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Fuck, his head hurts: his knee's giving him nine kinds of shit: he hurts all over. It's very quiet. What the fuck happened?

It takes a while to get his eyes open. The sky above him is a pale evening blue, high translucent clouds drifting slowly from left to right. He listens hard: enemy, friend? Can't hear anything except the sound of water lapping against stones somewhere nearby. There's no wind, no voices: he can't smell anything except his own sweat and the metallic scent of fresh blood.

He's lying on his back on a hard, uneven surface: pebbles and sand. Everything hurts, but it's more ache than anything, like he's spent a long time running or fighting or something. When he turns his head cautiously, it doesn't make anything hurt more than before.

Off in the distance there's a range of mountains, white with snow -- white, anyway -- and blue with distance. They look impossibly high. But hang on --

stargate atlantis pegasus lieutenant colonel teyla ronon rodney puddlejumper stargate

-- odds are he's not on Earth.

"Anyone there?" he calls out. Tries to call out. His throat feels like he's been gargling with gravel: it's sore enough that he can feel it in his eardrums. He rolls over, hawks and coughs and spits (no blood) and shouts again. There's no reply.

Okay. He gets as far as hands and knees and has to sag back down, because maybe he hit his head but something's making the world spin around him, making his stomach churn and his vision blur. Concussion, has to be. What the fuck hit him?

Right. Inventory and sitrep.

He's lying, sitting, on a narrow arc of beach beside a river. There's something weird about the river: the water's very dark, and it's flowing sluggishly. Plus one for the alien planet hypothesis. The beach is pale fine sand, almost completely covered with smooth oval pebbles that are white as bone. He picks one up and it's cool and soothing in his hand.

His hand is filthy: mud and blood and oil. He's scraped his knuckles and torn a fingernail to the quick. Still, it's his hand.

He's got his Beretta in the holster at his thigh. No sign of the P90. His watch is intact (it's 16:16), and the sweatband on his wrist is dry. In his tac vest he finds a broken compass, a couple of powerbars (peanut butter, cranberry apple), a bottle of water, two grenades, a first-aid kit, a life-sign detector, a knife, a crumpled tissue. His radio's twisted round his neck: he thumbs it, says, "This is Sheppard: anyone there?" but there's no answer, not even the crackle of connection.

The life-sign detector's busted, too. There's nothing on the screen at all, not even the single dot in the centre to show him where he is.

Next time he tries to stand up, it's easier. He still feels like he might throw up, and he still aches like he's gone twenty rounds against Teyla and Ronon together, but he's on his feet, so he's gained -- what? ten miles' visibility?

Not that there's much to see. The river behind him: the white pebble beach: the mountains: the desert. Desert everywhere, pale in the evening light. He guesses it's evening, though he can't see a sun, or moons, or stars. After sunset, by the feel of it. The light's fading slowly, if at all.

Where the fuck is everybody? And where's the Stargate? Because John's pretty sure he didn't get here by ...

Okay. What's the last thing he remembers?

* * *

He's got nothing, nothing that'll tell him what he's doing here, why he's alone, where his team are. They wouldn't have left him behind, he's pretty sure of that. When he shouts their names, nobody answers. The radio's still silent. Which leaves ... no way are they all dead. No way. He'd remember ... why can't he remember?

"Crap," says John to the empty air.

His head spins when he looks up at the sky. Maybe the air's thinner here. There's nothing to see: just that violet-blue sky, little white clouds drifting across it towards the impossible mountains. Nothing to navigate by, nothing to orient himself.

He looks around, checking out his surroundings. The desert makes him think of Afghanistan, but it's bleached and empty. No dunes, no cover, no vegetation. Just the white sand and the white pebbles on the beach.

The river looks darker than he thinks it should, and where it laps the stones it leaves them stained. He staggers to the edge of the water, drops to his knees, dips a dirty finger into the slow flow. Spits out bitter and salt and metal. He knows the taste, but he can't remember what it is. Not potable, anyhow.

Slowly he becomes aware that someone's crying nearby. Crying quietly, as if they're trying not to be heard. A child? He looks up.

Teyla's standing on the other bank. She's wearing her BDUs and there's a P90 slung over her shoulder. The light catches her tears and makes her face gleam in the dim light.

"Teyla!" John yells. Thank Christ. Thank God she's alive, he's not alone. She hasn't left him behind.

She's looking right at him but it's like he's not there. She's still weeping silently. Maybe she's not real. Maybe he's not real.

"Teyla!" he shouts again.

This time, he's sure, she hears him. Her mouth opens, and it's as close to an ugly expression as he's ever seen on Teyla's face.

"John," she says thickly, and it sounds like she's standing right next to him. "John. I am so sorry."

"What is it? Teyla, talk to me!"

She's crying again, just standing there on the other bank, pressing the heel of her hand against her mouth to hold in her grief. What's happened? What's wrong?

The beach across the river's the mirror image of the one he's standing on. The river itself isn't that wide -- ten yards max, and moving pretty slow. It's not going to be a problem. John steps forward, feeling the pressure of the current against his shin. One step, two, and Teyla's mouth opens like she's going to say something: then fuck he's off his feet, bashing against the sharp and stony riverbed, thick liquid filling his nose and mouth (blood, it tastes of blood) and stinging his eyes, can't get his footing, can't fight the current, can't work out which way's up ...

It's like being in a washing machine. On spin. He's tumbled and slammed and turned and twisted, and by the time the river spits him back out onto the beach all he can do is lie there gasping and retching.

"John," comes Teyla's voice across the water. It's not water. "John, I am so sorry. I am so very sorry that we must say goodbye."

* * *

Well, fuck.

By the time John's got the stuff out of his nose and mouth and ears, and rinsed away that flat metal taste with a careful mouthful from his canteen, Teyla's not there any more. He can't see where she could've gone, but there's nothing to show she was there in the first place.

God, he aches. And what the fuck was that about? Why's Teyla saying goodbye?

John considers and discards a multitude of worst-case scenarios. She's been captured by hostiles; she's decided (fuck knows why) to leave Atlantis, leave the team; she knows something he doesn't, like, like maybe the expedition's being recalled to Earth ...

No use thinking about it.

Okay. He can't cross the river (though there's no way he should've gone over in water, not-water, that's knee-deep and moving so slow). He doesn't like the look of those mountains, white against the evening sky. (Shouldn't it be getting darker? But maybe this planet's got a weird rotation, or something.) Which leaves the beach, and the riverbank. On the one hand, there's got to be a way out of this place -- a Stargate, or a boat, or something. On the other hand, Teyla knows he's here, right here. If he heads out ...

John's radio is still dead: he rips it apart, wires and headset, twists and bends it into a triangle, and uses handfuls of smooth white pebbles to anchor it. There: it's an arrow, and anyone who sees it will know which way he's gone. (Which, okay, won't work out so well if there's hostiles around. But the only person he's seen is Teyla, and she already knows where he is.)

He's tempted to leave behind the LSD (still blank) and the compass (still spinning crazily). But maybe they can be fixed once he's back in Atlantis.

"Heading out," he says, just in case anyone can hear him, and he sets off downriver, stones crunching and grinding beneath his boots.

The river looks perfectly straight, though that's probably an illusion. Off to his left, the mountains look flat and unreal. It's like Antarctica, where he could never be sure how close the horizon was. They could be nine miles away, or ninety. At least he's still got the light: at least he's not walking in the dark.

The beach goes on and on. There's no landmarks, nothing to tell him how far he's come, nothing ahead of him to aim for. No sign of his team, which is kind of worrying, but John doesn't let himself worry about it because there's no way they'll leave him behind. Not for long.

And hey, he's got Rodney McKay on his team. McKay, who in that other timeline gave up everything -- spent his whole life trying to get John back from desert-drowned Atlantis. If there's a way out of here, McKay will find it.

"Hey, Rodney," he says -- out loud, because there's nobody listening, and because the silence is making him itch. "How's about you get me out of here and I buy you a beer, buddy?"

And it's weird, because he can practically hear McKay saying "Look, if it were that simple you'd be out of there already and we'd be down on the South Pier with that crappy American piss that you claim is drinkable."

It's so vivid, so real, that John stops dead and turns around, looking for Rodney. Who isn't there, or at least John can't see him. "McKay?" he calls.

"Look, I -- I haven't ... Fuck."

"Rodney?" says John, pretty sure McKay can hear him. "Look, just ... what is this place?"

"I don't know," says Rodney's voice from ... okay, somewhere to John's left. He reaches up to tap his earpiece before he remembers he's not wearing his radio, his radio's a busted mess back there on the beach for them to follow.

Rodney sounds ... hopeless. Defeated. John's spine prickles.

"C'mon, McKay," he says, trying to sound encouraging and impatient at once. "Where the hell am I? And where are you?"

"We're on M3X-851," says Rodney. "With ... look, this isn't happening, okay? You're not ..."

There's something John can't make out: sounds like another voice, but not one he knows, and he can't make out a word of it. He starts to say something and Rodney shushes him, sharp and vehement, and that's so familiar that John wants --

Doesn't know what he wants.

"McKay?" he says. "You save my life, I save yours. I reckon it's your turn, buddy."

"Yes, well," says Rodney's voice. If he was really as close as he sounds, John would be feeling Rodney's breath on his neck. That makes him shiver, too, though it's not cold here and his clothes are dry. "Believe me, Sheppard, if it was just a matter of science -- and, you know, you've come to the right guy if science is what you want -- I'd be on it."

"Rodney, I --"

"Fuck," says Rodney, bitter and furious. He doesn't say anything else.

* * *

Something's really, really wrong. John just tripped over some obstacle -- okay, he's kind of beat, and he wasn't looking where he was going 'cause there hasn't been much in the way of variety for the last couple of hours -- and when he gets his balance and looks down, it's his radio. The wreckage of his radio, twisted into a triangle, held down with handfuls of white stones. Just like he left it, way back there.

Except 'back there' is 'right here'. He's come in a circle, following the straight line of the river, under the changeless evening sky. (Still no stars or moon or sun or any fucking thing.)

Fuck it. John's exhausted, and nothing makes sense. He sits down (okay, collapses) and spends a bit of time coiling the wires round the earpiece and determinedly not thinking about anything. Not about Rodney. Not about Teyla. Not about this crazy fucking place where you walk and walk and end up where you started. Not about what the fuck he's going to do next.

Sleep sounds like his best option right now.

There's a drop-off from the desert to the beach, and John reckons that's as good a place as any to make camp. He hunkers in under the overhang, covering his face as a dusting of sand trickles down. Why's it always sand? That future Atlantis, it got everywhere. Red sand sinking into his skin. Afghanistan, and the joy of tiny sand-grains chafing in every crack and crevice of his body.

Christ, he's thirsty. Another sip of water from the canteen, which is scarily light. He munches on half a powerbar, and puts the rest away for later. Checks the LSD and the compass: nothing. Bivvies down with his pack for a pillow, not that there's any way he's going to be able to sleep in unknown territory with his team missing and those aches making themselves known and ...

... and ...

He's dreaming. Has to be. He's in a car -- it's a red Camaro, though he doesn't know how he knows that -- driving fast along a straight, empty road. Right ahead of him there's a harvest moon, huge and peach-coloured in the night sky. Pedal to the metal so he'll get there before it bobs free of the horizon: if he can get there he's pretty sure he'll be saved. But however fast he goes, it's not fast enough.

There's a Johnny Cash tape playing on the stereo, almost too low to hear, but John would swear it's that cover of 'One'. One love, one life, one need in the night. He needs ... he needs to get to ...

Somebody shifts, stretching, beside him. John glances across to the shotgun seat. The fall of moonlight across the man's face makes it look like a skull: but nah, he's pretty sure that's Ronon.

"Hey, buddy," he says, eyes on the road, casual as can be, "wanna tell me what's going on?"

Out of the corner of his eye he can see Ronon frowning. "Sheppard," he says, slowly, like he's surprised.

we get to carry each other, carry each other

"Yeah," says John.

have you come here for forgiveness, have you come to raise the dead

Ronon's looking away, out of the window, at the empty desert scrolling past. It's not the desert John fell asleep in. There's cactus, sagebrush, a distant etch of power lines. There are signs of life here.

"You okay?" says John, 'cause with each quick glance he's more convinced that something's bothering Ronon, and John's beginning to wonder if it's the same thing that made Teyla cry, the same thing that Rodney doesn't know how to fix.

"Me?" says Ronon, with a flash of teeth that's not really a smile, gesturing at himself like there's anyone else in the car.

(Johnny's singing about redemption. The moon's no closer, but it's redder than before.)

"I'm fine," says Ronon.

"Where are we?" says John evenly. "What the hell's happening?"

Ronon's looking at him, and John feels the weight of that look.

"M3X-851," says Ronon at last. His eyes gleam in the weird light. Ahead of the car, something big bounds across the road, too fast for John to see. Belatedly, he brakes: Ronon huffs a breath and braces himself on the dash, and John's head snaps back into instant headache.

"M3X ..." he says fuzzily. The car's stationary in the middle of the road, but there's no other traffic, no fan of headlights. It's very quiet.

"That's where we are," says Ronon. "Not you. Not ... You're not there."

"Look," John grinds out, starting to get angry now. "I don't know what the fuck your game is, what the fuck's going on, but I would appreciate some straight answers. I've had Teyla crying, I've had McKay ..." he hasn't got a word for what Rodney was doing: he waves his hand. "Wanna maybe say something that makes sense?"

Ronon stares at him for a long time. John stares back, trying to get underneath that impassive look.

"Sheppard," Ronon says at last, solemn as John's ever seen him. "You're dead."

* * *

John wakes up suddenly, sitting bolt upright like a kid coming out of a nightmare. His whole body's thrumming with adrenaline, fight or flight or fuck: but there's nobody to fight except himself, nowhere to run to without ending up where he started, and as for fucking ...

No way he's dead, not feeling like this. His heart's hammering, forcing blood around his body; he still aches like he went twenty rounds with Ronon; when he pinches himself that hurts, too.

You're dead, Sheppard

Like hell he's dead. Dead men don't walk (in circles under a changeless evening sky). Dead men don't hurt. Don't have that prickling feeling behind the eyes, the one that's maybe rage and maybe defeat. And Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, USAF, military commander of Atlantis, doesn't admit defeat.

John rubs his eyes (bad move: sand) and tries to remember how the hell he got here, and where 'here' is, and what happened before he woke up ... call it 'yesterday', though he doesn't feel like he's slept more than a few minutes.

M3X-851. It rings a bell. The ... Bethi? Berithi. Rumours of technology, and not just Ancient either. Woolsey had been keen to get the Berithi on side. "We need allies who have something to offer on a scientific level." Teyla had said she knew people there. (Teyla always knew people there.) Ronon had geared up, quiet but not bad-quiet. Rodney ... Rodney hadn't been quiet: he'd been full of speculation, what if they have a ZPM or two? what if they have a foolproof method of keeping the Wraith at bay? what if, what if?

John can't exactly remember going through the Gate, meeting people. Fuck it: it's there somewhere. (Because the alternative is that Ronon's right and he's ... he's a ...)

He chases the dream away.

Overhead the clouds are still scrolling across the sky. They're hypnotic, which might not actually be a bad thing. John leans back, props his head on his elbow, watches the clouds drift towards the mountains, tries not to think of anything at all.

He remembers ... he remembers the sudden sharp smell of cinnamon and electricity overlaying her perfume; the way every hair on his body prickled erect; a weird red fuzziness in the corners of the room --

What room?

"Fuck," snarls John, because the memory's gone as soon as he tries to examine it.

Okay, there was a woman, because he remembers her perfume and her smile. Green eyes. (He smirks to himself, because even without remembering it he's positive Rodney was scowling at him.) She was ... he was following her, somewhere, and then cinnamon electricity red then something red, noise like an idling engine something happened --

The adrenaline's subsiding now, and he knows he'll ache worse than ever if he doesn't do something, get moving, fight or flee or fuck.

For no reason he thinks of Rodney, Rodney's voice right in his ear, close enough for his breath to tickle John's skin if he'd actually been there and not a figment of ...

It's not for no reason. Lately (hell, how long's it been?) it's been Rodney in his head when he's jerking off. John's tried not to think about why, or why not, or whether ... It's what works for him: Rodney's broad shoulders, his quick capable hands, the way his mouth --

John shoves his hand down his pants, and it's a jolt to discover that he's not at all hard, because he's plenty hot in his head. There's some sort of disconnect between the familiar happy fantasy of Rodney in his mind's eye, bearing John back against the door of John's quarters / shoving John down onto Rodney's messy bed / hauling John against him in the jumper bay when everyone's headed off to debrief / getting handsy that time when they had to bunk down together on P2R-231 --

Not working.

John's sex life hasn't been anything to write home about since he got to Atlantis, but he's an all-American boy and he's got plenty of material in his head. He pulls out the time he kissed Teyla in the gym -- never mind the bug stuff, it'd been hot, though he fixes the memory just enough so she's grinning, wanting, responding. Nah? How about wrestling with Ronon, the uncomfortable shock of realising he was getting hard, but instead of calling a rain check he'd carry on, make Ronon work for it, put up enough of a defence that when Ronon pinned him on the mat --

"Fuck," says John again, because even if Ronon was talking crap in the front seat of John's red Camaro (a car he's never actually owned, even if the seat was moulded to the shape of his ass, the mirrors angled just right, the back seat full of tapes and running gear and sports magazines) there's one bit of John that's dead as a doornail and that's his dick.

* * *

If anyone can get him out of here it's Rodney McKay. John's never told Rodney about how it all panned out, in that future Atlantis in the desert: he's never told Rodney how in that other timeline, Rodney McKay had given up on any chance of a Nobel and devoted his life, his brain, his potential to getting John back.

Some nights he'd hardly slept for thinking about that. Thinking how much he must've meant to that other Rodney. Wondering what that other Rodney thought of him, John, those long nights working on the hologram and the flare predictor and whatever the fuck else. What'd that Rodney been thinking? Did he resent John?

John remembers showering for hours after he got back that time, swirls of red sand spiralling down Atlantis' drain into the ocean. The sand had gotten everywhere, worse than Afghanistan. He'd kept thinking there couldn't be a single grain left in the folds of his skin, the curls of his ears, the sponge of his lungs: then he'd turn, or run a hand through his hair, and the water would run red again, swirling away into the blue. John had wished he could swim in the cold blue sea too. Instead, he took long showers -- not as hot as usual -- to wash the last of the red sand away.

And the whole time he'd been thinking of Rodney, wondering if there was more to Rodney's sacrifices -- Nobels, dignity, life, a lifetime -- than just thinking John was some kind of a saviour.

The hell he is.

If he wants out of here (which, yeah) then Rodney's his man.

* * *

Next time he wakes up (the light hasn't changed, the clouds are no faster) Teyla's there again, across the river, crying.

"Teyla," says John, and his voice is still rough. "Have you ... can you toss me your canteen?" He can see it at her belt, and he's suddenly more thirsty than ever.

"You must not drink of the river, John," says Teyla, her soft voice carrying clearly above the river-rush.

"Yeah," says John. "Your canteen: can I have it? You can get more, right?"

Teyla unhooks the canteen from her belt, her eyes never leaving him: throws it, underarm, and it hits the stones at his feet. When he scoops it up it's so light in his hand he thinks it must be empty, but he unscrews the cap, and there's water, and it's hard to ration himself to a single mouthful.

"Thanks," he says. His throat still hurts.

Teyla says nothing.

"Teyla ... Ronon said I was dead." He makes it light, puts a laugh into his voice, because -- no way.

Teyla doesn't laugh. She bows her head solemnly.

"If I'm dead," says John harshly, "how come I'm talking to you?"

"All are given the opportunity to finish their stories," says Teyla, which is just about the level of mumbo-jumbo he'd expected.

"Am I dead? Did you see me die? 'Cause I don't remember anything."

"John," says Teyla, and sighs. He loves Teyla, really he does, but there are times when he wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.

"Am I dead?" he yells. There should be an echo, from the rocks, from the mountains, from the air: there's no echo. His words fall into the silence.

"This place," Teyla gestures, "is not ... not real."

"What, like the mist planet?"

Teyla shakes her head. "No. It is ... the Ancestors made this place. There is a word for it."

"Hell," says John, and he doesn't know if he's swearing or stating a fact.

"No," says Teyla firmly. "Hell is where the wicked are sent, is it not? And you are not a wicked man, John Sheppard."

Maybe there's a little glow, a little warmth of affirmation somewhere down below his collarbone. Maybe it's just what he wants to be feeling.

"They call it a place of departing," says Teyla. She steps forward deliberately, left foot, right foot, left foot, until the dark river is lapping at her boots.

"Come on!" John urges her, because this hell, this place of departing, won't be nearly so hellish if he's not alone.

Teyla shakes her head. "I cannot follow you," she says. "You must leave me, leave all of us, behind."

"I don't leave people behind," says John, because it's true and because he's a stubborn bastard.

"Then we will leave you behind," says Teyla, and her face is suddenly cruel, suddenly not Teyla at all.

He doesn't know how long he stands there on the white pebble beach, staring at her, before he realises that she's not there any more.

* * *

Last time he went ... that way. Downriver. Now he turns upstream, jogging steadily, glad of the way the physical process drives everything else away. The mountains loom at his right, oddly sharp and dimensionless like stage scenery. He wonders what'd happen if he went towards them. No hurry. Looks like he'll be here a while, until Rodney gets him out.

His compass is still spinning crazily (maybe this place just doesn't have poles): his watch is still stuck at 16:16: he stops every couple of miles or so to swig a scant mouthful of water from Teyla's canteen, though it's never enough to leave him less thirsty: it might have taken him half as long, or twice as long, to come back to his starting-point, the place where he stood and talked to Teyla, the place he slept, the place he woke up.

The desert's starting to dry him out. His skin's papery, inelastic: he can't piss. His eyes itch, though the sand's not as fine as Afghanistan's. The cranberry cereal bar tastes of apple pie: no, just cinnamon. At least the running's tired him out. At least ... he thinks it has.

Sleep comes pretty quickly, anyway.

They're in the red Camaro again, rolling on through the night. Johnny Cash is singing about a whirlwind in a thorn tree, and there are thorn trees by the roadside, sharp against the starry midnight sky. Ronon's sitting next to him (of course Ronon's riding shotgun: of course he can't drive a stick-shift), every limb relaxed.

"Okay, let's say I'm dead," John tries after twenty miles or so. "How come you and me are headin' on down the road?"

"It's just a way to say goodbye," says Ronon, and the flick of his gaze is as sharp and bright as his grin. "Don't knock it."

"So that's it?" says John. "Goodbye, great knowing you -- thanks for saving my ass that time -- have a good life? That's it?"

Ronon shrugs. "Never heard any different," he says.

"Enough," says John. "I wanna talk to Rodney."

* * *

"McKay?" he says to the empty air, because it worked last time.

This time there's no answer. John fights down panic and a little nausea. Takes another swig from Teyla's scarily light canteen, though it doesn't loosen his throat. "McKay?" he yells.

"Okay, yes." Rodney's voice is right next to his ear, just the way it's always been in the field when they're wearing their radios. (John's radio is still a tangled mess on the beach in front of him.) "Sheppard?"

"Yeah, McKay: who else did you think it'd be?" Rodney sounds stressed out, so John makes sure to inject an extra dose of calm in his voice, though sure as hell he doesn't have much to spare. "You ready to get me out of here?"

"Not ... not as such," says McKay, and John knows that tone, can hear the stammer that isn't there, heard it at Doranda and with Fran. "I've got nothing."

"C'mon, McKay! I'm not going to last for ever in here: I want out."

"Do you even know where you are?" snaps McKay. The snap is good: he works better when he's angry.

"Teyla said it was the place of departing," drawls John, just so Rodney can shoot him down.

There's a long silence.

"McKay? You're starting to freak me out, buddy."

"You ... you talked to Teyla?"

"She dropped by," says John. "So did Ronon. You, I just get to listen to while --"

"Busy!" snaps Rodney, and for a moment it's okay, okay that he's lost, okay that Rodney hasn't shown up to say ... Then Rodney's talking again, and he sounds miserable, which notches into John's sudden bitterness the way they always notch together. "Sorry. Sorry. Sheppard ... we're out of time."

"What the hell? I've been here days." John glances down at his watch: it's 16:16. "How much longer do you need?"

"You've been ... you've been there, wherever 'there' is, for less than an hour," says Rodney McKay. "Thanks for confirming that your subjective time's running slower, by the way: Zelenka's been trying to convince me you're not aware of time passing."

"Zelenka's there?"

"No, but we have these things called radios, remember them?"

"Wanna tell me where you think I am, Rodney?" says John. He's starting to think he doesn't want to know, but ignorance isn't necessarily bliss.

"You ... well. You're. You're dying," says McKay. "Actually, you're technically already dead." His voice slurs on the last word, and he fakes a cough to cover it. John can practically see his expression -- imagining, remembering? -- and he feels kind of sorry for Rodney. Never mind everything that never (almost) happened, never mind that John's here and Rodney's ... not. If Rodney thinks he's dead, that's got to suck.

"Don't feel dead," he clarifies, when the silence stretches out. "How come I'm talking to you if I'm dead?"

"I. I don't know." McKay sounds annoyed now, which is better than choked up. "It's ... kind of weird in here," confides McKay. "All the lights are red, and I keep getting shocks off everything. And it stinks of ... of Altoids."

John can taste cinnamon again, sharp and dry. "Thought you were going to say roast meat," he says, and it doesn't come out nearly as funny as he meant it.

"Keller's here," says McKay abruptly. "She just confirmed ... Huh."

"What?!" snarls John, way past polite. "I'm --"

"Remember the Ascension machine we found?" says Rodney. "The one that nearly killed me?"

"Yeah," says John, suddenly ... maybe it's hope that's twisting in his gut.

"Well, this isn't like that."

"Riiiight." John rolls his eyes. "Anything else it's not like? 'Cause I got to tell you, Rodney, this is not like a good time. Not from here." Fuck, his throat's dry again. The air burns and stings.

"Whatever that thing was -- and the Berithi haven't got a clue, can't decide if it's a trap or a weapon or a, a, Christmas tree -- it zapped you as soon as you walked in. I mean, we don't know if you're supposed to Ascend or what. Maybe it's just ... maybe it's just a weapon. Maybe it's coincidence that what's happening in your brain looks kind of like what happened to me when I almost Ascended."

"So ... what are you saying? Where am I? What's the prognosis?"

"You're -- that is, your body's here, and Keller says we're doing everything we can, but it's not enough."

Just for a moment John relishes the anguish in Rodney McKay's voice. "My body?" he says.

"Well, it's not your body I'm talking to," snaps McKay. "But your body, by which I mean this hunk of meat you seem to have abandoned, isn't doing so well. Synaptic activity up to 93%."

"What's the cut-off? 96?"

"And your EEG's right down," McKay barrels on, not answering John's question, which actually wasn't a question at all. "You're pretty much comatose -- at least your body is -- and in other circumstances I'd make a joke about how that's typical Sheppard, too laid back to give a -- but. But not now."

"Fuck," says John. "Can't you, can't you do the thing with the DNA? That we did when you --"

"If your DNA was mutating, that'd work," says McKay. Someone's shouting at him, but John can't make out the words: just the noise, like distant surf, like distant thunder. "This device is different. We don't know how it's doing it."

"How come I don't get the superpowers?" John can't even think, let alone think at the speed of light like McKay did when he was Ascending. Can't zone out the way he sometimes nearly did (almost, almost) all those slow afternoons meditating in the Cloister. He stares up at the silent slide of fluffy white clouds, and suddenly he's shouting -- at Rodney, at the river, at anyone who can hear him. "I wanna fly! I want out of here! Dammit! There's stuff I want to do!"

There's still no echo.

"Sheppard, I'm sorry," murmurs Rodney, and it sounds like he's right next to John, just behind John's shoulder: sounds like he's alone with John, just the two of them in this wide and desolate place. "I'm so sorry."

"You and me both, buddy," says John. His stomach aches. He wants to curl around himself. He wants to see Rodney, not just hear his voice. He wants to hit something. He wants to go out fighting. He wants his rage to rescue him. Instead ...

"What do I do now?" he asks Rodney.

"How the hell should I know?" More shouting. Doesn't matter. Rodney's indignation is comfortable, familiar, safe. "What do you want me to say? Go towards the light? Clear blue skies? You're the one with the thing about Ascended women: didn't Chaya, didn't what's-her-name, tell you the rules? Or didn't you waste time talking?"

"I don't want to be left. I don't want to go." Fuck, he sounds like a scared kid.

"I -- John, I --"

Rodney's voice stretches out like a snagged tape. "Rodney!" John yells.

Nothing comes back. Nothing at all.

John's too dehydrated for his vision to blur the way it does: but when he looks up at last, up through the clear twilight air, the clouds are clearing.

* * *

He's dreaming again. Or maybe he simply is in the Camaro, driving through the night towards the rising -- setting? -- moon. Could be headed east, could be headed west. His compass is on the seat beside him, with the LSD and his Beretta and the snarl of wire and metal that used to be a radio. The compass needle is still spinning wildly. He doesn't have a passenger any more.

John reaches out and turns up the music. Johnny Cash again, and now he's singing "Solitary Man". Which. Yeah. Doesn't matter who's left who, who's leaving. Doesn't matter if he's gone ahead or been left behind. This trip's solo, and he's not that scared kid any more. Nobody to hurry him along except himself. Nobody to stop him turning back.

Pedal to the metal. If he gets there before the light fades, he'll make it through.

-end-