Rodney McKay knew the taste of triumph. "Strawberries and honey," he said, licking his lips with relish.
"What?" Sheppard looked intent on flying the jumper through the storm.
"That… What did they call it?" Rodney flapped his hand around in circles. "Stirrup cup. Farewell drink." The jumper lurched to one side. "Careful!" Despite the inertial dampeners, Rodney cradled the bottle to his chest. "If you break it, I'll be… Well, you don't want to find that out. I'll leave it to your imagination, colonel. I'm cunning when it comes to revenge."
"I didn't much like it," Sheppard said, frowning with concentration. "Too sweet." His smile looked distracted. "Okay for girls like you."
"You're just jealous." Rodney ran his hand up and down the smooth curves of the earthenware bottle. "You just sipped from that ridiculous little goblet. I got the bottle."
"I went along with their traditions." Sheppard brought his hand up to his brow. "You interrupted their goodbyes–"
"It was trite doggerel," Rodney protested. "They were about to sing."
"– downed it in one – did you see their faces when you did that? – then demanded the whole bottle."
"But they gave it to me." Rodney inhaled the sweet aroma from the rim. "They'd have given me anything, even their… their first-born children. I'm their hero. That's me, colonel. Me. Not you. Did you notice? You were just the… the chauffeur. The hired help. My minion. I was feted like a god." He leant back in the chair, suffused with sweetness and triumph. "Feted… like… a… god."
Rain lashed at the windshield. Lightning flared, flooding everything with harsh whiteness. Sheppard muttered something under his breath, and wrenched the jumper to one side.
"Did you see that blonde?" Rodney barely saw his surroundings. He was back in the warm firelight of the village, watching a hundred faces that revered him. "She liked me." He spared one hand from his bottle to mime her curves. "See, colonel? I can get the hot aliens, too. None of them even noticed you. Who's Kirk now? Look at your shirt. Oh! Can it be red? Expendable. Ex-pend-able."
"You effectively pressed the 'enter' key." Sheppard sounded as if he was forcing the words out. "You're the IT guy who fixes the printer by pressing the 'on' switch."
"And get the undying gratitude of the morons who've 'tried everything', and what's wrong with that? They– Watch where you're going!" Rodney grasped his bottle tighter as lightning illuminated a tree only yards away. "As far as they're concerned, their 'printer' – alien device, relic of the gods, whatever–" Robbed of his hands, he made etcetera movements with his chin. "– was lifeless and silent for millennia, until I, the great Rodney McKay–"
"Tricked them." Half-drowned by the noise of the storm, Sheppard's voice was faint.
"Accepted a bit of feting that's long overdue," Rodney said. "Face it, colonel. Today you were nobody. My time in the limelight has come. I–"
"Rodney! Behind you!" Sheppard started up, pulling his pistol out of its holster. He lunged towards Rodney, pushing him into the chair with a firm hand on his shoulder. "Stay down."
"What! What?" Rodney twisted around as well as he could manage. "What? There's nothing… Sheppard, for God's sake, fly this thing!"
It was too late. Cowering in the chair, he had no idea what hit them, or what brought them down. All he felt was the impact. They slid, bounced, then came to a halt. The world filled with the scent of strawberries and honey, and everything turned white.
Rodney opened his eyes gingerly. I'm not dead, he thought, moving his arms. Not dead, as he raised his head. Not dead. White lightning flared around him, and the floor shone pink. My drink! He pushed himself to his knees, feeling carefully to avoid the shattered shards of pottery. Sheppard!
The lights had gone out. When lightning flared, he saw everything with frozen clarity, but when it went, it left his eyes incapable of dealing with the darkness. "Sheppard?" There was no answer. "Colonel?"
The floor appeared to be sloping. He explored it carefully with his fingers, and found it wet. Blood! He tried to still that fear, and rubbed his fingers together, exploring the texture. The smell of sweet strawberries became almost choking. Wiping his hand on his jacket, he reached into his pocket, pulling out a small flashlight. He was just reaching for the switch when lightning flashed white again. He snapped his head around in time to catch a frozen glimpse of Sheppard slumped on the far side of the jumper.
The lightning faded before he could see if Sheppard was moving.
"Sheppard!" He scooted over to where Sheppard was. He could hear the sounds of movement. Thank God, he could hear the sound of movement. "Colonel, are you–?"
"What happened?" Sheppard mumbled.
Rodney managed to switch the flashlight on, and ran it over Sheppard's body, but he could see no evident sign of injury. The small circle of light trembled, just a little, so he lowered it, placing it on the ground. "We crashed," he said. "That's what happened. You went crazy – what was all that about, colonel? – and then we crashed. I don't think…" He pressed his fingers to his brow, and was briefly overwhelmed with the small of strawberries. "Don't think I passed out. We hit something, but I think it was a soft landing."
"Oh." Sheppard sounded confused. In the faint light, Rodney could see a frown appear on his face.
Lightning flickered not too far away. Rodney looked up beyond Sheppard, and saw a silver mirror, with ripples of dark. A solid dark strip edged it at the other side. "On the edge of a river," he said. "In the mud." He turned back to Sheppard. "You broke my bottle."
"Oh. That's what the smell is." Sheppard's voice was faint. "Don't like the smell."
Rodney swallowed. He groped for the flashlight again, and ran it over Sheppard's body, slower this time. He couldn't see any… But sometimes clothes could hide… And sometimes, sometimes, the worst things of all didn't show themselves on the outside at all. He swallowed again. "What was that about, colonel? Before we… before you crashed?"
Sheppard's frown deepened, and he still wasn't making any attempt to stand up. He was content to remain slumped in a half-sitting position against the edge of the jumper, and he just didn't do that, not unless things were terribly wrong. Then he reached for the flashlight, his fingers bumping clumsily against Rodney's. He moved it slowly, the beam of light lurching across the inside of the jumper, showing patch after patch of nothing. When it was done, Rodney let out a breath.
"Something's wrong." Sheppard let the flashlight fall.
"Careful!" Rodney gasped, catching it. He wiped it clean of drink, grumbling under his breath. It was safer, that, than asking.
Sheppard half raised his hand, then let it fall. "I saw a wolf," he said quietly. "Behind you. About to attack. It wasn't there, was it? And there isn't–" His hand closed into a fist. "– isn't really a snake wrapped around your neck right now, is there?"
Rodney's hands rose to his neck before he could stop them. He lowered them angrily, and heaved out a breath. "What sort of a stupid question is that? What…? Oh."
"Think I've been drugged." Sheppard's mouth twisted in half a smile.
"Oh. Oh. This is just marvellous." Lightning flared, searing his eyelids with silver. "How? Only you could do a stupid thing like that. What did you take, Sheppard? What did you take?"
"Nothing." Sheppard moistened his lips with his tongue, then pressed them together. "Nothing," he said again. "I wasn't their god. I was just… just the hired help. Hired helps don't get given tidbits. All I had was that… that strawberry concoction."
"I had more than you, and I–"
"Maybe it reacts with the ATA gene…"
Rodney threw up his hands. The flashlight beam danced savagely on the ceiling. "Once, just once, can it be about me? Is that too much to ask? I'm their god – me! – and you have to go one better with that super-powered gene of yours. You have to–"
He sighed, and the beam became still again. "Oh. No. I'm sorry. I…" He brought his hand to his face, and this time the smell of strawberries was horrible and cloying. "What if I'm affected, too? What if it's delayed action? What if I start…?" He trailed off, and raked his hand across his eyes. "Is it bad? Cramps? Poison? Are you going to…?" Going to die, and I don't know what to do to save you – don't know what to do?
"Don't think it's too bad." Sheppard pushed himself slowly to his feet, and Rodney's hands jerked at his side, torn between the urge to help him, and the knowledge that he should not touch. "Just hallucinations. Some numbness. A bit… fuzzy. I'll live."
It was amazing how much safer the world felt when Sheppard was standing on his own two feet. "Good." For one thing, it freed Rodney up to do his own work. "Let's see how much damage you've done to this thing and see about getting us out of here."
Sheppard sat down carefully in the pilot's seat. "Nothing," he said, a moment later. "Can't get her to respond." Sheppard turned fractionally away, his face hidden in the dark. "Controls feel dead. Could be the drug, interfering. It felt… fuzzy, earlier. The connection… It wasn't there, not like it should be."
"Let me," Rodney said. Sheppard stood up, and Rodney took his place. He placed his hands on the controls, and tried to go through the now-familiar ritual of starting the thing. Nothing happened. "You've broken it." He sighed angrily.
Sheppard said nothing. Rodney turned to see him standing with his back to the side of the jumper, hands pressed to the wall at either side, staring intently at nothing.
Rodney worried at his lip. "And my drink," he said pointedly. "Now, be a good colonel and go outside. I need to know what exterior damage there is. Also where we've come to rest. I don't want to plunge into a watery grave. Been there, done that."
Sheppard hauled his head around with a visible effort. "Outside?"
"Yes." Rodney snapped his fingers. "Rain. Thunder. Lightning. I'll be inside fixing the mess you've made."
Sheppard blinked a few times. "Outside," he echoed. He turned and started to walk towards the hatch.
"You're sure it's not poison?" Rodney started after him, hand outstretched. "It's just a… a weird trip? It's just a… a… menagerie of hallucinations? Apes and peacocks and zebras…"
"Yes. Oh. Well… It's just that? And you can tell yourself they're not real? You'll be okay?"
"They're not real. Just need a bit of positive thinking." Sheppard paused at the hatch, and turned to give a small wave. "I'll be fine, McKay."
A flash of lightning froze him there, standing in eternal farewell. As Rodney blinked in the sudden darkness, the hatch opened, and even at the controls, he could feel the blast of wind, and feel the coldness of the lashing rain. Then the hatch closed, and Sheppard was gone.
Rain struck his face like shards of ice. Shielding his eyes, John peered up at the sky, watching the coiling masses of grey and black. Something huge was living up there. The sky was the stretched-out body of something vast. It stared down at him without mercy. The thunder was its laughter as it surveyed him. The lightning was its blade, darting to the ground, trying to pin him, trying to make him dodge.
He pressed himself back against the hatch, and felt rain-slicked metal beneath his palm. "Not real," he told himself. "It's just the sky."
The sky, where he had flown, where he had always longed to fly. Sky was a mother's arms. It was the joy of losing yourself in the embrace of a lover. It was the freedom that came from being held in no arms at all, but just by yourself, alone, with nothing to stop you going wherever you liked – not even rules, not even duty, because for those few precious moments when you flew, none of these mattered, none of these mattered at all.
The wind was soft, then. The rain was a caress. It was a message from the sky to her son. Come, it told him. Come out. Nothing can hurt you.
He started to walk. His shielding hand moved round to the side, fingers pressing into his brow. "Not real," he said again. "None of this real. I've been drugged. Got to…"
McKay hovered helpfully at his side. "Check for damage." Then McKay became Ronon, silently watchful. Then he went, and John was alone again.
Lightning flickered quietly in distant places, filling the world with a faint light, quivering as if it was alive. Keeping his hand on the side of the jumper, he walked into its lea, where the wind was less. Something strange was happening underfoot, and he almost fell. Looking down, he saw the soft bodies of a hundred thousand brown worms. His feet were sinking into them, disappearing into their rearing heads. He cried out in horror, but the hand at his brow, finger digging in next to his eye, reminded him that he was prone to hallucinations right now. "Mud," he said, out loud. "Only mud."
The worms faded away, and he laughed, reminded of some childhood story in which things only existed as long as someone believed in them. The mud was thick and wet, and his feet were sinking in well above the ankles. The front half of the jumper lay in the mud, already a quarter covered. This could be bad, thought a distant part of his mind, if we don't get out soon.
He tried another step, ripping his foot free from the mud with the sound of a knife ripped free from flesh, or life being sucked out by the Wraith, though that's silent, isn't it, though it really shouldn't be. The next step sank even deeper. Not far ahead, lapping delicately at the front of the jumper, the water started.
Lightning flared. Thunder made him start, and heart pounding, he pressed himself back against the jumper, blinking away the memory of the world-that-was-not-this-world that had been revealed by the white flare of light. The ground was silver. Trees were frozen. The sky was low, and sinking lower. The water was alive with sinuous black – sea monsters and other creatures, gathering for the kill.
The fingers dug in. "Not monsters," he told himself, but he still saw them, he still saw them. "Just an empty river. Tidal estuary, by the looks of it. Tide's out. That's bad. Means it'll be coming in."
He turned, swapping his hands over – right hand on the jumper, left hand at his brow. He headed back to land, tight and coiled in case the monsters launched themselves at his back. Back on land, the wind hit him full force. He swayed, but stayed standing. Ahead, though, the trees were beckoning to him, swinging like frenzied dancers. They reached for him with naked dark arms, but he recoiled, because he knew they had been drained by the Wraith, knew that arms that thin were just an inch away from death.
"Supposed to be checking for damage." Ronon was sitting cross-legged in the tallest tree. "Don't want McKay to get mad."
He blinked, and Ronon disappeared. In his place, there was a bulbous black swelling, hanging against the side of the tree. As John watched, a claw-like twig punctured it, and iratus bugs started to climb out – one after another after another, in monstrous birth.
John tried to run, but he had no feet, he had no legs, he had no arms. His right hand had fallen away from the jumper, and he had lost his anchor. He was floating in the night. He looked down, and he could see his feet, but he couldn't feel them. Those stranger-feet started to lurch forward, and his angle on the world changed, but he knew it was just because he was floating alongside this stranger with those arms and legs.
Check… for… damage, thought something so very distant and far away. That shambling stranger-body heard the command, and moved round to the far side of the jumper, the one that was taking the full brunt of the storm. It struggled through the mud. Its hand touched the side of the jumper, and very distantly, John felt an echo of that touch, as if he was touching it through a dozen layers of protective gloves. The stranger-eyes widened, and the stranger-lips muttered something about damage to the drive pod. "Must have hit something on the approach," they said. "Just about sheered it right off."
The stranger-body was caked with mud and drenched with water, and was unbearably, inescapably tied to the ground. Bugs seethed in the tree tops, and monsters surged in the water. The body was frail and grounded. There was no reason why he should continue to hover near it. All he needed to do was give a little tug – just so – and the bond between them would snap.
He expected the body to fall like a puppet whose strings had been cut, but it didn't. It stayed there, doggedly upright, though it was leaning heavily on the side of the jumper, now, and it looked tiny in the vastness of this world full of dangers. I lived in there, he thought, for all of my life. How stupid, how heartbreaking it was to spend your life confined to a fragile little lump of flesh, that could only fly when it had the machines to fly with, and could only run for such a little while before pain and breathlessness brought it to a halt.
Goodbye, he told it, as he prepared to fly away, to weave amongst the raindrops, to play alongside the birds on the thermals, to challenge the lightning, to befriend the stars.
The stranger-body's head snapped up. Someone was coming. It's not real, he told it, but the stranger's lips moved, and those same words came out of them in sound, so he knew that he hadn't broken free, after all. His perception returned to that of those eyes, and his body was freezing cold in the rain, mired in the mud. The bars came crashing down, and he could have wept for the prison cell that was this body, but someone was coming, and there was no time.
He struggled forward, wading through the mud until the reached the solid ground. Even though he was trapped in his body, it still felt half as if he was floating, because he could hardly feel his legs at all, and even his body was growing numb. The bugs had lined up along the topmost branches, watching eagerly, like the crowd at a football match. The undergrowth parted to reveal the glittering eyes of a wolf.
Voices came closer. "…fell from the sky," someone was saying. "Great big gouge in the ground. Something did that."
Thunder drowned out words for a while. He moistened his lips, which felt numb and swollen, not like his own lips at all. The cold taste of rainwater, though, was still very clear. It stabbed through his head like a dagger, and made things seem a little more clear.
"…think it's that vessel of the Ancestors that Sorrel told us about?"
A hallucination? he asked himself. Don't know, he replied, but best be ready, just in case. But it took him three attempts to grasp his pistol, and even when he held it, his numb fingers felt as if they were swollen to three times their normal size, and he couldn't find the trigger. He passed it into his left hand, and grabbed his knife. Even with useless hands, he could manage that much. As he did so, he edged backwards, stepping into the shadow of the jumper, pressing himself against its surface. He thought he was invisible. When he closed his eyes, he knew he was.
"It must be," the first voice said, much closer now. "Fits the description. Reckon the magician's still in there?"
A fork of lightning opened up the sky beyond the trees. It was not close, but close enough. "Footprints," the second man gasped. "Someone's out here."
John brought up the gun, raised the knife, and let them see him. "Don't come any closer." His tongue felt heavy in his mouth.
The two men were faceless ghosts; they were bundles of twigs held together by clothing; they were a tower of bugs and worms who had come together in a pretence of human form. He saw the knife tremble; saw the dance of silver as the blade moved.
"You the magician?" the first creature asked.
"Nah," said the second. "Sorrel said there were two of them. This must be the servant. Magician'll be inside – too important to come out in weather like this.
The first creature turned its death's-head face towards John. "No need for this to get messy. We've come for your master. See, we've heard that he's shown favour to the people of Adric. We don't like the people of Adric. What they get, we want to get. So we just want your master to give us what he gave them."
"And if…" He swallowed. "If we say no?"
The creature smiled. "You won't. Not for very long." The knife in his hand was long and jagged. His smile was worse.
Were they a hallucination? The bugs chittered noisily from the stands, saying that they weren't, but when he blinked, the bugs disappeared. The wolf had already gone. There was no Ronon, and no McKay. The man-shaped creatures remained. Got to assume they're real, he thought, just in case. There was no-one here to watch him look foolish if he fought with shadows. Worse, far worse, to stand back and let a very real enemy get McKay.
"Well, then…" He lowered his knife to his side, and edged forward, though it still felt like floating, because he still couldn't feel his feet. Got to get out of the mud. Got to get close… A sheet of lightning almost directly overhead caused them to look up, freezing them in their humanity. People, he thought. Men. Enemies.
"Guess the answer's no, then."
He swung his arm, heavy and unfeeling, and heard the noise of the pistol impacting against the side of the nearest man's head. He saw him stagger, and gave the command to make his other arm move, bringing the knife up to threaten his throat. But the man recovered fast, too fast. He dodged to one side, the knife scoring across his upper arm, but doing no further damage. Then John was on the ground, rolling to one side, avoiding the downward thrust of the long blade, and coming up with the pistol raised and ready.
"Didn't want to use this," he said, in a voice that didn't sound remotely like this own, but seemed to come from a different person entirely. "This is…" He suppressed a giggle. "This is a magic gun. It'll vaporise you in an instant."
But there was movement behind him – a third one of them, a fourth, a fifth? They towered behind him like giants, and his hand wavered; he couldn't find the trigger, anyway. The men in front of him hurled themselves forward, their attack perfectly co-ordinated. As he tried to aim his trembling gun at the monstrosities that flanked him, something smashed him in the face. The pistol was torn from his hand – he saw it, rather than felt it – and they punched him in the side with a dull and enormous force.
His legs gave way. He had little feeling anywhere, except in his face, and his swollen lips tasted mud and rain. He saw a foot coming at him, shoving him in the chest, rolling him over. Rain fell on his open eyes, as hard as hail. His useless hand clawed at the mud, and then he was rolled over again, and shoved again and again until he landed somewhere soft and wet.
He closed his eyes, and let it take him.
Something hammered on the hatch. "Stop that," Rodney snapped, concentrating on his work. "Can't you come in like a normal person?"
He frowned, trying to shut out everything except for the delicate controls in front of him. If he pressed that, there, then the jumper would… He let out a breath. No. Nothing. Still dead.
And still warm, the storm still distant. The hatch was still closed, the wind and the rain still kept away from him by all the frail wonders of Ancient technology.
"Sheppard?" He turned in irritation, catching as he did so another sudden scent of his tragically lost drink. "Come in, if you're coming."
The hammering came again. It sounded harder than fists – as if someone was kicking the jumper as hard as they could. It lurched a little, sinking deeper into the mud. The hammering came again – one, two; one, two; off-set and overlapping. Two people, he thought. And then, faintly above the wind and the rain, he heard voices.
He raised his hand to his mouth, then fluttered it down to his side, where his gun was. He took a few steps towards the hatch, then dragged his gun free, pointing it at the hatch, ready to shoot whoever came in – and, yes, he could do this thing, he could do it, he could shot… But what if they were friends, a rescue party? A rescue party would have contacted him by radio…
Radio! He clawed out his radio, slapping it on. "Sheppard?" he hissed urgently. "Sheppard, there's somebody… I need you to… Sheppard! Come in!" His only answer was static. "Damn it, Sheppard. I'm trapped in here and there's two people – and they're probably enemies, knowing my luck – trying to kick the door down, and where are you, Sheppard? Where've you gone?"
There was still nothing. Lightning flared, as if gloating about its success in rendering them incommunicado. Rodney threw the radio down. "Sheppard," he said quietly, as feet struck the door; as voices shouted unintelligibly, in tones of fury and command; as the jumper lurched steadily into the mud and the water beyond.
He retreated to the windshield and peered out, but there was nothing there but water and the lines of distant trees, stark against the flickering lightning. Then he rushed back to the hatch, and very gingerly put his hand against it, then leant forward, so his ear was only inches away.
"Come out," he heard, in a voice he had never heard before. "Your servant's dead."
Servant? he wondered, recoiling. What was the man talking about? Who was his servant supposed to be, for God's sake?
He took another step backwards, the gun wavering from the force of his grip. Because he knew. Of course he knew.
Sheppard. And he was dead.
He lay somewhere soft, lapped by pleasant things. A beach, he thought, just on the edge of a gentle tide, with stars above him, and… ah, yes, fireworks, flickering white through his closed eyelids. Beyond them, there was a steady murmuring, like a distant crowd.
He couldn't quite remember why he was here, but it didn't seem to matter. He was here, and here was good. His body didn't really seem to exist, except for that faint sense of something lapping against him – or hands, perhaps, stroking and caressing him. He tried to open his eyes, but it was too much effort. Not hands, he thought, for this was the sweet lethargy of almost-sleep. No hot girls, he thought, but then he thought instead of the long-forgotten comfort of a mother's arms, when nothing could possibly be wrong with the world, because she was there, and he was with her, and everything that mattered was inside those arms, and warm.
Not warm, though. His body felt thin and distant, as if he had melted and been spread across the land, but enough of it remained for him to know that this place was a cold place, not a warm one. He tried experimentally to move the thing that he knew was supposed to be his hand, and cold flowed around it, and there was a faint and inexplicable sound.
White light flared. He wrenched his eyes open, and blinked out at a strange and doubled world. One half was dull and dark; the other was black and shiny. When the light came again, the dull darkness turned grey, and the shiny darkness sheeted silver. That silver flowed towards him – silver on his lips, mercury in his mouth – and he coughed, and then the silver shattered into a thousand shards, then every fragment of silver winked out, and everything was dark again.
"I don't understand," he whispered, and the darkness came to life again. Something flowed into his mouth again, but this time it was tendrils of blackness. It made him cough, though, the same as the silver.
He tried to roll over, but something grabbed at those barely-there limbs, and instead he lurched the other way, deeper into that treacherous blackness that held sharp silver just beneath its surface.
I don't know why I'm here. Even that much thinking took effort. Not that it mattered, he told himself. Wherever he was, there was no pain and no danger. He had a vague feeling that such things were not often true where he came from. He should sleep. Uninterrupted sleep didn't come often, did it? Just close his eyes and sleep…
Someone shouted something. Did it apply to him? Probably not. It usually did, though, didn't it? He was responsible for so many things. Raised voices meant that something was wrong, that he had to strap on his gun and sort it out. Not here, though. It was cold here, though that didn't seem to be bothering him much, did it? Not enough to keep him from sleeping, anyway. Just rest. Close my eyes, and rest.
He let out a breath. When he breathed in again, there was no air. It was horrible – pain, coughing, awfulness. Water! The thought was as sharp as a fork of lightning penetrating the dark fog of his thoughts. I'm going to drown!
There was little visible outside but dark water. Not again, Rodney through, opening and closing his useless hands. Oh God, oh please, not again. He told himself that the jumper could cope under water; it was only the extreme pressure that had caused such problems last time. But Sheppard was dead. He told himself that rescue would come soon, that his attackers would get bored and go away. He told himself that he would fix the jumper soon...
And Sheppard was dead.
He had tried everything obvious, tried everything he knew, but to no avail. Something was damaged outside, he thought. If there was serious damage to the drive pod, sufficient to make any flight a one-way ticket to disaster, then the system would shut down. He could not fly away from here… but he wouldn't do so, anyway, would he, not when Sheppard was… not when his body could be… not when there was the slightest chance that he could still be…
Yes, yes, of course he was. Sheppard never died. He hadn't died in any of their other ridiculous adventures, anyway, and that meant… He let out a breath. That meant nothing. And here he was, in a small jumper that sometimes felt exactly like a cage. Enemies and unknown dangers prowled outside, and he could do nothing but sit and wait it out…
…or open the hatch, and face it. He studied the pistol; picked it up; put it down again. Reaching up, he opened one storage locker after another until he found a spare tac vest, empty of supplies, but still capable of protecting him from injury. In another locker, he found a spare P90, with spare ammo next to it.
He felt for a moment as if he was floating away from his body, and he wondered if he, too, had been drugged. Rodney McKay, PhD, with pistol and sub-machine-gun, tooled up and ready to go out, guns blazing. This isn't me, he thought. This isn’t me. And behind him were the jumper control panels, opened up and useless, not responding to his commands. That was supposed to be his job, not this, but Sheppard had gone and died, and Rodney had to do this – had to fight for his life, had to find out of Sheppard really was…
The jumper lurched. Lightning turned its interior into a place that he no longer recognised, and his hands into the hands of strangers.
He walked towards the hatch.
John pushed with his hands, but they slipped away, sucked away, dragged away by his invisible, laughing enemy. Water covered his face, and he was coughing, desperate to clear his lungs, but with no fresh air to draw in. He struggled desperately – but where was his body, and why could he barely feel it? – but only sank further in. Light flared – above him! Above! – and he yearned towards it, used the last of his strength to surge towards it, to spread his wings and fly towards it. The enemy, the hands – mud, his mind supplied – fought to keep him, but he fought back.
He had no idea how he had managed it – and, really, was unaware of when it had happened – but eventually, an eternity later, he was breathing, dragging air into ravaged lungs. He blinked, seeing the smooth dark expanse of the sky, and shiny black surface of the water, scattered with silver shards of reflected lightning. His chest hurt… and someone was still shouting – harsh shouting, not the distant sound of the crowd – of the wind in the trees, he corrected himself.
Rodney. That thought, at least, came clearly. Memory was fractured, full of things that couldn't possibly be true. He remembered wolves and bugs, and men who spoke about magicians, so couldn't be real. He remembered the cloying scent of strawberries. Feted like a god, Rodney had said. And then they had crashed, and now…
The shouting came again. The surface of the water moved in violent ripples. John wiped his hand across his eyes, scraping mud away and replacing it in one movement. He turned heavily, fighting the mud, and saw a puddlejumper, half submerged in the water. As he watched it, something struck it, and it jerked forward, sinking a few more inches into the mud.
Rodney, he thought. Inside. Enemies.
He could barely feel his body, but he had to. He concentrated fiercely, then suddenly he was six again, struggling to wiggle his ears just because Steve Johnson could do it – struggling so hard that he trembled, struggling so hard that he cried, but never able to find the part of him that controlled that movement, and how unfair it was, because he wanted to, and Steve was so little, and looked like a girl, and couldn't even run as fast as him, so why should he be able to do this, when John couldn't?
There was no sudden breakthrough – no sudden moment when he discovered the threads that linked him to his body – but eventually he found his legs enough to try to stand. The mud wanted to pull him back, and the water was coming in fast, disturbed by the movement of the jumper, and brought by the tide. Half-standing, he lurched towards the jumper, then froze. Can't let them hear me. The thought didn't really feel like his own, but he knew it made sense. He waited until the wind hurled a torrent of rain at the jumper, then moved a few steps. Thunder covered the next few steps. Then, very quietly, he was there.
His hand touched the side of the jumper. Was McKay inside, only inches away? Was he alive? Was he scared? Running around in a panic, he thought. A vulture watched him from the top of the jumper, but the hallucination held little credence now. It went when he concentrated. More urgent was the problem of how to get rid of the attackers. Two, he remembered, though the memory felt very far away. I thought there were more, but only two were real.
He trailed his hand along the side of the jumper, and lightning showed the thick trails of mud there. Radio, he thought. He tried that, whispering "Rodney," but all he heard was a hissing, like wind in the trees, but higher. When he raised his head, he saw the vulture circling above him. "You're not real," he told it, and then the lightning gave him a gift, showing him the tip of his pistol protruding from the mud.
He bent carefully to pick it up, though only the fiercest concentration kept him from falling. The jumper lurched, and then again, and he tilted his head to one side, counting the rhythm of its movement. They were kicking it, he realised. As he sought the rhythm, he wiped the gun on his filthy clothing. When he had the rhythm, he cocked the pistol, the small noise covered by the sound of his enemy's assault. He cocked it again at the next kick, then took the clip out at peered at it intently, before remembering that he was examining it for mud. It seemed clean. He tried the barrel next, then cocked and uncocked it one more time. Clean enough, he thought, as he tried to empty his mind of everything else. It would fire.
He lurched forward, steadying himself with the hand on the jumper, anchoring himself on the thought of McKay, afraid and in need inside it, only inches away from his hand.
"Step away," he told them, and they laughed.
He pointed the gun at one of them, then the other, leaving it on him. "You haven't seen a thing like this, have you?" a voice that sounded like his own said, though he had little awareness of his lips moving. "Rest assured that it can kill you. Rest assured that I will kill you, unless you step away."
The nearer man spread his arms mockingly. The one behind him had a knife in his hand. "You're half dead," one said. "Couldn’t hurt a fly," said the other.
"Could," John told him, and that distant finger, barely his own, tightened on the trigger, and the nearer man fell, clutching his shoulder.
So easy to kill. So easy to drag the gun around, to pull the trigger again, to force his hand – not wavering now, not at all, even though he could barely feel it – to focus on the second man's head. So easy to kill. Always so easy to kill – but not easy afterwards, was it? The wolf and the vulture and the bugs looked at him with fathomless eyes, wanting him to kill, wanting to stick around in his dreams for ever more. McKay's fear was like a physical thing, issuing in waves from the jumper. They wanted to hurt Rodney. They still might.
"Go," he rasped. He supported the one hand with the other. He told the wolf and the vulture and the bugs that they were not there, and thought instead of morning, and meals with his team in the bright sunlight of Atlantis, when few shadows stained his soul. "That was just a taster. Make me shoot again, and it'll be worse."
The wounded man was writhing on the ground. The other man was frozen between fear and aggression. "You can help him," John told him, "and then you can both leave. Any other movement, and I shoot. This time it'll be to kill."
Lightning flared almost directly overhead, and the thunder was like the world tearing itself in two. In that moment of light, all movement vanished from the world. The men were frozen and white, like statues carved from stone. The trees had fingers, as stiff as icicles, but dark. The pistol was steady. Even the faint shadows of hallucinations were still, as if caught between existing and not.
Total darkness followed the light. He shot into the mud on the bank, to keep them from taking advantage of his blindness. As vision slowly returned to the flicker of more distant lightning, he saw the unwounded man help the other man to his feet. A flare of nearer lightning showed their backs. At the next flare of lightning, John was alone.
He felt himself falling sideways, but caught himself on the jumper, and managed to stay standing.
Was that the sound of a gun firing?
Rodney had paused on the threshold, frozen on the brink of facing his fate. If I wait one more minute, they'll go of their own accord. If I wait one more minute…
He held his breath. With his ear close to the hatch, he heard voices. Was that Sheppard? The gun fired again. The jumper was still. The assaults on the hatch had ceased.
He hardly dared to move. He counted, listened, strained… He could hear the wind and distant thunder, and, closer, he could hear the sound of his own breathing, rasping and fast.
Something struck the side of the jumper. Rodney jumped, and almost dropped the gun; snatched it tighter, and held it, covering the entrance. The noise came again, and then there was a solid blow on the hatch. The voice was muffled, and he couldn't make out the words. He edged forward, daring to touch its surface. "McKay," he heard. "They've gone. Let me in."
He stood frozen with relief. Lightning flared again, but it was warm, filling the jumper with the soft white light of home.
"Oh. Yes. Sorry." He released the hatch, and wind tore at his hair and clothes, cold rain slashing across his face. He let out a long breath, his shoulders slumping, when he saw Sheppard standing there, framed by trees. There was no-one else there.
Sheppard pushed past him, and slumped heavily down on a bench. When Rodney closed the hatch, the sudden absence of the wind sounded almost like silence.
"You look awful," he said. He realised that he was gesturing with the P90, and put it down awkwardly. He continued the gesture with his bare hand. "All that mud. What happened? Did you fall in a river?"
There was a faint blue glow from the useless control panels, and the thin white beams from two P90s, like searchlights in the sky. It was enough to show Sheppard's faint smile. "Good to see you, too, Rodney."
"Are you…" They said you were dead. "Are you still… the drug, and all that? Hallucinations?"
"Not so much." Sheppard's hands were limp at his sides. He looked boneless, his head leaning back against the side of the jumper. Every inch of him was covered with mud, except where the rain had thinned it. There were pale streaks of finger marks on his face, like an inverse form of war paint.
Rodney swallowed. They said you were dead. "Did you–" He flapped his hand in a circle. "–get lost, or something? Wander off chasing wolves? Nice of you to remember to come back to rescue me. Not that I needed rescuing." He nodded at the P90. "I had everything under control."
"I… They didn't…" Sheppard blinked.
Rodney sat down opposite him. "Don't do the stoic macho thing, Colonel. I need to know if you’re…" He trailed off.
"Still not right," Sheppard murmured. "Can't feel much. Hallucinations almost gone, though." His smile was very faint. "I'd sleep it off, except …" He stopped, pressing his lips together.
Sheppard looked at him, his eyes bright in the blue light, vivid against the mud. "Got to keep you safe. They might come back. I'd rather die than have anything happen to you, to any of you."
"Oh, God, you're drunk now, and I'm your 'very best friend.'" It was easier than listening to the words. It was easier than believing them, than thinking about them.
"Do feel a bit light-headed." Sheppard's eyes wandered; Rodney wondered what he was seeing.
"Well…" Rodney felt a flutter of unease, not sure what Sheppard was going to say next, not sure if he wanted to hear it. This wasn't right. There was a way things were between them, and it did not involve a Sheppard who was drugged and confused, and liable to speak of those things that properly stayed unsaid. "What did you find outside? Apart from bad guys, I mean."
Sheppard frowned, clearly struggling to remember. "Drive pod," he said at last. "Almost sheered off."
Rodney threw up his hands in disgust. "I knew it!"
Sheppard's eyes had slid shut. He opened them with a visible effort. "You can fix it. Can fix anything. You're clever. Never give up. I admire that… Rodney… and proud..."
"Do I look like an engineer?" Rodney's voice sounded a little shrill. "Well, yes, I suppose I am, but not that sort of engineer – big machines and big parts and muddy rivers out in the rain. I can't fix this."
"Rescue'll come soon," Sheppard murmured.
Rodney started to pace. "But I don't want to wait for rescue – not when it's something like this; something that needs fixing. I'm happy to cower when there's guns, but this…" He passed his hand across his face. "I'm sorry. It shouldn't matter, should it? Not when…" Back to the bench, and he sat down heavily. "I wish you hadn't broken my drink. I can still smell it – strawberries and honey; so beautiful. They really liked me, colonel, they really did."
Sheppard said nothing.
"Colonel?" They said they'd killed him. Sheppard's eyes drifted open, but there was no focus in them at all. His right hand was limp beside him, smeared with dark mud, and with something darker. "Colonel?" Rodney grabbed the P90, passing its beam of light over Sheppard's body. "Sheppard?" The blood was unmistakable – on his hand, but far more of it beneath him, and dark on his side.
"What?" Sheppard's lips barely moved.
He could not assume it was someone else's blood; he had lived through too much to be able to enjoy that denial now. They thought they'd killed him. "Oh, God, Sheppard, why didn't you…?" His hands fluttered over Sheppard's jacket; pulled it open; saw the blood there, and there wasn't much, really, but even then he knew that that was only because the rain and the river and the mud had already carried too much away.
And Sheppard didn't flinch; that was the worst thing, when Rodney's shaking fingers peeled the shirt away from the side, as mud-soaked fabric scraped over the wound. He sat there, barely conscious, and boneless, like someone relaxing into the contentedness of a warm couch before an open fire.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Rodney rocked back onto his heels, his fist tight at his side. "Are you… Were you protecting me? Dammit, Sheppard, I don't want to be protected. And this ridiculous, manly, stoical thing–"
"Tell you what?" Sheppard murmured, in a tiny thread of a voice.
Rodney threw his hand up, raking it through his hair. "Only that you've been stabbed. That the wound is full of mud and the chances of it not being infected right now are like… like Ronon's chances of winning Miss World."
Sheppard blinked. "Didn't know."
"And you–?" Rodney registered what Sheppard had just said. "You didn't know? How couldn't you know?" He remembered the agony of each injury he had ever suffered – remembered it, and still dreamt about it in nightmares, sometimes.
"Can't feel much," Sheppard said, then his eyes closed, and he slumped slowly sideways. Frozen, Rodney only moved when it was too late. His hand glanced off Sheppard's shoulder, but failed to keep him from hitting the floor. He called to him, but Sheppard lay still.
John drifted slowly to awareness to a torrent of words. "…can't get it started," McKay was saying. "Can’t. And there's you, bleeding to death, and all that mud. First Aid training didn't cover mud. I don't know how to fix people. It's not my job." Then cloudiness surged up and took him again, like water enfolding him, like mud devouring him, but the voice when still there when the water cast him up on the shore. "It was awful, stuck in that jumper alone, but this is worse. I don't know what to do."
He opened his eyes. "Hey."
McKay's mouth snapped shut, as if he was cutting off another long flow of words. "Oh. I thought… Well. No. Uh…"
"How's… things?" Moving his lips was harder than it should have been.
"Oh, just marvellous. We're trapped now – did you know that? Well, no, you couldn't. The tide came in."
He blinked. "We're underwater?"
"Of course we're not underwater," McKay snapped. "We didn't hit the surface with enough force to–"
"Oh. Yes. Sorry. We're floating – bobbing like a cork merrily out to sea. We can't get out, unless you fancy swimming, and I don't."
John shifted position, then regretted it. He heard himself groan. "What?" McKay demanded, his face stricken with panic.
"Guess I'm not… numb any more," John managed to say. His body still felt as if it was floating, but the pain in his side was impossible to ignore, radiating like fire throughout his core. "Drug's wearing off."
"That's good." McKay frowned, then shook his head sharply. "Oh. You mean the drug's now wearing off just in time for you to be aware of the excruciating agony of your impending death."
"Stay positive, Rodney," John hissed through gritted teeth. Then he moved again, and this time it was sharp pain that took him, not soft drifting. The result was the same, as everything fell away.
"Oh God." Rodney's hands were useless. Even his words were useless, because Sheppard couldn't hear them. "Oh God. Colonel. Sheppard… I can’t…"
He'd never been alone before with someone he was so sure was dying – totally alone, no-one else to advise him over the radio, no-one else to help. Even with Gall he hadn't known that he was sharing a man's last moments… He had heard death. He had been forced to walk away and leave a man to die. But this… But this… Blood slipped away through his useless fingers, and there was so much mud.
"I can't start the jumper," he told Sheppard's unresponsive form. "I've tried, but I can't." And if I try too hard – if I turn my back on you in order to concentrate on the consoles – I'm terrified that you'll die. "I can't fly you out of here. The Gate's too far… I can't walk. It's too far away to dial, and we're out of radio range. I can't get you back to Atlantis, and I don't know how to keep you alive without it."
Sheppard said nothing. Rodney's hands fluttered desperately over his neck, feeling his faint pulse; pressed to his lips, feeling the breathing. Sheppard's face was clean of mud, now, wiped clean by Rodney's constant touching. His veins, though… Rodney swallowed. He could almost see them – the mud-born germs racing through Sheppard's veins,
There was always someone here. His job was fixing machines, not people. "And if I hadn't fixed that thing, they wouldn't have given us that drink, and you wouldn't have…" He clenched and unclenched his fist uselessly. "You wouldn't be…"
Even the thunder was silent. Rain no longer hammered on the jumper. They floated in a silent river, and behind him, through the windshield, came the first light of dawn.
Pain stabbed through the fog. Sometimes he thought it was the voices that brought the pain.
"Oh God. Thank God. What kept you?" That voice was loud. Another voice spoke more quietly, as if it wasn't really there at all. Dimly, he remembered animals that hadn't been really there, and men who had… No, they'd been real. They'd hurt him, but that was strange, because the pain had come only after they'd gone. When they'd hit him, it hadn't hurt at all.
"Careful. Careful." That came much later, he thought.
Other voices joined in. Someone lifted him, and that hurt worse than ever, even though no-one was speaking. After that, the voices eased the pain. The worst pain came when they were silent.
"We'll take care of him."
"Is he going to be…?"
Then came a difficult time, when animals prowled on the edge of his vision, and voices ebbed and flowed in a monstrous fashion, and whenever he opened his eyes, all he could see was sharp and jagged colours. Hands on his arms burnt him, and he lashed out against them, but couldn't shake away the other things that held him down. He knew he was drowning in mud, alternately hot and icy cold. He thought that McKay was nearby, needing rescue from a drowning jumper, but whenever he heard fragments of McKay's voice, it was angry or miserable, and never pleading. Still, for a very long time – it felt like a month, like a year – he knew that everything depended on him getting up and fighting the people who were trying to kill McKay. Voices kept telling him not to, but iratus bugs had sat on a tree and cheered him on.
Nothing was real. I've been drugged, he thought. The people who ordered him to lie still weren't really there. The people who begged him not to fight – "Can you hear me, Colonel? You're making things far worse" – weren't real. Reality was nothing, just mud and water; just McKay, needing help; just McKay, despairing because he couldn't do it, can't do it, don't know what to do, oh God, oh please…
"Sheppard," McKay said, clear and hard and desperate, "you have to let them help you."
And Rodney at least had always been real. "Wouldn't hallucinate you," he tried to say, but the words didn't come out right.
Very little existed after that. When he next awoke, he had the impression of vast eternities of happenings, but they vanished like a dream, and he couldn't remember them. The world felt different. The air was warmer, and there was a distant hum that hadn't been there before. McKay was haranguing someone not too far away. Memories fluttered at the fringes of his consciousness – wolves and snakes and bugs – and he thought they would go away if he opened his eyes, but he didn't have the energy.
He was vaguely aware of time passing. McKay was there the next time he opened his eyes, hunched over a laptop. "Oh," he said, without looking up. "You properly awake this time?"
John tried his lips, and found them dry. He struggled to order his thoughts enough to say something sensible, but McKay didn't give him the chance.
"It's been five days," McKay said. "Infection, etcetera etcetera. Has anyone ever told you you're scary when you're delirious? You're going to be okay, though. It'll take a while…" He let out a breath. "I couldn't do anything."
Memory was hazy. The last thing he clearly remembered was leaving the village, with McKay bouncing with self-importance at his side. He remembered the taste of strawberries, and rain, and mud. The jumper had crashed, and… "I was drugged," he murmured.
"Yes, yes, and that's just the start of it." There was something wrong about McKay's voice. Outwardly it was the same as always, but underneath it, there was something… broken, he thought.
It was like remembering a dream, or struggling to remember something that had happened when he was very, very drunk. "The jumper crashed."
"You crashed the jumper." McKay's voice sounded by rote, as if he was retorting only out of habit. "I couldn't fix it. And you… I thought you were dying. I couldn't…"
He trailed off. "Still alive," John told him.
"Yes." McKay shut the laptop, and placed his hands on it. "No thanks to me. I couldn't fix…" One hand curled, fingers pressing into the metal. "Fixing things is my job."
John shifted on the bed, wincing at the dull pain in his middle. McKay saw it, and looked round anxiously. "I should get–"
"No." John shook his head. "Listen, Rodney. Not everyone – no, not even you – can fix everything. Sometimes a thing's just broken. Don't beat yourself up about it. It just is."
"But I should have…"
"No." He summoned his strength for a smile. "They treated you like a god – like a…" Magician, he remembered, hearing it snarled in the voices of the men who had tried to kill them. "But you're not. You're just one person. And you did what you could – and I'm willing to bet it was more than anybody else could have done – but not everything's fixable." And not everyone can be saved. Vulnerable with pain, he remembered Holland, remembered Ford. But he'd tried. At least that meant that he could sleep at night.
"But I couldn't… You… I thought you were dying, but I didn't know what to do."
He shifted on the bed again; the pain helped him stave off drowsiness. You saved me, Rodney. He was almost close enough to unconsciousness to say it out loud, but not quite. But he did remember almost drowning in mud, too drugged to notice what was happening. He remembered, too, that he had been slowly bleeding to death, even though he hadn't known that he was injured. The knowledge that McKay needed him had brought him back to himself, had given him the strength to stand, had caused him to force the hallucinations away and do what needed to be done.
"I don't remember much of it," he said carefully, as he struggled to keep his eyes open, "but I do know that I wouldn't have survived without you." He opened his eyes, groped weakly towards McKay's arm, then thought better of it, and let his hand fall. "It's true."
"Well. Yes…" McKay cleared his throat, shrugging. "You were drugged. Useless. Babbling about clowns and wolves. I don't know where you went wandering off to. Getting yourself knifed. Wallowing in mud."
"Hey, I was drugged," he protested.
"–talking about things that… well, that we don't talk about. Forgetting how to fly the jumper – let's not forget that. Crashing. Seeing things. Not noticing you were bleeding to death…" He rolled his eyes. "Is it any wonder they thought you were my servant?"
The bed started to feel uncomfortable. He only had hazy memories of all this. He had no idea what he had said when drugged. He had little idea what he had done. He hated to be out of control – hated it. But, somehow, when McKay had been the only one to witness it, it didn't seem to matter anything like as much as he would have expected it to. Perhaps that was the true miracle he had found here. All three of his team-mates were people he could be weak in front of, without it mattering. Or perhaps even this was something he was only thinking because he was almost asleep and probably still half full of drugs. Perhaps it would seem different in the morning.
He managed a smile. "If I'm the servant, you're the mighty magician."
"Of course." He could hear McKay preening, but no longer had the strength to keep his eyes open. "Feted like a god, as I said. If only you hadn't helped yourself to my drink, none of this would have happened."
John let himself drift towards sleep. Perhaps McKay thought he really was unconscious when he touched him, just a soft touch on the shoulder.
"Feted like a god," he heard McKay say, a little wistfully. He fell asleep to the sporadic sound of McKay's laptop, and woke to find him team around his bed, every one of them intensely real, and smiling.