant he sounds, even though she knows he's merely worried. She also knows that he thinks of greeting ceremonies as necessary for trade and good relations but finds no direct, relatable meaning in them; it's always a challenge to explain how the welcome that Fremil has shown them correlates to precisely why Teyla's satisfied placing her trust with the Raheene.
The closest she's come in the past is likening it to how John makes snap judgments based on someone's handshake, and he cannot fully explain that either, only that he does, believing in his gut instinct. For Teyla, performing in a greeting ritual is a comfort, and just as meaningful as John's own tradition, so she leaves him standing and sinks down next to Fremil, and asks again to hear about the caverns.
Rodney stretches, waking slowly, then scrubs a hand down his face and wonders how he slept through his alarm. He cracks open an eyelid to stare at the clock. Or at the bare stone wall, as it happens.
"Shit," he breathes out, and then, "ow." His arms hurt, the left one because he appears to have fallen on it, and the other tingles with pins and needles. He sits up, eyes darting from one end of the rectangular room to the other, and it's still devoid of important things like doors and Ronon. His back hurts too, nothing new, and his foot from where Sheppard trod heavily on it with his gigantic black boots.
"Urgh." Pushing himself up, he clenches and unclenches his hands, waving his arms around like an idiot to encourage blood flow. It's then that he sees the tablet computer laying screen-down on the hard floor. "Oh no."
The tablet has survived being dropped – well, once, and from not too high – and smacked repeatedly with the flat of his hand, and generally treated roughly and abused, so Rodney's held on to the assumption that it's indestructible. It's not. There's a crack straight down the middle of the screen and a sad little pile of casing shards underneath, and bits of innards fall out when he flips it over.
"No, no," he mutters, but even if he could get the screen to a viewable state, he can't conjure spare parts out of thin air.
He probably could have rigged some kind of radio transmitter with it, sent out a distress signal, or hell, a description of his surroundings, a message relaying that Ronon is in here, too. Or not. Ronon could have already found his way out. The life-signs detector shows only one flashing dot.
Rodney still has his gun and vest, but he'd shrugged out of his backpack for the meal, and then left it propped against a chair in the main hall, blinded with excitement and eager to explore the caverns. Who could tell what these people called their hypothetical ZPM?
Slumping back against the wall, Rodney lurches forward immediately when a crackle of energy nips at his spine.
"What the..." He reaches out cautiously, poised to rear back, and when his fingers brush against the wall, it crackles and pulsates blue light.
Great. He wanted Ancient tech, he's got it. No, this is good, maybe he can communicate with the wall, like Sheppard does with every piece of Ancient everything, and he'll ask it to open a door.
It's just his luck that he's probably awakened some kind of sentient Ancient maze that likes to set traps for people, and hadn't the town leader said that this place was completely harmless?
No sooner has he formed the thought when there's an otherworldly shrieking noise from above, followed by the sound of something flapping – wings – and a shadow falls across the stone floor.
John bristles under Fremil's patronizing look. He's so sorry to mess with Teyla's newly minted bond of friendship or whatever but it's rarely cause for celebration when his teammates are missing and he's being given the runaround.
Teyla brushes her hand against his wrist, her fingers cool on his skin, and John forces himself to step back, to keep his stance nonthreatening and his hand away from his gun. He swallows down the worry. Rodney's never going to be a soldier, but he's armed and capable and he's with Ronon, who's one of the best in John's command.
Surveying the room, he does a headcount, checking for likely places to cache weapons. He stays motionless when a servant whisks past to attend to Fremil, and he runs through his emergency plans as Teyla settles in her seat, her back to him.
"They're very old," Fremil says. "An intricate maze of stone, always a little chilly, so we spend a great deal of time there during the days when the sun shines its brightest. The light's not strong enough for embroidery, but it's fine for pulling thread or wrapping skeins."
"How do you get inside?" Teyla asks, and she makes the question sound unimportant, just an off-hand curiosity.
John has missed her, missed her skill at extracting information in the natural flow of conversation. He knows that he comes off a few shades too dangerous when he has to ask pointed questions. Rodney's only subtle in his own head, and Ronon's style is all bad cop.
"There's an entrance down by the edge of the south meadow," Fremil replies. "The children often play there, it's perfect for their games."
Teyla smiles. "I remember many happy days spent playing in the caves by our summer settlement."
Fremil returns the smile, and takes a sip from her mug. "There are many dead-ends, so each child can have their own space, if they wish. And it's reassuring to know they're all in one place, should we need to find them for any reason. Of course, they're in lessons now, though there was an enthusiastic round of begging to accompany your friends into the caverns."
Leaning closer, Teyla clasps her hands together. John imagines her eyes are bright with humor and interest, encouraging Fremil to share secrets. "And you said that Doctor McKay was interested in a – ponensa? Is that the right word?"
"Ah, the potentia," Fremil says, laughing. "I explained to Doctor McKay that there's nothing in the maze, no secret treasure, nothing hidden away in the middle, not even an exit door. He was intrigued by a tall tale that one of the young men shared with your other colleague, Specialist Dex. After reading the words, he was convinced that there was something to find inside."
Teyla shoots John a look over her shoulder. "I don't understand, Fremil. Which words?"
"The inscription on the gate," Fremil says. Something must change in John's expression, because she shifts her attention up to him, and when he meets her gaze, he knows that Fremil's added up her observations about his team and taken John's sum, and the clear understanding in her eyes causes him to swallow hard. He sees why Teyla trusts that the Raheene have not kidnapped Rodney, that they're not torturing Ronon.
"Nothing bad has ever transpired in that playground, Colonel Sheppard," she says. "It is a place of renewal and value, and I will be happy to accompany you there. Your friends are well. Perhaps Doctor McKay has located his potentia after all."
"If it's all the same to you," John says, then half-turns, tapping his radio. "Ronon, Rodney, this is Sheppard, come in." No answer. He waits a few seconds, then tries again. "McKay, have you struck oil? Check in."
"Come, John," Teyla says, touching his shoulder. "We'll go look for them ourselves. Fremil will show us the way."
It's a short walk to the caverns, and Fremil points out the straight-edge letters carved into the gate. John had hated Woolsey for ordering him to learn Ancient, but already it's saved their collective asses from ostensible calamity, and he's annoyed that he dodged the task for so long.
"There's more carved down the side," Fremil says, pulling back a jumble of thin, creeping vines. "When we moved here, one of the Ruminalan translated the words to the best of her ability, lines about discovery and rebirth."
"Mmm," John says, staying tactful. If Rodney had taken the time to read all of the words etched into the dark glazed wood, he might not have been in a rush to find the potentia, as it doesn't actually exist. "It could be a ZPM!" is a familiar refrain.
"John?" Teyla asks. "What does it –"
An ear-piercing animal scream bursts forth from beyond the gate, drowning out the rest of Teyla's sentence. As it tapers off, a new sound overlaps it, something scraping over rock, something like icepicks – talons – raking against stone. Next comes the fainter echo of gunshots, and John clicks off the safety on his P90.
"That's our cue," he says, and Teyla unlatches the gate and raises her gun, covering him as he steps inside.
Fremil looks genuinely shocked, and John has the grim thought that she'll never refer to the caverns as a playground again.
Faint puffs of air tickle across Ronon's forehead, and where there's a draft, there's a way out. The walls are too high to see over, even if he leaps upward, and there's nothing available to stack in lieu of a ladder. He's made sure to keep moving, but he's experiencing an odd sense of imbalance, as though he could be running in circles but he'd never know from the identical corridors. Since his knives have no effect on the walls, he's been leaving little piles of loose stones to mark his progress, and he hasn't doubled back, unless the stones are disappearing, but now he has a goal. He'll track the breeze and find its origin, and then figure out a better approach to come back in for McKay.
The angry roar of an animal reverberates down the hallway, and it's a surprise as he hasn't seen or heard any other living creatures. Ronon pulls his gun and stalks forward. It's hard to identify which direction he should follow to the source of the roar, as everything around him starts to echo, the thud of his footsteps mingling with the heavy, leathery rustle of wings unfurling.
A gun goes off moments later, providing the perfect auditory point of reference for McKay's location, so long he doesn't run out of ammunition.
Ronon pounds down the corridor, but it's taking too long, and the animal bawls again. Skidding to a stop, he eyes the wall. He's broken his own promise. If they're not really walls, why is he treating them like they are?
His next move will end either in wild victory or spectacular failure. Gritting his teeth, Ronon lunges at the far wall, and falls right through it. Energy crackles around him, stinging at his skin, and he lands on his hands and knees, with the smell of burned hair hanging in the air. Now this is an advantage he can work with, and at the next gunshot, he throws himself through another wall. He grins. Sheppard is going to be so jealous.
He should be within shouting distance. "McKay!"
Three answers: a snarl, a relieved yell of "Here, here, over here!", and a burst of automatic weapons fire, and Ronon hopes that's Teyla and Sheppard and not some unknown enemy.
The look on McKay's face when Ronon falls through the wall next to him is so priceless that Ronon wishes he had an eidetic memory so he could replay the moment at will.
"What did you do?" Ronon asks, and McKay regains the power of speech.
"Nothing! Well, not nothing, I probably activated something with my gene, but I definitely did not mean to," McKay says, as though that fixes everything.
Ronon does a careful sweep of the room. "What were you shooting at?"
"I don't know," McKay says, his eyes wide. "Something big and shadowy. It sounded like it wanted to eat me."
Nodding, Ronon sets his blaster to stun and pulls the trigger, shooting an arc of red light up over the wall. "Hope they'll see that."
They hear Teyla's voice first. "Ronon! Rodney!"
"In here!" McKay yells.
More weapons fire, and John shouts, "What in the hell is that?"
"You ready to go?" Ronon asks, joking, because he figures McKay'll blow past him. Instead McKay squeals, a terrible, painful sound, and Ronon spins around in time to see the back wall rippling and moving, flowing up over McKay's legs and trapping him.
Arms windmilling, McKay tries to move forward. "Off, off, get it off."
In one long step, Ronon moves, wrapping his arms around McKay's waist and he pulls, yelling over his shoulder. "Just step through, fall through. Trust me; they're not really walls, and you need to hurry!"
"Off-off-off –" McKay's chant cuts out, his body going limp.
"Sheppard!" Ronon bellows, and the look of tentative wonder on Sheppard's face as he comes through the wall slips away when he sees their situation.
"Teyla, we need you!" Sheppard grabs McKay's arms and the pair of them strain backwards. McKay moans. "A little help here, Rodney!"
The snap of energy startles everyone and Sheppard's thrown backwards, colliding with Teyla. Ronon plants his feet as well as he can and doesn't let go, but he's being pulled in, too. Teyla rushes over to help anchor them, and then McKay wakes up, screeching.
"Off! Off off off offfffff!"
"Trying, Rodney!" Sheppard yells, and McKay hisses at him.
"Turn it off! Turn it off, Sheppard!"
Sheppard's voice is frantic. "I don't know how, dammit!"
"There have to be controls somewhere," Teyla says. "Not the walls."
"Fllllrrrr," McKay slurs out, his eyes rolling back into his head.
Ronon tightens his grip. Sheppard's slapping at the floor all over the place, and to one side, a slim stone tower rises up out of the ground. Sheppard slides to his knees in front of it, fumbling, ripping off a protective cover and pushing at various slider bars and buttons. He growls, "Screw this," wrapping his hands around the column. Whatever death threats Sheppard's sending with his mind better work, otherwise they are all going to be absorbed into the walls, because none of them will let go of McKay.
The light overhead flickers, the energy holding McKay captive dissipates, and they fall down into a heap on the floor. Ronon gasps for breath that he didn't realize he was holding and McKay's unconscious but still writhing around, his legs twitching with aftershocks. The walls around them gleam and flash, and then they disappear entirely, washing away like an outgoing wave, leaving the four of them in the gloomy depths of a large, empty cavern. Teyla scrambles to her feet and Sheppard hauls Ronon up, saying, "We have to get out of here."
They get McKay over Ronon's shoulder in a fireman's carry, and Sheppard's urging them on, sending Teyla out on point and covering their six. The ground rumbles underneath Ronon's feet and Teyla cries out.
"Really need to move faster," Sheppard says. "Pretty sure I armed the self-destruct."
"Could have said that before," Ronon says, glaring at him, and he picks up the pace.
Fremil's waiting for them at the gate, and Teyla loops an arm around the headwoman's shoulders and propels her up the path, trusting that Ronon and John will follow with Rodney.
"What's happening?" Fremil asks, darting an anxious look at Teyla.
"I believe there has been some kind of underground explosion," Teyla replies. "We need to leave the immediate area until we know for certain what has happened. Doctor McKay may be injured."
"Of course," Fremil says, and then, "What was that noise?"
"I don't know," Teyla says. "We will need to return to our planet. Please, promise me that you won't let anyone near the caverns until we come back with engineers, people who are trained to investigate these types of occurrences."
"All right," Fremil agrees. "But I will need to know what results your engineers uncover."
"Of course," Teyla says. "This is your home, of course you will have all the answers that we do."
Rodney's wrapped up in both of the emergency blankets and he's still shivering, his body leeched of its heat. "Closer," he orders, and Ronon and Teyla smush closer, sandwiching him between them. "No eye rolling."
"I don't think you're in a position to make demands," John says.
"Yes, Mother, sorry, Mother," Rodney snipes. "Next time I'll be sure to read the fine print, too."
"I would appreciate that," Teyla says softly.
"I'm sorry," he says again, pressing his cheek to Teyla's shoulder. "Oh great, what am I supposed to say to everyone? 'Sorry we ruined your nice caves, now please supply us with your best fabrics at wholesale prices.'"
"We can spin it," John says. He's sitting on the other bench in the back of the jumper, packing up the first aid kit. "Woolsey can spin anything."
"So what was the full translation?" Ronon asks.
"Well," John says, "Fremil was on the right track. There was a line about rebirth, you know, phoenix rising from the ashes and all of that, but the actual purpose of the caverns appears to have been a testing ground for assassins and spies, people like that."
"Assassins and spies?" Teyla repeats, sounding doubtful.
"Yeah, the whole thing was about proving your worth, with stuff about how through fear comes understanding, which leads to realizing your potential." John closes the lid of the kit and tucks it under the bench.
"So you activated a place that created endless scary situations designed to mess with our minds," Ronon says dryly, nudging a shoulder into Rodney. "Nice one."
"Thanks," Rodney says, distracted. He's busy meeting the seductive call of sleep with figuratively open arms.
He feels dozy and safe, eyes closed, listening to the familiar tones of his team's voices.
He hears John saying, "Here, get him strapped in," and then the whirr of the jumper powering up to go airborne.
John puts the jumper controls on auto-pilot and laces his fingers together in his lap. Safe, they're all safe. That's all he ever asks.