They’re climbing down the third level of stairs and are almost to the landing of the fourth when the beam of Teyla’s flashlight, mounted on her P90, washes over the dark object. Ronon makes a beeline for the crumpled shape lying on the metal grating next to the wall. Keeping his blaster pointing down into the darkness below, Ronon kneels, comes up holding a black jacket carefully by the collar.
Making room for John to pass Teyla steps aside in one smooth motion, sweeping her flashlight beam along the walls and down the narrow stairway, head tilting as she listens intently. John trains his own light on the black jacket as Ronon inspects the garment. He stares at the ragged tears in the leather, at one pocket ripped completely open, the inner lining showing dark red.
“Blood,” Ronon says, searches the remaining pockets and finds them empty.
Ronon gives the jacket over wordlessly. The leather’s cold against John’s hands. He frowns, nose wrinkling at the copper-sharp scent of blood. It’s hard to tell at first glance, what with the dark leather and the blood drying just as darkly, but it’s all over the jacket, just a bit tacky against John’s skin.
There’s no Atlantis or Maple leaf patches on the shoulders, just fuzzy blank rectangles where the patches should go, but John knows the jacket is Rodney’s. He recognizes it. For fuck’s sake, he’d slid the damned thing onto Rodney’s shoulders just this morning on the way to the gateroom.
The trick of being in command, John thinks suddenly, is knowing when not to flinch.
“It’s McKay’s,” he says without flinching, but it’s a near thing.
The jacket is the first concrete sign that Rodney’s passed this way, and though John doesn’t doubt the word of the three terrified technicians they’d discovered, locked securely in a storage closet some floors above, it steadies him to have some tangible sign they’re heading in the right general direction.
Down the fucking rabbit hole, John thinks, and he hates the closeness of the metal stairwell, the mingling scents of dust and blood and fear. The cold knot in his stomach coils even more tightly. He doesn’t even know if Rodney’s armed. John doesn’t even know if Rodney has a fucking flashlight on him. There’s a mini Maglight stored in the TAC vest, but the vest had been on over the leather jacket and the leather jacket is…a total loss.
Jesus, and the thought of Rodney down there alone, unarmed, possibly blind as a bat, just about takes John apart. Fuck. Fuck and damn and hell.
“Colonel,” Teyla says tightly.
Dropping the jacket next to the wall out of the way, John lifts his P90, adds his light to Teyla’s where she’s illuminating the stairs below. Ronon’s already moving a step ahead of them. Sliding his blaster back into its holster he reaches around behind his back, pulls a wicked looking knife from under his shirt.
Good idea. Between Ronon’s blaster and their P90’s they’ve made quite the commotion getting this far. If they’re getting nearer to Rodney they don’t need to draw anymore attention than is necessary.
For a long moment John can’t hear anything other the soft rasp of their breathing, the pound of his own heartbeat. He indulges a moment of crazy hope Rodney will emerge from the shadows, mouth going mile-a-minute with some nutty story-but then he hears the telltale rustle, the shuffling sounds, and John knows it won’t be that easy. It’s never that easy.
John eases a half step ahead of Teyla, stares into the gloom, body tensing. Beside him Teyla widens her stance, gaze not budging from the illuminated spot at the bottom of the stairwell. The shuffling sounds grow louder, closer, and a figure steps into the light.
The underground complex is like the worst rat’s maze John’s ever seen. Sound carries funnily through the twisting corridors and stairwells, makes it difficult to accurately pinpoint the source of a noise, so maybe it’s just shitty luck that has their path crossing with the…thing, below. Or either something else has drawn it their way.
John thinks suddenly of Rodney’s bloody jacket, wonders if the thing’s sense of smell could possibly be that acute. His experience so far doesn’t inform him one way or the other. Up until now they’ve just coped with firepower, leaving questions for later.
John’s got a shit load of questions that needs answering, though.
For instance, how does a group of fifty or so people go from being a polite, warm, welcoming bunch to mindless, biting, teeth gnashing nightmares in just a couple of hours?
John’s certain the answer is down there somewhere in the bowels of the complex, and when he finds Rodney John’s planning on letting him say all the ‘I told you so’s’ he wants.
When they’d answered the request from the Marpoli, the people on MXP-996, to come advise on their discovery of a vast underground structure buried near their village, running around and dodging extras from the Night of the Living Dead had not been high on John’s list of expectations.
It hadn’t even made his list period, because hell, who anticipates that kind of thing?
John couldn’t have predicted their current situation, maybe, but he had developed an uneasy knot in the pit of his stomach when McKay had taken one look at the labs on the upper floors and had advised that the Marpoli pull their exploratory teams out immediately, and possibly allow Atlantis personnel come in, do a preliminary search.
John’s relative unease had ramped up to full blown trepidation when McKay had pulled him aside, clearly agitated. “Look. This isn’t an Ancient outpost, all right, but whomever was fooling around down here was involved in some seriously dangerous experiments.”
“Define ‘dangerous’,” John had asked.
A succinct McKay was a warning in and of itself, and John had backed up Rodney’s recommendations that the willy-nilly exploring be put on hold.
The Marpoli, naturally, had rejected the suggestion, thinking it overly cautious. Finding the labyrinthine complex filled with technical, if somewhat dusty, goodies presented a rare opportunity for advancement. In addition, the complex itself might prove to be an effective hiding place from the Wraith, and such a thing could not be ignored.
They did however, ignore McKay’s strongly worded warnings, and with a surprising good humor that remained unaltered even when McKay’s estimation of their plans (and by default their general intelligence) became rather colorful.
Turns out McKay had been right to be pissed.
The-and John tries not to think zombie but goddamed, when the shoe fits-creature tilts its head, looks up at them. Less than a few hours ago, it had probably been an attractive young woman. The absence of reason, of personality in the dark, reddened eyes makes John’s skin crawl.
Its gaze fixes upon them and it starts climbing, limbs jerking like a wind up toy that’s missing a gear. John’s stomach goes sour at the sight of the ruined mouth, torn lips curling back from a row of broken front teeth. He doesn’t want to think about what the thing’s been gnawing on hard enough to shatter teeth. Blood slicks its chin, drips down onto its chest, streaking the front of a torn uniform that John recognizes as the style the Marpoli technicians wears.
Ronon brings up his knife but John orders, “Hold on a sec,” and fumbles for the life signs detector.
The complex’s shielding this far down prevents getting a clear reading over long distances, but at this close range it should work well enough. John holds it up, stares at the screen. Three blips blink steadily, but when he aims the detector at the figure stumbling up the stairs, there’s nothing.
John can’t imagine how that’s possible, isn’t sure he wants to. Putting the detector away he nods shortly. Ronon’s knife flashes through the flashlight beams and a normal person should’ve dropped like a stone with a wicked blade like that buried in their neck, but this thing just jerks and keeps climbing.
Dammit, John wants to keep quiet, but there’s no time. Lowering his P90 he draws his pistol, aims for a temple shot because previous experiences have shown the best take-down point is right between the eyes. He squeezes off a single round. The report is too loud in the enclosed space, will echo for miles, but there’s nothing for it.
They’ve learned not to get too close to the infected; one deep scratch, a bite, that’s all it takes. John’s seen it happen. He’s watched people bitten die tearing at their own bodies, and not five minuets later rise up, limbs moving clumsily, eyes red and vacant. He’s seen it a dozen times already and he can barely believe it.
They spend a few moments watching the body twitch on the stairs before edging carefully past. Ronon pauses, pulls his knife free with a grimace, wiping the blade clean on a ripped pant leg. Negotiating another tier of steps, John hesitates at a door standing partially open at the bottom.
Ronon takes position to one side, Teyla the other, and taking the middle John nods shortly. He moves forward, P90 up and tracking, the beam of his flashlight revealing a piecemeal view of a long straight corridor. He counts at least seven doorways along the walls, all accessible from the corridor, all opening into inky blackness where anything might lurk.
John taps his radio earpiece. “McKay, this is Sheppard, come in.” No answer, not that John expected one. “Shit,” he mutters softy. “The shielding is still interfering.”
They proceed methodically, peering into each doorway warily. They discover more laboratories, each crowded with ranks of worktables covered in equipment gleaming dully under layers of dust. Other rooms stand empty. Through two of the doorways more corridors lead off into the shadows.
None of the labs or barren rooms they look into appears recently disturbed, but both of the long corridors have numerous trails in the dust on their floor. Ronon enters one, kneels beside a scuff in the dust.
“He’s been through here,” he says with certainty.
John peers at the mark, thinks he sees a familiar tread in the grime, but if Ronon hadn’t pointed it out he never would’ve noticed.
“Here,” Teyla says softly a few steps beyond. Bending down she retrieves something from the floor, holds it up. “A bullet casing.”
John’s breath catches. It’s definitely a 9mm casing. He takes the spent shell from Teyla, stares at it a moment before slipping it into his pocket. They find several more casings a short distance down the passage.
“All right, we’re in the right place,” John says.
Ronon gives him a look, brow raised. “Not doubting you, I’m just saying,” John offers.
Ronon only shrugs. “Whatever. Come on.” He’s impatient to be moving, to be doing something, and starts off.
John and Teyla trail Ronon down the passageway, keeping their flashlight beams moving constantly ahead. The air gets colder the further they venture, and all John can think of is Rodney’s ruined jacket, laying uselessly back in the stairwell.
He remembers the rips in the sturdy leather. He remembers the blood, spattered everywhere. He’s still remembering when the body fades into view on the floor, rising up out of the gloom.
It’s obviously not Rodney; John comprehends that right away, but his hand still shakes a little as he adjusts his grip on his weapon. Ronon turns the body over with the toe of his boot. It flops aside bonelessly, red eyes staring up wide and empty, a single bullet wound smack in the middle of the forehead.
Ronon grins suddenly, a vicious, prideful expression and John finds it a thing of warmth in the oppressive darkness. “That’s a decent shot on the fly,’” Ronon states simply, and John nods in agreement.
They leave the body and move on, discovering another set of stairs dropping down yet another level. Another passageway greets them at the bottom, and John’s heart drops into his boots at the sight of more doors, more silent corridors.
“This place fucking goes on forever.” Something of his alarm must be showing because Teyla steps close, reaches out and squeezes his arm.
“We will find him,” she says it like a solemn promise.
Ronon watches from a few feet away for a moment before motioning them over.
“Give me some light,” he says pointing at a particular spot on the floor. They paint the spot with light and Ronon crouches down, studying the scuffs there. “A lot of them came through here.”
John stares at the floor, brows drawn down. “But where the hell are they now?”
Ronon considers a moment. “I think they chased McKay down here. He was trying to lead them away from those techs we found, probably ran down here, got lost.”
Teyla takes a step closer. “The infected ones, their sole purpose seems to be to spread this…affliction” she finally says. “If they were unsuccessful in finding Rodney, perhaps they have given up the search, have headed back to the surface where there are more people to infect.”
“Yeah, I’ll buy that,” John admits, figures it makes about as much sense as anything. The deeper they’ve gone the less of the infected they’ve encountered. Considering the size of the complex there must be numerous routes to the surface they could’ve taken.
Ronon stands. “McKay’s smart. He’ll find a place to hole up, hide out. He knows we’ll come for him.”
John nods, lets out a breath. “I used to be pretty good a hide-go-seek.”
Teyla shoots him a look, brow arching. John figures she knows what he means; Teyla’s always been good at that, working out people’s intentions. Turning away she shines her light along the corridor, sweeps it over the walls.
“Perhaps Rodney left us a sign, somehow,” she says slowly.
“That’s a good idea.” John moves his own beam along the passage, eyes straining to pick out some clue.
Teyla’s sharp intake of breath jerks him around. “What? What is it?”
“Look there, on the wall.”
John moves to the spot, grin breaking loose. “That is McKay’s sign.”
Of course. Rodney’s got a Sharpie on him. He’s constantly carrying the damned pens in his pockets. John’s been finding them all over Rodney’s quarters, once even finding one in with their toothbrushes sitting in a cup on Rodney’s bathroom sink.
John traces his fingers over the ‘MRM’ scribbled in black letters barely visible against the grey wall. It’s the first communication he’s had that’s directly from Rodney since the scientist had grudgingly went off with one of the Marpoli tech teams before this nightmare started.
John smiles a little, remembering Rodney likening the technicians to unsupervised toddlers playing with light sockets. He’d groused that at least some of them should benefit from his expertise before they got themselves killed. He’d went off with three of the techs, still complaining.
The first infected Marpoli had turned up an hour later.
“All right,” John says, starts down the corridor tracing his beam over the walls. “There’s gotta be more.”
There are more, one scribble appearing approximately every thirty feet, evenly spaced out, at least for a while. After a few minuets though they get farther and farther apart, and the signs themselves start changing. The ‘MRM’ is replaced a simple ‘X’, and then a few feet later by a random squiggle.
Troubled by the change, the team picks up their pace. Teyla spots the next sign, a single slashing mark on the wall, and after that they search for a good forty feet without finding one at all. John decides to double back to the last mark. They’re halfway there when he catches a reflective glint on the floor.
It’s a Sharpie pen lying next to a closed door. They’d missed seeing the marker in their haste the first time through. John exchanges a look with Teyla and Ronon, nods toward the door.
“Let’s check it.”
Ronon moves to the door, brings out his knife, wedges the tip in the seam running up the door’s middle. A forceful shove and the blade slides in partway. A twist and the door panels crack apart just enough for Ronon to slip his fingertips into the open space. He takes a breath, grunts, and the door panels slide apart with a grinding sound, the knife clattering to the floor.
Immediately John is there, weapon up. He takes one long step inside, Teyla right beside him, and pauses. Crisscrossing the room with their flashlight beams, they cover it corner to corner. Ronon grabs his knife and stalks inside, prowls around the edge of the space.
There’s a few empty worktables, some big cylindrical vats lined up against one wall. Dark colored tubing runs from a bolted fitting on the head of each vat, twines down and around the cylinders to disappear into the floor. John studies the tubing, realizes that the floor there isn’t solid but a mesh grate. He approaches slowly, points his light down.
The pistol aiming up at him shakes visibly. John calls out evenly, “Rodney?”
Teyla and Ronon appear at John’s side, staring down into the recess under the mesh grate.
“Oh, thank Christ. John? That better really be you goddammit.”
Relief makes John go weak in the knees. He kneels down, one hand flat against the grate. “It’s me, buddy.” Rodney’s face tilts up, pale and drawn. “I’m here,” John repeats.
“Please get me outta here,” Rodney says quietly.
“We will have you free in a moment, Rodney,” Teyla promises, already running her hands around the edge of the grate, Ronon moving to help her.
“Are you okay?” John asks, running his light over Rodney where he’s sitting drawn up in the corner. “Are you hurt?”
“Yes. I mean, no. Fuck. I mean yes, I’m okay, and no, I’m not hurt.” The words tumble out in a rush. “Just, get me outta here.”
“Just hold on,” John soothes. It’s not until John sets back on his heels that he notices the dark shape down in the hole with Rodney. He jerks his gun up, eyes narrowing at the form. On the opposite side of the grate Teyla and Ronon stop working on the grate, pulling their own weapons.
“Rodney,” John says evenly. “You got someone down there with you?”
“Um,” and Rodney hesitates. “You remember that technician, Golzari?”
“Yeah,” John gets out.
“Well, that’s him-was him.”
“Was?” John asks.
“Was,” Rodney repeats. “We ran in here, those…we were chased in here. He got bit, and I had to-he started changing, right in front of me. Fuck. I had to-I had to-he begged me to.”
The breath leaves John’s body and it’s Teyla who recovers first. “It’s all right, Rodney. We’re here now; we’re going to get you free.”
John turns to Ronon. “Get it open, get it open right now. I don’t care how much noise you make.”
“Stand back,” Ronon growls.
Two shots from Ronon’s blaster is enough blast apart the locking mechanism that’d engaged when Rodney and Golzari had closed it behind them. The heavy grate is dragged open and before John can get around the other side Ronon’s grabbing Rodney, hauling him bodily out of the hole. Ronon’s settling Rodney with his back against the wall and gently sliding the 9mm from Rodney’s hand as John reaches them.
John reaches out, gets hands on Rodney, pulls him close and wraps him up in his arms. Rodney sags in his embrace and it’s a long moment before John pulls away and even then only so far as to curl fingers under Rodney’s chin. The trick to having a family, John decides, is that sometimes you just have to let it all hang out, so he does.
John tilts Rodney’s head back and kisses him, a slow motion of his mouth on Rodney’s, all warmth and breath and relief.
“Come on,” Ronon grumbles when John pulls back from the kiss, brushing his thumb over Rodney’s bottom lip. “We gotta go.”
Getting back to the surface takes half as long as it took going down. John takes point, Teyla walks with Rodney, and bringing up the rear is Ronon, looming protectively. They meet no more of the infected Marpoli, and John is thankful for small favors.
Moving up the stairwell they pass by the body and Rodney’s discarded jacket. John says nothing and if Rodney even notices the jacket he doesn’t mention it either. They pause at the storage closet, finding it empty. Either the techs have fled, gotten out on their own…or it doesn’t matter anymore. By the time they emerge from the complex blinking into bright daylight, they’re exhausted, except perhaps Ronon who prowls a perimeter around the entrance looking pissed.
There’s no sign of the infected Marpoli, and John suspects that’s bad news for the village that lies barely a mile away. Checking his watch John is stunned to learn they’ve only been on mission for six hours. They haven’t even missed a check-in with Atlantis.
Resting only a minute or two, they leg it to the gate. Rodney stumbles a couple times but Ronon is there each time, big hand wrapping around Rodney’s arm and propelling him forward. They’re all breathing hard when they reach the gate- except for Ronon-and it’s a profound relief when Rodney punches in the address on the DHD and the stargate comes to life.
Fisting his hand in Rodney’s sleeve John nods to his team and as a unit they step through the rippling blue event horizon.
Some time later John gives his report to Woolsey from the isolation room. Keller has them on quarantine lock-down, at least for the time being. John’s happy to let her run all the tests she wants, even though he knows none of them are infected. He thinks about the leather jacket left behind and there are all kinds of questions John wants to ask, but won’t, not yet.
Some hours later they gather around a screen and watch via a feed from the control room as a MALP is sent through the gate to MXP-996. The pictures come in clear as a bell, and John’s stomach rolls at the sight of a dozen or so stumbling figures roaming around in the field of view. The MALP parks itself next to the DHD unmolested, sits a moment and then the picture flares white and cuts to static.
The DHD is history. John doubts any of those infected could’ve dialed out, but he’ll sleep better knowing they physically can’t access the gate. There’ll be a mission to the planet to search for survivors, before they disable the gate totally, but for now it’s not John’s problem.
Keller visits them late, delivers the news that they’ll be cut loose in the morning. Teyla smiles in thanks and Ronon just shrugs, biting into the apple he’s pilfered from Rodney’s supper tray. John nudges the metal folding table with his foot and grins at the look of righteous indignation on Rodney’s face when his (freakishly and impressively tall) house of cards folds in on itself. Keller rolls her eyes as she slips out.
Everyone is asleep when John flips his blanket back, slides off his gurney. Three long strides brings him to Rodney’s side. It’ll be a delicate balancing act, and probably damned uncomfortable, but he’s used to sleeping curled around his lover and that’s what he wants to do now. He eases in under the covers, swearing softly when Rodney jerks in his sleep.
John slides an arm around Rodney’s waist and settles in close. Eyes drifting shut, he presses a kiss to the nape of Rodney’s neck. It doesn’t stop Rodney’s trembling, but the soft mumbling fades away. John exhales slowly, brushes his lips against Rodney’s skin again hoping to soothe Rodney’s dreams.
John thinks that the trick to being in love is sometimes just holding on and not letting go. John decides that’s what he’ll do. And so he does.