The first thing he feels is a shock, pain and fire in his chest, and his first thought is that it's defibrillator paddles (actually, the first is that it fucking hurts) and he's in some BAS somewhere in Anbar because he's gotten himself blown up.
And then he opens his eyes.
Instead of a Navy doctor, there's a Wraith with his hand out and AJ tries to pull back, pull away, fight back, but he can't move beyond wriggling in place. He sees the palm with its serrated spikes, covered in blood, and he wonders if that's his blood or someone else's. It's like looking down the barrel of a gun pointed straight at you by someone you know is going to pull the trigger; he's never had clearer focus in his life but he can't think beyond the urge to survive.
The Wraith reaches out again and AJ spits, hocks a loogie as big as he can muster in his too-dry mouth. He gets what he's aiming for, but it doesn't do anything, the hand coming closer as he can do nothing but pull against the webbing that's keeping him utterly in place.
He screams when it makes contact, the fire and pain radiating out like a shockwave until he can't feel anything else, until his body sings with it like he's plugged into an electric socket.
Oh, God, save me, please.
It stops after what feels like forever but might have only been a few seconds. AJ opens eyes that he didn't realize were closed and sees fresh blood on the Wraith's hand. He can't feel anything but pain; he's numb with it, out of breath from screaming and he knows he's been crying because his eyelashes are wet and there are salty tears on his lips. He feels wrung out and wired both, either from the suddenly-not-dead rush or from whatever it is they shoot you up with before they try to feed on you.
I can't be fed upon. It's a realization that hits him like a blow and makes him laugh. He sounds hysterical to his own ears, but it's fucking hilarious. How much trouble has he gotten into and out of over the past few years because of his fucking ATA gene? Everyone's got their part to play in this space opera and that was supposed to be his. But he's being re-cast, from one genetic anomaly to another, and the irony is just that fucking funny.
The Wraith snarls at him and pulls out his stunner.
"Fuck you and the bug you were hatched from," AJ tells him.
He gets shot in the face, he thinks, before he passes out.
He wakes up tied face-down on a table as they're cutting him open. He's screaming again -- it's fucking vivisection -- but he's got no voice left and it comes out as something between a mewl and a moan, so he stops. He can see motion in his peripheral vision, but not how many or what's behind them. If he pushes past the agony of the knife by his spine, he can feel his toes in his boots and his belt buckle is digging into his abdomen, so at least he's not naked, but he's been stripped to the waist -- his head is in some vice, but he can see the tattoo on his shoulder out of the corner of his eye. He doesn't know if he has his dogtags; he can't feel them, but he can't feel the table underneath his bare chest, either.
He wants his tags to be there. So that Atlantis will keep looking for him, so that they'll be able to identify him when he's dead, so that he'll remember who he is between now and then.
There's no point in asking why or what; even if he thought he'd get an answer, he already knows. He can't even think 'runner' in his mind, so he doesn't. Instead, to distract himself from the pain and the sounds of them cutting into him and placing the tracker, he tries to focus on what he remembers from before he woke up indigestible Wraith chow.
His platoon had been out escorting some zoologists, he hadn't been on an off-world mission with the Major and Doc. The Wraith had come out of nowhere, four darts, and... what? He can't remember what came after, doesn't know if anyone else is here with him, if anyone got hurt, got killed. He doesn't know what happened to the rest of his squad, to Ortilla and Suarez. He hopes nobody's here with him; they might already be dead. Better to die on the ground, where you'll go up on the Wall with the fallen and not here, on a hive, where you'll forever be one of the missing.
He doesn't want his mother being told that he's MIA, left wondering forever whether he'll ever come home.
They're sewing him up. He's in so much pain that he can barely feel the prick of the needle with each pass. He breathes through it, aware that he's crying again.
All he has to do is survive this, get down on the ground, get free. He can't go to Atlantis, can't contact them directly without a radio, but there are other ways. All he has to do is live through this first. And all he has to do for that is believe that it'll really be so easy.
They scoop him back into a dart with a couple of the muscle-y goons; he has been docile since the 'surgery' so he doesn't give them any cause to delay his departure. They are deposited in the middle of a town and he crumples, biting off a shout of pain from his back. He pushes himself up as quickly as possible, but it's a waste of bravado as he gets shot by a stunner and passes right out.
When he comes to, it's dusk and he's alone. He's in a world of pain, stiff and sore and hungry and very cold. He's still naked from the waist up, his dogtags (thankfully) stuck to the drying blood from where the Wraith tried to feed on him. He needs to find clothing, food, weapons, and shelter; he's in no condition to be running anywhere and he wonders if the Wraith realized that. No point breaking the new toy before they get a chance to use it properly.
The town is deserted; it's too quiet to merely be nighttime in a place with no satellite TV. The Wraith probably came here for chow; depending on how long ago that was, he should be able to find most, if not all, of what he needs.
In the dim moonlight, he finds a dull knife, which he uses to get sparks to light up a piece of wood, which he uses in turn to light up an oil lamp that has a little bit left in it. He has to keep switching hands; the lamp isn't hot or heavy, but holding it up is hell on his wound. Every movement of his shoulders, every twist and turn of his torso, brings a fresh spike of sharp pain. He can live with it, work around it, but he needs to adjust to it first.
He goes door to door, picking up anything that looks like it might be of use; he'll winnow everything down later. There isn't much; the scavengers have already been through. Still, he finds a couple of shirts, a blanket, a chunk of hard cheese, a loaf of bread that has turned to rock, and jar of some kind of preserves. He looks for anything he can use to defend himself; he finds another knife, something that once had a fancy hilt but all the jewels or stones or whatever have been pried out, and a couple of broomsticks he can break down to use as escrima sticks. He finds a bowl and a pitcher and a spoon. There's a well in the square; hopefully, it's not fouled.
The well is fine, or at least as much as he can tell in the dark and by smell. He washes himself as thoroughly as he can; pouring buckets down his back to clean and cool the wound site. He drinks water until he needs to pee, then soaks the bread in more water, mixing in the preserves and eating half of it with the spoon. He chooses a house that's got no back entrance and sets up against the far corner, facing the door. He pulls on the shirts, wraps himself in the blanket, whispers the 91st Psalm in a voice pitched so low he barely recognizes it as his own, and, keeping the knives close to hand, sleeps.
It's light when he wakes up; he eats the rest of the bread 'pudding' and drinks more water. He goes through the town again, looking for what he might have missed last night as well as anything that could be used as a pack and a canteen. And something to write with, even if he has to paint with his fingers.
He needs to get a message back to Atlantis, let them know that he's alive and in need of help. He can't just dial Ipetia or any of Atlantis's other allies and ask them to pass on a message; he can't put anyone else at risk by bringing the tracker to a populated world. But while he can't toss a message in a bottle through the wormhole to Atlantis, he might be able to do so with Ipetia. None of the Ipetians can read English, but they might be able to recognize it for what it is and show it to Lieutenant Gillick the next time he shows up.
He doesn't want to think about it taking seven years to be able to get in contact. He doesn't want to think about finding Atlantis destroyed once he does. Or abandoned, everyone back to Earth. Or simply missing, the way it was when they had to fly the city away from the Asurans. Or... he stops himself, feeling the edge of despairing tears. He focuses on Atlantis being exactly where it's supposed to be, on Doc bitching at him as he removes the tracker before returning him to a city full of people relieved to see him. He's a fucking 0321 and he made it through two wars on Earth, made it through captivities and attacks and all kinds of shit in Pegasus in one piece. He can do this, too.
Even if, for the first time, he has to do it alone.
His plan is to go to M4J-33L (aka Lejeune), which is Little Tripoli's favorite location for training exercises, and hopefully find some marines before the Wraith find him. He's got a rudimentary kit in case he has to wait a while --blanket, clothes, spoon and a metal cup, and all of the food he could find that wasn't rotted, his escrima sticks, a couple of pieces of flint -- and it's wrapped in a sheet, tied across his shoulder and chest like a baby sling so it won't flap if he has to run. It hurts too much to put it on his back. He found an actual leather canteen -- it's not in the same style as everything else, so it was probably dropped by a scavenger -- and the knives, now sharpened, are tucked in by his belt.
He thinks he looks ridiculous with his poet blouse, kit bandoleer, and digicam pants, like something someone would dress up as for a joke during a hard course at Bridgeport. But right now, he'll be happy to be the butt of everyone's jokes that he went all crazy survivalist after two days of captivity. (Maybe three; he's got too much stubble on his face for it to be less than a day since his disappearance, but he's not yet Grizzly Adams, so it's been less than a week.) It'll mean he's stumbled into a practice patrol and it'll mean he's going home.
It takes him a little time to find the stargate; it's not directly visible from any edge of the town. He ends up going back into the town and climbing up to a roof to see it -- or what looks like the edge of it -- in the distance. He's made himself a rosary for land nav, but he doesn't really care how far away the gate is or how long it takes for him to get there.
Stargates don't come with a "you are here" sticker, so he doesn't know the gate address of the world he's currently on. He wishes he did, although there's precious little left that would be useful and the Wraith clearly know it exists. But if he can't wait on Lejeune for whatever reason, he'll need addresses of worlds with no people on them and he doesn't have a whole lot of those memorized. They don't usually go to uninhabited worlds, at least not intentionally, and there's no reason to remember the accidents.
He dials the address for Lejeune and steps through. One second later, his heart breaks.
It's the dead of winter.
Lejeune is more or less on the same calendar as Atlantis is now, the seasons roughly corresponding. The last day he remembers, the morning of the zoology mission, was 3 May. It should be spring here. But it's not -- deep snow covers everything, the trees are bare, the sunlight weak through the gray clouds, the entire place quiet. It's not a freak spring snowstorm; it's winter.
He's been missing for months.
A wave of grief passes through him and he takes deep breaths of icy air until it passes.
"Welcome to Pegasus," he mutters to himself. "Where the goalposts are always in motion."
It doesn't feel like months, but he was apparently in stasis, so there's no reason for it to. It didn't feel like three days when they'd gotten scoopy-beamed by Colonel Sheppard on Hadrapu, either.
He looks around now, eyes out for signs of... anything, really. A new shoot pushing through the snow might mean it's closer to spring than fall. Animal tracks or marine bootprints, since Polito makes the entire battalion do winter training, too.
The snow's fresh and unsullied by the gate, which doesn't mean anything until he ventures farther out and can see the faintest remainder of past footprints filled in by new snow.
There were marines here recently, as recently as the snow before this one, and he's not sure whether to let himself feel hope or despair. While each company commander has a lot of leeway to train his marines as he sees fit, the battalion tends to do certain exercises in sequence by company. Winter warfare isn't as high up there as amphibious assaults on the list of perishable skills at risk of atrophying from disuse, but it's logistically complicated and thus gets coordinated and scheduled just the same. Also, winter training has been known to appear on the schedule if the bosses think they're getting restless in the barracks, so there is a chance -- a not awful chance -- that the marines who passed through here a couple of days ago will not be the last until spring.
There's also the chance that he missed the last rotation, but he can't let himself dwell on that.
He trudges through the snow in the direction of the copse of trees that invariably gets used as the base camp/aid station/check-in point no matter what the exercise or season. There's an equipment shed there, padlocked with a combination lock. They don't keep anything really useful here, even less that will be useful to him right now, but there might be something. If the exercises are still going on, there'll be gear kept there to avoid having to drag it to and from Atlantis with each rotation. The warming station will be up, if not functional, and extra cold-weather gear.
The warming station is not set up; there is nothing there but the shed and the shitters. He uses the latter, then goes to the former. Every marine knows the combination to the shed, so he enters and takes a look around.
There's a couple of boxes of MREs. There's a rucksack with two torn compartments, but everything else is fine. There's a first-aid kit and a bivvy sack that smells of mildew. There are tools to give his knives a proper sharpening and, praise be, a ka-bar. There's sanding paper so he can file down his escrima sticks. There's paper and pencils, which are a godsend, but that's it as far as what he might need. They don't keep firearms out here, not even flare guns, and, because of an incident during the first few months of the expedition, there are no radios or GDOs.
He moves his kit over to the ruck, sharpens his knives, pops a couple of the aspirin, and ratfucks the MRE box after eating an entire one first.
Then he sits down and writes a letter to Colonel Sheppard.
He doesn't know what to say and he does. He tells Sheppard what's been done to him, why he can't just follow the standard protocol for anyone who finds themselves alone and separated from the city. He admits to not knowing what became of his platoon or what happened that day, of not being able to track time, of not knowing where to go next if he can't stay here. He tells Sheppard that if the worst should come to pass, his death letter's in his footlocker and please tell his mother that this was all his own choice.
He's crying again, but he ignores it except to blow his nose.
He folds the paper, writes his name and serial number on the outside in waterproof marker, and duct tapes it to one of the neon rubber balls they use for scavenger hunts. He trudges back to the gate, carrying the ruck (which hurts like a motherfucker pressing against the wound in his back), and dials Ipetia, gently tossing the ball through once he gets a wormhole.
He'll wait here as long as he can; if he's really lucky, someone on Ipetia will find the ball straight away, recognize the nature of the message, and call Atlantis -- Ipetia has radios -- and it'll be a matter of hours until someone's coming here to rescue him. Even if it takes a few days, he can manage. He's trained for worse.
Three days later, he's asleep in the shed, curled up awkwardly in the smelly fartsack, when he hears noises outside. Footfalls in the snow. They're moving quietly, which doesn't mean anything, but they're not calling his name, which probably does. He slips out of the bag, boots already on, and pulls out the ka-bar and the longer of the two other knives.
He doesn't feel a thing as he kills his first three Wraith. He knows he's got his own wounds, that he's going to be bruised to hell tomorrow and that as soon as the adrenalin fades, his back's going to be screaming. But right now, he doesn't feel anything, physically or emotionally. He's numb as he searches their bodies, picking up one of the stunners, folds up the bivvy sack, grabs his ruck, and begins to run.
He thinks of Ronon a lot, usually in the context of What Would Ronon Do?, but sometimes in the context of what became of him by the end of it and whether that will be a better or worse fate than his own. Also, he's pretty impressed that Ronon was able to keep track of how long he was running because AJ has lost all track of time. Days and weeks and months lose meaning when it's a sultry summer night on one world and a bitter winter day on the next. He can tell that his clothes are getting ragged and he's lost weight, but those aren't reliable indicators of anything but the existence he now leads.
He's a little surprised he's still alive at all, really. That he hasn't accidentally spaced himself with his random gate-dialing. That he hasn't hurt himself so badly jumping or fleeing or fighting that he can't continue or that he can't feed himself. That the Wraith haven't killed him because, God knows, they're certainly trying.
Nobody ever explained the rules to him, but he was apparently given a bye on the beginner's course. The Wraith come for him in groups, never smaller than three or four, and they never let him rest for long. He used to think that they were hoping he'd lead them to Atlantis or their allies, but now he's not sure. He wonders if they even know what he is besides "inedible," if they know he is from Atlantis or that he carries the Ancient gene, or if they're riding him harder because they know he's trained for it. Wraith are supposed to be telepathic, but he doesn't remember anyone reading his mind. Of course, he wasn't conscious for all of his time with the Wraith, either.
It's the SERE exercise that never ends, far more terrifying and miserable than the three weeks long ago back on Earth. The loneliness is suffocating if he allows himself to dwell on it. He sometimes pretends he's with his platoon on an exercise, other times it's an imaginary Doc and the Major with the imaginary Ortilla and Suarez. He tries to imagine their bitching and teasing, that he's walking point with them just out of earshot. Sometimes, though, he turns around and they're not there and he feels like he can't breathe.
He wouldn't wish this on anyone, but if the others aren't dead, he's almost glad it was him and not them who got taken like this. Manny, trapped away from his son, or Chris, stuck forever in a galaxy he doesn't want to be in in the first place... It's not better that it's anyone, but it's better that it's him and not them.
Which doesn't mean that he doesn't cry himself to sleep on occasion.
The Wraith who come after him carry stunners, but they don't use them often. The point, as far as he can tell, is for them to close in on him as if to feed. It lessens the disadvantage as far as his own odds go; he's getting very good with the knives. Wraith may or may not have kidneys, but they've got soft tissue there and it's a good option when he can't slice a throat. He has no idea how many he's killed; he doesn't always try -- sometimes, it's just easier to run away, gate to another world and then either tie up their gate or quickly hop to another.
Sometimes, though, he gets angry and frustrated and makes sure they can find him so that he can fight. If he bleeds, he bleeds. If he gets hurt, he doesn't care. If he can kill all of the Wraith, all the better.
He apologizes to God when he does that. And to his mother, who may have raised a Marine Corps killer, but didn't raise an animal.
Every once in a while, his random dialing means he winds up on a populated world. His SOP is to turn around and dial out immediately, but there are exceptions. If it's nighttime and if he's desperate for supplies -- a new knife, clothes, food -- he'll sneak around and take what he can find in ten minutes or less. (His internal clock is reliable in short bursts.) He has been surprised by people on worlds he thought were empty -- shepherds bringing their flocks to graze, usually -- and tries to slip away when that happens. The one time he didn't, it was because he'd blown out his knee and could barely stand. He hid and prayed that the Wraith wouldn't come. They didn't.
Going back to Lejeune is almost a whim; he knows that Atlantis won't be using it as a training site anymore because the Wraith have found it, but it's the only calendar he has and he's been bothered more than usual of late that he can't tell how long he's been at this.
He wants to know if he's been declared KIA yet. The policy in Atlantis isn't the same as the policy at the SGC; the missing stay missing as far as the Wall goes, but the SGC declares people dead after a year. He doesn't know how long he was in stasis, but if he can see Lejeune, he can maybe guess how long it's been since he's gotten out.
When he arrives at Lejeune, it's winter again, but not the same winter. Which means it's been at least a year and his mother's already gotten her folded flag. He'd rather she get him back, one way or the other, but at least she won't be worrying anymore.
There's no reason to stay here -- it's still cold -- but he goes to where the shed would be if it's still there on the odd chance that something's left over from the rubble. He's halfway there when something distracts him and it takes him a second to realize what it is.
He's been on worlds with Ancient tech since he started to run; he's spent time in the odd outpost, looking for anything he could use and settling for shelter. But Lejeune's got nothing on it. Except, somehow, it does.
Whatever it is is small and more happy to see him than desperately eager. His Ancient tech radar was never awesome and his time away from it hasn't helped any. He walks slowly over the hard ground, listening to his boots crunch on the snow as he tries to listen.
When he finds the device -- one of those harmless little baubles that end up getting used as tabletop lighting on the outside deck of the commissary -- it is sitting on the ground, half-buried. Hoping against hope, he pockets it and pulls out his broadest knife and starts to dig until he hits something and then it's all he can do to not paw at the earth with his calloused, cut-up hands.
It's a box. It's a box with an Ancient lock.
He opens it easily; he could have pried it open with just a knife. Inside is a watch set to AST, an MRE, a compass, a list of gate addresses titled "Uninhabited planets with Alpha-Class Conditions" in Captain Polito's neat print, and a letter from Colonel Sheppard.
He has to wipe away his tears before he can read it.
The letter is short. Sheppard apologizes for not getting to him in time, but praised his ingenuity; there was snow on Ipetia and the ball wasn't found until it melted, but once it was, they had people on Lejeune in under two hours. He tells AJ to use the watch, that someone will be on Lejeune at 0900 on the first and the fifteen of every month until they find him but to use the list of planets in the interim. He assures AJ that he is missed. He concludes with a promise to bring AJ home safely and "semper fi."
AJ looks at the watch. It's 22 November 2008; he's been missing for a year and a half. The letter was dated in January.
He wipes his eyes again, then looks around for something to write on; he doesn't want to use the back side of Sheppard's letter. He doesn't want to let that out of his sight. He goes back to the shed, which is still there as rubble -- the Wraith must've come back here with ships -- and looks around for anything light-colored. He's still got the waterproof marker. He laughs -- a rusty, odd sound -- when he finds a neon yellow rubber ball. He writes his serial number, the date, and one word on it: Wilco.
He tosses the ball through a wormhole to Ipetia. He doesn't think he can stay here until December first; the Wraith can see him on this planet and they're not going to let him just hang out. Also, it's winter on Ipetia, too, and even if snow is relatively rare there, there won't be as much gate traffic and there's no reason to assume a quick response. He stays until sunset, though, and then dials one of the planets on Polito's list.
The most dangerous patrol in a war zone is the first one and the last one; for the former, you don't know what you're doing, for the latter, you're distracted by the closeness of your departure. These last days of running are going to end up getting him killed if he's not careful.
The Wraith find him on the second day and he spends the next three fleeing and fighting for his life. There's at least a dozen this time, one of those group exercises that he's come to dread. He never gets out of these without new wounds, either hurting himself in the flight part or getting himself 'fed upon' (they know it hurts like a motherfucker, so they keep holding on extra long) when he gets caught. He gets caught twice this time, once entirely because he knows his days as a runner are numbered -- otherwise, he really might've tried jumping over the waterfall.
He kills four before he can get to the gate and flee. He hops to another planet right away, collapsing in exhaustion on the steps in front of the stargate.
They give him eighteen hours before it starts again with a fresh crew.
He starts worrying about whether he'll be too 'tied up' to get to Lejeune on the first, whether he'll have to wait until the fifteenth. He's been dreaming of being home for Christmas every night, even if it's probably not possible even if he's back in Atlantis by 0905 on the first.
On the morning of 1 December in Atlantis, it's pitch black on MJ2-F5L, which is where he's currently running from the one Wraith he didn't kill. It's 0739 AST and he dials another one of Polito's planets and then another, bouncing twice before he can feel comfortable enough to sit and rest.
He dials Lejeune at 0845, unsure of what he'll see and terrified that nobody will be there. That something's happened to Atlantis since Sheppard's letter to make finding him impossible.
"About time you got your crazy ass back here," Suarez says, holding up the yellow ball. He's standing there with Ortilla and Sheppard and the Major and Doc. "You look like shit run through a meat grinder."
AJ can't move, can't speak, can't think. He may be crying again.
"We should get out of here," Sheppard says, looking up. "Before your fan club shows up."
That gets him to move. "We can't-- I --"
He can't get the words out, so he gestures at the stargate, as if that would make it any clearer.
"We know," Major Lorne tells him gently. "We're not."
There's a puddle jumper. Sheppard and Lorne and Doc were leaning on a cloaked jumper. AJ hadn't even noticed it, so overwhelmed is he.
Ortilla, not looking very dry-eyed himself, comes over to him and gives him a big hug. It's the first non-violent physical contact AJ's had in more than a year and a half and his instincts are to stiffen and prepare to fight back. Ortilla just holds on harder until AJ realizes what he's doing and tries to relax. He can't do that, either, until suddenly he can and then it's all he can do to keep standing.
"Let's get you home," Ortilla says, guiding him toward the now-uncloaked jumper. Inside, Nurse Reilly and Doctor Grebner are waiting and there are crates and what looks like one of the portable medical beds. Reilly and Grebner move up to the cockpit with Sheppard, leaving AJ with his team.
Ortilla and Suarez bracket him, sitting closer than is necessary even with all of the extra gear and people.
"On the off chance that you've gotten better at self-reporting," Doc begins wryly, "You're going to be scanned six ways to Sunday once you're back, but is there anything else that needs immediate attention besides the tracker?"
AJ can't even remember all of his injuries and couldn't even begin to list every other way he's been broken and damaged since they saw him last.
"I'm hungry," he says instead.
"Hold out until we get home and you can eat real food," Major Lorne tells him. "All we've got here are MREs."
The surgery takes place on a random planet. Grebner does it, with Doc and Reilly assisting. It's probably not really a three-person job, but Reilly might've been brought along to help hold AJ down, since he freaks out once he's on the table and Ortilla can't do it himself.
It might have been easier if AJ'd agreed to anything more than a local anaesthetic, but he won't. He isn't sure whether he's more afraid of being vulnerable or of all of this disappearing when he closes his eyes.
He doesn't know how long it takes, but Sheppard takes the tracker and destroys it as soon as it's out of AJ's back.
There's another argument about him staying on the bed, which he doesn't want to do, but he loses that one when Major Lorne makes it an order and Suarez asks him if he remembers how to follow those.
There's no pageantry when he gets back to Atlantis. There's no fuss at all, which is intentional. He can hear the gate room officer wish him welcome home, but there's obviously been an order to clear the halls as he's wheeled down to Medical from the jumper bay.
The only person there who's not strictly supposed to be there is Ronon, who stands out of the way and doesn't say a word. Nobody asks him to leave.
AJ's transferred to the main scanner, which feels like a weak massage, and he half-listens to the litany of abuses he's incurred.
"Stay where you are for a few hours," Doc tells him once they're back in the semi-private room that Colonel Sheppard usually ends up in. "Take a nap. If you behave yourself, we'll tape you up so you can shower."
AJ doesn't want to nap, except he maybe can't help himself. He keeps falling asleep and then waking himself up. Doc stays with him, stays in his line of sight, and finally he lets himself sleep.