Ok nugget, kick the tires, light the fires,
select Zone 5, tag the bogey
but don't get in a furball.
Don't boresight, check six,
bingo to Mom — Got it?
John looks at the tiny screen of the F-302, which shorts and rolls a few times. He waits it out until the targeting viewer comes back online. The rogue virus ship is in the center of the screen, and he has a lock. He fires and tracks the AMRAAM that heads on course, until it suddenly and inexplicably veers off screen and into the sun's corona, missing the target altogether.
John swears softly, and dives after the infected F-302. "Rodney!"
"What just happened? Are you crazy?" Rodney has been holding it together, but his voice edges into a higher register as he takes in John's heading.
"Listen up, I think the virus managed to worm into the active guidance system on the Slammers."
Rodney swears, "Oh, Christ."
The hangar bay was open to vacuum, no way to land, fix the problem and go back out. "Daedalus, the first missile failed to reach its target. I've got one more, and this time I'm going to try to ram it down its throat." Maybe he could initiate the internal radar sensors on the missile if he got close enough. The rogue F-302 seriously reminds John of his particularly tenacious ex-wife.
The reply is broken, but John picks out "..stood... careful..." from the static.
"Sheppard! Bad idea! We've probably already gotten enough radiation to make my hair fall out!" Rodney's hysteria is reaching full-blown proportions.
John coolly ignores the impending breakdown behind him; their very survival depends on this working. "Sorry, Rodney, we have to do this. Just a few more seconds."
"Sheppard, every minute longer we're out here, playing in the sunlight, we're increasing our chances of not surviving this stunt. Have you ever seen anyone who's had too much radiation?"
"Yes, Rodney I have." John distinctly recalls having this conversation on Atlantis. John flips the 302 over, dives on the z-axis and twists in a way that wouldn't be possible in anything John has flown before—including a 'jumper. He thinks 'sweet' just before firing his last missile from a direction that he hopes will catch the rogue off guard. That, more than anything John says, shuts Rodney up.
When it fails to acquire its target and goes the same way as the first, John turns back towards the Daedalus. "This is Sheppard, the mission was no joy, I repeat, no joy. Returning to base."
John lands smoothly in the airless hangar bay and noses the craft as close to the inner door as possible. "Flight, we're home. Any idea how we're going to get out of here?"
"We're working on it. It was worth a try, John." Elizabeth's voice over the radio is sick with disappointment.
John is interrupted before he can apologize for failing to destroy the target. "Brace for impact!"
Klaxons begin to wail, and the Daedalus is hit, shuddering and groaning. John and Rodney are helpless, trapped in their F-302, listening to the damage reports overlapping one another and coming in fast and furious. The hyper-drive is damaged, Hermiod is down, life support systems are offline—status unknown, and crewmen are trying to close bulkhead doors manually to prevent the affected sections from venting their atmosphere out into space.
"This is bad, really bad." Rodney is talking to himself at this point. "I can't do anything out here, mechanical engineering isn't like astrophysics, and I need hands-on, visuals to work with."
Suddenly the sub-light engines are running, John can tell, because he can feel the heavy throbbing through his seat. He can't stand it anymore, he has to know. "What the hell's going on up there?" he shouts into the radio.
Colonel Caldwell gives him a terse sit rep. "The rogue took out our hyper-drive engines, we've sustained serious damage to the life support systems. We've got sub-light engines for the moment, so we're going to try to land on the closest planet so we can effect some repairs."
"Huh," is all Rodney has to say.
John goes tense at the sudden lack of vibration when the sub-light engines go offline again without warning. The ship's intercom is blaring an alarm telling all hands to secure for impact, and Caldwell barks at John over the radio. "Sheppard, take off, get out of there. You're not secured for landing."
"Roger that." He'd jammed the nose of the F-302 in as close to the door as possible, which wasn't the ideal position for a quick getaway. As John turns the craft around, the jet engines are probably damaging everything in his wake, but he can't worry about that right now.
Finally John gets them free, and he takes off. He circles around the Daedalus and assumes the standard fighter escort position, just off her port bow.
Neither John nor Rodney is talking about it; they're both still hoping that the sub-light engines can be restarted and the impending landing can be controlled to some degree. John watches the tiny planet in question as it swiftly grows larger and larger. It's striped in wide swaths of red and green bands surrounding the tiny white poles, and if it weren't for those, he'd say it looked remarkably like Mars. He wonders if the Daedalus has had a chance to determine whether or not they were even going to be able to breathe down there. The green gives John some reassurance that it will be okay.
They lose sight of the Daedalus momentarily as they pass through the wispy clouds at extreme altitude, and the Daedalus' velocity increases geometrically as she falls towards the planet, creating a thin, blue contrail. The heat flare around the Daedalus flashes up in sheets of blue, and all hope of avoiding a crash dies as she arrows towards the red equator.
From his vantage point in the air, the crash is spectacular in the burnished purple light of a sunset. The trajectory is low and long, and there is a brief flash of fire around the ship that flames up blue and red and hot, until Daedalus' high velocity quenches the fire, pushing the air away as it reaches the ground.
The huge ship skips and skids along the ground, leaving behind her a long, dark gouge as spectacular sprays of sand are thrown up around her, along with pieces of the ship that fly off and litter the trail behind her. It seems as if she takes forever to come to stuttering halt, but when John looks at his watch, it has really been only a couple of minutes. He does a slow fly-by of the smoking ship, through the rapidly clearing clouds of dust that obscure the site, judging if he can see the hangar well enough to make the landing, or if he should even try, considering the smoldering, cherry red hull.
John checks his fuel monitor, and it's edging towards the red bars at the bottom end; he decides to land anywhere he can, for if he doesn't they'll crash and burn, too. The dissipating dust cloud reveals that the port hanger bay is buried in sand, and though the right is nominally free, the Daedalus is tilted down at the stern. John could make it—he's done crazier things in aircraft—but because Rodney's in the back seat, he doesn't take the chance.
The sand billows around them, and the 302 does its own hop and skip when John lands a couple of hundred yards away from the Daedalus. They sit for a moment while John takes in the situation; there is a scent of fear-quickened sweat and high-octane fuel in the cockpit, and John can hear the faint patter and hiss of sand landing on the canopy as the dust clears. The temperature in the cockpit is rising fast, and rapidly reaching uncomfortable levels.
The gravity feels higher than normal, but John can't tell if the sick feeling he has in his gut is that or distress. He clamps down on the nausea, promises himself the time to freak out later. He tries to raise the bridge on the radio, but he doesn't get an answer. He undoes his seat restraints to turn around and check on Rodney. "You okay?"
Rodney's eyes are huge and focused on the broken ship. "We are so fucked."
"Yeah. Come on, let's get out of here." John keeps his voice even and light, not even allowing a hint of his horror to bleed through.
"Wait! What if the atmosphere's not viable?" Rodney's voice quavers, he's not nearly as successful at maintaining calm, never been good at hiding his fear.
"Well, pretty soon, we're not going to have any air in here either and if the air out there is bad, then we might as well get it over with quick." John pops the canopy, but he'll never admit to McKay that he's holding his breath.
He takes an exploratory sniff. The air is so hot and dry that it burns the inside of his nose, but not enough to kill the overwhelming, burnt, acrid odor of Daedalus. John can feel the dehydration setting in, the heat has him sweating instantly, and the sunlight is blindingly, brilliantly white. John takes a deep breath, even though it feels like it's searing his lungs, despite the foul smell of the crashed ship. "We're good. You can breathe now, Rodney."
He hears an explosive breath as Rodney noisily sucks in the arid, dusty air and immediately begins coughing and swearing, "Jesus," at the smell.
Ignoring his own hypocrisy, John allows himself a grim smirk at Rodney holding his breath.
Exiting the craft without a ladder takes some care, but it's possible under normal circumstances, though the extra gravity makes this particular exit problematical. "Make sure you stand where it's marked in yellow, don't stand on the wing any further out. Then slide off, like this." John sits down and slides off the trailing edge of the wing. He falls faster than expected, and his landing is awkward and painful. "Piece of cake." He stands up, trying to dust off his hands and pants for a moment before giving it up as a lost cause.
"Sure, if you're some sort of gymnastic monkey," Rodney grumbles. He sits down and turns around to slide off from his stomach, making an ungainly landing in the sand. "Christ, I feel like I've gained fifty pounds." He lies there, looking up into the violet-colored sky.
John shades his eyes with a hand and takes a look around. A sea of sand surrounds them, but there is a distant mountain range already dim with the coming dusk. The sky is definitely purple, and the nascent sunset is painted in glorious shades of violet and lavender. "Nice hopping."
"Very funny." Rodney's tone is sarcastic, but when John sneaks a glance over at Rodney, his tiny crooked smile morphs into a grimace. "Do you suppose they're all dead?"
John shrugs, "Doubt it, radio's probably just damaged from the landing."
"Crash. Not landing." Rodney replies absently; his attention is glued to the Daedalus.
By unspoken agreement, they walk the length of the Daedalus to do a visual inspection of the apparent structural damage, in spite of heavy gravity that saps their strength and the hot, dry, dusty air that has Rodney still coughing. There are heat stress fractures, impact fractures, and a sick twist in the still hot hull that is burned with streaks of blue and black.
"Blue." Rodney almost reaches out to touch it, but yanks his hand back.
"Blue. There were blue flames, which in a normal oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere reentry would cause red, or orange flares. The blue flames indicate to me that there's something in the atmosphere, and since we're not choking on hydrocarbons—that smell is probably the Daedalus—that leaves me with the suspicion that there's something in the atmosphere. I could guess what that might be, but it would be pure speculation. I have to admit though, I'm already speculating."
"Oh." John cuts off Rodney's science lesson, he's far too miserable to have to deal it with at the moment. He doesn't have to see the other side of the ship; it probably looks the same as this one. John heads for the airlock, but the door is too hot to handle and probably jammed as well. He walks to the open hangar, and stands there contemplating the angle and the probability of being able to land.
Rodney reaches out towards the metal rungs, but jerks his hand back. "It'll take days for the hull to cool down enough to touch."
"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I don't want to leave the 302 out here, either. Come on."
John gives Rodney a boost up onto the wing, and then Rodney pulls him up. The engines kick up a new cloud of sand, but he's got a good mental image of the target area, and there is plenty of room to land. John angles the F-302 gently into the hangar.
The inner door to the ship's corridors will only open a little more than half way. John easily slides in sideways, but Rodney has to squeeze through. The klaxon is still blaring and people are running through the hallways, their panic stark in the red emergency lighting.
John and Rodney make their way to the bridge where a thin haze of smoke hangs in the air, and an acrid odor of burnt electronics burns their eyes and throats. Colonel Caldwell is trying to direct the chaos while conferring with his XO, Major Randall.
John gets his attention. "Colonel Caldwell."
Caldwell gives them a tight nod. "Sheppard, good to see you made it. What happened out there?"
"The missile wouldn't acquire the target, sir, I think the guidance systems were affected by the virus, too. They certainly acted that way."
Caldwell shakes his head in disgust. "It was a commendable effort, Sheppard." John's still mortified over his failure, but it could be worse—they could be hanging in space, suffocating and waiting for the Wraith to show up for dinner.
Caldwell turns to Rodney, "Dr. McKay, they could probably use your assistance in engineering."
"Going." John guiltily watches Rodney exit the bridge; he's not moving at top speed, and he's listing a little to the left. He hadn't intended on taking Rodney along on a suicide run, it just ended up that way.
"Sheppard." Caldwell interrupts John's worry for Rodney, and hands him a data pad. "Round up the pilots and get me damage reports on the '302s and the hangar bays."
He doesn't have to tell Caldwell just how bad the external damage is, Caldwell is already operating under the assumption they are shipwrecked. Even the slightest fracture would make the Daedalus leak atmosphere like a sieve, and she had already sustained damage before the crash.
Not having to say the words out loud at this moment is a minor blessing.
John commandeers Major Lorne, who was slated to be his XO on Atlantis, to inventory the starboard hanger, and then heads downhill to the port side. They haven't spent much time socializing on board, figuring Atlantis was just a couple of weeks away. It looks like that they'll have plenty of time to get to know each other now.
They are here to stay.
Caldwell begins the briefing many hours later. "Let's start with the good news. Obviously the atmosphere is breathable; Major Randall reports that recirculating the air on board isn't a power issue due to multiple hull breaches. The water reclamation system is working, but the pumps have been shut down until they can track down and repair a number of leaks. We have all of the supplies that were intended for Atlantis, along with the Daedalus' regular stores. There are at least ten Naquadah generators on board, but conservation should be one of our top priorities.
"The bad news is the sensor array is down, and the sub-light engines are damaged, though it's possible they can be repaired to recharge the ship's batteries. We were able to quickly contain the leaks in the fuel storage tanks, but the lowest levels are off limits until that can be cleaned up. Dr. Sodeburg, what's the situation in the infirmary?"
Sodeburg looks gray with fatigue and grief, as he pushes a data tablet across the table to Caldwell. "That's the casualty list; twenty so far, including eight civilians. There are eighteen more with serious injuries, evenly divided among the crew and passengers. We're doing our best, but several of them could go at any time. Another seventy or so minor injuries. They keep trickling in and Doctors Beckett and Cole have it under control for the moment. Most of the passengers are experiencing panic attacks, though the crew members that are occupied seem to be faring a little better. Hermiod took a massive knock to the head in the crash, and Dr. McKay's in the infirmary with a bit of sunburn, vomiting and complaining about nausea. Colonel Sheppard, how do you feel?"
Dr. Sodeburg's litany is sobering. "I'm fine," John says quietly. The extra weight is taking its toll though, and he's exhausted; they all are.
Sodeburg gives him a brief, appraising glance, "It's possible that McKay's more sensitive to the radiation, and he was already compromised due to the coolant leak."
Caldwell nods as he grimly scans the data tablet. "Thank you, Doctor. Colonel Sheppard?"
"Out of sixteen F-302s in inventory, we're down to six that are immediately operable. The rest are either stuck in the port hangar, a total loss, or can be relegated as hangar queens—spare parts. Of course, there is still one out there. Sir, we need to go after it and shut it down, or we're going to have a worse problem on our hands. "
"Agreed. Put together a flight plan and keep me apprised. Anything else?"
Elizabeth's voice quavers slightly as she broaches the topic of actually being shipwrecked. "We have no idea how long we're going to be here, or if the SGC will be able to mount a rescue, considering the situation there. We need to get a comprehensive list of the talents and skills of everyone on board, the types of things that aren't on their service jackets or CVs. We should also do a little exploration of our surroundings."
John takes that task. "Lorne and I can do a an aerial survey in the morning."
Caldwell brings the briefing to an end quickly. "Dr. Weir, you're in charge of the crew inventory, I'm sure that you're aware that they are going to need some hand holding. Dr. Sodeburg, I'll arrange for a burial detail to report to you as soon as it's possible to leave the ship. We'll meet again tomorrow at the same time."
John leaves the briefing and heads straight for the infirmary. It's crazy with nurses and medics running in and out, every bed and gurney is full, and those not lucky enough to at least get a chair, like Rodney, are huddled in frightened clumps as they wait their turn for attention.
John kneels beside Rodney; he's slumped over and a blanket's been tucked in around him, a cannula stuffed up his nose, wires trailing out of his grimy t-shirt, and he looks rather green around the gills. Rodney opens one eye and scoots to sit up.
"God, Rodney, I'm sorry, I had no idea."
"Me neither, until I threw up inside a console and passed out. It sort of snuck up on me. Hermiod's in a snit—it was his work station."
John tries to get a visual image in his head of the Asgard's expression as his equipment was sullied, but he can't do it. "I can imagine," he lies. "How is the naked one?"
"Astoundingly resilient. Novak is playing nursemaid, nagging him to rest. Hermiod is pissed. Well, more pissed than usual."
"How are you?" John solemnly studies Rodney.
"I feel terrible, but it's not all bad, Dr. Cole is hot." Rodney looks scared but he's obviously trying to gain some semblance of normality as he gives John a weak smirk.
John can't quite bring himself to witty repartee after Dr. Sodeburg's sobering report.
"I heard that." The doctor in question appears next to them and gives Rodney a faint glare. "Let's get these off of you." She reaches inside Rodney's shirt to unclip the leads to the monitor and then closes the valve on the oxygen.
Rodney wrestles the cannula off over his head and hands it to her. "Oh yeah, I think she just teletransports—I never hear her coming."
John holds out his hand to her and introduces himself. "John Sheppard. Pleased to meet you."
Dr. Cole takes his hand and gives it a firm shake. "Paige Cole—likewise." She glances at McKay then Sheppard. "I've released McKay to his quarters, I need the room. Can I trust you to see him there safely?"
Rodney snickers faintly, "I guess your reputation precedes you."
John ignores the smart-ass comment. "Sure, I can do that."
"Thank you, Colonel."
John makes sure that McKay face-plants onto his bed facing uphill and then heads off to his own quarters.
The events of the day weigh heavily on John and he doesn't sleep well or long. John flops around in his bunk, trying to find the best position so that he's not sleeping with his head downhill, or rolling out of the damn thing. John has a new, sudden sympathy for pregnant women: sudden weight gain, swollen ankles, and the general feeling of being exhausted to the point where it's impossible to sleep.
He lies awake, wrestling with guilt. He feels personally responsible for the almost unbelievable fact that they're shipwrecked on a planet in the Pegasus galaxy. He replays the encounter with the rogue over and over, trying to figure out where he went wrong, what he could've done to prevent this disaster, but the equipment failure was out of his control.
John is already awake when Major Randall comes around to pass out the water-rationing reminder, so he skips the shower and heads to the commissary. It probably didn't work, anyway.
There are a few wary, haggard souls there, with either nowhere else to go, or no wish to be alone. John recognizes a couple of them; Rodney had pointed them out early in the journey from Earth, dividing them into either idiots foisted upon him, or not stupid, but likely to crack under the stress all the same.
At the time John had simply wondered if Rodney had been talking out his ass, but now... he sees that Rodney was right on the money. They eye John warily, and he nods at them pleasantly as he gets some breakfast.
The galley master is used to running a twenty/four seven operation, and so there are sweet rolls, sausage and eggs already out in warming trays. He can hear the sound of clattering pans in the galley. The stomachs of the crew don't know from shipwrecked, and life goes on.
John goes through the nearly empty serving line, and surreptitiously looks around for a table as far from the unhappy scientists as possible. He doesn't even realize that he's made a critical error with the coffee cup until he sets his tray down, and the coffee sloshes over the top. He swears softly and picks up the cup and nearly burns his mouth as he takes a few drinks to reduce the level so it won't spill. He ignores the mean snickers from the peanut gallery as he retrieves some serviettes to sop up the mess.
All annoyances and burned mouth aside, it's still a thrill to eat chicken eggs, pork sausage, coffee and real cream, and he tucks in with relish. The SGC feeds its personnel well when they can, and it's an attitude that John can get behind. 'At least until it runs out' is a familiar refrain in the lexicon of the few Atlantis regulars; the rest are in for a shock as the fresh food supplies begin to peter out.
He's just sipping the last of the cooled coffee, half an eye on the table in the corner, when Lorne joins him. "Morning, Major."
Lorne is about to make the same mistake he had and he snakes a hand out to pick up the cup just as Lorne puts his tray down.
"Oh, of course. Thank you, Colonel." Lorne looks still tired, and there is a worried shadow in his eyes. He takes the cup from John and sips it slowly.
"Not exactly what you expected, is it?"
"Gate teams have been going missing and personnel have been getting stranded at the SGC for years." Lorne is trying to sound confidant, but the shadow in his eyes gives him away. He picks up his fork and begins to eat slowly.
"We spent a long time thinking that we were never going to get home, I guess it's not so difficult for us." John instantly realizes how that sounds, us and them. "No offense, Major."
"None taken, sir." He pauses to take a bite and swallow. "I understand the Slammers active guidance systems were corrupted by the virus."
"Yeah, we didn't think about that. I figure we could just eliminate the guidance system, fire them on infrared radar instead, and be done with it."
"It will take some skill, and an overpowering force. How many do you want to send up?"
"Betty's still got one missile left," John stops when he sees the strange look that Lorne gives him. "Long story. Anyway, by my count, the rogue still has one missile left, so when the first group goes up, there is a chance it could take out one of us."
"If we take the entire complement at once, then we'll have a better chance of a kill on the first try."
John nods. "Sounds like a plan. You, me, Hobeck, Faraj, Reinholt and Levenson." He stands up, and Lorne begins to stand as well. "Sit, finish your breakfast. I'll go start cleaning up the armaments, and you corral the pilots when you're done."
"Will do, sir." Lorne gives Sheppard a quick salute, and rather than return the gesture, John just nods and leaves the commissary to file a flight plan before heading to the hangar bay.
There is a guard on the still-open door; the Daedalus is listing badly, and none of the exterior doors will slide open or closed. They'll have to find some way to secure these doors or else to post a permanent guard rotation to prevent any unwanted wildlife or visitors crawling in.
It's still hours before dawn, and the hangar is dark and chilly. John walks to the open end, and stands there a moment, looking at the night sky. The stars are very dim, they are on the far edge of the Pegasus galaxy, but mostly they're obscured by a brilliantly colored aurorae. The lights shift and twist on a vast array of colors. He stands there in awe for a moment, before shaking himself out of his reverie.
John flips the light on and shrugs into a pair of coveralls for the warmth. Starting with the aircraft closest to him, he grabs a ladder and a screwdriver and begins his task; remove the shielding, pull the tiny guidance system module out, reinstall the shielding and then move onto the next.
John has only finished two missiles when Lorne, and all of the pilots join him. Soon, they have the six F-302's ready to launch. Out of curiosity, he tries his radio again, and, to his relief, Caldwell answers him immediately. "Colonel, we're ready to do some hunting. I'm taking up all six for the initial attempt. Randall has the flight plan."
"Very good, Sheppard. Stay in touch."
John climbs in and starts his preflight. A radio check confirms that his attack force is ready. The landing signal officer waves them out into the pre-dawn dark, and, one after the other, the 302s take the tricky exit.
The inertial dampeners cancel out the extra gravity, but John hears the engines overworking to compensate. They rocket through the thin shell of atmosphere and into space.
John hopes that the rogue F-302 won't stay hidden for long. "This is Foxtrot Alpha. Spread out, and break radio silence only when you sight the objective."
His reply is a short of chorus of double clicks, signaling an affirmative. They are in pursuit mode.
The target is quickly sighted. "This is Foxtrot Foxtrot. I've got the target in range."
The wing breaks formation to surround the rogue on the x-, y- and z- axis to prevent it from finding an opening to escape. John issues the command to fire, and several of the missiles hit the target, which explodes in an immensely satisfying way as each pilot veers off in a pre-arranged 90-degree turn on their own x-axis to prevent collisions. They are back in standard formation within moments and John clicks over to the command channel. "Caldwell, this is Sheppard, the target is destroyed."
"Good work, Sheppard. Proceed with Dr. Weir's aerial survey."
"Affirmative." Too bad it hadn't been that easy yesterday. John switches his radio to broadcast and lays out the plan to the formation. "Good work. Dr. Weir wants an aerial survey, so let's take a few minutes to get the lay of the land on the way back. Standard mapping formation, lay it out in grids."
The Daedalus had belly-flopped in the center of a strip of desert between two mountain ranges. The desert runs for miles to the north and John only sees desert, desert, and more desert, but Reinholt gets the coordinates of a settlement of some kind in the eastern range, and Hobeck sees one in the west. Levenson reports a canyon two klicks to the south and another mountain range to the extreme far south.
Lorne reports that there is literally nothing near the equator on the opposite side of the planet, no settlements as far as he can see. Hobeck and Faraj have the two poles, both of which appear to be surrounded by shallow seas with nearby forested regions, of which large sections are on fire. They all report various small settlements scattered in the mountains and the plains in a vaguely elliptical zone centering on the desert where the Daedalus lays.
The sighting of two nearby villages, and the confirmation that the planet is suitable for long-term habitation is encouraging. Sunrise begins just after John has landed, and the craft are secured. Standing on the edge of the hangar deck, he reaches out to check the temperature of the exterior hull; cooler but still too hot to be climbing out of the ship.
He marks the time of sunrise on his watch. Night was only ten hours long. The planet is much smaller than Earth or Lantea, and much closer to the sun. Mars is what the place reminds him of, and he can't shake the feeling that Dejah Thoris is going to come strolling around the corner.
John grins to himself and thinks of Rodney. He'll want to hear that. John goes to check on him in his cabin, knocking on the open door once he arrives.
"Glad to see you're up. How do you feel?"
Rodney turns to fix a baleful glare at John. "Better, now that I'm not dying of radiation poisoning, thank you very much."
John shrugs with only a slight tilt of his shoulders. He's already apologized once; Rodney won't thank him for blathering on about it. "You want to get something to eat?"
"I was just on my way down." Rodney doesn't bend down to put on his boots, just shoves his feet into them, leaving them untied.
They walk through the dim, cool corridors, and few people are about. John doesn't know whether the lights are low to preserve the appearance of night, or if they're conserving power. Rodney interrupts his reverie. "So, tell me what's been going on."
"Well, the rogue 302 is finally out of commission. Elizabeth is doing some social experimenting on the crew, and we found two villages; one on either side of us."
"Wait, social experiment?"
"She's taking a survey to find out what talents everyone is hiding."
"Oh well, yes. That makes sense." Rodney doesn't mention Betty; he already knows that it was left transmitting a signal to the Wraith for far too long.
The commissary is far busier now, but the pervasive, sullen atmosphere is still hanging over the room. John doesn't feel too guilty about the second cup of coffee while he sits with Rodney.
"Trying to keep your girlish figure?" Predictably, Rodney has already figured out the problem with liquids and the angle of the ship.
John kind of wishes he'd been there, for the pure, entertainment value. "I had breakfast a couple of hours ago."
Atypically, Rodney doesn't manage to eat much, and, after pushing the rest of it around for few minutes, he gets up and dumps it out. "I suppose I've got a lot of things to do today." He sounds lackluster and depressed, but then who doesn't? They're shipwrecked.
The bridge is nearly empty, save for a few technicians repairing the electronics, and they find Elizabeth in the conference room.
"Rodney, I'm glad to see that you're feeling better." Elizabeth tries for a reassuring smile, but fails miserably.
"I don't know about better, but I am upright and mobile." Rodney shrugs and throws himself into a chair.
Elizabeth admonishes him, "Take it easy, Rodney. I don't want you overextending yourself into a relapse."
Rodney doesn't reply, but his mouth is set in an unhappy twist. John knows that Rodney will come through for them—he always has—but in the end it will be a futile effort, it won't change their situation.
"John, Colonel Caldwell tells me that you've found two villages."
"Hobeck and Reinholt saw them, I was approaching from the north, and all I saw was desert. It got pretty uncomfortable out there yesterday."
"Not to mention the extra weight I seem to have put on overnight," Elizabeth says dryly.
"Yeah." John supposes that they could have found a more miserable place to crash, but not likely.
Elizabeth changes the subject in a fake, bright voice. "Colonel Caldwell says that as soon as the replacement array is up, we can begin putting out a distress signal."
"Are you sure that's wise?" Rodney asks in a suspicious tone.
"What do you mean, Rodney?" Elizabeth tips her head and pins him with an incredulous look. A distress signal was the first, obvious thing to do.
"We know the Wraith AI was transmitting a signal, a Hive ship is probably on its way here even as we speak. A distress beacon is just going to wave a red flag and say 'hi, here we are'." Rodney waves his hands in the air to illustrate his point. "It'll be weeks before Atlantis decides we're missing, and months until the SGC can send another ship to look for us."
"Good point. We should deploy all of the Mark IVs to the hangar bay now."
John raises his eyebrow at that. When did Elizabeth put herself in direct military line of command?
"I think we need to determine if the planet has a gate, and get the hell out of here if we can. When the new array goes up, it should be easy to determine if there's any Naquadah on the planet. I can tie the sensors into the '302s to extend its range."
Elizabeth nods. "Very well, you know what to do."
Rodney stands up, "I'm on it." He leaves the conference room, but he's only walking, not at his normal near run.
Elizabeth gives John a worried look. "Keep an eye on him."
John shrugs and gets up to follow Rodney. There are worse things than scientist-sitting, and he would've been doing it anyway.
During the wait for the hull to sufficiently cool down so they can climb down the side of the ship, John learns to deal with the ship's angle to gravity.
Mostly it's an annoyance: remembering to fill a cup only two-thirds full or catching the odd implement as it rolls off a table. Walking in the lateral corridors is an exercise in balance, because of the tilt of the ship. The transverse corridors are more strictly uphill and downhill, and John starts to avoid certain ladder hatches, because it feels like he's climbing upside down.
The real problem is with the bunks. He helps Major Randall deal with a rash of requests for reassignment of quarters, because the inhabitants are rolling out of the offending beds.
It takes three more days for the hull to cool down, but the time isn't wasted. John tries to figure out a way to access the F-302s in the port hangar, but the door is permanently jammed shut. It will have to be cut open with a torch after they dig it out of the sand, but the engineering staff laughs his idea; they don't have any thing capable of cutting though the trinium-reinforced hull.
Rodney is still listless, but working alongside the crews that are busy repairing the sub-light engines and other critical systems.
Luckily the upper access hatches aren't jammed closed, and the sensor array goes up without a hitch. The array, even with the F-302's extending its range, doesn't find any trace of Naquadah, or other power source above the low-level background radiation the planet seems to be bathed in. It does detect high levels of several fairly rare elements, some of which are only found in laboratories on Earth. Their presence explains the fires near the poles. While not particularly flammable in and of itself, Lutetium burns very hotly when ignited, allowing fires to rage out of control.
John laughs at Rodney when he geeks out over a mineral, because it doesn't add up to a hill of beans unless they can get off this god-forsaken rock.
The conference room has become the war room, and Dr. Beckett shows up after he gets the initial report on the sensor data. "I'm concerned about the long term effects of the background radiation, though the ship's hull does still provide some protection even in the condition it's in. I'm going to recommend that we spend as little time outside as possible, at least until Dr. Sodeburg and I have a chance to study the data."
John and Rodney manage to share an incredulous look at the overly cautious request—they've been cooped up in the ship for five days, and there are people living on the planet, but Caldwell frowns and agrees. "I'll send out an all-ship bulletin to ask that every one stay in the ship when possible." Carson nods and leaves them to their meeting.
John clears his throat and puts forth the harebrained scheme he's been contemplating for the last couple of days. "The hyperspace engines on the 302s were proven unstable for long range jumps, but it's theoretically possible to make it to Atlantis if done in a series of short jumps. We could modify one of them to allow for extended range and plot a course that would allow it to make stops along the way."
Rodney soundly berates him. "Are you kidding me? That's a deathtrap, not a rescue mission!"
"But the question is, will it work?" Elizabeth is grasping at whatever straws of hope she can.
Rodney muses for a moment. "Possibly; I did rewrite the protocols for O'Neill to send the gate a few million miles away." John smirks and Rodney rolls right over it. "But it was a completely uncontrolled jump that had a bomb at the end! It would be a miracle if this worked."
"I'd say we're due for a miracle, Rodney," John says dryly.
That stops Rodney short for a second, and the thoughtful expression on his face grows into something else. "I always wanted to get my hands on one of them, but they stopped all research on that part of the 302. Why the manufacturer continued to put the hyper-drive engine on them, I don't know."
John lobs the answer out unthinkingly. "It's cheaper than redesigning them and changing the manufacturing specs."
"Yeah. I'll check with Hermiod and look into the possibility." Rodney grabs his laptop and leaves at low power.
Elizabeth stares at him levelly across from the table, and John can see that she's suddenly shifted her attitude, perhaps figured out John's ulterior motive. "It's a suicide mission, John. When is that going to stop being your best idea?" A pencil is wedged in between a well-used notepad and a half empty cup of cold coffee, to keep it from rolling off the table.
He really doesn't have an answer for that. "Rodney will make it work, Elizabeth."
"Rodney's not well. He shouldn't be out in that heat."
"So, we'll work during the night when it's cool."
She sighs and shakes her head. "It's both a terrible and a good idea. We'll see."
Colonel Caldwell follows John out of the conference room. "We can't afford to go off half cocked, Sheppard. We're stuck here with an extremely limited number of 302s, with a hive ship probably on the way. We'll need those resources sooner than later."
"Colonel, with all due respect, one 302 isn't going to make that much of a difference against a Hive ship." The look on Caldwell's face is angry, and John figures this is still about being passed over for command of Atlantis.
Caldwell snaps, "What do you hope to accomplish with this maneuver?"
John isn't going to give Caldwell the satisfaction of arguing with him; he's not the one looking for a confrontation. "I think if it works, we'll contact Atlantis and advise them what the situation is, Teyla will contact the SGC, and send out our SOS for us. If it fails, we'll know that at least we tried something."
"And let me guess, Colonel, you intend to volunteer for this mission?"
"I had considered that, yes."
Caldwell shouts at him in a furious rage. "This is the reason that the SGC wanted you out of Atlantis, Sheppard. It was only Dr. Weir's threats that got you promoted to retain command of Atlantis. If you do not want to justify every argument against you even being on this ship, then you will find another volunteer. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
"Yes sir." John is stunned. That explains Elizabeth's smirk and cryptic remark before the whole mess had begun. He'd known something had happened back at the SGC, but he hadn't suspected that it was Elizabeth's blackmailing that had allowed him to return to Atlantis.
"My apologies, that was uncalled for." Caldwell wipes a hand over his face and takes deep breath. "I'll consider it, Sheppard. Keep me informed."
He's left standing in the corridor with a few curious onlookers when Caldwell turns and walks away. John resolutely turns the other direction and heads downhill. He appreciates that Elizabeth thought she was being loyal, and that he was the only person she wanted for the job, but it was a rotten way to climb rank, and a rotten way to find out.
Never once had he traded on his father's name, even when it could have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble and misery, and he'd always been proud that he could say that his accomplishments – and failures – were his own. Until now, he thinks bitterly.
Days Six– Seven
Rodney's work on the Jump To Atlantis project is largely theoretical in the beginning, but after Hermiod's vetted the improvements to the hyper-drive, Rodney insists that John look over the ship designs.
John looks at the work and completely blows his slacker cover by pointing out a mistake in an aerodynamic calculation, at which point he holes up with Rodney in a lab to work on the plans.
It's been eight days since the crash landing, and when Rodney crashes for the day, John takes a break. He climbs out of the ship through the emergency repair hatch and sits atop the Daedalus, shivering in the early morning chill. The aurora is at full strength, and he watches as it slowly disappears in first flush of the morning.
The marines are out near the bow, still digging graves. No one was cruel enough to make them work during the day, and now they're working fast to make the best of the little chilly night left to them.
John thinks briefly of Atlantis' tiny graveyard on the mainland; it's a shame that a cemetery is often the first mark of a new colony and they'll have their own graveyard here, too, filled with twenty people who died because he had failed. Shipwrecked, because he failed. That it was an unforeseen complication, and that they had been rushed into hiding in the 302 when the hangar was vented, is barely a consolation for the idea that he hadn't managed to take the rogue out.
He sits and watches them until it's nearly full dawn. A movement on the horizon catches his eye, a group of people standing on the ridge to the east of the Daedalus.
They're wearing sand-colored clothing that's hard to pick out in the burgeoning light, and then they fade away behind the dune. John wonders if they were a figment of his imagination.
He reports seeing them to Caldwell anyway, "Sir, I just saw a some folks out on the desert, they might be watching us."
"Interesting." Caldwell notes it in the log, and pins John with a hard look. "I haven't seen any request for volunteers for the Jump, Sheppard."
John isn't certain that his presence here even matters, but he keeps his doubts and anger to himself and sends out the request for volunteers, as ordered.
There are three volunteers within hours. Lieutenants Kyle Swenson, Cory Hobeck and James Faraj are the uniform epitome of the best of the best; perfect 0-3 razor cuts, perfect posture and John can almost smell their earnestness and dedication. The SGC doesn't skimp on lieutenants.
In the evening Rodney's looking only a little better, but he brushes off Sheppard's inquiry, and they get to work.
The pilots assist in the modifications and they prove to be smart enough that McKay only yells at them occasionally, though it could be that he's still suffering from mild radiation poisoning, the extra gravity or the fact that Hermiod is there, kibbutzing underneath McKay's elbow.
They re-engineer external oxygen tanks that will double the length of time a pilot has air, and add an extra CO2 scrubber that will extend that time even farther.
As a precaution, Dr. Cole helps modify the flight suit for waste evacuation, though it was never intended for long-term wear. She's as short and perfunctory as she was in the infirmary, but the flight suit is as well designed as it can be on short notice. Over the modified suit, she adds a bright red radiation suit from the Atlantis stores, based on Rodney's recent experience. She chuckles humorlessly. "It's probably overkill."
They finally hold the mass funeral at dawn. Nearly everyone on board climbs out of the ship, and gathers in a loose crowd around the mounds of sand, marked with twenty-two stainless steel crosses, bolted together out of ships stores. There are a few tears, but mostly dry-eyed shock still pervades the Daedalus' complement.
Caldwell says a few kind words, and at that moment, John sees the other side of the Colonel. He might not have personally known every single one of the poor folks buried out here, but he's taking each of their deaths as his own, personal loss.
Lieutenant Kyle Swenson wins–or loses, depending on your perspective–the short game of Roshambo and takes off just after dusk with a little fanfare and a cheer. Elizabeth thanks him for his bravery and Caldwell gives him the typical SGC send off. "God speed, Lieutenant."
Sheppard runs to the end of the hangar bay to watch him disappear in the fading lavender light, but there is nothing to see but a pink contrail heading towards space. "Good luck, kid."
He scans the western horizon, and there is someone on the ridge—just a single person, standing watch from the high dune in the distance. John reports the sighting to Elizabeth and Colonel Caldwell, "We need to go meet the new neighbors. They're watching us."