Sheppard and Ronon had been to enough planets that the Wraith had culled to be used to the emptiness, the feeling of lives taken brutally. Sheppard had stood on the fields of Gettysburg; the feeling was the same. Unquiet ghosts. He could almost hear their voices whispering through the dank leaves. He tapped his mike. "Ronon, let's get out of here."
"I found something."
"Great. I'm coming to you."
Ronon knew the scent of blood; the rich coppery tang, the faint hint of corruption, the cloying thickness in his throat that made him gag. Something, or somebody, had died here recently. The air was still and moist. Condensation dripped from the broad branches of the trees overhead. He bent and looked at the leaves underfoot. He brushed some of them aside, and as he reached to touch the damp soil beneath his fingers, a drop fell on the back of his hand. He stared, then snatched his hand away. It wasn't condensation. It was more blood.
He stood and looked up; saw ropey strings hung from a branch. He forced his eyes to see what his brain had been denying. A disemboweled body had been tied to the trunk of a tree. He growled deep in is throat, a primal sound of anger. He couldn't climb the tree to take the body down. The boughs were too thin to support his weight. He climbed as far as he dared, then aimed his gun at the ropes. He hoped he wouldn't blast the tree to shreds. He should have waited for Sheppard, but he wanted to get that body down.
He fired, the ropes parted and the body fell to the ground. Ronon dropped down to his knees. He had seen much violence in his life, more death than any one man should have to witness, but this senseless savagery went beyond even the capacity of the Wraith. They at least, had the excuse of a bodily need. If not the Wraith, then who ... or what?
This body was saturated in blood. The skin flayed from the face, hanging in strips like ribbons from the torso. Ronon didn't know of any animal that preyed like that other than man. The body was fresh with only a faint corruption, but if Ronon hadn't seen so much death, hadn't been a killer himself, he would have been vomiting his soul out. As it was, he felt sick and angry. His first instinct was to howl in rage at such a waste of life. His second was to hunt.
He was still, watching, his eyes scanning for a blood trail, for a disturbance in the leaves around him that would indicate how the body had come to be there. There was a tiny glint of gold showing beneath the leaves. Ronon carefully, brushed the leaf aside. A gold ring set with a pale green gem, unsullied by blood. It hadn't fallen from the body. It was too big to fit a woman's hand -- therefore, a man's ring. The murderer's? He tucked it into the pouch at his belt. Perhaps it could be used to identify either the victim or the killer.
A few paces beyond that, a bit of fabric fluttered in the faint breeze. It was finely woven, felt like silk, but with an odd sheen to it. Ronon held it to his nose. Not perfume, but some sort of oil. Men who wore armor, and who could afford it, wore shirts like this against their skin. He was beginning to feel as if he was being lured along a trail, and he didn't know why.
There was a sudden crack of a twig and Ronon pulled his gun, swung in a circle. There was nothing he could see, but he felt something or somebody was near. A twig cracked. He dropped to the ground. Something caught the corner of his eyes; a shadow moving fast. Even as he rolled to fire at the source, the shadow moved. Ronon felt a stabbing pain behind his shoulder blade, so sharp and sudden that it stole his breath. His arm went numb. His gun had spun out of his hand when he fell, and he couldn't move his arm. He couldn't draw a knife. He tried to raise his head to see his enemy. Pain through every part of his body as the shadow enveloped him. Then darkness and nothing.
Sheppard heard Ronon's cry and he ran through the woods, dodging branches. He stumbled over roots, felt a sharp jolt of pain in his ankle and kept going. He skidded on leaves and stopped, hanging on to the trunk of a sapling. At his feet was a horror of flesh and blood. "Ronon!"
He thought he heard a sound behind him, but before he could turn, he was attacked. He held on to consciousness long enough to see a dark shape looming over him; a shadow that was cold and evil. Then he lost consciousness.
Sheppard groaned and struggled to sit. He was in darkness. No weapons. Nothing. His ankle throbbed, swollen inside his boot. He unlaced it and tried moving his ankle. It moved, it wasn't broken but this was more than a simple strain. His head hurt. He touched it gingerly and winced when his fingers found the knot at the back of his skull. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, he noticed a faint phosphorescence on the walls. He wondered if they were radioactive. Great. Just what he needed. "Ronon!" he called out and the echo of his voice was the only answer.
He clung to the walls and inched himself upright. His head spun and he bent double, retching with nausea. Concussion? It sure felt like it. He remembered the dark figure and being clubbed unconscious. No Wraith, that. He'd been stunned often enough to know that feeling. He sank back to the floor and tried to think. He touched his arm. His subcutaneous transmitter was still intact, but he didn't know if it was able to be tracked. He had no food, just the water he carried in his canteen. His weapons were gone, even his K-bar. He still wore his tac vest. He pulled out one of his pressure bandages and wrapped it as tightly as he could around his ankle for support. He tore a packet of ibuprofen open with his teeth and forced three down with as little water as he could. He tightened the cap and secured it to his belt.
Okay. Time to move.
Ronon opened his eyes. Was he blind? He touched his eyes. They seemed undamaged but the darkness around him was so profound that he couldn't even see his hand moving in front of his face. The air was foul and cold. Water seeped down the wall at his back. He shivered and tasted it, spitting it out. It was bitter with minerals and slimy with moss. He sat up, biting back a cry of pain as the wound on his back tore open. It felt like there was something embedded in the wound. He reached back. A piece of wood like the prong of an antler was embedded just behind his shoulder blade. He gasped at the pain just touching the wood caused. He tore off a piece of his tunic sleeve and wrapped his hand to give his fingers better purchase. Shaking, he grabbed the wood and pulled it out. He screamed and tipped sideways to the ground.
His blood was warm, everything else was cold and dank. He curled against the pain. The scent of his own blood made him sick. He shook with chills as he continued to bleed. Sheppard would come, he thought. Sheppard would find him. It was his last thought before he faded.
Sheppard stumbled along what seemed to be an endless tunnel. The walls were wet and slimy, but they didn't feel as if they had been cut by man. They were too smooth, ridged but not rough. At times, the darkness was nearly complete, at times the phosphorescence illuminated the walls with a sickly light. He was still disoriented; unable to tell if he was going forward, or just wandering in an endless circle. His ankle was swelling again and he thought he felt the bones grating, as if a hairline fracture had ruptured. The ibuprofen he had taken was like spitting on a forest fire. He had morphine, but he didn't want to dull any of his other senses. He paused, leaned against the wall to give his ankle a rest and took a sip of water. Big mistake. He started sliding sideways, and was only stopped from hitting the ground by the sound of a harsh cry that seemed to rise from the tunnels. Ronon! He forced himself away from the wall. Right now, he'd give his right hand for a cane.
"Ronon!" he called out. His voice was fading; thirst and pain were taking their toll. Ronon couldn't have been that far from him. He just had to make some noise, but John heard nothing but silence. Why had he cried out? Was he still alive?
He had to keep going. The farther he went, the darker it became, the moss barely giving out enough illumination to guide him. The ground beneath his feet seemed to be sloping downwards, drawing him deeper. Perhaps that was why the light was failing. He stumbled and fell to his knees. He had tripped over something ... he reached for it. Ancient links of cold, rusty iron rattled against the stone. His explored forward cautiously. A pit yawned before him. The air was fetid and smelled like acid and blood and decay. "Ronon?" His voice echoed.
Nothing. Not even a whisper. He explored the edges of the pit. It stretched across the corridor leaving no room for passage. There was only one way to go. Down. How far down? He found a loose link and dropped it down into the darkness. It was only a second or two until he heard it hit bottom. Not too far... he hoped. He took the rusted chain in his hands and pulled on it as hard as he could. It held. He maneuvered himself into position, grasped the chain and eased his body over the edge to hang full-length. He started hand over hand down the chain, feeling with the toes of his boots for the bottom.
The chain gave way with a sound like breaking bones. John instinctively went limp, boneless, trying to protect his damaged ankle. He was only partially successful. He landed on his good ankle but twisted the bad one when he dropped to the floor of the chamber. He lay there, winded and trying not to cry like a little girl. His stomach lurched; pain, ibuprofen, and hunger battling for supremacy. He reached out a hand. Felt the toe of a boot, a long leg. Ronon. John was too relieved to be aware of his stillness. He crawled up against Ronon's body and collapsed in utter exhaustion and relief.
"Sheppard ... Sheppard ..."
The whisper roused him. "Ronon?"
Sheppard didn't move, waiting for his sense to sharpen. He was curled up on Ronon's chest, his heart thudding beneath John's hand. His skin felt like it was on fire. "You all right, buddy?"
"Not so good. You?"
"Bad ankle. Screwed up head. What about you?"
"Feels like I have a tree trunk stuck behind my shoulder. It's bleeding."
John cautiously raised himself from Ronon's body. "What the hell happened out there?"
"Let me see your back."
"Can't see anything."
"It was a matter of speaking," Sheppard huffed in annoyance. "I'll be gentle."
"That's what you always say." He shifted under John's hands, his breath catching in his throat.
John was gentle, his hands ghosting over Ronon's back. "Jesus, you've lost a lot of blood." Ronon's tunic was stiff with dried blood, and still seeping something from the wound. "This is bad," he said.
Ronon grunted, leaned forward. He knew. He could feel his strength draining away. "You got food?"
John shook his head, then realized that Ronon couldn't see it. "No. Sorry, buddy. I have some meds and water, and a pressure bandage. Let me take care of you."
"Will they come?" Ronon asked.
"Sure. You know we don't leave our people behind. Here, take these." He hoped the pills were ibuprofen. Felt like it. He carefully wrapped the bandage around Ronon's body, feeling the shudders of suppressed pain beneath his palms. "Better?"
"No." He relaxed against the padding of John's jacket. "Thanks."
John settled next to Ronon. He was cold without his jacket and Ronon's feverish warmth felt good. "Try to get some rest."
"No." He took a breath. "Did you see it? The body?"
John had been trying not to think of it. "I saw it. What kind of wild animals are on this planet?"
"It wasn't an animal."
John was silent for a moment. "Thanks for that. Just what I need. More nightmares."
"How'd we get here?" Ronon asked. "Didn't walk here by ourselves." He drew a breath, shifted. "Can you feel it?"
"Something's here. It doesn't smell right."
"We're underground," Sheppard said. "And you're bleeding. That's what I smell."
"It's not my blood," Ronon said. "I know the smell of fresh human blood. This is old, corrupt. There is something feeding out there."
"Gee, thanks for that." Sheppard rotated his ankle and winced. "We should get out of here. There has to be a way out."
"You think I haven't tried? There's nowhere. Just this hole and the one above."
"You could have humored me," Sheppard grumbled. Right now, he didn't want to think about how they'd get out of here. He was fading and despite his throbbing ankle, his headache and that unsettled feeling that Ronon's words had awakened, he had to rest. His head drooped on his chest. He felt Ronon reach around him, pull him closer so his head was cushioned on Ronon's broad chest. "Wake me up," he murmured.
Ronon, fevered and hurting, wouldn't sleep. Every inch of his skin was crawling with nerves and dread. He was used to being hunted, but not by an evil he couldn't fight.
Part Two: Leave No Man Behind
Leave No Man Behind>
Evan Lorne felt sick as he stood in front of Sam Carter's desk. He hated what he was going to say, hated that they might have to face a possibility that none of them could ever be prepared to accept. He steeled himself.
"Ma'am, we searched the area around the gate. There was no sign of Colonel Sheppard or Ronon. There was the blood, but Dr. Keller's tests showed it wasn't theirs. We scanned the surface and there was nothing. No life signs, no signals from their transmitters. If they were on that planet, they've either vanished into thin air or ... We may have to take this to the next level from search and rescue to recovery." The words were thick in his throat, but as a soldier, he had to say them to his commander.
"Do you really think they're dead?" Sam tried to keep her professional mask in place, but she had known Lorne for a while at SGC and it was hard to say those words to him as a commander, as a friend, it was nearly unbearable.
"No, ma'am. I'm not ready to give up. If nothing else, Colonel Sheppard says we don't leave our people behind."
"Put your team together."
"It's done, ma'am. I'm taking Teyla, McKay, Stackhouse and his marines."
"Good luck, Major."
They would need it, he thought.
Teyla and Lorne walked through the town, unrecognized. Both wore clothing such as the citizens wore; Teyla, a woven skirt and loose blouse that covered her pistol. She carried a staff which was almost as lethal in her hands as her 9mm. Lorne, in dark trousers, high boots and a long coat walked beside her. Like most of the men of Eris, he had a knife in a sheath at his belt, and like Teyla, his 9mm was tucked at his back. He hadn't shaved, and he looked as dangerous as a brigand. That warned off most curious looks. The scarf tied around his neck disguised his throat mike, and the knit cap he wore covered his earpiece.
"These people are afraid," Teyla whispered.
"Yeah. I noticed. I wonder why?"
"People often talk when they are full of food and drink," she inclined her head towards a building; one of the few that seemed welcoming, bright with lantern light and an open door. The aroma of meat roasting on spit wafted out.
"Let's find out." He tapped his mike, signaling McKay. "Doc, Teyla and I are going to do some reconnaissance in the village. You stay put, okay?"
"I thought we'd go wandering off."
McKay's sarcasm was grating, but Lorne was immune. "I'm just saying watch your back."
"I'm doing scans. When I find something, I'll let you know."
When, not if ... Teyla was looking at him inquisitively, one delicate brow raised. "He's running scans," he explained.
"There is nothing there."
"Not from space, but to the eye?" He shrugged. "Maybe McKay will find something." He took Teyla's elbow. "Let's go in and see if we can't find somebody who might be able to tell us something we don't know."
Once inside, Teyla noted that on Eris, women seemed to be expected to wait on their men. She put her hand on Evan's shoulder. "I will get ale."
He stretched out his legs, let his coat fall open to show his knife. Teyla returned with two tankards of ale and sat. A boy in a leather apron came to the table. "Welcome." He was scrawny and a bruise darkened the side of his face. He looked thoroughly miserable.
Lorne nodded. "You are the first Erisan to say so."
"You are not from here?"
"We are traders from New Athos. We came through the ring."
"I have never heard of your world."
"It is small. Our people are hunters and farmers."
The boy looked bored. Lorne spoke up. "I've heard there's been some trouble here."
"Trouble? You mean the killings?"
"I guess I do. Is it safe here? Our people are peaceful."
"It used to be safe until people started disappearing. There are old mining tunnels and caves where it is said evil things lurk. My father told me that there were no such things as monsters, but after Ser Rossen vanished, I believe the tales."
"What do they mine there?"
"Nothing. Not now. Used to mine some kind of ore."
"Valuable?" Lorne leaned forward as if eager to reap some sort of profit. "Where are these mines?"
"Waldris!" The bartender came over and grabbed him by the arm. "I don't pay you for talking to the customers. Serve the outworlders and get over here. People are hungry."
Lorne didn't like bullies. He rested his hand on the hilt of his knife. "He was taking our order. I could take our business elsewhere. I don't frequent establishments that abuse the help." He turned to Waldris. "We'll have some bread and meat, boy." He pressed a coin into Waldris's palm. "He spoke of some mines. What sort of mines?" Again, he let avarice color his tone.
The bartender looked disgusted. "You shouldn't listen to tales told by ignorant servants. The mines have been played out and abandoned for many years. The tunnels were sealed. There is nothing there. Leave my servants to do their jobs, not entertain you with nonsense." He walked away.
"They are all afraid," Teyla said. "Even the innkeeper. I fear we will find no one to show us where the mines are. If something or someone has taken them we must find out their location."
"I don't know how --" He fell silent as Waldris returned with their food. Lorne lifted the cloth over the bread. "But I think I just found out." He showed the cloth to Teyla. A crude map was drawn in charcoal. "Let's get back to the jumper."
It was the heat of Ronon's fever that woke John; his dry and burning skin under his hand and a harsh cough that made John sit bolt upright. Ronon was awake and despite the heat of his body he shook with a chill. His muscles were tense. "You should get out of here," he said. "Now."
"Something is hunting us."
John sat up and pressed his canteen into Ronon's hand. He pressed the last two ibuprofen into his hand. "Take these."
Ronon rasped. "You need water, too."
"Just drink the damn water. I'm good. By the way, I'm not leaving without you."
"Don't be stupid."
"Listen, Chewie. Whatever or whoever is down here is getting in and out. I'm not sitting here waiting, and neither are you." John unlaced his boots and tied the strings together. He dug through the pockets of his tac vest and came up with a length of string. He didn't remember why he was carrying it. It wasn't strong enough to support his weight. SERE training had tutored him to collect anything that might be useful in survival situations.
"I can't move my arm," Ronon said almost casually. "You have a better chance without me."
"That fever is fucking with your brain," John groused. He was grateful that the darkness kept Ronon from seeing how worried he was. "We don't leave our people behind."
"John ... you have to get out of here."
"We both will. Just let me do a reconnaissance of this place. Stay put so I don't lose you."
"Can't lose me if there's nowhere for me to go."
"Stay there so I don't trip over you and screw up my other ankle. I'm tying this to your arm." In the dark, his fingers brushed across the delicate skin of Ronon's wrist. His vambraces were gone, along with the knives he sheathed in them.
"Got it." He coughed, a loose, deep cough that only added to John's worry. What if that wound was deeper than it looked? What if it had pierced a lung? What if he was bleeding? Even pneumonia was deadly ... Stop it, John ordered himself. Just. Stop. Think. Act and get out. That was what he had been trained to do, and that's the only thing he could do.
"Atlantis will come for us," he said. He started to crawl along the walls. They were smooth and curved like the wall of a well. Too smooth to climb, so whoever was out there would have to have a way in. Dropping down would leave them vulnerable, it didn't make sense. There had to be another point of egress. "You okay there, buddy?" he asked.
His answer was another cough. "Been better."
"Just hang there. Think about Atlantis. Think about Lorne and Teyla coming to get us."
"Rodney will figure out where we are."
John's progress along the wall was brought up short by a large fissure in the wall that extended to the floor. His fingers traveled up the crevice and there was a faint sense of cooler air against his cheek. He extended his hand and scraped his knuckles against a boulder or outcropping. Was that the way out? He put his shoulder against it and shoved. The boulder rocked slightly. John braced himself and tried to use the strength in his legs. Bad idea. Pain tore through his injured ankle and he dropped to his knees, swearing.
"I think I found the way out, but I can't push this damn Rock of Gibraltar aside," John gasped. He felt the string tighten as Ronon moved. "Stay still!"
"Why? So you can die down here?"
"So you don't die down here ..."
He heard the soft brush of Ronon's boots against stone. Even in the darkness, he felt him close the distance until his fingers touched John's collarbone. He didn't speak. His finger just skimmed the line of the bone. John's heart stuttered but he didn't move.
"I'm not gonna die before this ..." His lips touched John's, rough with fever, but still soft; surprising John into a response because this felt so right, as if it was the next natural progression in their relationship ... as if he had been waiting for this his entire life.
Ronon broke the kiss, traced John's mouth with his thumb. "Don't kill me."
"Not for that, but if you die on me, I'll never forgive you." He felt Ronon brace himself with his good shoulder to the rock's surface. "Okay. Ready ...go!"
He heard Ronon grunt with the effort. This time, John used his good leg as a fulcrum for his own shove ... and the rock moved. Not far, but enough for them to get through. Ronon collapsed to the floor, nearly weeping with pain and fatigue. John crawled over to him and wrapped his body around Ronon's. He shivered in John's arms, and he felt fresh blood on Ronon's tunic. "I'm sorry," he whispered, but there was no response.
He forced himself upright. They were out of one chamber and into another. The air was less stagnant, but also colder. He realized with shock, that there was a faint gray light coming from far above him. This was apparently a mine shaft open to the surface. He took off his jacket and covered Ronon. As his vision cleared, he got up to explore. The floor was littered with debris. Leaves, twigs, small stones. He picked up one of the stones. It felt oddly shaped, and not as cold as stone should be. He rolled it in his fingers; then stopped and dropped it. Not stone. It was the phalange of a finger. A human finger. Crap!
He must have made a sound because Ronon stirred. "What ... where...?" He coughed, swore. Sheppard crossed over to him. "We gotta get out of here. You were right, we're not alone."
Ronon grabbed his arm, made a quick hush. "I smell something."
"I really didn't need to hear that ..." John closed his eyes. His sense of smell wasn't as sensitive as Ronon's, but he caught a whiff of something ... corruption, moist and foul. Old blood and new. "This is bad."
The smell grew worse. "It's coming ..." Ronon rasped.
There was always a Plan B for John. This time he didn't even have a Plan A. There was a light, sickly and green seeping in from the chamber they had just left. John grabbed Ronon, dragged him to his feet. "Close that gap!" He and Ronon, both weak, both injured, exhausted and dehydrated, put their backs to the boulder and shoved it back. Adrenaline gave them both enough strength to move it. It rocked back into its original position, sealing them off.
Sheppard heard what sounded like a hiss of rage; not quite human, not quiet animal. The boulder rocked but he and Ronon stood strong. Finally, whatever was on the other side gave up. Pressure eased and the odor of corruption faded.
"What the hell was that thing?" Ronon asked as he sank to the ground.
"I don't know ... I don't want to know." John sank down next to him. He looked upwards. The light was fading. "It must be close to nightfall," he said. "You should rest."
"You got any more of those pills?"
"One for me, one for you. Deal?" He dug them out. "Problem is, the water is just about gone."
"Give me the pill. Don't need water."
"One swallow for you. One for me." He heard the crunch of the pill, then Ronon gagging a bit at the bitterness as he took a swallow from the canteen John pressed into his hand. John did the same.
Ronon put his good arm around John's shoulder. Despite himself, John curled into his warmth. Fever or not, the comfort of human warmth was all he had left. Ronon's head tilted until it rested on John's. He sighed, and John felt the rattle in his chest. That wasn't good. That his coughing had eased just meant that he didn't have the strength to try to expel the phlegm.
When John was in his twenties, he'd had pneumonia. He remembered what the struggle to breathe felt like, the weakness that had lingered for weeks. He had been young and in good health, with the aid o antibiotics and IVs. Ronon had the youth and the strength, but infection and injury were sapping that from him.
They had no food, no water, and something out there was hunting them. A creature that smelled like death, and had a taste for human flesh. It was hard to cling to his faith that the people of Atlantis would come for them. They would come ... they had to come. He sat in the darkness, waiting for the light to return.
Lorne and Teyla ran to the jumper. Lorne grabbed McKay. "We have a location! Can you boost the sensors? They're underground in a mine."
"That shouldn't matter .... unless ..." Rodney's mind was racing through all the elements that could block a signal. "What kind of mine?"
"We do not know. They have been abandoned for years." Teyla settled in the seat next to Lorne and cast a backward glance at Rodney. "We are ready, Major." The jumper took off. Lorne's touch activated the controls with nearly as much ease as Sheppard's. The mines weren't far, but on foot, the passage from the village would have been difficult. Lorne watched the display, not only for the coordinates, but for some signal from the LSDs that would indicate where Sheppard and Ronon were. Something was blocking the signal, Lorne thought. He wouldn't admit to any other possibility until he held the evidence in his hands.
"Anything?' he asked McKay.
"Nothing. It's like dead ground --" He broke off, paling a bit at the implication. "Geologically speaking, that is."
Lorne tossed him a tac vest. "We need you with us. Stackhouse, are your men ready?"
"Anything on the surface, Doc?"
"It looks clear."
"It's the best I can do. We've come across life forms that didn't register."
"Stackhouse, take point. Carefully."
They stepped out into the darkness. The first thing Lorne noticed was the lack of sound. The woods on nearly every world he had been on, apart from those culled by the Wraith, had been filled with the chirp of insects, the rustle of leaves, the scurrying of night creatures. He shivered. There was no life here.
"Major!" Stackhouse called to him. "We've got a body ... I think."
Lorne hurried over, followed by Teyla. It had been a body. "McKay, was it human?"
"It's human," McKay's voice was thick in his throat. Lorne heard him turn aside and vomit.
"The clothing is like the garments the villagers wore and there are no dog tags," Teyla said steadily. "It is not Colonel Sheppard and the bones are far too small to be Ronon's." She kicked through the leaves, bent and picked up a small pickaxe. "Perhaps the mines are not as played out as we were told."
"Major, I think I know what they were mining," McKay said. "Why we aren't picking up life signs. It's neutronium. To get any readings we have to filter out the element."
"How long?" Before McKay could answer an unearthly howl rose from the ground. "Never mind. I don't think we have time."
Stackhouse came running over. "Major, I think we found a mineshaft."
Lorne knew mines. He knew how neutronium ran in veins and the most likely entrances and exits to the shafts. He knew what they would need ... C4, ropes, harnesses, lamps, light sticks. Medical supplies. He passed that off to Stackhouse. "Meet us at the entrance. Be prepared for anything, including combat."
Time meant nothing in the darkness. John wasn't claustrophobic, but he was aware of how heavy the darkness was; a weight on the heart and mind that tore at every scab of memory. Every nightmare he'd had after his mother's death, the hours he had spent as a captive of the Taliban before being rescued after the botched mission -- his own guilt had been more of a torture than any beating he'd received in enemy hands -- his captures by the Wraith ...
Ronon's fever was burning higher despite the carefully meted out ibuprofen. He was restless, no longer still. His cough was returning; tight, dry and painful for John to hear. John didn't know of the scent of corruption was from the creature outside or from Ronon's wound. His own ankle was so swollen that he was no longer sure that he hadn't broken it in that second effort to roll the boulder back over the entrance. He knew he was getting weaker. No food for God knew how long, not enough water to satisfy an ant's thirst. He rubbed his chin, startled at the heavy stubble. Two, three days? More? They wouldn't survive if they didn't get out of here.
Where were their weapons? Right now, he'd sell his soul for a P-90 and its attached flashlight.
"Sheppard ..." Ronon's voice was weak. "Get out of here."
"Well, buddy, I would if I could ... but that's not going to happen."
"If it comes through ... give me over. Give yourself a chance." He coughed deeply and John took his face in his hands, feeling the wetness of tears.
"You aren't giving up."
"Just being ... realistic."
"Realistic never got me anywhere."
"This is real." Ronon placed John's hand over his chest where he could feel the rattle in his lungs. "Can't breathe. I'm burning up. Can't use my arm. There's no sense in both of us dying."
"How about neither one of us dying?" John clung to hope like Ronon was clinging to his wrist.
Ronon's head moved fretfully. "Why doesn't it come?"
"I don't know." John looked up at the narrow opening so far above them. "It was here during the day ... so maybe it hunts at night."
"If there's something to hunt ..."
Lorne stood near the entrance to the shaft. It was a dark maw in the earth and the vegetation around it was black with rot. It smelled like something had died there, and Lorne saw Teyla pale with nausea.
"Sir! I found this." Stackhouse ran up to him. "Ronon's gun and knives, Sheppard's P-90 and ammo, his knife.
"I guess we can rule out a wild animal," Lorne said, but there was no humor in his voice. He went down on one knee and touched the slime. "This is fresh."
"Is it blood?"
"No. Turn off your lights." The slime glowed faintly green. "It's some sort of phosphorescent mold." He stood up. "Stackhouse, with me." He tapped his radio. "McKay? Have you boosted that signal yet?"
"Working on it. Five minutes."
"Corporal Roberts will be outside the mine. The rest of us are going in." He turned to Teyla. "Be careful, that mold is slippery."
"I am fine, Major."
They went into darkness. The lights on their P-90s shone into the darkness, illuminating the smooth walls, the floor littered with debris. Stackhouse whispered, "Major Lorne, there is blood here." Lorne shone his light. Drops of blood, smears on the floor, a smudge of a boot sole, not military. "I think this is Ronon's blood," he said softly. "It looks like he was alive, though, and struggling."
Ronon, intentionally or not, had left a trail for them to follow. Lorne picked up the pace. They followed the blood trail through the tunnels until it led them to a dark turn-off. The odd, greenish glow of the mold faded, patches of stone showing where it had been scraped off. The stench of the corridor was secondary to the raw aura of menace and fear that was like a physical force.
Lorne held up a closed fist. Everybody halted and listened. Nothing. "What is it, Major?" Teyla breathed.
"Can't you feel it?"
"I feel cold. I smell death. I do not sense the presence of Wraith."
"Not Wraith. Something older, something ... " The howl came again, echoing through the tunnels, louder from in front of them, and followed by an all too human cry of pain and despair. "Colonel Sheppard!" Lorne took off.
It came in darkness and despair; a shadow to wreak death and inflict pain. Sheppard wasn't afraid of much, but he was afraid of this force, this thing. Its thick, bloody fingers found the edge of the rock that he and Ronon had spent the last of their strength moving, and it moved, scraping open a few inches. John grabbed up a loose piece of rock and pounded on those fingers with all his strength. The creature howled and snaked an arm inside to grab him by the throat. Its nails raked through skin and squeezed John's larynx. It felt like acid was eating through his skin, to muscle and bone. He tried to pry the grip loose, but his fingers could find no purchase on the flesh. It burned like acid. He screamed breathlessly, hoarsely.
Ronon dragged himself upright and launched himself at the creature. He grabbed the hand that was wrapped around John's throat and bent the fingers backwards, heedless of the scouring acid, waiting for the bones to crack and break. This time, it was the creature who screamed as knuckles were disjointed, as its phalanges shattered and pierced through the skin. Wounded, wailing, it withdrew its mangled hand and slid away from the door.
"What is that?" Ronon wheezed. He cradled his throbbing hand against his chest.
"I don't know. I don't want to know." John started to rub his throat, but Ronon stopped him. "Don't. You're hurt. Rubbing will make it worse, like rubbing a blister." He was as pale as death, barely on his feet, but he was still holding John upright.
John leaned his head on Ronon's chest. He was so weak, so weary. "We can't do this ... " he said, nearly weeping. "The next time --"
"The next time you make your break."
"There is no other choice." He tilted John's head up. "I will die fighting, as a Satedan, as your friend. I am ready."
"Well, I'm not!" He saw the truth in Ronon's eyes; the sadness and acceptance. He would do no less if their positions had been reversed. He gave a brief nod. "I'll do it. But I'll come for you, I swear it -- "
"I'll be dead."
"Then I'll bring your body back. I won't leave you here." He fisted Ronon's shirt. "Just don't make me do that. Stay alive." He leaned in, kissed Ronon hard and desperate, felt the grief-fueled desperation in return, and tasted salt and iron, blood and tears.
"Stand back," Ronon said. He stood ready while John slipped into the shadows waiting for their adversary. They heard the creature's approach. Smelled the corruption, felt the despair, heard the drag of its weight. This time, when the rock moved, they didn't.
There was an exhalation of foul breath and shadow boiled in like a demonic presence. John's heart was beating so quickly that he wondered if there had been some sort of toxin in the creature's skin. He wanted to scream at Ronon to move, to attack, but he forced himself to be still to wait ...
Ronon sprang from the darkness. He grabbed the creature, wrapped its neck in his arms and twisted. John expected to hear the crack of its bones snapping, but either Ronon had lost too much strength, or the creature's slime defeated him. It slid away, forcing Ronon back, leaving the crevice unguarded.
John dove, rolled and came up on his feet. He ran into the tunnel and flung up his hands against the blinding assault of light in his eyes. He dropped to his knees, unable to breathe, and fell to the floor, curling against the light, hiding.
"Stay with him!" Lorne ordered Teyla, and he and Stackhouse dashed into the tunnel. They heard an unearthly wail, a sound that stopped them in their tracks.
"What the fuck is that?" Stackhouse gasped.
Lorne didn't stop to comment. He ran. Somewhere in the darkness, Ronon was alone against evil, and Evan wasn't about to let him die. He followed the scent and the sound and found himself standing in a small chamber. His foot brushed against cloth; Sheppard's jacket. There was a gap in the wall and beyond the gap was death.
He burst through. "Ronon, down!" he yelled and pulled out his 9mm. He was afraid to use the P-90 in that stone chamber. The beam of his light was swallowed up by darkness. He shot, praying that Ronon wasn't in the line of fire.
The creature howled. Ronon was flung aside like a rag doll. His body hit the wall and he slid down to the floor, unconscious. Lorne dropped the 9mm and raised the P-90. He started shooting, wondering if bullets could do harm to something that wasn't quite corporeal and wasn't quite a spirit. Apparently, they could, on some level. The creature slid away, bleeding into the darkness, moving away from the chambers, away from where they had entered.
Stackhouse raced in. "Sir, are you all right?"
Lorne knelt at Ronon's side. He touched his neck, seeking a pulse. It was there; so thready that he could scarcely feel it against his fingers, but there. "We've got to get out of here." He looked up. The faint lights of stars ... Lorne had an idea. "You and the marines get back to the jumper. Fly as close to here as you can. I'll have a flare lit. Ronon and Sheppard will never make it out of here the way we came in. We'll need the backboard and harness, and we'll winch them up to the surface."
"What about you, sir?"
Lorne smiled; a hard mirthless curve of his mouth. He patted his tac vest. "C-4. I'll set it, you stand by and winch me up before I blow it. Maybe we can seal that demon inside hell."
"Yes, sir." Stackhouse was on the move, his mind already working on the plan. Lorne took out his canteen and held it to Ronon's lips, tipping it just enough to moisten his lips. "C'mon, Ronon. You aren't giving up."
Stackhouse and Teyla half-carried Sheppard into the chamber. He was barely conscious. Teyla lowered him next to Ronon. "What they have been through would have killed lesser men," she said softly. "What was that thing?"
"I don't know. It was old, evil. Hell, I'm not even sure it was alive -- as we know life." He'd leave that to the scientists. He told her the plan and then left to set the charges.
"Is he nuts?" McKay asked. "He wants us to winch Sheppard and Ronon out of a mine shaft?"
"You can do it, right?"
"It's not like I've done this before," McKay said, but his mind was already running problem scenarios. "Might work ...maybe. Okay. What are we waiting for?"
Stackhouse rolled his eyes, got in the pilot's seat and took off towards the mine shaft. True to his words, Lorne had lit a flare. The light flickered from the distance. "There!" McKay said.
"I see it, Doc." The jumper touched down and McKay and the rest of the marines hooked up the winch. "You ready for this?"
"I think I can manage the mechanics, Sergeant." He passed over the rope with a hook on the end. Stackhouse hooked it to the backboard, then ran to the shaft. He hooked his leg around the rope and gave them the thumbs-up. He was lowered down, through the smoke of the flare to the chamber.
"Good work, Sergeant," Lorne said. "Ronon first."
Ronon, then Teyla and Stackhouse. Then Sheppard with Lorne balanced on the backboard as well. As he rose, he pushed the detonator and as they broke to the surface, the explosions rocked the ground, sealing off the mine. He lugged the backboard and Sheppard into the jumper bay. "Go!" He ordered, and the jumper rose into the air as the final detonation sent a plume of smoke, dust and fire into the air.
Lorne could have sworn he heard a scream of agony and rage rising with them ... and then they were through the gate and into the silence of space.
Sheppard remembered lights like a halo. Firm, warm hands that held him up, the cool slide of water down his throat. A gentle touch on his hair, soothing salve on his neck and hands, the softness of gauze wrapping his wounds. He remembered a woman's voice telling him that he would be all right ... that everything was all right and they were taking him home. Her tears fell like rain, and he wondered why she wept.
He remembered feeling as if he were flying cradled in the arms of an angel, rising and spinning slowly with the clasp of a strong hand on his shoulder. Then he remembered nothing ...
Lorne stood in the observation room looking down on the infirmary. Two gurneys, two medical teams working on Sheppard and Ronon. Their quiet intensity and rapid movements told Lorne all he needed to know. He leaned forward. His head hung low, his shoulders slumped.
"Major, I've read your report, and McKay's. That was good work down there." Sam Carter's voice was soft, her hand on his shoulder was meant to be comforting, but there was too much turmoil in his heart and mind to acknowledge it.
"Was it enough, though? If either of them ... I keep going over it in my head, and I still don't know if I did the right things, made the right decisions."
"Everybody who is in command has to make calls like that. I've had to do it, so has Colonel Sheppard and even Ronon, in his way. But you make the decision and you move on because there are no do-overs in these situations."
"Ma'am, with all due respect, I need to know I did the right thing."
"You don't always know, you just have to trust your instincts. For the record, I think your instincts were good. You brought them back. That is all you could have done."
Lorne couldn't argue any more. He sank down on a chair to wait. Atlantis seemed to know when to dim the lights. Lorne felt as if the city were reaching out to comfort him. He hoped Sheppard felt the same ease.
Sounds came to John first. Whispers, the beep of medical equipment, the rustle of fabric. He didn't remember why he was in the infirmary, but he had flashbacks of a really vivid nightmare. Or had it been a nightmare? He lifted a hand and opened his eyes. His hand was swatched in gauze. He had a headache, vision slightly blurred ... concussion? His ankle was encased in a cast. Memory came back like a shattered mirror, piece by piece until the picture was formed, fractured and distorted, but one thing remained.
"Ronon!" His voice was a cracked whisper, enough to make Marie come to his side, tell him to be still, and page Dr. Keller. He held on to her wrist. "Where's Ronon?"
"He's in intensive care, but he's alive."
John struggled to sit up. "I want to see him."
"I don't think so." Jennifer Keller came in. "He's stable, but I had to sedate him. You're hooked up to about six IVs, and you tore just about every ligament in your ankle. You need to rest."
"You don't remember?"
"Yeah, I remember ... up to the point I don't."
"And what would that be?"
"I remember fighting with that thing. I remember Ronon ..." His throat closed. "He's alive, promise me?"
"He's alive. He's strong, and you need to rest. Marie will take out some of the IVs in a few hours. You're going to be off your feet for at least a week before you even think about crutches."
"Crap." He sighed, settled, and went back to sleep despite himself. The next time he woke up, all but one IV had been removed. He found the button to lift the bed and raised it up. He felt ... aside from the dull throb in his ankle and a slight lingering headache ... he felt pretty good. He pushed the call button and Keller looked in. "Hi, there. Feeling better?"
"Feeling hungry and uncomfortable."
"I think we can take care of both of those problems." She sent in a nurse to help with one, and ordered a light meal from the mess for the other. When she came back, carrying the tray herself, John asked. "How's Ronon?"
"He's waking up. He's still in ICU, but once his fever drops, I'll move him closer to you. He opened his eyes and asked about you. He's something else." She smiled and adjusted the last IV. How's the ankle?"
"It hurts, but it's bearable." He fell silent. "Thank you."
"I'm just doing my job like everybody else." She checked his temperature, looked in his eyes, and listened to his heart. "Congratulations, Colonel. I think you'll live."
"That's something." John said, and grimaced at the soup and jello. He knew better than to complain. He ate, pushed the try aside and lay back, trying to make sense of what had happened.
Everything was blurred in his mind, like an out of focus movie. He couldn't describe the creature, he didn't know why they had been left in darkness to rot, he didn't know how they had been rescued. The one thing he remembered with perfect clarity was the touch of Ronon's lips on his.
He wondered if Ronon remembered. He pushed the call button and Keller appeared. "I want to see Ronon. Now."
She started to argue, then stopped at the look on his face. "All right. I'll get a wheelchair."
It all took too long and caused him no small amount of discomfort, but he'd been through worse, easily. The reward was being left alone for a new minutes with Ronon. He moved the chair close to the bedside, took Ronon's hand in his. He didn't particularly care what anybody saw. They could make of it what they would.
Ronon looked better than John had expected. Thinner, the line of his cheekbones was sharper and sculpted, the hollows of his eyes dark and bruised. His hands were heavily wrapped in gauze, but his fingers were warm, not hot, and his breath came and went easily.
"Hey, buddy," John said. He felt awkward, unsure about what else to say.
"Hey," Ronon whispered. His eyes opened. "Guess we're still alive."
"I didn't think we'd make it."
"That's two of us."
Ronon lifted his hand, touched John's face gently."I thought I was dead."
"Yeah ... I know." John brushed his lips across Ronon's finger tips.
And that was all they said, in that quiet room, in the quiet night.
Hold You In My Arms by Ray LaMontaigne
Three weeks later ...
Hobbling around in a walking cast was exhausting, John decided. At least he was out of it, now. He set his crutches on the floor by his chair and eased down. He had a stack of papers to go through -- and since Lorne was taking on the active duty assignments -- it had seemed only fair that he do it. It wasn't as if he had other things on his agenda.
Ronon was on the mainland with Teyla and the Athosians. He had left the city two days after being released from the infirmary. He said he'd heal better there, but John wondered if Ronon wasn't running from Antlantis ... from him. Or maybe Ronon just slept better there ... to escape from his nightmares as John couldn't escape his.
Sleep wasn't on John's agenda. It hadn't been since he left the infirmary, but he wasn't about to tell Keller that. He'd doze off only to be awakened by horrific nightmares; Ronon bleeding out and dying in his arms, coughing and spewing blood, finding his body flayed and destroyed by the creature in the tunnels. John would wake up shaking and moaning, unable to go back to sleep until driven to it by sheer exhaustion.
Sometimes he could drift off during the day for an hour or so. That was how he remained functional. It was how he had been back in Afghanistan. Logically, he knew he couldn't continue like this without disastrous consequences. He still had time before he returned to active duty to get that straightened out.
He turned the page on the first report. It was from McKay; a nearly incomprehensible study of data collected by his science team on a solar flare. John didn't know why it had been included in a report to the military commander. Sam probably sent it to him knowing it would put him to sleep ... which it did after three more pages.
His dream was of shadows, blood and despair. Ronon was bleeding a tide of crimson that flowed over John's desperate hands, Every time he thought he had stemmed the tide, a new wound opened until there was no more blood and Ronon was pale, cold and still.
John bolted upright, forgetting his weak ankle. He fell to his knees, scrabbling for his crutches. He was drenched in sweat, nauseous. He got upright and limped into the bathroom where he threw up what little he had eaten and clung to the edge of the basin, waiting for the next wave. There was always another one. His stomach knotted once again before the spasm passed. He rested his head on the cool metal. He didn't think he could move.
"You're a mess. Here, let me help."
Ronon lifted him up, and John tried not to cling to him, but it was damn hard. "You're back." Stupid thing to say when he obviously was ... but he wasn't thinking straight.
"Yeah. Good thing, too." He held a damp washcloth to John's forehead. His arms were strong, but his touch was gentle as he ran the cloth down John's face and throat. "Are you going to be okay if I let you clean up?"
"I'm not four years old. Just give me a few minutes, okay?"
"I'll be outside if you need me."
John stripped, showered, brushed his teeth. He pulled on a pair of loose workout pants. By the time he hobbled into the bedroom the cold mists of the dream had dissipated. Ronon was sitting on the bed. Aside from a hint of bruising lingering under his eyes, he seemed to be recovering better than John was.
John stood in the middle of the room, looking a bit lost, which wasn't exactly how he felt. He knew where he wanted to be. Ronon didn't move. His arm was draped over the pillows at his back. He looked big and tawny, relaxed ... no, not relaxed ... more like he expected the inevitable. His eyes met John's. "How much do you remember?"
There it was. John couldn't lie. "Not a lot, but I remember the important stuff." He weighed the words against the inevitable, and the inevitable won. Three steps and the crutches clattered to the floor. It was so easy to slide in next to Ronon, to fit his body in the curve of his arm and chest. Some things were just simple. He tilted his head and Ronon's lips were on his, capturing his breath. John tangled his fingers gently in the curls at Ronon's temples. His hair was softer than he expected. His mouth was warm and tasted like honey. John wanted more. His lips parted, and their tongues touched, a bit tentative at first, then more demanding. John started worrying at the ties on Ronon's tunic, wanting to feel that golden skin warming his.
He paused for a second. "How's your back?"
"How's your ankle?" Ronon asked.
John took that to mean fine. He pulled Ronon closer. He felt Ronon's thumbs press into the sensitive skin below his waist, felt his fingers slip between fabric and skin to skim lightly over his cock. John gasped pulled back so he could look into Ronon's eyes. Beneath the sheen or arousal, he saw a hint of doubt. "What?"
"What happened back in that cave ... that wasn't the fever. I remember everything about us," he said, a flush staining his cheeks. "You want this, Sheppard?"
It wasn't something he had to think about. What he wanted was in Ronon's eyes, in the touch of his hand. "I want you." It sounded simple, but it was the world.
Ronon smiled, somehow both gentle and predatory. He pushed John back and stripped off his pants, then his own clothes.
John's throat was dry. It wasn't the first time he had seen Ronon naked, but it was the first time he had the freedom to look at him with the eyes of a lover. Ronon's muscles were round and firm, the skin stretched over them had the sheen of silk. He was power and grace. He turned briefly away, and John saw the fresh scar on his back; still pink and new, but well-healed, and not nearly as big as John had imagined. Such a small thing to have nearly taken Ronon's life.
His cock hardened as he looked at Ronon. "I thought you were in a hurry," he whispered. There was an edge of laughter to his impatience. Ronon heard it and smiled as he stretched out over John.
"Sometimes." He nuzzled his way from John's throat, nipping at the tender skin over his collarbone, then tonguing his nipples into hard buds. He trailed kissed down his abdomen and finally, God, finally, found his cock.
John had enough tenderness. Right now, he wanted Ronon inside of him, wanted to feel the drive and the life that had sustained them both through their ordeal. His hips jerked, pushing deeper into Ronon's mouth. Ronon's tongue swirled around John's glans. "Jesus, Ronon!" He tried to catch his breath. "Lube, condom, drawer --" he gasped.
Ronon yanked the drawer open, found what he wanted. John watched as he rolled the condom over his shaft, his even, white teeth biting at his lip to keep himself from coming. Just watching him nearly sent John over the edge. He grabbed the lube out of Ronon's hand, pried open his fingers and coated them. "Do, it." he ordered.
Ronon's eyes narrowed. His fingers teased at John's crack, slick and fast. He teased John's anus, and slipped inside, stretching him. John felt the tension and forced his body to relax. His pulse beat in colors behind his eyes. "Do it," only this time it was a plea.
Ronon muscled him to his stomach. "Raise up," he said, and John did, not caring how exposed and vulnerable he was -- not to this man. Ronon's hands slid up his thighs, pulling him down onto his cock. He was big, and John braced for pain.
"I won't hurt you," Ronon said. He slid in deeper, stroking John's cock with is slick hands, making him forget the pain of being breached. John thought he would die right there with Ronon pulsing in him, with his hands jerking him off.
"I don't care," John gasped. He began rocking, each thrust brining Ronon deeper inside his body. Braced on his right arm, he wrapped his free hand around Ronon's and showed him how he wanted to be touched. Faster. Harder. Now gentle, now ... just ... now ...
He and Ronon climaxed together; Ronon pulsing into his body, John's come spurting over their fingers like warm cream. When they could both breathe again, Ronon rolled carefully to his side, pulling John with him so they remained joined.
John had never had a lover do that. He had never had a lover he wanted to stay inside of him forever. Ronon's cock slid from him. Even after the condom was discarded Ronon didn't leave him, he pulled up the light blanket and curled around John, sheltering him.
"You should sleep," he said, his breath stirring John's hair.
"I thought I'd stay."
John yawned. He was warm, relaxed, protected. "Mmm," he murmured sleepily and turned to kiss the angle of Ronon's jaw. He didn't know what else to say.
"Good." Whatever he had intended to say, Ronon understood.
John closed his eyes, and for the first time since what seemed like forever, slept without fears of the shadows or the night.
The next week, they returned to Eris. There had been no more deaths or disappearances. The mine entrances were still closed by rubble. McKay ran a complete sensor scan. The mine had once been a source of neutronium. but it was an alloy threaded with a toxic and corrosive metal. The creature had been most likely been affected by long exposure -- perhaps even decades. Perhaps that was the mine had been abandoned, or perhaps it was the toxicity that had caused the Arisans to abandon mining.
The mine was sealed with the approval of the village council of elders.
Of the creature, there was no sign.